November 28, 2015

What students spend on textbooks and how it affects open textbooks

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Avoid bookstore line-ups - adopt an online, open textbook Image:  The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Avoid bookstore line-ups – adopt an online, open textbook
Image: The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Hill, P. (2015) Bad Data Can Lead To Bad Policy: College students don’t spend $1,200+ on textbooks, e-Literate, November 8

Caulfield, M. (2015) Asking What Students Spend on Textbooks Is the Wrong Question, Hapgood, November 9

Just wanted to draw your attention to two really interesting and useful blog posts about the cost of textbooks.

First thanks to Phil Hill for correcting what I and many other have been saying: that students are spending more than $1,000 a year on textbooks. It turns out that what students are actually spending is around $530 – $640 (all figures in this post are in U.S. dollars and refer to U.S. post-secondary education.) Furthermore, student spending on textbooks has actually declined (slightly) over the last few years (probably as a result of increasing tuition fees – something has to give).

Mike Caulfield however points out that the actual cost of recommended textbooks is over $1,000 a year (or more accurately, between $968 and $1221, depending on the mix of rental and newly purchased books), and that this is the figure that counts, because if students are spending less, then they are putting their studies at risk by not using recommended texts.

For instance, a report by consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG found that the cost of textbooks has jumped 82% since 2002. As a result, 65% of about 2,000 students say they have opted out of buying (or renting) a required textbook because of the price. According to the survey, 94% of the students who had skipped buying textbooks believed it could hurt their performance in class. Furthermore, 48% of the students said that they had altered which classes they take due to textbook costs, either taking fewer classes or different classes.

More importantly, students and significantly their families do not look at the cost of textbooks in isolation. They also take into account tuition fees and the cost of living, especially if they are studying away from home. So they are likely to consider what they are expected to spend on textbooks rather than what they will actually spend when deciding on post-secondary education. The high cost of textbooks is just another factor that acts as a deterrent for many low income families.

Whether you take the actual expenditure of around $600 a year  per student or the required spending of $1,220, having open textbooks available not only results in very real savings for students, but also will have a more important psychological effect in encouraging some students and parents to consider post-secondary education who might not do so otherwise. Getting the methodology of costing textbooks right is important if we are to measure the success of open textbooks, but whichever way you look at it, open textbooks are the right way to go.

Lastly, if you are encouraging your students to become digitally literate, I suggest that you ask them to read the two posts, which, as well as dealing with an issue in which your students will have a major interest, are paragons of well-researched writing, and above all courteous and respectful in their differences.

Update on British Columbia’s open textbook project

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Why use open textbooks? 2

BCcampus has just announced that as of October 30, 2015, it has now made available 23 new ‘Common Core’ open textbooks for the Province of B.C.’s Trades Apprenticeship Programs.

This brings the total number of open textbooks in the BCcampus project to 136, covering both core university and college programs. All these books are available for free downloading under a Creative Commons license, and are offered in various e-book formats free of charge, or as print on demand books available at the cost of printing.

BCcampus estimates that as of 24 November, 2015, the project has resulted in estimated savings for students of between $927,200 and $1,204,762. The calculation is based on 9,275 students across the 19 participating institutions who have adopted open textbooks. The calculation is based on two categories for open textbook adoption: a Displacing Adoption that sees faculty using an open textbook solution to replace a resource students would have had to pay for, and a Supplementary Adoption where the open textbook is used within the course, but does not replace the commercial textbook. More detailed statistics on the project, such as which books have been most adopted, and what are the most popular formats for downloading, can be accessed here.

BCcampus also has agreements with the governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon, and has recently partnered with Campus Manitoba to assist them in their roll out of open textbooks within Manitoba. While open textbooks can be used anywhere in the world, the reviews of books in the collection have thus far been restricted to B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Yukon faculty. The new agreement with Manitoba will allow Manitoba faculty to contribute their knowledge and expertise to the growing body of open textbook reviews, strengthening the collection of open textbooks for everyone.

These statistics do not include my own open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, which is not part of the BCcampus, government-funded open textbook project, but which is housed on the BCcampus open textbook server and BCcampus provided essential technical support and help with the book’s production and delivery. To date Teaching in a Digital Age has been downloaded 13,679 times since its publication in April this year and is also available in print, on demand, at cost ($17-$53 a copy, depending on greyscale or colour version). It has already been translated into Vietnamese, and is currently being translated into French by Contact North, Ontario, and into Chinese by the Central China Radio and Television University, Beijing.

To find an Open Textbook, or find more information about the BCcampus project, please see the BCcampus OpenEd website.

University of Central Florida introduces online adaptive learning

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Image: Orlando Sentinel

Image: extract from Orlando Sentinel’s video of UCF’s adaptive learning program for nursing

Russon, G. (2015) UCF offers high-tech homework tailored to students, Orlando Sentinel, November 23

This article presents a short written account and a video of the adaptive learning program being introduced at the University of Central Florida (which is one of the pioneers of blended learning). It is being used particularly in large classes to personalize the learning.

There’s not much detail in this article, and the program is in its early stages, but it is useful to know that UCF is experimenting with adaptive learning, given its long history of carefully evaluating its online learning initiatives.

Recording of webinar on choosing modes of delivery

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What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique - if anything?

What makes face-to-face teaching pedagogically unique – if anything?

This morning I gave my third webinar in the Contact North series based on my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. There were 95 participants from 16 different countries.

In this webinar, which focused on Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age, I discussed with participants:

  • the continuum of technology-based learning and its conceptual and practical usefulness;
  • the key factors to consider when choosing appropriate modes of delivery;
  • how to move to blended/hybrid learning;
  • identifying the unique educational benefits of the campus compared to online learning.

A recording of the webinar, including discussion and participants’ comments, can be accessed here:

The next webinar, on quality in online and blended learning, will be at 1.00 pm EST, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. There will be a final, fifth webinar on the future impact of open educational resources on higher/post-secondary education later in 2016 (date to be announced).

For more details, and to access recordings of the two previous webinars, go to:

Low-cost online courses in film and media studies: do they work?

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Dustin Hoffman 2

Alexander, I. (2015) Over 30,000 students took these online film and media courses Film Industry Network, November 17

I haven’t been following Udemy, the former MOOC provider which has now moved to offering more vocational online courses, but I was interested in this article, which lists the 10 most popular online courses offered in film and media studies.  Udemy offers a number of these courses, but it is also facing strong competition from Masterclass, another provider of low cost, not-for-credit, online courses.

The average cost of a film and media studies program at a university in the USA is around $30,000. Udemy is offering courses in this domain from $300 downwards, some as little as $10 as promotional courses. However, this excludes the cost of the necessary equipment, which the article estimates at around $5,000.

Nevertheless there are huge savings to be made by going for these very low cost online courses. For instance, in the Masterclass series, you can learn acting from Dustin Hoffman, or tennis with Serena Williams, for as little as $90, through five hours of video lessons.

Most of the Udemy lessons on these courses are very short videos (less than six minutes each), although there are lots (50 in Udemy’s Facebook Marketing course, for example). Courses range in length of study, but are mainly in the range of two to ten hours each. Udemy offers a certificate for successful completion of these courses.


I have mixed feelings about these offerings. I can see that for people who want to dabble in the field or want to top up on their knowledge of a particular topic, such as Twitter marketing, or are interested in film or media production as a hobby, these courses are extremely good value. In particular, the Masterclass courses seem an excellent deal.

However, it’s hard to see how this would qualify anyone to work professionally in the field. There is no feedback from or interaction with the instructor, and no quality assessment of what has been learned.

So as always with MOOCs and their variations, there are large numbers of people who will get something they value from such courses. However, to pretend that such programs will enable people to get a well-paid, professional job in film and media on these qualifications alone is highly misleading. So it all depends on how they are marketed. Udemy walks quite close to the line on this.

However, I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has taken these courses. What was your motivation? Were you satisfied? What would you recommend to others thinking of taking such courses?

Using 2D virtual reality for online role playing

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Lake Devo friendship 2

Koechli, L. and Glynn, M. (2014) Diving into Lake Devo: Modes of Representation and Means of Interaction and Reflection in Online Role-Play IRRODL, Vol. 15, No.4

Djafarova, N., Abramowitz, and Bountrogianni, M. (2014) Lake Devo – creation, collaboration and reflection through a customizable online role-play environment Online Learning Consortium, 2014


This is the second of a series of blogs spotlighting the work of the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto, in developing innovative online learning initiatives. The first post provided a broad overview of the online learning initiatives at Ryerson.

Lake Devo

Lake Devo was designed by the Centre for Digital Education Strategies at The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education in 2009 to support online role-play activity in an educational context. Lake Devo is essentially a simplified virtual reality tool that is easy to use by both instructors and students.

Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios. Role-play activity is captured and published as a 2-D “movie” that a group of learners may review, discuss, debate and analyze in Lake Devo’s self-contained debrief area. Lake Devo’s chat tool allows users to check in with each other “out of role” while they are using the tool.

Examples of work produced by learners in Lake Devo can be seen here.

My interest in Lake Devo is that it is a relatively simple way for learners to construct role playing activities for developing a range of skills. The two papers listed above provide a full description of the project. I have worked with the project team to produce this summary.

Why Lake Devo?

Lake Devo was designed for several reasons:

  • instructors found that role-playing using a text-based learning management system was limiting;
  • many instructors lacked familiarity with other possible tools such as 3D virtual worlds;
  • instructors could not commit the time required to learn and integrate most standard 3D virtual worlds into their teaching.

The Lake Devo website was designed to provide an infrastructure for online role-play activities, while allowing for flexibility so that it could be used across disciplines, as well as in multiple delivery formats (e.g., fully online, hybrid, class-room).

Lake Devo is named after an outdoor pond outside the Chang Building in Toronto used by Ryerson students for skating in the winter. The pond was funded in part by the Devonian Foundation of Calgary, hence its nickname by students.

An experiential and constructivist rationale

Lake Devo was designed to meet the following goals:

  1. Provide experience with the knowledge construction process.
  2. Provide experience in and appreciation for multiple perspectives.
  3. Embed learning in realistic and relevant contexts.
  4. Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process.
  5. Embed learning in social experience.
  6. Encourage the use of multiple modes of representation.
  7. Encourage self-awareness of the knowledge construction process.

The project team set out to develop an environment that offered a middle ground between text-only online role-play environments and highly complex 3D virtual environments. They deliberately chose not to design a fully realistic world in which to interact, but rather an environment for role-play dialogue that would offer added channels of expression to support interpersonal communication, as well as an integrated debrief area. In other words, Lake Devo was developed to be a minimalist virtual world that was relatively easy to use while retaining the key characteristics of role playing. In particular it offers:

  • Simple visual and audio modes of representation such as avatars, background images, and sound effects
  • An integrated debrief area that includes a shareable, multimedia artifact, and a forum for discussion

Creating a role play exercise in Lake Devo

There are several steps or stages in developing a role play exercise in Lake Devo:

  • an instructor works out the learning goals and process by which students will use Lake Devo to meet these goals;
  • a ‘community’ must be created, usually a class of students; their names are entered into a database;
  • groups of students within the ‘community’ are either randomly assigned or specified by the instructor;
  • a group leader is identified;
  • learners are issued passwords to access their project;
  • each group member creates a visual representation, or avatar, of his or her role-play character using the Character Creation tool, which allows customization from a menu of physical attributes such as skin tone, hair colour and style, clothing colour, and facial features, from a library of images;
  • the group agrees on a time to meet synchronously online to role-play;
  • the group members participate as their avatars in a spontaneous dialogue by typing in their comments, which forms a “script.” Text during the scripting can be entered as speech, thought, or action;
  • learners may select sounds from a built-in library to insert in the script;.
  • a Backstage Group Chat area assists learners in planning the role-play and discussing logistics as the role-play unfolds;
  • the role-play dialogue is automatically saved, but each learner may edit his or her character’s dialogue after the live role-play activity;
  • once a group has finalized their role-play, they publish it to their Lake Devo Community list in the form of a 2D narrative movie;
  • the movie format allows all to participate in the debriefing, which occurs in a discussion area below each movie.

In most cases, a Lake Devo exercise is a graded, sometimes culminating, project that takes place in the latter half of a course, with a number of weeks allowed for scenario development, planning and, ultimately, the synchronous role play activity and debrief.

What has it been used for?

Lake Devo has been used by instructors and students in the following areas:

  • Interdisciplinary Studies,
  • Retail Management,
  • Fundraising Management,
  • Early Childhood Studies,
  • Food Security,
  • Entrepreneurial Mentoring.

Lake Devo has been used by a total of ten online instructors, for at least eight different courses, involving over 35 sections of students. Instructors have also been involved in user testing for the environment, as well as in demonstrations of the environment for fellow faculty.


The Lake Devo system was designed internally by staff from the Centre for Digital Education Strategies at Ryerson. It is available for use by instructors and/or students at no cost.

Students and instructors require no special software or equipment to make use of the Lake Devo environment. Internet access and creative ideas for role-play scenarios are all that is needed.

There are some minor ongoing maintenance costs for the Digital Education Strategies Unit. With respect to the use of the site, the main cost then is the up-front instructor time to design their own Lake Devo learning activities.


Student reaction has been collected and feedback overall has been positive. In particular both instructors and students have found it easy to use.

While student satisfaction with the features of the environment has remained consistent, the Digital Education Strategies team has adopted a continuous improvement approach to the design of the environment and has fully revised the environment over the past 5 years, in keeping with student feedback. Examples of student responses can be found in the graphic below.

Lake Devo student response 2

Further information

Instructors from other institutions may use Lake Devo. They can request access through the site by completing the “sign up for an account” form on the web site.

For further information please contact either or

Another perspective on the personalisation of learning online

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To see the video recording click on the image

To see the video recording click on the image

I gave a keynote presentation last week at a large educational conference in the Netherlands, Dé Onderwijsdagen’ (Education Days). I was asked to talk about the personalisation of learning. I agreed as I think this is one of many potential advantages of online learning.

However, the personalisation of learning tends to be looked at often through a very narrow lens. I suggest that there are in fact at least seven ways in which online learning can facilitate the personalisation of learning. This is a blog post version of my keynote, which can be seen in full here.

Why personalisation?

Personalisation is one of the buzzwords going around these days in educational circles, like experiential learning or competency-based learning. Sometimes when I look more closely at some of the current buzzwords I end up thinking: ‘Oh, is that what it is? But I’ve always done that – I just haven’t given it that name before.’

However, I think there are good reasons why we should be focusing more on personalisation in post-secondary education:

  • the need to develop a wide range of knowledge and skills in learners for the 21st century;
  • as the system has expanded, so has the diversity of students: in age, language ability, prior learning, and interests;
  • a wider range of modes of delivery for students to choose from (campus, blended, fully online);
  • a wider range of media accessible not only to instructors but also to learners themselves;
  • the need to actively engage a very wide range of preferred learning styles, interests and motivation.

Clearly in such a context one size does not fit all. But with a continuously expanding post-secondary system and more pressures on faculty and instructors, how can we make learning more individualised in a cost-effective manner?

Seven roads to personalisation

I can think of at least seven ways to make learning more personal. In my keynote I discuss the strengths and weaknesess of each of these approaches:.

  • adaptive learning;
  • competency-based learning;
  • virtual personal learning environments;
  • multi-media, multi-mode courses and learning materials;
  • modularisation of courses and learning materials;
  • new qualifications/certification (badges, nanodegrees, etc.);
  • disaggregated services.

There are probably others and I would be interested in your suggestions. However I recommend that you look at the video presentation, as it provides more ‘flesh’ on each of these seven approaches to personalisation.

An overall design approach to personalisation

Personalisation of learning will work best if it is embedded within an overall, coherent learning design, In my keynote I suggest one approach that fully exploits both the potential of online learning and the personalisation of learning:

  • the development of the core skill of knowledge management within a particular subject domain (other skills development could also be included, such as independent learning, research, critical thinking, and 21st century communication)
  • the use of open content by students, guided and supported by the instructor
  • student-generated multi-media content through online project work
  • active online discussion embedded within and across the different student projects
  • assessment through personal e-portfolios and group project assessment.

Such an ‘open’ design allows for greater choice in topics and approaches by learners while still developing the core skills and knowledge needed by our learners in a digital age. Other designs are also of course possible to reach the same kind of overall learning goals.

The role of the instructor though remains crucial, both as a content expert, guiding students and ensuring that they meet the academic needs of the discipline, and in providing feedback and assessment of their learning.


With knowledge continuing to rapidly grow and change, and a wide range of skills as well as knowledge needed in a knowledge-based society, we need new approaches to teaching that address such challenges.

Also because of increased diversity in our students and a wide range of different learning needs, we need to develop more flexible teaching methods and modes of delivery. This will also mean understanding better the differences between media and using them appropriately in our teaching.

Making learning more personal for our students is increasingly important, but it is only one element in new designs for learning. There are in fact many possibilities, limited only by the imagination and vision of teachers and instructors.

My life in Wordle

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My life in Wordle 2

I received this ‘gift’ from the Inholland Research Group Teaching and Learning with Technology. They took my ‘full’ CV (over 60 pages) and ran it through Wordle and produced this word cloud (appropriately in the shape of a plane, as I have a private pilot’s license). I haven’t updated my CV on my web site since 2008, so it doesn’t feature ‘online learning’ or ‘e-learning’ as much as it should, but otherwise it’s a fair reflection. Just a reminder though to keep my CV updated!

Perhaps more interesting is the second word cloud that they produced. They ran the entire text (all 500 pages) of Teaching in a Digital Age, and this is what Wordle produced:

My book in Wordle 2

I am very pleased that learning, teaching and students are the most used words in my book, with knowledge, skills, online, media and technology important but subsidiary. The word cloud really captures the issues and topics in the book and to some extent their relative importance. Also a few stylistic words popped up, such as ‘However’, ‘particular’, ‘different’ and ‘important’. Not sure what to make of that!

How to get started in blended learning: an interview with Tony Bates

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Click on the image to play the recording (just under 10 minutes)

Click on the image to play the recording (just under 10 minutes)

Following my keynote at the ‘Dé Onderwijsdagen’ conference in the Netherlands this week (a blog post about my presentation and a video recording of the full presentation will be available shortly), I was interviewed by Zac Woolfitt from Inholland, a large multi-campus Hogeschool (University of Applied Science) in the Netherlands.

Inholland is just embarking on implementing blended and hybrid learning, and is using my book as a guide for faculty and instructors.

This is a short (under 10 minutes) edited recording of the interview (click on the image above or here to play the recording).

Here are the questions I try to address in the interview:

  • how should an organisation take the [necessary] steps into blended learning?
  • how are institutions using the book [Teaching in a Digital Age] for faculty development?
  • could Inholland use my book for a teacher training course?
  • what advice would you give to teachers? Is there an approach you would recommend (for blended learning)?
  • are there trends that are pushing [online learning]?
  • what advice would you give our Board of Governors about the right way to move forward?


Spotlight on online experiential learning at Ryerson University

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Lake Devo is one of several e-learning initiatives at Ryerson University

Lake Devo is one of several e-learning initiatives at Ryerson University

A week or so ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Digital Education Strategies team at the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University, Toronto.

Ryerson is well known for its DMZ (formerly the Digital Media Zone), one of Canada’s largest business incubators for emerging tech start-ups, but it is by no means the only centre of innovation at Ryerson. As well as being responsible for the design of online learning courses at Ryerson, the Centre for Digital Education Strategies (CDES) has several very interesting e-learning initiatives. 

Online courses

The ‘bread and butter’ work of the CDES is the over 400 online courses, including around 300 degree-credit online and hybrid courses, four part-time degree online and blended programs, 23 fully online certificates, and 22 blended certificates. CDES serves roughly 23,000 online course enrolments a year. Ryerson recently moved from Blackboard to Desire2Learn learning management system to support most of its online courses.

Because of its expertise in online course design, Chang School’s Digital Education Strategies team has been engaged in a number of other innovative e-learning initiatives. The DES team has also built business efficiency tools and interactive learning applications. Each of these deserves a blog post on its own, but in this post I want to give a quick overview of some of the other work of the Centre.

1. Lake Devo

Lake Devo is a virtual learning environment enabling online role-play activity in an educational context. Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios.

The Lake Devo environment is fully equipped to allow an instructor to set up his/her class as an online collaborative community. He/she may enter students’ information, configure working groups and have the system issue login information to all users.

Lake Devo has been used by a total of ten online instructors, for at least eight different courses, involving over 35 sections of students. Students have developed over 100 different scenarios in Lake Devo (see “Gallery” for examples). 

 2. The Law Practice Program

This unique alternative to traditional articling was established by the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) and Ryerson University to provide new options and flexibility to meet the legal profession’s licensing requirements for law graduates in Ontario.

The program features interactive web-based collaboration tasks that replicate the experience of working in a law firm. This virtual firm activity is combined with expert guidance and mentorship to equip candidates with the skills and competencies required for effective practice. For a promo video, see:

 3. Serious games

Mental health assessment during a home visit’ is a video-based game in which users practice their skills in a setting that is realistic and allows the user to make clinical choices within a safe environment.

This is another collaborative project involving Ryerson nursing faculty and professors from George Brown College and Centennial College.

4. Professional Development for Online Instructors

 As part of its commitment to offer high quality learning experiences for students, the CDES offers professional development for online instructors. Teaching Adult Learners Online (TALO) is a four-week, hands-on program designed to model effective facilitation techniques, and provide instructors with insight into the learning experiences of online students, while promoting an engaging community of practice.

Drawing on promising practices in online pedagogy and examples from leading open resources such as CU Open, TALO offers a unique experience that is helping to increase online instructor capacity and diversity.

I will do a more complete blog post on each of these initiatives over the next week or so.

Other initiatives

The Centre for Digital Education Strategies is involved in many other e-learning initiatives, including:

  • Providing training on foundations of instructional design principles to Pearson Canada Inc. employees.
  • Free multi-media e-learning modules to help Canadians boost their financial knowledge and plan for their future financial security for the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (see:
  • A project for the Bombay Stock Exchange to design a train-the-trainer program for effective delivery of a hybrid curriculum on intercultural communication skills for the workplace.
  • A partnership with the University of the West Indies provided students in 12 Caribbean countries with access to a high-quality online programming for their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BScN). 
  • Entrepreneurial mentor training through an online seminar using interactive case studies and role play.

Further information

 More details of the work of the Centre for Digital Education Strategies can be found here:

More detailed posts on each of the four projects listed above will follow shortly.