October 24, 2014

Review of ‘Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda.’

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Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

It is somewhat daunting to review a book of over 500 pages of research on any topic. I doubt if few other than the editors are likely to read this book from cover to cover. It is more likely to be kept on one’s bookshelf (if these still exist in a digital age) for reference whenever needed. Nevertheless, this is an important work that anyone working in online learning needs to be aware of, so I will do my best to cover it as comprehensively as I can.

Structure of the book

The book is a collection of about 20 chapters by a variety of different authors (more on the choice of authors later). Based on a Delphi study and analysis of ‘key research journals’ in the field, the editors have organized the topic into three sections, with a set of chapters on each sub-section, as follows:

1. Macro-level research: distance education systems and theories

  • access, equity and ethics
  • globalization and cross-cultural issues
  • distance teaching systems and institutions
  • theories and models
  • research methods and knowledge transfer

2. Meso-level research: management, organization and technology

  • management and organization
  • costs and benefits
  • educational technology
  • innovation and change
  • professional development and faculty support
  • learner support services
  • quality assurance

3. Micro-level: teaching and learning in distance education

  • instructional/learning design
  • interaction and communication
  • learner characteristics.

In addition, there is a very useful preface from Otto Peters, an introductory chapter by the editors where they justify their structural organization of research, and a short conclusion that calls for a systematic research agenda in online distance education research.

More importantly, perhaps, Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter demonstrate empirically that research in this field has been skewed towards micro-level research (about half of all publications).  Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly given its importance, costs and benefits of online distance education is the least researched area.

What I liked

It is somewhat invidious to pick out particular chapters, because different people will have different interests from such a wide-ranging list of topics. I have tended to choose those that I found were new and/or particularly enlightening for me, but other readers’ choices will be different. However, by selecting a few excellent chapters, I hope to give some idea of the quality of the book.

1. The structuring/organization of research

Anderson and Zawacki-Richter have done an excellent job in providing a structural framework for research in this field. This will be useful both for those teaching about online and distance education but in particular for potential Ph.D. students wondering what to study. This book will provide an essential starting point.

2. Summary of the issues in each area of research

Again, the editors have done an excellent job in their introductory chapter in summarizing the content of each of the chapters that follows, and in so doing pulling out the key themes and issues within each area of research. This alone makes the book worthwhile.

3. Globalization, Culture and Online Distance Education

Charlotte (Lani) Gunawardena of the University of New Mexico has written the most comprehensive and deep analysis of this issue that I have seen, and it is an area in which I have a great deal of interest, since most of the online teaching I have done has been with students from around the world and sometimes multi-lingual.

After a general discussion of the issue of globalization and education, she reviews research in the following areas:

  • diverse educational expectations
  • learners and preferred ways of learning
  • socio-cultural environment and online interaction
  • help-seeking behaviours
  • silence
  • language learning
  • researching culture and online distance learning

This chapter should be required reading for anyone contemplating teaching online.

4. Quality assurance in Online Distance Education

I picked this chapter by Colin Latchem because he is so deeply expert in this field that he is able to make what can be a numbingly boring but immensely important topic a fun read, while at the same time ending with some critical questions about quality assurance. In particular Latchem looks at QA from the following perspectives:

  • definitions of quality
  • accreditation
  • online distance education vs campus-based teaching
  • quality standards
  • transnational online distance education
  • open educational resources
  • costs of QA
  • is online distance education yet good enough?
  • an outcomes approach to QA.

This chapter definitely showcases a master at the top of his game.

5. The elephant in the room: student drop-out

This is a wonderfully funny but ultimately serious argument between Ormond Simpson and Alan Woodley about the elephant in the distance education room that no-one wants to mention. Here they start poking the elephant with some sticks (which they note is not likely to be a career-enhancing move.) The basic argument is that institutions should and could do more to reduce drop-out/increase course completion. This chapter also stunned me with providing hard data about really low completion rates for most open university students. I couldn’t help comparing these with the high completion rates for online credit courses at dual-mode (campus-based) institutions, at least in Canada (which of course are not ‘open’ institutions in that students must have good high school qualifications.)

Woodley’s solution to reducing drop-out is quite interesting (and later well argued):

  • make it harder to get in
  • make it harder to get out

In both cases, really practical and not too costly solutions are offered that nevertheless are consistent with open access and high quality teaching.

In summary

The book contains a number of really good chapters that lay out the issues in researching online distance education.

What I disliked

I have to say that I groaned when I first saw the list of contributors. The same old, same old list of distance education experts with a heavy bias towards open universities. Sure, they are nearly all well-seasoned experts, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se (after all, I see myself as one of them.)

But where are the young researchers here, and especially the researchers in open educational resources, MOOCs, social media applications in online learning, and above all researchers from the many campus-based universities now mainstreaming online learning? There is almost nothing in the book about research into blended learning, and flipped classrooms are not even mentioned. OK, the book is about online distance learning but the barriers or distinctions are coming down with a vengeance. This book will never reach those who most need it, the many campus-based instructors now venturing for the first time into online learning in one way or another. They don’t see themselves as primarily distance educators.

And a few of the articles were more like lessons in history than an up-to-date review of research in the field. Readers of this blog will know that I strongly value the history of educational technology and distance learning. But these lessons need to be embedded in the here and now. In particular, the lessons need to be spelled out. It is not enough to know that Stanford University researchers as long ago as 1974 were researching the costs and benefits of educational broadcasting in developing countries, but what lessons does this have for some of the outrageous claims being made about MOOCs? A great deal in fact, but this needs explaining in the context of MOOCs today.

Also the book is solely focused on post-secondary university education. Where is the research on online distance education in the k-12/school sector or the two-year college/vocational sector? Maybe they are topics for other books, but this is where the real gap exists in research publications in online learning.

Lastly, although the book is reasonably priced for its size (C$40), and is available as an e-text as well as the fully printed version, what a pity it is not an open textbook that could then be up-dated and crowd-sourced over time.


This is essential reading for anyone who wants to take a professional, evidence-based approach to online learning (distance or otherwise). It will be particularly valuable for students wanting to do research in this area. The editors have done an incredibly good job of presenting a hugely diverse and scattered area in a clear and structured manner. Many of the chapters are gems of insight and knowledge in the field.

However, we have a huge challenge of knowledge transfer in this field. Repeatedly authors in the book lamented that many of the new entrants to online learning are woefully ignorant of the research previously done in this field. We need a better way to disseminate this research than a 500 page printed text that only those already expert in the field are likely to access. On the other hand, the book does provide a strong foundation from which to find better ways to disseminate this knowledge. Knowledge dissemination in a digital world then is where the research agenda for online learning needs to focus.


A new approach to online lab classes from the University of South Carolina

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 Histology USC

Adams, S. and Duvall, B. (2014) Designing, building and supporting online lab courses, University Business, February 4

This article is a summary of a presentation made at the University Business conference last June. It describes how two biology professors at the University of South Carolina, Roger Sawyer and Robert Ogilvie, developed an online course on histology that was built around students being able to drill down into images of the cell at various levels through the use of a large repository of digitized slides of cells, accompanied by a voice over narrative:

Using Adobe Presenter to create the slides and WebMic to record the audio, Sawyer and Ogilvie built lectures, grouped slides together and developed quizzes. The program offered the flexibility for faculty to record and post content right from their desktops. With each set of slides, students can move ‘bit by bit,’ drilling deep down into a cell, reading the accompanying information, and listening to a narrative as they go. Since the self-paced content requires large files, it is hosted offline via Screencast (by TechSmith).

This was partly driven by space limitations in USC’s physical labs, and partly by increasing demand for students with health sciences qualifications. This approach has enabled the course to jump from 70 enrollments a year to 350. At the same time, student performance for the online students is the same as for the on-campus students, and over 90% of students rate the course highly on a number of variables.

One reason for the success of this approach is that the two professors worked closely with instructional designers and the university’s media services department. The team developed their own tool for recording audio over the slides (webMic), using ‘off-the-shelf’ apps, rather than programming from scratch.

There is a video recording of the presentation available here, which is worth watching because as well as describing the histology project, it also looks how online learning is being integrated into physical labs at USC, and the impact on room design. In other words, students and faculty need online access not only from home and office, but also while in the lab.

Another e-learning platform from Nigeria

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Adepoju, P. (2014) Nigeria is ready for e-learning – Fora.co Humanipo, January 28

I wrote about tutor.ng in a previous post. Fora.co is another e-learning platform, working with ‘Africa’s leading Universities, organizations and governments to provide young Africans with affordable access to the best educational content online, offline and on mobile‘. It offers over 500 courses or course packs, consisting of:

pre-built bundles of relevant digital learning resources that can be used as teaching or training aids in the classroom. (Minimum 6 hours of professor lectures) 
+ Lab Exercises 
+ Textbooks & required readings 
+ Test banks (Minimum 100 questions) 
+ Presentation Slide templates for lectures

Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, chief executive officer at Fora.co, believes that in Nigeria, the technology is not the main barrier. The problem is lack of local content:

We are still light years behind others countries. Nigerian e-learning content is often badly designed and instructional design for online courses still seems foreign to our e-learning content landscape. This is one of the reasons we have had to focus on selling foreign courses because the local courses we saw were quite simply not up to snuff.

For students with difficult or costly access to the Internet, Fora provides learners with a flash drive that ‘synchronizes data from offline interactions and downloads new content from Fora.co to the flashdrive whenever internet access becomes available‘.

Flora markets both directly to institutions and also to individual students. Fora charges a fee per student that depends on the size of the institution and the kind of content bundle required. The lowest priced content bundle is $59.99/student (~N10,000/student).

However, at the moment its web site does not list the courses, the institutions that provide the materials, or the institutions that Fora is working with. This will come shortly; the materials however are properly sourced with the permission of each of the institutions whose materials are used.


Again, it will be interesting to see how this company develops, and whether the business model is successful. It is likely to work best with small, private institutions who can charge a premium fee thus generating a profit.

A major test will be if any African public universities partner, and whether courses will eventually be accredited in Nigeria.

Nevertheless I am sure we will see more attempts like this around Africa to build viable e-learning or online systems through the private sector.


After I initially posted this, I discovered that this project had a Canadian origin, originally conceived at the University of Waterloo’s Velo City Garage and with connections with the MaRS Tech project: click here for much more information about the Fora operation. See also Iyinoluwa Aboyeji’s comments to this post below.

Tracking online learning in the USA – and Ontario

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Babson 2012 enrollment graph Allen, I. and Seaman, J. (2014) Grade Change: Tracking Online Learning in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson College/Sloan Foundation

This is the eleventh annual report in this invaluable series on tracking online education in the United States of America. It is invaluable, because, through the consistent support of the Sloan Foundation, the Babson College annual survey provides a consistent methodology that allows for the tracking of the growth and development of online learning in the USA over more than a decade.

There is nothing comparable in Canada, but nevertheless I will use this post to try and draw some comparisons between the development of online earning in the USA and at least the largest system in Canada, that of Ontario, which does have at least some data. Also, Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a system wide initiative aimed at strengthening Ontario’s online learning activities. The Sloan/Babson surveys have important lessons for Ontario’s new initiative.


The survey is sent to the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) of every higher education institution in the USA (private and public, universities and two year colleges), over 4,600 in all. Over 2,800 responses were received from institutions that accounted for just over 80% of all higher education enrollments in the USA (most non-responses came from small institutions, i.e. institutions with 1,500 students or less, who were far less likely to have online courses, as a sector).

An online course is defined in this report as one in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online as a normal part of an institution’s program. MOOCs are therefore considered a completely different category from the ‘normal’ credit-based online courses in this report.

What is the report about?

The scope of the report can best be described from the questions the report seeks to answer:

  • What is Online Learning, what is a MOOC?
  • Is Online Learning Strategic?
  • Are Learning Outcomes in Online Comparable to Face-to-Face?
  • Schools Without Online Offerings
  • How Many Students are Learning Online?
  • Do Students Require More Discipline to Complete Online Courses?
  • Is Retention of Students Harder in Online Courses?
  • What is the Future of Online Learning?
  • Who offers MOOCs?
  • Objectives for MOOCs
  • Role of MOOCs

Main findings

This relatively short report (40 pages, including tables) is so stuffed with data that it is somewhat invidious to pick and choose results. Because it is short and simply written you are strongly recommended to read it yourself in full. However, here are the main points I take away:

Growth of credit-based online learning continues but is slowing

Sounds a bit like an economic report on China, doesn’t it? Allen and Seaman claim that a total of 7.1 million students are now taking at least one online course, or roughly 34% of all enrollments. (Note: ‘% taking at least one course’ is not the same as ‘% of all course enrollments’ which would be a better measure.) Online learning enrollments were up 6.5% in 2013, a slowing of the rate of growth which had been in the 10-15% range per annum in recent years. Nevertheless, online enrollments are still growing five times faster that enrollments in general in the USA, and most CAOs anticipate that this growth in online learning enrollments will continue into the future.

MOOCs are still a very small component of online learning

The number of institutions offering MOOCs rose from 2.6% in 2012 to 5% in 2103. The majority of institutions offering MOOCs are doctoral/research and there is a high proportion in the private, not-for-profit sector. This sector has been historically less involved in credit-based online learning.

Graph sectors with online learning

Less than a quarter of CAOs believe that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, down from 28 percent in 2012, and a majority of academic leaders (64%) have concerns that credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.

Sector differences

The report identifies some clear differences between the different sectors in the USA’s very diverse post-secondary education system. Small institutions (less than 1,500) and doctoral/research institutions are far less likely to offer online courses. CAOs from institutions not offering online learning tend to be more critical of the quality of online learning and far less likely to think it essential to their future.

Of the CAOs from institutions offering online courses, nearly one-quarter believe online outcomes to be superior, slightly under 20 percent think them inferior, with the remainder (57%) reporting that the learning outcomes are the same as for classroom delivery

What about Canada – and Ontario in particular?

I have long lamented that we have no comparable data on online learning in Canada. The government of Ontario did do a census of all its universities and colleges in 2010 and found just under 500,000 online course registrations, or 11% of all university and college enrollments, with online enrollments in universities (13%) higher than in two-year colleges (7%). If we extrapolate from the USA figures (highly dubious, I know) which showed a 16% increase in online enrollments between fall 2010 and fall 2012, this would put Ontario’s online enrollments in 2012 at approximately 563,000.

More significantly, the Ontario government survey provided hard data on course completion rates:

  • the median in the college sector for the 20 colleges that responded to the question was 76.1% with most institutions reporting results between 70% and 79%.
  • the median in the university sector for the 15 universities that responded was 89% with most universities reporting results from 85% to 95%.

Contact North did a ‘cross-country check-up’ in 2012. It concluded (p.14):

Using proxy data (estimates provided by a variety of different organizations and a standard measure of full-time equivalent student set at 9.5 course registrations per FTE), we can estimate that there are between 875,000 and 950,000 registered online students in Canada (approximately 92,105 – 100,000 full-time students) at college and universities studying a purely online course at any one time.

The problem though is that these are one-off studies. While the government of Ontario is to be congratulated on doing the 2010 survey, it decided not to continue it in the following years (or more accurately, it did not decide to repeat it.) The Contact North data is at best a rough estimate, again valuable in itself, but needs to done on a more systematic and regular basis across the country (Canada’s higher education system is devolved to each of 12 provinces with no federal responsibility or office for post-secondary education, and Statistics Canada has been cut back in recent years by the current Conservative Government).

However, there is now hope. The government of Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a collaborative Centre of Excellence that will be governed and operated by the province’s colleges and universities. It has a start-up budget of $42 million. One of the first things it should do is to repeat and expand the 2010 survey, to establish a baseline for measuring the province’s progress in online learning. The expansion should include also measurement of hybrid/blended learning (preferably using the same definitions as the Babson survey for comparative purposes.) To do this accurately, institutions will need to categorize the type of courses they are offering in their courses’ database, if they have not already done this to date. Without such a baseline of data, it will be almost impossible to assess not just the success of Ontario Online, but of online learning in general in Ontario.

I would also hope that as the country’s largest province, with probably the greatest number of online courses and enrollments, Ontario will take leadership at the national Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) to get the survey it has developed adopted and administered by all provinces across Canada. Politicians and experts can huff and puff all they like about the importance of online learning, but if they don’t measure it, it’s all just hot air.

In summary, many thanks to Sloan and Babson College for their invaluable work. Ontario has done far more than any other province in Canada to identify the extent of online learning, and is poised to make an even greater breakthrough through its new Ontario Online initiative. However, systematic data collection is essential for measuring the success of any online learning initiatives or strategies.

Africa is the world’s fastest developing e-learning market

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Computers for student use at Tshwane University of Technology, South Africa

Adkins, S. (2013) The Africa Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2011-2016 Forecast and Analysis Monroe WA: Ambient Insight

This is one of the most interesting reports I have come across in a long time. Even the abstract is packed with information and data. I have pulled out here just a small selection of particular interest to online learning in higher education.

According to this report, e-learning is forecast to grow in Africa as a whole at a rate of 15% per annum over the next four years, with growth rates in individual countries at the following:

  • Senegal: 30%
  • Zambia: 28%
  • Zimbabwe: 25%
  • Kenya: 25%

In terms of volume of revenues from e-learning, South Africa is the dominant country but will be overtaken by Nigeria by 2016.

There are several drivers of this development in Africa:

  • the recent arrival of fiber optic connectivity. Prior to this, satellite access was the primary connectivity medium, which is very expensive. This was inhibiting the uptake of Internet connectivity
  • a price war with telecoms and ISPs dropping prices to attract customers. This has also created a boom in the adoption of Internet and mobile technologies
  • Internet penetration in Kenya essentially doubled from 2010 to 2011, growing from 28% to 52% in just one year. Internet penetration more than tripled in Rwanda between 2011 and 2012, growing from 8% to 26% in one year.
  • The wide scale digitization of academic content in every country analyzed in this report
  • The explosion of online enrollments in higher education institutions
  • the sharp spike in the adoption of eLearning in the corporate segments in the booming economies.

According to the report:

The boom in online higher education enrollments in Africa is nothing short of astonishing. Many countries are adopting eLearning as a way to meet the strong demand for higher education – a demand they simply cannot meet with traditional campuses and programs:

  • The University of South Africa (UNISA) UNISA is a pan-regional virtual university with over 310,000 students (3,500 come from outside Africa.) Over half of all UNISA students take at least one online course a year. New virtual universities are springing up everywhere in Africa.
  • In May 2011, the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) announced the launch of a pan-African virtual university branch of IGNOU with headquarters in Ethiopia. IGNOU has partnerships with institutions in 20 African countries.
  • Innorero University, a private institution in Kenya, launched their Virtual Campus in January 2012.
  • The Virtual University of Uganda (VUU) claims to be the first online university in East Africa and started taking students in January 2012.
  • In June 2012, the Kenyan government funded the development of a new online education institution called the Open University of Kenya in an effort to meet the strong demand for higher education in the country.
  • The African University College of Communications (AUCC) and the India-based AVAGMAH Online School of Bharathidasan University announced in October 2012 that they would launch a virtual university in Ghana in January 2013 
  • in January 2012, the African Development Bank approved a US$15.6 million grant to help strengthen the capacity of the African Virtual University (AVU). As of 2012, the AVU had 31 active higher education partners across Africa, which it helps in building e-learning centres and training content developers. The new funding will be used to build 12 new e-learning centres.

With very few exceptions, most of the countries in the region now have official government policies on the use of technology in education. There are now dozens of new national digitization projects funded directly by the central governments with and without the aid of external donors.