October 4, 2015

Thinking about the design of the ‘flipped’ classroom

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Image: © University of Washington CTL

Image: © University of Washington CTL

Barnett, P. (2014) Let’s scramble, not flip, the classroom, Inside Higher Education, February 14

University of Washington (undated) Flipping the classroom, Seattle: University of Washington Center for teaching and Learning

This blog post by Pamela Barnett, the Director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Temple University (USA), looks at a number of ways to re-design teaching to incorporate both online and classroom teaching that goes way beyond the ‘standard’ flipped classroom model (if such a thing exists – see the U of Washington post for excellent resources on the flipped classroom).

Dr. Bartlett’s post is well worth reading for ideas on how to make the most out of hybrid learning. I think we will see more and more papers and posts on this topic as more and more instructors move to hybrid learning.

But while I agree with the spirit and the intent of Pamela Barnett’s post, there is still the assumption that all such decisions will be taken by the instructor working in isolation, on a case-by-case basis. I’m wondering how long it will take to move:

(a) away from every individual instructor making their own decisions about the right mix of online and face-to-face learning, on a course-by-course or just a lesson-by-lesson basis, to a program approach of looking at the needs of a program – and its students – as a whole, in deciding the right mix of online and campus-based teaching

(b) to a team approach, involving an individual instructor working with an instructional designer, to determine the right mix of online and face-to-face teaching within a particular course or program

(c) to developing clear guidelines or principles on what is best done online and what on campus. (What? A theory in educational technology? What was I thinking?)

Until now the argument has been: ‘Online learning OR classroom instruction’. Now we need to look at the best ways to combine them. I will be very surprised if the flipped model as practiced today survives once we have that knowledge. But we lack the science or experience to guide us on the ‘what’s best done online and what face-to-face’ discussion. We are still very much in the cottage industry stage of higher education teaching – all craft and no science. We need both theory, and evidence from practice to support or challenge the theory. Until then, anything goes with hybrid learning, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. It allows for innovation and challenges to our existing ideas in this area.

Survey finds ‘little use’ of open textbooks in Washington State’s colleges

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Deception Pass, Whidby eIsland, Washington State

Deception Pass, Whidbey Island, Washington State

OnCampus Research (2013) Open Course Library Survey Results OnCampus Research, December 2013

Biemiller, L. (2014) Open Course Library Sees Little Use in Washington’s Community Colleges Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31

The Washington Community and Technical College system has identified free or reduced-price materials for 83 of their highest enrolled courses, of which 42 were introduced in 2012. OnCampus Research, an independent market research company that focuses on community colleges in the USA, surveyed campus stores in 2013 and received responses from 25 of the 34 campus stores in the system.

Survey results

The report made the following conclusions:

  • The availability of free or lower-priced course materials for popular, highly enrolled courses did NOT equate into actual use of those materials– except for very small percentages of class sections and students. (Of the 98,130 students enrolled in these 42 courses on the 25 campuses, only 2,386 (2.4%) were in sections that used the recommended OCL materials.)
  • The savings from adopting OCL materials over traditional course materials are substantial, but those savings were realized mostly in theory, not in practice. Unless or until a majority of students are actually using the OCL materials, there are no significant savings for students in OCL courses.
  • Given the possibility of such substantial savings, the question remains as to why so few of the sections for these 42 OCL courses actually used any of the free or lower-priced materials. Additional study would be needed to address this issue.


For me, this survey raises more questions than answers:

  • who commissioned the survey? If it was the college stores, would students necessarily go through college stores to download free online materials? If it was the college stores, is not there a conflict of interest here? Who benefits from the sale of high-priced textbooks?
  • is this survey too soon to draw any real conclusions? How long were the materials available for instructors to review them? These kinds of decisions are likely to be taken several months before courses open, and it may take another year at least before instructors start to accommodate to these materials
  • since the report concluded: ‘the question remains as to why so few of the sections for these 42 OCL courses actually used any of the free or lower-priced materials’, why did the Chronicle of Education, when reporting this, NOT get a comment from the people running the project in Washington State?

Of course, there may be real problems with this project. In particular, instructors may not have had enough notice or involvement to make the necessary changes to their classes for the 2012 academic year, to make best use of the recommended materials. However, I think I’ll reserve my judgement until the Washington Community and Technical College system presents its own findings and conclusions. It’s a story though worth following.

“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”: a retrospective of my work

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Still alive on Saturday

Still alive on Sunday

Brindley. J. and Paul, R. (2013) Understanding the building blocks of online learning: Through the writings and research of pre-eminent online learning expert, Dr. Tony Bates Sudbury ON: Contact North, October 2

It was Mark Twain who complained in this way about a premature obituary in the New York Journal. While not quite an obituary, the Contact North post is the first in a series of eight that looks at my perspectives and advice on key issues in online learning, based, as each post unkindly points out, on my nearly 50 years of working for change and reform in post-secondary education.  This series was researched and developed by Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associates, Dr. Jane Brindley and Dr. Ross Paul.

This first post discusses my views on the drivers of change in the way we teach and learn, and on the role of online learning.

It also summarizes the posts that are to follow under the heading of the Seven Key Building Blocks of Online Learning:

  • planning for effective teaching with technology
  • how emerging pedagogies map onto the new technologies
  • how faculty can support learner success
  • how faculty can ensure quality in an online learning environment
  • guidelines for faculty from educational technology research
  • costing considerations for hybrid and online courses
  • institutional and faculty roles in strategic planning.

Contact North will be publishing one post every two weeks in this series.


Although I agreed to this project, and indeed have seen and commented on all the drafts for the series, you can perhaps tell that I am slightly embarrassed by the whole thing. Jane and Ross have done an amazing job pulling together an amorphous set of resources scattered through many blog posts, journal articles and books into a series of coherent posts that are directed clearly at the interests of faculty and instructors. I think the series will be particularly useful for those poor post-graduate students who have been given my books as set readings to wade through, and for instructors dipping their toes into online learning for the first time. I am immensely grateful to and honoured by Contact North for developing and promoting this series.

The main reason for my embarrassment is that most of the stuff in the posts is not my original work. Like everyone in academia, I stand on the shoulders of giants. (Interesting to note that this quotation was used by Isaac Newton in his introduction to Principia Mathematica – and he plagiarized the quote from someone else!) So all I have done in most of my writing is to pull together other people’s research and writings, and I am still concerned that this does not come across strongly enough in the series. You will also not find any critique or criticism of my work in this series, so please use the comment section after each post. Nevertheless, I respect Contact North’s desire for simplicity and clarity.

So I hope you will follow the series and more importantly (since regular readers of this blog are more than likely to be familiar with the material), direct colleagues, instructors new to online learning, and post-graduate students studying online learning, to this series of posts.

In the meantime THIS IS NOT THE END!

What’s next?

I will continue my blog as best I can while travelling, including the series on productivity and online learning (the next will look at the issues around scaling learner-instructor interactions).

I’m also working on a new book called provisionally ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ which is due out next year.

So yes, I’m still alive.

Book review by Sir John Daniel: Higher Education in the Digital Age

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Princeton University's campus: are elite residential universities the 'gold standard' for higher education?

Bowen, W. (2013) Higher Education in the Digital Age Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press $26.95

As part of a series of posts on technology and productivity in teaching and learning, I am delighted to publish this review by Sir John Daniel of William Bowen’s book which attempts to answer the following question:

Could the growth in online courses slow the rising cost of college and help solve the crisis of affordability?

In the book, Bowen explains why, despite his earlier skepticism, he now believes technology has the potential to help rein in costs without negatively affecting student learning.

Here is Sir John’s review:

I was excited to learn of William Bowen’s new book because he is so well qualified to assess the impact of digital technologies on higher education.

He brings three great strengths to the task. First, as an economist who took an early interest in the creative industries, he has commented regularly on costs and productivity in higher education. His classic paper on the ‘cost disease’ with his mentor William Baumol (Baumol & Bowen, 1965) is the starting point for many analyses of the economics of university teaching (e.g. Why does College Cost so Much? (Archibald & Feldman, 2010)). Second, as a former president of Princeton University and a major figure in US higher education, he is well aware of the dynamics of innovation in the sector. Third, and most significantly, he has a refreshing ability to change his mind as new evidence appears.

The evolution of his thinking about how technology might affect the economics of higher education is interesting. Until quite recently he wrote as if the ‘cost disease’, which prevents university teaching from benefiting from productivity increases in the economy as a whole, were an inescapable fact of life. This was also the stance of Archibald and Feldman, who simply told Americans that they should get used to seeing college tuition fees rise faster than inflation. However, in Bowen’s foreword to Unlocking the Gates, Taylor Walsh’s engaging book about the debacle of the first attempt by elite universities to engage with online learning a decade ago, he wrote that he was rethinking his scepticism about the potential of new technologies to improve productivity in higher education.

I hoped that his new book would document the continued development of his thinking and help us all to understand the economics of technology in higher education more broadly and deeply. Sadly, I was disappointed. Apart from a reprise of his analysis of productivity this book has little to offer to scholars and practitioners outside the US and even, I suspect, to many who are grappling with the introduction of technology within the mass of US institutions. Why did Bowen pass up this opportunity?

The fundamental reason is that the book began as the 2012 Tanner Lectures at Stanford University. Bowen naturally oriented his material to his audience, meaning that a more honest title for the book – had his publisher allowed it – would have been, ‘Higher Education on Elite US Campuses in the Digital Age’. Despite creating a most impressive set of endnotes in preparing the lectures for publication, his focus is resolutely on the implications of online learning for institutions like Princeton and Stanford.

This focus is even sharper in the commentaries by Howard Gardner, John Hennessy, Andrew Delbanco and Daphne Koller that are included in the book. The opening sentence of Hennessy’s contribution captures this bias nicely: ‘Let me propose, as a beginning point, that we should all accept the premise that a residential liberal arts education is the gold standard to which higher education should aspire’. Those who do not accept that premise – and they must surely be a large majority of the worldwide higher education community – will find the complacency of this ‘love-in’ of elite institutions rather cloying.

To be fair, Bowen shows greater awareness of this limitation than his commentators, but even so he circumscribes his approach in startling ways. After giving an excellent summary of the issue of productivity in higher education as the ratio of outputs (the numerator) to inputs (the denominator) he lists some of the ways in which we might expect online education to improve productivity. Amazingly, increasing the number of students, which is surely the most significant innovation of online learning, does not feature in the list. He does, however, emphasise dismal completion rates as an important factor in lowering productivity and I was disappointed that Coursera’s Daphne Koller did not address MOOC completion rates in her commentary!

However, Koller did perform a service by suggesting (very gently, given her audience) that, done well, distance learning can contribute more to students’ intellectual development than classroom teaching. This has certainly been my experience. I was a student at Oxford, which provides just the sort of face-to-face interaction that is revered in this book, and later had the privilege of leading the UK Open University for 11 years.

The fund-raising letters that I now receive from Oxford show more enthusiasm for its tutorial system than I found among my fellow students. But in my conversations with thousands of Open University students I was constantly inspired by the personal intellectual transformations they reported. Nor is this evidence simply anecdotal. Last year the Open University came top in the UK’s nationwide survey of student satisfaction – a remarkable achievement for an open learning system with 250,000 students.

In summary, Higher Education in the Digital Age alerts America’s elite institutions to new opportunities that online learning provides and describes the threats that it presents to less fortunate universities and colleges. A book addressing the topic for the generality of higher education from a global perspective remains to be written.            


Archibald, R.B. and Feldman, D. H. (2010) Why Does College Cost So Much? Oxford University Press.

Baumol, W. J. and Bowen, W. G. (1965) On the Performing Arts: The Anatomy of Their Economic Problems, The American Economic Review, Vol. 55(1/2), pp. 495-502

Bowen, W. G. Higher Education in the Digital Age, Princeton University Press

Bowen, W. G. (2011) Foreword to Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses, by Taylor Walsh, Princeton University Press, pp. vii-xvi.

Walsh, Taylor (2011). Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses, Princeton University Press.


The danger of cloud based LMSs

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Davis, B. (2013) Desire2Learn ‘in recovery mode,’ says there has been no data loss to university systems The Record.com, February 1

Bryen, W. (2013) Desire2Learn second system outage ‘very disruptive’ for CU-Boulder faculty, students Daily Camera, University of Colorado, January 31

Many universities in the USA and Canada have been hit by a serious outage of their learning management system, Desire2Learn. It appears that all universities who use Desire2Learn’s cloud computing facility have been affected. Those running D2L on their own servers will not be directly affected.

Virginia Jamieson, D2L’s senior director of corporate communications, stated:

We are experiencing significant challenges in one of our cloud data centers and that is dramatically impacting some students’ online experience. This stems from the file virtualization hardware not interacting well with the storage environment.

Among the universities affected are the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University, from where many of the staff at Desire2Learn have graduated, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Apparently Desire2Learn has been hit by several outages recently.

Why no back-up?

I didn’t expect one of my 2013 predictions to happen so soon – see ’10. Expect the unexpected.’

I obviously have misunderstood cloud computing. I thought the whole point was independent back-up, so if one server goes down, others can pick it up. Please enlighten me.