April 27, 2015

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.

Online learning in California generates controversy

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© Robert Holmes, CalTour, 2012

Booker, E. (2013) Online education policy draws fire in California Information Week: Education, January 11

This report of a one-day conference at UCLA: Rebooting Higher Education: Leveraging Innovations in Online Education to Improve Cost Effectiveness and Increase Quality,’ resulted in ‘heated critiques about the rationale for the state’s policy push into the area.’

Some of the points raised:

  • the Governor has created a fund for open textbooks and an open digital library for the state’s public post-secondary system (a model being imitated in British Columbia)
  • criticism from faculty associations that the focus on MOOCs doesn’t address the needs of undergraduate students, and that the rush into MOOCs wasn’t being accompanied by research or evaluation of their effectiveness
  • criticisms from the CEO of Straighterline, an online service offering introductory courses, that public universities were monopolies subsidized by taxpayers that were keeping out cheaper commercial providers
  • Daphne Koller of Coursera argued that MOOCs are ushering in a “brand new pedagogy” and provide important keys about effective teaching and educational design by using Google-style rapid testing resulting in daily improvements to the web site
  • the number of full-time-equivalent online students in the state’s community college network has doubled since 2005-2006, and now constitute 11% of all course enrollments.

The conference was sponsored by the 20 Million Minds Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to lowering the cost of higher education.


California appears likely to be a key battle ground regarding the role of the private sector and online learning in post-secondary education. Public colleges and universities have seen steep cuts in their funding over recent years and the state’s finances do not look to be any healthier for at least the next two or three years.

There are in fact several strands here that are getting mixed up and perhaps should be considered separately:

  • the commitment of voters in California to a publicly funded post-secondary education system. The current financial difficulties of the state are a consequence of the ‘tax revolt’ by Californians over the last 25 years resulting from  proposition 13 in 1978 that outlawed any property tax increases for ever in California. If you don’t pay taxes, you can’t afford public services. There seems to be a gradual understanding of this, because the governor was able to get some increase in state taxes through proposition 30 that was passed in a state ballot in November.
  • ‘traditional’ for-credit online learning is already well-established in the public post-secondary system in California, with somewhere between 11-15% of all for-credit course enrollments now being online. This ‘natural’ growth is likely to continue, with or without the influence of MOOCs, although the publicity around MOOCs may (or may not) facilitate this
  • MOOCs may have some relevance for for-credit programming, but that is not their current purpose. There is still a great deal of work to be done before they come close to being an adequate substitute for current for-credit online courses, and indeed that may turn out to be the least valuable road for MOOCs to travel. Whatever road they do follow, they will need to demonstrate their effectiveness through independent evaluation of what students actually learn
  • effective teaching is not the same as effective advertising, so assuming that Google-style ad testing will result in educational breakthroughs is just dreaming. To sort out the signal from the noise in analyzing big data, you need hypotheses or theories, so you know what kind of data to collect, and how to interpret it when it is collected. The theories for learning are almost certainly different than the theories for selling or marketing. It’s about time Coursera recognized that we do know a good deal about what leads to effective online learning, and this has not been applied to most Coursera MOOCs to date. The sooner this is done, the more effective they are likely to be, and you don’t needs tons of data for this, although it could be helpful once these approaches are applied, to further refine our knowledge in this area
  • despite all this, the costs of post-secondary education in the USA in particular, and many other OECD countries, including Canada, are too high and as a result are becoming an increasing barrier to access, so we do need more experimentation, innovation, research and evaluation. However this needs to be more thoughtful than just jumping off a cliff and hoping there’s deep water underneath
  • lastly, commercial providers can supply online learning offerings more cheaply than public organizations, because the public organizations are not just offering rote learning, but at least aiming for the development of critical thinking skills, originality, communications skills, networking, and above all the generation of new knowledge and innovation which is partly cross-subsidized by funds coming in for teaching (whether that should be the case is another matter). In other words, commercial online providers go for the low-hanging fruit, and leave the public sector to pick up the rest. As in the stock market, the commercial providers want to take the profits, and leave the losses to the taxpayer.

California is going to be one of the major focal points for these issues to be played out. It is one of the biggest public post-secondary systems in the USA, and it will be a marker for the rest of the country in this struggle, which reflects perhaps the most important ideological issues in education for many years.  However, public thinking, especially in the USA, is often grossly over-simplified into two opposing positions. Unfortunately – or fortunately, I’m not sure which – online learning is caught right in the middle. Online learning in fact can be a weapon used by either side. We should be looking for a third road, where online learning helps public institutions to become more cost-effective, through fundamental changes that at the same time strengthen the good parts of the public system: equitable access, quality teaching, new knowledge production, and intellectual freedom.

The money pours in to fund online learning start-ups – while the public system starves

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Banning, Doresa (2102) Online education start-up Udacity Raises $15 million in funding, CityTownInfo.com, October 26

According to the National Venture Capital Association, a staggering $463 million has already been invested this year by venture capitalists into educational technology companies in the USA.

This year some of the online start-ups that have received venture capital funding are:

  • Udacity: $15 million this week; total: $21 million
  • Coursera: $16 million in April
  • 2U (formerly 2tor): $26 million in April
  • Codeacademy: $10 million in June.
  • Desire2Learn: $80 million in September (not a start-up, of course, but still a significant online education company. For more information on the investment click here)

At the same time, the California two year college system has undergone nearly $1 billion of cuts since 2008, resulting in a waiting list of 470,000 students who cannot get into classes.

The California State University system meanwhile is outsourcing most of the services for CalState Online to Pearson.

In the forthcoming November elections in California, in order for the governor to increase some state taxes, proposition 30 attempts to get round the infamous proposition 13 in 1978 that outlawed any property tax increases for ever in California, resulting in the state going into effective bankruptcy last year.


Clearly the USA is in the process of undermining their public state system of education (at all levels) and in effect privatizing education. Frankly, what American’s do in their own bedrooms is none of my business.

My concern though is that in the urge to get  a return on their investment, these privatized, American online companies will start to gnaw away at the funding behind public education systems in countries outside the United States. And as an aside, where the hell are the Canadian venture capitalists? (Still waiting for the Northern Gateway Pipeline, no doubt – so last century).

It is clearly the goal of the xMOOC companies such as Coursera and Udacity to go global with their offerings. This will be necessary to get a return on the capital invested. But where will these revenues come from? In the USA, it is clearly being diverted from the public education system. Will the same begin to happen in Canada or Europe or Africa as U.S. MOOCs spread?

The least we should know are the business models for getting their money back. Whose money will it be?

Spanish version of ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education’ now available

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 Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2012) La gestión de la tecnología en la educación superior Barcelona ESP: Octaedro:ICE-UB

The Spanish version of ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning‘, is now available from Ediciones Octaedro.

Better than a MOOC? Free online vocational training

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Bornstein, D. (2012) Open education for a global economy New York Times, July 11

I wrote earlier about ALISON, the world’s largest supplier of free online learning. This article provides a much fuller description of the work of ALISON.

I can’t help compare this free service in online vocational training that has been going on quietly and unobtrusively for several years with all the hoopla around the Stanford and MIT MOOCs.

ALISON has developed a sustainable business model that allows it to provide free, high quality, well-designed courses with high rates of completion leading to recognized qualifications in areas where there is a shortage of qualified, skilled labour. It has over a million students all round the world, including in some of the poorest countries (there are currently 200 million unemployed people globally). This is really what open educational resources should be about.

However, it’s not an elite American institution, and lacks the hubris of claiming to disrupt the existing educational systems around the world, while meeting a clearly identified need. Good for ALISON.