February 7, 2016

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first fully online course

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Dr. Linda Harasim: professor of communications at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby BC, Canada

Dr. Linda Harasim: professor of communications at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby BC, Canada

The first fully online course?

I was talking to Linda Harasim earlier this week (we both live and work in the Vancouver area). Linda is a professor of communications at Simon Fraser University and an expert in online teaching (Harasim, 2012). She casually dropped the following into our conversation:

“Did you know that this is the 30th anniversary of the very first fully online course?”

I was taken aback by this, as I had seen nothing in the blogosphere about this, and asked Linda to elucidate. Here is her response, in her own words.

Linda’s story

The first totally online credit course delivered entirely via the Internet was taught in January, 1986 at the University of Toronto, through the Graduate School of Education (then called OISE: the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education). Thus January, 2016 marks the 30th anniversary.

The topic was “Women and Computers in Education”, dealing with gender issues and educational computing. This is a wonderful and noteworthy issue on its own, because the course dealt with the gender bias and lack of interest by girl students and women teachers in educational computing…yet, by its very design and implementation, it became a very notable first…the first fully online Internet course ever.

I had obtained funding in 1983 to investigate the potential of computer networks for teachers in Ontario (the “in Ontario” part was required because it was Ontario Ministry of Education dollars). This funding, albeit small dollars, enabled me to research the “field”. I identified and visited Canadian university professors who ran associated computer conferencing forums. I visited professors working with the CoSy (COmputer conferencing ­SYstem) developed at the University of Guelph and University of Alberta educators who were working with the PLATO system and associated with the MTS (Michigan Terminal System) conferencing system called *Forum.

My visits were disillusioning. The notion of using an online conferencing or forum system in which students collaborated to learn—especially through a computer network— was to faculty at the time, foreign and weird. Computer networking, as they assured me, was the art and science of connecting a computer to a printer – not discourse!

The course we launched in January 1986 was designed and taught by me and co-taught with Dr. Dorothy Smith (Harasim & Smith, 1986; 1993), with moral support and encouragement from Lynn Davie. In this course we developed an online collaborative learning pedagogy that over the years has become widely adopted and adapted in online post-secondary courses as well as professional development.

The key was to reformulate a variety of group learning approaches from the face-to-face classroom, ranging from learning dyads, to small project groups, seminars, to large group and plenary discussions.  Online group discussions and seminars have become part of many if not most online university courses since that time.

Interest in the course was very high….by word of mouth, and from 1986 I taught it most semesters and there was always a waiting list to register for the course until I left OISE in 1989. The courses attracted students from across Canada.

As a result I was hauled into the Registrar’s office. She demanded to know why students from other provinces were seeking to register for my courses. She was annoyed, not pleased, as she reminded me that ‘This institution is the ONTARIO Institute for Studies in Education’.

There are many memories and noteworthy issues to recall:

  • most of the students were accessing by 150 baud or 300 baud modems, which is slower than we can type;
  • there were tremendous difficulties in geographical access…and absolutely no information on how to access the university network which was in those days BITnet (Because Its Time network). Students were amazingly brilliant in figuring out the dumb network access procedures. Access was command driven. (Will anyone today even understand the immense challenges and the procedures required and the many attempts needed to get online and then to stay online in the 1980s?)
  • Bell Ontario contacted me to ask why so many people in the province were trying to get on the network. Who was I and what was I doing? This came as a shock to me, because it was almost impossible in those days to actually reach anyone inside Bell Canada (a black box) and the fact that they reached out to me demonstrated their level of frustration and confusion as to why anyone at all should want to log on to a computer network. It was through that totally unexpected phone call that I was able to confirm their obtuse hieroglyphics for public access to BITnet: the use of 2 dots or 3 dots (<..> or <…>) depending on where in the province you were connecting from.
  • The first course combined 20 for-credit OISE graduate students and 20 not-for-credit teachers who were engaging for professional development.  The reason for the non-credit participants was because I had obtained funding from the Federation of Women Teachers of Ontario, as part of an investigation of the potential of computer networking for education. Part of this funding was used to purchase the Participate online conferencing system to be used on our course.
  • The course was an amazing, amazing success, which I had always thought would happen because of my vision of online education and my belief in the potential of computer networks to enable online collaborative learning. I had this undefined vision that continues until today. I thought through the design. What does collaboration mean with a group of people scattered across time and place? How does one design and implement it? I sought and obtained external funding for the technology. I designed and taught the course, although most of the OISE administrators were not at all clear on what this meant.  Who was?
  • I taught a blended approach in 1985, then went totally online in January 1986. However, the two weeks over the Christmas break prior to the launch of this first course was the first and greatest experience of doubt that I’ve ever had. I began to worry about all sorts of ‘what ifs’, and spent the holidays coming up with Plan B, Plan C and all sorts of other plans to deal with the possibility that no one would log on or participate. In fact, the very opposite occurred. There was a deluge of participation and the major problem was how to deal with the very clear need being expressed by teachers and graduate students for communication, community and collaboration in their teaching and learning.

Since the 1980s, I have been continuously teaching online university courses to the present day: graduate and undergraduate courses, totally online, and also blended (mixed mode) courses, as well as conducting professional development and teacher training in the field of online education.

Besides being the 30th anniversary of the very first totally online credit course in the world, January 2016 also the 30th anniversary of online collaborative learning pedagogy, and of pedagogical research in online education.  Moreover, the 30 years of teaching online and research online education resulted in the articulation of the theory of Online Collaborative Learning (2012).

However, some of the key pedagogical and institutional issues remain unresolved or overlooked and in my view, these seriously need attention if the field is to meet its promised potential.


It’s always dangerous to claim to be the first in anything. Some wiseacre will always come up with something even earlier. Linda is very aware of this, and would really welcome feedback from others on early pioneering efforts that in those days were not easily connected to one another. The pioneers were often working in isolation.

Nevertheless, Linda’s launch of her course in 1986 was embedded in a wider context. Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff at New Jersey Institute of Technology had run blended courses since the early 1970s, and Marlene Scardemalia and Carl Bereiter, also at OISE, developed CSILE (Computer Supported Intentional Learning Systems) around 1986, primarily to research knowledge construction in computer-supported k-12 classroom teaching. The University of Guelph had developed CoSy, an online conferencing system but were not using it for teaching fully online courses in 1986. PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations), developed at the University of Illinois, was the first generalized computer assisted instruction system, developed as early as 1960, but even by the 1980s it ran on a private network and required expensive, specialist terminals and there was little or no direct online interaction with a professor, a tutor, or peers.

So Linda deserves, in my view, the credit for the first Internet based, fully online course. It took nearly another ten years before the first web-based online courses appeared in 1995 (again, Canada was in the lead, with the University of British Columbia offering web-based online courses, with one of its instructors, Murray Goldberg, developing the first learning management system, WebCT, which was later bought by Blackboard  Inc.). It was another 22 years after Linda’s first online course offering before MOOCs came along (again pioneered in Canada by George Siemens, Dave Cormier and Stephen Downes at the University of Manitoba). Furthermore, Linda’s first online course wasn’t a flash in the pan. Linda has been pioneering, teaching, researching and theorizing about online learning for the last 30 years (she must have been very young back in 1986!).

Of course, proving a negative (no such courses before 1986) is very difficult, so if there are other claims, let’s hear them. In the meantime, I’m opening a bottle of (Canadian) bubbly to celebrate with Linda. Can’t find a 1986 vintage though.

Stellar's Jay 2


Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Harasim, L. and Smith, D.E. (1986). Final Report on the Ontario Women Educators’ Computer Research Network. Toronto, ON: Federation of Women Teachers’ Association of Ontario (100pp).

Harasim, L., and Smith, D.E. (1994). ‘Making Connections, Thinking Change Together: Women teachers and computer networks’ in: Bourne, P. (ed.) ‘Feminism and Education: A Canadian Perspective’: Toronto ON: CWSE, OISE

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads

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Image: Applift

Image: AppLift, 2015

You are probably, like me, getting tired of the different predictions for 2016. So I’m not going to do my usual look forward for the year for individual developments in online learning. Instead, I want to raise a fundamental question about which direction online learning should be heading in the future, because the next year could turn out to be very significant in determining the future of online learning.

The key question we face is whether online learning should aim to replace teachers and instructors through automation, or whether technology should be used to empower not only teachers but also learners. Of course, the answer will always be a mix of both, but getting the balance right is critical.

An old but increasingly important question

This question, automation or human empowerment, is not new. It was raised by B.F. Skinner (1968) when he developed teaching machines in the early 1960s. He thought teaching machines would eventually replace teachers. On the other hand, Seymour Papert (1980) wanted computing to empower learners, not to teach them directly. In the early 1980s Papert got children to write computer code to improve the way they think and to solve problems. Papert was strongly influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, and in particular that children constructed rather than absorbed knowledge.

In the 1980s, as personal computers became more common, computer-assisted learning (CAL or CAD) became popular, using computer-marked tests and early forms of adaptive learning. Also in the 1980s the first developments in artificial intelligence were applied, in the form of intelligent math tutoring. Great predictions were made then, as now, about the potential of AI to replace teachers.

Then along came the Internet. Following my first introduction to the Internet in a friend’s basement in Vancouver, I published an article in the first edition of the Journal of Distance Education, entitled ‘Computer-assisted learning or communications: which way for IT in distance education?’ (1986). In this paper I argued that the real value of the Internet and computing was to enable asynchronous interaction and communication between teacher and learners, and between learners themselves, rather than as teaching machines. This push towards a more constructivist approach to the use of computing in education was encapsulated in Mason and Kaye’s book, Mindweave (1989). Linda Harasim has since argued that online collaborative learning is an important theory of learning in its own right (Harasim, 2012).

In the 1990s, David Noble of York University attacked online learning in particular for turning universities into ‘Digital Diploma Mills’:

‘universities are not only undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education.’

Noble (1998) argued that

‘high technology, at these universities, is often used not to ……improve teaching and research, but to replace the visions and voices of less-prestigious faculty with the second-hand and reified product of academic “superstars”.

However, contrary to Noble’s warnings, for fifteen years most university online courses followed more the route of interaction and communication between teachers and students than computer-assisted learning or video lectures, and Noble’s arguments were easily dismissed or forgotten.

Then along came lecture capture and with it, in 2011, Massive Open Online Courses (xMOOCs) from Coursera, Udacity and edX, driven by elite, highly selective universities, with their claims of making the best professors in the world available to everyone for free. Noble’s nightmare suddenly became very real. At the same time, these MOOCs have resulted in much more interest in big data, learning analytics, a revival of adaptive learning, and claims that artificial intelligence will revolutionize education, since automation is essential for managing such massive courses.

Thus we are now seeing a big swing back to the automation of learning, driven by powerful computing developments, Silicon Valley start-up thinking, and a sustained political push from those that want to commercialize education (more on this later). Underlying these developments is a fundamental conflict of philosophies and pedagogies, with automation being driven by an objectivist/behaviourist view of the world, compared with the constructivist approaches of online collaborative learning.

In other words, there are increasingly stark choices to be made about the future of online learning. Indeed, it is almost too late – I fear the forces of automation are winning – which is why 2016 will be such a pivotal year in this debate.

Automation and the commercialization of education

These developments in technology are being accompanied by a big push in the United States, China, India and other countries towards the commercialization of online learning. In other words, education is being seen increasingly as a commodity that can be bought and sold. This is not through the previous and largely discredited digital diploma mills of the for-profit online universities such as the University of Phoenix that David Noble feared, but rather through the encouragement and support of commercial computer companies moving into the education field, companies such as Coursera, Lynda.com and Udacity.

Audrey Watters and EdSurge both produced lists of EdTech ‘deals’ in 2015 totalling between $1-$2 billion. Yes, that’s right, that’s $1-$2 billion in investment in private ed tech companies in the USA (and China) in one year alone. At the same time, entrepreneurs are struggling to develop sustainable business models for ed tech investment, because with education funded publicly, a ‘true’ market is restricted. Politicians, entrepreneurs and policy makers on the right in the USA increasingly see a move to automation as a way of reducing government expenditure on education, and one means by which to ‘free up the market’.

Another development that threatens the public education model is the move by very rich entrepreneurs such as the Gates, the Hewletts and the Zuckerbergs to move their massive personal wealth into ‘charitable’ foundations or corporations and use this money for their pet ‘educational’ initiatives that also have indirect benefits for their businesses. Ian McGugan (2015) in the Globe and Mail newspaper estimates that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is worth potentially $45 billion, and one of its purposes is to promote the personalization of learning (another name hi-jacked by computer scientists; it’s a more human way of describing adaptive learning). Since one way Facebook makes its money is by selling personal data, forgive my suspicions that the Zuckerberg initiative is a not-so-obvious way of collecting data on future high earners. At the same time, the Chang Zuckerberg initiative enables the Zuckerberg’s to avoid paying tax on their profits from Facebook. Instead then of paying taxes that could be used to support public education, these immensely rich foundations enable a few entrepreneurs to set the agenda for how computing will be used in education.

Why not?

Technology is disrupting nearly every other business and profession, so why not education? Higher education in particular requires a huge amount of money, mostly raised through taxes and tuition fees, and it is difficult to tie results directly to investment. Surely we should be looking at ways in which technology can change higher education so that it is more accessible, more affordable and more effective in developing the knowledge and skills required in today’s and tomorrow’s society?

Absolutely. It is not so much the need for change that I am challenging, but the means by which this change is being promoted. In essence, a move to automated learning, while saving costs, will not improve the learning that matters, and particularly the outcomes needed in a digital age, namely, the high level intellectual skills of critical thinking, innovation, entrepreneurship, problem-solving , high-level multimedia communication, and above all, effective knowledge management.

To understand why automated approaches to learning are inappropriate to the needs of the 21st century we need to look particularly at the tools and methods being proposed.

The problems with automating learning

The main challenge for computer-directed learning such as information transmission and management through Internet-distributed video lectures, computer-marked assessments, adaptive learning, learning analytics, and artificial intelligence is that they are based on a model of learning that has limited applications. Behaviourism works well in assisting rote memory and basic levels of comprehension, but does not enable or facilitate deep learning, critical thinking and the other skills that are essential for learners in a digital age.

R. and D. Susskind (2015) in particular argue that there is a new age in artificial intelligence and adaptive learning driven primarily by what they call the brute force of more powerful computing. Why AI failed so dramatically in the 1980s, they argue, was because computer scientists tried to mimic the way that humans think, and computers then did not have the capacity to handle information in the way they do now. When however we use the power of today’s computing, it can solve previously intractable problems through analysis of massive amounts of data in ways that humans had not considered.

There are several problems with this argument. The first is that the Susskinds are correct in that computers operate differently from humans. Computers are mechanical and work basically on a binary operating system. Humans are biological and operate in a far more sophisticated way, capable of language creation as well as language interpretation, and use intuition as well as deductive thinking. Emotion as well as memory drives human behaviour, including learning. Furthermore humans are social animals, and depend heavily on social contact with other humans for learning. In essence humans learn differently from the way machine automation operates.

Unfortunately, computer scientists frequently ignore or are unaware of the research into human learning. In particular they are unaware that learning is largely developmental and constructed, and instead impose an old and less appropriate method of teaching based on behaviourism and an objectivist epistemology. If though we want to develop the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, we need a more constructivist approach to learning.

Supporters of automation also make another mistake in over-estimating or misunderstanding how AI and learning analytics operate in education. These tools reflect a highly objectivist approach to teaching, where procedures can be analysed and systematised in advance. However, although we know a great deal about learning in general, we still know very little about how thinking and decision-making operate biologically in individual cases. At the same time, although brain research is promising to unlock some of these secrets, most brain scientists argue that while we are beginning to understand the relationship between brain activity and very specific forms of behaviour, there is a huge distance to travel before we can explain how these mechanisms affect learning in general or how an individual learns in particular. There are too many variables (such as emotion, memory, perception, communication, as well as neural activity) at play to find an isomorphic fit between the firing of neurons and computer ‘intelligence’.

The danger then with automation is that we drive humans to learn in ways that best suit how machines operate, and thus deny humans the potential of developing the higher levels of thinking that make humans different from machines. For instance, humans are better than machines at dealing with volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous situations, which is where we find ourselves in today’s society.

Lastly, both AI and adaptive learning depend on algorithms that predict or direct human behaviour. These algorithms though are not transparent to the end users. To give an example, learning analytics are being used to identify students at high risk of failure, based on correlations of previous behaviour online by previous students. However, for an individual, should a software program be making the decision as to whether that person is suitable for higher education or a particular course? If so, should that person know the grounds on which they are considered unsuitable and be able to challenge the algorithm or at least the principles on which that algorithm is based? Who makes the decision about these algorithms – a computer scientist using correlated data, or an educator concerned with equitable access? The more we try to automate learning, the greater the danger of unintended consequences, and the more need for educators rather than computer scientists to control the decision-making.

The way forward

In the past, I used to think of computer scientists as colleagues and friends in designing and delivering online learning. I am now increasingly seeing at least some of them as the enemy. This is largely to do with the hubris of Silicon Valley, which believes that computer scientists can solve any problem without knowing anything about the problem itself. MOOCs based on recorded lectures are a perfect example of this, being developed primarily by a few computer scientists from Stanford (and unfortunately blindly copied by many people in universities who should have known better.)

We need to start with the problem, which is how do we prepare learners for the knowledge and skills they will need in today’s society. I have argued (Bates, 2015) that we need to develop, in very large numbers of people, high level intellectual and practical skills that require the construction and development of knowledge, and that enable learners to find, analyse, evaluate and apply knowledge appropriately.

This requires a constructivist approach to learning which cannot be appropriately automated, as it depends on high quality interaction between knowledge experts and learners. There are many ways to accomplish this, and technology can play a leading role, by enabling easy access to knowledge, providing opportunities for practice in experientially-based learning environments, linking communities of scholars and learners together, providing open access to unlimited learning resources, and above all by enabling students to use technology to access, organise and demonstrate their knowledge appropriately.

These activities and approaches do not easily lend themselves to massive economies of scale through automation, although they do enable more effective outcomes and possibly some smaller economies of scale. Automation can be helpful in developing some of the foundations of learning, such as basic comprehension or language acquisition. But at the heart of developing the knowledge and skills needed in today’s society, the role of a human teacher, instructor or guide will remain absolutely essential. Certainly, the roles of teachers and instructors will need to change quite dramatically, teacher training and faculty development will be critical for success, and we need to use technology to enable students to take more responsibility for their own learning, but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that automation is the solution to learning in the 21st century.

Protecting the future

There are several practical steps that need to be taken to prevent the automation of teaching.

  1. Educators – and in particular university presidents and senior civil servants with responsibility for education – need to speak out clearly about the dangers of automation, and the technology alternatives available that still exploit its potential and will lead to greater cost-effectiveness. This is not an argument against the use of technology in education, but the need to use it wisely so we get the kind of educated population we need in the 21st century.
  2. Computer scientists need to show more respect to educators and be less arrogant. This means working collaboratively with educators, and treating them as equals.
  3. We – teachers and educational technologists – need to apply in our own work and disseminate better to those outside education what we already know about effective learning and teaching.
  4. Faculty and teachers need to develop compelling technology alternatives to automation that focus on the skills and knowledge needed in a digital age, such as:
    • experiential learning through virtual reality (e.g. Loyalist College’s training of border service agents)
    • networking learners online with working professionals, to solve real world problems (e.g. by developing a program similar to McMaster’s integrated science program for online/blended delivery)
    • building strong communities of practice through connectivist MOOCs (e.g. on climate change or mental health) to solve global problems
    • empowering students to use social media to research and demonstrate their knowledge through multimedia e-portfolios (e.g. UBC’s ETEC 522)
    • designing openly accessible high quality, student-activated simulations and games but designed and monitored by experts in the subject area.
  5. Governments need to put as much money into research into learning and educational technology as they do into innovation in industry. Without better and more defensible theories of learning suitable for a digital age, we are open to any quack or opportunist who believes he or she has the best snake oil. More importantly, with better theory and knowledge of learning disseminated and applied appropriately, we can have a much more competitive workforce and a more just society.
  6. We need to educate our politicians about the dangers of commercialization in education through the automation of learning and fight for a more equal society where the financial returns on technology applications are more equally shared.
  7. Become edupunks and take back the web from powerful commercial interests by using open source, low cost, easy to use tools in education that protect our privacy and enable learners and teachers to control how they are used.

That should keep you busy in 2016.

Your views are of course welcome – unless you are a bot.


Bates, A. (1986) Computer assisted learning or communications: which way for information technology in distance education? Journal of Distance Education Vol. 1, No. 1

Bates, A. (2015) Teaching in a Digital Age Victoria BC: BCcampus

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Mason, R. and Kaye, A (Eds).(1989)  Mindweave: communication, computers and distance education. Oxford: Pergamon

McGugan, I. (2015)Why the Zuckerberg donation is not a bundle of joy, Globe and Mail, December 2

Noble, D. (1998) Digital Diploma Mills, Monthly Review http://monthlyreview.org/product/digital_diploma_mills/

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas New York: Basic Books

Skinner, B. (1968)  The Technology of Teaching, 1968 New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

Susskind, R. and Susskind, D. (2015) The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Change the Work of Human Experts Oxford UK: Oxford University Press

Watters, A. (2015) The Business of EdTech, Hack Edu, undated http://2015trends.hackeducation.com/business.html

Winters, M. (2015) Christmas Bonus! US Edtech Sets Record With $1.85 Billion Raised in 2015 EdSurge, December 21 https://www.edsurge.com/news/2015-12-21-christmas-bonus-us-edtech-sets-record-with-1-85-billion-raised-in-2015

A Happy Online Learning New Year for 2016

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Image: © Ghostlygoingons.com

Image: © Ghostlygoingons.com

I wish all the readers of this blog a wonderful New Year. May your online courses be innovative, fun and highly effective in developing the knowledge and skills that will be needed in a digital age.

Here’s what’s coming up for this blog over the next week or so:

  1. In the USA, fully online enrollments continue to grow in 2014 (a report on the latest data from the IPEDS report)
  2. Book review: ‘The future of the professions: how technology will transform the work of human experts’ (including teachers) by Richard and Daniel Susskind.
  3. Information about the EDEN 2016 conference in Budapest
  4. One or more posts on ‘The future of online learning: automation or human empowerment?” which will be my contribution to looking forward to the future.
The U.S. presidential election will be in November

The U.S. presidential election will be in November

Outside the blog, I will be doing an official, public launch of my book, Teaching in a Digital Age, in Toronto in February, with the help of Contact North (more information to come). The French translation of the book should be ready by March, and the Chinese version before the end of the year. I’m still looking for someone to do a Spanish translation. There is already a version in Vietnamese.

I will also be giving a presentation on ‘Creating effective online learning environments’ at the Chang Talks conference at Ryerson University, Toronto, on February 17.

The Olymic and Para-Olympic games will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August/September 2016

The Olympic and Para-Olympic games will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in August/September 2016

Otherwise, I don’t really have any professional plans for 2016. I will continue to scour the news and literature for nuggets about online learning for my blog, which I plan to keep going.

What I am thinking of doing, though, is writing a semi-autobiographical novel, called ‘The Consultant’, which will aim to cover, in a light-hearted way, the hopes and disappointments of educational technology and international development, and the absurdities of university administration.

In thinking about writing this book, I was reminded about the couple who had been married for 75 years who decided to get divorced. A reporter asked:

‘Why after being married so long did you decide to get divorced?’

‘We wanted to wait until the grandchildren were dead, so we wouldn’t upset them.’

I may well have to wait for a few people to die first before I publish ‘The Consultant’!

Will England win its first major international championship since 1966 - I was there at Wembley when they won the World Cup

Will England win its first major international football/soccer championship since 1966? (I was there at Wembley when they won the World Cup.) They do have a chance this year.

And lastly, here are some more things to look forward to in 2016:

EDMEDIA 2016 2

EDEN 2016 2

That was the year that was: what you read on my blog in 2015

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Working in my study

Blogging away

I find it a fun exercise to analyse the statistics for my blog at the end of the year, to see what were the most popular posts, as it gives some idea of the topics which have grabbed readers over the year. First let’s look at the figures for 2015 as a whole.

Overall visits

Blog views per month 2015 2

The total number of visits this year was way up from previous years. In 2013 the blog struggled to reach 20,000 visits a month most months. In 2014 the blog was averaging about 25,000 visits a month. In 2015 it was above 30,000 visits for nine of the twelve months and reached almost 40,000 visits in November, or an average of over 1,000 visits a day every day of the year.

It will be seen that the main reason for this large increase of visits in 2015 is indirectly related to the publication of Teaching in a Digital Age. I used my blog to ‘trial’ chapters and sections of the book, and it appears some of these blog posts are now being used as set readings on courses, or at least are being sought out by students studying, with students returning continually to these posts. I have no direct proof of this and if anyone using the blog can provide me with information on why they are using some of the blog posts on a regular basis, it will be appreciated.

Breakdown by sectors

Top posts in 2015

Top posts in 2015

To understand the picture better we need to break this down into categories.

Category 1: Students seeking advice about online courses/programs

I have several posts that attract mainly students or potential students (rather than faculty or instructors), looking for advice on online or distance learning courses or programs. These would include:

  • 1. The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? 31,886 visits in 2015No, interestingly, this isn’t about Coursera or Udacity, but Alison. Many students want to know about the status of the certificates as well as the courses offered by Alison, and the post has a regular and ongoing number of comments from people thinking about or who have taken Alison programs. The original post goes back to April, 2012 and has been one of the top posts every year since. However, the numbers this year almost tripled from 2014 (12,606).
  • 3. Recommended graduate programs in e-learning. 20,180 visits in 2015. Now number 3, this has been the perennial number 1 until this year, despite the number of hits increasing from 16,715 in 2014. This was one of my first posts, going back to July 2008. Although I revise it regularly, it is probably a little out of date as there have been many new programs in this area developed in the last two or three years and I list only those I am familiar with.
  • 7. Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (posted 5 July, 2009). 6,388 visits in 2015. A great favourite of mine, especially since the answer has gradually changed over the six years since it was first posted (see my post on Trends in 2015), and again indicating the need for student guidance on choice of programs.
  • 8. A student guide to studying online. 5,974 visits in 2015. This jumped up from 15th position last year, with 2,321 hits, to 8th this year.

Although the blog is focused on faculty and instructors, it is clear from this data that there is high demand from students or potential students for independent, objective information about online courses and programs (also noted last year). The main value of the Alison post is the comments provided by actual users of the program.

I have hesitated to recommend online courses or programs in general, as I have no way of directly evaluating the vast majority, and there are so many of them now. However, it should be possible to create an independent, sponsor-free social media-based site where students can share information about different types of online courses and programs. I am sure such a web site would be very popular, but I’m leaving that to someone else to do (if it’s not already been done).

Category 2: Sections from ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’

Graphic used for a short history of educational technology: Charlton Heston as Moses

Graphic used for a short history of educational technology: Charlton Heston as Moses

The big difference this year is that many of my posts were ‘first drafts’ of sections or chapters of my book (many published though in 2014 as well as 2015). These have proved extremely popular with readers in 2015, accounting for nine of the top 27 posts for 2015:

  • 2. A short history of educational technology (posted 10 December, 2014): 25,156 visits in 2015. It’s the second most popular post, and has always been among the top daily posts during 2015. This came as a complete surprise to me. I have no explanation why this is by far and away the most popular of the ‘book’ blog posts (three times more popular than the next book blog post). I’m assuming it’s a key reading for several courses, but why is it in constant demand almost every day? Am I being followed by a Charlton Heston fan club?
  • 5. Learning theories and online learning (posted 14 July, 2014): 8,528 visits in 2015. This one is less surprising. This is a core or foundational topic for any program of study on online learning.
  • 6. The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age (posted 15 September, 2014) 6,822 visits in 2015. This reflects the strong interest (and possibly lack of other independent/’neutral’ accounts) in competency-based learning in 2015. I’m a little surprised though that it scored higher than the sections on ADDIE or MOOCs in my book.
  • 9. The role of communities of practice in a digital age (posted 1 October 2014). 5,300 visits in 2015. Same kind of comments as for competency-based learning.
  • 10. Deciding on appropriate media for teaching and learning (posted 28 January 2015). 4,932 visits in 2015. This one is gratifying as it covers the SECTIONS model and unlike the book drafts on different teaching methods, this post reflects my own, original work.
  • 12. Is the ADDIE model appropriate for teaching in a digital age? (posted 9 September 2014). 4,724 visits in 2015. I thought this might be more popular, seeing how central it has been to online course design in the past. However, there are plenty of other sources to go to about ADDIE.
  • 13. Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice (posted 13 October 2014). 4,645 visits in 2015. This was a chapter I didn’t want to write but had to. Glad I did now.
  • 20. What is a MOOC? (posted 12 October, 2014) 2,930 visits in 2015. Now we are getting quite a way down the list.
  • 22. Key characteristics of learners in a digital age….(posted 24 August, 2014) 2,819 visits in 2015. 

In the past, when I posted a new post, there was a flurry of visits in the first week or so, followed by a relatively small number of visits (less than 10 a day) in subsequent weeks. For the book posts though, the ‘tail’ is much thicker, with the above posts regularly getting between 30-50 visits each a day, and the order in terms of the number of visits doesn’t change a great deal from day to day.

Category 3: Single posts that won’t die

What's right and what's wrong with Coursera-style MOOCs: still popular

What’s right and what’s wrong with Coursera-style MOOCs: still popular

These are posts or topics that seem to have a life of their own. They are not tied in any direct way to the book.

Category 4: New in 2015

You will have noticed that almost all the above posts were posted before 2015. So what was new in 2015? In all I posted 114 posts in 2015, down considerably from previous years. Roughly a third of these posts were ‘drafts’ from the book. Here’s what did make it into the top 25 posts:

In 2014, five posts published in 2014 made the top 25.


What do I draw from this analysis?

  • first, this is a good example why data on its own isn’t very helpful. You need to know the reasons or the logic that drives the data. What do visits actually mean? One manic person visiting the same post thousands of times? Or thousands quickly glancing at something and finding no interest?
  • there seem though to be some drivers to individual posts:
    • search engines picking up on key words or phrases in the title of the post (e.g. competency-based learning)
    • blog posts that are now required or recommended readings for courses
    • students looking for some guides or hints about online courses and programs or about online learning in general
    • faculty or instructors looking for resources
    • topical or current news items.
  • the book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, has both benefited from and driven people back to the blog. This is somewhat surprising, since the posts were often first drafts and the authoritative version is in the book, which is available from a totally different web site. Perhaps the blog though is more generally accessible or known. Again, comments from readers of the blog or the book on this issue would be welcome.

Blogging a lot less this year but doubling the number of visits does seem though to go against the first law of blogging, which is to blog every day if possible to drive traffic to your site. However, I suppose that once you have two thousand posts that have value to at least someone, the blog has its own life force. Nevertheless I will continue to add new posts during 2016.

What is clear to me is that the site now has developed a life of its own, as a set of resources on online learning that people keep coming back to. This is immensely rewarding, as this was always the intention.

In the meantime, have a great holiday and don’t spend too much time on screen!

© Return Path Blog, 2012

© Return Path Blog, 2012

That was the year that was: what I did in 2015

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Image: Daily Telegraph, from the film "What we Did on our Holiday"

Image: Daily Telegraph, from the film “What we Did on our Holiday”

No, I didn’t die and get a Viking funeral at sea from my grandchildren, as did Billy Connelly in the wonderfully funny movie “What we Did on our Holiday” (but my grandkids are working on it.) Instead, this is more of a housekeeping item but hey, I do have a blog, so why not share it? Here’s a summary of my professional activities in 2015.

Book: ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’

The highlight of the year for me was the publication of my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, in April. Since publication it has been downloaded just over 14,000 times (mainly as pdfs). At the moment the whole book is being downloaded about 20 times a day. In addition the book web site receives about 160 visits each day.

The book has already been translated into Vietnamese (by the Ministry of Education in Vietnam) and is currently being translated into Chinese (by the Chinese Central Radio and Television University) and French (by Contact North) and I am currently negotiating for a Spanish translation.

The book is being used as a referred text in about ten graduate programs, as far as I know, and has been independently reviewed. In general it has been exceptionally well received and clearly meets a need for an up to date book on teaching and learning for faculty and instructors in higher education. I have been particularly gratified that it has succeeded in reaching a large number of mainline faculty and instructors, especially in the health, science and engineering areas.

The book is the main reason I haven’t been able to disengage more quickly from professional activities. During 2015, it resulted in a number of webinars and speaking engagements, which are listed below.

Keynotes and webinars

I gave a total of 12 ‘in presence’ keynotes/workshops and six online webinars, almost all dealing with issues raised in Teaching in a Digital Age, as follows:


  • Erasmus University, Rotterdam: University teaching in a digital age (plus a workshop on research and online learning for instructional designers in the Faculty of Medicine)
  • Royal Roads University, Victoria BC: Workshop: Thinking about theory in online learning
  • University Tre, Rome, Italy: Teaching in a Digital Age
  • ETUG (Educational Technology Users Group of BC), Burnaby BC: Reflections on writing an open textbook
  • OCULL (Ontario Council for University Lifelong Learning), Cambridge, Ontario: Continuous education: the impact of lifelong learning and technology
  • De Onderwijsdagen (Education Days), Rotterdam: The personalization of learning
  • CIINOVApp, Valle, Jalisco, Mexico: The future of online learning, plus two workshops: How to decide on what to do online and what to do face-to-face in a blended course and Choosing media
  • Conectàctica, Guadalajara, Mexico: Teaching in a Digital Age, plus a workshop on How to decide on what to do online and what to do face-to-face in a blended course

Copies of slides for any of these keynotes/workshops are available on request by sending an e-mail to: tony.bates@ubc.ca. Please give the title of the keynote/workshop you are requesting.


I also did six webinars on topics related to Teaching in a Digital Age:

The Contact North webinars, which were open to the public, attracted about 100 participants for each webinar from all across the world. To access recordings of the Contact North webinars, click on the titles above. There will be one more, on the impact of open education, on January 12, 2016.

Analysis of proposals for funding of online courses and modules

I was one of the assessors for the Council of Ontario Universities’ Shared Online Course Fund, which involved reviewing and evaluating proposals from a number of Ontario universities for development and/or redesign of online courses and/or modules. In all, I reviewed 25 proposals. This gave me a glimpse into how online learning is developing in Ontario universities, and overall it was a very encouraging picture.

Appointment at Ryerson University

Lastly, I have been honoured to be appointed Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto, for one year from January 1, 2015. This is a great honour for me, as Ryerson is one of the most innovative universities in teaching and learning in North America, especially in the field of online and distance learning. It is largely an honorary position, but does involve at least two visits a year to Ryerson to give presentations, as well as general advice and guidance to staff in the Chang School, as requested. I’m really looking forward to it.

So, not quite dead yet.