April 18, 2014

Time to retire from online learning?

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Working in my study

Working in my study

Forgive me for being personal in this post (well, it is a blog), but I also have a few important things to say professionally.

The context

I was 75 yesterday and as I’ve tried to do each birthday for the last 25 years, I spent the day skiing at Whistler. (A wonderful day: sunshine and still tons of snow, and a lot of terrain to cover). How to spend yesterday was an easy decision. The hard one is how to spend the rest of my life (yeah, welcome to the club).

In particular, I have decided to stop (nearly) all professional activities from now onwards. I want to go through the reasons for this, because the reasons are as much professional as personal. Also this change has implications for my blog in particular.

What I’m not going to do

In general, I’m not going to accept any invitations to do paid consultancy work nor to accept invitations to be a keynote speaker or a participant at conferences from now on. I will not be taking on any more thesis supervision or examinations, nor reviewing articles or books for publication, unless they are directly relevant to my own writing (see below). I say in general, because it’s stupid to be inflexible, but there will not be many exceptions.

Why stop now?

First, if 75 is good enough for judges in Canada to retire, it’s sure good enough for me, and after 45 years continuously working in online and distance education, I’ve certainly earned the right to stop. However, many people just don’t believe me (including my wife), because online learning and open and distance education are my passion and my life, and that’s not going to go away. As the day spent skiing illustrates, I’m really fortunate to be healthy and fit, so health is not the reason. But there are good reasons for me to stop now, and I want to share these with you.

The main reason for stopping now is that I want to stop when I am still at my best. I’ve been really on form over the last 12 months, as far as one can be objective about these things. But I have seen far too many great people who continued long after they should have stopped – and unfortunately it’s the later years that people often remember. Much of my expertise comes from having done things: teaching online, managing a department. But it’s over 10 years since I taught a full course, and a similar amount of time since I was responsible for a department. Given the pace of change, it is dangerous for a consultant to become adrift from the reality of teaching and management. It’s time to hang up my boots before I get really hurt (or more importantly, really hurt others).

Related to this is the difficulty in keeping up in this area of knowledge. It’s a full-time job just to keep abreast of new developments in online and distance learning, and this constant change is not going to go away. It’s tempting to say that it’s only the technology that changes; the important things – teaching and learning – don’t change much, but I don’t believe that to be true, either. Teaching in higher education is about to go through as major a revolution as one can imagine. This is not going to be easy; indeed it could get brutal.

Even the processes of learning, which used to be relatively stable, given how much is biological, are also undergoing change. Technology is not neutral; it does change the way we think and behave. Furthermore, I foresee major developments in the science of learning that will have major implications for teaching and learning – but it will also have major false directions and mistakes (be very careful with artificial intelligence in particular). So this is a field that needs full-time, professional application, and very hard work, and I just don’t have the energy any more to work at that level. To put it simply, this is not a profession where you can be half in and half out. Dabbling in online learning is very dangerous (politicians please note).

And then there’s MOOCs. I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker. This is a battle I no longer want to fight – but it needs fighting. But my reaction did make me wonder, am I just an old man resisting the future? And that has definitely left a mark.

Lastly, I am concerned that the computer scientists seem to be taking over online education. Ivy League MOOCs are being driven mainly by computer scientists, not educators. Politicians are looking to computer science to automate learning in order to save money. Computer scientists have much to offer, but they need more humility and a greater willingness to work with other professionals, such as psychologists and teachers, who understand better how learning operates. This is a battle that has always existed in educational technology, but it’s one I fear the educators are losing. The result could be disastrous, but that’s a theme for a whole set of blog posts.

So yes, time to go, and to leave the good fight to the next generation.

What I will continue to do

I will continue to write. In particular, I have already started writing an open textbook on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, and when that is done, I will write a semi-autobiographical novel (only the names will be changed to protect the innocent). I will also complete any existing professional commitments.

I will also continue this blog focused on online learning, but it will be more journalistic and less based on my immediate and recent experiences in online learning. So I hope it will continue to be of interest and value.

And yes, plenty of golf, and more time with family.

Last words

This post has ended up being a bit too personal. But it’s been an incredible, wonderful 45 years. Open and distance education are honourable fields of endeavour, aimed at widening access. Online learning is an exciting field, constantly under development, and has huge potential for both increasing the quality of teaching and the productivity of higher education. Above all, though, the journey has brought me many marvellous and true friends and colleagues. It has been an honour and a privilege to work with such great people. Thank you all.

Teaching assistants, adjunct faculty and online learning

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Lecture to hybridI am struggling these days with the issue of who should teach online courses, in terms of qualifications and status, and in particular, the issue of how to scale up credit-based online courses while maintaining or improving quality.

These questions are coming to the forefront because, through blended learning, practices that are common in face-to-face teaching come head to head with quite different practices in online learning.

What has made this an issue for me

Recently I’ve been involved in assessing proposals for funding for large-enrollment online credit courses. Most of the proposals have focused on using several/many teaching assistants working under a professor to provide the learning support. I’m also finding this model being increasingly used where institutions are moving to a hybrid model, combining both online and face-to-face components, especially where a former very large lecture-based course is being redesigned for hybrid learning. Even including the TAs, the instructor/student ratio is often 1:100 or higher for these large enrollment courses (in other words, the same ratio more or less as when the course was delivered solely through large lectures.) In the proposals, and in the reports I am receiving, there is usually no additional training for TAs about how to teach online, although in many – but by no means all – cases, they do get some kind of training in teaching face-to-face.

This is a problem for me, because I have always worked with a model for online courses where the instructor: student ratio has been under 40 for undergraduate courses, and under 30 for graduate courses. Scaling up has been handled by hiring on contract additional part-time adjunct or associate professors, either with a doctoral degree in the subject area, or with strongly related work experience. The adjuncts would be paid to take a short online briefing course on teaching online which sets out the expectations for online teaching. This was an affordable model because the additional student tuition fees would more than cover the cost of hiring additional contract instructors, once the course was developed.

However, this has been possible because most of the online courses I have been responsible for have been aimed mainly at higher level undergraduate students or graduate students. With both blended and online courses now being targeted at large first and second year classes, new models are being developed that I fear will not have the same level of quality as the ‘best practice’ online courses I have been working with.

Why this is not an easy issue for me

This is a particularly difficult issue for me to discuss for several reasons:

  • most of my experience is with fully online courses; when I have taught face-to-face, it’s usually been me on my own, and generally with relatively small groups of between 25 to 200 maximum
  • practices both for dealing with large face-to-face classes and with online classes vary considerably within each form of delivery, and from one institution to another, so making generalizations is fraught with danger
  • decisions about whether to use teaching assistants or part-time, contract instructors, are driven more by financial considerations than by best pedagogical practice, although institutions do their best to make it as effective educationally as possible once a model for TAs and/or adjuncts has been decided on
  • there are other factors at work besides money and pedagogy in the use of teaching assistants and adjunct faculty, such as the desire to provide financial support to international and graduate students, the idea of apprenticeship in teaching, and the supply and demand effects on the employment of doctoral graduates seeking a career in university teaching and research
  • there is no golden mean for instructor/student ratios in either blended or online learning. In the mainly quantitative/STEM subjects, much higher ratios are sustainable without the loss of quality, through the use of automated marking and feedback
  • MOOCs (rightly or wrongly) are giving the impression that it is possible to scale up even credit-based online learning at lower cost.

What follows then is tentative, and I’m ready to change my views especially on the evidence of others who have grappled with this issue.

My concern

My real concern is that the over-reliance on teaching assistants for online and blended courses will have three negative consequences for both students and online learning in general:

  • As with the large face-to-face classes, the pedagogy for online or blended courses will resort more to information transmission.
  • however, for the online or hybrid courses, student drop-out and dissatisfaction will increase because, especially in first and second year teaching, they will not get the learning support they need when studying online.  As a result, faculty and students will claim that online learning is inferior to classroom-based instruction
  • faculty will see online learning and blended learning being used by administrations to cut costs and over time to reduce the employment of tenured faculty, and will therefore try to block its implementation.

Why can’t TAs provide the support needed online if they can do this for face-to-face classes? First, I’m not sure they do provide adequate support for students in large first year classes, but I’m not in a position to judge. But in online courses in subject domains where discussion is important, where qualitative judgements and decisions have to be made by students and instructors, where knowledge needs to be developed and structured, in other words in any field where the learning requires more than the transmission and repetition of information, then students need to be able to interact with an instructor that has a deep understanding of the subject area. For this reason, I am more than happy to hire adjunct faculty to teach online, but not TAs in general (although there will always be exceptions). Furthermore this kind of teaching and learning (‘the learning that matters most’) is very difficult to do with a very large instructor/student ratio, although with good design and faculty training, we could possibly push numbers higher than 1/40.

One possible solution

I’m not sure there is an easy solution to this problem. Whether online or face-to-face, large numbers of students per instructor limits what is possible pedagogically.

Furthermore, in my view online learning works better for some kinds of students than others. Students in their first year of university or college are not the best target group. They are often young, have little experience of independent learning, lack confidence or discipline in their study habits, and indeed expect to be in a face-to-face teaching environment and want the social and cultural milieu that a campus provides. What we should be doing though in their first and second year is gradually introducing them to online components so that they slowly develop the discipline and skills required for successful online learning. This still doesn’t resolve the issue though of very large classes.

So here’s my suggestion for these large introductory courses of 1,000 students or more (this is not new – see the National Center for Academic Transformation‘s course redesign):

  • create a team to design, develop and deliver the course. The team will include a senior professor, several adjunct professors, and two or three TAs, plus an instructional designer and web/multimedia designer.
  • The senior professor acts as a teaching consultant, responsible for the overall design of the course, hiring and supervising the work of the adjuncts/TAs, and the assessment strategy/questions and rubrics. This though is done in consultation with the rest of the team.
  • Most content is provided online.
  • Students work in groups of 30, and each of the adjuncts is responsible for several student groups. Students do both individual and group work (e.g. projects, problem-solving),
  • Students participate in ongoing online discussion forums, under the moderation of an adjunct or TA
  • The senior professor meets for one hour a week three times face-to-face or synchronously with  a group of 30 students; this brings the professor in face-to-face contact with just over 1,000 students a semester; adjuncts where possible meet once a week with a group on campus or synchronously.
  • Adjuncts and TAs mark assignments, and the senior professor monitors/calibrates the marking between instructors
  • Now think of what could happen if this course was shared with other universities. Savings could be made on course development, but the delivery of the course would still need instructors at the other universities. So there would be some economies of scale from sharing, but not a very large saving, because the development cost is a small proportion of the overall cost. This does not mean that institutions shouldn’t co-operate and share resources, but this will not bring the large economies of scale that are often claimed for sharing online courses.

Whatever detailed design is done, these large courses should have a clear business model to work with, which basically provides an overall budget for the course, that includes the cost of tenure track and adjunct faculty and TAs, and takes account of the students numbers (more students, more budgeted money), but allowing the senior professor to build the team as best as possible within that budget.

The two elephants in the room

The above scenario works with the current system of allocating resources to different level of courses. But there are two factors that lead to the very large class sizes in first and second year that no-one really wants to talk about:

Elephant in room

  • the starvation of first and second year students of teaching resources; senior faculty concentrate more on upper level courses, and want to keep these class sizes smaller. As a consequence first and second year students suffer
  • teaching subsidizes research: too often tuition revenues get filtered off into supporting research activities. The most obvious case is that if teachers spent more time teaching and less doing research, there would be more faculty available for teaching. Teaching loads for experienced, tenured faculty are often quite light and as stated above, focused on small upper level classes.

Do a simple calculation: divide the total number of students by the number of tenure track instructors  in your institution, and that will give you an overall average instructor/student ratio for the university as a whole. So if you have 40,000 students and 2,000 full-time instructors , you have an overall instructor/student ratio of 1:20. However, then deduct 40% of their time for research, so that equals 1,200 full time equivalent, or a ratio of one instructor for 33.3 students. Then deduct another 20% of their time for administration and public service and that leaves 800 FTEs, or a ratio of one instructor for every 50 students. Even with this fairly generous allowance of 60% of their time for other activities, and WITHOUT adjuncts or TAs, in this large university there should be enough instructors to teach without having the absurdly large first and second year classes commonly found in such large universities. Add in adjuncts and TAs, and this ratio drops even further.

So don’t expect online learning to solve this problem on its own.

Your turn

I would particularly like to hear from the relatively rare instructors who have taught large classes both face-to-face and online. Do you share my concern about using TAs for distance or hybrid courses?

I’d also like to hear in general about experiences with TAs or adjunct/contract instructors as well on this topic.

Getting started in writing an open textbook

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Pressbook

PressBooks.com

What format?

This week saw further development in my odyssey to write my first open textbook. I met with the very helpful people at BCcampus who are managing British Columbia’s open textbook project, Mary Burgess and Clint Lalonde. I had a simple question:

‘How do I start?’

In particular, I wanted to know in what format I should start writing. Should I use Word, or WordPress, or html (and if so, what form of html), or something else? Obviously I don’t want to have to move writing that I’ve carefully formatted in one format into another, possibly – no, almost certainly – having to reformat everything again.

Clint answered my question with another question: ‘What format do you want to publish it in?’ Apparently, there are several formats for open publishing, including html, pdf and e-pub. To make matters more complicated, some of the devices that are used for e-books, such as Amazon’s Kindle, require their own unique, proprietal formats. ‘But I want to publish an ‘open’ textbook!’ I cried. ‘It should be available in any format and work on any device.’ What a naive fool I am.

Since I want the book to be able to be annotated or re-mixed, I need to have it in a flexible format such as html, but I also want readers to be able to read it like a book if they wish, which would mean pdf or e-pub.

PressBooks?

Fortunately Clint had a solution for me, not perfect but pretty good. If I use a derivation of WordPress called PressBooks, it will output in html, pdf or e-pub formats.

Now as an avid blogger I’m comfortable using WordPress, (which is easy-peasy to use) so that seemed a good solution, at least as a start. As well as writing, I can use the ‘Add Media’ function to drop in graphics, video or audio, as in WordPress (with the same limitations, as well).

What’s more, PressBooks is designed for book publishing, with a ‘layer’ that sets up the structure of the book, including spaces for ‘front matter’, such as a foreword and content list, separate areas to compose each chapter, and ‘back matter’. Even better, BCcampus is working to add new features to PressBooks (which of course is open source), such as a search engine (who needs an index if you can search the text directly?)

So off I went, typed PressBooks into Google search, clicked on the web site, and with a few clicks had registered my own open textbook within the PressBooks site, under the title ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’

Next steps

So now I’m ready to go. I’m still checking out features, such as whether it will work on mobile devices (looks like it will work on tablets), but so far, so good. I won’t start writing for a while, because I need to develop a proper book proposal (for myself at least), including an outline of content in the form of chapter headings and abstracts. This I will be sharing with you, as I need your input, but I can build the outline straight into PressBooks from the start.

At the same time I need to think about how to build in activities. I’m thinking at this stage of adding features mainly through url links from PressBooks to other features, or adding plug-ins to PressBooks as they become available from BCcampus and other developers. For instance, PressBooks doesn’t seem to have a feature yet that enables you to build conversations around the content, although it does have the usual comment feature.

There are of course many other possible ways to go. I will do another blog on open book publishers and the advantages/disadvantages of going through an open publishing company. But I was astounded at how easy it is to start with Pressbook. Watch this space to see if it continues that way – and thanks to Mary and Clint for great advice.

Advice or warnings welcomed

So if you have already used PressBooks or have decided to go another route, I’d love to hear from you – as would the many readers who have been encouraging me to do this.

My vision for an open textbook

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The False Mirror, Renée Magritte, 1898-1967

Based on ‘The False Mirror’, Renée Magritte, 1898-1967

As I announced in an earlier post, I’m planning to explore the idea of writing and publishing an open textbook, on the topic of teaching in a digital age. I set out the reasons why  in another earlier post.

Today I want to set out what my vision is for this open textbook. I want to do this now, before I start, as a sort of checklist or rubric against which to judge the final product. However, before I go any further, I want to point out that this is a personal vision for what I want to do. There are innumerable alternative visions one could quite legitimately have for an open textbook that would be quite different from mine. So here goes:

The vision

  • the book is about different approaches to teaching in a digital age, with practical guidance
  • the book is aimed mainly at faculty and instructors in colleges and universities, but designed in a way that will also appeal to many in the k-12 sector, and also to senior administrators
  • it will draw on a wide body of research and experience in the use of technology for teaching in post-secondary education and my own experiences in teaching online
  • I will try to get selected colleagues and experts in the field to participate/help, if they will accept my overall editing role
  • the drafts will be ‘tested’ openly before a final, formal peer review of the whole book
  • the first complete version of the book will be ready by December 2014
  • the book itself will be a model for open textbook publishing, incorporating many of the design principles of ‘good teaching’ – such as active and social learning, use of video and audio, crowd-sourcing, remixing and adaptation – within the open text format, as far as I can stretch it with existing technologies and services
  •  it will be preferably free, but certainly at as low a cost as possible to those who want to read it, and easily accessible in whole or in parts. The goal is zero or low cost within financial sustainability (i.e. all necessary costs are recovered in some way, except my time, which will be free – but tracked!)
  • the book will be dynamic, changing over time as the world around it changes; this means finding a way to keep the text going even after I have gone

I will treat it as an R&D project, where I track and evaluate obstacles, solutions, actual costs, partners/helpers/resources, resulting in a short guide of what to do and what not to do when writing an open textbook, all shared on an ongoing basis through this blog.

Your input/comments welcomed

How does this compare with your vision (or understanding) of an open text-book? What have I missed? Is there something in the vision I should drop right now!

Next

In about a couple of weeks, I’ll produce my first draft of a rough proposal for the content of the book, which will give readers of this blog more to chew on than ‘an airy-fairy, worse than Mary’ vision statement, as one of my British friends would say.

Why I decided to try open publishing

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 Open publishing word tag

In an earlier post, I announced that I was going to write a textbook for open publishing and track my progress through a series of blog posts. In this one I examine my initial thinking.

Deciding to go for open rather than commercial publishing was not an easy decision, and I am still open to changing my mind if I run into too many problems. But here are the pros and cons that influenced my decision.

The pros of commercial publishing

I have experience of being published before by two major international publishers. Here are some of the benefits (in order of importance to me):

  • professional editorial support. In general the publishers provided me with excellent editors to work with. They managed the whole process from book proposal through text writing to feedback to copy editing to external review to actual publishing. One publisher in particular was particularly good at this. I did three books with them, different editors each time, and the whole process was very professionally managed. In one case the editor suggested that whole sections of a book contributed by a co-author should be replaced (reinforcing my own view), which helped me out of the very difficult position of criticizing a colleague’s work. In another case I needed professionally developed graphics and the publisher handled this, including the cost, in a very satisfactory way. The copy editing was sometimes a challenge, as one of my publishers is American, and there were often conflicts over spelling and the use of certain expressions that are common in English English but not American English. Generally though these were not serious and compromises were usually found. A major part of the market in terms of size is the USA, so the writing has to take account of that. Particularly for a new author, this editorial support is extremely helpful and important;
  • quality feedback. Normally, the text goes out for review before publication to three independent reviewers. I have found this feedback tremendously helpful in the past. The publisher doesn’t give much in the way of incentives to reviewers (a small honorarium or several other books that they publish) but I’ve always found the external reviewers thorough, constructively critical and very helpful;
  • money. Although, writing for a niche market, I don’t have big sales, the books provide a steady income through royalties. I was getting 12% on my later books, bringing me around $5 a sale, or between $2,500 – $10,000 a year over several books (more in the years immediately following publication, less in later years, but one book in particular started slowly but ten years later is still producing a steady income as it has been adopted as a required text book by a number of instructors.) I’m not getting rich, but it is a handy, taxable supplement to my main employment income;
  • recognition. This one is difficult to measure, but both are recognized quality publishers, they have a strong review process before accepting publication, so it probably does help in terms of status and promotion to be published by a quality publisher;
  • niche marketing. All my books have been published as part of a series with a common theme. This enables them to be directed at a specific market, and it allows the publishers to develop an extensive list of potential readers from the purchase of other books in the series. This also helps me as an author, to know who I am writing for.

Bates_cover_final

 

The cons of commercial publishing

This has changed over time. Whether it’s because I’m more experienced or whether it’s because the industry has changed, the cons have become stronger more recently:

  • marketing – or lack of it Both publishers, but one more so than another, have been dreadful at marketing my books, especially in recent years. Publishers ask you to provide long lists of journals, professional societies, media outlets, etc., that can be used to promote the book. Fair enough, but then they don’t follow up. Both my publishers failed to send out review copies to the 10 key journals I identified for my last two books. Publishers want me to take copies of books to conferences to market them. I have a whole loft full of books I’ve ordered to be delivered at conferences, then haven’t been able to sell – I had to pay for both the books and the shipping. Poor marketing is not what you would expect from international publishers. The main value of a publisher to authors is their know-how in marketing. But at least for books in a niche market, publishers basically expect authors to do their own marketing. Electronic publishing (more than half my sales are now e-copies) has just made publishers lazy (and greedy – the price is the same as a hard copy). The struggle over marketing through a commercial publisher, more than anything, has made me think about open publishing – I’m going to have to do the marketing myself in any case;
  • royalties. At least I get royalties. Some publishers, such as IGI, won’t pay anything. Others ask authors to pay to get published (and some authors are desperate enough to do this). But 8-12% is not a fair return any more on what is often many months, sometimes years, of hard work. If publishers did more to actively market books, then it might be more acceptable, but at this point in time, 8-12% is a really unfair distribution of revenue. Publishers have for far too long traded on the need of academics to get published;
  • failure to change the book format. Commercial books still have the format of the sixteenth century. They may be  typeset electronically, they may be available for downloading online, but the format is still the same as books from the Guthenberg Press. One example: knowing that most of my sales of my last book would be electronic, I peppered the text with embedded urls, so those downloading the text electronically could just click on the text to get the link. At copy editing stage, all the urls were stripped out. No matter how much I ranted and raged, it could not be changed because it was company ‘editorial style’. I had to build a separate web site (batesandsangra.ca) for the book at my own expense, to support the book. I am hoping, with open publishing, to be able to exploit the interactiveness and dynamism of web publishing.

Will open publishing be any better?

Well, we’ll see, but here are my main reasons

  • I have to walk the talk. The content of my book is about teaching in a digital age. Therefore the format needs to enable me to practice what I will be preaching. There is nothing as powerful as a good example, and the book itself needs to be an example of the benefits of digital teaching. So this means, yes, embedded urls, but much, much more (more on this in my vision for the book, which will be another post). I don’t think commercial publishers are anywhere near ready to support this kind of approach to book publishing (if so, please contact me with an offer in the 50% royalty range – just kidding);
  • proof of concept Open textbooks are in their infancy. Like many new media, most still reflect the format of the old medium, print publishing. Many open textbooks at the moment are just that: a (free) electronic version of a text designed for printing. What should an open textbook look like? What’s involved in radically redesigning an open textbook? This seems to me to be a very interesting and important research and development question to work on;
  • collaboration and crowdsourcing There are many people now teaching innovatively and in ways that exploit digital media. If I follow an open approach to writing and publishing, to what extent can I successfully draw on others to provide content, examples and feedback. Won’t it be a better book if I have many collaborators/contributors, rather than to try and do everything myself?
  • the world is changing I may be getting money now from commercial publishing – but for how much longer? My own view is that commercial academic print-based publishing will be dead within ten years. It’s an unsustainable business that has failed to adapt fast enough to changing technology. This is not to say there is a sustainable business model yet for open publishing either, but I will wager that one will be found more quickly than a rescue plan for commercial publishing;
  • knowledge should be free This is the most compelling reason for me. Can we find a sustainable way to produce original high quality content that can be made available free of charge? I have had great fortune not only to be educated in public schools and universities, but also to work in them. Just consider this project as a rather tiny attempt at giving back.