April 26, 2015

How to make an omellette without breaking eggs: innovation and open-ness in university teaching

Listen with webReader

The EFQUEL forum in Granada, Spain

It has been impossible for me to blog about online learning over the last four weeks because I have been on holiday for most of the time, in places deliberately chosen because there were no Internet connections.

The EFQUEL Innovation Forum

However, the first week away was spent at a very interesting forum organized by the European Foundation for Quality in e-Learning (EFQUEL). The focus was in the interface between open learning and innovation in post-secondary education. There were about 120 participants from all round Europe, including Russia and Serbia, as well as the usual suspects from the UK, Spain, Finland, Germany, Italy and Belgium.

One of the goals of the conference was to enable EFQUEL to identify its priorities over the next 12 months, in a context where most European governments are grappling with austerity and the resulting financial pressures on universities. Online learning of course is being heavily promoted by governments as a means of increasing productivity through innovation, and the bulk of the participants were anxious to ensure that the issue of maintaining or increasing the quality of the educational experience through online learning received as much attention as the technology and cost issues. In particular, papers and keynotes concentrated on the relationship between open educational resources, innovation, and quality.

Somewhat to my own surprise, I found myself in my opening keynote arguing the case for sustaining innovation rather than disruptive innovation for universities, because I want the core values of universities (knowledge preservation and creation; rationality; evidence-based research) to be maintained, while improving quality and cost-effectiveness. Thus the trick is to bring about the necessary changes without destroying the very benefits that make universities so important to our society. Thus my talk was titled: ‘How to make an omellette without breaking eggs.’ In fact, some eggs will get broken, but the egg will still be there in the omelette.

I argued that for innovation to succeed in universities, it needed to be supported and to some extent managed, and I discussed several strategies for supporting innovation in teaching and learning. A copy of my slides can be downloaded from Dropbox. You will need to request this by sending me an e-mail to: tony.bates@ubc.ca. Please ask for my EFQUEL presentation.

The conference provided a pretty good overview of the European context regarding approaches to open educational resources (full copies of the paper presentations can be accessed here.) The challenge in Europe as elsewhere is to find ways to integrate and build on OERs, but the focus still tends to be too much on just making materials open without any thought of how they can best be used. However, the forum provided a good way to bring players from all across Europe together to share ideas and to promote better quality in e-learning through the use of open content and approaches.


European universities: re-form or die; but what about Canada?

Listen with webReader

University of Paris Sorbonne

Grove, J. (2012) Long, cold financial winter lies ahead for Europe’s academy Times Higher Education, February 9

What’s happening in Europe

This is a really depressing, bad news item. Especially in the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), universities are facing budget cuts in the region of 20% in the next year or so. For many of these countries, the entire principle of state-funded universities is under threat:

  •  in Spain, €485 million will be taken from education overall, and assistance to local authorities – key supporters of universities – will be reduced by just over €1 billion (total: US $2 billion; population 46 million). A spokesperson for Spanish universities said: ‘Universities have  [already] limited common expenditure as much as possible. But we cannot do it any longer. We have been tightening our belts for so long [and] we try to make the most of the means at our disposal, but right now we have so little leeway [to handle these extra cuts].”
  • in Ireland, university pensions are being cut by 15%. Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, believes that the current situation, which has had a severe impact on many individuals’ workloads, is not sustainable. “I think something has got to give,” he says. “People are doubling up and academics can give lectures to 1,000 people if it comes to that. But we won’t be able to correct essays or give feedback to students.  We are simply being starved to death, rather than having any dramatic blow to knock us out. It’s a case of death by a thousand cuts.”
  • the head of unit governance, autonomy and funding at the European Universities Association said that for 2012 out of 47 member countries only Norway, Finland and Germany have maintained their commitments to increasing funding for higher education.
  • the UK has already raised tuition fees to $9,600 ($15,000) a year, with a resulting drop in university applications, although to date this has been quite small (around 2%); however, since the UK government guarantees student loans, it has merely put off the day of reckoning, especially if the economy contracts, as expected, due to austerity measures, so there won’t be the jobs for graduates that they will need to repay their debts.

The need for reform

I could go on, but you get the picture. I’m not going to get into the debate about the stupidity of severe austerity measures to pay off bad bets by banks and bad decisions by governments who wouldn’t face reality, but I do have to say that particularly in Southern Europe (less so in Ireland) there is a good deal of room for increased efficiencies in their post-secondary educational systems.

Many turn out thousands of surplus graduates in law and philosophy for whom there are no jobs, while there is a shortage of skilled workers such as computer specialists, engineers and qualified workers for the creative industries. In many European countries, students pay no or very small tuition fees. No, I’m not arguing for closing down all law and philosophy departments, nor for the level of tuition fees in the UK, but in many of the southern European countries, there is almost open access for anyone who wants to go to university, which is fine, but no guarantee of a job afterwards as a result. In some countries (France comes to mind) university lecturers often have ridiculously low teaching commitments.

Unfortunately I fear though that the first to be cut will be what are considered ‘ancillary services’ such as learning technology support units (where they exist – many Italian universities have no such support), rather than looking to e-learning as one way to respond to a severe crisis.

What about Canada?

At this point, you may well be asking, ‘Well, what about Ontario?’ Canada’s largest province has its own financial troubles, with a $14 billion deficit in 2010–11 that is equivalent to 2.3 per cent of GDP. Net debt came to $214.5 billion, 35 per cent of GDP. As a result, the Ontario provincial government appointed a Commission led by an economist (Don Drummond) to advise it on developing a sustainable budget without privatization of health and education and without tax increases.

In my view, his report is excellent. First a matter of perspective. He states: ‘By current international standards, Ontario’s debt is still relatively small. We are a very long way from the dreadful fiscal condition of countries that have dominated the news in the past two years.’ However, he also points out that Ontario and Greece’s economies were very similar in 1985, and that economies can quickly spin out of control. Ontario’s is heading in the wrong direction and needs to be corrected.

One of the areas he looked at was post-secondary education. His conclusion: ‘The current system is unsustainable from a financial and quality perspective.’ However, he does not recommend drastic cuts to funding, but an actual increase of 1.5 per cent per annum. However, enrollment growth is anticipated at 1.7 per cent while the institutions’ costs have been rising by three per cent to five per cent. ‘Just to keep the system operating as it does now, post-secondary institutions will need both more funding and more efficiency…..The current system is unsustainable from a financial and quality perspective, as enrolment growth crowds out the funding that is available even to maintain the status quo.’

Thus the Drummond Commission recommends the following:

  1. Contain government funding and institutional expenses;
  2. Use differentiation to improve post-secondary quality and achieve financial sustainability;
  3. Encourage and reward quality;
  4. Revise research funding structures;
  5. Maintain the current overall cap on tuition-fee increases, but simplify the framework;
  6. Re-evaluate student financial assistance; and
  7. Generate cost efficiencies through measures such as integrating administrative and back-office functions.

Basically, unless taxes are increased (and per-capita, Ontario spends less on post-secondary education than most of the other provinces) then universities will have to become even more efficient. This will probably mean larger classes, or a freeze on salaries, or heavier teaching loads, or less research, or a combination of all of these and other measures. What is significant though is that compared to the rest of the government areas of responsibility in Ontario, PSE comes out quite well. Enrollment growth will continue, because Drummond recognizes that this will be needed to keep the economy growing through a better educated workforce. So Ontario, although facing significant challenges, is nowhere near being in the same boat as many of the European universities. Nevertheless, there will need to be some significant changes in the post-secondary system.

Some other provinces in Canada are facing somewhat similar, but perhaps not quite so acute, challenges as Ontario, while others are able to increase expenditure on PSE without difficulty. However, because Ontario constitutes almost a quarter of Canadian GDP, all provinces in Canada will eventually pay a price if Ontario doesn’t get its economy and government budget under control. The Ontario government will finally make the decision about what to do, and may even include some tax increases, but in terms of the mandate, the Drummond Commission has done an excellent job overall in trying to protect PSE in Ontario as much as possible.

What about online learning?

The question that arises is: to what extent can online learning contribute to enrollment growth, increased efficiency, and/or maintenance or improvement of quality in Ontario? This was not discussed in the report, but it is a question that needs to be more fully explored, at least within the online learning community. Any views you may have on this topic will be most welcomed. Meanwhile I plan to do a post on this topic at a later time.

In the meantime, feel Europe’s pain. It will be particularly the students (and potential students) who will suffer the most if the universities are unable to bring about major reforms and efficiencies, because the money just won’t be there to continue the system as it is.

European report on the future of learning

Listen with webReader

Redecker, C. et al. (2011) The Future of Learning: Preparing for Change Seville Spain: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, JRC, European Commission

What the report is about

From the preface:

To determine how education and training policy can adequately prepare learners for life in the future society, there is a need to envisage what competences will be relevant and how these will be acquired in 2020-2030. The report identifies key factors for change that emerge at the interface of the visions painted by different stakeholder groups and arranges them into a descriptive vision of the future of learning in 2020-2030. In a second step, the report discusses future solutions to pending challenges for European Education and Training systems and outlines policy options

The vision

From the executive summary:

Personalisation, collaboration and  informal learning will be at the core of learning in the future.  The increased pace of change will bring new skills and competences to the fore, in particular generic, transversal and cross-cutting skills….

With the evolution of ICT, personalised learning and individual mentoring  will become a reality and teachers/trainers will need to be trained to exploit the available resources and tools to support tailor-made learning pathways and experiences which are motivating and engaging, but also efficient, relevant and challenging…

Most importantly, traditional E&T institutions  – schools and universities, vocational and adult training providers – will need to reposition themselves in the emerging learning landscape . They will need to experiment with new formats and strategies for learning and teaching to be able to offer relevant, effective and high quality learning experiences in the future. 

Policy implications

The visions presented in this report are not necessarily new or radical….. but to reach the goals of personalised, collaborative and informalised learning, holistic changes need to be made (including, among others: curricula, pedagogies,assessment, teacher training, leadership) and mechanisms need to be put in place which make flexible and targeted lifelong learning a reality and support the recognition of informally acquired skills.

Some of the challenges the report tries to address

  • an aging labour market in Europe
  • need for a higher proportion of knowledge workers and decline in jobs requiring minimal education or training
  • high youth unemployment associated with lack of appropriate educational qualifications and lack of jobs for unskilled/trained workers
  • immigration and multiculturalism

Implications for education and training

  • technology enabled lifelong learning (from cradle to grave, any time anywhere)
  • shift of focus from institutions to individuals: Institutions will need to re-create themselves as resilient systems with flexible, open, and adaptive infrastructures, which engage all citizens and re-connect with society
  • a shift from public to private funding based on individual rather than institutional needs: the responsibility for the provision of individual education will increasingly move from the state to the individual and family groups. While state involvement in early years’ educational provision will remain central, the influence of the private sector on curriculum and policy will continue to grow.


First, this is a very important, interesting and stimulating report. It raises fundamental questions about the nature of learning and of the institutions that support learning. It warrants careful reading in full by anyone concerned about the future of learning.

As the report itself notes, ‘the visions in this report are not necessarily new’, but its recommendations are a major challenge – indeed I would say threat – for existing educational institutions, and in particular, for universities.

There are parts of this report with which I strongly agree, and other parts where I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of learning, particularly at a post-secondary level. I agree with setting an ambitious and broad general vision for the future of learning – it’s just that I disagree with or don’t like some elements of the vision.

What I agree with in the report

I agree completely with the need to make learning more relevant, more engaging for young people, and more heavily dependent on the intelligent use of technology for teaching and learning. Lifelong learning is essential, and so is the need for major institutional change to adapt to the learning needs of the 21st century. We are heading for disaster socially and economically by failing to meet the needs of young people who are increasingly being shut out of the labour market at a time when the workforce is aging. Part of the reason for this is external: globalization, and a particularly short-sighted and uncontrolled version of capitalism. But part is also due to the failure of our institutions to adapt to the changes in society, in particular the technological revolution and the changing nature of our students, and thus far too many young people drop out or underqualify because formal education is not seen as relevant or motivating.

More specifically I agree that technology offers the potential for the personalization of learning and this is highly desirable but the reality of making that happen on a mass scale is another matter. Collaborative learning is also critical for the future, but although I accept the importance of informal learning, I will argue later that it does not meet all learning needs.

What I disagree with or missed in the report

The first disagreement is with the assumption that all levels of education will require the same changes and the same vision. First we need a multiplicity of visions because predicting the future is fraught with difficulties and it would be foolish to put all our eggs in one basket. Also there is not a universal set of needs for learning for the future. There will need to be different goals and different solutions. I would prefer to have seen a document that looked at different markets or needs for education and training, that dealt with a diversity of learning needs.

The second is more an omission. The report is very weak on the infrastructure or organizational changes needed to implement the vision. For instance, take the personalization of learning and particularly the goal of individual mentoring. How would this be organized and paid for? It is one thing to set a vision; it’s quite another to find sustainable ways to pay for it. How would or should institutions respond to this? I understand that the important thing about a vision is to define it, but there also has to be some suggestions about how it could be realised.

Although I fully agree with the need to emphasise the development of ‘soft’ skills such as problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, reflection, I disagree that these are generic, transversal skills (what an ugly Europeanization of English). Problem-solving is not the same in medicine as in business, for example. Not only is the knowledge base (the information needed to solve a problem) different, but so is the method (one is science-based and deductive, the other is more intuitive and with more willingness to accept risk). These skills need to be embedded within a specific domain (although I do agree that we need more interdisciplinary studies, which is not the same as developing transversal skills).

Lastly, I do wish people would realise that there is a difference between scientific or academic knowledge and everyday knowledge. Academic learning is about generalization, abstraction, hypothesising, testing and critical thinking. It is about questioning and challenging, based on logic and evidence. I am not arguing that this is more important than everyday knowledge, but it is different and there is a strong need for academic learning, because it takes us into areas that would not imaginable otherwise. The report does not deal with this issue, assuming that all learning needs in the future will be the same.

And this brings me to my concern about an over-emphasis on informal learning. Informal learning will be increasingly important in the future, but on its own it will not meet all learning needs. Learners often need a structure and guidance, feedback and assessment, to know what standards of learning are expected, etc. This means the demand for formal learning will still be there in the future (although its provision may/should be very different). The real challenge is whether we should combine both formal and informal approaches or whether they will be more effective if kept separate. This decision has major implications for how our institutions should be organized. (It would also help if we had a less ambiguous and more detailed understanding of what we mean when we talk about formal and informal learning respectively).

Above all, this report should force our universities to think very carefully about what their core values and beliefs are, to what extent these can or should be modified to meet changing needs, but also what they should not give up or lose, because those values or principles are critical for a free, open and knowledge-based society based on reason and evidence.


Despite these criticisms, this is an excellent report. It should stimulate a really useful debate about the future of learning, and how educational institutions need to change, or whether new models of organization that may not be institutionalized will need to be developed. Although it is set in a European context, the issues it raises are common across developed countries and also relevant for developing countries. I just wish it had come up with some concrete proposals or models for how these forms of learning that they are proposing would be established and sustained.


For those of you with a LinkedIn account there is a discussion of this report at: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Future-Learning-3960155.S.78957225?view=&gid=3960155&type=member&item=78957225&trk=eml-anet_dig-b_nd-pst_ttle-cn




Journal on the web and the internationalization of universities

Listen with webReader


RUSC: Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento Vol. 8, No. 2

RUSC  is an e-journal published by the Open University of Catalonia, Spain. The articles are available in Spanish, English and Catalan.

The Monograph in this issue of RUSC looks at the internationalisation of universities. The six articles have been coordinated by Hans de Wit, Professor of Internationalisation of Higher Education at the School of Economics and Management, Hogeschool van Amsterdam, University of Applied Sciences. The articles analyse and assess internationalisation of universities in the context of the information and knowledge society, a global environment, where the web is particularly important, bringing with it new challenges, opportunities and scenarios for internationalisation.

There are also additional articles on:

Lifelong Learning in the Context of the European Area of Lifelong Learning, by Núria Arís and Miquel Àngel Comas

Digital Competency and University Curricula. In Search of the Missing Link, by Adriana Gewerc Barujel, Lourdes Montero Mesa, Eulogio Pernas Morado,and Almudena Alonso Ferreiro

Facebook’s Potential for Collaborative e-Learning, by Francesc Llorens Cerdà, and Neus Capdeferro Planas

Ascertaining the Relevance of Open Educational Resources by Integrating Various Quality Indicators, by  Sanz-Rodriguez, Juan Manuel Dodero Beardo, and Salvador Sánchez-Alonso

The Use of Podcasts in Higher Education: Communication, Innovation, Education and Knowledge Management, by Juan Manuel Trujillo Torres

Finally, there is a review of the following book:

The Facebook Project and Post-University. Social Operating Systems and Open Learning Environments, by Alejandro Piscitelli, Iván Adaime and Inés Binder (eds.) (2010), reviewed by Ana María Rodera Bermúdez


This journal is a great way to access the increasingly important work being done in Spain and other parts of Europe. This edition in particular has several very interesting articles on internationalization and the impact of web developments on education and society.

European research on e-learning 2.0

Listen with webReader

Links-up is a European project:

about how ‘Web 2.0’ technologies – e.g. social networking software – are changing the face of education and training for disadvantaged people. The project puts together a picture of the ‘landscape’ of ‘Learning 2.0 for Inclusion’ by reviewing what has been done in the academic and research field, and by practitioners working on the ground in projects that have been using Web 2.0 to work with disadvantaged groups. It uses a series of ‘action research’ experiments, collaborating with ‘host’ projects working in the field, to evaluate the added contribution Web 2.0 can make to practices that use learning to support social inclusion.

Research questions

Links-up has recently entered into the core phase of its action-research by implementing on-the-field experiments, aiming analysing the three general Links-Up research questions through five “innovation laboratories”:

  1. Is learning 2.0 really supporting inclusive life-long learning?
  2. Can isolated experiments be mainstreamed?
  3. Is learning 2.0 fundamentally changing the educational landscape?

Research methodology

    The evaluation design adopts a multi-methodological approach combining qualitative and quantitative aspects through interviews, questionnaires, observation etc.., in order to examine ‘success’ and ‘failure’ factors and impact on individuals, organisations and communities. Their analysis is based in three key factors:

    • innovation – examining how far innovative learning approaches and pedagogies are facilitated and supported by particular Learning 2.0 initiatives;
    • key learning competences and social inclusion skills acquired – exploring whether and in what ways Learning 2.0 initiatives and innovations foster new kinds of e-skills beyond the level of basis computing skills; whether and in what ways such initiatives support soft’ skills;
    • institutional change associated with the intervention – assessing and reflecting on how far the institutional framework of teaching and learning affects and is affected by Learning 2.0 and Web 2.0, particularly changes in the educational enterprise.

    Example projects

    FreqOut is a UK-based initiative that uses technology to engage socially excluded young people aged from 8 to 25, inspiring them to tell their stories and giving them the opportunity to work with artists and industry professionals. The target groups are broad and provide a wide range of ‘exclusion’ scenarios involving marginalised groups in the local area: young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET), young people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups, ex-offenders, those at-risk of offending, refugees and immigrants.

    MyMobile- Education on the move In Italy the innovation laboratory is organized and held in conjunction with Grundtvig mobility project “MyMobile- Education on the move” (2010-2012) through the collaboration with the Educational Technology Laboratory of the University of Florence, the Italian Grundtvig project partner. The pilot case is TRIO (http://www.progettotrio.it/trio/), the official e-learning platform of the Tuscany Region. The pilot is named ‘Tell Your Resume’ and consists in the implementation of a short series of podcasting workshops, where a group of migrants and unemployed people will learn how to promote themselves on the labour market producing, publishing and sharing their multimedia CV. A blog has been implemented to support the pilot’s action.

    I will look forward to the results of this interesting project. Thanks to the European Distance Education Network for directing me to this project.

    Links-up will be making a presentation at the EDEN conference in Dublin 19-22 June, 2011.