April 25, 2014

2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond

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 2020 visionTaking the long view

Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail on  January 4 wrote an interesting piece on prediction, entitled: “Gadgets alone don’t make the future.” Having shown how amazingly accurate technologists in 1961 were in predicting what technologies would roll out in the future, he also showed how poorly they predicted how these gadgets would impact on our lives. In summary:

‘We are very good at guessing where our inventions might lead. We are very poor in understanding how humans might change their lives….the decision of what kind of life to live between the screens remains a political one, shaped not by our inventions but by our own decisions.’

Last year I spent some time discussing the value of predictions. One point I didn’t mention is the limitation of predicting just one year ahead, because you can’t identify the long term directions, and so often you’re driven by what happened in the very recent past, i.e. last year, because that’s the latest and often only data you have. More importantly, though, looking one year ahead assumes that there is no choice in what technologies we will use and how we will use them, because they are already entering our society. Also, this is likely to be the last year in which I make predictions for the future. I will be 75 in April, and I plan to stop all paid professional activities at that point (although I will keep my blog, but more as a journalist than as a practitioner).

So this seems to be a good point to look not just at 2014, but where we might be going five to ten years from now, and in doing this, I want to include choice or human decision-making as well as technological determinism. In other words, what kind of online learning do I expect in the future, given what I know so far?

The disappearance of online learning as a separate construct

In 2020, people won’t be talking about online learning as such. It will be so integrated with teaching and learning that it will be like talking today about whether we should use classrooms. In fact, we may be talking much more about classrooms or the campus experience in 2020, because of online learning, and how it is changing the whole way that students are learning. There is likely to be heated discussions about the role and purpose of campuses and school buildings, the design of classrooms, and who needs to be there (teachers and students) and more importantly what for, when students can do so much of their learning online – and generally prefer to, because of the flexibility, and of their control over their own learning. The big changes then are likely to be on-campus, rather than on-line.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

Multi-mode delivery concentrated in fewer institutions – but more diversity

Quite a few public and smaller private post-secondary institutions will be gone or radically transformed by 2020. Particularly at risk are smaller, low status state or provincial universities and colleges or their campuses in metropolitan areas, where there is local and regional competition for students. They will have lost students to more prestigious universities and high status vocationally oriented institutions using online and flexible learning to boost their numbers. Government will be increasingly reluctant to build new campuses, looking to more flexible and more cost effective online delivery options to accommodate increasing demand. Nevertheless, politics will occasionally trump economics, with small new universities and colleges still being created in smaller towns away from the larger urban areas. Even these though will have much smaller campuses than today and probably as much as 50% of all course enrollments online, often in partnership with more established and prestigious universities through course sharing and credit transfer.

Those institutions that have survived will be offering students a range of choices of how they can access learning. Courses or programs will be deliberately designed to accommodate flexibility of access. Thus students will be able to decide whether to do all their studying on campus, all of it online, or a mix of both, although courses or programs are likely to have a common assessment strategy (see below). This will not be driven so much by academic or even political decisions, but by students voting with their feet (or mouses) to study at those institutions that provide such flexibility.

Multi-purpose, open delivery, with multiple levels of service and fees

Content will be multi-purposed, depending on a learner’s goals. Thus the same content can be part of a credit-based degree-level course, program or competency, part of a non-credit certificate or diploma, or available as open access. Learners will also be able to choose from a range of different course or program components, dependent on their needs and interests. Because most content will be open and modular, in the form of open textbooks, open multimedia resources, and open research, institutions will offer a variety of templates for courses and programs built around open content. For example, for a degree in physics, certain topics must be covered, with a strong recommendation for the sequence of study, but within those core levels of competency, there will be a variety of routes or electives towards a final degree, where broadly based learning outcomes are set, but multiple routes are offered for progress to these outcomes. Those content components can be accessed from a wide range of approved sources. It is the competency and academic performance of the learner that the institution will accredit.

Most institutions will have an open education portal, that contains not only a wide range of open educational resources, but also a range of open services, such as program templates or free academic guidance for specific target groups, as part of their enrollment strategy. Although such portals are likely to include materials from a wide range of sources from around the world, special emphasis will be given to open content developed by their own faculty, based on their latest research or scholarship, as a way of branding their institution. iTunesU, MIT’s Opencourseware, OpenLearn, and MOOCs are early prototypes, but content quality in the future will be greatly improved in terms of pedagogical and media design to accommodate online learners. Also states and provinces will also establish system-wide portals of open educational resources, particularly at the k-12 and two year college level (see eLearnPunjab and open.bccampus.ca as prototype models).

Because academic content is almost all open, free and easily accessible over the Internet, students will not pay tuition fees for content delivery, but for services such as academic guidance and learning support, and these fees will vary depending on the level of service required. Thus students who want a traditional course that covers guidance on and access to content, tutorial help, access to campus facilities, feedback and assessment will pay full fee (some of which may still be government subsidized in the public system). Students who want just open access will pay nothing, but will get few if any support services, and if they need a formal assessment, they will need to pay for this (although again this may be subsidized in a public system). Other students may want feedback and some form of continuous assessment, but will not want to pay for full tutorial support.

There are several consequences of this increased flexibility. Some institutions will specialize in small-class, on-campus education at high cost. Others will focus on high quality delivery through a variety of delivery modes, with a particular emphasis on course design and learner support. Some institutions will focus on low cost, competency-based open access programs, supported by businesses requiring specific skilled labour, and a few institutions will be specialists in fully online distance delivery operating on a national or international basis, at a lower cost but equally high quality as campus-based institutions. The majority of institutions though will become multi-purpose, multiple delivery institutions because of the economies of scale and scope possible.

Goodbye to the lecture-based course

In most institutions, courses based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks will have disappeared. There are several reasons for this. The first is that all content can be easily digitalized and made available on demand at very low cost. Second, institutions will be making greater use of dynamic video (not talking heads) for demonstration, simulations, animations, etc. Thus most content modules will be multi-media. Third, open textbooks incorporating multi media components and student activities will provide the content, organization and interpretation that are the rationale for most lectures. Lastly, and most significantly, the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert. Project-based learning, collaborative learning and situated or experiential learning will become much more widely prevalent. Also many instructors will prefer to use the time they would have spent on a series of  lectures in providing more direct, individual and group learner support, thus bringing them into closer contact with learners.

This does not mean that lectures will disappear altogether, but they will be special events, and probably multi-media, synchronously and asynchronously delivered. Special events might include a professor’s summary of his latest research, the introduction to a course, a point mid-way through a course for taking stock and dealing with common difficulties, or the wrap-up to a course. It will provide a chance for an instructor to makes themselves known, to impart their interests and enthusiasm, and to motivate learners, but this will be just one, relatively small, but important component of a much broader learning experience for students.


Goodbye to the written exam – and welcome to the final implementation of lifelong learning

For most post-secondary qualifications, written exams will have been replaced by assessment through multimedia portfolios of student work. These will show not only students’ current knowledge and competencies, but also their progression over time, and a range of equally important skills, such as their ability to work collaboratively, self-management of learning, and general communication skills. Assessment will be mainly on a continuous, on-going basis.

As well as change in the method of assessing learning there will be greater variety in the range of accredited qualifications. Degrees, certificates and diplomas will still be important, but these will be complemented with a wide range of assessments of informal or non-formal learning, such as badges, some offered by post-secondary institutions, others offered by employers’ organizations or co-operatives of professionals. University and college diplomas and degrees will increasingly be seen as milestones on the journey to lifelong learning, and for demographic and economic reasons, the lifelong learning market will become a much larger market than the high school leaver market.

This means academic departments will need to develop programs and courses that range from introductory or foundational through undergraduate degrees to professional masters to lifelong learning, again using similar content modules adapted to different markets, as well as creating or adapting new content, based on the latest research in a field, for these newer markets. Much of the lifelong market will lend itself to online and hybrid learning, but in different structures (short modules, for instance) than the undergraduate and higher degree market. Universities and colleges will increasingly compete with the corporate training industry for these post-postgraduate learners, who will be able and willing to afford top dollar for top-level lifelong learning opportunities, based on the latest research coming out of universities, government and businesses.

However, a large part of the lifelong learning market will become occupied by communities of practice and self-learning, through collaborative learning, sharing of knowledge and experience, and crowd-sourcing new ideas and development, particularly assisted by an evolution of what are now known as cMOOCs. Such informal learning provision will be particularly valuable for non-governmental or charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, Greenpeace or UNICEF, or local government, looking for ways to engage communities in their areas of operation. These communities of learners will be open and free, and hence will provide a competitive alternative to the high priced lifelong learning programs being offered by research universities. This will put pressure on universities and colleges to provide more flexible arrangements for recognition of informal learning, in order to hold on to their current monopoly of post-secondary accreditation.

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

New financial models

Because most content will be freely accessible, and because students will pay incrementally for a wide variety of services, new financial models will need to be developed, to support the flexibility and range of services that students will increasingly demand and require. The biggest move is likely to be away from block funding or enrollment-driven funding by government towards pay-for-service through student fees for teaching. There will be further separation of the funding for research and teaching (this has already happened in some countries, such as in England and Wales.) As a result government financing may well change, so that students are given a post-secondary grant at the age of 17, and have the right to decide how to spend that grant on post-secondary education, rather than funding institutions directly for teaching.

This may have some unexpected benefits for academic departments. Under this model it makes much more sense to fund programs directly from fees for the program, than to pool grants and fees centrally then break out money for teaching and filter it down through the departments. Thus program fees or service fees  would come to academic departments (or more accurately the program areas) directly, then the programs would pay for university services such as registration and financial services on a direct cost basis, plus a percentage for general overheads. This is already happening in some public universities at post-graduate levels, where tuition fees for online professional masters more than cover all the costs, direct and indirect, of a program, including the cost of full-time research professors who teach on the program.

This model would also have two other benefits. It would put pressure on service departments, such as HR, financial services, the Registry, etc., to become more cost-efficient, because direct costs to programs become more transparent. Second, since online students do not need a range of campus services such as campus building maintenance, lighting, and heating, it would lead to the different costs of online vs campus-teaching becoming more transparent and comparable, with an economic incentive to move more towards the most cost-efficient delivery model.

There are also disadvantages. Some model would be needed to support more expensive programs to deliver, or programs that are specialized but important in a university community. However, a program-based financial model may help save small departments who are struggling for minimal enrolments from their local market. Online courses can open the market to regional or international students and offer the chance of collaboration and partnership with other institutions, through course and student sharing.

The disaggregation of institutional activities required for the flexible delivery of programs in a world where content is free offers opportunities for rethinking how teaching and learning is funded.

Systematic faculty development and training

Since content will be freely accessible, institutions’ reputation and branding will increasingly depend on the way they support learners. This will put much greater emphasis on instructors having good teaching skills as well as subject expertise. Thus most universities and colleges will require faculty to have assessed teaching skills before tenure or permanent appointment, and equal attention will be given to teaching expertise as research in promotion. This will mean incorporating teaching practice and methods within most post-graduate subject areas, college instructors having compulsory pre-service teacher training, and regular faculty having systematic ongoing professional development as new technologies and new teaching approaches develop over time. The immediate benefit of this will be better student retention rates and higher quality learning outcomes.

Devolved decision-making and organizational models

A move to program-based funding, the need for effective course designs to attract students, the differentiation of services, the increased professionalism in teaching, and freely available open content will result in a move to systematic program planning and team teaching. A typical team will consist of a senior research professor, several junior or adjunct professors, an instructional designer/project manager and a media/web designer. The senior faculty member, in collaboration with the other team members, will be responsible for decisions about curriculum content, methods of learner support, and assessment standards. The team will develop assessment criteria and rubrics, and where necessary hire additional instructors for learner support and marking of assessments , under the supervision of the senior faculty members.

One consequence will be the disappearance of central centres for teaching and technology, except in small institutions. Instructional design staff will be located in program areas and will be responsible with academic faculty for faculty development activities, as well as with overall course design input. There will be increased demand for media designers, while instructional designers will be in less demand in the future, but still necessary to support faculty, especially as new learning technologies develop.

Student privacy, data security and student online behaviour will become more difficult

Learning will increasingly be delivered through student-owned devices, and learners will increasingly integrate social life, work and study in a seamless manner. Services will increasingly be delivered through the cloud. Security agencies, Internet-based companies and knowledge-based companies will constantly be seeking access to student data, especially student learning performance and online behaviour, as this information will be increasingly valuable for state security and commercial reasons. As a result it will become increasingly difficult for institutions to protect student data and their privacy. This may turn out to be the biggest challenge for students, institutions, and government in the next 20 years and could seriously inhibit the development of online learning in the future, if students or faculty lose trust in the system.

The future is about choices

This is my view about where we could be going with online learning in the next five to ten years. However, I will not be making the decisions, as I am retiring in April. If you do not like this vision, then you are in a position to influence a different kind of vision. Although as McLuhan says, we are shaped by our devices, we also shape the world around these devices. The worst thing we could do is to leave it to computer scientists to decide our future.

The value such a vision lies not in its detail, but in identifying some of the key choices or decisions that will need to be made. So here are the decisions that are thrown up by this vision for the future, for students, faculty, institutions and government (and some of these, such as those about campus facilities, should be being made right now):

Students and learners

  • at this point in my life, what are my learning goals? What is the best way to meet these? Where can I get advice for this?
  • do I need a qualification and if so, what kind?
  • what is the best way for me to access this learning? On-campus; online; or a mix of both?
  • what kind of learning support do I need?
  • how much do I want to – or must I – pay for these services?
  • what institution or other method of delivery will provide what I want? Where can I get independent advice on this?
  • how can I protect my privacy when I am online studying?

Faculty and instructors

  • why do students need to come to campus? What am I offering on-campus that they couldn’t get online? Have I looked up the research on this?
  • what teaching methods will lead to the kind of learning outcomes that students will need in life?
  • what should be my role if content is freely available online?
  • what kind of teaching spaces do I need for what I want to offer on campus?
  • how should I best use my time in teaching? In what kind of teaching activities can I really make a difference for students?
  • if I create new or original content for my teaching, should I make it openly available to anyone to use?
  • what methods of assessment should I use in a digital age? How do I assess prior or informal learning?
  • what kind of courses or programs should we be offering for lifelong learners?
  • what do I need to know about student data, and the protection of student privacy?
  • what training or professional development do I need to ensure that I can meet the learning needs of my students?


  • what kind of campus will we need in 10 years time?
  • what proportion of course enrollments are likely to be accessed off-campus?
  • what will be the best way to accommodate more students – online learning or more buildings?
  • what kind and number of teaching spaces will we need?
  • what partnerships or strategies should we adopt to protect our enrollment base?
  • what are our strategies and policies regarding open educational resources?
  • what is our strategy for lifelong learning?
  • what financial models should we put in place to encourage innovation in teaching and to attract students?
  • how do we ensure that faculty have the skills necessary for teaching in a digital age?
  • how can we best reward innovation and high quality teaching?
  • what kind of organization and staff do we need to support faculty in their teaching?
  • how do we best protect student data and privacy (as well as our staff’s) in a digital age?


  • what kind of post-secondary system, in terms of institutional differentiation, program delivery and innovations in teaching, do we need in a digital age?
  • how many, and what kind of, campuses do we need when students are also studying online? What is the best way to accommodate expansion in the system?
  • how can we best support system-wide open education, to reduce costs and increase quality?
  • how should we fund post-secondary education in a digital age? How much and what should ‘first-time’ students pay for themselves? What should lifelong learners who have already been through the system pay? What funding models would encourage innovation in teaching and help improve quality?
  • how can online learning help to increase the productivity of the post-secondary educational system? What can we do to encourage this?
  • what does government need to do to protect student data and student privacy?

What’s YOUR vision?

I won’t be around to make or influence these decisions, but most of you will. Are there decisions I’ve missed? What decisions would you make? What’s your vision for the future?

If you are willing to share just one response to any of these questions or decisions, this will be very much appreciated. Because the future will be increasingly about sharing knowledge.

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

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Still alive on Saturday

Still alive on Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

In the meantime THIS IS NOT THE END!

What’s next?

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

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

So yes, I’m still alive.

Una mirada personal sobre el uso de tecnologías digitales en la formación de docentes en los INFDs de Argentina.

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El Ministerio de Cultura y Educación de la provincia argentina de Misiones y Fundación Telefónica capacitan a 360 docentes sobre nuevas tecnologías. © Fundación Telefónica, 2012

Ileana Farré, a quien solicité una mirada personal sobre el uso de tecnologías digitales en la formación de docentes, es profesora en el Instituto Superior de Formación Docente No 803 en Puerto Madryn, sur de Argentina. Ella quisiera enfatizar que sus opiniones están basadas en su experiencia personal y no son necesariamente representativas de todas las instituciones.

Cree que, en general, en la mayoría de los Institutos Superiores de Formación Docente faltan proyectos o estrategias institucionales para la implementación de tecnologías digitales para la enseñanza y  el aprendizaje. Es una decisión de cada profesor, si o cómo,  utilizar las tecnologías en su tarea.

Sin embargo, se constituyen tres contextos básicos para el uso de tecnologías en los institutos:


La no utilización de TIC en las propuestas de enseñanza.

 Herramientas digitales para apoyar la enseñanza tradicional

En esta situación  los formadores utilizan una plataforma institucional (LMS Ej. Moodle) y otras herramientas  para la transmisión de información y la comunicación directa entre: – dirección – profesores; profesores entre sí y  profesores – alumnos. En algunos casos se utilizan  foros de discusión. Las herramientas más usadas  son e-mail, pdf, video y presentaciones de Power Point;  éstas  refuerzan el rol central del formador.

Diseños de enseñanza para potenciar las posibilidades de las tecnologías para el aprendizaje.

Los alumnos del profesorado generalmente responden con entusiasmo cuando las tecnologías son utilizadas para lograr metas claras de aprendizaje y cuando el uso de las herramientas está apoyado desde un análisis teórico y práctico que enfatiza el rol pedagógico de las TIC para mejorar la calidad educativa.

Cuando esto ocurre, el método de enseñanza se transforma en un hibrido, de manera imprevista desde la perspectiva  organizativa por parte de la institución.

A veces es posible lograr mayor flexibilidad en la organización de los tiempos, con el reconocimiento de que el trabajo virtual es un tiempo efectivo de trabajo por parte de ambos, estudiantes y profesores.

Principales desafíos

En Argentina persisten dificultades tecnológicas infraestructurales que ponen límite a la conectividad. Este es un desafío que el gobierno, mediante la estrategia denominada “Argentina Conectada”, se propone mitigar.

Como profesora de un Instituto Superior de Formación Docente, creo que necesitamos abrir espacios de debate para construir estrategias integrales, que signifiquen más que una colección de actividades aisladas. Necesitamos una estrategia institucional basada en el análisis del contexto, que considere el rol de los profesores en los Institutos de Formación Docente;  resignificar  las vías de acceso al conocimiento, cómo se construye el conocimiento y el rol  de las herramientas  digitales como un medio para mejorar los recorridos académicos de nuestros alumnos y alumnas.

Algunas iniciativas nacionales

El espíritu de la Red Nacional de Institutos de Formación Docente  (RED INFD) es promover a las instituciones para incrementar el uso de tecnologías digitales  en la formación, desarrollando comunidades de práctica entre docentes “comunicados y conectados”. Esto resulta en propuestas de colegas que surgen desde el contexto de las instituciones. Hay numerosos proyectos que focalizan el enriquecimiento de la enseñanza de los espacios curriculares a través del uso de TIC desde un marco de aprendizaje permanente y de reflexión docente.

  • El programa Conectar Igualdad  es una iniciativa en vista a mejorar y profundizar las políticas de mejoramiento de la calidad en las escuelas públicas a fin de reducir las brechas digitales, educacionales y sociales en todo el país. Como parte del programa, para proveer acceso tecnológico universal, fueron entregadas 2,014,492 notebook a docentes y alumnos en todo el territorio argentino.
  • Conectar LAB por su parte, promueve el uso creativo de tecnología, el diseño de juegos interactivos basado en la generación de proyectos colaborativos, y otras experiencias, que surgen de la interacción entre las personas y su medio ambiente.

Existe una situación emergente en función de responder, de manera adecuada a estas iniciativas por parte de los institutos, vinculada con la necesidad de construcción de un liderazgo visible,  desde la sinergia de los grupos de profesores motivados en la investigación de diseños innovadores. Los líderes institucionales necesitan generar y apoyar oportunidades para que, docentes y alumnos aprendamos compartiendo experiencias desde la institución.

Desde un punto de vista personal, como profesores y directivos liderando las instituciones, necesitamos pensar cómo , dado el contexto actual, podemos promover los cambios esperados. Necesitamos considerar la disponibilidad de tecnología para la enseñanza y el aprendizaje  y los nuevos modos de interacción como oportunidad que abre las aulas a otras miradas (internas y externas) que pueden transformar la educación.

Muchas gracias, Ileana!

The English version is available here

Is online learning really cracking open the public post-secondary system?

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I suspect that I’m not the only one who has been ‘disengaged’ from the online world of online learning for the past few weeks, in my case for minor medical reasons, and in your case I hope enjoying sun, sand and socializing. So in this post I’m going to pull together a number of recent publications in the blogosphere which taken together, suggest that there are deep rumblings in North America’s public post-secondary education systems, if not outright panic in the streets. Or it may just be summer madness and too much heat. I’ll leave you to judge.

There’s a lot of reading covered, so I’ll try and cover the main points then identify some of the lessons I think we can learn from these developments.

Run, run - it's a MOOC!!! © Ferret Comic-Panel Blog 2008

Spooked by MOOCs

Whatever your reservations about MOOCs (and I have a lot, which I will come to later in this post) they are definitely causing a stir in post-secondary education. Enough in fact to unseat a university President (who was then reinstated). The prestigious and (in North American terms) ancient University of Virginia, founded by no less than Thomas Jefferson himself, got its knickers in a twist. First the Board of Governors fired the President, for what appears to be not having a strategy to respond to innovation in higher education as manifested by Stanford MOOCs and MITx. She was then reinstated a week or so later, after faculty and students rallied in her support.

It is difficult to know how much weight one should give to this bizarre episode. In fact some faculty in the University of Virginia had been teaching online for over five years, but then it turned out that this was merely recorded lectures that students could unload online. What was clear was the university had no institutional strategy for online learning – it had been left to individual professors to do what they could, obviously without much professional support. Some members of the Board of Governors (and especially the chair) clearly felt that the university should have a strategy for innovation in education.

Lesson 1: No president with an activist Board of Governors is now safe if the university does not have a clear institutional strategy for online learning. It’s now become the latest buzzword in post-secondary education.

Now what that strategy should be is less clear. Canada’s own George Siemens responded by publishing an open letter to Canadian universities, demanding that they not just join the bandwagon by signing up to Udemity, Coursera or edX as junior partners, but develop their own strategies for innovation, and in particular their own development of open online courses.Unfortunately, George is not the chairman of any university boards (at least yet), and wasn’t too clear about how these strategies for innovation would differ from those of the elite universities offering MOOCs (although we can guess – they would be more constructivist MOOCs along the design of George Siemens’ and Stephen Downes’ #Change 11.)

The Rotunda at the University of Virginia

Are MOOCs the answer?

This raises the question: are the headline-grabbing MOOCs the future, or are they just an interesting development that provides access to large numbers, but doesn’t really threaten the ‘core’ business of campus-based institutions, such as credentialling and a ‘quality’ educational experience (especially for those who can afford it).

Your guess is as good as mine on this. However, Bonnie Stewart in a very thoughtful article worries about MOOCs becoming a buzzword. She writes:

This nouvelle vague of MOOC hoopla… has been disorienting. But there’s no denying it. In major media newsspeak, it appears “MOOC” now signifies some kind of material manifestation of the “disruptive innovation” everybody’s sure is upon us but can’t quite pin down….Udacity and the xEd mega-MOOCs, with their overt emphasis on data collection and vaguely-defined business models, begin to look like trojan horses for mass-scale automation of teaching and grading. When the cavalry charge is being led by the most prestigious higher ed institutions in the market, it’s hard to assume it’ll all just blow over. Clearly, higher ed IS thinking about MOOCs.

The problem, of course, with buzzwords is that they end up empty. In this case, each new media iteration of the term “MOOC” seems to tie it more closely to the behemoth of elite power + rapid change that drives the frenzy around disruption in higher ed. ….Things fall apart, we hear from every corner. The center cannot hold…The problem with apocalyptic thinking is that it predisposes us towards simple solutions and salvation narratives, even in complex situations. 

If we’re interested in being part of the conversation around the future of higher ed, we need to stop talking about MOOCs as buzzwords. We need to begin talking about the interests that determine the specific shape of particular MOOCs as they emerge. The danger of buzzwords is that they can come to feel inevitable. MOOCs are not any one thing, unless we permit them to be. MOOCs will not inherently gut faculty positions in higher ed. MOOCs do not have automation and robot grading built into their conceptual structure.

We certainly need more discussion at this level about innovation in higher education, and MOOCs in particular. We need to ask whether MOOCs are successful in anything other than reaching large numbers of learners. For instance, how should we measure the success or failure of MOOCs? Many learners do not intend to take a certificate or to complete all the work, but could MOOCs be improved so the proportion of those that do take an assessment at the end is more than the 5-10% of those that started the program, as at present? What are MOOC participants actually learning? For instance, how many would have passed the end of course exam without taking the course, since it seems many who take MOOCs already have knowledge and experience in the topic? Why not offer a challenge exam for a certificate then offer the MOOC to those that fail?

I was therefore interested to see that Udemy, one of the main platforms for delivering MOOCs, has recently totally redesigned its web site, ‘enabling students to track their progress, interact more deeply with instructors and discover new courses relevant to them:

  •  Enhanced Course Taking Experience – enables students to take courses through a responsive full screen user interface that encourages course completion and engagement.
  •  Robust Student-Teacher Q&A – facilitates student-instructor and student-student interactions through a powerful Quora-style question & answer experience that’s tightly integrated with each course lecture.
  •  Progress Meter – shows how much of a course a student has completed, enabling students to pick up where they left off and stay motivated throughout the course.
  •  Time Stamped Notes – tags students’ notes to specific times in a course video/lecture which enhances a student’s ability to review the material they are learning.
  •  Personalized Course Discovery – recommends new courses for students based on a Netflix-style recommendation engine which leverages each student’s interests, activity on Udemy, and social data.’

As Stephen Downes commented, this is beginning to look more like a traditional LMS. This begs two deeper questions though:

  • why are most MOOCs ignoring 60 years of research into how students learn, and 20 years of developing best practices in online learning? This is the hubris of computer scientists designing online teaching without any knowledge of pedagogy or research in online learning.
  • how do you assess learning in massive online courses when the desired learning outcomes are not appropriately tested through computer or ‘robot’ marking? What kinds of learning are restricted to robot marking?

Lastly, it should be remembered that roughly 15% of all credit course enrollments in public post-secondary education institutions are already online. In Canada this means over one million course enrollments taken as a whole. Completion rates of most online courses in Canada are around 85%. These online courses individually may not reach hundreds of thousands of students, but  those that follow best practices do ensure that most of the students who take such courses learn and succeed.

This is not to deny the value of MOOCs, particularly in putting pressure on existing institutions to change, but there is much room for improvement. We need to look at how we can benefit from both more conventional online learning and from MOOCss, not set one off against the other.

Lesson 2: MOOCs may be the answer – but what is the question? May there be better solutions to the question? And may such solutions exist already but are not being sufficiently supported?

System-wide change

Meanwhile, in quiet, conservative Canada, over the summer period, Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister Training, Colleges and Universities published a bombshell of a discussion paper. First some context. Ontario’s Liberal provincial government is heavily committed to education as a driver of economic development, especially in knowledge-based industries. Ontario already has one of the most advanced post-secondary education systems in the world, with 20 universities, many of them in the top 100 world wide, and 24 two year colleges. The government wants to drive up participation in post-secondary education from the current 63% of a cohort to 70%. However, Ontario was particularly badly hit during the 2008 recession and is now facing very large budget deficits. Austerity is required over the next five years at least, so the Minister is faced with the challenge of maintaining and if possible improving the quality of the post-secondary education system, while at best not increasing spending and preferably by finding savings within the system.

So the Ministry produced a discussion paper in the ides of summer, calling on the ‘system’ to respond to a number of suggestions within the discussion paper which include:

  • more flexible credit transfer between institutions (Ontario is way behind most other Canadian jurisdictions in this respect: students have to negotiate individually with academic departments/professors if they wish to change universities to have their credits from their old university accepted by their new university. Often students – especially from out of province – have to start their undergraduate studies all over again if they wish to transfer.)
  • more recognition of prior learning and outcomes-based assessment
  • options for three year bachelor degrees alongside the existing four year degree programs
  • first and second year core and introductory courses shared across the system
  • year-round learning
  • key performance indicators/benchmarks for the sector
  • ways to shift the balance from research to teaching in terms of faculty support and advancement
  • more widespread use of technology in the classroom
  • more online programs (currently approximately 15% of all credit enrollments are online) and new models for course delivery
  • development of financial models that enable tuition fees to be reduced or at least maintained at their current level
  • more emphasis on entrepreneurialism and links with business and industry

For contractual reasons, I am unable to comment directly on the discussion paper, but I have invited Tom Carey to write a guest post next week in response to the Minister’s paper. However, the MInister has clearly thrown down a challenge to the institutions. It will be interesting to see how they respond.

Lesson 3: Governments are increasingly not going to accept the status quo or business as usual. In particular, if your institution doesn’t have a meaningful strategy for innovation in teaching, for improving the cost-effectiveness of the organization, and particularly a strategy for online learning, you will become increasingly vulnerable to funding cuts. 

Are faculty the problem?

So far, the challenge has been directed at the senior management of institutions, who after all are responsible for strategic direction. However, as was pointed out in the discussions around the sacking and reinstatement of the President at the University of Virginia, universities are not hierarchical organizations. You have to have the faculty onside. So it was exceedingly depressing to read the Babson College/Inside Higher Education report on ‘conflicted faculty’. More than two-thirds of instructors said they believe that students currently learn less in online courses than they do in the classroom. However, the more faculty had experience of online learning, the more favourable they were towards it. John Thelin, who rate himself as an ‘old prof’, wrote very compellingly about why faculty should not fear online learning

Although the Babson results are depressing, this is not surprising. People fear the unknown. In no other profession do we throw people into the fray without any training. If the only model of teaching you have in your head is that of the classroom, and that’s how you make your living, then you are bound to defend and protect it. In the end it comes back to a leadership question. It is necessary but not sufficient to set a strategy for online learning. You need also to prepare and train faculty for such a move. This has to be part of your strategy.

It also has to be part of your strategy to ensure that decisions about online learning within your institutions are made by people with the necessary experience and knowledge. Too often AVPs responsible for learning technologies are unqualified in terms of knowing anything about either pedagogy or technology. Instructional support staff are often treated as second class citizens. Too often the AVP Academic will defer to the CIO rather than listen to her own learning technology staff. This is basically a governance issue. It means working out who should be at the table for different levels of decision-making, and making sure they have the power and responsibility to make those decisions. (For more on this, see Bates and Sangra, 2011)

Lesson 4: Prepare and train your faculty to deal with change and innovation in teaching, and in particular for teaching online

The barbarians are at the gate

Lastly, we should be aware that online learning is becoming increasingly the front line of an ideological war. Especially but not exclusively in the USA, there are strong corporate interests who see opportunities to make tons of money out of post-secondary education. It is in their interest to weaken and criticize the public education system. Thus the recent publication of the GVS Advisors report aptly named ‘Fall of the Wall’ should be given particular attention. From the executive summary:

In the words of one prominent investor, “I see more and more capital moving to the area and for two primary reasons: anytime large, broken industries exist, significant opportunities for start-ups are created.  Additionally, the millennial generation is learning in different ways, which has been driven by technology.”

This report should be compulsory reading for Ministers of Advanced Education, and the governors and senior management of post-secondary institutions. It lays out clearly the threat to the post-secondary education system, but it also has some interesting ideas that the institutions themselves could use to fight back against the growing threat of privatization. In particular, it defines interesting criteria for measuring investment in education (what it calls Return on Education or ROE):

We believe that a company or organization can only deliver true ROE if it achieves one or all of the following: 

    • Drives down costs for learners and/or institutions 
    • Substantially improves learning outcomes including performance on licensure or professional exams, performance on standardized tests, retention, graduation rates, learner engagement, progression to advanced degrees, college and career readiness, job placement, etc. 
    • Increases student and/or instructor access to education 
    • Increases the effective “capacity” of instruction and instructors thereby improving student outcomes and the professional paths of learning leaders 

So here are some targets for our public institutions. Also it would be useful to make clear what is missing in this list that is also of value economically and socially that only public institutions can provide, such as the development of creative and original thinking, new knowledge, and strong social and ethical attitudes.

Lesson 5: If public institutions do not respond effectively to the challenge of change, they will eventually be swept aside by the private sector – and will deserve it.


First, talk about having to keep your eye on the ball. I thought I could slip away for a month in the summer when nothing is happening in post-secondary education. How wrong can you be!

Second, if even a centrist, moderate provincial government such as Ontario’s is looking for some radical changes in the post-secondary system, you can be sure that the pressure will be even greater in those with more ideologically driven state or provincial governments. So be prepared.

Third, I’m left with the question: are our public post-secondary education institutions up to the challenge? Do they see the danger, and if they do, do they have the means to address it? It will be interesting to see how the generally well run Ontario institutions respond to the Minister’s challenge.

Fourth, is all this just mid-summer madness, or are there really some major changes happening or about to happen in the public post-secondary world? To what extent will the current frenzy in the USA cross the border to the north? I ask this, because all this reminds me very strongly of the frenzy before the dot-com bust in 1999, when everyone in the USA was rushing to set up for-profit online institutions such as New York University Online and Fathom, all of which collapsed and disappeared. I suspect that this time, the drive for change has more legs. We have reached a wall in terms of the costs of the higher education system, yet demand continues to grow. Something has to give.

Lastly, what are your views on all this? have you been following the discussion? Where do you sit with regard to the need for change? Will there be a job for you when you get back from holiday!!!

Enjoy the rest of your summer!

References/further reading

Allen, I.E., et al (2012) Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education 2012 Babson College/Inside Higher Education

Kolowich, S. (2012) Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education 2012 Inside Higher Education, June 21

Kiley, K. (2012) Rebuilding Mr. Jefferson’s University Inside Higher Education, June 27

Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (2012) Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge Toronto ON: Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, June 27

PRWeb (2012) Udemy launches redesigned website San Francisco Chronicle, June 27

Bennett, W. (2012) Is Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity the Future of Higher Education? CNN, July 5

GSV Advisors (2012) Fall of the Wall: Capital Flows to Education Innovation, Chicago IL: GSV Advisors, July 6

Siemens, G. (2012) An Open letter to Canadian Universities, eLearnspace, July 6

Hidary, J. (2012) The Revolution: Top 10 Disruptors of Education, Huffington Post, July 6

Stewart, B. (2012) Slouching toward Bethlehem: Unpacking the MOOC as Buzzword Inside Higher Education, July 10

Thelin, J. (2012) Professors and online learning, Inside Higher Education, July 10

Contact North (2012) Commentary: Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge, Contact North Newsroom, July 10

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 5: Master the technology

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In this post I argue that taking the time to be properly trained in how to use standard learning technologies will in the long run save you good deal of time and will enable you to achieve a much wider range of educational goals than you would otherwise have imagined..

This is the sixth in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The nine steps are aimed mainly at instructors who are new to online learning, or have tried online learning without much help or success. The first five posts (which should be read before this post) are:

Nine steps to quality online learning: introduction

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

Nine steps to quality online-learning: Step 2: Decide on what kind of online course

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 3: Work in a Team

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 4: Build on existing resources

A condensed version covering all the posts in this series can be found on the Contact North web site: What you need to know about teaching online: nine key steps‘.

There is also a version in French: Ce que le personnel enseignant doit savoir sur l’enseignment en ligne: neuf étapes clés

Deceptively easy technology

I’m going to be discussing here the following types of online learning technologies:

  • learning managements systems (such as Blackboard and Moodle)
  • synchronous technologies (such as Blackboard Collaborate and Adobe Connect
  • lecture recording technologies (such as podcasts and lecture capture.)

You need to know not only how to operate such such technologies, but also their strengths and weaknesses.

These technologies are deceptively easy to use, in the sense of getting started. They have been designed so that anyone without a computer science background can use them. However, over time they have become more sophisticated with a wide range of different functions. You won’t need to use all the functions, but it will help if you are aware that they exist, and what they can and can’t do. If you do want to use a particular feature, it is best to get training so that you can use it quickly and effectively.

To give one example. With an online course with a large enrollment, there are likely to be several different sections, with perhaps several different instructors. However, the content is likely to be the same for each section. It is possible in some LMSs to enter the content once, then divide the students between different sections, rather than copy and paste the content into each separate section. If set up properly, any change to the content – such as a new url or reading – can also be added once only, with each section getting the new version automatically. However, (a) you need to know the LMS has that feature (b) you need to know how to set it up this way. You also need to know how to keep sections apart, so that each group can have its own version of materials, if necessary. You will also need to decide if individual instructors sharing the same course material can change material centrally and if so, what the procedure is for informing the other instructors.

Furthermore, new functions are constantly being added to existing LMSs. For instance if you are using Moodle there are ‘plug-ins’ (such as Mahara) that allow students to create and manage their own e-portfolios or electronic records of their work. The next wave of plug-ins is likely to be learning analytics, which will allow you to analyze the way students are using the LMS and how this relates to their performance, for instance.

Thus a session spent learning the various features of your LMS and how best to use them will be well worthwhile. The same applies to synchronous technologies such as Blackboard Collaborate. Also it is worth knowing how to incorporate or integrate Collaborate or Adobe Connect with your LMS – or whether it might be better to keep them separate.

This training should be provided by the centre or unit that provides faculty development and/or learning technology support. If your institution does not have such a unit, or such training, I would think very carefully about whether to use online learning – even the most experienced instructors occasionally need such support. Also, just like any profession, you will probably need at to spend a little time least once a year looking at any new features added during the year.

Relate your technology training to how you want to teach

There are really two distinct but strongly related components of using technology: how the technology works; and what it should be used for. These are tools built to assist you, so you have to be clear as to what you are trying to achieve with the tools. This is an instructional or pedagogical issue. Thus if you want to find ways to engage students, or to give them practice in developing skills, such as solving quadratic equations, learn what the strengths or weaknesses are of the various technologies for doing this.

This is somewhat of an iterative process. When a new feature is being described or demonstrated, think of how this might fit with or facilitate one of your teaching goals. But also be open to possibly changing your goals or methods to take advantage of a tool in enabling you to do something you had not thought of doing before. For example, an e-portfolio plug-in might lead you to change the way you assess students, so that learning outcomes are more ‘authentic’ and evidence-based than say with a written essay. (This will be discussed further in the next step ‘Setting appropriate goals for online learning.’)

A recorded lecture from MIT

Why not just record my classroom lectures?

Podcasts and lecture capture enable lectures to be recorded, stored and downloaded by students. So why bother to learn how to use other online technologies such as an LMS?

Although this may appear to be much easier for you as an instructor, you are likely to end up doing more work because you are likely to be inundated with individual e-mails, or have a very high student failure rate. In other words, students in general don’t learn well online in this way. There are several reasons for this:

  • online students need a sense of ‘presence’ of the instructor when studying online. They don’t get this from recorded lectures alone. They need regular and ongoing contact. If this is not ‘managed’ properly by the instructor, you are likely to get lots of e-mail. An LMS provides a variety of ways for you to be ‘present’ online, such as facilitating online discussion, adding materials or personal contributions regarding difficult ideas or concepts, providing online feedback to individual students on their online work, etc.
  • online students have to fit their studying with other aspects of their lives, such as work and family. Usually there is a much higher proportion of students online working full time and with families than in fully face-to-face classes. Long lectures don’t in general work so well for these students.
  • downloading one hour long video lectures takes time, depending on the bandwidth, but can take up to 10 minutes of ‘dead time’ while the video downloads.
  • attention span decreases even more rapidly online than in a classroom lecture.
  • online students also tend to study in smaller ‘chunks’ of time (because of their other life style commitments), so a 50 minute lecture doesn’t work so well for them. Retention tends to be better when studying is spread over frequent but shorter periods of time. An LMS is really good for doing this.
  • over 60 years of research shows that lectures are a poor medium for instruction (see Christensen Hughes and Mighty, 2010). A great deal is missed or misunderstood, and even more is forgotten immediately the lecture ends. Quality online teaching is based on research that has identified how students best learn (see E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research). Asynchronous learning combined with a selective use of synchronous technologies provides better results.

This is not to say that the occasional recording from you as the instructor would not be valuable. However, it is best to keep it to 10-15 minutes maximum, and it should add something unique to the course, such as being about your own research, or a guest professor being interviewed, or your relating a news item to issues or principles being studied in the course.

Delivery of content is much better done through the LMS, where it is permanent, organized and structured (see Step 7 later), available in discrete amounts, can be accessed at any time, and can be repeated as often as is needed by the learner.

If you must use lecture capture, think about structuring your in-class lecture so that it can be recorded in separate sections of say 10-15 minutes. One way of doing this is pausing at an appropriate point to ask for questions from the classroom students, thus providing a clear ‘editing’ point for the video version. Then provide online work to follow up from the lecture, such as a discussion forum or some online student research on the topic.


Online learning technologies such as learning management systems have been designed to fit the online learning environment. This requires some adjustment and learning on the instructor’s part. Like any tool, the more you know about it the better you are likely to use it. Thus formal training on the technology is necessary but need not be onerous. Usually a total of two hours specific and well organized instruction on how to use an LMS should be sufficient, with a one hour review session every year.

The harder part will be figuring out how best to use the tools educationally. This requires you to bring a clear conception of how students best learn, how you need to teach to match that, and how to design such teaching through the use of online technologies.

Next step

The next step will focus on setting appropriate goals for online learning and will address some of the pedagogical issues raised in this post.


1. How much formal training have you had on your institutional learning management system? Is this enough or are you now fully confident that you know all the features and how best to use them?

2. When should you use a synchronous technology such as Blackboard Collaborate? What are the disadvantages of synchronous technologies for online students? (see Models for selecting and using technology: 4. Synchronous or asynchronous?‘ for more on this).

3. Should you rethink entirely your teaching when moving online or could you use mainly your classroom material? What would be the possible disadvantages of using recorded lectures online?


Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp, C$/US$39.95