February 9, 2016

That was the year, that was: main trends in 2015

Listen with webReader
Image: http://goodbye2015welcome2016.com/

Image: http://goodbye2015welcome2016.com/

Well, here we are at the end of another year. Doesn’t time fly! So here is my look back on 2015. I’ll do this in three separate posts. This one focuses on what I saw as the main trends in online learning in 2015.

Gradual disengagement

It was April, 2014, when I decided to stop (nearly) all professional activities, in order to complete my book, Teaching in a Digital Age, which came out in April this year. A year and eight months later, though, I haven’t stopped completely, as you will see. However, most of my activities this year were related to the publication or follow-up from the book. As a result I have reduced considerably my professional activities and this reduction will continue into 2016. Because I was less engaged this year with other institutions, I don’t have a good grip on all the things that happened during 2015 in the world of online learning. For a thorough review, see Audrey Watters excellent Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015.

Nevertheless I’m not dead yet, I have been doing some work with universities (see next post), and I have been following the literature and talking to colleagues, so here’s what I took away from 2015.

1. The move to hybrid learning

This is clearly the biggest and most significant development of 2015. More and more faculty are now almost routinely integrating online learning into their campus-based classes. The most common way this is being done (apart from using an LMS to support classroom teaching) still remains ‘flipped’ classrooms, where students watch a lecture online then come to class for discussion.

There are lots of problems with this approach, in particular the failure to make better pedagogical use of video and the failure of many students to view the lecture before coming to class, but for many faculty it is an obvious and important first step towards blended learning, and more importantly it has the potential for more active engagement from learners.

As instructors get more experience of this, though, they start looking at better ways to combine the video and classroom experiences. The big challenge then becomes how best to use the student time on campus, which is by no means always obvious. The predominant model of hybrid learning though is still the (recorded) lecture model, but adapted somewhat to allow for more discussion in large classes.

In most flipped classroom teaching, the initiative tends to come from the individual instructor, but some institutions, such as the University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa, are putting in campus-wide initiatives to redesign completely the large lecture class, involving teams of faculty, teaching assistants and instructional and web designers. I believe this to be the ‘true’ hybrid approach, because it looks from scratch at the affordances of online and face-to-face teaching and designs around those, rather than picking a particular design such as a flipped lecture. I anticipate that university or at least program-wide initiatives for the redesign of large first and second year classes will grow even more in 2016.

UBC's flexible learning initiative focuses on re-design to integrate online and classroom learing

UBC’s flexible learning initiative focuses on re-design to integrate online and classroom learing

2. Fully online undergraduate courses

Until fairly recently, the only institutions offering whole undergraduate programs fully online were either the for-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix, or specialist open universities, such as the U.K Open University or Athabasca University in Canada.

Most for-credit online programs in conventional universities were at the graduate level, and even then, apart from online MBAs, fully online master programs were relatively rare. At an undergraduate level, online courses were mainly offered in third or more likely the fourth year, and more on an individual rather than a program basis, enabling regular, on-campus students to take extra courses or catch up so they could finish their bachelor degree within four years.

However, this year I noticed some quite distinguished Canadian universities building up to full undergraduate degrees available fully online. For instance, McMaster University is offering an online B.Tech (mainly software engineering) in partnership with Mohawk College. Students can take a diploma program from Mohawk then take the third and fourth year fully online from McMaster. Similarly Queens University, in partnership with the Northern College Haileybury School of Mines, is developing a fully online B.Tech in Mining Engineering. Queens is also developing a fully online ePre-Health Honours Bachelor of Science, using competency-based learning.

Fully online undergraduate programs will not be appropriate for all students, particularly those coming straight from high school. But the programs from Queens and McMaster recognise the growing market for people with two-year college diplomas, who are often already working and want to go on to a full undergraduate degree without giving up their jobs.

3. The automation of learning

Another trend I have noticed growing particularly strong in 2015, and one that I don’t like, is the tendency, particularly but not exclusively in the USA, to move to the automation of learning through behaviourist applications of computer technology. This can be seen in the use of computer-marked assignments in xMOOCs, the use of learning analytics to identify learners ‘at risk’, and adaptive learning that controls the way learners can work through materials. There are some elements of competency-based learning that also fit this paradigm.

This is a big topic which I will discuss in more detail in the new year in my discussion of the future of learning, but it definitely increased during 2015.

4. The growing importance of open source social media in online learning design

I noticed more and more instructors and instructional designers are incorporating social media into the design of online learning in 2015. In particular, more instructors are moving away from learning management systems and using open source social media such as blogs, wikis, and mobile apps, to provide flexibility and more learner engagement.

One important reason for this is to move away from commercially owned software and services, partly to protect student (and instructor) privacy. In a sense, this also a reaction to the automation and commercialization of learning, reflecting a difference in fundamental philosophy as well as in technology. Again, the increased use of social media in online learning is discussed in much more detail by Audrey Watters (see Social Media, Campus Activism and Free Speech).

5. More open educational materials – but not enough use

For me, the leader in OER in 2015 was the BCcampus open textbook project, and not just because I published my own book this way. This is proving to be a very successful program, already saving post-secondary students over $1 million from a total post-secondary student population of under 250,000. The only surprise is that many BC instructors are still resisting the move to open textbooks and that more jurisdictions outside Western Canada are not moving aggressively into open textbooks.

The general adoption of OER indeed still seems to be struggling. I noticed that some institutions in Ontario are beginning to develop OER that can be shared across different courses within the same institution (e.g. statistics). However, it would be much more useful if provincial or state articulation committees came together and agreed on the production of core OER that could be used throughout the same system within a particular discipline (and also, of course, made available to anyone outside). This way instructors would know the resources have been peer validated. Other ways to encourage faculty to use OER – in particular, ensuring the OER are of high quality both academically and in production terms – need to be researched and applied. It doesn’t make sense for online learning to be a cottage industry with every instructor doing everything themselves.

Is that it?

Yup. As I said, mine is a much narrower view of online learning trends than I have done in the past. You will note that I have not included MOOCs in my key trends for 2015. They are still there and still growing, but a lot of the hype has died down, and they are gradually easing into a more specialist niche or role in the wider higher education market. My strategy with MOOCs is if you can’t beat them, ignore them. They will eventually go away.


The next two posts will:

  1. provide a summary of my activities in 2015
  2. provide a statistical analysis of the most popular posts on my blog in 2015

In the new year I will write a more general post on the future of online learning. In the meantime, have a great holiday season and see you in 2016.

A future vision for OER and online learning

Listen with webReader

For each chapter of my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I am developing imaginary but hopefully realistic scenarios. In this scenario, developed as a closing to my chapter on ‘Modes of Delivery and Open Education’, I look at how modularization could lead both a wider range of access to credit courses and more open use of learning materials.


Figure 10.1 The Hart River, Yukon. Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC

Figure 10.1.F The Hart River, Yukon.
Image: © www.protectpeel.ca, CC BY-NC


Research faculty in the Faculties of Land Management and Forestry at the (mythical) University of Western Canada developed over a number of years a range of ‘learning artefacts’, digital graphics, computer models and simulations about watershed management, partly as a consequence of research conducted by faculty, and partly to generate support and funding for further research.

At a faculty meeting several years ago, after a somewhat heated discussion, faculty members voted to make these resources openly available for re-use for educational purposes under a Creative Commons license that requires attribution and prevents commercial use without specific written permission from the copyright holders, who in this case are the faculty responsible for developing the artefacts. What swayed the vote is that the majority of the faculty actively involved in the research wanted to make these resources more widely available. The agencies responsible for funding the work that lead to the development of the artefacts (mainly national research councils) welcomed the move to makes these artefacts more widely available as open educational resources.

Initially, the researchers just put the graphics and simulations up on the research group’s web site. It was left to individual faculty members to decide whether to use these resources in their teaching. Over time, faculty started to introduce these resources into a range of on-campus undergraduate and graduate courses.

After a while, though, word seemed to get out about these OER. The research faculty began to receive e-mails and phone calls from other researchers around the world. It became clear that there was a network or community of researchers in this field who were creating digital materials as a result of their research, and it made sense to share and re-use materials from other sites. This eventually led to an international web ‘portal’ of learning artefacts on watershed management.

The researchers also started to get calls from a range of different agencies, from government ministries or departments of environment, local environmental groups, First Nations/aboriginal bands, and, occasionally, major mining or resource extraction companies, leading to some major consultancy work for the faculty in the department. At the same time, the faculty were able to attract further research funding from non-governmental agencies such as the Nature Conservancy and some ecological groups, as well as from their traditional funding source, the national research councils, to develop more OER.

By this time, instructors had access to a fairly large amount of OER. There were already two fourth and fifth level fully online courses built around the OER that were being offered successfully to undergraduate and graduate students.

A proposal was therefore put forward to create initially a fully online post-graduate certificate program on watershed management, built around existing OER, in partnership with a university in the USA and another one in Sierra Leone. This certificate program was to be self-funding from tuition fees, with the tuition fees for the 25 Sierra Leone students to be initially covered by an international aid agency. The Dean, after a period of hard negotiation, persuaded the university administration that the tuition fees from the certificate program should go directly to the two Faculties whose staff were teaching the program.From these funds, the departments would hire additional tenured faculty to teach or backfill for the certificate, and the Faculties would pay 25 per cent of the tuition revenues to the university as overheads.

This decision was made somewhat easier by a fairly substantial grant from Foreign Affairs Canada to make the certificate program available in English and French to Canadian mining and resource extraction companies with contracts and partnerships in African countries.

Although the certificate program was very successful in attracting students from North America, Europe and New Zealand, it was not taken up very well in Africa beyond the partnership with the university in Sierra Leone, although there was a lot of interest in the OER and the issues raised in the certificate courses. After two years of running the certificate, then, the Faculties made two major decisions:

  • another three courses and a research project would be added to the certificate courses, and this would be offered as a fully cost recoverable online master in land and water systems. This would attract greater participation from managers and professionals in African countries in particular, and provide a recognised qualification that many of the certificate students were requesting
  • drawing on the large network of external experts now involved one way or another with the researchers, the university would offer a series of MOOCs on watershed management issues, with volunteer experts from outside the university being invited to participate and provide leadership in the MOOCs. The MOOCs would be able to draw on the existing OER.

Five years later, the following outcomes were recorded by the Dean of one of the faculties at an international conference on sustainability:

  • the online master’s program had doubled the total number of graduate students across the two faculties
  • the master’s program was fully cost-recoverable from tuition fees
  • there were 120 graduates a year from the master’s program
  • the degree completion rate was 64 per cent
  • six new tenured faculty has been hired, plus another six post-doctoral research faculty
  • several thousand students had registered and paid for at least one course in the certificate or master’s program, of which 45 per cent were from outside Canada
  • over 100,000 students had taken the MOOCs, almost half from developing countries
  • there were now over 1,000 hours of OER on watershed management available and downloaded many times across the world, attracting more students and revenue to the university
  • the university was now internationally recognised as a world leader in watershed management.

Although this scenario is purely a figment of my imagination, it is influenced by real and exciting work, much of which was developed as open access materials from the start, at the University of British Columbia:

Over to you

1. Does this strike you as a realistic scenario?

2. How useful are scenarios like this for thinking about the future? Could you use similar kinds of scenarios in your program planning or for faculty development, for instance?

3, If you have used scenarios for online learning in similar ways, would you be willing to share one?

4. Most of the elements of this scenario already exist at UBC. What I have done though is bring things together from different parts of the university into an integrated single scenario. What could be done within institutions to make this cross-disciplinary transfer of ideas and strategies easier to achieve? (It should be noted that UBC already has a Flexible Learning initiative, including a strategy team within the Provost’s office, which should help with this.)


Just one more post to wrap up the chapter on Modes of Delivery and Open Education: the key takeaways from this chapter.



OER and social inclusion: review of special edition of ‘Distance Education’

Listen with webReader

© www.pace.gb.com

Distance Education, the journal of the Australian Open and Distance Learning Association (ODLAA), has just published a special edition on OER and social inclusion. It is edited by Grainne Conole, of the University of Leicester.


I’ll start with quotes from the editorial:

we need to move beyond the creation of OER repositories to consideration of how they can be used effectively….The hypothesis is that making OER freely available will lead to their being used more by learners and teachers….However, despite the rhetoric about new social and participatory media generally and OER specifically, the reality is that their uptake and reuse in formal educational contexts has been disappointing….The focus [in the articles] on the relationship between OER and social inclusion/exclusion is particularly valuable, given the underpinning philosophy associated with the OER movement in terms of widening participation and the assumption that education is a right that should be freely accessible to all.”

There follows eight articles and three ‘reflections’. There are four articles each from the UK and Australia, and one each from Germany, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

Andy Lane (UKOU) gives a good if brief overview of the main history, concepts and differences between OERs, open learning, and open education before reviewing the findings of a study dealing with best practices for widening participation in higher education study through the use of OERs in six European open and distance learning organizations. Main conclusions:

  • even among six open and distance universities (ODUs), there was wide variation in how OERs are being developed or used
  • they are not yet able to measure how OER are truly widening either formal or informal engagement in HE study
  • many people who are not ODU students value being able to freely access and learn from ODU OER designed for self-study, compared with open recorded lessons or slide presentations from conventional teaching
  • OER are fine for confident and experienced learners, but this is less true of those targeted for schemes aimed at widening participation, who will need additional support mechanisms.

Bossu, Bull and Brown (USQ and Massey University) explore some of the policies and initiatives that might play significant roles in enabling the use and development of OER in Australia. Main findings:

  • OER are not part of the Australian government’s or universities’ strategies to increase social inclusion
  • Australian universities have been slow to embrace this revolution mainly because of fierce competition between Australian universities for market share of tuition-paying students and a lack of a convincing business model for OER (‘there’s no money in OER’)
  • most OER initiatives have been confined to small/isolated projects in Australian universities
  • those students who most need access to higher education often lack technology access, so OER are unavailable to them
  • few university preparatory courses available as OER, and none recognized for admission

Nikoi and Armellini (Aberystwyth and Leicester Universities), based on interviews with 90 students, academics and senior managers, found that for OER to have an impact on higher education in terms of learner benefit and social inclusion, OER need a mix of four factors:

  • purpose: what an OER initiative will help achieve
  • process: what resources, systems, quality control mechanisms are needed
  • product: types of OERs, licensing arrangements, target audiences
  • policy: governance and assessment of future implications

Finally, they conclude that institutions can do far more to promote universal access to high quality resources and social inclusion.

Willems and Bossu (Monash and U of New England) argue that while equity reasons often underpin the provision of OER, challenges continue to be experienced by those most disadvantaged  in accessing OER. Challenges include:

  • language of instruction
  • contextualization/localization
  • technology access

Richter and McPherson (U of Duisburg-Essen and U of Leeds) also explore questions such as

  • whether Western policymakers can avoid the repetition of some of the failures of the past in terms of foreign aid;
  • how educators/content providers can foster a worldwide knowledge society
  • if OER can realistically overcome the educational gap and foster educational justice.

They answer these questions positively and suggest six, mainly technical, recommendations to support OER in foreign contexts.

Eileen Scanlon (UKOU) provides and discusses two examples of inquiry and observation tools for science as OER for developing a better understanding of science for the general public.

Hockings, Brett and Terentjevs (U of Wolverhampton) describe an OER project that aims to teach academics how to teach inclusively, i.e. for social diversity. They suggest three models for embedding the principles of inclusive learning and teaching through the use of OER

Hodgkinson-Williams and Paskevicius (U of Cape Town) report on an empirical study of how University of Cape Town post-graduate students have assisted in the process of reworking academic teaching materials as OER, and what they had to go through to make the OER socially inclusive, within a conceptual framework of activity theory.

In the three, short ‘reflection’ articles, Terry Harding (Christian Education Ministries) complains that non-government distance education programs for school children are discriminated against by the Commonwealth (Federal) government of Australia. Liam Phelan (University of Newcastle, NSW) asks whether OER will change the nature of how we look at and particularly assess and accredit ‘autodidactic’ learning. Don Olcott Jr., writing from Abu Dhabi, examines four issues: blending OER into the day-to-day management of teaching and learning in institutions; the relationship between formal and non-formal approaches to OER; developing sustainable business models for OER; mobilizing awareness and use of OER.


I have mixed feelings about this edition. Little evidence was produced in these articles that OER does anything to foster social inclusion – indeed there is evidence here to the contrary. Also little or no evidence was available in these articles about success of OER in terms of learning or even in most articles the extent of its adoption – just too hard to measure, apparently.

For those who believe in the value and importance of OER, this is more than discouraging. Maybe Australia and Europe are behind on this, and if authors were from North America, they may have been more enthusiastic and less questioning. On the other hand, maybe some cold water is needed to cool down the hype around OER.

However, I did learn a lot from these articles, although the law of diminishing returns seemed to apply towards the end (or maybe I was just getting tired). The main points:

  • The articles did take in general a critically reflective approach and in one or two cases provided empirically based analyses of actual use (or non-use) of OER.
  • They brought home to me that the real challenge is the integration of OER in a wider learning environment, particularly in formal education, but also it appears in informal education as well. There needs to be some broader learning context or environment for OER to be useful.
  • There were some constructive ideas about how to make OER work.
  • And I did come away with my view reinforced that OER alone are not going to increase social inclusion or widen access to higher education, although they may still be a useful component of a broader strategy.

But it all looks like hard work to make them effective. Now on the other hand MOOCs……


Où sont les spécialistes francophones des OERs/REO?

Listen with webReader

Veuillez pardonner que j’écrisse le pauvre français – l’anglais suivit.

UNESCO et le Commonwealth of Learning organisent un Forum Politique Africain au sujet des ressources éducatives ouvertes (OER/REO) à Pretoria, Afrique du Sud, du 21 -22 fevrier, avant du Congress Mondial des OER/REO en juin à Paris.

UNESCO et le Commonwealth of Learning cherchent les spécialistes francophones des OER/REO (les ressources éducatives ouvertes) et les délégués de gouvernement.

On veut trouver beaucoup des spécialistes francophones des OER/REO et des délégués de gouvernement, qui ont dévélopés les avant-projets ou ont réalisés les politiques, ou ont demonstrés les grands engagements au milieu des REO.

Avec l’assistance de la fondation Hewlett (les Etats-Unies),il est possible que le Commonwealth of Learning puisse trouver les fonds de soutenir les participantes francophones qui veulent assister au Forum.

On peut trouver les détails plus amples d’Abel Caine, Programme Specialist for Open Educational Resources at UNESCO.

Search for Francophone African OER Experts and Government representatives 

UNESCO and the Commonwealth of Learning are organizing an Africa OER Policy Forum in Pretoria, South Africa from 21 -22 February in the lead up to the World OER Congress.

Help is sought in identifying a good number of Francophone OER experts/ practitioners as well as Francophone government representatives that have developed drafts or actually enacted policies, or have shown great commitment to enacting OER policies.

Through the generous support of the Hewlett Foundation (USA), the Commonwealth of Learning may be able to provide funding for selected Francophone experts/ government representatives to attend the Forum.

For further information, please contact Abel Caine, Programme Specialist for Open Educational Resources at UNESCO.

EURODL journal: special issue on creativity and OERS

Listen with webReader

© Vadim Kotelnikov, 2011

The European Journal of Open and Distance Learning has a special edition on creativity and open educational resources

In their thoughtful editorial/introductory chapter, the editors, Elsebeth Sorensen, Graînne Conole and Asger Harlung, state:

researchers and practitioners… are still struggling to… mobilise … the latent potential of the new educational paradigm in order to enhance and make processes of learning through technology genuine, joyful, meaningful, social and engaging….Today, the pedagogical and psychological sciences are pointing to the need to address that different learners have different learning styles, while at the same time digital media have made it possible to learn or access the same content in a multitude of different ways. Furthermore creativity has been highlighted by a number of eminent researchers in the field as a key digital literacy skill that is needed by today’s and future learners and teachers….Open Educational Resources (OER) may offer enormous potential in supporting the development of creativity, as they can be used and reused by teachers and learners in a range of contexts…In this special issue we are interested in exploring in more depth the nature of creativity and how this might be understood and used to better harness the potential of OER.


Cinzia FerrantiExploring OER: Internet Information Literacy, Problem Solving and Analogical Thinking

Helen Keegan, Frances BellYouTube as a Repository: The Creative Practice of Students as Producers of Open Educational Resources

Maria Pérez-Mateo, Marcelo F. Maina, Montse Guitert, Marc RomeroLearner Generated Content: Quality Criteria in online Collaborative Learning

Niels Henrik Helms, Simon B. HeilesenFraming Creativity. User-driven Innovation in Changing Contexts

Paolo Tosato, Gianluigi Bodi: Collaborative Environments to Foster Creativity, Reuse and Sharing of OER

Patrick McAndrewInspiring Creativity in Organisations, Teachers and Learners through Open Educational Resources

Rita Kop, Fiona Carroll: Cloud Computing and Creativity: Learning on a Massive Open Online Course

Thomas Richter: Adaptability as a Special Demand on Open Educational Resources: The Cultural Context of e-Learning


This journal edition is packed with interesting ideas about how to use OERs to foster creativity in learners. We need to know much more about what practices work best and for what purpose in the field of OERs and this journal provides an invaluable guide to such practices.