August 31, 2014

Contact North on Online Learning, Innovation, Flexibility and Open Educational Resources

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Contact North's humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North’s humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North continues to produce a range of interesting short pieces on different aspects of online learning. (Disclaimer: I am a Contact North research associate, and have contributed a few times.)

The April 9 edition of Contact North’s Online Learning News contains three such contributions (all these pieces are generally anonymously written):

The What, Why, Where, and How of Open Educational Resources (OER)

Dr. Rory McGreal, Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associate and the UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources answers these fundamental questions in a series of 10 short, informative videos, Open Educational Resources (OER) – A Video Primer.

There are two available at the moment, with others coming:

  1. What are open educational resources?
  2. Comparing commercial and open educational resources.

How to Design an Innovative Course

This piece suggests some steps that can help faculty and instructors approach the issue of innovative teaching in a systematic way, including

  • being clear on the problem you are trying to solve
  • working in a team
  • applying technology appropriately to address the problem to be solved
  • evaluating and disseminating your innovation

Greater Flexibility as the New Mantra

I have recently visited a Canadian university developing a major strategy around flexible learning, and this short piece (by someone else) suggests a wide range of ways in which institutions can increase their flexibility, including:

  • course design and delivery options
  • learning recognition and credit granting
  • program completion
  • assessment
  • transition from apprenticeship through diploma to degrees to graduate work .

These and many more items can be found on Contact North’s ‘Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty and Instructors’, available both in English and French.

Click here if you wish to subscribe to Contact North’s newsletter.

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.

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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?

Institutions

  • 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?

Government

  • 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.

An analysis of OERs for adult education in Europe

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oerukFalconer, I. et al. (2013) Overview and Analysis of Practices with Open Educational Resources in Adult Education in Europe Seville, Spain: European Commission Institute for Prospective Technological Studies

McGill, L., Falconer, I., Dempster, J.A., Littlejohn, A. and Beetham, H. Journeys to Open Educational Practice:  UKOER/SCORE Review Final Report. JISC, 2013

OER4Adults

The first report, with the short title of OER4Adults, is an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe.

The report is based on an analysis of the OER4Adults inventory of over 150 OER initiatives of relevance to adult education and lifelong learning in Europe, and on a survey of the leaders of 36 OER initiatives that focus on adult and lifelong learners in Europe.

The analysis revealed 6 ‘tensions’ that drive developing practices around OER in adult learning (extracted from the Executive Summary):

Open versus free

There is considerable confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. Low awareness of licensing is pronounced among adult educators and lifelong learners; common practice is to use free (no cost) resources without worrying unduly about IPR. The confusion [is compounded] by restrictive but ‘free’ practices (such as many MOOCs). [Such confusion] is a barrier to collaboration across sectors that can produce OER of value to adult learners, and hinders the collection of evidence of the benefits of OER with a consequent threat to funding streams.

Traditional versus new approaches

The majority of OER providers have traditional Higher Education views of teacher-directed pedagogy that are out of line with the direction in which adult learning is heading. Furthermore, the question of credit for OER study that is appropriate to lifelong and workplace learners is seldom tackled. The findings raise the possibility that approaches that work well in a university context may be less appropriate elsewhere. Cross-sector collaboration between universities and those who know the lifelong learning context could lead to more effective resources.

Altruism versus marketisation

Individuals working in OER initiatives are strongly altruistic in their motivations, and these ideals engender strong commitment and team working. However, they tend to overlook the wider social context in which open learning initiatives are being supported by institutions primarily because of the brand recognition they create, and the importance of brand, as opposed to quality, in learner choice of resources. Brand is particularly significant for adult learners whose digital literacy tends to be low.

Community versus openness

Community-building is seen by initiatives as essential for successful uptake of OER. Communities can raise awareness, spread practice, and boost confidence. But equally a community can, by its norms, be closed in practice to ‘others’. Transferring resources produced in one community such as a university to another such as a group of workplace learners can be difficult. This makes collaboration across sectors particularly important at resource development stage. The open licence is essential in enabling such collaboration.

Mass participation versus quality

The ability of the masses to participate in production of OER – and a cultural mistrust of getting something for nothing – give rise to user concerns about quality. Commercial providers/publishers who generate trust through advertising, market coverage and glossy production, may exploit this mistrust of the free. This is particularly significant given the low ability of lifelong learners to evaluate resources for themselves. Belief in quality is a significant driver for OER initiatives, but the issue of scale-able ways of assuring quality in a context where all (in principle) can contribute has not been resolved, and the question of whether quality transfers unambiguously from one context to another is seldom [addressed]. A seal of approval system is not infinitely scale-able, while the robustness of user reviews, or other contextualised measures, has not yet been sufficiently explored.

Add-on versus embedded funding

Initiatives focused on adult learning contexts tend to have more diverse funding streams than those focused on more formal educational contexts. They are less likely to be reliant on government funding and more likely to be involved in cross-sector partnerships or exchanges. They have a larger community base and greater embeddedness in ongoing practices, rather than being perceived as a one-off funded ‘project’ that comes to an end when the funding ends. They are less worried about the ongoing sustainability of their work.

Journeys to Open Educational Practice

This is a report on the evaluation and synthesis of the JISC/HE Academy OER Phase 3 programme in the United Kingdom (which is part of but separate from the European Union – you need to be British – or Canadian – to understand this.)

Main findings (taken from Summary of Key Lessons Learned):

Culture and Practice

In the past, many sharing and technology change projects were hampered by the attitude of participants, and while negative views of open practices are still the case for many, this is rapidly changing with tutors and senior managers becoming more receptive to open practices and using technology. … However, working with OER [Open Educational Resources] and open practices is not a straight forward process with issues remaining in communication, training, legal, procedural, practical and infrastructural areas…All of this activity is substantial and mean[s] that even [those experienced on OER projects] were not able to leapfrog or simplify many of the stages every OER project has to engage in. 

Releasing and using OER

it is also important to consider the OER freedoms (c.f. UNESCO Access2OER report). In that framework, there are three essential freedoms inherent in “open”, which are legal freedom, technical freedom, and educational freedom. Legal freedom embodies licensing, and is the main OER freedom recognised. Technical freedoms include the freedom to access easily, to download, to disaggregate easily, etc. Finally, educational freedom captures whether the resource is sufficiently open for it to be adaptable to various circumstances, and easy to understand and localise. …. Overall, this threefold “freedoms”-based approach to OER enables users to take ownership, to change and adapt, and thus to participate as fully as possible and develop their own capabilities.

Institutional processes

Existing institutional policies for IPR, teaching, learning and assessment, quality and marketing may need to be adapted to incorporate OER and OEP into institution-wide practice. These include:

  • policies specifically on OER or OEP  
  • staff development activities
  • digital literacy activities
  • institutional infrastructure to support OERs

Detailed examples to illustrate all these and other findings are given in the report.

Conclusions

These two reports are essential reading for anyone interested in developing or using open educational resources, and really need to be read in full. The reports bring together a great range of experience in the actual practice of open educational resources, as distinct from the rhetoric.

It can be seen that while progress is being made in the acceptance and use of OERs, it is still a hard struggle. What seems a very simple idea in principle becomes exceedingly complex in practice. This of course is due partly to restrictive copyright and licensing rules in many countries, but also due to a large degree on institutional and cultural issues. Organizations such as the Creative Commons are working hard to deal with the technical and legal issues. The institutional and cultural barriers are more difficult to resolve but are not limited to just OERs. Such barriers really inhibit all use of learning technologies in ways that enable their potential to be fully exploited.

Having said that, if OERs are to be adopted on a large scale, thought needs to be given to simplifying the process, so that individual instructors or even course teams do not have to worry about the legal, technical and educational barriers. This requires some pretty smart institutional processes to be put in place to support OER use and adoption, as well as a good deal of faculty development and training. Until that is done, academics will be reluctant to change.

Education across space and time: Distance Education, Vol. 34, No.2

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Distance education in Australia

Distance education in Australia

This special edition of the Australian-based Distance Education journal presents a selection of papers originally submitted to the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’s 2013 summit meeting. The themes that the issue attempts to address are as follows:

  • How can we foster engaging and interactive learning with a dispersed and diverse population of students? 
  • How can we shift towards a learner-centred paradigm when institutional practices and physical infrastructures are geared towards teacher-centred delivery modes?
  • How can we enable the social and connected features of technology, when LMSs can be restrictive and clumsy…?

Sims, R. and Kigotho, M. (2013) Education across space and time: meeting the diverse needs of the distance learner:

This editorial sets the context and provides a brief description of each of the papers in the edition.

Hockridge, D. (2013) Challenges for educators using distance and online education to prepare students for relational professions

Relational professions are those which require ‘personal skills and a level of maturity.‘ This paper describes research that investigated educators’ concerns about distance and online education in Australian theological institutions. The paper in particular looks at ‘formation’, or character development, so the findings are more widely relevant than just theology. Her conclusion is well worth summarizing:

…it is overly simplistic to conclude that formational learning cannot occur in distance and online modes. Formational learning is complex and not easy to achieve regardless of the mode of study….a more productive way forward…is to be more intentional about the ways in which formation is addressed whether on campus, distance or online.

Earl, K. (2013) Student views on short-text assignment formats in fully online courses.

Short-text assignments restrict the word counts to 800 words or less. (Bit like a blog.) The study addressed two questions: how do students rate short-text assignments? How do students rate feedback provided by short text assignments? Conclusions:

assessment is more than a summative check of student knowledge and skills; it is an experience and part of the communication, and therefore relationship, between teachers and students. Short-text assignments are rated highly by students not because of a shorter word count but because students appreciated the variety and creativity aspects to these assignments. 

Note that the study was on one class of 21 students taught by the researcher.

Watson, S. (2013) Tentatively exploring the learning potentialities of postgraduate distance learners’ interactions with other people in their life contexts

Little consideration seems to have been given to the possibility that distance learners may be interacting with other people in their life contexts about their studies in a way that is making a positive contribution to their studies. The study involved semi-structured interviews of 15 Australian post-graduate students studying at a distance. Although the findings suggest that students vary widely in the extent to which they interact with others outside their course for study purposes, when they do interact, they produce identifiable learning benefits. Watson identified five types of life context interactions:

  • gathering information for assignments
  • getting help with difficult content
  • discussing the application of content to real-world contexts
  • sharing knowledge with others
  • getting feedback on assignment drafts

Watson suggests two course design implications from her studies so far:

  • encourage learners to talk to appropriate colleagues, friends or family about the application of particular theories in practice
  • encourage the establishment of mentoring relationships between learners and appropriate industry personnel

Higgins, K. and Harreveld, R. (2013) Professional development and the university casual academic: integration and support strategies for distance education

Casual academics are university instructors who are not entitled to either paid holiday leave or sick leave (such as, presumably, adjuncts and contract instructors in North America). In this study, twelve casual academics who taught distance education courses discussed their work through an in-depth semi-structured interview. The interviews revealed that these instructors managed their own professional development informally, and were sometimes unaware of the formal professional development activities available to them from the university.

Murphy, A. (2103) Open educational practices in higher education: institutional adoption and challenges

In this study, 110 individuals from higher education institutions in 29 countries participated in a survey aimed at identifying the extent to which HE institutions are currently implementing OERs and practices. The sample was focused on people with an interest in OERs; half the participants were from UK.

Main findings:

  • 23% were in organizations actively involved in the OERu network - 
  • 88% ‘knowledgeable’ about OERs
  • 29% were in institutions that were actively publishing OERs
  • the adoption of OERs and practices is still in its infancy
  • additional support such as funding and dedicated human resources are needed

Yasmin (2013) Application of the classification tree model in predicting learner dropout behaviour in open and distance learning

This study compares pre-enrollment student data with student attrition/drop-out for 12,000 post-graduate distance education students admitted to the University of North Bengal, India. The study indicated that married, employed, older, or remotely located students were more likely to drop out.

Note that the study used mainly demographic data, rather than data based on previous academic performance or the influence of factors during courses.

The paper’s main value is that it provides an analysis of drop-out factors for distance education students in a developing country, complementing the vast array of similar studies in developed countries.

Todhunter, B. (2013) LOL – limitations of online learning – are we selling the open and distance education message short?

This article questions the terminology being used to promote an institution’s programs. The author is particularly concerned that focusing on the term ‘online learning’ does a disservice to the special aspects of open and distance education. He argues it is necessary to pay close attention to the different needs of off-campus or distance learners, which can be lost in a discussion of the merits of online versus campus education. But above all, Todhunter is concerned that a focus on ‘online learning’ will put off many who are potential learners, whereas the terms ‘open’ and ‘distance’ will not only be be more appealing to some students, but may require different policies and strategies than a focus on ‘online’ learning.

Students embarking on graduate theses involving online learning, e-learning, distance education or open learning will benefit from reading this article when it comes to clearly defining what they are researching.

Comments

First, an explanation of why I have taken the time to ‘abstract’ these papers. This is not an ‘open access’ journal; you require a subscription from Taylor and Francis Group publications at nearly $40 an article. So pray that you have access to a good library, or you need to be sure that the article will be worth it to you. I have complained several times to Distance Education about a journal on open and distance education not being open access, but this is the policy of ODLAA (the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia).

Second, some of the individual articles are well worth reading, depending on your interest. From reading the journal I picked up the following points (these are my interpretations, not necessarily the author’s):

  • good pedagogy is more important than mode of delivery (Hockridge) – further evidence for my law of equal substitution (i.e. most of what applies to good teaching in classrooms also applies to online education, and vice versa. Most things that can be taught in class can also be taught online, so we need to focus on the exceptions, not the rule.)
  • we need to do far more research and development on online assessment methods (Earl)
  • we are underusing learners’ life experiences in the design of distance courses (especially important for adult learners) (Watson)
  • institutions need better policies for casual/adjunct/contract instructors, and need to pay particular attention to professional development for this increasingly important human resource in higher education (Higgins and Harreveld)
  • even amongst the supporters of OERs, actual use, and especially secondary use, of OERs is still minimal (Murphy) – how long does maturation have to take?
  • studies of drop-out that focus on the demographics of incoming students are pretty useless. These are your students: find ways to help them succeed – don’t screen them out just because they are a higher risk, especially if you are an open institution (Yasmin)
  • open and distance learning are not necessarily the same as online learning; institutions need to be clear about markets and values as well as about mode of delivery. (Todhunter)

However, I do feel for journal editors who have to try to pick the best papers and at the same time try to find a common theme. The theme and the questions set out for this edition are only partly addressed in these papers, but nevertheless the articles are well worth reading. It’s just a pity they are so inaccessible.

MOOCs, MIT and Magic

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MOOC panel: Dan Hastings, Anant Agarwal, Tony Bates, Sanjay Sarma, John Daniel

In my previous post, there were two sessions at the LINC 2013 conference that referred specifically to MIT’s own strategies for technology-enabled learning within MIT. These resulted in my asking the following question towards the end of the conference:

Why is MIT ignoring 25 years of research into online learning and 100 years research into how students learn in its design of online courses?

This post then will discuss both why I think this is the case, based on MIT’s own presentations at the conference, and the broader implications for educational research and instructional design.

MOOCs, MIT and Magic

The first session at the LINC conference was on four perspectives on MOOCs. There were four speakers before the coffee break, then the four speakers formed a panel to respond to questions from the audience after the coffee break. All four presentations are available in full from here, so I will provide a very brief summary of the main points made by each presenter. The session presenters were introduced by Richard Larson, Director of LINC.

First though, MIT’s Chancellor, Eric Grimson, laid out the reasons why MIT is making such a large commitment to OpenCourseWare, MOOCs and edX, and these reasons were reinforced by other MIT speakers:

  • to rethink the campus experience in the light of developments in online learning
  • increase access to learning worldwide by making MIT resources and courses available to anyone, anywhere
  • to conduct research on learning, especially by mining and analyzing the large amount of data generated by MOOCs
  • Anant Agarwal, the Director of edX, also later added: to develop an open source platform for (massive) online learning.

Sanjay Sarma, Director of MIT’s Office of Digital Learning, opened the session. He made the distinction between MOOCs as open courses available to anyone, reflecting the highest level of knowledge in particular subject areas, and the ‘magic’ of the on-campus experience, which is distinctly different from the online experience. He argued that it is difficult to define or pin down the magic that takes place on-campus, but referred to ‘in-the-corridor’ conversations between faculty and staff, hands-on engineering with other students outside of lectures and scheduled labs, and the informal learning that takes place between students in close proximity to one another. Not mentioned but implicit was also the very high standard of students admitted to MIT, and the impact of continuous contact on campus between student and professor, none of which of course is available to MOOC students. MOOCs however as well as providing a route to high quality learning for self-directed learners can be also be re-used and incorporated by other instructors in other institutions for credit.

Sir John Daniel took a much more critical view of MOOCs, suggesting, using the Gartner ‘hype cycle’, that MOOCs would soon enter the ‘trough of disillusionment’ and reflected on whether or how MOOCs will reach the “plateau of productivity”. He also pointed out that open and virtual universities in both developed and developing countries have been providing open and distance learning on a massive scale for over 40 years, and these initiatives have provided high quality and recognized qualifications.

Professor Anant Agarwal, the President of edX, provided some facts and figures about edX MOOCs, and mentioned that MIT had awarded a scholarship to the 15 year old Mongolian student who scored 100% on the final exam of an MIT MOOC course (although he will not receive credit for it). He pointed out that although over 150,000 learners enrolled in edXs first MOOC, 26,000 did the first activity, and 7,000 went on to complete successfully the certificate based on an online exam. (This woud provide a completion rate of approximately 28%, which is probably the most valid way to calculate completion rates for MOOCs.) More importantly, Agarwal defined the pedagogical ‘innovations’ in MOOCs as follows:

  • active learning: short video lectures interspersed with student tests/activities
  • self-paced learning
  • instant feedback
  • simulations/online labs to teach design of experiments
  • peer-to-peer learning.

Some of this has been made possible by MIT engineers building original software for automatic grading or feedback, including enabling students to write formulae as answers.

Me, MOOCs and pedagogy

I was the last speaker in this session and focused on the pedagogy of MOOCs, and suggested some ways in which they could be improved, based on 25 years of research in online learning. In summary the basic points I made are as follows:

  • MOOCs face several challenges, in particular low completion rates, problems with student  assessment, especially for assessment that requires qualitative or essay-type answers, and poor Internet access in developing countries
  • there is 25 years of experience and research into what works and what doesn’t in online learning
  • by and large, this knowledge is not being applied to the design of edX or Coursera MOOCs, which are based mainly on video recordings of classroom lectures
  • paying more attention to pedagogical issues and instructional design could help mitigate some of the challenges
  • in particular more attention needs to be paid to skills development, knowledge construction/deep learning and learner support
  • research should focus on course designs that focus on skills development rather than the transmission of information, on how to scale up learner support and oncosting models that provide resources for improved learner support
  • MOOCs should not be ‘second best’ for developing countries, replacing more locally based provision
  • for all this to happen, computer specialists and educators/instructional designers need to work together as equals

A copy of my presentation can be obtained by sending me an e-mail (tony.bates@ubc.ca) and I will send you an invitation via Dropbox to download the slides.

Technology-enabled learning: what’s going on at MIT?

This was the title of another session that described in more detail MIT’s other technology-enabled activities besides MOOCs. First I need to describe how MIT organizes its technology-enabled teaching and learning, based on the Executive Director of OpenCourseware, Cecilia d’Oliveira’s, clear presentation about 10 years history and the organizational structure of educational technology initiatives at MIT.

The Office of Digital Learning

Most of the better known MIT activities in this area come under the umbrella of the Office of Digital Learning, whose Director is Dr. Sanjay Sarma, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering.

Within this division is MIT OpenCour.seWare, which collects and provides a portal for video recordings of lectures and support materials that faculty have agreed can be shared openly. Currently MIT OCW offers materials from 2,150 MIT courses, plus courses from more than 300 universities worldwide. However, these are open educational materials (OERs), not full courses. Cecilia d’Oliveira, whose background is mainly in IT, is the Exective Director of MIT OpenCourseWare.

Also within the Division of Digital Learning is MITx, which works with faculty and academic departments to develop MOOCs (massive online courses, including currently 16 available at the moment through edX), and is responsible for the platform used not only for its own online courses but also for other edX courses. Some of these courses are available to MIT students for credit, as well as being open to other learners (but without credit).

While edX uses the MITx platform (which is open source and open to other developers) for its courses, edX is a ‘portal’ or stage for bringing together the MOOCs from MIT, Harvard and other partners in edX, such as UC Berkeley. There are currently 26 universities contributing MOOCs to edX, which is a non-profit organization supported mainly by a grant of $60 million from MIT and Harvard. Professor Anant Agarwal is the President of edX, and is Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and was formerly Director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Media Production Services has approximately 25 staff who help with the video capturing and production for online courses, OCW, and other technical services.

Lastly, the Office of Educational Innovation and Technology (OEIT) is also within the Office of Digital Learning. OEIT works with faculty, staff and students to enable and promote the development and dissemination of innovative uses of technology in teaching and learning. Its focus is on innovative software and hardware to support learning and teaching. For instance, the ARTEMiS project is developing high-quality visualizations by applying the principles of visual communication and using the tools of modern computer graphics to create visualizations that accurately portray scientific and technological concepts. OEIT also maintains four physical Experimental Learning Environments (ELE) and a small pool of laptops for flexible deployment for innovative curricula.  These spaces are intended as incubators for testing new or different technologically enhanced pedagogical paradigms.  These physical spaces host a suite of technologies, applications and tools. The Director of OEIT is Dr. M.S. Vijay Kumar, who has a doctorate in academic computing in education.

Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education

Also, within the Office of the Dean for Undergraduate Education, the Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL) collaborates with faculty, teaching assistants, and students to promote excellence in teaching and learning throughout the Institute, assisting with MIT-wide innovations in pedagogy, curriculum, and educational technology in STEM teaching and learning.  It also conducts research in teaching at MIT. Dr. Leslie Breslow, Senior Lecturer, Sloan School of Management, is the Director.

The Office of Faculty Support, provides support to help the faculty develop and coordinate the undergraduate curriculum and educational programming and provides grants and opportunities for faculty development . Professor Diana Henderson, Professor of Literature, is the Director.

Ten years of learning technology innovation at MIT

Research into teaching and learning at OEIT

There has been over 10 years of research and experimentation in teaching with technology at MIT. Brandon Murumatsu of OEIT described two current research projects. The first was the development of an online version of an MIT ‘hard’ course in mechanics and materials, traditionally delivered in class mainly by one hour 25 minute lectures and supported by problem sets that are done as homework. In the distance version, the lectures are recorded with a TA taking notes on the different topics or ‘chunks’ addressed during the lecture. This enables  the online video to be embedded in an interactive web page that is indexed and linked to the different ‘chunks’ of the lecture (see diagram below). Students can therefore search quickly for different parts of the lecture, slow down, speed up or repeat each ‘chunk, etc. No information was given on how successful this was.

The second experiment was a take a ‘flipped’ lecture class and embed assessment with immediate feedback into the lecture, through the use of simple multiple choice questions. This enabled a large set of data to be collected and anlyzed about how students responded to the different parts of the lecture. It was reported  that students love or even dream of getting the green checkmark when they get the answers right.

MIT student responses to online learning

The last session was in some ways the best of the conference. Three MIT students presented on their experiences of online learning. Sam Shames reported how he used online learning for his project work, exploring the ‘universe’ of online, open resources (in particular OCW) to help with problem-solving and project work, and in particular the opportunity it provides for students to find individual pathways through online OERs.

Ethan Solomon reported on his experience of taking four MOOCs. The good:

  • the ability to go over materials again and again
  • ability to go at one’s own pace
  • immediate feedback

The bad:

  • the limitation of multiple choice questions
  • MOOCs are mainly just lectures
  • difficulty of organizing massive numbers of students, especially in discussions.

Comments

I found the conference fascinating, for many reasons, but here are the main points I came away with.

1. MIT is making genuine efforts to open up its teaching, its materials and opportunities for learning across the world. It has invested very heavily in this, and many institutions, instructors and learners outside MIT are taking advantage. The quality of the content is often outstanding.

2. MIT is still tied though to the lecture as the main means of delivery for online learning. In fact, the MIT students on the panel showed that they understand the need to adopt a different approach to online learning better than the faculty.

3. MOOCs are the consequence of lecture capture technology. This technology makes it easy to move teaching online, but without changing the design of the teaching. This usually results in information transmission becoming the primary pedagogy, without addressing the many limitations of lectures, except the ability for asynchronous access, which is an important improvement on the ‘live’ lecture.

4. MIT  is using a behaviourist approach to its online learning, based mainly on Skinnerian thinking and research. Long lectures are still a core part of its campus pedagogy as well, but there is additional ‘magic’ provided on campus (informal and experiential learning and close contact with faculty) which is not available to its online learners. In my view, it is a mistake to believe that such ‘magic’ cannot be created online. It can, but it needs good course design based on sound educational principles.

5. If instructional designers exist at MIT, they play a minor role or have little power. This shows in both the design of its MOOCs and in the research being conducted.

6. In my view, MIT will struggle to make an impact on educational research if it continues to ignore the potential contribution of educators. It is as if researchers such as Piaget, Bruner, Vigotsky, Carl Rogers, Gagné, and many later researchers had never existed. Can you imagine anyone trying to develop a new form of transportation while deliberately ignoring  Newtonian mechanics? Yet this is what MIT is doing in its educational research. In fact, as the research described above shows, they are re-inventing the wheel. It was admiited that many of the results they are getting are not new but have been known for many years.

For me this is a tragedy. MIT’s engineers have so much to offer in helping to improve educational technology but it needs to be informed and embedded in theories of learning, and must take account of prior research, for it to gain traction and be of value. This means working in a team with educators who have the design and research knowledge and experience, and working with them as equal partners.

Of course, MIT does not need this advice. It is immensely successful and will continue to produce great engineers. But it could also do so much more.

Having said all that, I learned a great deal from the conference, was treated with immense courtesy, and I am very grateful for the invitation to attend.