April 25, 2014

EDEN research workshop on open and distance learning

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Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel

What: Challenges for research into Open & Distance Learning: Doing Things Better: Doing Better Things

EDENRW8 is very focussed on you the researcher and what you can learn from and with your peers.  It takes place in an intimate setting where researchers including postgraduate students can share research, connect with peers and have adequate time to discuss the challenges of their work. EDENRW8 is suitable for researchers and postgraduate students and particularly those wishing to actively connect with peers and debate

When: 27-28 October, 2014

Who: Organized by EDEN (the European Distance and e-Learning Network) and hosted by the Open University (U.K.)

Where: The Oxford Spires Four Pillars Hotel, Oxford, U.K.

Format: This is not your usual conference program and definitely a workshop format! ….The networking occurs as an essential aspect of your experience. Featuring small groups for deep dialogues, feedback on your research, team symposia, ‘research-speed-dating’ papers, demonstrations, poster sessions, a connect lounge, informal sessions for meet the professor for early career and postgraduate researchers, world café style facilitation and presentations along with our resident keynotes.


Call for contributions: Submissions that relate to the Workshop Scope and one or more of the Workshop Themes are welcome in the following categories by the deadline: 1 September. You are encouraged to submit your proposal earlier to support a speedy evaluation of the proposals and enhance your possibility to register early in time. Proposals submitted before summer will be evaluated within two weeks.

Online submission: Click here

Registration does not open until 1 September 2014


I really like the EDEN research workshops. They are usually relatively small (around 100 or so participants), informal and great for networking. If you have any interest in research into online learning, open or distance education, this is a must.

Can online learning lead to productivity gains through savings on campus facilities?

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Wilfred Laurier University is proposing a campus in Milton Ontario - but would it be more productive to use online learning?

Wilfred Laurier University has proposed a campus in Milton Ontario – but would it be more productive to use online learning?

Apologies for the web site being down on November 10, due to a domain registration problem with CIRA which has now been resolved.

This is the last but one post on the theme of productivity and online learning.

This is a continuation of the discussion on whether online learning can increase educational ‘productivity.’ Previous posts in this series include:

There is a CIDER webinar presentation on the HEQCO report available from here

In this post I want to explore the opportunities for increased productivity through online learning replacing campus-based activities.

Publicly-funded campus-based universities

Can campus-based institutions increase productivity through online learning reducing their costs of campus-based activities (or more realistically, through expanding activity at a lower marginal cost through online learning)? This might be done in a number of ways, for example, by:

  • handling an expansion of student enrollments through online learning, instead of building extra campus facilities to handle the increase
  • more intensive use of existing facilities, such as science labs or lecture theatres, for instance, by students spending more time on simulations or remote labs and less on hands-on labs, or reducing demands on lecture halls through blended learning.

How much scope is there for such campus-based economies? Certainly in Canada, as demographics change and a greater proportion of the student population is made up of adult or lifelong learners, the pattern of demand on campus facilities will change. Married professionals with full-time jobs are less likely to want to use the sports facilities or the student union, for instance, (but may demand child care facilities), but more particularly, more students working either partly or wholly online will have knock-on effects on a very wide range of campus facilities, such as reducing the number of cars coming on campus (one university president told me that this was the best argument she had heard for online learning), the demand for on-campus residences, food services and many other areas. Some of these, of course, such as parking and food services, are run as either cost-recovery or profit-generating activities, but many others, such as the heating and maintenance of buildings, are a large drain on resources.

We can see the implications of this if we look at the publicly stated operating budget of one of Canada’s largest universities, the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus.



Amount ($)



President’s Office



Faculties + VP Academic’s Office












Communications/fund raising



Student support/welfare/aid






  • financial



  • campus facilities











UBC’s Annual Operating Budget, 2012/2013 (from: 2013/14 Budget: Presentation to the Governors, pp. 42-48). Because of rounding, totals may not add to exact numbers.

It can be seen that operating costs associated with campus facilities constitute about 10 per cent of the total budget. IT Services spends another $4 million on classroom technologies each year, for a total of almost $100 million a year. Even a 10 per cent saving on facilities’ operating costs would save $10 million a year. If, as likely, UBC adds another 10 per cent of students over the next 10 years (6,000) and just half of these were fully online, that would be 3,000 students not using or requiring facilities on campus. There are also environmental benefits (less traffic pollution, less use of physical resources) although these need to be offset a little by the environmental impact of students working from home, using electricity and their own computers, etc.

The impact on capital costs will be even higher, but much harder to calculate. In essence, most new university  building development is paid for from long-term government loans (or donations), and is usually in a totally separate budget from the operating costs. Nevertheless there is a real cost in constructing new buildings, which has to be paid for in some way. Smart accountants or VPs Finance are probably already doing cost-benefit analyses of the potential impact on capital expenditures from an increase in online learning, and how potential savings could be transferred to improving teaching and learning – and if not, they should be.

On the other hand, it is clear that there are also severe limits on increased savings from facilities through the use of online learning. Almost two-thirds of the operating budget comes entirely from the cost of faculty and senior academic administrators. We have discussed earlier that though there are certainly ways to improve faculty productivity through online learning, there is a danger of reducing the human element in university-level teaching, particularly if the aim is to develop the higher order learning skills needed in the 21st century. Nevertheless there appears to be more scope in looking for ways to increase faculty productivity through online learning than through savings on facilities, but nevertheless there are possibilities.

Open universities

Institutions that do not require students to come to a campus at all, such as open universities, do not have to worry about the cost of campus facilities for students. This can result in some dramatic savings and/or increases in productivity. During the late 80s and early 90s, the UK Open University (UKOU) was ranked in the top 10 per cent of universities in the U.K. for teaching, and in the top third for research. It is currently third on student satisfaction. During the 1980s, the Open University in Britain was turning out undergraduates at approximately half the cost of campus-based universities, although if the OU’s generally lower or slower graduation rate (around 40% over seven years) is taken into account, the differences are less marked. However,  in 2012 the U.K. government removed its subsidy to the U.K. Open University, which as a result now has fees of £5,000 (C$8,000) per year for the equivalent of one year’s full-time study (although most OU students are part-time, so take fewer units and longer to graduate than full-time campus-based students). This fee probably reflects the real cost of the OU’s operation. OU tuition fees though are still much lower than tuition fees in the English campus-based universities, which are in the range of £9,000 (C$14,500) a year.

Especially for economically developing countries, large open universities such as UNISA in South Africa, Universitas Terbuka in Indonesia, the Anadolu Open University in Turkey, and Indira Gandhi National Open University in India, all with well over 250,000 students a year, are likely to remain a major means by which to meet the rapidly growing demand for post-secondary education, because their unit costs are so much lower. However, they have been ‘productive’ not because of the use of online learning, but through massive economies of scale achieved through broadcasting and printed material. Furthermore, the most successful, in terms of graduation rates, still have to invest very heavily in local student support. More than 25% of the OU’s operating budget goes on regional services, almost twice what they spend on the BBC broadcast programs. Merely adding online learning to the existing course development process may indeed increase their costs. It will take major structural changes for online learning to bring major cost savings to large open universities and indeed the culture and the organizational requirements may well make this impossible.

Walton Hall, which houses the office of the Vice-Chancellor, the UK Open University

Walton Hall, the UK Open University

Virtual universities

There are still surprisingly few publicly-funded fully online universities in the world. The oldest and possibly still the strongest is the Open University of Catalonia in Spain, with close to 50,000 students. In 2008, the Open University of Portugal converted all its courses to online. The Open University of the Netherlands is now mainly online. However, the legacy investments in print and broadcasting have made it difficult for even open universities such as Athabasca to go fully online.

I find the lack of publicly-funded online universities very strange. Governments have been incredibly timid over the last 20 years in this respect, especially given the rhetoric of how online learning is going to save the world. Given what we know now about the costs of online learning, and the conditions for success, it should not be difficult to create a highly cost-effective, more ‘productive’ online university, by building it from scratch. It would be an opportunity to really explore the best way to leverage the productivity of online learning. However, it will be important to not only take some risks, but also to have those risks balanced by a careful analysis of current best practices in online learning. Any government ministers listening?

For-profit universities

For-profit universities that have at least part of their operations fully online, such as the University of Phoenix, also have been able to achieve major productivity gains (even if these productivity gains have often been used to boost profits rather than reduce costs to students – in 2011, the University of Phoenix made a profit for its shareholders of $1.2 billion, as much as the total operating cost of a large tier 1 public university such as UBC). Again, though, these productivity gains have as much to do with standardized content, an absence of any research activities, lower cost instructor contracts, and some nimble footwork around federal financial aid for students, as with the use of online learning, although savings on facilities will have played at least some role in the productivity of its online operations. Unfortunately though the University of Phoenix does not provide a breakdown of its operating costs for the public, so we can only speculate on the productivity gains from online delivery, compared with its campus-based operation. Maybe other for-profits, such as Kaplan or Laureate, might be more forthcoming.


Many attempts have been made to create virtual universities through consortia. In such models, existing campus-based institutions get together to create a ‘virtual’ university, which has no campus, and where students take online courses from a range of member institutions in the consortium, usually with a student gaining a qualification from their ‘local’ member institution. Probably the most successful such consortium to date is Open Universities Australia, an educational organization owned by eight of Australia’s leading universities, although there are altogether 20 universities offering courses through the consortium. This makes a profit for its members through the sharing of courses. The University of the West Indies and the University of the South Pacific are two other consortium-type distance education universities that have been running for over 25 years, although they also depend heavily on local campuses for technology delivery of the distance programs as well as face-to-face teaching. The Virtual University of the Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC) is a relatively new consortium covering 32 small island states, enabling them to share courses and offer a wider range of online programs than would be possible on their own. (I will be writing more about this project in another post).

However, there are more failures than successes in getting effective online university consortia to work, including Universitas 21 Global and Fathom, to mention just a couple. Those that have succeeded also have a very strong and important campus component.  Nevertheless the potential is there for  online consortia, and it will be interesting to see if VUSSC and the newly-formed OERu are successful – I sincerely hope so.

Summary and conclusions

  • first, there appear to be opportunities for modest but still significant productivity gains through more effective use of existing facilities through online learning
  • where these facilities-based productivity gains have occurred on traditional campuses it has been unintentional rather than planned and almost certainly not yet measured
  • nevertheless, government, university and college planners should be taking into consideration the potential of productivity gains from a greater use of online learning, particularly when considering the expansion of systems. To take one obvious example, expansion of university and college places in the outer suburbs of Toronto might be more cost-effectively addressed by existing institutions increasing their online offerings rather than building satellite campuses across the region – but the analysis remains to be done
  • building new institutions from scratch, based on what we now know about how best to combine online and campus-based activities, should enable major productivity gains (more learning for less cost) – but it remains to be tried with this goal in mind, rather than as a political activity
  • much more research, involving online learning specialists, financial specialists, and key policy makers in both institutions and government, is needed if this potential is to be achieved.


I will be doing one last post in this series, in which I will try to summarize the discussion and comments across all the posts in the series. The aim is to identify the factors where online learning could have the strongest chance of improving productivity in higher education. All I can say at this stage is that if it was a statistical factor analysis, no one factor would score higher than .3 – but added together, there is a chance to make a significant difference.

In the meantime, some questions:

  • am I dreaming in thinking that online learning could result in better, more cost-effective use of physical facilities? If so, can you provide examples?
  • even if there was a strong case for using online learning rather than building new facilities, is this likely to happen? After all, Presidents love to open new buildings
  • have I missed an important fully online, publicly funded university? If so, how did this get started? Was it based on faith or a cost-benefit analysis (stop laughing.)

No. 3 aha moment: asynchronous is (generally) better than synchronous teaching

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The transmitter at Alexandra Palace, London, for the OU's TV and radio programs

In an earlier post, I listed the seven ‘aha’ moments that have been the most seminal ‘discoveries’ in my researching and working in educational technology. This is the third of seven posts that discuss why I believe these ‘discoveries’ to be important, and their implications specifically for online learning. The others to date are:

1.  Media are different.

2. God helps those who help themselves (about educational technology in developing countries).

What was the discovery? (1978)

Everyone learns better from media and technologies that allow them to study anywhere, at any time. In particular the ability to repeat and revise recorded material makes learning much more effective than live, synchronous teaching, for any learner who requires flexibility in accessing educational opportunities.

Which are synchronous and which are asynchronous technologies?

From Bates, A. (in press) Technology, e-Learning and the Knowledge Society, London: Routledge

From the table above, it can be seen that synchronous technologies include both one-way (broadcast) technologies, such as lectures, radio, broadcast television, and Webcasts, and two-way (interactive) technologies such as face-to-face seminars, audio-conferencing, video-conferencing, web conferencing, and virtual worlds. The unifying feature of synchronous technologies is that they take place in real time; thus both teachers and students have to be communicating together at the same time (but not necessarily in the same place.)

Asynchronous technologies include both one-way (broadcast) technologies such as print, audio-cassettes, podcasts, video-cassettes, lecture capture, web sites, DVDs, databases, web streaming including YouTube videos, and xMOOCs, and two-way (interactive) technologies such as written assignments, e-mail, online discussion forums, learning management systems, e-portfolios, blogs, search engines,cMOOCs, and other social media such as Facebook. Synchronous ‘content’ can be made available ‘asynchronously’ through recording.

How did this discovery come about?

To be honest, this insight really came from work by my colleagues at the Open University, Hans Grundin, Duncan Brown, Nicola Durbridge and Stephen Brown. As part of the Audio-Visual Media Research Group, we were tracking student participation in the television and radio broadcasts that accompanied the Open University courses. The latest technology in the early 1970s was the battery-operated radio cassette player (the Sony Walkman did not arrive until 1979). This allowed students to set a timer which would automatically record a radio program on to an audio cassette. The research indicated that increasingly students were recording the radio programs to listen to them later, but more importantly they were rating the cassettes as significantly more useful to their studies than the radio transmission.

There were many reasons for this:

  1. The OU radio programs were often transmitted at difficult times, such as 6.00 am or midnight.
  2. Students could stop, rewind and replay the cassettes.
  3. We found that students were working on the print materials on average roughly a week to ten days behind the recommended schedule. Thus the recorded version was more in synch with their actual study pattern than the broadcast.

As a result the university started up an audio-cassette library service, whereby students could order a cassette if they missed a program and have it mailed to them. Also the university started designing audio-cassettes that were not broadcast but accompanied the printed material that was the core of the studies. Instructors began taking advantage of the ‘affordances’ of the cassette technology, in several ways:

  1. Integrating the cassette very tightly with the printed material. For instance, John Mason, a mathematics instructor, used the audio cassette to talk students through equations and mathematical formulae in the printed text, very similar to the way Salman Khan talks student through a video version in the Khan Academy – but 40 years earlier
  2. Making use of the stop-start cassette facility to build in exercises and activities for students to do, with the feedback/answers later on the cassette tape. (Because you have to search ‘blind’ through an audio-cassette, it prevents students jumping straight to the answer.) For a full list of the ‘affordances’ of audio that were identified through the research of the AVMRG, see: Pedagogical roles for audio in online learning

In the end, the audio cassettes became so popular that by 1980 the BBC/OU almost entirely stopped broadcasting radio programs directly linked to course units .

When the video-cassette recorder arrived in the late 1970s, we found exactly the same pattern. The cassettes were rated more highly than the television broadcasts, and at one time the university was operating a system whereby more than 200,000 audio and video cassettes a year were being shipped out to students.

Why is this significant?

Because it suggests that asynchronous online learning is almost always better for learners requiring flexible learning than classroom teaching or ‘live’ broadcasts. In particular, despite the different ‘affordances’ of different media, there are some common advantages across all asynchronous technologies. In particular, students have greater control over asynchronous technologies, enabling them to fit their learning more easily into the rest of their lives, and also to repeat, and practice, until they can achieve mastery.

However,  there are circumstances where there are advantages in synchronous teaching. One obvious example is teaching oral language skills. Real-time communication in a foreign language is an important competency, so while recordings can help, students will need to practice in real time. There are circumstances where a live lecture or classroom can be more effective, for instance when trying to build a sense of community with a class, to provide an overview or summary of a whole course, or to provide inspiration or motivation to students.

Furthermore, as with all media, there are other variables which may have a large influence on effectiveness. For instance, a well-managed face-to-face seminar is likely to result in greater learning than a poorly managed online discussion forum; quality matters. Students looking for a campus-experience and direct social contact with other students are more likely to benefit from synchronous communication opportunities such as lectures and seminars.

But I woud argue that over a very broad range of circumstances, learners will on balance benefit more from asynchronous technologies, because of the extent to which they can control the pace and place of learning, and this is of particular significance for distance and/or lifelong learners.


This is probably one of the most controversial of my aha moments. There are many instructors for instance who believe very strongly in the advantages of real-time teaching, such as a lecture or seminar. Others swear by webinars (which can of course also be recorded).

Thus your comments on this will be particularly appreciated, particularly if you have research evidence to support your views.


There are 300 research reports from the AVMRG at the Open University. They are now difficult to access, but the Open University library has a complete set of papers, from 1 to 300, preserved within the University Archive. They are catalogued in the main Library catalogue http://voyager.open.ac.uk/index.html where they can be found by searching for a related topic or by searching for “AVMRG”. Visitors to the Library are welcome to access the reports within the University Archive.

Much of the research is summarized in the following books:

Bates, A. (1986) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables

Bates, A. (2005) Open learning, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge.


European open universities feeling the stress of austerity

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Walton Hall, which houses the office of the Vice-Chancellor, the UK Open University

A trip down Memory Lane

I’ve just returned from a very interesting week in Europe, accompanied by my colleague, Maxim Jean-Louis, the President of Contact North. My philosophy in life is never look back. So my visit to the Open University in England was the first time I had been there in 23 years, since I emigrated to Canada. Similarly, I had worked at the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya – or UOC) as a part-time research professor between 2003-2007, and again I hadn’t been back for five years. The third place I visited was the London Knowledge Lab at the Institute of Education, University of London, where I was a post-graduate student so long ago that I typed my thesis on an IBM golf-ball typewriter (which is about all I can remember of the experience).

First, amazingly, there were still very good friends and colleagues working at all these institutions, and I was somewhat discombobulated by the very warm welcome I received from them. MOOCs may come and go, but good friends are for life. Second, the dynamism that made all these places fun to work at is still there.

Why I was there

I will be writing detailed reports on each of these visits, but the purpose of my visit from my perspective was to look at the research being done on online learning in these three institutions, and there was great work being done in each place. Maxim’s interest was to identify the real ‘game-changers’ in online learning. More to come on this in later posts.

Money is the root of all evil

However, transcending both purposes is the current financial context in both the UK and Spain. These countries are undergoing profound economic stress and the two open universities are not able to avoid the consequences, although the challenges differ according to the context.

In particular, the UK Open University, which has been and continues to be immensely successful, with over 180,000 credit students, is suffering the law of unintended consequences. The UK government, in its wisdom, has completely changed the system of post-secondary funding. In effect, it has stopped giving universities funding to support teaching. Instead, universities now have to depend entirely on student tuition fees at around $15,000 per student per year. To cover the costs, students can take out low interest loans which are underwritten by the government. However, to qualify for such loans, students must take a full time ‘load’ of courses.

This financial strategy strikes at the very heart of the Open University. It has been forced to move from essentially a ‘free’ university to one where students are now paying around $7,500 a year in tuition fees, which is still less than half the going rate at most other universities in England and Wales. However, most of its students are working adults, and are not taking a full load of courses. Indeed, many of them are somewhat like MOOC students, taking individual courses or unique combination of courses that fit their particular needs as adults. These however do not lead to the ‘recognized qualifications’ that makes them eligible for a student loan. Thus the change in financing is devastating for many low-income learners wanting to study through the Open University, as well as for the university. As its Vice-Chancellor stated to us, if you want to look at a successful model for financing higher education, don’t look at Britain. Maybe Canada’s Mark Carney, the new Governor of the Bank of England, can help!

Meeting the challenge

Not surprisingly, the OU is looking at a range of strategies, including a strong move to internationalizing its offerings, to ensure its survival, and indeed it has seen a change in its student demographics, with younger students who under previous conditions would be applying to conventional institutions instead opting for the lower cost but still high quality and more flexible programs offered by the Open University. So you win some and you lose some. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that the current UK government’s financial strategy for higher education is a temporary aberration – isn’t that what elections are for in a democracy?

Watch this space

The next posts on these institutions will focus on the positive, the very interesting work they are doing in research in online learning.

A brief history of online learning

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© Online Colleges, 2012

Lepi, K. (2012) Who actually started online education? Edudemic, November 12

No – it wasn’t Sebastian Thrun or Daphne Koller or any of the other MOOC aficionados.

This very brief history posted by Katie Lepi has a decidedly Canadian bias, but is still pretty informative, all the same. In fact it goes back as far as 1959 with the design of PLATO.

I was pleased to see it referred to CYCLOPS, a teleconferencing system I helped to pilot at the UK Open University in 1976.

Given the Canadian slant, I thought it might have referred to CoSy, an online computer-mediated communication system developed by the University of Guelph, and used by the Open University for its first course using online learning, DT 200, with over 1,300 students, in 1988.

I was a faculty member who designed and taught the block of four week’s work on information technology in education and training on DT200. As part of the assessment students had to write an evaluation of computer-mediated communication. My wife was a student taking this course, so her informal feedback (mainly in the form of curses and slammed books) helped shaped my views as well! Conversations went something like this: ‘How do you set the dip switches on the printer?’. ‘Sorry, I can’t help you with that – it’s part of your assessment.’ ‘I don’t want to be assessed – I just want to get the !@x%$ thing to work!’  (If you are old enough to remember dip switches, you’ll appreciate her difficulties.) I’m glad that her ‘anonymous’ assessments were marked by someone else in the team.

Being pioneers is fun, looking back, but it doesn’t always seem that way at the time.

See also: Stephen Downes overview of e-learning and a little history lesson