January 26, 2015

My five wishes for online learning in 2015

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Image: © greatinternational students.blogspot.com, 2013

Image: © greatinternational students.blogspot.com, 2013

Predictions, schmedictions. No-one can guess the future but we can at least say what we would like to see. So here are my five wishes for 2015, with a guess at the odds of them happening.

1. Open textbooks.

My wish: faculty will start adopting open textbooks on a large scale in 2015. This is probably the easiest and best way to bring down the cost of education for students.

BC’s open textbook project should be in full swing in 2015, with the top 40 subject topics/disciplines covered with at least one text book per topic by the end of 2015. These topics cover both university and college programs, including apprenticeship and trades training (got to get those pipe fitters and welders  for LNG). All these books will have been peer reviewed by BC faculty.

These open textbooks will of course be available not only to BC institutions but any institution in the world that wants to use them. It will be fascinating to see who actually adopts these books. We could have the ridiculous situation where everyone else BUT BC universities and colleges are using them.

I have to declare an interest here, though. My own open textbook for faculty, teachers and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age, will also be available. Already I know of at least three institutions already using it as a set book for courses, and it’s only two-thirds finished.

So my prediction:

  • the chance of  every one of the BC open textbooks being used in at least one institution world wide by the end of 2015: 99%
  • the chance of every BC public post-secondary institution using at least one of the open textbooks by 2015: 5%
  • I’ll be happy with at least 50% of Canadian post-secondary institutions using at least one open textbook in 2015. Open textbooks will then start to take off.

2. Open educational resources

My wish: faculty in each province or state will develop agreed province wide curricula for OERs. This may seem an odd wish, but what I see happening, at least in some Canadian provinces, is a huge amount of duplication of OER production, and on the other hand, very little cross-institutional adoption.

Let’s take an example: statistics. This is a subject often taught badly (sorry, where students often have difficulties) that crosses many subject disciplines: math, physics, psychology, sociology, biology, epidemiology, engineering, etc. So what are some institutions doing: developing core modules that can be shared within the institution across departments. So far, so good. But then it stops there.

Now at least in BC we have subject articulation committees that do a good job working out transfer agreements etc. Why not set up articulation committees for OERs? Instead of investing in new OERs in each institution, why not pool resources and either find existing or develop really good new OERs that combined would make up a sensible curriculum in statistics that can be shared by institutions across the system? Get people from stats departments in all the partnering institutions to work on it so they are more likely then to use the OERs themselves. (No, it doesn’t have to be every institution – just those that can work together.) No new money is needed for this as the money would have been spent anyway in developing online materials or courses.

The chances of this happening:

  • in at least one province: 50%

3. A brand new Canadian digital college

My wish: a new ‘green-field’, designed and built from scratch, institution that is conceived around the idea of digitally-based education designed to meet the learning needs of a digital age.

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a really new type of post-secondary institution in Canada: Tech University of BC (died in 2003); Ryerson University (2001); UOIT (2002); Royal Roads University (1995) Any suggestions for the last one?

A lot has happened in the last 20 years. Do we need such fixed battleships as campus-based institutions when what is really needed are fast destroyers? If you can swallow the premise that at least half of all studying within the next five years will be done online, even at the most traditional campus-based institution, what would a new college built around the idea of digital education look like? Emily Carr University of Art and Design should certainly be thinking about this as it moves to new premises in Vancouver in 2017. However, it is focusing on raising huge amounts of money for – yes, a new campus.

Now what if the government said: we will increase your annual operating budget by say 5-10 per cent if you can reduce the capital budget (once off) by 50 per cent? (Some creative accountancy needed here, of course, but hey, this is Canada). Or what if we took a green field site and looked for proposals based on that formula? What would learning spaces look like on such a campus? What would the learning look like? Where and how would students study? What kind of instructors or teachers would be needed? What kind of programs and delivery methods will make sense in 30 to 50 years time? It’s about time we created institutions that will be fit for the 22nd century and they need to be designed from scratch, using what we know today about media, technology and learning.

The chances of this happening (the commitment) in 2015:

  • in Alberta; 30%
  • in BC: 20%
  • in Ontario: 5%

4. A national research and development centre on digital education

My wish: a national research and development centre on digital education

In Canada, the Federal government has no jurisdiction over education: that is a provincial responsibility (and thank goodness for that – we get more innovation and diversity in a decentralised system)). However the Federal government does have responsibility for research and development. Now if you think, like I do, that Canada overall doesn’t do a bad job in developing and applying innovative approaches to teaching and learning (cMOOCs, anyone?), and that the future lies in effective digitally-based learning, it might be a strategic priority to ensure that Canada remains/becomes a world leader in this area.

At the moment though, there is hardly any sustainable research or development centre in online or digital education in this country (with all due respect to CIDER, which does a fantastic job with almost no resources – see what I mean?) Now you can build a hockey arena for $20 million and still  not get an NHL team, so why not put $100 million over five years into a world class research and development centre equivalent to say the Triumf project (particle physics) which got $222 million over five years in 2014.

This would have to be done right, though. No micro-managing from Ottawa, please. Write good terms of reference, hire good people, throw the money over the wall, and review the program after four years. Locate it preferably where innovation is happening (Atlantic Canada – Memorial University would be good – or the West – anywhere west of Kenora).

Here’s what I would like to see in its terms of reference:

  • develop, in conjunction with Stats Canada, an annual national survey of online and other forms of digital learning in post-secondary (and possibly k-12) education, similar to the Babson survey or even better the US Dept of Education IPEDs report
  • set up a joint advisory or governing board that includes representatives from related Canadian industry (e.g. Desire2Learn, Hootesuite), as well experts in online and digital education
  • spend as much on development as on basic research (most of which would be contracted out, following a research and development agenda developed through national, online consultation);
  • set some clear ‘deliverables’, such as regular reliable data and information on new innovations in Canadian digital education, new software or apps that become self-sustainable, testing and guidelines for faculty on emerging technologies, and above all successful, tested and evaluated design models for digital education
  • use the UK JISC as a model in terms of organisation (minimal central organization, networked and outsourced R&D).
  • hire me as Director (no, just kidding – I’m retired – really).

The chances of this happening in 2015:

  • with me as Director: 0.001%
  • without me as Director: 0.002%

5. Online International Students Canada (MOOCs for credit)

My wish: An online university preparation program for international students. This is a very simple idea. Offer free online programs for high school students anywhere in the world. The students with the best grades in the online program get automatic admission to a Canadian university and grants from the Canadian government to come to Canada and study, with half the time in Canada and the rest studying online from their home country. Target: 20,000 students a year. Total cost: $100 million a year (roughly).

There are literally millions of students who would probably qualify for a Canadian university, given the chance, but can’t afford either the education needed to reach the qualifications or the cost of coming to Canada. This program would offer online courses for the equivalent of the last year of high school in Canada, to enable international students to get the grades needed for entry to a Canadian university. The online courses would be offered free, but students would pay a small fee to take the online examinations, most of which would be computer graded.

The main costs in the program would be administrative (marketing, building a web site, finding existing online high school courses, and setting up the examination system), plus the real costs of travel for successful students and living and tuition costs while in Canada.

The advantages of the plan:

  • opens access to at least some low income or poor people in developing country who have access to some form of Internet access
  • simple to administer (the most difficult part will be getting Canadian universities to participate, even though there will be no direct cost)
  • real costs are lowered by students living at least half the time in their own country
  • students are more likely to remain in their home country after graduation and help build their own nation
  • Canadian universities would get some of the best students from developing countries at no or little direct cost
  • possibilities of stronger trading relations with emerging economies as a result.

The program would be funded by Foreign Affairs Canada (the former CIDA branch) and managed by the AUCC.

The chances of this happening in 2015:

  • 10% (well, it is an election year).

And your wishes for 2015?

Let me know what you would like to see in online learning in 2015 – and whether my ideas are as dumb as they look at first glance.

EDEN research papers: OERs (inc. MOOCs), quality/assessment, social media, analytics and research methods

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EDEN RSW me 2

EDEN has now published a second report on my review of papers submitted to the EDEN research workshop in Oxford a couple of weeks ago. All the full papers for the workshop can be accessed here.

Main lessons (or unanswered questions) I took away:

OERs and MOOCs

  • what does awarding badges of certificates for MOOCs or other OER actually mean? For instance will institutions give course exemption or credits for the awards, or accept such awards for admission purposes? Or will the focus be on employer recognition? How will participants who are awarded badges know what their ‘currency’ is worth?
  • can MOOCs be designed to go beyond comprehension or networking to develop other critical 21st century skills such as critical thinking, analysis and evaluation? Can they lead to ‘transformational learning’ as identified by Kumar and Arnold (see Quality and Assessment below)
  • are there better design models for open courses than MOOCs as currently structured? If so what would they look like?
  • is there a future for learning object repositories when nearly all academic content becomes open and online?

Quality and assessment

  • research may inform but won’t resolve policy issues
  • quality is never ‘objective’ but is value-driven
  • the level of intervention must be long and significant enough to result in significant learning gains
  • there’s lots of research already that indicates the necessary conditions for successful use of online discussion forums but if these conditions are not present then learning will not take place
  • the OU’s traditional model of course design constrains the development of successful collaborative online learning.

Use of social media in open and distance learning

There were surprisingly few papers on this topic. My main takeaway:

  • the use of social media needs to be driven by sound pedagogical theory that takes into account the affordances of social media (as in Sorensen’s study described in an earlier post under course design)

Data analytics and student drop-out

  • institutions/registrars must pay attention to how student data is tagged/labeled for analytic purposes, so there is consistency in definitions, aggregation and interpretation;
  • when developing or applying an analytics software program, consideration needs to be given to the level of analysis and what potential users of the data are looking for; this means working with instructional designers, faculty and administrators from the beginning
  • analytics need to be integrated with action plans to identify and support early at risk students

Research methods

Next

If these bullets interest you at all, then I strongly recommend you go and read the original papers in full – click here. My summary is of necessity personal and abbreviated and the papers provide much greater richness of context.

 

 

First part of report on EDEN Research Workshop now available

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Sian Bayne presenting at EDEN Research Workshop, Oxford

Sian Bayne presenting at EDEN Research Workshop, Oxford

My official report on the 8th EDEN Research Workshop is being released as a series of four blog posts by the President of EDEN, Professor Antonio Moreira Teixera. The first, which is a very brief summary of the keynote presentations, is available here.

The other three, which provide my personal analysis of the research papers presented at the workshop, will be published on consecutive days later this week and I will let you know when each is published.

Perhaps more importantly, the 40+ papers presented at the EDEN Research Workshop are now available in their entirety as a pdf file. If you have any interest in research in online and/or open and distance education, many of the papers are well worth reading in full, rather than relying in my personal interpretation. Happy reading, Ph.D. students!

The dissemination of research in online learning: a lesson from the EDEN Research Workshop

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The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford

The EDEN Research Workshop

I’m afraid I have sadly neglected my blog over the last two weeks, as I was heavily engaged as the rapporteur for the EDEN 8th Research Workshop on challenges for research on open and distance learning, which took place in Oxford, England last week, with the UK Open University as the host and sponsor. I was also there to receive a Senior Fellowship from EDEN, awarded at the Sheldonian Theatre, the official ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford.

There were at the workshop almost 150 participants from more than 30 countries, in the main part European, with over 40 selected research papers/presentations. The workshop was highly interactive, with lots of opportunity for discussion and dialogue, and formal presentations were kept to a minimum. Together with some very stimulating keynotes, the workshop provided a good overview of the current state of online, open and distance learning in Europe. From my perspective it was a very successful workshop.

My full, factual report on the workshop will be published next week as a series of three blog posts by Antonio Moreira Texeira, the President of EDEN, and I will provide a link when these are available, but in the meantime I would like to reflect more personally on one of the issues that came out of the workshop, as this issue is more broadly applicable.

Houston, we have a problem: no-one reads our research

Well, not no-one, but no-one outside the close group of those doing research in the area. Indeed, although in general the papers for the workshop were of high quality, there were still far too many papers that suggested the authors were unaware of key prior research in the area.

But the real problem is that most practitioners – instructors and teachers – are blissfully unaware of the major research findings about teaching and learning online and at a distance. The same applies to the many computer scientists who are now moving into online learning with new products, new software and new designs. MOOCs are the most obvious example. Andrew Ng, Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller – all computer scientists – designed their MOOCs without any consideration about what was already known about online learning – or indeed teaching or learning in general, other than their experience as lecturers at Stanford University. The same applies to MIT’s and Harvards’s courses on edX, although MIT/Harvard are at least  starting to do their own research, but again ignoring or pretending that nothing else has been done before. This results in mistakes being made (unmonitored student discussion), the re-invention of the wheel hyped as innovation or major breakthroughs (online courses for the masses), and surprised delight at discovering what has already been known for many years (e.g. students like immediate feedback).

Perhaps of more concern though is that as more and more instructors move into blended and hybrid learning, they too are unaware of best practices based on research and evaluation of online learning, and knowledge about online learners and their behaviour. This applies not only to online course design in general, but also particularly to the management of online discussions.

It will of course be argued that MOOCs and hybrid learning are somehow different from previous online and distance courses and therefore the research does not apply. These are revolutionary innovations and therefore the rules of the game have changed. What was known before is therefore no longer relevant. This kind of thinking though misunderstands the nature of sustainable innovation, which usually builds on past knowledge – in other words, successful innovation is more cumulative than a leap into the dark. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any field other than education where innovators would blithely ignore previous knowledge. (‘I don’t know anything about civil engineering, but I have a great idea for a bridge.’ Let’s see how far that will get you.)

Who’s to blame?

Well, no-one really. There are several reasons why research in online learning is not better disseminated:

  • research into any kind of learning is not easy; there are just so many different variables or conditions that affect learning in any context. This has several consequences:
    • it is difficult to generalize, because learning contexts vary so much
    • clearly significant results are difficult to find when so many other variables are likely to affect learning outcomes
    • thus results are usually hedged with so many reservations that any clear message gets lost
  • because research into online learning is out of the mainstream of educational research it has been poorly funded by the research councils. Thus most studies are small scale, qualitative and practitioner-driven. This means interventions are small scale and therefore do not identify major changes in learning, and the results are mainly of use to the practitioner who did the research, so don’t get more widely disseminated
  • most research in online learning is published in journals that are not read by either practitioners or computer scientists (who publish in their own journals that no-one else reads). Furthermore, there are a large number of journals in the field, so integration of research findings is difficult, although Anderson and Zawacki-Richter (2104) have done a good job in bringing a lot of the research together in one publication – but which unfortunately is nearly 500 pages long, and hence unlikely to reach many practitioners, at least in a digestible form
  • online learning is still a relatively new field, less than 20 years old, so it is taking time to build a solid foundation of verifiable research in which people can have confidence
  • most instructors at a post-secondary level have no formal training in any form of teaching and learning, so there are difficulties in bringing research and best practices to their attention.

What can be done?

First let me state clearly that I believe there is a growing and significant body of evidence about best practices in online learning that is evidence-based and research-driven. These best practices are general enough to be applied in a wide variety of contexts. In fact I will shortly write a post called ‘Ten things we know from research in online learning’ that will set out some of the most important results and their implications for teaching and learning online. However, we need more attempts to pull together the scattered research into more generalizable conclusions and more widely distributed forms of communication.

At the same time, we need also to get out the message about the complexity of teaching and learning, without which it will be difficult to evaluate or appreciate fully the findings from research in online learning. It is understanding that:

  • learning is a process, not a product,
  • there are different epistemological positions about what constitutes knowledge and how to teach it,
  • above all, identifying desirable learning outcomes is a value-driven decision; and acceptance of a diversity of values about what constitutes knowledge is to be welcomed, not restricted, in education, so long as there is genuine choice for teachers and learners.
  • however, if we want to develop the skills needed in a digital age, the traditional lecture-based model, whether offered face-to-face or online, is inadequate
  • academic knowledge is different from everyday knowledge; academic knowledge means transforming understanding of the world through evidence, theory and rational argument/dialogue, and effective teachers/instructors are essential for this
  • learning is heavily influenced by the context in which it takes place: one critical variable is the quality of course design; another is the role of an expert instructor. These variables are likely to be more important than any choice of technology or delivery mode.

There are therefore multiple audiences for the dissemination of research in online learning:

  • practitioners: teachers and instructors
  • senior managers and administrators in educational institutions
  • computer scientists and entrepreneurs interested in educational services or products
  • government and other funding agencies.

I can suggest a number of ways in which research dissemination can be done, but what is needed is a conversation about

(a) how best to identify the key research findings on online learning around which most experienced practitioners and researchers can agree

(b) the best means to get these messages out to the various stakeholders.

I believe that this is an important role for organizations such as EDEN, EDUCAUSE, ICDE, but it is also a responsibility for every one of us who works in the field and believes passionately about the value of online learning.

Getting ready for the EDEN Research workshop

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Oxford: City of Dreaming Spires (Matthew Arnold)

Oxford: City of Dreaming Spires (Matthew Arnold)

I’m now in England, about to attend the EDEN Research Workshop on research into online learning that starts tomorrow (Sunday) in Oxford, with the event being hosted by the UK Open University, one of the main sources of systematic research in online learning. (EDEN is the European Distance and e-Learning Network)

This is one of my favourite events, because the aim is to bring together all those in Europe doing research in online learning to discuss their work, the issues and research methods. It’s a great chance for young or new players in the field to make themselves known and connect with other, more experienced, researchers. Altogether there will be about 120 participants, just the right size to get to know everyone over three days. I organised one such EDEN research workshop myself several years ago in Barcelona, when I was working at the Open University of Catalonia, and it was great fun.

The format is very interesting. All the papers are published a week ahead of the workshop, and each author gets just a few minutes in parallel sessions to briefly summarise, with plenty of time for discussion afterwards (what EDEN calls ‘research speed dating’). There are also several research workshops, such as ‘Linking Learning Design with Learning Analytics,’ as well as several keynotes (but not too many!) I’m particularly looking forward to Sian Bayne’s ‘Teaching, Research and the More-than-human in Digital Education.’ There are also poster sessions, 14 in all.

I am the Chair of the jury for the EDEN award for the best research paper, and also the workshop rapporteur. As a result I have been carefully reading all the papers over the last week, 44 in all, and I’m still trying to work out how to be in several places at the same time so I can cover all the sessions.

As a result I’ve had to put my book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, on hold for the last few days. However, the EDEN papers have already been so useful, bringing me the latest reviews and updates on research in this area that it is well worth taking a few more days before getting back to the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. I will be much better informed as a result as there are quite a few research papers on European MOOCs. I will also do a blog post after the conference, summing up what I heard during the three days.

So it looks like that I won’t have much time for dreaming in the city of dreaming spires.