January 20, 2017

Rebuilding the First Nations University of Canada

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How the relationship between First Nations people and Canadian society has evolved over the years. © M. Dockstator

How the relationship between First Nations people and Canadian society has evolved over the years. © M. Dockstator

Tamburri, R. (2015) First Nations University poised to take on larger role in Canadian society University Affairs, June 2

As a follow-up to my last post on the role of Canadian universities in indigenous education, I’d like to draw attention to this excellent article on the First Nations University of Canada.

This unique institution has evolved into Canada’s only aboriginal, university-level institution. It underwent a near death experience in 2009, but with a new President and Board, new funding arrangements, and a new partnership with the University of Regina, it has now almost fully recovered. It has 750 full time students and a balanced budget. In addition, 4,700 students, mainly from the University of Regina, take courses at FNUC.

The issue is whether we need more institutions of this kind, as there are different aboriginal races, cultures and nations within Canada, or whether the focus should be on building up the First Nations University of Canada as a centre of excellence in indigenous post-secondary education, or whether indigenous education should be part and parcel of conventional universities in Canada (which is highly questionable, given the past failures at ‘integration’). Whatever outcome or outcomes are most desired by the indigenous peoples of Canada, the fundamental issue of ensuring greater success in high school for aboriginal students needs to be addressed for any post-secondary education policy for indigenous peoples to succeed.

A balanced research report on the hopes and realities of MOOCs

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Columbia MOOCs 2

Hollands, F. and Tirthali, D. (2014) MOOCs: Expectations and Reality New York: Columbia University Teachers’ College, Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, 211 pp

We are now beginning to see a number of new research publications on MOOCs. The journal Distance Education will be publishing a series of research articles on MOOCs in June, but now Hollands and Tirthali have produced a comprehensive research analysis of MOOCs.

What the study is about

We have been watching for evidence that MOOCs are cost-effective in producing desirable educational outcomes compared to face-to-face experiences or other online interventions. While the MOOC phenomenon is not mature enough to afford conclusions on the question of long-term cost-effectiveness, this study serves as an exploration of the goals of institutions creating or adopting MOOCs and how these institutions define effectiveness of their MOOC initiatives. We assess the current evidence regarding whether and how these goals are being achieved and at what cost, and we review expectations regarding the role of MOOCs in education over the next five years. 

The authors used interviews with over 80 individuals covering 62 institutions ‘active in the MOOCspace’, cost analysis, and analysis of other research on MOOCs to support their findings. They identified six goals from the 29 institutions in the study that offered MOOCs, with following analysis of success or otherwise in accomplishing such goals:

1. Extending reach (65% 0f the 29 institutions)

Data from MOOC platforms indicate that MOOCs are providing educational opportunities to millions of individuals across the world. However, most MOOC participants are already well-educated and employed, and only a small fraction of them fully engages with the courses. Overall, the evidence suggests that MOOCs are currently falling far short of “democratizing” education and may, for now, be doing more to increase gaps in access to education than to diminish them. 

2. Building and maintaining brand (41%)

While many institutions have received significant media attention as a result of their MOOC activities, isolating and measuring impact of any new initiative on brand is a difficult exercise. Most institutions are only just beginning to think about how to capture and quantify branding-related benefits.

3. Reducing costs or increasing revenues (38%)

….revenue streams for MOOCs are slowly materializing but we do not expect the costs of MOOC production to fall significantly given the highly labor-intensive nature of the process. While these costs may be amortized across multiple uses and multiple years, they will still be additive costs to the institutions creating MOOCs. Free, non-credit bearing MOOCs are likely to remain available only from the wealthiest institutions that can subsidize the costs from other sources of funds. For most institutions, ongoing participation in the current MOOC experimentation will be unaffordable unless they can offer credentials of economic value to attract fee-paying participants, or can use MOOCs to replace traditional offerings more efficiently, most likely by reducing expensive personnel. 

4. Improving educational outcomes (38%)

for the most part, actual impact on educational outcomes has not been documented in any rigorous fashion. Consequently, in most cases, it is unclear whether the goal of improving educational outcomes has been achieved . However, there were two exceptions, providing evidence of improvement in student performance as a result of adopting MOOC strategies in on-campus courses

5. Innovation in teaching and learning (38%)

It is abundantly clear that MOOCs have prompted many institutions and faculty members to engage in new educational activities. The strategies employed online such as frequent assessments and short lectures interspersed with questions are being taken back on-campus. It is less clear what has been gained by these new initiatives because the value of innovation is hard to measure unless it can be tied to a further, more tangible objective. We …. conclude that most institutions are not yet making any rigorous attempt to assess whether MOOCs are more or less effective than other strategies to achieve these goals. 

6. Research on teaching and learning (28%)

A great deal of effort is being expended on trying to improve participant engagement and completion of MOOCs and less effort on determining whether participants actually gain skills or knowledge from the courses ….While the potential for MOOCs to contribute significantly to the development of personalized and adaptive learning is high, the reality is far from being achieved. 

Cost analysis

The report investigates the costs of developing MOOCs compared to those for credit-based online courses, but found wide variations and lack of reliable data.

Conclusions from the report

The authors came to the following conclusions:

1. there is no doubt that online and hybrid learning is here to stay and that MOOCs have catalyzed a shift in stance by some of the most strongly branded institutions in the United States and abroad.

2. MOOCs could potentially affect higher education in more revolutionary ways by:

  • offering participants credentials of economic value

  • catalyzing the development of true adaptive learning experiences

However, either of these developments face substantial barriers and will require major changes in the status quo.

My comments on the report

First this is an excellent, comprehensive and thoughtful analysis of the expectations and realities of MOOCs. It is balanced, but where necessary critical of the unjustified claims often made about MOOCs. This report should be required reading for anyone contemplating offering MOOCs.

Different people will take away different conclusions from this report, as one would expect from a balanced study. From my perspective, though, it has done little to change my views about MOOCs. MOOC providers to date have made little effort to identify the actual learning that takes place. It seems to be enough for many MOOC proponents to just offer a course, on the assumption that if people participate they will learn.

Nevertheless, MOOCs are evolving. Some of the best practices that have been used in credit-based online courses are now being gradually adopted as more MOOC players enter the market with experience of credit-based online learning. MOOCs will eventually occupy a small but important niche as an alternative form of non-formal, continuing and open education. They have proved valuable in making online learning more acceptable within traditional institutions that have resisted online learning previously. But no-one should fear them as a threat to credit-based education, either campus-based or online.

New developments in online learning across the University of California system – and the implications for us all

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The University of California system

The University of California system

To, K. (2014) UC Regents announce online course expansion, The Guardian, UC San Diego, undated, but probably February 5

The University of California system continues to struggle with providing a system-wide approach to online learning. This is a report of decisions made at a UC Board of Regents meeting on January 15.

The California public higher education system

The UC system consists of a number of publicly-funded Tier 1 research universities such as Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis and Irvine, spread across a very large state. Altogether there are 10 campuses with nearly 250,000 students. In addition, the California State University system, with 23 campuses and nearly 450,000 students, operates mainly at undergraduate level, although many campuses also offer masters and Ph.D. programs. Lastly there are 72 community colleges, with 2.4 million students, focusing primarily on vocational education and training.


First though a little background, because what the UC Regents are trying to do – create economies of scale by sharing online undergraduate courses across the different institutions – is really important in terms of productivity and effectiveness. A number of other jurisdictions or state-wide systems, such as the University of Florida, and here in Canada, the province of Ontario, are trying to do something similar. Many institutions have had online graduate programs, but these new initiatives are focusing on online undergraduate education, which for many institutions is a new development. Even more controversial is the idea of sharing courses, so that a course developed at one campus will automatically be accepted for credit in another.

UC Online

In January 2012 the Regents set up UC Online after a two year pilot. This program now offers 11 courses for cross-campus enrollment, so it’s pretty modest. More importantly, not all of the UC campuses are participating in this endeavour. For instance, UC San Diego and UC Santa Barbara have decided not to participate in the program because of issues around student admission and enrollment.

The Innovative Learning Technology Initiative (ILTI)

This is a new initiative launched in early 2013, helped by grants totalling $10 million that Governor Jerry Brown allotted to the UC and to the California State University systems in July 2013, to offer more undergraduate courses online with an emphasis on high-in-demand and prerequisite classes, i.e. extra money specifically for online courses.

At the recent Regents meeting three critically important decisions were made:

  • the establishment of a cross-campus enrollment webpage, i.e. one-stop shopping for potential students
  • funding for an additional 30 courses to be created
  • the development of an approval process for cross-campus course credit.

Under the ILTI, the regents intend to create 150 credit-bearing online and hybrid courses by 2016. Presumably these will be in addition to ones already on offer from the individual campuses themselves. (In 2011-2012  UC campuses individually offered over 2,500 online courses, with more than 90,000 enrolled students.)

Online courses without human interaction?

One major reason for anxiety within the UC system is the pressure from the governor:

Brown continues to urge for a complete absence of human interaction in online courses. “You say you need human touch — I say, maybe you don’t need it,” Brown told the The Daily Californian on Jan. 28. “The barrier here is the human software, the human thought that we’re putting into the technology.”

Politics and economics

What’s pushing the governor’s support for automated online learning is the large state debt accumulated over many years. California had massive current account deficits preceding and following the recession in 2008. Governor Brown is now able to project a small surplus on operating costs, but only because of massive funding cuts to the post-secondary education system over the last few years. However demand from students has not gone away, so the pressure for a low cost way of providing undergraduate education is a political and economic necessity for Brown.


First, I am more than 1,000 miles away, I don’t work in the system, so I don’t have all the information I need. But the big picture seems to me to be clear, and the implications are much wider than the just for the state of California.

The three decisions recently announced by the Regents are essential first steps to creating a more coherent approach to online learning in the UC system, or elsewhere. However, in terms of the overall UC system, the number of new courses being funded through the ILTI initiative is tiny. The real drive towards online learning is coming from the individual campuses themselves, and it would make more sense to try and co-ordinate these activities than to add a further layer on to an already large and complex system, particularly a layer that is directly funded from the governor’s office and politically driven, with all the risks that are entailed.

Nevertheless we are already seeing other state or province wide public higher education systems moving in this direction and we will see more. There are possible economies of scale to be gained from sharing at least content across high-demand, standard foundational programs, and students need the flexibility to take online courses from different campuses in the same system without unnecessary barriers. It seems absurd to me that UC San Diego would not accept credits for online courses taken from UC Davis or vice versa – they are all part of the same system. This doesn’t mean to say it will be easy. It will need cross campus agreement on combinations of courses for particular programs, and some common admission standards between the campuses, if that doesn’t exist already. While this involves some work, though, it is not rocket science (come to British Columbia to see how this is done, via the BC Council on Admissions and Transfer).

Much more worrying are the political aspects. I am sure Governor Brown will find many distinguished computer scientists and California-based companies such as Coursera and Google who will tell him that university teaching can be fully automated – but they are wrong. They do not understand how learning takes place. Someone needs to get the message through to Governor Brown that the research on online credit-based learning shows clearly that for high level learning, student and instructor interaction is essential, as well as student-student interaction. So you run a real risk then of poor quality outcomes if you try to automate online learning, at least given the status of artificial intelligence now and well into the future. At the same time, there are opportunities for economies of scale, but mainly on the transmission of content side and sharing of courses and programs.

This leads to my last point. None of this will be satisfactorily resolved without some clear vision for California’s public higher education system. What we are seeing is tinkering around the edges, without a clear picture of what the goals are other than cutting cost. What kind of system does California want for the future, and where does online learning fit within this vision? For instance, does it want to be the best public post-secondary education system in the world – which it could well be – or does it want a mediocre, low cost public system with the private institutions carrying the heavy load in research and status? Only when Californians make up their minds on this will we see a coherent system-wide strategy for online learning in California.


A review of the HEQCO report on productivity and quality in online learning in higher education

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The view from HEQCO, Toronto

The view from HEQCO, Toronto

Carey, T., & Trick, D. (2013). How Online Learning Affects Productivity, Cost and Quality in Higher Education: An Environmental Scan and Review of the Literature. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Why this paper is important

In July, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario published the above report. This is a very important development for online learning in post-secondary education as it takes a very hard look at quality, cost and productivity and comes forward with recommendations to government. This is a paper that is likely to be read (and should be read) by legislators, state and government policy makers, university and college boards and senior university and college administrators.

I am also exploring through a series of blogs the issue of productivity and online learning, partly because of dissatisfaction with the current state of thinking about this issue, which became apparent working with this project.

For this reason, I am setting aside my hat as an Advisory Board member who commented on the penultimate draft, and and am here providing a full analytic review of the paper. To do this, I have had to reproduce key parts of the document, but I strongly recommend that the HEQCO document is read in full. Quotes from the actual paper are in italics, although I have edited and abbreviated in part.

The paper focuses on the following questions:

  • What are the cost implications of a shift to online learning? Specifically, does a greater use of online instruction save institutions or systems money and, if so, under what circumstances?
  • What do we know about the relationship between online learning and important variables that are often considered when discussing the “quality” of an institution or of a system?

Main findings

  • The evidence reviewed suggests that, for a range of students and learning outcomes, fully online instruction produces learning that is on par with face-to-face instruction.
  • the students most likely to benefit are those who are academically well prepared and highly motivated to learn independently. Students who are not well prepared to learn at the postsecondary level or do not devote the necessary time to learning are less likely to benefit from online learning and may in fact do better in a face-to-face setting.
  • the provincial government… should have an interest in making sure [well-prepared and motivated students] have online learning opportunities available to them. These opportunities should serve students’ learning needs, and – if carried out at large scale – should produce cost efficiencies for higher education institutions, the student or both.
  • there is no evidence that all of the learning outcomes expected of postsecondary students in Ontario can be achieved solely by online learning. 

Main recommendations to the Ontario provincial government and Ontario universities and colleges

  • set a target that, within three years, a specified list of high-demand university and college programs that are primarily or entirely online will be available to Ontario students.
  • set a target that, within three years, a specified list of high-demand courses will be available online and will be accepted for credit at all Ontario universities and colleges that offer a program in that discipline.
  • a set of high-quality degree programs that qualify the student for admission to any Ontario graduate school, and a set of high-quality courses that are accepted for credit by every Ontario institution, will be preferable to a multiplicity of courses and programs that operate on a small scale.
  • By working with other institutions in Ontario and elsewhere, Ontario colleges and universities can leverage and help shape emerging developments in online learning.
  • Coordination will be required to ensure that economies of scale are achieved in an environment of rapid technological change. 
  • Ontario colleges and universities should be encouraged to work with peer institutions to ensure that engagement with advances in online learning fully supports the province’s strategic goals for quality and access in a time of constrained funding. 
  • An effective government strategy will begin by adapting existing regulatory infrastructure to remove unnecessary barriers to high-quality online education. 
  • Hybrid courses that blend online learning with face-to-face instruction should also be encouraged where they improve learning outcomes. Hybrid courses fit well within the government’s existing regulatory structure and so present fewer policy challenges. 


We have looked especially for meta-analyses which compare traditional versus online education at a system, course or activity level. We have made only secondary use of studies and reports from individual instances or instructors where institutionalization and sustained use have not been addressed.


There is remarkably little empirical literature that documents the costs of online education relative to face-to-face education. So very little evidence on costs is available in this report

The authors though do provide an extensive list of barriers to cost reduction.

The authors conclude this section as follows:

To the extent that online education reduces costs, there is no consensus about who should or would benefit from the reduction. Students seek lower tuition fees; governments seek reduced subsidies for higher education; university employees seek better compensation. This situation presents a principal-agent problem: it is difficult to motivate change when those affected by change will not receive the contemplated financial benefit.

Emerging developments

The following emerging developments are discussed:

  • Affordable and open textbooks
  • Adaptive interactions with learning resources
  • Optimizing student-instructor interaction time
  • Targeting instructional effort based on student program data
  • Minimizing marginal costs via Massive Open Online Courses

The authors also identify several common themes across the individual developments:

  • Aligning Support to the Student’s Individual Learning Needs
  • “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally” to Achieve Benefits at Scale
  • Transparency and Knowledge Intensity in Instructional Design
  • Reputational Capital From and For Online Learning
  • The Challenge of Investment at/for Scale

Observations (for recommendations, see above)

Fully online education presents opportunities for major economies of scale. By definition, these economies can only be achieved if a large scale is reached.

Fully online education has the potential to provide a high-quality education – for some students, in some fields of study – at significantly lower unit costs than traditional forms of instruction. The cost savings have the potential to help fund the cost of improving traditional learning, including the costs of introducing hybrid models that lead to better learning outcomes. The challenge is to make it happen.

What is striking to us about these viewpoints is the agreement that what is least likely to be done effectively at scale and with technological mediation is precisely what matters most in higher education.

My critique

Overall, this is an excellent report that will be valuable to policy makers, if they read it in full. The danger is that they will jump to the recommendations, which are not really the strength of this report. Its value lies in exploring assumptions and beliefs about online learning and productivity and providing data and evidence that sometimes supports such beliefs, and other times challenges them. The section on emerging developments is particularly strong, especially the analysis of common themes across the individual developments.

Comparative quality of online learning

Although the authors focused their literature review on ‘meta-analyses of rigorous experimental studies’, the result is a master lesson on why such studies are usually a waste of time, particularly with regard to ‘quality’ defined in this report as to whether online learning achieves equal learning outcomes to face-to-face teaching. Such studies on using different media and technologies to deliver education date back until the early 1970s, and results are consistent: mode of delivery is less important than method of teaching and multiple other factors. In statistical terms, variance within experimental groups is larger than variations between experimental groups. In plain language, the pedagogy matters, a point recognized by the authors later in the document when they acknowledge the importance of instructional design.

This is one reason why I am cautious about the research on ‘non-traditional’ students that suggests that online learning works less well for them. While I do not disagree with this in general, it can work well for some in this group when designed to meet their specific needs. The problem is that the Jaggars and Di Xu research quoted to support the conclusion in the HEQCO report is based on data from U.S. community colleges, many of which have a very poor record of using instructional design and best practices in online learning. You have to look at the quality of the teaching (in both modes), not just the delivery method.The HEQCO authors also correctly note that while many of Jaggars/Di Xu findings point to performance differences between online and face-to-face learning that are statistically significant, the differences are fairly small.


This is by far the most disappointing part of the study. The report draws on only two actual studies of the costs of online learning (both from the USA), neither of which are very helpful.

For reasons of time pressure and consistency, the authors decided to limit their research review to studies published in the last five years. As a result, studies such as my own on the cost of the University of British Columbia’s fully online Master in Educational Technology (which was originally published in 2003) are not included, even though the study provides a comprehensive analysis of the costs and more importantly the cost structures of a program that is still running on much the same cost basis as in 2003. This program has been remarkably successful with the following features:

  • fully cost-recoverable (including overheads and planning) from tuition fees alone
  • tuition fees the same as for on-campus graduate programs (fee level regulated by government)
  • over 300 students in the program each year with over 900 course enrolments
  • courses can be taken and paid for individually
  • 70-80 admissions a year, and 70-80 graduates a year, thus with a degree completion rate (for those enrolling in the full degree program) of over 90%.

This program alone has more than doubled the number of graduate students in the whole of the Faculty of Education and UBC has adopted this cost model for a number of its other professionally based masters programs, such as rehab science and creative writing. Not to include this because the study was done 10 years ago is almost perverse, because it shows that for certain kinds of courses, and certain kinds of students, online learning can be far more productive than face-to-face teaching. It is perverse, because real productivity gains only become apparent over time – a five year window is often too small to see the full benefits.

Emerging developments

For me, this was by far the strongest part of the paper, particularly the analysis of common themes across the developments. The paper is worth reading for this section alone.


Although I would support all the recommendations, they are very cautious.Partly because of the weakness or lack of research into online learning, costs and productivity, the recommendations necessarily have to be cautious.

However, since HEQCO itself is a government-funded policy research organization, perhaps an obvious recommendation would have been for more research on the costs of online learning, given the paucity of studies. Another area for research would be on institutional barriers and government policies that prevent greater scalability or adoption of online learning in Ontario universities.

It is still shocking to me that Ontario has such a poor system of credit transfer even between universities that make it almost impossible to set up consortium programs or enable student students to select combinations of courses/programs from different universities, given that a main advantage of online learning is that students could take courses from any university in Ontario. Maybe government regulation is necessary in this area, since the universities and colleges were given $65 million I believe over a year ago to solve this problem and haven’t done so yet.

None of the recommendations really addresses the issue of scale. I’m not sure I agree with the statement on p. 43:  What is striking to us about these viewpoints is the agreement that what is least likely to be done effectively at scale and with technological mediation is precisely what matters most in higher education, i.e. modelling, coaching, enabling students to construct knowledge, etc. Certainly, most MOOCs don’t do this, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that with a focused effort on instructional design, we could not design more cost-effective, high quality learning experiences through online programs on a larger scale than at present but not necessarily at massive level. This would combine lower cost per student with higher quality learning: the Nirvana of educational productivity

Thus I would like to have seen a recommendation to government and the institutions to put in the same level of investment as for MOOCs, but to develop a model that combines best practices in online learning combined with new technologies such as social media, to build partly self-supporting student learning communities on a larger scale than current campus-based programs, with high quality learning outcomes and completion rates. I think it could be done, but it needs substantial investment beyond the risk level of most individual universities, which is why government should be a partner.


Despite my criticisms this is an excellent report on a difficult topic and completed within a tight timeframe. It provides grist for productive discussions on costs and quality and really advances our understanding of the challenges of increasing productivity without losing quality in higher education.


Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2013) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (especially Chapter 7: Resources, Money and Decision-Making).


Exploiting the affordances of the iPad at Lynn University

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Students at Lynn University

Tilsley, A. (2013) iPadU Inside Higher Education, January 15

This is a report about Lynn University, a private nonprofit university based in Boca Raton, Florida, moving its core curriculum  to the iPad. The significant point is that the university’s unique core curriculum is delivered through ‘challenged-based learning‘, a method developed by Apple ‘that focuses on using technology to apply course content to real-world problems‘, through the use of iPads.

In a pilot earlier this year students in a section using the iPads learned more than students who received the same curriculum content in more traditional methods – and were happier.

In fall 2013, all incoming students will be required to purchase an iPad mini, which will come loaded with the student’s summer reading and core curriculum texts, created by Lynn faculty. The iPad mini, at $495, will cost half as much as students were paying for print versions of their course readers, and they will get to keep the device.The iPad will be used across all classes.

All faculty have been given iPads and are receiving training on how to use them for teaching within the core curriculum. About 50% of the content will be common to courses, with faculty adding the remaining 50% themselves. Although there is a common framework for applications, faculty have considerable freedom to adapt their teaching as they (and the students) become more experienced in using the iPad.

The university had to spend approximately $1 million in upgrading its network and software (somewhat helped by the media requirements for the televised Presidential debate between Obama and Romney that was hosted at the university in October 2012.)

Other universities that have launched iPad initiatives include:

  • Seton Hill University
  • Dartmouth College School of Medicine
  • Ohio State University (biology)
  • University of Oklahoma (teacher education)
  • University of Western Sydney, Australia

The article contains more details and comments on the plan and is well worth reading in full.


Although over 125 universities are using materials from I Tunes U, the significant point here is that this is a purpose-built application aimed at exploiting the educational advantages or ‘affordances’ of the technology.

The second significant point is that the university is allowing a fair degree of flexibility for faculty to experiment and adapt as their experience with the technology grows.

The third significant point is that all faculty are receiving extensive training in how to use the technology in advance of the launch of the program.

Although I have some concerns about tying teaching to a single technology supplier and tool, Lynn University is to be applauded for taking such a bold step. I hope it succeeds and that it is carefully evaluated to identify the conditions that will enable the innovation to be migrated successfully to other learning contexts.