October 21, 2014

What UBC has learned about doing MOOCs

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Coursera certificate 2

Engle, W. (2104) UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia, a premier public research university in Canada, successfully delivered five MOOCs in the spring and summer of 2013, using the Coursera platform. This report is an evaluation of the experience.

The report is particularly valuable because it provides details of course development and delivery, including media used and costs. Also UBC has been developing online courses for credit for almost 20 years, so it is interesting to see how this has impacted on the design of their MOOCs.

The MOOCs

1. Game Theory I: K. Leyton Brown (UBC); M. Jackson and Y.Shoham (Stanford University)

2. Game Theory II: K. Leyton Brown (UBC); M. Jackson and Y.Shoham (Stanford University)

3. Useful Genetics: R. Redfield, UBC

4. Climate Literacy: S. Harris and S. Burch, UBC

5. Introduction to Systematic Program Design: G. Kizcales, UBC

In terms of comparability I’m going to treat Game Theory I and II as one MOOC, as combined they were about the same length as the other MOOCs (between 8-12 weeks)

Basic statistics

330,150 signed up (82,500 on average per course)

164,935 logged in at least once (41,000 per course)

12,031 took final exam (3,000 per course)

8,174 earned course certificate (2,000 per course)

60-70% already had a post-secondary degree

30-40% were North American, with participants from nearly every country in the world.

Course development

None of the instructors had taught an online course before, but were supported by instructional designers, media development staff, and academic assistants (graduate and undergraduate students).

One major difference between UBC MOOCs and its online credit courses (which are primarily LMS-based) was the extensive use of video, the main component of the MOOC pilot courses.

Video production

305 videos constituting a total of 65 hours were produced. Each MOOC used a different method of production:

  • Intensive studio (Climate Literacy)
  • Hybrid studio plus instructor desktop (Systematic Program Design)
  • Light studio production (Game Theory I and II)
  • Instructor desktop (Useful Genetics)

Web pages

All the MOOCs except Games Theory also included weekly modules as HTML-based web pages, which is a variation of the Coursera design default model. Altogether 98 HTML module pages were developed. The weekly modules were used to provide guidance to students on learning goals, amount of work expected, an overview of activities, and additional quiz or assignment help. (All standard practice in UBC’s LMS-based credit courses.)

Assessment

1,049 quiz questions were developed, of which just over half were graded.

There were four peer assessments in total across all the MOOCs.

Course delivery

As well as the faculty member responsible for each MOOC, graduate and undergraduate academic assistants were a crucial component of all courses, with the following responsibilities:

  • directly assisting learners
  • troubleshooting technical problems
  • conducting quality assurance activities

There was very little one-on-one interaction between the main instructor and learners, but academic assistants monitored and moderated the online forum discussions.

Costs

As always, costing is a difficult exercise. Appendix B of the report gives a pilot total of $217,657, but this excludes academic assistance or, perhaps the most significant cost, instructor time.

Working from the video production costs ($95,350) and the proportion of costs (44%) devoted to video production in Figure 1 in the report, I estimate the direct cost at $216,700, or approximately $54,000 per MOOC, excluding faculty time and co-ordination support, but including academic assistance.

However, the range of cost is almost as important. The video production costs for Climate Literacy, which used intensive studio production, were more than six times the video production costs of Systematic Program Design (hybrid studio + desktop).

MOOCs as OERs

  • the UBC instructors are using their MOOC materials in their own on-campus, for-credit classes in a flipped classroom model
  • courses are left open and active on Coursera for self-paced learning
  • porting of video materials as open access YouTube videos
  • two courses (Climate Literacy and Useful Genetics) added Creative Commons licenses for re-use

Challenges

  • copyright clearance (Coursera owns the copyright so third party copyright needs to be cleared)
  • higher than expected time demands on all involved
  • iterative upgrades to the Coursera platform
  • partner relationship management (UBC + Coursera + Stanford University) was time-consuming.
  • training and managing academic assistants, especially time management
  • the Coursera platform limited instructors’ ability to develop desired course activities
  • Coursera’s peer assessment functionality in particular was limiting

Lessons

  • UBC’s prior experience in credit-based online learning led to better-designed, more interactive and more engaging MOOCs
  • learners always responded positively to instructor ‘presence’ in forums or course announcements
  • MOOC students were motivated by grades
  • MOOC students were willing to critically engage in critiquing instructors’ expertise and teaching
  • open publishing via MOOCs is a strong motivator for instructors
  • MOOCs require significant investment.

Conclusion

All the MOOCs received positive feedback and comments from students. UBC was able to gain direct experience in and knowledge of MOOCs and look at how this might inform both their for-credit on-campus and online teaching. UBC was also able to bring its experience in for-credit online learning to strengthening the design of MOOCs. Lastly it was able to make much more widely known the quality of UBC instructors and course materials.

Comment

First, congratulations to UBC for

  • experimenting with MOOCs
  • conducting the evaluation
  • making the report publicly available.

It is clear from the comments of participants in the appendices that at least some of the participants (we don’t know how many) were very pleased with the courses. As usual though with evaluation reports on MOOCs, there is no assessment of learning other than the end of course quiz-based tests. I don’t care too much about completion rates, but some measurement of student satisfaction would have been helpful.

It is also significant that UBC has now decided to move from Coursera to edX as its platform for MOOCs. edX, which is open source and allows partners to modify and adapt the platform, provides the flexibility that Coursera lacked, despite its many iterative ‘improvements’.

This also demonstrates the hubris of MOOC platform developers in ignoring best design principles in online learning when they designed their platforms. It is clear that UBC designers were able to improve the design of their MOOCs by drawing on prior for-credit online experience, but also that the MOOC platforms are still very limited in enabling the kind of learning activities that lead to student engagement and success.

The UBC report also highlighted the importance (and cost) of providing some form of learner support in course delivery. The use of academic assistants in particular clearly made the MOOCs more interactive and engaging, as well as limited but effective interventions from the instructors themselves, once again supported by (and confirming) prior research on the importance of instructor presence for successful for-credit online learning.

I very much appreciate the cost data provided by UBC, and the breakdown of production and delivery costs is extremely valuable, but I have to challenge the idea of providing any costs that exclude the time of the instructors. This is by far the largest and most important cost in MOOCs and the notion that MOOCs are free of instructor cost is to fly in the face of any respectable form of economics.

It is clear that MOOCs are more expensive to date per hour of study time than LMS-based for-credit online courses. We still do not have enough data to give a precise figure, and in any case, as the UBC study shows, cost is very much a factor of design. However, even without instructors costs, the UBC MOOCs at $54,000 each for between 8-12 weeks are already more than the average cost of a 13 week for-credit LMS-based online course, including instructor time.

This is partly due to the increased instructor time in preparation/production, but also to the higher cost of video production.  I am not against the use of video in principle, but it must add value. Using it for content transmission when this can be done so much more cheaply textually and/or by audio is a waste of the medium’s potential (although perhaps more motivating for the instructor).

More importantly, every institution contemplating MOOCs needs to do a cost-benefit exercise. Is it better to invest in MOOCs or credit-based online learning or both? If MOOCs are more expensive, what are the added benefits they provide and does this more than make up for not only the extra cost, but the lost opportunity of investing in (more) credit-based online learning or other forms of campus-based learning? I know what my answer would be.

 

Transforming university teaching and learning: UBC’s strategy for flexible learning

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UBC campus, Vancouver BC

UBC campus, Vancouver BC

Flexible Learning Implementation Team (2014) Flexible Learning – Charting a Strategic Vision for UBC (Vancouver Campus. Vancouver BC: Office of the Provost, University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s premier research universities with almost 60,000 students. It usually features within the top 30 universities worldwide in university rankings.

For the last 18 months, UBC has been developing a comprehensive strategy for teaching and learning for the future, and last week issued a report on its vision and how it plans to implement that vision. Although Flexible Learning is the term UBC has chosen to describe this strategy, it is in fact far more comprehensive and wide ranging than just blended or fully online learning. It is really about the transformation of teaching and learning in response to local, regional and global changes and challenges, based on a substantial amount of prior research, internal discussion, and input from external consultants (declaration of interest: I played a very small part in some of the early discussions of strategy).

First, the breaking news, then a summary of the main points from the strategy document.

Breaking news

This really represents the first concrete actions resulting from this strategic initiative.

  1. Research report published on UBC’s first four MOOCs: These MOOCs were delivered through the Coursera platform. I will cover this report in a separate blog post.
  2. Moving from Coursera to edX: UBC has now joined edX as a Charter Member, giving it a seat on edX’s Academic Advisory Board. UBC will develop four new MOOCs for delivery on edX in 2014-2015.
  3. Revamping Continuing and Professional Education: UBC has established, within the Provost’s Office, a new unit to work in close partnership with Faculties in developing both applied and access programs. More on this and how it affects the current Division of Continuing Studies later in this post.
  4. Improving the learning technology ecosystem: basically a response to widespread faculty disenchantment with the implementation of the latest version of UBC’s LMS, Blackboard Connect.

However, these four developments are literally the tip of an iceberg, which is much larger and more significant.

The strategic vision

As always, I recommend a careful reading of the whole 22 page document, even though it is not the easiest of reads. Any summary diminishes the complexity of the discussion, because there are so many inter-related themes and developments to which the university is attempting to respond. I provide this summary though in the hope that it will spike your interest enough to make the effort, as I see this document as one of the most significant for the future of public higher education in Canada – and elsewhere.

What does the university mean by flexible learning?

From the document (p.2)

We define Flexible Learning as UBC’s response to the opportunities and challenges presented by rapid advances in information and communication technologies, informed by the results of learning research and motivated by the objectives of improving student learning, extending access to UBC and strengthening university operating effectiveness.

See below for more detail on what that actually means.

What’s driving the change?

  • learner and employer expectations: need for a flexible workforce, greater flexibility in delivery and offerings, and more emphasis on measurable outcomes
  • demographics: increased global demand, with the local population of students older and often working
  • policy of governments (generally): growing reliance on tuition revenue; a belief that online learning is cheaper
  • disruptive technologies: MOOCs, cloud, mobile, adaptive learning, automated assessment, learning analytics…..

Market segmentation

Different categories of learners:

  • traditional university students (65% of the market), younger, mainly ‘commuting': want rich campus-based learning experiences
  • convenience-driven degree-seekers: older, working, want blended/online learning
  • practitioners: seeking credentials for professional development; able to pay; under-represented to date at UBC
  • growth learners: seeking non-credentialed learning; a large and growing market segment.

All segments want more flexibility, both in delivery and range of content offerings.

Main objectives (for flexible learning)

  1. improved student learning
  2. expanded access to UBC content
  3. greater operating effectiveness

Main strategies

1. Strengthening UBC’s traditional role: through:

  • blended learning (including integration of MOOC content)
  • improving the campus experience and more personalization of learning through more modular programming
  • strategic academic program transformation

2. Revenue growth: through:

  • strategic expansion of continuing/professional education, especially applied master’s programs, certificates, badges
  • expanding access through ‘bridging’, e.g. PLA, MOOCs, summer programs

3. Academic partnerships (joining edX is one example)

Governance and management

The UBC Board and Executive approved the outline plan in 2013. Two teams were established within the Provost’s Office:

  • a leadership team, responsible for developing vision, strategy and policies, chaired by the Provost, with eight members
  • an implementation team, with another eight members, chaired by a Vice Provost.

Support is also provided by staff from the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology and from the IT Division, as well as designated contact people within each Faculty.

UBC has committed a total of $5 million ($1 million already spent) to support this initiative. (The total UBC annual operating budget is over $1 billion).

Comment

I’m watching this as someone completely outside the university. UBC is a very large and complex organization, once described by one former Provost as being managed by 12 barons all plotting to become king (although the climate is very different today). I cannot judge how far the reality of what’s happening on the ground differs from the vision, and in any case it is still very early days.

However, it is important to stress that this is a university-wide initiative (at least for the main Vancouver campus – UBC also has a semi-autonomous and much smaller campus in the interior of the province.) The strategy seems to have widespread support at the senior executive level, and a lot of momentum resulting from an infusion of significant money but more importantly as a result of widespread discussion and consultation within the university. Certainly the blended learning component is already getting a lot of traction, with some major re-designs of large undergraduate classes already in progress. How all this affects though the main body of the faculty and students at the hard edge of teaching and learning is impossible for me to judge.

The establishment of a new ‘hub’ within the Provost’s office for continuing and professional education (CPE) is particularly interesting since UBC has long had a strong and extensive Division of Continuing Studies, which offers a wide range of non-credit programming. However,

  • the ability to re-purpose existing content from credit courses into certificates, badges and non-credentialed offerings such as MOOCs,
  • the growing market for professional masters programs, especially online,
  • the increasing reconfiguration of higher education as a continuous lifelong learning escalator rather than a series of different, discrete floors (bachelors, masters, doctorates, non-credit),
  • the opportunities for revenue generation flowing directly back to the faculties,

all make essential a rethinking of the whole CPE activities of a university.

At the same time, the Division of Continuing Studies at UBC, as elsewhere, has many staff with a range of special skills and knowledge, such as

  • marketing,
  • direct access to employers and industry (often through the hiring of working professionals as part-time instructors),
  • the ability to identify and take risks with emerging content areas,
  • experience in operating in a highly market-driven, competitive cost-recovery/profit environment.

These are not attributes currently within the capacity or even interest of most academic departments. It will be an interesting challenge to see how the knowledge and experience of the Division of Continuing Studies can best be integrated with the new initiative, and how the new development in the Provost’s Office affects the operation of the Division of Continuing Studies.

Another critical factor is the appointment of a new President, who has pledged support for the strategy. However, he also said on his inauguration that the university will increase its base funding for research by at least $100-million. He did not specify though where the money would come from. I leave you to compare that to the $5 million allocated to this initiative and to judge how much impact finding another $100 million base funding for research might have on teaching and learning at UBC. I know, it’s not a zero sum game, but….

Overall, though, I find it heartening that UBC is showing such leadership and initiative in grappling with the major forces now impacting on public universities. It has a vision and a plan for teaching and learning in the future, that looks at teaching, technology, students and the changing external environment in an integrated and thoughtful manner, which in itself is a major accomplishment. It will be fascinating to see how all this actually plays out over time.

Synergies between online learning, on-campus teaching and flexible learning

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Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Kiczcales, G. (2014) Online to improve on-campus Digital Learning Blog, UBC, Vancouver BC, April 14.

UBC’s flexible learning strategy

Nearly two weeks ago, Eric Grimson, the Chancellor of MIT, and I spent a day at the University of British Columbia consulting on the university’s strategy for flexible learning. I’ve been somewhat constrained by a confidentiality agreement, as UBC’s flexible learning strategy is still at the development stage and has yet to be formally approved, but one of the Provost’s team responsible for developing its strategy, Gregor Kiczales, has an interesting blog that he describes as a conversation about digitization of the channel between educators and learners, and what that means for university education. 

The impact of online learning on the campus

In his most recent post, Gregor discusses ‘one of the most important themes they [Eric and I] both stressed: the main reason for a university like UBC to explore online learning is to improve the on-campus learning experience.’ Certainly it was one of the points I made, that a combination of online learning and campus teaching will offer benefits to many students, by increasing flexibility and also by enabling instructors to focus on what the campus experience does best. However, it is not in my view the main reason for online learning.

I was arguing for more analysis to be made of what the campus can offer that cannot be provided more conveniently or more effectively online, with the implication that much of what we currently do on campus would actually be better replaced by online learning. What I would challenge in particular is that discussion is best done face-to-face. My experience is that very high levels of academic discussion are equally possible online as in class.

This brings me back to my law of equal substitution, which basically states that almost all teaching and learning outcomes can be just as effectively accomplished on campus or online, given good course design, although there will always be exceptions. In general, though, what determines the appropriateness of either mode are non-pedagogical factors, such as comparative costs, the differing needs of different types of students, the training of instructors, and the resources available.

I certainly believe that for young students straight out of high school, the social, sporting and cultural aspects of a campus are very important. Again, though, I question whether there is sufficient focus on these aspects today, especially in commuter universities, where a majority of the students travel in for lectures then go home. If the campus experience is so important for learning, then universities such as UBC need to really change the first and second year experience, with a move away from very large, impersonal lectures to more small group learning and more direct contact with senior research faculty. In other words, the current model, which keeps classes small for post-graduate students and large for first and second year undergraduates, should be inverted.

UBC is attempting to break up the large lecture classes, but the the cost of doing this, and the willingness or otherwise of faculty to spend more time with undergraduate students, are real challenges. It may be more realistic to focus on related academic and cultural activities that lie outside of formal courses or programs, and on those things, such as hands-on access to equipment, that cannot be done online.

Horses for courses (or rather, different courses for different horses)

The other point that really needs to be made is that public institutions such as UBC now face a much more diverse student population, with very different needs. Thus UBC has both young residential and young commuting students, local, national and international students, pre-university, undergraduate, graduate and lifelong learners, students with different levels of English language ability, gregarious and shy learners, and on and on. Every one of these groups probably needs a different range of options regarding the campus experience and the delivery of learning.

Thus I would argue that UBC also needs to focus just as much on fully online learning, or distance education, as on blended learning, or on improving the campus, as important as that is. In particular the lifelong learning market is growing rapidly, and is increasingly important economically in a highly competitive knowledge-based economy. Furthermore, lifelong learners are able and willing to pay the direct costs of for instance professional masters programs or more specific short courses or modules leading to badges or certificates. Such lifelong learners have already been through the campus experience, already have the fundamental lab or studio skills from hands-on learning, and can therefore handle more indirect forms of teaching, such as simulations or remote labs. It is for such learners that online learning is particularly appropriate.

Yes, much more flexibility

Thus UBC is absolutely right to focus on providing learning flexibly, i.e. in a wide variety of ways, to meet the diverse needs of students. In the end, students should be able to choose from a variety of ways of studying, while meeting the same teaching and learning objectives. This will require various mixes of online and classroom teaching within the same course or program. The technology to some extent does allow this ‘personalized’ learning, but it also needs to be accompanied by a major re-thinking of course design and how students can access learning, within a realistic cost framework.

Doing it right

Lastly, I have to say that in my view, UBC is way ahead of most universities in considering the impact of technology, not just on the campus, but on the whole learning experience and in particular the likely impact of changing markets on the university. I admire the way it is addressing these challenges. Thus my one day at UBC after an eleven year absence was a particularly appropriate way to conclude my career as a consultant.

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.

 Activity

 

Amount ($)

 

%

President’s Office

7,148,000

1

Faculties + VP Academic’s Office

596,363,000

63

IT

38,381,000

4

Library

38,510,000

4

Research

19,848,000

2

Communications/fund raising

31,782,000

3

Student support/welfare/aid

66,849,000

7

HR

11,759,000

1

Resources/operations
  • financial

19,095,000

2

  • campus facilities

95,870,000

10

Miscellaneous

27,394,000

3

 Total

 

953,011,000

 

100

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.

Consortia

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.

Next

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.)

Conference: International Perspectives on Technology-enhanced Learning

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The campus at UBC

What:  International Perspectives on Technology-Enhanced Learning: Lessons, Challenges, Possibilities: A conference for those interested in a global dialogue on increasing access, equity and engagement through innovations in technology-enabled learning.

Where: University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

When: July 11-13, 2013

Who: Keynote speakers include:

  • Professor Asha Kanwar, President & Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth of Learning
  • Dr. Vasudha Kamat, Vice Chancellor at SNDT Women’s University in Mubai, India
  • Catherine Wangeci K-Thuo, from the African Virtual University

How: The Call For Papers is now open. Submit your proposal before April 15. More details can be found at: http://ocs.educ.ubc.ca/index.php/IPTEL/IPTEL2013