The aim of this blog
This is one of several blogs that explore the question: is e-learning failing in higher education? (See Is e-learning failing in higher education?, and Expectations and goals for e-learning for the context for this question.)
In my last post, the first rationale on the list, and the third in priority for me, was:
1. To increase access to learning opportunities/increase flexibility for students.
Let me start by saying that of all the goals for e-learning, in my view this has so far been the most successful, in terms of being achieved, although there is still a lot of room for improvement.
There are several aspects to this goal of increasing access and flexibility. The first is simply through online distance education. As Claude Martel commented in response to Stephen Downes’ posting, this is where there has been clear growth and as a result significant impact both on learners and institutions.
This is one area where we do have some reasonably good data (at least from the USA). Systematic, large-scale surveys conducted by the Sloan Foundation and also by the Instructional Technology Council indicate that growth in enrolments in fully online learning in post-secondary institutions in North America has been averaging approximately 12-14% per annum over the last 10 years, compared with 2-5% for enrolments in solely campus-based teaching. These figures were almost identical to the growth in online distance learning at UBC between 1995 and 2003, when I was Director of Distance Education and Technology.
This growth in public post-secondary online education has come from a number of sources. It should be noted that since 1995, there have been almost no dedicated online distance teaching universities created in the public sector (the last major one was the Open University of Catalonia). The Open University of Portugal moved all its courses from being print and broadcast-based to online in two years (2006-2007), but this did not lead to a major increase in enrolments (and its enrolments from Angola and Mozambique have probably decreased). Other publicly funded fully distant universities, such as Athabasca University in Canada, the Open University in the UK, and the Open University in the Netherlands, have been moving online at different speeds, but none has completely converted to online delivery. It will be interesting to see how the newly created University of the People manages.
The growth instead has come from conventional, campus-based institutions moving a proportion of their courses and programs to fully online delivery, often as an option to the regular campus-based courses. Many two year colleges in the USA for instance now require campus-based students to take at least one fully online course. Cerro Coso Community College, a traditionally campus-based two year college in California, now has more than 50% of its enrolments in distance courses (Jaschik, 2009). As a spokesperson for the college said, ‘The students are voting with their mice.’ Thus fully online courses have demonstrated that even conventional, campus-based students appreciate the flexibility and access that fully online teaching provides. It should be noted though that these students still take a large proportion of their program through conventional campus-based teaching.
Another major growth area in fully online programs is coming from the private, for-profit sector. The University of Phoenix, Kaplan University, Nova South Eastern University, and several others in the USA have seen rapid growth. However, there is still probably unmet demand for even more online programs, either blended or fully at a distance, especially for lifelong learners, i.e. those already in the workforce, because many public universities still focus on getting the best students from high school and moving them into graduate studies to become researchers. Thus their focus is not on the lifelong learning market. I have argued elsewhere that for the lifelong learning market we need new business models that enable tenured faculty to be hired from the revenues generated by full-cost tuition fees for professionally oriented online graduate programs. There is growth in this sector, but the growth is not fast enough to meet demand, and increasingly the public sector is losing out to the private sector as a result.
Indeed, with aging populations and the need for continuous learning, lifelong learners will soon become the majority of learners in formal post-secondary education. The losers in the end are both the public research universities and the students, because it is access to the new research and development taking place in the research universities that is required by many lifelong learners, and if public universities ignore this market, their loss of direct revenue from tuition fees, and loss of public support for failing to meet demand, will be substantial.
It is much harder to find data on the effect of blended learning (a combination of face-to-face and online learning) on enrolments, access or flexibility, since system-wide data is not usually available and the format of blended learning can vary considerably.
One example is Vancouver Community College’s Motor Vehicle Repair apprenticeship program, where students do two-thirds of a course online, and the last third – involving hands-on skills – on campus, focusing on the specific skills that the student is lacking. Some students arrive already with the skills acquired on the job, and therefore they are just tested and accredited. Other students may need the whole three weeks to reach mastery. This is a good example of the increased flexibility that e-learning can provide.
The evidence (or rather lack of it) suggests though that blended models that lead to reduced classroom time are still comparatively rare. Other examples therefore would be really welcomed.
There is also another way to look at increased access, flexibility and learning opportunities. The growth of open educational resources provides opportunities for potential learners to access knowledge that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to access any other way. However, although there is great promise in this area, we have yet to see compelling evidence of success, especially in terms of providing the necessary learning support, technology infrastructure, and program design models that ensure quality, sustainability, and growth.
Lastly, there is also the promise of informal learning over the Internet, through networking, interest groups, and social media, although again, hard data about numbers, satisfaction and learning gains is very difficult to find. (I hope some of you can point me to such data). In the meantime, Stephen Downes’ blog is the best source of information on this topic
I will deal with the lack of incentives in more detail later, but the question should be raised here: why are not governments doing more to ensure that public post-secondary institutions are providing more flexible access to learners as a priority? To give one example, a provincial government in Canada has set the target of increasing post-secondary enrolments by 20,000 over five years. In particular, the government wants to see more enrolments from previously ‘under-served groups’, such as aboriginals, those who have not completed high school qualifications, the physically disabled, and the unemployed.
The government has pledged to provide funding to institutions to enable this goal to be reached. Institutions have been asked to submit plans to show how they are going to meet this target. Now should the government provide the funding even if the institutions plan to provide programs for these target groups only through more campus-based places (which will require investment in new buildings) or should it encourage institutions to provide these extra places through alternative delivery, such as blended or online learning? Answers on a postcard, please! (Or at least as a comment to this blog.)
The lack of data
Lastly, I come back to the lack of system-wide data to measure this goal (I am speaking of Canada here, but I suspect this applies to other countries as well). Have I missed significant studies? If so, please let me know.
It is interesting that the best data I could find comes from a private foundation and a professional association in the USA. Institutions are not required in most jurisdictions to provide information on the method of program delivery in a standard way. How though can we measure the impact of e-learning, or investments in technology, if we have no measure of output? The OECD (2005) has provided a category system similar to the one used by Sloan, and a tested questionnaire for institutions to complete, but someone has to agree to collecting this data on a system-wide basis. Who should be responsible for collecting and analysing such data? Is this a role for Statistics Canada or individual governments or other funding agencies? Maybe the Canadian Council for Learning will take up this issue.
Despite the lack of systematic, system-wide information on e-learning, there is reasonably good evidence to suggest that e-learning is facilitating increased access to learning opportunities, both formal and informal, but mainly through fully online activities, rather than through blended learning, defined as a mix of face-to-face and online learning. Nevertheless, there is still room for expansion in e-learning offerings, especially in public research institutions, to meet unmet demand for flexible delivery. Thus this is one of the more successful rationales for e-learning.
Allen, I. E. and Seaman, J. (2008) Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008 Needham MA: Sloan Consortium
Instructional Technology Council (2008) Tracking the Impact of e-Learning at Community Colleges Washington, DC: Instructional Technology Council
OECD (2005) E-Learning in Tertiary Education: Where Do We Stand? Paris: OECD