This is the fourth in my series reviewing developments in online learning in 2018. The first three were:
Five factors driving the development of online learning
There are at least five factors that affect the growth and the success of online learning, best illustrated through the following Venn diagram:
Figure 1: Five factors influencing the growth of online learning
The five key ‘drivers’ of the development of online learning are:
- student demand driven by personal circumstances such as family, part-time or full-time work, career development;
- pedagogy or educational theory and ideas, such as independent learning, flexible learning, open pedagogy;
- technology, such as the development of the Internet, the web, learning management systems, etc.
- external politics (internal politics will come under management): it is clear from both the 2017 and 2018 national surveys that government policies through earmarked funding for online learning – or negative policies such as cutting student aid for part-time students, aka the U.K. – can have a major impact on the growth of online learning;
- management: this is the effectiveness of institutional strategies and planning that are developed to support the growth (and quality) of online learning.
Far too little attention has been paid to the inhibiting or dynamic effects of institutional management on the growth of online learning, but I believe this to be a critical factor, and I had considerable evidence of this from my work during 2018.
Well done, Canada
First, let’s look at the positive side. The 2018 national survey of online learning found that almost all universities in Canada, and almost all colleges outside Québec, are now offering at least some online courses. Those that are not are mainly very small institutions (under 1,000 students) and/or are semi-private colleges or Cégeps in Québec.
Now let’s just stop and think about that in the big picture of university and college education. In 20 years or so, Canadian universities and colleges have gone from no online learning to almost every institution outside Québec offering at least some online learning as part of degrees or diplomas. In 2017 there were over 1.3 million student enrolments in fully online courses for credit. In terms of FTEs, this is equivalent to four universities of 27,500 students plus another four colleges of 12,000 students and a Cégep of 3,000 students. Given an 800 year history of universities, this is a massive change in a very short time, because online learning in general reflects a significant shift from the traditional classroom experience.
But how much of this is due to institutional leadership, and how much has been due to heroic efforts by individual faculty and instructors, friendly government policies, and above all pressure from students?
Weak leadership: two examples
I am going to argue that in general, a majority of post-secondary educational institutions suffer from weak leadership in the area of online and digital learning. I realise this is both controversial and not altogether new as it has been a recurring problem since the onset of online learning. However, in 2018 I heard of at least two classic cases of weak leadership in dealing with the challenge of change resulting from the introduction of new technologies, and online learning in particular.
In one instance, because of demands from students who were mainly working, but also because the department saw a market opening, an academic department decides to launch a professional, one-year ‘blended learning’ master’s program, at a fee of $50,000 per student. The strategy was to reduce campus-based lecture classes from three to two a week, with the third lecture being delivered synchronously over the Internet. Students would be required to attend the live transmission ‘because you can’t have a proper discussion if students aren’t all present at the same time.’ There was no project management, no change of course design, no course director, and three months before the course was due to be launched, no confirmed instructors. Worst of all, the department was not listening to the advice of the Centre for Teaching and Learning.
In another case, under pressure from a couple of deans, the acting provost of a large university summons all the deans to a meeting to discuss ‘what we should be doing about e-learning.’ An external expert is invited to address the meeting for about 20 minutes. This is followed by a largely unstructured discussion where it is clear that about a third of the deans are anxious to move ahead rapidly with blended and fully online courses for credit, about half are open to moving but need more resources and technical help before making any commitments, and one or two are sullenly quiet, suggesting opposition. To solve the problem of the need for more resources, the CIO suggests that the instructional designers and tech support people located in Continuing Studies, which is supporting successful non-credit online programs, should be moved to his division to support on-campus blended programs. The meeting ends without any decisions made. Twelve months later, the situation remains the same, under a new Provost.
Two swallows a summer do not make. In fact, both these institutions have a generally good academic reputation, and indeed offer some really good online courses. However, I don’t think these two cases were exceptional but reflect a systemic problem, especially in universities, but also in colleges as well, in dealing with change and innovation.
The task of senior management
University and college academic leaders have essentially two interlinked but different tasks in bringing about innovation and change:
- direction and
For instance, what is the vision and direction for teaching and learning? What are the institutional priorities? In particular, where does online learning and digital technology ‘fit’ within the broader teaching goals of the university? For instance, can blended or hybrid learning be used as a means of developing some of the core skills required by students?
In fact, most Canadian post-secondary institutional administrations do have a reasonably clear direction for online and blended learning: more. In the 2018 survey more than two thirds think that online learning is a very or extremely important part of their strategic or academic plan. Almost all institutions (95%) recognise it is important to have a plan or strategy for online learning, although only a third actually do have a plan or strategy. Most believe that online learning enrolments will increase in the future and most believe that online and blended learning is of the same or higher quality as face-to-face teaching. So general direction is not the problem.
But once that direction is set, how can it best be implemented? I deliberately use the term ‘agency’ rather than implementation, because management or ‘the administration’ is unlikely to do the actual implementation. In universities and colleges, this will inevitably be the job of the instructors. So it then becomes the task of persuading or helping instructors to move in the desired directions that are set. And this is where the systemic barriers kick in.
It is the agency part that is lacking: identifying and providing the resources needed to support online learning, and in particular putting in place the necessary faculty development/training to ensure that online and blended learning gets done well. This is not happening, or rather it is not happening fast enough, in many institutions, because of the following systemic barriers:
Academic hierarchies and academic freedom
Let’s start with academic freedom. In essence, faculty have the right to teach well online, to teach badly online, or not to teach online at all. In my first case, there is little the senior administration can do to stop the disaster that it is to come. Without a plan or strategy and a set of criteria for quality teaching signed off by all the departments, all the senior administration can do is to try and persuade the department to do things differently – if it is even aware that there is a problem.
And this leads to my second point. There is an apartheid and hierarchy in universities. There are tenured faculty, contract faculty, and staff. Most learning technology support people are staff, and hence do not have to be listened to.
This is then augmented by the fact that those making decisions about learning technologies and course design, the AVPs Teaching and Learning or Provosts, the Deans and even heads of Department are themselves academics and generally have little or no expertise in either pedagogy or learning technologies (although often they are successful classroom teachers).
In successful institutions, this does not matter if such administrators listen to and support the advice from specialist staff. But many distrust or do not value such advice, because they do not have the knowledge base from which to make such judgements. If you don’t know, go by instinct and past experience, if the advice you receive is inconvenient or difficult to implement.
To implement a successful institutional strategy of any kind, you need time, especially in large institutions. For instance, it will probably take a minimum of five to ten years to ensure quality blended and online learning throughout most of an institution, if there has been little to start with.
However, one thing I noticed when drawing up the roster of institutions for the national survey is that approximately one third of all Provosts in universities and VP Education in colleges changed between 2017 and 2018. In Canadian higher education, the churn rate of senior administrators is very high. Few serve a full five-year term. This makes coherent strategy implementation very difficult.
One problem with strategy is when it becomes personal, i.e. driven by a particular individual, such as a charismatic Provost. Without a broad-based institutional strategy, once that individual leaves, the strategy stops. Sometimes the process of hiring a senior administrator can take longer than the term they actually serve, during which time there is a policy vacuum. That clearly happened in my second case.
The only way to deal with management turnover is to develop a strategy that is accepted by the whole institution – which in turn takes time. As a result, too many faculty just shrug their shoulders when the latest strategy or plan is extolled: wait long enough and it will go away.
No need to be qualified to teach
I have written many times about the need now for all faculty and instructors to have basic pedagogical knowledge and skills if they are to teach effectively in a digital environment, but this is not a requirement for teaching in a Canadian university and is unlikely ever to be one while research is the predominant criterion for career advancement.
Nevertheless we could be doing much more to provide faculty with course design templates for online and blended teaching, online research-based resources (such as how most effectively to use video), and educational consultants that they can work with, especially the first time they tackle a blended or online course.
However this means building a support structure and staffing it adequately. Most institutions are moving towards this, but not quickly or extensively enough – faculty now are moving more quickly to at least partly online with their teaching than the development of support. Without such support though quality will suffer.
Online learning management in 2018
In essence I don’t see any easy solutions. I think the best that can be said is this:
- there are a few institutions that have shown outstanding leadership in trying to move the whole institution towards more flexible learning opportunities and the planned growth of online learning. I would say that the number of institutions in Canada that fit this profile can be counted on the fingers of your hands, and I’m willing to name some: UBC, Queen’s, Waterloo, Ottawa, Algonquin, Memorial. There are others, but not many, and even some of those in this category have struggled to implement their strategies
- there is a larger bunch – maybe 30-50% – that have strengthened Centres for Teaching and Learning and brought in educational technology specialists, but have left it to individual faculty or academic departments to grow into online learning. This has been largely successful in terms of getting online learning established, but it is still very much a hit or miss approach. For instance what is the rationale for the size and type of support staff? Nevertheless I’m open to considering that this approach may be at least as successful as the command-and-control approach from the Provost’s Office in getting online learning established and of reasonable quality
- then there’s the rest which I am guessing is at least 50% of our institutions in Canada, where nearly everything has been left to the faculty/instructors and what little there is of existing technical and pedagogical support services. For instance there may be a small and overwhelmed Teaching and Learning Centre – I know one university of over 40,000 students that has only one support person serving the whole credit-based part of the university in online learning – but there is no clear rationale for the size of any support service and a very wide mandate that probably includes all teaching and learning, including online.
What can be done to help this large chunk of institutions that have no effective strategy or plan for implementation?
The eCampuses could take leadership here, and provide workshops and courses for senior administrators, bringing in speakers from institutions that have been successful in implementing strategies for digital, flexible or online learning. I would argue that this is a much higher priority than driving OER initiatives, for instance.
Government funding could also be used to support province-wide online courses for graduates wanting to teach in universities and colleges, and using access to funding to lean on universities and colleges to make this a requirement of hiring new faculty.
These are just two small strategies. As I said, there are no easy solutions, but the first step is to recognise that we have a problem, Houston. We need a better management system in our HE institutions if we are to move from a 19th century system of higher education into the 21st century, and that will mean removing some of the systemic barriers that inhibit change.
The last post in this series will look at developments in pedagogy and online teaching during 2018, and then – hooray – it will be Christmas and time for a short break.
Over to you
- Have I been too harsh on senior administrators?
- Does what I am saying match your experience?
- Does your institution have a successful implementation strategy for supporting online/digital learning? Can you share it?
- Any other horror stories?