May 24, 2018

Active learning at the Royal Military College of Canada

The interior of Currie Hall, RMC

The RMC

Following my trip to the UK Open University, I visited the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, where I was a keynote speaker at a one day conference on active learning.

The RMC is the military college of the Canadian Armed Forces, and is a degree-granting university training military officers. RMC was established in 1876 and is the only federal institution in Canada with degree-granting powers. Programs are offered at the undergraduate and graduate levels, both on campus as well as through the college’s distance learning programme via the Division of Continuing Studies. It has a total of about 3,000 students, with about one-third part-time/distance and about 300 taking post-graduate studies. It is fully bilingual.

Active learning at the RMC

This was the rough theme of the conference, and it was interesting to see how the College is working to make its programs, both on-campus and online, more learner focused and interactive. I don’t have space to cover all the presentations, which without exception were excellent, so I will focus just on those that were of particular interest to me.

The importance of retrieval-practice for learning

This was an interesting presentation by Dr. Mathieu Gagnon, a psychology instructor at the RMC, basically about effective learning methods. He drew attention to research (Gagnon and Cormier, 2018) that suggests that students who spend time writing down or retrieving what they learn from reading do better in long-term retention than students who re-read the same text multiple times. Another factor is that distributed learning, where students take breaks rather than study intensively, is also more effective in long-term retention. (I hope I have got this right, as I didn’t take notes during his presentation….)

The art and science of flying

I used to have my own small plane, a Cessna 172, which I have flown from the west coast to the east coast of Canada and back. I loved flying my own plane, and although I knew about stall speeds, the use of flaps and ailerons, and so on, I never really understood the basic principles of aeronautics (which is why it is probably fortunate that I have stopped flying now because of my age).

So imagine my delight when I heard Dr. Billy Alan and Dr. Steve Lukits discuss a radical inter-disciplinary course they had designed that combined English literature (books and writing about flying) with aeronautical engineering, capturing both the beauty and magic of flying and its downright practicalities. Unfortunately the course is no longer extant (too many challenges for the administration), but surely we need more such inter-disciplinary courses in higher education. 

Wi-fi on buses

Sawyer Hogenkamp is doing a master’s thesis at Queen’s University on the use of wi-fi on school buses. He presented some staggering figures:

  • 30 million students in the U.S. and Canada ride the school bus every day.
  • 40% of Canadian school students take a school bus every school day
  • the average commute time is one hour or more in each direction

Many school districts are now putting wi-fi on to their buses that connect to their networks so students can study to and from school. This is particularly important for students in rural areas who often have no or slow speed wi-fi access at home.

Google is rolling out a program across the United States called Rolling Study Halls that includes devices as well as connectivity for use on school buses. They claim they are ‘reclaiming’ more than 1.5 million study hours in this way. 

Hogenkamp is researching the impact on learning and behaviour of students on buses with wi-fi. He stated that the first person to notify the school district if the wi-fi fails is the school bus driver, because of the impact on bus behaviour. To see a great three minute video of Sawyer’s research on bullying on school buses, see: http://www.queensu.ca/3mt/results-and-galleries/videos-2018

Active learning classrooms

Queen’s University is also located in Kingston, and there is clearly a great deal of collaboration and cross-teaching and research between the RMC and Queen’s. Several instructors from RMC, Major Vicki Woodside-Duggins, Dr. Bernadette Dechecci, Lt. Glen Whitaker, and Mrs. Annie Riel, and from Queen’s University, Dr. Andrea Philpson, discussed their use of active classrooms at Queen’s University.

In 2014, Queen’s University installed three different types of active classrooms:

  • a small classroom (capacity 45) with flexible configuration, movable chairs with arm rests for tablets or notes, and extensive whiteboard all around the room, a podium and a projector with a screen
  • a medium size classroom (capacity 70), with round tables for groups of six with power outlets and connections to several interactive displays around the walls, enabling students to work in collaboration around a table or in presentation mode to the whole class, and a podium that connects to all the screens or can be switched to just one screen
  • a large classroom (capacity 136), with rectangular tables for groups of up to eight with a monitor at the end of each table, a and a podium connected to all the monitors with can be switched to just one screen.

The medium-sized active classroom at Queen’s University

A study was conducted in 2014 (Leger, Chen, Woodside-Duggins and Riel, 2014) and found:

Overall, both student and instructors had overwhelmingly positive expectations and experiences in all three classrooms across disciplines and course levels. Initial impressions and expectations about the rooms were optimistic with students expecting “active” courses and no lecturing, and most instructors immediately changing their typical teaching approaches to adapt to the new environment. The data collected at the end of the term suggests most learning expectations were met, with students being highly engaged throughout the term as a consequence of instructors using more active teaching approaches.

I had the good fortune to present in the medium-sized classroom to faculty and staff in 2016 and can personally attest to how the configuration of the room impacts on how one presents and engages the audience. I have already written about how the increased use of blended learning will require more active classroom designs and the RMC presentation strongly reinforced this.

Five active learning exercises

Dr. Holly Ann Garnett rounded up the conference with an interactive workshop where she got everyone to try five exercises for engaging students, including:

  • ball toss
  • pass-a-problem
  • students teach the class
  • think-pair-share
  • snowball

As these are all classroom exercises, I won’t go into detail but you can find them described more fully here.

What I found interesting is that best practices in online learning provide very different student engagement activities, such as online class discussion, student mini-assignments, and online tests with immediate feedback, which I believe have the advantage of being more authentic.

Conclusion

As always, I learn more than I teach when I’m a keynote presenter. The RMC has been doing distance education now for more than 20 years and it was good to connect with some of the RMC pioneers in distance education as well as the current Dean of Continuing Studies, Dr. Grace Scoppio, who was a delightful host. But I was also impressed with the quality and the enthusiasm of all the presenters. I am very fortunate to have such an interesting job!

References

Gagnon, Ma. and Cormier, S. (2018) Retrieval Practice and Distributed Practice: The Case of French Canadian Students, Canadian Journal of School Psychology, May, 2018

Leger, A., Chen, V., Woodside-Duggins, V., and Riel, A. (2014)  Active Learning Classrooms in Ellis Hall, Kingston ON: Queen’s University

 

Open and remote labs from the UK Open University

The Open University’s remote access electron microscope set-up

On my recent visit to the UK Open University, I had the privilege of a guided tour of the Open University’s remote labs. These allow students to log on from anywhere and conduct experiments remotely. The tour was courtesy of Professor Nick Braithwaite, Associate Dean (Academic Excellence), Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.

Note that remote labs are somewhat different from simulated online experiments, where students interact by entering data or clicking and dragging on screen items. With remote labs, the equipment being operated is real, with the students actually controlling the equipment in real time as well as recording and interpreting data. 

The OpenScience Laboratory

The OpenScience Laboratory is a means of conducting authentic and rigorous investigations using real data and is globally available. It is an initiative of the Open University and the Wolfson Foundation. It includes:

  • Remote Experiments
  • Virtual instruments and interactive screen experiments
  • Online field investigations
  • 3D Immersive environments
  • Citizen Science
  • Research and development 

There are altogether more than 50 self-contained open educational resource modules in experimental science, in the OpenScience Laboratory, each taking somewhere between one to three hours of study to complete.

As an example, there is an experiment to identify what causes variation in species of heather on English moorland. It is a combination of an online video recorded on site in English moorland and guided student activities, such as taking simulated measurements and calculating and interpreting data. The video is divided in to 23 parts, showing how measurements are made in the field, how to calculate slope, water flow, and organic soil depth, and how to take simulated measurements, to test the hypothesis that different types of heather are associated with different levels of slope in moorlands. This took me a couple of hours to complete.

The heather hypothesis

The OpenSTEM labs

The Open STEM Labs are part of the OpenScience Laboratory project.

The OpenSTEM Labs connect students to state-of-the-art instrumentation and equipment for practical enquiries over the internet, where distance is no barrier and where access to equipment is available 24 hours a day.

Students and teachers access the equipment via a web browser through which they can view the experiment, send real-time control commands, monitor real-time performance and download data for subsequent analysis. Using remotely accessible hardware for laboratory and exploratory studies, ranging from electronics to chemical synthesis and from microscopes to telescopes, students are able to access the various instruments and other remote controlled resources virtually anytime from anywhere with an internet connection.

The new facilities are available to students studying Open University modules and may be available by subscription to other institutions of higher education.

Figure 1 below indicates the relationship between the Open Science Labs, OpenSTEM Labs and remote labs.

The Open University’s remote labs

Below are links to some of the diverse range of equipment available. Simply click on a link and this will take you to that experiment’s landing page, as seen by the OU’s students. Here you will then be able to access the equipment. Please note that you may have to book a session if all pieces of that equipment are being used by others. If you do book a session you should enter the experiment through the booking system at the allotted time. This will take you straight through to the equipment. (Not all these are currently operational at any one time and you may need to register first to get access).

The OU also has scanning electron microscopes, an auto-titrator, and a radio telescope available on request from those with direct experience of these curriculum areas. Please email OpenSTEM to arrange access and further briefing.

A student’s desktop view of the eye of a fly seen through the OU’s electron microscope. The student can manipulate the electron microscope to get different degrees of magnitude.

Many of the remote lab experiments are part of the Open University’s MSc in Space Science and Technology.  This includes student remote control of a model ‘Mars Rover’ operated in a mock-up of the surface of Mars.

The OU’s model of the Mars Rover

Comments

The Open University has added a new set of quality online resources in experimental science and technology to those currently offered by, among others:

I would welcome suggestions for other sources for high quality OER in experimental science and technology..

However, many more are still needed. We are still a long way from being able to build an entire high quality experimental science or technology curriculum with open educational resources. As well as increasing quantity, we need better quality resources that enable student activity and engagement, that include clearly understandable instructions, and that result in a high level of scientific inquiry. The Open University resources meet these standards, but not all other OER in this field do. Also there are issues of scalability. One needs enough students to justify the investment in software, production and equipment, especially for remote labs and quality simulations. Sharing of resources between institutions, and between departments within institutions, is therefore highly desirable.

Thus there is still a long way to go in this field, but progress is being made. If you teach science or engineering I recommend you look carefully at the Open University’s resources. It may stimulate you not only to integrate some of these resources into your own teaching, but also to create new resources for everyone.

Athabasca University’s Centre for Distance Education to close

The news

As my mother used to say when she had the goods on me, ‘A little birdie told me…’. Well, a (different) little birdie has told me that the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University is being closed on June 1 and the academic staff from the Centre are being moved into the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

What is the Centre for Distance Education and what does it do?

The Centre (CDE) has currently about 10 academic staff and several distinguished adjunct professors, such as Randy Garrison and George Siemens, and also some very distinguished emeriti professors such as: 

  • Dominique Abrioux – Former AU President
  • Terry Anderson – Former Editor of IRRODL and Professor, Centre for Distance Education (Retired 2016)
  • Jon Baggaley – Former Professor, Centre for Distance Education
  • Patrick Fahy – Former Professor, Centre for Distance Education (Retired 2017)
  • Tom Jones – Former Associate Professor, Centre for Distance Education (Retired 2017)
  • Robert Spencer – Former Chair/Director, Centre for Distance Education

CDE currently offers a Master of Education in Distance Education and a Doctor of Education in Distance Education as well as post-baccalaureate certificates and diplomas in educational technology and instructional design. It is therefore the major centre in Canada for the education and training of professionals in online learning, educational technology and distance education.

On a lesser scale, it has also been a major centre for research into distance education. The Canadian Initiative for Distance Education Research (CIDER) is a research initiative of the International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning (IRRODL) and the Centre for Distance Education. 

IRRODL is a globally recognised leading journal published by Ayhabasca University but run mainly out of the Centre (its editors are currently Rory McGreal and Dianne Conrad, both CDE academics).

Thus the Centre for Distance Education has been a critical part of the infrastructure for distance education in Canada, providing courses and programs, research and leadership in this field.

Why is it being closed?

Good question. This was a decision apparently made in the Provost’s Office but, as far as I know, no official reason has been given for its closure and the transfer of staff to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. It appears that the programs will continue, but under the aegis of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

However, the CDE was a little bit of an organisational oddity, as it was not attached to any major faculty (there is no Faculty of Education at Athabasca) and thus the CDE made the AU’s organizational structure look a little bit untidy. There may have been financial reasons for its closure but it’s hard to see how moving existing staff and programs into another faculty is going to save money, unless the long-term goal is to close down the programs and research, which in my view would be catastrophic for the future of the university. 

Why does it matter?

Indeed at no time has AU been in greater need of the expertise in the CDE for building new, more flexible, digitally based teaching and learning models for AU (see my post on the independent third-party review of AU). In a sense, the reorganisation does move the Centre staff closer organisationally to at least some faculty members in one Faculty, but it really should have a university-wide mandate to support new learning designs across the university.

The issue of course is that it is primarily an academic unit, not a learning technology support unit, but it should not be impossible for it to be structured so that both functions are met (for instance see the Institute of Educational Technology at the British Open University). This might have meant the Centre – or a restructured unit – being either a part of the Provost’s Office or directly reporting to it, which is not going to happen once all the Centre’s faculty are housed in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

What disturbs me most is that there does not seem to have been extensive consultation or discussion of the role of the CDE and its future before this decision was made. From the outside it appears to be a typical bureaucratic fudge, more to do with internal politics than with vision or strategy.

Given the importance of the CDE not just to Athabasca University but also to distance education in Canada in general, it is to be hoped that the administration at AU will come forward with a clear rationale and vision for the future of AU and explain exactly how the transfer of the Centre’s staff to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences will help move this vision and strategy forward. The dedicated and expert academic staff in the Centre deserve no less, and the university itself will suffer if there is no such clear strategy for making the most of the expertise that previously resided in the CDE. 

Learning analytics, student satisfaction, and student performance at the UK Open University

There is very little correlation between student satisfaction and student performance. Image: Bart Rienties. Click on image to see the video.

Rienties, B. and Toetenel, L. (2016) The impact of learning design on student behaviour, satisfaction and performance: A cross-institutional comparison across 151 modules, Computers in Human Behaviour, Vol. 60, pp.333-341

Li, N. et al. (2017) Online learning experiences of new versus continuing learners: a large-scale replication study, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol. 42, No. 4, pp.657-672

It’s never too late to learn

It’s been a hectic month with two trips from Vancouver to Ontario and back and one to the UK and back, a total of four keynotes, two panel sessions and two one day consultancies. By the time I got to the end of the month’s travels, I had learned so much that at a conference in Toronto I had to go to my room and lie down  – I just couldn’t take any more!

At my age, it takes time to process all this new information, but I will try to summarise the main points of what I learned in the next three posts.

Learning analytics at the Open University

The Open University, with over 100,000 students and more than 1,000 courses (modules), and most of its teaching online in one form or another, is an ideal context for the application of learning analytics. Fortunately the OU has some of the world leaders in this field. 

At the conference on STEM teaching at the Open University that I attended as the opening keynote, the closing keynote was given by Bart Rienties, Professor of Learning Analytics at the Institute of Educational Technology at the UK Open University. Rienties and his team linked 151 modules (courses) and 111,256 students with students’ behaviour, satisfaction and performance at the Open University UK, using multiple regression models. 

His whole presentation (40 minutes, including questions) can be accessed online, and is well worth viewing, as it provides a clear summary of the results published in the two detailed papers listed above. As always, if you find my summary of results below of interest or challenging, I strongly recommend you view Bart’s video first, then read the two articles in more detail. Here’s what I took away.

There is little correlation between student course evaluations and student performance

This result is a bit of a zinger. The core dependent variable used was academic retention (the number of learners who completed and passed the module relative to the number of learners who registered for each module). As Rientes and Toetenel (p.340) comment, almost as an aside, 

it is remarkable that learner satisfaction and academic retention were not even mildly related to each other….Our findings seem to indicate that students may not always be the best judge of their own learning experience and what helps them in achieving the best outcome.’

The design of the course matters

One of the big challenges in online and blended learning is getting subject matter experts to recognise the importance of what the Open University calls ‘learning design.’ 

Conole (2012, p121) describes learning design as:

a methodology for enabling teachers/designers to make more informed decisions in how they go about designing learning activities and interventions, which is pedagogically informed and makes effective use of appropriate resources and technologies. LD is focussed on ‘what students do’ as part of their learning, rather than the ‘teaching’ which is focussed on the content that will be delivered.

Thus learning design is more than just instructional design.

However, Rienties at al. comment that ‘only a few studies have investigated how educators in practice are actually planning and designing their courses and whether this is then implemented as intended in the design phase.’ 

The OU has done a good job in breaking down some of the elements of learning design. The OU has mapped the elements of learning design in nearly 200 different courses. The elements of this mapping can be seen below (Rientes and Toetenal, 2016, p.335):

Rientes and Toetenel then analysed the correlations between each of these learning design elements against both learner satisfaction and learner performance. What they found is that what OU students liked did not match with learner performance. For instance, students were most satisfied with ‘assimilative’ activities, which are primarily content focused, and disliked communication activities, which are primarily social activities. However, better student retention was most strongly associated with communication activities, and overall, with the quality of the learning design.

Rientes and Toetenel conclude:

although more than 80% of learners were satisfied with their learning experience, learning does not always need to be a nice, pleasant experience. Learning can be hard and difficult at times, and making mistakes, persistence, receiving good feedback and support are important factors for continued learning….

An exclusive focus on learner satisfaction might distract institutions from understanding the impact of LD on learning experiences and academic retention. If our findings are replicated in other contexts, a crucial debate with academics, students and managers needs to develop whether universities should focus on happy students and customers, or whether universities should design learning activities that stretch learners to their maximum abilities and ensuring that they eventually pass the module. Where possible, appropriate communication tasks that align with the learning objectives of the course may seem to be a way forward to enhance academic retention.

Be careful what you measure

As Rientes and Toetenel put it:

Simple LA metrics (e.g., number of clicks, number of downloads) may actually hamper the advancement of LA research. For example, using a longitudinal data analysis of over 120 variables from three different VLE/LMS systems and a range of motivational, emotions and learning styles indicators, Tempelaar et al. (2015) found that most of the 40 proxies of simple” VLE LA metrics provided limited insights into the complexity of learning dynamics over time. On average, these clicking behaviour proxies were only able to explain around 10% of variation in academic performance.

In contrast, learning motivations, emotions (attitudes), and learners’ activities during continuous assessments (behaviour) significantly improved explained variance (up to 50%) and could provide an opportunity for teachers to help at-risk learners at a relatively early stage of their university studies.

My conclusions

Student feedback on the quality of a course is really important but it is more useful as a conversation between students and instructors/designers than as a quantitative ranking of the quality of a course.  In fact using learner satisfaction as a way to rank teaching is highly misleading. Learner satisfaction encompasses a very wide range of factors as well as the teaching of a particular course. It is possible to imagine a highly effective course where teaching in a transmissive or assimilative manner is minimal, but student activities are wide, varied and relevant to the development of significant learning outcomes. Students, at least initially, may not like this because this may be a new experience for them, and because they must take more responsibility for their learning. Thus good communication and explanation of why particular approaches to teaching have been chosen is essential (see my comment to a question on the video).

Perhaps though the biggest limitation of student satisfaction for assessing the quality of the teaching is the often very low response rates from students, limited evaluation questions due to standardization (the same questions irrespective of the nature of the course), and the poor quality of the student responses. This is no way to assess the quality of an individual teacher or a whole institution, yet far too many institutions and governments are building this into their evaluation of teachers/instructors and institutions.

I have been fairly skeptical of learning analytics up to now, because of the tendency to focus more on what is easily measurable (simple metrics) than on what students actually do qualitatively when they are learning. The focus on learning design variables in these studies is refreshing and important but so will be analysis of student learning habits.

Finally, this research provides quantitative evidence of the importance of learning design in online and distance teaching. Good design leads to better learning outcomes. Why then are we not applying this knowledge to the design of all university and college courses, and not just online courses? We need a shift in the power balance between university and college subject experts and learning designers resulting in the latter being treated as at least equals in the teaching process.

References

Conole, G. (2012). Designing for learning in an open world. Dordrecht: Springer

Tempelaar, D. T., Rienties, B., & Giesbers, B. (2015). In search for the most informative data for feedback generation: learning analytics in a data-rich context. Computers in Human Behavior, 47, 157e167. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.05.038.

 

Online learning and disruptive change at the UK Open University

The old Walton Hall on the OU campus in Milton keynes

Sturm und Strang

I’ve was in England last week,  attending the 7th eSTEeM conference at the Open University as the opening keynote speaker, only my second visit to the OU since I left nearly 30 years ago.

The Open University, described by several commentators as one of the most successful innovations in Britain since the Second World War, is currently going through an existential crisis, which culminated two weeks ago with the resignation of its Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, following a devastating vote of no confidence by faculty and staff.

The OU is facing enormous pressure, due mainly to the policies of the recent Conservative governments. Over the last six years, the government has treated the OU just the same as other, more traditional, universities in England and Wales. The government severely cut the OU’s operating budget requiring it to dramatically increase fees, and also made all part-time students (i.e. students not taking a full annual course load) ineligible for government-guaranteed, low interest loans. It also has required students at the OU, like all other students in England and Wales, to complete their bachelor studies within three years, compressing their time for study. It is expected to have a £20 million (CS$36 million) operating deficit this year and was proposing to save £100m from its £420m annual budget by cutting courses and staff.

Since the vast majority of its 200,000 students in 2012 were part-time, working adults without a first degree and who required the maximum flexibility in their studies, it’s hardly surprising that its student numbers have dropped by more than a third since 2012. At the same time it has invested heavily in FutureLearn, a MOOC-type platform which is still struggling to find a viable business model. The recent changes mean that the whole concept of open-ness and accessibility for OU students, and its unique position in the British higher education system, are under existential threat. 

To cap all this, the university itself recognises that it needs to fundamentally change its operational model. Like many other Open Universities, it has not changed fast enough to accommodate to the digital revolution in post-secondary teaching. It is burdened with a heavy legacy of a print-based design model and an expensive regional tutoring system, despite the recent elimination of all local face-to-face operations.

“We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud, a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy,” according to Horrocks. As a result the (now leaderless) executive team is working on a ‘transformational model’ for the university, which is still a work in progress.

This is the battlefield into which I parachuted this week.

The eSTEeM conference

The Open University has offered science and technology programs since its inauguration in 1971. It initially used a combination of print, home experiment kits mailed to students’ homes, and one week residential schools in the summer. The residential schools have long since gone (too expensive) although in general students loved them and at least in the early days the residential schools provided such a morale boost for students that many who would have dropped out then went on to continue successfully.

For the last seven years, the STEM Faculty/academic department at the OU has been holding an annual conference to demonstrate the scholarship of its faculty and staff. I was the opening speaker for this year’s conference, on the topic: ‘Digital learning in an era of change: challenges and opportunities for STEM teaching and the OU.’

However, as well as the very interesting STEM components of the conference, on which I will write two separate posts, there was an almost full day, well-organised workshop called ‘Digital by Design’, which focused on what the future as a whole should be at the OU. The workshop enabled a quick and close, if incomplete, ‘parachute’ view of some of the challenges the OU is facing and how academic and regional staff are responding. In this post I will focus on these general, internal challenges that the OU still has to resolve that emerged from this and other discussions in which I participated.

Online but not digital

It is clear that many of the teaching staff have not really ‘got it’ with regard to digital learning. In many cases, print still remains the core teaching technology, and where online is heavily used, it is often just a print model moved online, with a heavy emphasis on content transmission. Many in the OU are still arguing for a ‘blended’ learning model, which in this case refers to a mix of print and online, with print having at least an equal contribution.

In particular, the OU is really weak in its exploitation of the networking and student collaboration that the web offers and in its integration of social media within the design of courses. In this it is not unlike many conventional universities, but nevertheless this realisation came as a real shock to me. This was the original open, distance university, not a conventional one.

Why I am so shocked is that one of the many reasons I emigrated to Canada in 1989 was that I got frustrated at the inability of myself and others at the OU such as Robin Mason and Tony Kaye to get the OU to take online learning seriously. We had contributed to a course, DT200, in 1988 that had an online discussion forum component that had merely been bolted on to the standard 36 week print and broadcast design. The next logical step would have been to have pioneered a fully online course, but neither the university management nor the faculty were interested.

It is important to understand that the OU has a relatively small core of permanent faculty based at its headquarters in Milton Keynes who are primarily engaged in the design of courses, in particular the choice and structuring of content, and a legion of regional staff tutors who provide most of the student learning support. There is a long-established Institute of Educational Technology, where the staff have full academic status, and conduct research as well as advise the OU’s course teams on best practices in the design of distance education.

Here I am 30 years later, and there are still arguments going on about the wisdom of going fully online. This despite the fact that Gilly Salmon, who wrote a standard text on teaching online (2011), worked at the OU for several years, and despite the fact that the OU has an Institute of Educational Technology that has excellent design models developed for online learning that it struggles to get faculty to adopt. This is so reminiscent of Athabasca University and its failure to exploit the expertise of Terry Anderson and its other distance education specialists

The fixation on print as the ‘core’ medium/technology

I participated in several discussions where I challenged the focus on printed material as the core teaching technology. First though I would like to set out some of the arguments OU staff put forward in support of print.

Arguments for print

These were made mainly by OU staff to me.

  1. The OU made its reputation in its early days in the 1970s by the very high quality of its printed materials. As well as being beautifully produced and illustrated (full colour), they were and still are extremely well structured. This was recognised immediately by many faculty in more traditional universities, and the quality of its printed materials is still much appreciated by the students. If it was effective then, it must be effective now.
  2. Access: there are still students in Britain who do not have access to the Internet or cannot afford a computer.
  3. Most OU students are working and many spend all day at work looking at screens; the OU printed material provides an essential break from being on-screen all day.
  4. Students prefer to read printed material; it’s easier for study purposes and revision than searching online.
  5. If the textual material was delivered online rather than printed, the OU would be transferring the cost of print to the students, as they would want to print out the textual material.

Arguments against print

These were made mainly by me to OU staff.

  1. Online learning provides students with the opportunity of ‘any time, any place’ discussion and interaction with each other and teaching staff.
  2. Student activities and interaction with online text is more integrated and immediate than with printed text. In particular immediate feedback can be provided through online tests or automated feedback, etc.
  3. Students are not limited by the boundaries of the printed course material once they go online. Everything on the Internet is potential study material. In particular students can access open educational resources from many different sources.
  4. In order to develop the skills students need in the 21st century, we need to focus more on skills development than on the transmission of content. Online learning can focus better on the development of these soft skills, such as communication and knowledge management.
  5. Access has always been a limitation for any technology. For instance students with visual impairment or dyslexia have difficulties with print. When the OU first started, many students did not have access to the broadcasts. Most students in Britain now have access to the Internet, although in more remote areas there are still bandwidth limitations. The OU’s policy in general has been that when access exceeds 80% of the target audience, alternatives are found for the remaining students. It is wrong to deny the benefits to the vast majority of students because of the needs of a small minority which could be met in other ways.
  6. Students need to learn digitally if they are to earn digitally. Digital literacy is now a core skill required by everyone.
  7. The costs for a print-based system are very high, not just in the actual costs of full colour printing, but in the editing, and above all, the lengthy time it takes faculty and instructors to prepare, check and revise the printed materials (many OU courses take at least two years to design). Savings by going digital could be used to reduce substantially tuition fees.

The need to think digitally when designing online learning

The issue is not whether print has educational value; it does, and there may be specific situations where students may prefer to have hard copy. However, it should not be the default medium. It’s really important when designing online learning to be open to all the media the Internet enables: text, audio, video, computing, augmented reality, simulations, social media, and so on. This requires thinking digitally when designing courses, which is difficult if your first and preferred option is always print.

Of course, this is identical to the challenge that on-campus instructors face about digital learning, but instead of print, their default option is face-to-face teaching.

This is why moving to online learning requires a major cultural change and why it takes so long. However, in the OU’s current existential crisis, it does not have the time for gradual change (that should have started back in 1989). The need for change must be embraced now, ironically, not for financial reasons but for pedagogical reasons: only this way will it better prepare its students for the future. The financial pressures merely make this devastatingly urgent.

Necessary but not sufficient

Forcing change for financial reasons is unlikely to work. Making changes that are not accepted or resisted by staff is more likely to lead to failure or collapse in an organization. Even if by some miracle the (remaining) OU staff manage to pull it off, moving to the University of the Cloud (whatever that means – some kind of heaven for students?) will not meet the needs of the nation that the former OU met.

Lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity in a digital age, where the knowledge base expands exponentially and citizens need to continuously learn new content and new skills. Traditional universities do not do lifelong learning well; they are not really designed for it. The OU was, but government policies of starving financial support for part-time learners and reducing the flexibility of study to fit some 1950s view of elite higher education is going to be disastrous for the future British economy. At no time has the OU been more important to Britain. Without a radical change of government policy though its future is indeed dismal, whatever else it does.

Up next

Your intrepid online learning war correspondent will do two more posts from my visit to the OU:

  • the OU’s use of learning analytics for analysing student course evaluations
  • the OU’s use of online labs

Also I will be reporting on a conference on active learning I attended this week at the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario. Buy, busy, busy. (Don’t even ask about retirement).

Reference

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.