March 22, 2018

Web discussion on the future of the distance teaching university

If you have an hour to spare and are interested in this topic, you can access a video of this webinar organized on March 5 by EDEN as part of Open Education Week.

The recording can be accessed here. You will need to install Adobe Connect to replay the recording.

Further details:

Moderator: Mark Nichols, Open University, UK


  • Sir John Daniel, former Vice-Chancellor, UK Open University
  • Dr. Ross Paul, former President, Windsor and Laurentian Universities, and Vice-President Academic, Athabasca University, Canada
  • Professor António Texeira, Universidade Aberta, Portugal
  • Dr. Tony Bates, a founding member of the UK Open University and now distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University.

Questions discussed:

  • What are the big challenges distance education universities face at the moment?
  • What do you think is their best response to these challenges?
  • Do you have a vision for the future of distance education universities? If so, what is it?
  • What is it that distance universities offer that might be unique in what will increasingly be an online education future?
  • How might distance universities become flexible to adapt to new markets and opportunities?

The current madness in online learning: case no. 2

Keith Devlin, Stanford University, who offers a MOOC on mathematical thinking. Is there a bias of white male presenters in MOOCs?

Baker, R. et al. (2018) Bias in Online Classes: Evidence from a Field Experiment, Stanford CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, CEPA Working Paper  No. 18-03

Yesterday I ranted at the high costs in the UK of online programs aimed at part-time, working people. Today, I want to look at a recent study from researchers at Stanford University reporting racial bias in online discussion forums.

First let’s report the facts: what did the researchers say? (Please read the report for yourself if you are uncomfortable with my comments about their conclusions).

Main finding

They report:

this study provides what we believe is the first evidence of the possible presence of racial and gender biases among students and instructors in online courses. 

First, it provides novel and fundamentally important insights into a rapidly proliferating type of learning environment. In 2013, 25 percent of all postsecondary students took some or all of their courses online. This fact has equity implications given that students enrolling in less selective colleges make up a larger fraction of the online student body online. Even in K-12 education, more than 300,000 students exclusively attend online schools, with as many as 5 million students having taken at least one online course….

Because our study relies on fictive student identities, it cleanly isolates behavioral effects due to instructors and unequivocally rules out mechanisms related to student reactions to a particular instructor.

…a comment from a White male is a statistically significant 5.8 percentage points more likely to receive a response from an instructor than non-White male students. The magnitude of this effect is striking. Given the instructor reply rate of 6.2 percent for non-White male posters, the White male effect represents an 94 percent increase in the likelihood of instructor response.

This is a pretty damning criticism of online learning. How did they come to this conclusion?


We tested for the presence of racial and gender biases in these settings by creating fictional student identities with racial- and gender-connotative names, having these fictional students place randomly assigned comments in the discussion forums, and observing the engagement of other students and instructors with these comments.

We situated our study within 124 Massive Open Online Courses…..Critically, we also believe there is credible external validity to conducting this study within MOOCs because their basic design features (e.g., asynchronous engagement, recorded lectures, discussion forums) and their postsecondary content are widely used in other online courses.

Using fictive student identities, we placed eight discussion-forum comments in each of the 124 MOOCs. Within each course, eight student accounts were used to place one comment each. The eight student accounts each had a name that was connotative of a specific race and gender (i.e., White, Black, Indian, Chinese, each by gender); each race-gender combination was used once per class…..By observing the responses to our comments by instructors and by students in the course, we can identify any difference in the number of responses received by our student accounts that were assigned different race and gender identities.

Fifty eight percent of the courses in our sample were taught by either one White male instructor or a teaching team of exclusively White men….White students were 5.9 percentage points more likely than non-White students to respond to one of our comments when that comment was assigned a White name….We find that White women were over 10 percentage points more likely to respond to a post with a White female name than non-White women.

My comments

This study has received a lot of attention, being reported in many different outlets. The main reporting suggests that discussions in online learning are strongly biased, with more attention being paid to white male students by instructors, and white female students more likely to correspond with or respond to other white females.

I don’t dispute these findings, as far as they apply to the 124 MOOCs that the researchers studied.

Where the madness comes in is then generalising this to all online courses. This is like finding that members of drug gangs in Mexico are likely to kill each other so the probability of death by gunfire is the same for all Mexicans.

MOOCs are one specific type of online learning, offered mainly by elitist institutions with predominantly white male faculty delivering the MOOCs.

Furthermore, the instructor:student ratio in MOOCs is far higher than in credit-based online learning, which still remains the main form of online learning, despite the nonsense spouted by Stanford, MIT and Harvard about MOOCs. In an edX or Coursera MOOC, with very many students, it is impossible for an instructor to respond to every student. Some form of selection has to take place.

In most credit-based online courses, discussion forums are much more tightly managed by instructors. Many using best practices try to ensure that all students in their online discussion forum are as fully engaged as possible in the discussions. This is just not possible for an instructor to ensure in very large MOOC discussions forums. Also to imply that their findings will also apply to k-12 online courses is even more ridiculous. Their statement that the basic design features of MOOCs are widely used in other online courses is just not correct.

So yes, because of the very nature of most MOOCs, I am not surprised to find racial and gender bias in the discussions forums. I am sure that if one looked closely enough, one would probably find some instructors in credit-based online courses show either conscious or unconscious bias, but I would need to see evidence drawn from this context, not from a completely different context such as MOOCs.

Once again, we see faculty from Stanford assuming that MOOCs are the standard for online learning, when all along they have been a mutant, and so it is not surprising to find mutant behaviour in them.

The current madness in online learning: case no. 1

Goldsmiths College

Coughlan, S. (2018) University offers science degree online for £5,650 per year, BBC News, March 6

If you want to know what the very opposite of an open higher education system is, look no further than that country of privilege, class, and isolationism called England. 

This is a report of a new Bachelor of Science degree being offered fully online in the United Kingdom by one of my old alma maters, Goldsmiths College, the University of London, where I did a wonderful post-graduate certificate in education that set me up for life in teaching. The new Goldsmiths B. Sc. (actually a three-year bachelor in computer science) is deliberately targeted at part-time, working students.

Great – so far. It’s good to see a full bachelor’s degree in science being made available fully online, targeted at part-time students. 

But the mad part is that the tuition cost for this three year degree is – wait for it – £16,950 (£5,650 a year). That is roughly C$30,000, or C$10,000 a year. 

What makes it even more crazy is that this is an attempt to provide a lower cost alternative to the regular fees now being paid by students for on-campus education in England and Wales, for which tuition fees alone are around C$16,000 a year. This is because the U.K. government in 2010 cut funding for the costs of teaching in English universities, requiring the universities to recover the teaching costs through tuition fees alone. In parallel, part-time students were no longer eligible for government-backed student loans.

And why, you may ask, is the University of London offering this fully online B.Sc. when the U.K’s Open University has been offering at least a distance one since 1971? (And a full science degree at that, covering all the basic sciences.)  

As a result of government policy, the UK Open University has had to triple its tuition fees over this period, to roughly – wait for it – £17,184 for its full three year Bachelor of Natural Sciences. What a co-incidence that Goldsmith’s fees for their new online B. Sc. are £16,950, just £200 below the OU’s! 

The government policies on tuition fees and student loans have been devastating for the UK OU, which is targeted mainly at part-time students, and which had no tuition fees when it was founded in 1971. Its numbers have fallen by 30% between 2010-11 and 2015-16. 

The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that part-time student numbers in England have fallen 56% since 2010, from 243,355 in 2010-11 to just 107,325 in 2015-16. In terms of economic development, this is madness in government policy. In a digital society, lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity, and will not just benefit the individual but the whole economy. I shudder to think of the long term implications for English prosperity in the future – even without Brexit.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? I have four grand-children living in England, but their parents, who, like me, are wealthy middle class now, are willing and just about able to support their children at university. However, in 1959 I was working full time at what would now be called a minimum wage and desperate to get any form of post-secondary education. I found out that although I was 21 and had been working for several years, because of my low salary and the low income of my parents, I was eligible for a grant from the London County Council. Not only were my fees covered, but I even got a small maintenance grant that with work in the vacations enabled me to study full time. I got a place in Sheffield University, and the rest is history. However, without that support, not only would I not have succeeded in my life, nor would my children be where they are today.

I have no problem with a minimal level of tuition fees, as in Canada, provided that there is some kind of financial support to allow those on low incomes or who are unemployed to take full advantage of post-secondary educational opportunities. But no-one should be denied the opportunity of a post-secondary education because they cannot afford it. England is more backward today than it was in 1959 in this respect, which is why I am so angry. All that blood, sweat and tears that the working class suffered during and after the Second World War – and for what?

‘It’s the rich what gets the gravy and the poor what gets the blame.’ Was it ever thus in England?

Virtual reality for midwives: an Australian example

Connolly, B. (2018) How virtual reality is transforming learning at the University of Newcastle, CIO, 8 March

This article includes a couple of nice, short videos demonstrating the use of AR and VR in a University of Newcastle nurses’ program in Australia.

The first one, below, demonstrates the use for breech positioning and placenta replacement (click image to play):

University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

The second demonstrates a neonatal resucitation scenario when a newborn baby stops breathing.

University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia

These are very good examples of the power of AR and VR to enable students to practice and learn in a safe environment without danger to patients. The technology is accessible via mobile phones or tablets so students can practice in their own time as well as in the VR studio with an instructor.

What would be useful to know is the cost of producing such VR applications and the number of students that make use of the equipment over the length of a course – in other words, what is the return on investment, compared, with, for example, traditional video? What are the added benefits? Do learning outcomes improve? We need much more research into these questions.


Videos from three ‘inspiring’ online leaders

Drexel University Online as part of its excellent Virtually Inspired blog has posted three videos of  ‘thought leaders’ in online learning. You can find them here. Each video is less than 10 minutes in length

The three are:

If you are really into masochism, you might want to compare these with a video of ‘three founding fathers’ of  distance education:

  • Michael G. Moore
  • Sir John Daniel and
  • myself.

As a counterpoint it would be nice to see some videos from women, people of colour or younger instructors discussing their experience of online learning. Any suggestions of where to look? As a starter I suggest Audrey Watters talking about ‘Is education broken?’