May 25, 2017

One business case for OER examined

A video on electricity from the OpenLearn platform

Law, P. and Perryman, L.-A. (2017) How OpenLearn supports a business model for OER Distance Education, Vol. 38, No. 1

The journal: ‘Distance Education’

Distance Education is one of the oldest and most established journals in the field. It is the journal of the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia (ODLAA) and over the years it has published some of the best research in distance education. However, it is not an open access journal, so I am providing my own personal review of one of the articles in this, generally excellent, edition. I should point out though that I am a member of the editorial board so do have an interest in supporting this journal.

Editorial

Som Naidu, the editor, does an excellent job of introducing the articles in the journal under the heading of ‘Openness and flexibility are the norm, but what are the challenges?’ He correctly points out that

While distance education is largely responsible for the articulation and spearheading of openness and flexibility as desirable value principles, these educational goals are fast becoming universally attractive across all sectors and modes of education.

The rapid move to blended and more flexible learning and the slow but increasing use of open educational resources (OER) in campus-based based institutions indeed is challenging the uniqueness of distance education in terms of openness and flexibility. It is easy to argue that distance education is now no more than just another delivery option. Nevertheless, there are still important differences, and Som Naidu draws out some interesting comparisons between the experience of on-campus and distance learning that are still valid.

A business model for OER?

In this latest issue of Distance Education, Patrina Law and Leigh-Anne Perryman have written a very interesting paper about the business case for OER based on three surveys of users (in 2013, 2014, and 2015) of the UK Open University’s OpenLearn project. First some information about OpenLearn:

  • OpenLearn is an open content platform. Initially it used samples of course content from the OU’s undergraduate and postgraduate ‘modules’ (courses) but now hosts specially commissioned audio, video and other interactive materials and short online courses including free certificates and badges;
  • OpenLearn now offers the equivalent of 850 free courses representing 5% of the undergraduate and graduate degree content;
  • 6 million people visit each year with a total of 46 million unique visitors since it was established in 2006; 
  • 13% of users go on to enquire about the OU’s formal degree programs (equivalent of about 1,000 student enrolments per year).

Law and Perryman provide an excellent review of the business cases for OER put forward by others such as the OECD and Creative Commons, then use the survey data from OpenLearn users to test these arguments. Here’s what they found:

  • provision of OER is complementary rather than competitive with the OU’s formal degree programming
  • over half the users are UK-based
  • about 20% reported a disability
  • median age was 36-45
  • about 20% indicated that English was not their first language
  • 70% had some form of post-secondary qualification
  • 16% were part-time or full-time students
  • about two-thirds of the users were ‘tasting’ or ‘testing’ content before making a decision about whether to take a formal program (at either the OU or another institution)
  • almost half (45%) used OpenLearn to find out more about the UK OU (22% had never heard of it before and altogether over half knew nothing or little previously about the OU)
  • the average cost of conversion to OER was between £1500-£2000 per course
  • 13% of OpenLearn users clicked through to make a formal enquiry resulting in about 1,000 new student registrations.

Comment

Very importantly, Law and Perryman link the growing use of OpenLearn to the sudden increase in tuition fees in the UK (£9,000 a year in general, and £5,000 per year for an OU full time degree). Students are not willing to risk this cost without being sure they stand a chance of success and have an interest in the subject. OpenLearn allows them to test this.

This is an important point. The UK government policy of very high tuition fees does appear to be negatively impacting access for many potential students, or at least making them think very carefully before committing to such a large investment. The OU in particular has lost student enrolments as its fees have gone up. There is a danger in my mind that OER can be politically used as a diversion from ‘true’ open education for credit that is available to everyone, irrespective of their means. The best form of open education remains a well-funded state system.

This leads to my one serious criticism of the article. Apart from the cost of conversion, no proper analysis of the true cost of OpenLearn is given so the title is misleading. It does not describe a business model, with full input costs and output benefits stated in monetary terms, but a business case which provides uncosted but positive arguments based on other than cost factors. 

This is a really important distinction because the business model depends heavily on adequate funding for the formal, degree programs which provide the base for the OpenLearn materials. Without that funding, and other costs, OpenLearn will quickly become unsustainable. It is not a parasite in the negative sense of the word but it can’t exist without the funding for the core function of the OU. Without a sense of the full cost of OpenLearn it remains difficult to judge whether the obvious benefits are worth the drain on the OU’s other resources, as the money has to come from somewhere.

Otherwise this is a very good article that should read carefully by anyone concerned with policy regarding the use of OER.

Latest data on USA distance education enrolments

An extract from the Digital Learning Compass infographic available from here

Digital Learning Compass (2017) Distance Education Enrolment Report 2017 Wellesley MA

A new partnership for the analysis of distance education data in the USA

First, a little background. Most of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the reports from the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) on the state of online learning in the USA. When the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Survey (IPEDS) began collecting data on distance learning enrolments in the Fall of 2012, BSRG stopped collecting its own data then formed a partnership with e-Literate and WCET to create Digital Learning Compass with the following goal:

To be the definitive source of information on the patterns and trends of U.S. postsecondary distance learning.

The Distance Education Enrolment Report 2017 is Digital Learning Compass’s analysis of the data collected by IPEDS for the fall of 2015.

Main results

In brief, in the USA in 2015:

  • distance education enrolments increased by almost 4% 
  • almost 30% of all post-secondary students in the USA are taking at least one DE course
  • 14% of all students are taking only DE courses
  • 83% of DE enrolments are in undergraduate courses
  • just over two-thirds of DE enrolments are in public universities or colleges
  • although there has been increased growth in DE enrolments for public and for non-profit private universities, DE enrolments in for-profit institutions declined in 2015 for the third year in a row, driven by substantial decreases in just a few of the for-profit institutions
  • almost half of all DE enrolments are concentrated in less than 5% of all institutions, with the top 47 institutions accounting for almost a third of all DE students
  • the following institutions saw the greatest year-on-year growth in DE enrolments:
    • University of Southern New Hampshire (from 11,286 to 56,371 in one year)
    • Western Governors University,
    • Brigham Young University-Idaho,
    • University of Central Florida,
    • Grand Canyon University
  • the number of students studying on a campus has dropped by almost one million (931,317) between 2012 and 2015.

More detailed analysis can be found from:

Comment

First a declaration of interest: I am working closely with both Jeff Seaman of Babson and Russ Poulin of WCET on the Canadian national survey of online and distance education in Canada.

Despite a small drop in overall enrolments in the USA in 2015, DE enrolments continued to grow, although in the three years from 2012 to 2015 the pace of growth has slowed. The main change was in the for-profit sector, probably affected by federal pressure on the use of student loans and congressional pressure for greater regulation of for-profit institutions under the Obama administration.

Indeed there has been a considerable shake-up in the for-profit sector in the USA, the purchase of Kaplan by Purdue, a state-funded university, being the latest example. It will be interesting to watch what happens to the for-profit DE enrolments under the more liberal regulatory environment being brought in by the Trump administration. Will they rebound? 

However perhaps the most shocking result is the drop in campus-based enrolments of almost one million, no doubt due to the increased cost of attending college in the USA – or is this in fact due to the impact of six million enrolments in distance education courses?

Once again, here in Canada we are peering over the wall at our much larger and richer neighbours, wondering what’s going on, but at least it is now a well lit property thanks to these reports.

 

Ontario funds research and innovation in online learning

eCampus Ontario (2017) Research and Innovation: Funded Projects Toronto ON: eCampus Ontario

A few days ago, eCampus Ontario officially announced nearly $2.5 million of grants for research and innovation in online learning for Ontario universities and colleges. This is a separate fund from their grants for developing online courses.

The 45 grants, from a total of 135 proposals, ranged from $17,000 to $100,000 in total. Ryerson University and Mohawk College each had five projects funded, but the University of Waterloo had the most in total grants at $396,000 with Ryerson close behind with $380,000. Mohawk received a total of $259,000, and Algonquin College received $186,000. Of the 45 grants, 14 involved two or more institutions working collaboratively.

The one common factor among all the proposals was their variety. No one area of online learning dominated, although six of the proposals were directly concerned with assessing quality in online courses. Four of the grants were to study ways to improve the course development process or to facilitate faculty better in online teaching.

Then there was a bunch of grants looking at the effectiveness of particular technologies, including four for games/gaming, three for the use of animations or simulations, and grants for exploring virtual labs or the application of virtual reality. There were about four grants focused on the use of online learning for skills development, including one on evaluating competency-based learning.

Lastly, there was a very significant grant of $80,000 to Ryerson University to support the national survey of online and distance education that I am leading.

Comment

Even setting aside my gratitude for my own grant, eCampus Ontario and the Ontario government deserve praise for investing in research and development at this level. There has been a desperate lack of funding for research or development in online learning in Canada, at least in recent years, and hopefully a great deal of learning, new developments and innovation in online learning will emerge from this process. 

The major challenge now will be to ensure that the projects disseminate their results across the system, so that major innovations do not just hide within tiny corners of the institutions. I am eagerly looking forward to seeing what emerges from these grants.

What counts when you cost online learning?

Poulin, R. and Straut, T. (2017) Distance Education Price and Cost Report Boulder CO: WCET

This highly controversial report has generated considerable discussion in WCET’s own Forum, and has received a good deal of media coverage. When you read the report you will see why.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the finding that respondents to the survey on which this report is based were by and large of the opinion that distance education costs more than classroom teaching. But you need to read the report more carefully to understand why respondents responded in this way. It all comes down to how you cost distance education or online learning. In particular, you need to understand the context of the report. 

As always, you should read the report itself, not my summary, especially if you disagree with what’s in my summary.

The context

The context for this report is very political and very American (by which I mean USAnian, i.e. applying specifically to the USA). The report is more about price – what institutions charge students – than it is about cost.

The cost of tuition (the fees students or their parents pay to the institution) continues to increase in the USA way beyond the rate of inflation, and many institutions not only charge the same tuition rates for online or distance education courses, but also add additional fees. In other words, many American institutions increase the price for an online or distance course compared to its face-to-face equivalent.

However, the political perception, especially in state legislatures, is that distance education is cheaper than on-campus teaching, so some states (e.g. Wisconsin and Florida) have introduced legislation or initiatives to reduce the price of online learning courses below that of face-to-face programs.

As the authors note:

Historically, distance education’s mission has been to overcome the barriers of place or time. The mission was not to control costs. In fact, to reach some locations is costly. Distance education should not be held accountable to a mission it was never given.

distance education professionals are caught in a higher education economics ethos that shuns open examination of price and cost…and are expected to answer to a “controlling cost” mission that was not given them in the first place.

It is within this context that WCET decided to do the study in order to challenge some of the assumptions about the price and cost of distance education.

Methodology

As always, you need to know the methodology in order to interpret the results. The report indeed is very transparent about its methodology, which is not tucked away in an appendix or not discussed at all (which seems to be a practice that is increasing in many so-called ‘studies’ these days), but is front and centre in the report.

Definitions

The authors provide the following definition:

  • Price – This is the amount of money that is charged to a student for instruction. The components are tuition and fees. In the questions, we will be clear as to which “price” component (tuition, fees, or total price) is being queried. 
  • Cost – This is the amount of money that is spent by the institution to create, offer, and support instruction. 
  • Distance Education – When thinking of “distance education,” we favor the Babson Survey Research Group definition of 80% or more of the course being taught at a distance.

Sample

WCET surveyed mainly its own members and members of other distance education consortia. Overall, 197 responded.

We had hoped for more participation in the survey. It is important to note that the responses provided represent only the institutional representatives who answered the survey questions. Even though we provide comparisons between the responding population and the overall higher education population, we do not assert that the results may be generalized to the universe of all institutions of higher education in the U.S. and Canada that offer distance education courses.

What can be said is that the response came mainly from distance education and educational technology professionals, rather than faculty or senior administrators, mainly in public HE institutions.

Main results

I will deal with these very briefly, although the detailed findings are more nuanced.

  1. The price of DE is generally higher than for face-to-face teaching. More than half (54%) of the respondents reported that their institution charged more for distance education courses than for on-campus courses.
  2. A majority of respondents believed that the cost of DE was higher than for face-to-face teaching on certain defined components (e.g. faculty development, technologies, instructional design, assessments, state authorization – a long and complex process of ‘accrediting’ DE courses unique to the USA).
  3. ‘Experts’ in the costs of DE tended to disagree that costs of DE are necessarily higher
  4. The experts also noted that cost discussions are often avoided by higher education leadership and that more could be done to control costs, not just in distance education.

The reports main conclusions

The conclusions were split into recommendations for legislators and institutions:

For legislators

  • focus questions on future costs and in particular the likely impact of investing in buildings vs distance education in terms of the impact of the cost to students
  • provide more incentives for institutions to reduce the price to students
  • don’t be prescriptive but help institutions develop a vision for state higher education that is realistic and shared

For institutions

  • pay as much attention to the cost to students as to the cost to the institution of various delivery methods
  • be more open about costs and track them for all modes of delivery
  • changing the cost structure requires structural changes in how we design and deliver programs; this requires leadership from the senior administration.

My comments on the report

The report is right to draw attention to the creeping costs to students (e.g. price) resulting from institutional policies in the USA. What is also apparent is that there is a large disconnect between institutions and government about the cost of distance education. Many educators believe that DE is more expensive; government thinks it should be cheaper. Somewhere in the middle is a discussion about quality: does cheaper mean worse?

Cherry-picking costs

Unfortunately, though, for methodological reasons, I fear the report has confused rather than clarified the discussion about costs and price. In particular, by focusing on components that are specific to distance education, such as faculty support, the use of technologies, and the cost of state authorization of DE, the report has clearly given the impression that most educators believe that distance education is more expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

It is unfortunate that the report has given this impression because you cannot just look at the costs of specific components of distance education without looking also at specific components of face-to-face teaching that are not represented in the costs of distance education, in particular the very substantial ‘sunk’ costs of buildings, parking, etc. There are better ways of measuring the costs of distance education and online programs – see Chapter 7 in Bates and Sangra (2011).

Making DE cost-effective

While we can develop cost-effective fully online programs, this normally depends on generating new revenues from new students. Offering online courses as an alternative to already existing students on campus, while increasing access and student flexibility, is much more financially risky.

Again, this can be managed cost-effectively, but it depends on having enough students taking both on-campus and online versions of the course, and the use of additional adjunct professors for online courses with more than 30 students. Bringing in new students who you wouldn’t get without the courses being online is the best bet to ensure economic viability. ‘Diluting’ your on-campus students by offering the same course online will add costs unless the numbers can justify it.

What about the costs of blended learning?

One last point. I think we are going to have a period of considerable cost turmoil as we move to blended learning, because this really does add costs unless there are dramatic redesigns, especially of the large first and second year classes. Carol Twigg of the National Centre for Academic Transformation for many years has been able to bring down costs – or more often increase effectiveness for the same cost – for these large lecture classes by using blended learning designs (although there are some criticisms of her costing methodology).

By and large though, while fully online courses can maybe increase enrolments by 10-15% and therefore help pay their way, we will have major cost or academic time problems if we move to nearly all courses being blended, without increased training for faculty, so they can manage without the same level of support provided by instructional designers, etc. that are normally provided for fully online courses (see ‘Are we ready for blended learning?‘).

Moving forward 

I’m glad then that WCET has produced a report that focuses not only on the costs of distance education to institution but also on pricing policies. There is in my view no economic justification for charging more for an online course than a face-to-face course as a matter of principle. You need to do the sums and institutions are very bad at doing this in a way that tracks the cost of activities rather than throwing everything into one bucket then leaking it out at historical rates to different departments.

Institutions need to develop more rigorous methods for tracking the costs of different modes of delivery while also building in a measure of the benefits as well. If the report at least moves institutions towards this, it will have been well worth it.

A report on university distance education in Québec

Rue Sainte Angèle, Ville de Québec

Conseil supérieur de l’éducation (2015) La formation à distance dans les universités québécoises: un potential à optimiser Québec: Gouvernement du Québec

This report is now nearly 18 months old, but I did not know about it until I was given a copy when I was in Québec last week. The report is in French and there is no English version, and it contains such a lot of good information that I want to make it more widely available to anglophones.

(There is supposed to be an English version of the summary, but I was unable to locate it on their web site. In any case, the most useful information is available only in the full report in French. Si on peut lire français, on devrait lire le rapport lui-même.)

The report

The Higher Council of Education in Québec is an autonomous body, separate from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education with a mandate to advise the Minister on all matters relating to education. It can choose the topics and the themes of the reports it produces on the state and needs of education. It has 22 members chosen from the field of education and beyond.

This report examines the issues for the Québec university system arising from the growth of new methods of teaching and learning, and provides some guidelines for the medium and long term. The decision to focus on distance education was influenced particularly by the growth of non-traditional methods of study by Québec students, the growth of part-time studying, and the increased application of new technologies for teaching.

The report covers the following aspects of distance education in Québec universities:

  1. The growth of new modes of education
  2. What’s happening in Québec
  3. A quick look at what’s happening outside Québec
  4. The Council’s guiding principles and recommendations
  5. Conclusions

Pay attention to the methodology

For me, Chapter 2 (What’s happening in Québec) was the most interesting chapter, because it provides extensive and relatively reliable data about student enrolments in distance education courses and programs in Québec universities.

It is really important to understand the definitions and terminology in the data about distance education enrolments used in the report. The report itself reports on the difficulty of finding reliable data, partly because distance education comes in many forms and partly because the whole field is very dynamic and fast-changing. The report then focuses on trends over time.

Asynchronous vs synchronous courses

The report makes the distinction between asynchronous courses where students can access the courses at any time and place (e.g. courses using learning management systems), with synchronous courses (primarily using web- or video-conferencing). This distinction is made by the Ministry purely for financial reasons to identify how many teaching spaces are required in an institution.

The data used in the report refers only to enrolments in asynchronous courses. However, the report also acknowledges that the modes of distance education are rapidly evolving. There is an interesting description for instance of how L’Université Laval has moved over time from TV and print-based courses to collaborative learning to ‘virtual synchronous’ classes, the latter being driven as much by instructors in face-to-face teaching as by distance education courses.

Student enrolments vs course enrolments

In most of the tables or graphs provided in the report, the unit of measurement is a student taking at least one asynchronous distance education course. Such students may then be enrolled in just one distance course or several, but they are only counted once. These tables are derived by data collected by the Ministry.

However, there is at least one graph that is derived from data provided by CLIFAD, a liaison committee of some of the major distance education institutions in the province, that refers to all distance education course enrolments, from three specific institutions. In this case it is the course enrolments that are counted, not the students.

However, so long as the unit of measurement is the same, either can be used to track trends over time.

Time period

Most of the data refers to enrolments in the fall term of 2012, so it is already four years out of date, and four years is a long time in this area. However, data is provided  in some of the tables for a period of over 12 years, and in the case of the CLIFAD data, over a period of 18 years, allowing clear trends to be identified.

Measuring distance education in Québec

Despite the issues around measurement, the report presents some clear facts about distance education in Québec:

  • steady growth in distance education students and enrolments at a higher rate than enrolments in general; for instance the overall number of students in universities grew by 27%, whereas the number of distance students grew by 38%
  • the proportion of students enrolled in (asynchronous) distance education courses grew from 6% in 2001 to nearly 12% by 2012
  • Laval has the highest number of students enrolled in distance courses (13,000), or 30% of all its students; TELUQ (a fully distance university) and Concordia (25% of all students) both have just under 10,000 distance education students; Sherbrooke, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), Université du Québec à Rimouski, and University du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT) have around 1,000 distance students but in the case of UQAT this is more than a third of its students;
  • MOOCs (CLOMs in French) are fairly popular in Québec, being offered by HEC Montréal, McGill, TELUQ, Laval and UQTR.

Guiding principles and recommendations

The report identifies three guiding principles and makes 13 recommendations.

Guiding principles

  1. Accessibility to university study. The Council recognizes the importance of distance education in increasing accessibility to higher education in Québec, especially given its size and scattered population. The Council wants to optimise this potential, but to do this Internet services must be improved throughout the province.
  2. The quality of distance learning in Québec universities. The Council recognizes that distance education courses can be of high or low quality: it is the pedagogical approach and the design that matters.
  3. The economic viability of the Québec university system. The Council has a concern about the long-term financial viability of its higher education system, and recognizes that distance education can make a contribution towards the long-term sustainability of the system through:
    • sharing of resources;
    • collaboration between institutions on course design and delivery;
    • widening access to students in Québec through programs offered from beyond the immediate locality of students in Québec;
    • helping with the recruitment of students from outside Québec.

Recommendations

The Council makes 13 recommendations which are difficult to summarize but include the following:

  • universities need to clarify for students the differences between different modes of education, and in particular how MOOCs differ from other forms of distance education;
  • universities need to pay attention to the specific requirements of developing and delivering distance education, and should address issues such as support and training for faculty, recognizing that different categories of staff are needed, and safeguarding the intellectual property rights of faculty;
  • universities need to take into account the requirements of different modes of delivery when evaluating courses;
  • universities should ensure that students have adequate access to the technologies and human support they need for studying at a distance;
  • the Ministry should fund research on the impact of distance education on accessibility, quality and the viability of the system, and take into consideration the technology needs of universities when budgeting;
  • greater sharing of resources between the universities;
  • the Ministry, together with the universities, should reconsider the regulations regarding the admission and financing of students from outside Québec who take courses at a distance from Québec universities.

Comment

This is a thoughtful and well-researched report that provides a good picture of the state of distance education in Québec, and has a good discussion of many of the issues, even if the recommendations are a little insipid. (I don’t disagree with any of the recommendations but I don’t see them leading to any major changes). The report will go some way to increasing the legitimacy of distance education, if that is needed in the Québec higher education system.

On a more mundane technical level, the report shows how difficult it is to use existing data collected by government to measure the state of distance education or online learning in Canada. Where data has been collected it is often for another purpose, such as deciding how much to fund physical facilities, or is inaccessible to those wishing to do research. Definitions of distance, online and blended learning also vary. In particular the growth of synchronous online learning seems to be largely ignored or at least under-measured.

These are all challenges we are facing in developing our national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education, but the Québec report if anything has reinforced my belief in the importance of having a systematic survey that is conducted nationally with definitions and measurements that are consistent across the country, even – or especially – if the provision of online learning and distance education varies a great deal.

The Old Town, Québec: it’s lovely in the summer!