July 20, 2018

Woolf University: the Airbnb of higher education or a sheep in wolf’s clothing?

Broggi, J.D. et al. (2018) Building the first blockchain university, Oxford UK, April 3

You are going to hear a lot about Woolf University over the next year or so and possibly much longer. This is in some ways a highly innovative proposal for a new type of university, but in other ways, it is a terribly conservative proposal, an extension of the Platonic dialogue to modern times. It could only have come from Oxford University academics, with its mix of blue sky dreaming, the latest technological buzz, and regression to cloistered academe.

The proposal

As always, I am going to recommend that you read the original paper from cover to cover. It has a number of complex, radical proposals that each need careful consideration (the whitepaper would make an excellent topic for an Oxbridge tutorial).

I am not sure I completely understand the financial aspect of the blockchain tokens (but that probably puts me with 99.99999 per cent of the rest of the world). But the basic ideas behind the university are as follows:

  • Woolf University will issue blockchain-guaranteed ‘contracts’ between an individual professor and an individual student;
  • Woolf University will initially include only professors who have a post-graduate research degree from one of the 200 ‘top-ranked’ universities;
  • the core blockchain contract consists of an agreement to deliver a one hour, one-on-one tutorial, for which the student will directly pay the instructor (in real money, but tied to a blockchain token system which I don’t fully understand);
  • the tutorial can be delivered face-to-face, or over the Internet (presumably synchronously – Skype is suggested), but the maximum number of students per tutorial is set at two;
  • the contract (and payment) is initiated once the student ‘accepts’ the contract with a push of a button on their cell phone. If the tutor fails to deliver the tutorial, the student is automatically refunded (and offered another instructor). Instructors who miss a tutorial will be fined by the university in the form of a deduction from the next tutorial payment;
  • on successful completion of the tutorial (which will include a written essay or other assessable pieces of work from the student) the blockchain registers the grade against the student record;
  • once the student has accumulated enough ‘credits’ within an approved program they will be issued with a Woolf University degree;
  • a full student workload consists of two classes a week over 8 weeks in each of three semesters or a total of 144 meetings over three years for a degree;
  • annual tuition is expected to be in the order of $20,000 a year, excluding scholarships;
  • instructor payments will depend on the number and cost of tutorials, but at four a week would range from $38,000 to $43,000 per annum with fees in the range of $350-$400 per tutorial;
  • colleges of a minimum of 30 individual instructors can join Woolf University and issue their own qualifications, but each college’s qualification requirements must also meet Woolf University’s criteria. Colleges can set their own tutorial fee above a minimum of $150 an hour. Colleges’ instructors must meet the qualification requirements of Woolf University;
  • the first college, called Ambrose, will consist of 50 academics from Oxford University, and Woolf has invited academics from Cambridge University to set up another college;
  • Woolf University will be a not-for-profit institution. There will be a deduction of 0.035% of each financial transaction to build the Woolf Reserve to update and maintain the blockchain system. There will also be a student financial aid program for scholarships for qualified students;
  • Woolf University would be managed by a Faculty Council with voting rights on decision-making from every employed instructor;
  • Ambrose College will deduct 4% from each tuition fee for administrative overheads.

There are other proposals such as a language school, peer review, etc.

What’s to like?

This is clearly an effort to cut out the institutional middleman of university and institutional administration. Although the tutorial fees are close to the average of universities in the UK and the more elite state universities in the USA, students are getting a one-on-one learning experience from an instructor who is highly qualified (at least in terms of content).

I was fortunate to have a tutorial system when I was an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield at the UK, and it worked very well, although we had between two and four students at each tutorial, and only in the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. Such tutorials are excellent for developing critical thinking skills, because each statement you make as a student is likely to be challenged by the professor or one of the other students.

Woolf University has highly idealistic goals for democratic governance – by the faculty – and its main attraction is offering alternative and regular employment for the very large number of poorly paid but highly qualified adjunct professors who can’t get tenure at regular universities. However there is no suggestion of student representation in the governance process, and the use of faculty is demand driven – if no student wants your course, no money – which seems an even more precarious position than working as an adjunct.

Most of all, though, it is a serious attempt to provide an independent system of academic validation of qualifications through the use of blockchain which could lead to better standardization of degree qualifications.

What’s not to like?

Well, the first thing that jumps to my mind is conflict of interest. If faculty are already employed by a traditional university, Woolf will be a direct, and if successful, a very dangerous competitor. Will universities allow their best faculty to moonlight for a direct competitor? If instructors cannot get employment in a traditional university, will they be as well qualified as the instructors in the regular system? The corollary though is that Woolf may force universities to pay their adjunct faculty better, but that will increase costs for the existing universities.

Second, the tuition fees may be reasonable by the absurdly inflated cost of HE tuition fees in the UK, but these are double or triple the fees in Canada, and much higher than the fees in the rest of Europe.

Third, the tutorial is just one mode of teaching. The report recommends (but does not insist) that instructors should also provide recorded lectures, but there are now so many other ways for students to learn that it seems absurd to tie Woolf to just the one system Oxbridge dons are familiar with.  The proposal does not address the issue of STEM teaching or experiential learning. All the examples given are from Greek philosophy. Not all my tutorials were great – it really depended on the excellence of the professor as a teacher as well as a scholar and that varied significantly. (It is also clear from reading the report that the authors have no knowledge about best practices in online teaching, either). The whole proposal reeks of the worst kind of elitism in university teaching.

Will it succeed?

Quite possibly, if it can sell the substitute Oxbridge experience to students and if it can explain more clearly its business model and in particular how the blockchain currency will work with regard to the payment of instructors. What can make or break it is the extent to which traditional universities will go to protect their core faculty from being hijacked by Woolf. 

I’m somewhat baffled by the claims that this new business model will be much much more cost-effective than the current system. Academic salaries make up almost 70% of the cost of a traditional university so the savings on administration alone are a comparatively small proportion of the costs of higher education, and the proposed tuition fees are still very high. It seems to be more a solution for the problem of unemployed Ph.D.s than the problem of expanding more cost-effectively quality higher education to large numbers of students.

Nevertheless, it is a very interesting development. I am guessing that this will ultimately fail, because establishing its credentials as equivalent to the elite universities will be a hard sell, and costs to students will be too high, but much will be learned about the strengths and weaknesses of blockchain in higher education, resulting in a better/more sustainable higher education model developing in another way. It is definitely a development to be carefully tracked.

 

Some very good news for Athabasca University (and its students)

Athabasca University convocation

Graney, J. (2018) Athabasca University gets $4.9 million grant to upgrade outdated IT Edmonton Journal, June 8

One year on from the delivery of the Coates Report, an external review of the university, the Alberta provincial government has announced a one-off additional grant of almost $5 million to the university to help it overcome some of the problems it has been facing. The money is earmarked as follows:

  • $1.5 million to implement the university’s new strategic plan, which is in response to the recommendations in the Coates Report
  • $1.5 million to develop and implement a plan to improve student delivery services
  • $1.5 million to implement the university’s plan to upgrade its IT system, moving to a cloud-based system
  •  $400,000 to develop a long-range plan to renew the university’s teaching and learning framework.

The grant will enable Athabasca University to modernize significantly its digital learning environment and upgrade the existing IT infrastructure.

Marlin Schmidt, the Minister for Advanced Education in Alberta, is quoted as saying:

I am pleased with the progress made by the university to ensure that the recommendations in the Coates Report are implemented. I know these additional investments will support the university’s long-term success.

Comment

This is very good news for both the university and especially its students. It indicates that the Alberta government has confidence in the future of the university, and the funding provides necessary resources for modernizing and improving the quality of its teaching and other student services.

Once again though I am disappointed by the headline in the Edmonton Journal. ‘Athabasca University gets $4.9 million to become a world leader in digital learning’ would  have been a more accurate headline.

True, the university needs to upgrade its IT infrastructure, which was the subject of a scathing audit by the provincial auditor-general, but the majority of the funding has quite rightly gone to ensuring that the overall strategic plan is implemented, and to improving the quality of student services and the quality of teaching.

Congratulations to everyone at AU on getting this far so quickly since the Coates Report. Now you just have to do it.

 

Free online courses on English for Syrian refugees

FutureLearn’s Basic English 1: Elementary. Click on image to access course.

FutureLearn (2018) New free online courses launched to help Syrian refugees continue their education FE News.co.uk, June 8

Kings College, the University of London, has partnered with FutureLearn, the U.K. Open University’s MOOC platform, to deliver a series of twelve new free online courses to assist refugees affected by conflict in the Middle East. The first two courses, Basic English 1: Elementary, and Basic English 2: Pre-Intermediate, start on June 18.

The courses are a result of an interesting project called PADILEA, which stands for The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access, whose partners are King’s College, LondonKiron Open Higher Education (Germany), FutureLearn in the UK, Al al-Bayt University in Jordan and the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. The PADILEA project will provide blended academic programmes, including Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), targeted online learning, and classroom-based learning to displaced students who are in refugee camps and other communities.

While the course content is specifically designed for people affected by the Syrian crisis, they are open to all people in the region and beyond for free. Learners can join the courses from any device, computer or smartphone with an internet connection. The courses will also have Arabic translations.

Comment

This is an example of the huge potential of MOOCs to improve accessibility to education and meet some very pressing needs. The PADILEA MOOCs are more focused and targeted than many other MOOCs but still have a large potential audience and have a very important goal. Professor Bronwyn Parry at King’s College perfectly captured the significance of this project:

In the scale of the enormity of the ongoing conflict in the region, English courses may seem a relatively small affair but access to education is absolutely vital and offers opportunity and hope for an entire generation whose lives have been devastated by war and displacement.

I have already reported on Kiron University’s efforts to help refugees with online learning. In some ways, online learning for refugees is like a band-aid for someone who is bleeding to death. It can only help reduce some of the effects caused by more fundamental political and economic issues that still need to be urgently addressed, but nevertheless band-aids are still useful when you are bleeding.

I hope though that eventually a more long-term and stable solution will be found for the education of the millions still stuck in refugee camps hoping to transition to a more normal existence – or better still, remove the need for refugee camps in the first place. 

A new survey of online learning in Canadian universities and colleges for 2018

The News

Following the success of the 2017 national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education, an invitation to participate in the 2018 version of the survey will go out to all Canadian universities and colleges in the next few days.

The team

This year the team is being led by Tricia Donovan, formerly Director of eCampus Alberta, with support from Eric Martel, Denis Mayer, Vivian Forssman, Brian Desbiens, Ross Paul, Jeff Seaman, Russ Poulin, and myself.

Funding

With support so far confirmed from eCampus Ontario, Contact North, Campus Manitoba and BCcampus, we have the minimum funding required to guarantee the survey this year, but we are also in discussions with other sponsors.

Questionnaire

The questionnaire will be similar to last year but there will be some changes in the light of experience from last year. The focus however will still be on obtaining accurate data about online and distance learning enrolments, and institutional policies.

Distribution

As a result of the 2017 survey, we now have a more complete list of institutions and more accurate contact information for each institution. The invitation will go to the main contact in each institution, with a copy to other contacts on our list. The questionnaire will continue to have both anglophone and francophone versions. We have added to the existing database some federal institutions, some private colleges with significant public funding, and some institutions we missed last year, especially in Québec.

Once again, we will be asking a wide range of organizations to help in the promotion of the 2018 survey.

Response time

We will be asking all institutions to complete the survey within three weeks of receiving the invitation, as we did last year. We anticipate having the 2018 reports ready by November, 2018.

Organization

With the help of the Ontario College Admission System, we have established a non-profit organization, the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association/Association Canadienne de Recherche sur la Formation en Ligne, to administer the funding and management of the survey. The Directors of the Association are Tricia Donovan, Denis Mayer and myself.

We will also be establishing a longer-term advisory group, but our priority at the moment is to get out this year’s questionnaire.

Web sites

The two existing survey web sites, onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca and formationenlignecanada.ca, will continue. We will maintain all the 2017 reports and data, but we are creating new spaces for the 2018 survey.

What you can do

If you work in a Canadian university or college, please lend your support to this survey. Last year’s results have already had a tremendous impact on institutional and government policies.

In most cases the invitation will have gone to the Provost’s Office or the Office of the VP Education, with copies to other centres such as Continuing Studies, Institutional Research, the Registry or the Centre for Teaching and Learning, depending on the institutional organization.

If by June 22, 2018 you think your institution should have received an invitation to participate but you have heard nothing, and you should have done, please contact tricia.donovan01@gmail.com or tony.bates@ubc.ca.

We know that internal communication can sometimes be a problem!

And thank you!

If you are involved in providing data or answers to the questionnaire, we thank you sincerely for your efforts. We realise the survey involves quite a lot of work and we do really appreciate your efforts if you are involved

How serious should we be about serious games in online learning?

An excerpt from the video game ‘Therapeutic Communication and Mental Health Assessment’ developed at Ryerson University

In the 2017 national survey of online learning in post-secondary education, and indeed in the Pockets of Innovation project, serious games were hardly mentioned as being used in Canadian universities or colleges. Yet there was evidence from the Chang School Talks in Toronto earlier this month that there is good reason to be taking serious games more seriously in online learning.

What are serious games?

The following definition from the Financial Times Lexicon is as good a definition as any:

Serious games are games designed for a purpose beyond pure entertainment. They use the motivation levers of game design – such as competition, curiosity, collaboration, individual challenge – and game media, including board games through physical representation or video games, through avatars and 3D immersion, to enhance the motivation of participants to engage in complex or boring tasks. Serious games are therefore used in a variety of professional situations such as education, training,  assessment, recruitment, knowledge management, innovation and scientific research. 

So serious games are not solely educational, nor necessarily online, but they can be both.

Why are serious games not used more in online learning?

Well, partly because some see serious games as an oxymoron. How can a game be serious? This may seem trivial, but many game designers fear that a focus on education risks killing the main element of a game, its fun. Similarly, many instructors fear that learning could easily be trivialised through games or that games can cover only a very limited part of what learning should be about – it can’t all be fun. 

Another more pragmatic reason is cost and quality. The best selling video games for instance cost millions of dollars to produce, on a scale similar to mainstream movies. What is the compelling business plan for educational games? And if games are produced cheaply, won’t the quality – in terms of production standards, narrative/plot, visuals, and learner engagement – suffer, thus making them unattractive for learners?

However, probably the main reason is that most educators simply do not know enough about serious games: what exists, how they can be used, nor how to design them. For this reason, the ChangSchoolTalks, organised each year by the School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University, this year focused on serious games.

The conference

The conference, held on May 3rd in Toronto, consisted of nine key speakers who have had extensive experience with serious games, organised in three themes:

  • higher education
  • health care
  • corporate

The presentations were followed by a panel debate and question and answer session. The speakers were:

This proved to be an amazingly well-selected group of speakers on the topic. In one session run by Sylvester Arnab, he had the audience inventing a game within 30 seconds. Teams of two were given a range of  existing games or game concepts (such as Dictionary or Jeopardy) and a topic (such as international relations) and had up to two minutes to create an educational game. The winning team (in less than 30 seconds) required online students in political sciences to represent a country and suggest how they should respond to selected Tweets from Donald Trump.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I suffered from such information overload from recent conferences that I had to go and lie down. It was at this conference where that happened! It has taken three weeks for me even to begin fully processing what I learned.

What did I learn?

Probably the most important thing is that there is a whole, vibrant world of serious games outside of education, and at the same time there are many possible and realistic applications for serious games in education, and particularly in online learning. So, yes, we should be taking serious games much more seriously in online learning – but we need to do it carefully and professionally.

The second lesson I learned is that excellent online serious games can be developed without spending ridiculous amounts of money (see some examples below). At the same time, there is a high degree of risk. There is no sure way of predicting in advance that a new game will be successful. Some low-cost simple games can work well; some expensively produced games can easily flop. This means careful testing and feedback during development.

For these and other reasons, research being conducted at Ryerson University and funded by eCampus Ontario is particularly important. Naza Djafarova and colleagues at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education are conducting research to develop a game design guide to enhance the process by which multidisciplinary teams, engaged in the pre-production stage, approach the design of a serious game. They have developed a process called the Art of Game Design methodology, for multidisciplinary teams involved in the design of serious games, and appraised in participatory workshops.

The Chang School has already developed a few prototype games, including:

  • Lake Devo, a virtual learning environment enabling online role-play activity in an educational context. Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios.
  • Skills Practice: A Home Visit that promotes the application of knowledge and skills related to establishing a therapeutic nurse-client relationship and completing a mental health assessment. Students assume the role of a community health nurse assigned to complete a home visit. Working with nurses and professors from George Brown College, Centennial College this project is working to establish a ‘virtual hospital’ with several serious games focused on maternity issues.

Thus serious games are a relatively high risk, high return activity for online learning. This requires building on best practices in games design, both within and outside education, sharing, and collaboration. However, as we move more and more towards skills development, experiential learning, and problem-solving, serious games will play an increasingly important role in online learning. Best to start now.