September 22, 2018

In memoriam: Ingeborg Bø

The used to say that distance educators never die, they just fade away, but alas, that is not true.

Ingeborg, who was Director of the Norwegian Distance Education Association, a trustee of the International Council for Distance Education, and President of EDEN (the European Distance Education Network) never faded away. Despite battling ALS in her later years, she was active in distance education until almost the end.

She was a pioneer of distance education, working with NKI, the Norwegian correspondence school (as it then was) back in the 1970s, which was when I first met her. She was a lovely woman, gentle but firm, who was an excellent chairwoman and negotiator. She always worked to find consensus without losing sight of the clear goals she had for furthering and promoting distance education.

I will miss her dearly. Tusen takk for alt, Ingeborg.

Québec’s Téluq in trouble

A Téluq graduation ceremony in Rimouski
Photo: courtesy of Guillaume D. Cyr

Téluq (the Télé-université within the Université du Québec System) has for many years been a major provider of university-level distance education courses for francophones.

Last Friday afternoon, the Québec Ministry of Higher Education reported that it was investigating compliance of its laws with respect to the relationship between Institut Matci, a private post-secondary institution offering courses mainly to international francophone students, and Téluq.

While this investigation is under way, the current Director-General, Martin Noël, has been suspended indefinitely. An interim director-general has been appointed, Andre G. Roy, who was Secretary-General of Université du Québec since November, 2009.

Téluq has announced that for students, it’s business as usual, and the delivery of courses will not be affected. However, the timing is unfortunate, as Martin Noël was a leading participant in discussions with the ministry about the establishment of eCampus Québec. These discussions are still to be completed before any formal decisions are made about its establishment.

It is too early to speculate, but it seems the investigation is a result of a complaint about a contract with Institut Matci (a private organisation) for tutoring Téluq courses.


Notice: website under redesign

This web site is now more than 10 years old, and the design has not changed over this period. In the meantime, there have been several important developments in web site design, and more importantly, there are now over 2,500 posts or pages on the site, making navigation more complex and difficult.

With the assistance of Contact North and MARSworks, work on a new design is taking place during the month of August, the quietest month in terms of traffic.

You should not see many changes until the end of the month or early September, but in the meantime I will be working to provide better indexing of the posts by topic or category, which may result in the odd old post being republished or moved to a new location within the site. I am also taking this opportunity to remove or identify dead links and to add new material and links to update old posts. It will be obvious once the new site goes live, and I will accompany this with a post explaining the changes that have been made.

The main aim of the changes is to make it easier for readers to find posts on specific topics and to access resources on the site more easily. Most of the old features though will be retained.

In the meantime, I apologise in advance for any inconvenience caused during this process. 

Book review: Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas

Qayyum, A. and Zawacki-Richter, O. (eds.) Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas: National Perspectives in a Digital Age Singapore: Springer, US$24+

Why this book?

This book is the first of two volumes aimed at describing how open and distance education (ODE) is evolving to reflect the needs and circumstance of the national higher education systems in various countries. A second goal is to compare how DE is organized and structured in various countries.

What does the book cover?

This first volume covers Australia, Europe and the Americas; the second book (still to come) covers Asia, Africa and the Middle East (including Russia and Turkey).

Who wrote it?

This is a well-edited book, with individual chapters written by experts within each country, following a roughly consistent structure in terms of topics. There is a main chapter for each country, with a useful second opinion from another country expert in terms of a commentary on the main chapter, as follows:

  • Introduction (ODE in a Digital Age): Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter
  • Australia: Colin Latchem (commentary by Som Naidu)
  • Brazil: Fred Litto (commentary by Maria Renata da Cruz Duran and Adnan Qayyum)
  • Canada: Tony Bates (commentary by Terry Anderson)
  • Germany: Ulrich Bernath and Joachim Stöter (commentary by Burkhard Lehmann)
  • United Kingdom: Anne Gaskell (commentary by Alan Tait)
  • United States of America: Michael Beaudoin (commentary by Gary Miller)
  • Conclusions: Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter

What’s in it?

There is some variation between the chapters, reflecting some of the differences between different countries, but most chapters have the following structure:

  • Context: most chapters start with a section that provides the wider context in which ODE operates within a country, either in terms of history or a brief description of the current higher education system as a whole. This sometimes includes how DE is funded (or not funded) by governments.
  • Enrolments and growth: each chapter attempts (heroically in some cases) to estimate just how many distance education students there are within the country and the rate of growth. What is noticeable here is how much variation there is in the accuracy or reliability of these estimates between different countries, partly because of the blurring of definitions between online and blended learning, but partly because in some countries, no-one seems to be counting.
  • Quality assurance/quality control: this describes both the regulatory framework for HE within each country and how that is applied to ODE.
  • Descriptions of specific ODE institutions: these sections describe those specialized institutions that play a major role in ODE within their respective countries.
  • OER and MOOCs. Most chapters discuss the use of open educational resources and MOOCs in their country.
  • The relationship between public and private provision of ODE. This is very useful as the relationship varies considerably between different countries.
  • The future of ODE within each country: this section looks at both challenges and opportunities.

In addition, Qayyum and Zawicki-Richter provide an excellent concluding chapter, that compares the different countries in terms of:

  • size and growth of ODE: ODE enrolments constitute between at least 10-20% of all HE enrolments in Australia, Brazil, Canada and the USA. In the UK and Germany, though, the proportions are likely to be less than 10%;
  • providers of DE: one reason reliable data collection has been difficult is because of the growth in different types of institutions providing DE: specialized ODE providers have in general increased their numbers; more campus-based institutions have become providers of ODE; and private institutions offering ODE have grown. However, this varies considerably from country to country. In the UK, for instance, ODE enrolments have been dropping at the UKOU, but possibly increasing from campus-based providers. In the USA, enrolments from the for-profit ODE providers have been dropping but increasing in the private and public on-campus institutions. What is clear is the impact on ODE enrolments of government policies regarding funding and tuition fees;
  • online vs other forms of DE: again, this differs between countries (and probably even more so in the countries to be covered in the next book). In Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK, ODE is nearly synonymous with online learning; Brazil has ‘leapfrogged’ to mobile learning;
  • the role of government: too complex to summarise here: read the chapter!
  • the function of ODE: ODE appears to play three major functions in HE systems: increasing access; providing greater flexibility to those with access; and ‘abetting in the larger digital transformation of HE’;
  • trends and future challenges: ODE on a macro level is being affected by two factors: the global growth in demand for HE; and the digital revolution. Surprisingly, though, it is less affected by globalization: ‘ODE seems to function mainly, though not wholly, within the nation state’ – except for MOOCs. This chapter has a very good discussion of these issues, particularly the differences between education as a public or private good, and ODE’s role in each.

My comments

The book sets out clearly the extent and importance of ODE in higher education. A careful reading will also indicate the importance of government and institutional policies in supporting or restricting ODE.

This and the second book in this series therefore should be required reading in any post-graduate education program. It should also be required reading by policy analysts in Ministries of Advanced (or Higher) Education. I would also recommend it to Boards of Governors and Provosts/VP Academic in any post-secondary institution. 

I look forward with impatience to reading the second volume, which for me will be even more valuable as I know so little about ODE in many of the countries covered in the second book.

If I have any negative comments, it is about what is not in the book. I think it is a pity that there is no chapter on France, Mexico or Argentina, all of which are very large countries with substantial and uniquely different distance education provision. And of course it is solely about formal post-secondary education. Other books are needed to cover international distance education in the k-12 and corporate sectors.

Also, this book will easily become outdated, given the rapid developments in ODE around the world. It took over two years from the time I was approached to write the chapter and the book’s publication. In this period, the first national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education was published, the results of which had to be hastily accommodated in the last proofs of the book.

Furthermore, the book is an open publication, and is free to download, licensed as open access under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. However, it is not expensive to buy a hard copy, and I hope if you have an an interest in open and distance education you will make this a standard book on your shelves – after you have read it!

(Note: in an earlier version of this post I incorrectly stated that it could not be downloaded for free. My apologies).

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.