July 22, 2017

Pushing the boundaries of higher education – in Barcelona

The pavement of Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona

If you are going to push any boundaries, Barcelona is as good a place as any to do it. Home of Antoni Gaudi, Joan Miró, Picasso (for a significant period in his work), the chef Ferran Adrià, and the fully online Open University of Catalonia (UOC – Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, established as early as 1995), Barcelona has long been in the forefront of innovation and change.

The headquarters of UOC on Avenida Tibidabo

UOC is running an event up to and including October 3 that

will address the challenges that current higher education models face and showcase innovative initiatives and practices that offer creative answers for pressing issues.

Speakers include:

  • Terry Anderson (Emeritus Professor at Athabasca University and Director of the Canadian Institute Distance Education Research)
  • Lisa Marie Blaschke (Director of the Master of Distance Education and E-Learning at Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany
  • Jim Groom (Instructional Technologist, Co-founder Reclaim Hosting)
  • Brian Lamb (‎Director of Open learning and Innovation Thompson Rivers University, Canada)
  • Allison Littlejohn (Academic Director for Learning and Teaching and Professor of Learning Technology at The Open University, UK)
  • Annette Markham (Professor MSO of Information Studies and Co-Director of the Digital Living Masters Programme at Aarhus University, Denmark)
  • Yishay Mor (Director of the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in teaching at the Levinsky College of Education, Israel)
  • Rikke Toft Nørgård (Associate Professor in Educational Design and Technology at the Center for Teaching Development and Digital Media, Aarhus University, Denmark)
  • Philipp Schmidt (Director of Learning Innovation at the MIT Media Lab)
  • and yours truly

I will be focusing in my contribution on the changing nature of online learning (from mainly fully online, text-based, asynchronous to a blend of face-to-face teaching, video-based synchronous, asynchronous and social media) and the implications for faculty/teacher development and training.

There are still places open for the event. For further information, go to the web site. See ya in Barcelona!

The front of an apartment building on Consell de Cent

2016: The Year I Failed Retirement

Cruising is a bit of a challenge for me

I don’t think I’m temperamentally suited to cruises

The new age of retirement

I decided in April 2014 ‘to stop (nearly) all professional activities from now onwards’. I argued that ‘it is dangerous for a consultant to become adrift from the reality of teaching and management’ and ‘this is not a profession where you can be half in and half out.’

In particular, I wanted to write a ‘farewell’ book that would try to capture my expertise for those who might benefit from 40 years of teaching online and at a distance. I completed that book, Teaching in a Digital Age, almost exactly a year later, in April, 2015.

I realised that this might entail some follow-up, such as appearances at conferences or webinars to publicize the book, but that ought to be over by the end of 2015. 2016 would be the year to finally let go, play lots of golf, travel with my wife and fix all the things around the house that I’ve been putting off for years. So how is that going?

Not so good. Certainly I have played lots of golf, my wife and I took our first cruise, and we went on a trip up the west coast of British Columbia to the Great Bear Rain Forest, and saw two grizzly bears in the wild, but the work part didn’t pan out as I had expected.

'Bent-ear' was in the forest on the bank opposite our Zodiac

‘Bent-ear’ was on the bank of the Atnarko River, about 50 metres away

Here is the list of my activities in 2016.

Ryerson University

I was honoured to be invited to be a distinguished visiting professor for 2016 by the Raymond G. Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University. Ryerson is probably in general terms the most innovative university in Canada, and I had a somewhat tenuous but very welcome prior connection with Chang through its Digital Education Strategies unit. Leonora Zefi, Naza Djafarova and other colleagues in DES had provided valuable feedback on early drafts of my book.

DES has been supporting a number of innovative online teaching projects at Ryerson, such as the Law Practice Program and Lake Devo animations, and is developing expertise in research into educational games.

Lake Devo friendship 2

Lake Devo animation supports online role-play activity in an educational context.

Part of my duties was to present at the annual Chang Talks and also to sit in on a meeting to help develop an institutional e-learning strategy for Ryerson.

Conferences, presentations and workshops

Although I have done far less than in earlier years, I still had a number of academic engagements:

  • six keynotes/presentations: two in Toronto (Ryerson University and Nelson Publishing), and once each in Budapest (EDEN), Madeira (IADIS), Philadelphia (Drexel University), and Kingston, Ontario (Queen’s University);
  • two workshops, one for Chinese university presidents on managing learning technologies at UBC; and one at Ryerson University, Toronto to help develop their eLearning strategy;
  • nine webinars (to universities in Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Australia, and Alberta, to European Union educational policy-makers in Brussels, and three Contact North webinars offered internationally), all on topics from my book;
  • attendance at two demofests in Vancouver/Burnaby where innovators from post-secondary institutions in British Columbia demonstrated what they are doing;
  • several press interviews.
The Pestana Casino Park Hotel, Funchal, site of the IADIS conference - hey, someone has to do this.

The Pestana Casino Park Hotel, Funchal, site of the IADIS conference – hey, someone has to do this.

Teaching in a Digital Age

The book has continued to generate a lot of activity. The English version has been downloaded over 46,000 times and the book has been translated into French, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Portuguese. There are also translations under way in Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew. Voluntarily translating a 500 page book into another language requires a huge amount of work, but if it had not been published under an open license, it is unlikely to have been translated into so many different languages, all by volunteers. There are also a couple of major adaptations, one in South Africa (English), and one in Argentina (Spanish), to suit regional requirements. Contact North and BCcampus have sites that host both the English and French versions, and BCcampus also hosts the Vietnamese version.

I am of course delighted at the success of the book, and I am very happy to provide the necessary help to get the translations into Pressbooks, deal with translation issues, and to help the organizations providing translations with understanding the Creative Commons licensing agreement.

However, it is been a struggle to get some of the organizations supporting the translations to understand fully the concept of openness. Some have just made print copies available and have yet to provide a url from where anyone can download a copy in the appropriate language, or a digital copy that could be made available through the BCcampus web site. Thus ensuring the translations are also fully open and accessible online is still very much a work in progress on my part.

10 Fundamentals of Online Learning

During 2016 I did a series of 10 blog posts called ‘Online Learning for Beginners’, realising that although Teaching in a Digital Age had been downloaded over 46,000 times, there are still many faculty who are not yet committed enough to online learning to even look at the book.

Contact North then edited and published my 10 guides as a short, 37 page booklet, ‘The Ten Fundamentals Of Teaching Online‘ that is really a first step towards getting faculty and instructors to read Teaching in a Digital Age, and more importantly to challenge some of the myths and misunderstandings that many faculty have about teaching online. The Ten Fundamentals was published in October this year and has so far been downloaded just over 300 times and has already been translated into Spanish by a professor in Argentina.


During the year I did 74 blog posts, which is little more than one a week, compared with the 213 blog posts in 2013, the year before I decided to retire. So I have definitely reduced my blogging activity.

However, although I am blogging 70% less than I used to, my blog site was more active in 2016 than in any previous years, with a total of 417,000 hits. In fact, the number of hits to the site was 33% higher in 2016 than in 2014. This is somewhat surprising, since the golden rule of blogging is that the more you blog, the more hits you will get.


If though we look at Table 1 below, I can perhaps explain this anomaly. The year the post was published is in brackets; TIDA means the post was an early draft of a section of Teaching in a Digital Age)

Table 1: No. of hits per post in 2016 (top 20 posts)

The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) 38,618
A short history of educational technology (2014: TIDA) 33,367
What Is Distance Education? (2008) 20,961
Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) 14,636
The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age (2014; TIDA) 14,435
Learning theories and online learning (2014; TIDA) 12,017
Deciding on appropriate media for teaching and learning (2014; TIDA) 11,423
A student guide to studying online (2012) 8,042
Advice to students about Athabasca University (2015) 6,860
The role of communities of practice in a digital age (2014; TIDA) 6,282
Building an effective learning environment (2016) 6,156
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) 6,113
Key characteristics of learners in a digital age……(2014; TIDA) 5,109
Is the ADDIE model appropriate for teaching in a digital age? (2014; TIDA) 4,793
5. Models for selecting media and technology: 5. Media or technology? (2011) 4,157
Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice (2014; TIDA) 4,021
Teaching in a Digital Age (2015) 3,722
Why learner support is an important component in the design of teaching.…(2014; TIDA) 3,469
Does technology change the nature of knowledge? (2009) 3,380
Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 7: Design course structure…(2012) 3,197


There was only one post published in 2016 (Building an Effective Learning Environment) that appears in the top 20 posts (in terms of the number of hits) for 2016, and even that was a summary/discussion of Appendix A in Teaching in a Digital Age. Nine other posts in the top 20 were early drafts of sections of Teaching in a Digital Age.

My interpretation of this is that the blog site is being used increasingly as a resource, rather than as a news site, especially by students who are studying on courses about online learning and teaching. This means that each year different students are coming back to the same posts. I cannot explain though why they are using drafts from my blog site rather than (or as well as) using the text of the book. There is though apparently a strong relationship and interaction between my blog site and the book.

Also three of the top five posts, and five of the top ten posts, are ‘general’ posts for online students about studying online. There are of course many more students than instructors, which explains why these are topics that come near to the top each year.

‘Can you teach real engineering online’ has generated the most number of comments (127 in all) and continues to be a lively forum seven years after it was originally published (and an indication of student frustration at the limited opportunities to study engineering online). ‘The worlds’ largest supplier of free online learning?’, about ALISON, has generated 104 comments and is also still active. ‘What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs’ has generated 54 comments, but there was only one comment on this post this year, and only one post on MOOCs reached the top 20 in 2016, which suggests interest in MOOCs may be waning, at least among my readers.

The national survey of online learning in Canada

Finally, one activity that I hadn’t planned for in 2016 that is taking up a great deal of my time is the proposed national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions, in collaboration with the Babson Survey Research Group. This activity will continue into 2017.

Must do better

Although I am reducing my level of activity, I’m still playing, although at a somewhat slower pace. In terms of actually retiring though I am definitely failing, at least a ‘D’ if not an ‘F’. I will try to do better next year.


Report on SFU’s experiences of teaching with technology

Simon Fraser University (on a rare day when it wasn't raining)

Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby campus (on a rare day when it wasn’t raining)

I always enjoy going to a university or college and seeing how they are using learning technologies. I am always a little surprised and I am also usually intrigued by some unexpected application, and today’s DemoFest at Simon Fraser University was no exception.

About Simon Fraser University

SFU has just over 35,000 students with campuses in Burnaby, Vancouver downtown, and Surrey, all in the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canada.

For a long time it has had the largest distance education program in British Columbia, but the rapid development of fully online and blended learning in other BC and Canadian institutions means that other institutions are rapidly gaining ground. It is also the academic base for Linda Harasim, who is a Professor of Communications at SFU.

As with many Canadian universities, most of the DE programs are run out of the Centre for Online and Distance Learning in Continuing Studies at SFU. However, the university also has a large Teaching and Learning Centre, which provides a range of services including learning technology support to the faculty on campus.

The university recently adopted Canvas as its main LMS.

I was spending most of the day at SFU for two reasons:

  • to identify possible cases for Contact North’s ‘pockets of innovation’ project
  • to report on the survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

I will be giving more information on both these projects in separate blog posts coming shortly.

The DemoFest

DEMOfest 2016 is about how instructors are using ….technologies in ways that produce exciting and original educational experiences leading to student engagement and strong learning outcomes.

Making lectures interactive

Not surprisingly, several of the short, 10 minute presentations were focused on tools used in classroom teaching or lecturing. In particular, the tools are going mobile, in the form of apps that students can use on their mobile phones, tablets or laptops. I was particularly impressed with TopHat, which incorporates online quizzes and tests, attendance checks, and  discussion. REEF Polling is a similar development developed by iClicker, which is effectively a mobile app version of iClicker. Both provide students and instructors with an online record of their classroom activity on the app.

There was also a couple of sessions on lecture theatre technologies. As in other universities, lecturers can find a range of different interfaces for managing lecture theatre facilities. SFU has a project that will result in a common, simple interface that will be available throughout the different campuses of the universities, much to the relief of faculty and visiting speakers who at the moment have no idea what to expect when entering an unfamiliar lecture theatre or classroom.. There was also another session on the limits of lecture capture and how to use video to make learning more engaging.

Online learning development

However, I found nothing here (or anywhere else, for that matter) that has convinced me that there is a future in the large lecture class. Most of the technology enhancements, although improvements on the straight ‘talk’ lecture, are still just lipstick on a pig.

The online learning developments were much more interesting:

  • online proctoring: Proctorio. This was a demonstration of the ingenuity of students in cheating in online assessment and even greater ingenuity in preventing them from doing it. Proctorio is a powerful web-based automated proctoring system that basically takes control of whatever device the student is using to do an online assessment and records their entire online activity during the exam. Instructors/exam supervisors though have options as to exactly what features they can control, such as locked screens, blocking use of other urls, etc.. Students just sign in and take the exam at any time set by the instructor. Proctorio provides the instructor with a complete record of students’ online activity during the exam, including a rating of the ‘suspiciousness’ of the student’s online exam activity.
  • peer evaluation and team-based learning: SFU has a graduate diploma in business where students are required to work in teams, specifically to build team approaches to problem-solving and business solutions. Although the instructor assesses both the individual and group assignments, students evaluate each other on their contribution to the team activities. The demonstration also showed how peer assessment was handled within the Canvas LMS. It was a good example of best practices in peer-to-peer assessment.
  • Dialectical Map: an argument visualization tool developed at SFU. Joan Sharp, Professor of Biological Sciences, and her research colleague, Hui Niu, have developed a simple, interactive, web-based tool that facilitates the development of argumentation for science students. Somewhat to my surprise, research evidence shows that science students are often poor at argumentation, even in the upper years of an undergraduate program. This tool enables a question to be posed by an instructor at the tope of the map, such as ‘Should the BC government allow fracking for oil?’ or ‘Should the BC government stop the culling of wolves to protect caribou?’ The online map is split into two parts, ‘pro’ and ‘con’, with boxes for the rationale, and linked boxes for the evidence to support each rationale offered. Students type in their answers to the boxes (both pro and con) and have a box at the bottom to write their conclusion(s) from the argument. Students can rate the strength of each rationale. All the boxes in a map can be printed out, giving a detailed record of the arguments for and against, the evidence in support of the arguments and the student’s conclusion.  Hui Niu has done extensive research on the effectiveness of the tool, and has found that the use of the tool has substantially increased students’ performance on argument-based assignments/assessment.

General comments

I was very grateful for the invitation and enjoyed nearly all the presentations. The Teaching and Learning Centre is encouraging research into learning technologies, particularly developing a support infrastructure for OERs and looking at ways to use big data for the analysis and support of learning. This practical, applied research is being led by Lynda Williams, the Manager of the Learn tech team, and is being done in collaboration with both faculty and graduate students from different departments.

Students and a professor of computer science worked with the IT division and Ancillary Services to develop a student app for the university called SFU Snap, as part of a computer science course. This not only provides details of the bus services to and from SFU at any time, but also provides students with an interactive map so they can find their classrooms. Anyone who has tried to find their way around SFU (built at multi-levels into a mountain) will understand how valuable such an app must be, not just to students but also to visitors.

So thank you, everyone at the Teaching and Learning Centre at SFU for a very interesting and useful day.


Scary tales of online learning and educational technology

The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Educational Technology Users Group (ETUG) of British Columbia held an appropriately Halloween-themed get together today called ‘The Little Workshop of Horrors’ at which participants were encouraged to share tales of failure and horror stories in the use of learning technologies.

This seemed to me a somewhat risky strategy but it actually worked really well. First the workshop was held in ‘the Hangar’, a large, covered space in (or rather beside) the Centre for Digital Media, a shared building used by UBC, Simon Fraser University, BCIT and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. The Centre itself is a good example of collaboration and sharing in developing media-based programs, such as its Master of Digital Media. The Hangar lent itself to a somewhat spooky atmosphere, enhanced by a DJ who often accompanied presenters with ghoulish music.

Audrey’s Monsters

The workshop got off to an excellent start with a brilliant keynote from Audrey Watters on the Monsters of Educational Technology (The link will take you to her book on the subject). She identified a range of monsters (the examples are partly Audrey’s, partly mine):

  • Frankenstein’s monster that went wrong because its (hir?) master failed to provide it (em?) with love or social company (teaching machines?): in Audrey’s word’s ‘a misbegotten creature of a misbegotten science’,
  • vampires that suck the blood of students, e.g. by using their personal data (learning analytics?),
  • zombies, i.e. technologies or ed tech ideas that rise and die then rise again (e.g. technology will remove the need for schools, an idea that goes back to the early 1900s),
  • giants that become obsolete and die (Skinner, Merrill)
  • the Blob, which grows bigger and bigger and invades every nook and cranny (MOOCs?)
  • and the dragons, are the libertarian, free-market, Silicon-valley types that preach the ‘destruction’ and ‘re-invention’ of education.

Audrey Watters’ larger point is that if we are not careful, educational technology easily turns itself into a monster that drives out all humanity in the teaching and learning process. We need to be on constant watch, and, whenever we can, we need to take control away from large technology corporations whose ultimate purpose is not educational.

Not only was it a great, on topic, presentation, but it was also such a pleasure to meet at last Audrey in person, as I am a huge fan of her blog.

He was a monster, not because he was a machine, but because he wasn't loved


Then came the confessional, at which a series of speakers confessed their sins – or rather, classic failures – about educational technology, often in very funny ways. What was interesting though about most of the tales was that although there was a disaster, in most cases out of the disaster came a lot of good things. (As one speaker said, ‘Success is failing many times without losing your optimism’; or ‘ A sailor gets to know the sea only after he has waded ashore.’).

One presenter reported going to a university to ‘sell’ Blackboard but was so nervous that her presentation was so bad they ended up going with Canvas (you see what I mean about some good coming out of these disasters!) Another described how over 20 years she has been trying to move faculty into more interactive and engaging technology than learning management systems, yet here she is still spending most of her time supporting faculty using an LMS.

One talked about spending years trying to promote IMS-based learning objects, only to find that Google’s search engine made meta-data identification redundant. Revealingly, he felt he knew at the time that the meta-data approach to learning objects was too complex to work, but he had to do it because that was the only way he could get funding. More than one speaker noted that Canada in the past has spent millions of dollars on programs that focused heavily on software solutions (anyone remember EduSource?) but almost nothing on evaluating the educational applications of technology or on research on new or even old pedagogies.

Another spoke about the demise of a new university, the Technical University of British Columbia, that was a purpose-built, new university deliberately built around an “integrated learning” approach, combining heavy use of on-line learning with mixed face-to-face course structures – in 1999. However, by 2002 it had only about 800 FTEs, and a new incoming provincial government, desperate to save money and eager to diminish the previous government’s legacy, closed the university and transferred the students (but not the programs) to Simon Fraser University. Nevertheless, the legacy did live on, with many of the learning technology staff moving later into senior positions within the Canadian higher education system.

I see instructional designers, educational technologists or learning ecology consultants (which was a new title for me) as the Marine Corps of the educational world. They have seen many battles and have (mostly) survived. They have even learned how to occasionally win battles. That’s the kind of wisdom of which academic leaders and faculty and instructors should make much better use.

One participant had such a bad experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as 'the haunted house on the hill.'

One participant had such a bad ed tech experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as ‘the haunted house on the hill.’

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Welcome back and what you may have missed in online learning over the summer

Working in my study

Not a lot of work done this summer!

I hope you all had a great summer break and have come back fully charged for another always challenging year in teaching. I thought it might be helpful to pull together some of the developments in online learning that occurred over the summer that you may have missed. My list, of course, is very selective and personal.

Online learning for beginners

During the summer I developed a series of ten posts aimed at those considering teaching online, or brand new to online teaching:

This was in response to concerns that many instructors and faculty were not well briefed or aware of best practices and what we already know about effective (and more importantly, ineffective) approaches to online teaching.

The posts of course were linked to my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. However, the book itself is likely to appeal to those who have already made a major commitment to teaching well online. The blog posts in contrast aim to address some common myths and misconceptions about online learning and online teaching, and in particular to help instructors make decisions about whether or not to do online learning in the first place, and if so, what they need to know to do it well. Think of it as a prep for the book itself.

This won’t be directly relevant to most readers of this blog, but please direct any instructors or faculty in your institution who are struggling to decide whether or not to teach online, or must undertake it but are fearful, to these posts, as well as the book itself.

Contact North will be repackaging these blog posts and re-issuing them this fall; watch this space for more details.

Upcoming conferences

The big conference announcement is that the next ICDE World Conference in Online Learning and Distance Education will be held in Toronto in October, 2017, and the lead organiser is Contact North. This global conference is one of the major events in the world of online and distance learning and it’s the first time since 1982 that it’s been held in Canada. Next year’s theme is guess what? Teaching in a Digital Age. Well, that’s a coincidence, isn’t it?

Another major conference coming up at the end of this year is the OEB conference in Berlin in December.

Registration is also now open for the EDEN Research Workshop in Oldenburg, Germany, in October this year.

AACE’s World Conference on eLearning takes place in Virginia, USA, in November this year.

And, if you hurry, you might just make the 4th E-Learning Innovations Conference and Expo in Nairobi, Kenya from September 12-16.

Reports and journals

These are reports that have been published (or which I found) over the summer. I have blogged about one or two of them but for the rest I’ve not had the time. (Well, the weather’s been glorious here in Vancouver this summer and golf called and was answered.)

Centre for Extended Learning (2016) How do we create useful online learning experiences? Waterloo ON: University of Waterloo.

This is an excellent guide to multimedia course design, combining Peter Morville’s user experience (UX) honeycomb and Richard Mayer’s theory and research on the use of multimedia for learning, to create a well-designed set of guidelines for online course design.

Daniel, J. (2016) Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity: A Contemporary Challenge for the Quality and Integrity of Higher Education: Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice: Washington DC/Paris: CHEA/UNESCO.

No need to say more other than some of these corruptions will almost certainly be found in your institution. A great read and very disturbing.

Contact North (2016) Connecting the Dots: Technology-enabled Learning and Student Success Toronto ON: Nelson.

This is the result of a symposium organized by Nelson in Toronto earlier in the year  and looks particularly at three main issues in online learning:1. The notion of “program”; 2. The role of faculty; 3. The nature of student support services.

Garrett, R. and Lurie, H. (2016) Deconstructing CBE  Boston MA: Ellucian/Eduventures/ACE.

This is a report on a three-year study to help higher education leaders better understand competency-based education (CBE), including the diversity of institutional practices and paths forward.

Bacigalupo, M. et al (2016) The Entrepreneurship Competence Framework Brussels: European Commission JRC Science for Policy.

“The EntreComp Framework is made up of 3 competence areas: ‘Ideas and opportunities’, ‘Resources’ and ‘Into action’. Each area includes 5 competences, which, together, are the building blocks of entrepreneurship as a competence.” Something concrete at last on one of the key 21st century skills. Don’t ask me though whether I believe it – read it for yourself, if you can stand European Commission English.

IRRODL, Vol. 17, No. 4

From Rory McGreal’s editorial: ‘This one is packed with 19 articles and a book review. We begin with three articles from Africa on access, entrepreneurship, and openness. Then the focus changes to the teacher with a critique and a look at expectations and perceptions. Learning design issues are the focus of the next group of articles, including open design and guidelines. Investigations into factors affecting learning follow…. Finally, mobile learning issues are addressed in the last two articles.’ Something for everyone here.

Distance Education, Vol. 37, No.2  (journal) Special issue on building capacity for sustainable distance e-learning provision.

This is a specially commissioned set of papers around the theme of the last ICDE conference in South Africa. I found it difficult though to identify a consistent message between what are individually interesting papers.

I am well aware that there are many other ‘must-read’ reports that slipped by without my paying attention to them. Any further suggestions from readers will be welcome.

So the world didn’t stop while you were away. Enjoy your teaching this academic year.