November 20, 2017

What I learned from the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning

The conference

I’ve just got back from Toronto where last week I was one of more than 1,400 participants from 95 countries in the International Council for Distance Education’s world conference on online and distance education, with the theme ‘Teaching in a Digital Age – Rethinking Teaching and Learning.’

What did I do at the conference?

This conference was a bit different for me as I was heavily engaged in a number of different activities, including:

As a result, I met lots of people from all over the world, as well as from Canada and the U.S.A. (good), but unfortunately I was able to attend only a few of the other sessions (bad).

This was a pity, as there were over 150 sessions with more than 500 presenters, with some key one hour sessions with speakers such as Stephen Downes, Phil Hill, Stephen Murgatroyd, Richard Katz, Simon Nelson of FutureLearn, and many panel sessions. Therefore what I observed was just a small fraction of what was going on, but here, for the record, is what I took away from the conference.

The future is scary

The conference did nothing to allay my concerns about the future of post-secondary education. It is clear that post-secondary education will eventually be targeted on a significant scale by global, highly commercial, digital Internet companies, such as Amazon, Alibaba, and Facebook, and by technologies such as big data, massive online courses, and artificial intelligence. (This was particularly clear from the presentations by Richard Katz, and by Simon Nelson, the CEO of FutureLearn).

The only thing that is holding them back at the moment are successful business models for mass higher education, but it is only a matter of time before these start to emerge. These business models are likely to include partnerships with or the eventual acquisition of existing ‘branded’ universities and colleges.

There is no doubt in my mind that the elite institutions such as Oxford and Harvard will survive by offering a completely different, campus-based experience for those rich enough to afford it, and/or through commercial partnerships, but the impact of the digital commercialisation of higher education will probably drive into the ground many less prestigious private and public universities and especially two year colleges.

Smaller, independent but less prestigious private universities and colleges are surprisingly perhaps most at risk from global digital companies. Adnan Quayyum in his review of distance education internationally reported for instance that in Latin America it is the children from poorer families who go to the private universities, while children from more wealthy families tend to go to the public institutions, because their admission standards are higher. Students from poorer families will rush to lower-priced global digital companies, particularly if their degrees or diplomas are internationally recognised.

In a world where billions do not have a chance of post-secondary education, why would the dominance of global digital institutions be a bad thing? There is clearly a huge gap that large, commercial companies could fill. The issue though is whether such commercial ventures will be able to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. Ironically, by focusing on the immediate demands of employers, they may not produce the skills and knowledge that students will need into the future – because new work and new needs will emerge.

There is also the issue of cultural imperialism. The most likely countries to develop such global commercial enterprises will be China, India and the United States. It will be their visions of what constitutes higher education that are likely to prevail.

The other danger is more technological. The use of big data and AI may help reduce costs, but will they focus on particular types of learning and students? Will such technologies be focused on learning that is more easily or more cost-effectively automated – while ignoring or driving out more expensive and more ‘human’ forms of learning? Indeed, will we know whether we are interacting with a teacher or a machine? Will the use of analytics screen out students with a higher risk of failure, rather than giving them a chance? 

….but there is hope, too

At the same time, I heard two more hopeful messages at the conference. The first came from Richard Katz, who pointed out that the future is not inevitable; institutions can create their own future. Becoming experts in digital learning as distinct from digital delivery provides a possible competitive advantage for public institutions but that means paying much more attention to effective teaching than at present. Public universities and colleges will certainly have to be more nimble and move faster than at present in changing their teaching methods if they are to survive. 

The second message is that the globalisation and digital massification of higher education is just one, relatively small, part of a much wider problem, and that is the impact on competition, freedom of choice, national and regional cultures, and privacy issues resulting from global, hegemonic digital businesses. In order to protect their citizens against financial exploitation, an increasing loss of choice in the marketplace, loss of national or regional cultures, and above all the loss of jobs and tax revenues, governments will need to start regulating these global companies more rigorously and more effectively, probably through international inter-governmental agreements. The European Union has already started down this road.

It will be important to ensure that such regulation also includes the protection of home-grown public education systems, both k-12 and post-secondary, against the commercialisation and globalization of education. However, these larger macro issues were beyond the scope of the conference but will need to be addressed if public post-secondary education is to survive.

Although this was the most overwhelming concern I had coming out of the conference, there were several other small nuggets that were more positive.

Is indigenous online learning an oxymoron?

The reason I ask if online learning for indigenous people is an oxymoron is because I am not convinced that indigenous ways of learning (or pedagogy), heavily based on oral and inter-personal communication embedded in a strong ‘local’ culture, are compatible with online learning, or at least the standardised online learning design models that currently predominate.

Put another way, what indigenous models of online learning would be needed to reflect indigenous pedagogy and cultures? Or is online learning just not compatible with indigenous pedagogies?

These were questions I had before attending the conference. Thus one of the most interesting sessions I attended involved speakers from four different organisations offering or researching online education for indigenous people.

The first was a presentation by Jennifer Wemigwans of York University about a Canadian indigenous web site, fourdirectionsteachings.com, which may be considered a digital [knowledge] bundle because it is a collection of teachings by respected Elders and traditional teachers who share indigenous knowledge.

Corinne Finnie discussed a needs assessment framework for enabling rural and indigenous communities in Alberta to respond to economic diversification and community development, using synchronous, multi-site delivery models.

Lyn Petersen discussed a set of online tools designed to provide effective transitions into postgraduate study for Indigenous (Māori and Pacific) health professional students entering the University of Auckland from diverse workplaces and regions across New Zealand. The tools aim to build culturally responsive transition practices and pedagogies, mediated through technology.

Aline Germain-Rutherford of the University of Ottawa discussed a multi-institutional project, Language Integration through e-Portfolio (LITE): A plurilingual e-learning approach combining western and indigenous perspectives.

If I add the two Pockets of Innovation I did involving a Mi’kmaw MOOC and a course on aboriginal literature, it can be seen that there is a growing if uncoordinated interest in online learning for aboriginal and indigenous peoples. Maybe it’s time to set up an online community of practice on this topic, so experience can be shared. However, I did come away believing that it may be possible to develop online learning in ways that are compatible with indigenous culture.

FourDirectionsTeachings

Printed books are still popular

Maxim Jean-Louis (the President of Contact North) and I had a disagreement before the conference. He thought it would be a good idea to print out lots of copies of my open, online textbook for the conference and get me to sign copies of the book for participants. Since the book is 500 pages+ of A4 size, I though this was a dumb idea. Who would want to carry a book weighing 2 lbs or more on a plane half way around the world when they could download it at home for free?

Well, as always, Maxim was right and I was wrong. I signed over 600 copies of the book at the conference. However, this enabled me to meet and talk briefly with many people that  would otherwise have been impossible in such a large conference, where one tends to drift towards those you already knew before the conference. So thank you, Maxim. It’s nice to know my book has made it all the way to Papua New Guinea! And many people clearly like to have a printed copy as well as online access.

An excellent conference

Although I am a research associate at Contact North and hence might be expected to sing hurrahs for the conference organisation, I must doff my hat to Maxim and his colleagues who put on one of the best large conferences I have ever attended.

Everything worked like clockwork: all sessions started and ended on time and more importantly almost all the speakers turned up, a great deal of care had been made to put together several presentations within each session that had a common theme, the main one-hour presentations were of high quality, and the mix of people at the conference was exhilarating.

And I’m getting to like Toronto as I get to know it better.

Will I see you at the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning this week?

The conference

ICDE’s world conference lands at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto this week.

I am very much looking forward to the coming week in Toronto. I am not usually a great fan of very large conferences, but this one seems to be somewhat different, with a huge number of smaller, interactive sessions and few if any large keynotes given by old white men (yes, people like me) with lots of ‘telling’ and not much discussion.

Nevertheless, this old white man is pretty busy at this conference. In all, I have four formal sessions, as well as several informal functions.

The national survey of online and distance education in Canadian post-secondary education

What: We will be launching the report on the national survey, briefly presenting the results, then discussing the implications. This is the first pan-Canadian survey of online learning of all public post-secondary institutions in Canada, universities AND colleges.

When: Tuesday, October 17, 4.00 pm, Osgoode West Room.

For more information on the survey: Go to: https://onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca/ to download the report; see also: Responses to the Canadian survey of online and distance learning.

Three sessions on my book: Teaching in a Digital Age

What: I am doing three seminar-type sessions on my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, under the heading of Guidelines for Designing Teaching and Learning. If you wish to attend you are advised to read first the recommended chapters from the book (click on time and place links below for the recommended readings) if you have not already done so, as this will be more a discussion of the issues than formal presentations.

When:

Monday, October 16, 3.00 – 4.00 pm, City Hall Room

Presentation 1:

Building an Effective Learning Environment – How to Enable More Flexible Models of Learning Design to be Created and Applied

Presentation 2:

Making the Choice – How to Choose between Online, Blended or Campus-Based Delivery for Effective Learning 

Wednesday, October 18, 11:45 am – 12:45 pm, Maple Room

Presentation 1:

Choosing Media – How They Differ and How to Make the Best Choices for My Teaching 

Presentation 2:

How Open Education Will Revolutionize Higher Education: The Impact of Open Research, Open Textbooks, OERs and Open Data on Course Design and Delivery 

Thursday, October 19, 11.00 am – 12 noon, City Hall Room

Presentation 1:

Ensuring Quality – How to Design and Deliver Quality Courses in a Supportive Learning Environment

Presentation 2:

General discussion of the design issues raised in the book.

Nine steps to quality teaching

Networking

Perhaps the most important part of any conference like this is networking. If you want to connect, try texting me at 604-418-7484. It will be great to meet in person any of my blog or book readers!

Try to make it a coffee or lunch break, though, as I want to go to many of the other sessions. 

Hope to see you at the conference!

The day Spain lost Catalonia

People waiting to vote on the independence referendum in Barcelona

I’m in Barcelona for a conference on innovation in teaching in higher education, organized by the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). As I worked at UOC for a while between 2003-2009, I have many good friends here.

On Sunday, I went with friends, whose 20 year old student daughter was a volunteer, to visit the local voting station for the referendum. When we got there, we found the crowd above. People were waiting for two to three hours in order to vote, in a referendum that the Spanish federal government had ruled was illegal.

Although there was no violence at this polling station in the San Gervasi district, you will all have seen the appalling scenes of voters such as these being beaten and attacked by the Spanish federal police, the Guardia Civil. Police broke into schools and community centres to snatch the ballot boxes, cut the provincial and municipal government Internet connections, and beat voters and community members who were trying to protect the ballot boxes from seizure by the Spanish government.

Before yesterday, I had mixed feelings about the Catalan independence referendum. I want to see a broader Europe with fewer nationalistic boundaries. I am strongly opposed to Brexit, and I want Québec to be a unique part of Canada.

But Spain is different. For many centuries the Spanish state based in Madrid has been an imperialistic power in Catalonia. Until the late 1880s, the Spanish government ran Catalonia as a colony of Spain, with a governor appointed from Madrid and a large Spanish garrison in the Ciutadella to keep the Catalans in line. The Catalans in the Spanish Civil War were republicans, who fought Franco to the death and as a result were punished for it. Since the end of the Franco regime, Catalonia has pushed increasingly for more autonomy, and by and large has been denied it. The Basques have more autonomy than Catalonia, yet Catalonia is the most prosperous part of Spain and contributes more to Federal revenues than it receives.

So the referendum was about much more than local nationalism. Many behind the independence movement want Catalonia to be a republic, and this is the real fear of the government in Madrid. It should be remembered that as recently as 1981, a part of the Spanish army attempted a coup d’état to overthrow the democratically elected government and replace it with a monarchical dictatorship. It is not insignificant that the current Spanish government recently placed one of the ringleaders of the coup d’état as the new chief of police of the Catalan police force.

The Spanish federal government has been unbelievably stupid in the way it has tried to stop this referendum. Because Catalonia (especially Barcelona and the surrounding region) has been so prosperous, it has attracted ‘domestic’ immigrants from all over Spain who do not want Catalonian independence. Had a proper, fully democratic referendum been held, it is highly probable that the majority would have voted ‘no’ to independence. That might still happen.

But by denying everyone in Catalonia the right to express their views on this issue, and by using unjustified violence to suppress voting, the Spanish government has alienated a much larger swathe of ordinary Catalans who previously were at best lukewarm and more likely hostile to the independence movement.

What has impressed me most has been the non-violent but quietly determined way hundreds of thousands of Catalans have turned out to the voting stations to defend their rights as citizens to express their views through the ballot box, whether or not they support independence. This is the closest to a non-violent revolution you will see in what is supposed to be a democratic European country.

However, what Spain now has is a major constitutional crisis. There are wild calls from Catalan politicians for a unilateral declaration of independence. The only way out of this is to allow a free and properly monitored referendum overseen by European Union officials within the next sixth months and a commitment by the Spanish federal government to abide by the decision of the Catalan voters. Catalans deserve no less for their fortitude and civility in the face of totally unjustified state violence.

In the meantime, it is going to be difficult here. I had tickets for a Barcelona soccer match on Sunday, but it was played behind closed doors because of concerns about security and a protest by the club about the violence over the referendum. There will be a general strike tomorrow which means the conference I am attending will probably be cancelled, or, like the football match, will be a ‘closed’ event, involving only the speakers and those with internet access. I may have problems getting back to Canada on Wednesday if air transport has not recovered from a shutdown on Tuesday.

But despite all the troubles, there are worse places in the world to be stranded than Barcelona. Yes, I do love the place.

Only in Barcelona will you get a meal served to look like a Joan Miro painting: my anchovy ‘starter’ at the Nectari restaurant, Carrer Valencia.

Virtual Reality and education: some thoughts

I spent a very interesting evening this week at a Vancouver VR Community event at Mobify‘s headquarters in downtown Vancouver. Mobify is a provider of progressive web apps for e-commerce and has a really cool area for events such as this one, with lots of open spaces.

Vancouver is part of a growing North West Pacific Silicon Valley, and there are now over 500 members of the Vancouver VR community, which indicates how much activity and development are going into VR, at least in this region. 

The event was a mix of show and tell, and an opportunity to play with and experience some VR programs. Most of the applications available to play with at the VR event were typically combat games (including a very realistic one-on-one boxing encounter) but I was more interested in possible educational applications (although the boxing app might come in useful on a dark night on campus).

I particularly enjoyed using Google Blocks, a free software program for developing 3D models, that was being demonstrated by  Scott Banducci who runs a company that hosts VR events (VRtogo). With the headset on and a couple of hand-operated panels that include a colouring palette and tools for moving and stretching objects, it was easy even for a novice such as me to create in a few minutes a really cool 3D model of a plane. There is an excellent introductory video on the Google Blocks web site that explains the process. 

This was my first visit and I hardly knew anyone there (I was the oldest person by at least 40 years). I was hoping to meet someone from one of the many educational institutions in the Vancouver area who might be interested in using VR for teaching and learning but most of the people there not surprisingly were developers or producers of VR. Nevertheless this seems like a great community of practice and I strongly recommend anyone in the Vancouver area interested in the educational use of VR to join. The next event is at Mobify at 6.15 pm on August 22.

In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts about the use of VR, for what they are worth.

  1. VR is not just a fad that will disappear. There are already a large number of commercial applications, mainly in entertainment and public relations, but also increasingly for specific areas of training (more on that below). There is already a lot of excellent, off-the-shelf software for creating VR environments, and the cost of hardware is dropping rapidly (although good quality headsets and other equipment are still probably too expensive for required use by large numbers of students).
  2. What killed earlier two-dimensional VR developments such as Second Life for widespread educational use was the high cost and difficulty of creating the sets and contexts for learning. Thus even if the hardware and software costs for VR are low enough for individual student use, it is the production costs of creating educational contexts and scenarios that are likely to inhibit its use.
  3. Thus most suitable educational applications are likely to be where the cost of alternative or traditional ways of learning are too expensive or too dangerous. In particular, VR would be good for individual, self-learning in contexts where real environments are not easily accessible, or where learners need to cope with strong emotions when making decisions or operating under pressure in real time. Examples might be emergency management, such as shutting down an out-of-control nuclear reactor, or defusing a bomb, or managing a fire on an oil tanker. However, not only will the VR environment have to be realistic, as much attention will need to be paid to creating the specific learning context. The procedure for defusing the bomb and the interaction between learner and the virtual bomb must also be built in to the production. Thus VR may often need to be combined with simulation design and quality media production to be educationally effective, again pushing up the cost. For these reasons, medicine is a likely area for experiment, where traditional training costs are really high or where training is difficult to provide with real patients.
  4. Having said that, we need more experimentation. This is still a relatively new technology, and there may be very simple ways to use it in education that are not costly and meet needs that cannot be easily met in traditional teaching or with other existing technology. For this to happen, though, educators, software developers, and media producers need to come together to play and experiment. The VR Vancouver Community seems to me to be an ideal venue to do this. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see Bad Cookies Pictures VR horror movie when it comes out! Now that will be an immersive experience.

And since originally posting this, I have been directed to the blog post of Ryan Martin, a trainer on Vancouver Island, who has come up with a more comprehensive list of ways to learn through VR, with some excellent links.

If you know of other examples and are willing to share them, I will add the links to this post.

 

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