September 22, 2018

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. 

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.

 

Our responsibility in protecting institutional, student and personal data in online learning

Image: © Tony Bates, 2018

WCET (2018) Data Protection and Privacy Boulder CO: WCET

United States Attorney’s Office (2018) Nine Iranians Charged With Conducting Massive Cyber Theft Campaign On Behalf Of The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps New York: U.S. Department of Justice

With the recent publicity about unauthorised use of personal data on Facebook to manipulate elections in the USA and the U.K., and the above report about Iranians hacking universities for research results and intellectual property, everyone now has to take as much responsibility as possible for making sure personal data is secure and used only for authorised purposes.

This is particularly true for those of us working in online learning, where most of our interaction with students is online. Most institutions using learning management systems provide a secure area for student-instructor interactions – security is one reason why universities and colleges pay big bucks for IT systems, and making sure our student data and interactions are kept secure is a major reason for using a learning management system.

However, there are increasing reasons for working outside secure LMSs. Faculty and students now have blogs and wikis that are more open, although most require a password to allow for content to be added or comments to be made. ‘Good’ institutions ensure that student and faculty blogs and wikis are also protected from hacking. For instance, the University of British Columbia offers web and wiki facilities free of charge for all students and faculty and provides the security to support this. This blog is hosted by Contact North, which provides stronger security than I could as an individual or through an affordable commercial agency.

The problem comes when instructors and students start using unrestricted social media tools for instructional purposes. This all becomes ‘product’ for the social media companies and their advertisers (and very valuable product, given that university and college students are more likely to be high income earners after graduation.)

I was an early adopter of Facebook, back in 2005, but within 12 months I became inactive. It was not a company I felt I could trust, even back in 2005. I have good news for Facebook addicts who are wanting to get off of Facebook – life even within the online world is perfectly manageable, enjoyable and effective without Facebook. I do still keep in touch with my family and friends perfectly well and my professional life has if anything improved without Facebook.

Here I admit to being conflicted as I am still a heavy user of Google Search (although I prefer to use Firefox rather than Chrome). I was influenced by the Google corporate policy of ‘Do No Evil’ in its early days. Now Google Search is just one part of the umbrella company Alphabet, whose corporate motto is currently ‘Do the right thing’ – but for whom? It comes down more to pragmatics than ethics in the end. I can manage quite happily and easily without Facebook – I can’t without Google Search. 

This points to the problem we have as individuals in a digital society. Our power to control the use of our personal data is quite limited. We are now at the point where government regulation becomes unfortunately a necessity. (I say unfortunately because this is likely to limit to some extent innovation and change, but then so do the semi-monopolies of Amazon, Alphabet, Apple and Facebook, at least limiting change outside their systems). 

In the meantime, WCET has come to our rescue with a very useful site which really contains all you need to know about privacy and security. As their site says:

This is not just an IT problem! A breach could occur from an unintentional action by non-technical staff or student that could expose personal or institutional data to criminals and place the institution at risk by merely using weak passwords, connecting to dangerous networks, or opening suspicious emails. All members of an academic community must be trained with data protection best practices to preserve the security of the institution.

The WCET site contains links to the following:

  • their Frontiers blog posts on privacy and security issues
  • links to relevant recorded webcasts
  • links to a number of tools and reports on improving/protecting cybersecurity.

Essential reading for us all.

Now forgive me while I go and change all my passwords. 

Important developments in indigenous online learning

Esquimalt singers and dancers celebrate the partnership. Image: RRU

Royal Roads University (2018) First Nations Technology Council and Royal Roads University celebrate partnership in education, innovation Victoria BC: Royal Roads University, press release, 23 February

The First Nations Technology Council of British Columbia and Royal Roads University have recently announced a partnership that aims to leverage RRU’s expertise in digital learning with the First Nations Technology Council’s ‘comprehensive digital skills program designed to support the full, equitable participation and leadership of Indigenous peoples in the province’s fastest growing economic sector.’

Melanie Mark, BC’s Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training at the announcement commented:

By providing people with the right training and education to work towards jobs in the tech sector, we will support the success of students, job seekers and technology companies throughout our great province, and build a strong, sustainable economy that works for everyone.

The First Nations Technology Council’s program will include training modules that provide skills in

  • web development/coding,
  • GIS/GPS Mapping,
  • communications,
  • software testing,
  • network technician and office basics and
  • professional practice skills.

Royal Roads University’s Centre for Teaching & Educational Technologies will provide the tools and platform to deliver the program scheduled to launch in fall 2018.

The First Nations Technology Council provides direct technology related services through fee for service and earned income programs that create less reliance on government funded programs and grants, while continuing to advance the use of digital technologies in First Nations communities. The First Nations Technology Council is a central convener between government, industry, academia and First Nations communities to ensure comprehensive, sustainable and appropriate technology based programs and services are developed and funded.

Comment 

I think this is exciting news and is just the kind of initiative Canada needs if it is to go any way towards meeting the goals of reconciliation with its indigenous population.

I don’t have any more details than what was announced in the press release, but I noted the careful wording. This is about supporting First Nations’ communities in BC through the design of digital learning, but not necessarily distance learning. Royal Roads University uses a blended model of campus-based and fully online (although more recently for financial reasons its strategy has been to reduce the campus component on a number of programs). Thus RRU is well placed to combine design and delivery of digital materials with local-based community support within First Nations communities around the province.

My hope from this partnership is that we will start to see some new designs for digital learning emerging, that incorporate indigenous ways of learning with best online learning design practices, resulting in unique and culturally appropriate learning designs for indigenous learners that at the same time prepare them for life and work in a digital society.

Further reading

Simon, J. et al. (2014) Post-secondary distance education in a contemporary colonial context: Experiences of students in a rural First Nation in Canada International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Volume 15, Number 1 

Bates, T. (2017) Is indigenous online learning an oxymoron? in ‘What I learned from the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning, Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, 23 October

E-portfolios from Dublin City University to enhance student employability

Dublin City University (2017) DCU launches new online learning portfolio to enhance student employability 24 May

I have been neglecting my blog because I have been really busy with two major projects: a national survey of online and distance education in Canadian post-secondary education; and Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation.

However I came across this news item from Dublin City University, Ireland, which I though was well worth a mention. 

DCU has … launched an online tool [called Reflect] which will allow its students to create a ‘virtual portfolio’ of their academic, professional and personal achievements.  The new platform will provide a lifelong support to DCU students in securing meaningful employment on graduation and remaining employable for the rest of their careers….. 

It is centred around the 6 key graduate attributes (Creative & Enterprising, Solution-Oriented, Effective Communicators, Globally Engaged, Active Leaders, Committed to Continuous Learning) DCU has identified in partnership with employers as being critical to future employability. 

You can get a very brief idea of what the Reflect platform looks like in this video of the project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nMznIkTPUIc&feature=youtu.be

Comment

I will be very interested to see how employers take to this use of e-portfolios. It appears that DCU has gone to some length to consult with employers before launching the platform.

If this is successful, it could really shake up the higher education system of assessment. As an employer I think I would be more impressed with an e-portfolio than a transcript of courses and grades, although of course the two can be used together.

Do you know of any similar use of e-portfolios by post-secondary institutions in North America? And if so, how are they working out?