June 18, 2018

Online learning and disruptive change at the UK Open University

The old Walton Hall on the OU campus in Milton keynes

Sturm und Strang

I’ve was in England last week,  attending the 7th eSTEeM conference at the Open University as the opening keynote speaker, only my second visit to the OU since I left nearly 30 years ago.

The Open University, described by several commentators as one of the most successful innovations in Britain since the Second World War, is currently going through an existential crisis, which culminated two weeks ago with the resignation of its Vice-Chancellor, Peter Horrocks, following a devastating vote of no confidence by faculty and staff.

The OU is facing enormous pressure, due mainly to the policies of the recent Conservative governments. Over the last six years, the government has treated the OU just the same as other, more traditional, universities in England and Wales. The government severely cut the OU’s operating budget requiring it to dramatically increase fees, and also made all part-time students (i.e. students not taking a full annual course load) ineligible for government-guaranteed, low interest loans. It also has required students at the OU, like all other students in England and Wales, to complete their bachelor studies within three years, compressing their time for study. It is expected to have a £20 million (CS$36 million) operating deficit this year and was proposing to save £100m from its £420m annual budget by cutting courses and staff.

Since the vast majority of its 200,000 students in 2012 were part-time, working adults without a first degree and who required the maximum flexibility in their studies, it’s hardly surprising that its student numbers have dropped by more than a third since 2012. At the same time it has invested heavily in FutureLearn, a MOOC-type platform which is still struggling to find a viable business model. The recent changes mean that the whole concept of open-ness and accessibility for OU students, and its unique position in the British higher education system, are under existential threat. 

To cap all this, the university itself recognises that it needs to fundamentally change its operational model. Like many other Open Universities, it has not changed fast enough to accommodate to the digital revolution in post-secondary teaching. It is burdened with a heavy legacy of a print-based design model and an expensive regional tutoring system, despite the recent elimination of all local face-to-face operations.

“We want to transform the University of the Air envisaged by Harold Wilson in the 1960s to a University of the Cloud, a world-leading institution which is digital by design and has a unique ability to teach and support our students in a way that is responsive both to their needs and those of the economy,” according to Horrocks. As a result the (now leaderless) executive team is working on a ‘transformational model’ for the university, which is still a work in progress.

This is the battlefield into which I parachuted this week.

The eSTEeM conference

The Open University has offered science and technology programs since its inauguration in 1971. It initially used a combination of print, home experiment kits mailed to students’ homes, and one week residential schools in the summer. The residential schools have long since gone (too expensive) although in general students loved them and at least in the early days the residential schools provided such a morale boost for students that many who would have dropped out then went on to continue successfully.

For the last seven years, the STEM Faculty/academic department at the OU has been holding an annual conference to demonstrate the scholarship of its faculty and staff. I was the opening speaker for this year’s conference, on the topic: ‘Digital learning in an era of change: challenges and opportunities for STEM teaching and the OU.’

However, as well as the very interesting STEM components of the conference, on which I will write two separate posts, there was an almost full day, well-organised workshop called ‘Digital by Design’, which focused on what the future as a whole should be at the OU. The workshop enabled a quick and close, if incomplete, ‘parachute’ view of some of the challenges the OU is facing and how academic and regional staff are responding. In this post I will focus on these general, internal challenges that the OU still has to resolve that emerged from this and other discussions in which I participated.

Online but not digital

It is clear that many of the teaching staff have not really ‘got it’ with regard to digital learning. In many cases, print still remains the core teaching technology, and where online is heavily used, it is often just a print model moved online, with a heavy emphasis on content transmission. Many in the OU are still arguing for a ‘blended’ learning model, which in this case refers to a mix of print and online, with print having at least an equal contribution.

In particular, the OU is really weak in its exploitation of the networking and student collaboration that the web offers and in its integration of social media within the design of courses. In this it is not unlike many conventional universities, but nevertheless this realisation came as a real shock to me. This was the original open, distance university, not a conventional one.

Why I am so shocked is that one of the many reasons I emigrated to Canada in 1989 was that I got frustrated at the inability of myself and others at the OU such as Robin Mason and Tony Kaye to get the OU to take online learning seriously. We had contributed to a course, DT200, in 1988 that had an online discussion forum component that had merely been bolted on to the standard 36 week print and broadcast design. The next logical step would have been to have pioneered a fully online course, but neither the university management nor the faculty were interested.

It is important to understand that the OU has a relatively small core of permanent faculty based at its headquarters in Milton Keynes who are primarily engaged in the design of courses, in particular the choice and structuring of content, and a legion of regional staff tutors who provide most of the student learning support. There is a long-established Institute of Educational Technology, where the staff have full academic status, and conduct research as well as advise the OU’s course teams on best practices in the design of distance education.

Here I am 30 years later, and there are still arguments going on about the wisdom of going fully online. This despite the fact that Gilly Salmon, who wrote a standard text on teaching online (2011), worked at the OU for several years, and despite the fact that the OU has an Institute of Educational Technology that has excellent design models developed for online learning that it struggles to get faculty to adopt. This is so reminiscent of Athabasca University and its failure to exploit the expertise of Terry Anderson and its other distance education specialists

The fixation on print as the ‘core’ medium/technology

I participated in several discussions where I challenged the focus on printed material as the core teaching technology. First though I would like to set out some of the arguments OU staff put forward in support of print.

Arguments for print

These were made mainly by OU staff to me.

  1. The OU made its reputation in its early days in the 1970s by the very high quality of its printed materials. As well as being beautifully produced and illustrated (full colour), they were and still are extremely well structured. This was recognised immediately by many faculty in more traditional universities, and the quality of its printed materials is still much appreciated by the students. If it was effective then, it must be effective now.
  2. Access: there are still students in Britain who do not have access to the Internet or cannot afford a computer.
  3. Most OU students are working and many spend all day at work looking at screens; the OU printed material provides an essential break from being on-screen all day.
  4. Students prefer to read printed material; it’s easier for study purposes and revision than searching online.
  5. If the textual material was delivered online rather than printed, the OU would be transferring the cost of print to the students, as they would want to print out the textual material.

Arguments against print

These were made mainly by me to OU staff.

  1. Online learning provides students with the opportunity of ‘any time, any place’ discussion and interaction with each other and teaching staff.
  2. Student activities and interaction with online text is more integrated and immediate than with printed text. In particular immediate feedback can be provided through online tests or automated feedback, etc.
  3. Students are not limited by the boundaries of the printed course material once they go online. Everything on the Internet is potential study material. In particular students can access open educational resources from many different sources.
  4. In order to develop the skills students need in the 21st century, we need to focus more on skills development than on the transmission of content. Online learning can focus better on the development of these soft skills, such as communication and knowledge management.
  5. Access has always been a limitation for any technology. For instance students with visual impairment or dyslexia have difficulties with print. When the OU first started, many students did not have access to the broadcasts. Most students in Britain now have access to the Internet, although in more remote areas there are still bandwidth limitations. The OU’s policy in general has been that when access exceeds 80% of the target audience, alternatives are found for the remaining students. It is wrong to deny the benefits to the vast majority of students because of the needs of a small minority which could be met in other ways.
  6. Students need to learn digitally if they are to earn digitally. Digital literacy is now a core skill required by everyone.
  7. The costs for a print-based system are very high, not just in the actual costs of full colour printing, but in the editing, and above all, the lengthy time it takes faculty and instructors to prepare, check and revise the printed materials (many OU courses take at least two years to design). Savings by going digital could be used to reduce substantially tuition fees.

The need to think digitally when designing online learning

The issue is not whether print has educational value; it does, and there may be specific situations where students may prefer to have hard copy. However, it should not be the default medium. It’s really important when designing online learning to be open to all the media the Internet enables: text, audio, video, computing, augmented reality, simulations, social media, and so on. This requires thinking digitally when designing courses, which is difficult if your first and preferred option is always print.

Of course, this is identical to the challenge that on-campus instructors face about digital learning, but instead of print, their default option is face-to-face teaching.

This is why moving to online learning requires a major cultural change and why it takes so long. However, in the OU’s current existential crisis, it does not have the time for gradual change (that should have started back in 1989). The need for change must be embraced now, ironically, not for financial reasons but for pedagogical reasons: only this way will it better prepare its students for the future. The financial pressures merely make this devastatingly urgent.

Necessary but not sufficient

Forcing change for financial reasons is unlikely to work. Making changes that are not accepted or resisted by staff is more likely to lead to failure or collapse in an organization. Even if by some miracle the (remaining) OU staff manage to pull it off, moving to the University of the Cloud (whatever that means – some kind of heaven for students?) will not meet the needs of the nation that the former OU met.

Lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity in a digital age, where the knowledge base expands exponentially and citizens need to continuously learn new content and new skills. Traditional universities do not do lifelong learning well; they are not really designed for it. The OU was, but government policies of starving financial support for part-time learners and reducing the flexibility of study to fit some 1950s view of elite higher education is going to be disastrous for the future British economy. At no time has the OU been more important to Britain. Without a radical change of government policy though its future is indeed dismal, whatever else it does.

Up next

Your intrepid online learning war correspondent will do two more posts from my visit to the OU:

  • the OU’s use of learning analytics for analysing student course evaluations
  • the OU’s use of online labs

Also I will be reporting on a conference on active learning I attended this week at the Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario. Buy, busy, busy. (Don’t even ask about retirement).

Reference

Salmon, G. (2011). E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge.

‘Making Digital Learning Work’: why faculty and program directors must change their approach

Completion rates for different modes of delivery at Houston Community College

Bailey, A. et al (2018) Making Digital Learning Work Boston MA:The Boston Consulting Group/Arizona State University

Getting blended learning wrong

I’ve been to several universities recently where faculty are beginning to develop blended or ‘hybrid’ courses which reduce but do not eliminate time on campus. I must confess I have mixed feelings about this. While I welcome such moves in principle, I have been alarmed by some of the approaches being taken.

The main strategy appears to be to move some of the face-to-face lectures online, without changing either the face-to-face or the online lecture format. In particular there is often a resistance to asynchronous approaches to online learning.  In one or two cases I have seen, faculty have insisted that students watch the Internet lectures live so that there can be synchronous online discussion, thus severely limiting the flexibility of ‘any time, any place’ for students.

Even more alarming, academic departments seem to be approaching the development of new blended learning programs the same way as their on-campus programs – identify faculty to teach the courses and then let them loose without any significant faculty development or learning design support. Even worse, there is no project management to ensure that courses are ready on time. Why discuss the design of the online lectures when you don’t do that for your classroom lectures? 

Trying to move classroom lectures online without adaptation is bound to fail, as we saw from the early days of fully online learning (and MOOCs). I recognise that blended or hybrid learning is different from fully online learning, but it is also different from face-to-face teaching. The challenge is to identify what the added value is of the face-to-face component, when most teaching can be done as well or better, and much more conveniently for students, online, and how to combine the two modes of delivery to deliver better learning outcomes more cost-effectively.  In particular, faculty are missing the opportunity to change their teaching method in order to get better learning outcomes, such as the development of high-level intellectual skills.

The real danger here is that poorly designed blended courses or programs will ‘fail’ and it is ‘blended learning’ that is blamed, when really it’s ignorance of best teaching practices on the part of faculty, and program directors especially. The problem is that faculty, and particularly senior faculty such as Deans and program directors, don’t know what they don’t know, which is why the report, ‘Making Digital Learning Work’ is so important. The report provides evidence that digital learning needs a complete change in culture and approaches to course and program development and delivery for most academic departments. Here’s why.

The report

The Arizona State University Foundation and Boston Consulting, funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, conducted a study of the return on investment (ROI) of digital learning in six different institutions. The methodology focused on six case studies of institutions that have been pioneers in post-secondary digital education:

  • Arizona State University
  • University of Central Florida
  • Georgia State University
  • Houston Community College
  • The Kentucky Community and Technical College System
  • Rio Salado Community College.

These are all large institutions (over 30,000 students each) and relatively early adopters of online learning. 

The study had three aims:

  • define what ROI means in terms of digital education, and identify appropriate metrics for measuring ROI
  • assess the impact of digital learning formats on institutions’ enrolments, student learning outcomes, and cost structures
  • examine how these institutions implemented digital learning, and identify lessons and promising practices for the field.

The study compared results from three different modes of delivery:

  • face-to-face courses
  • mixed-modality courses, offering a mix of online and face-to-face components, with the online component typically replacing some tradition face-to-face teaching (what I would call ‘hybrid learning)
  • fully online courses.

The ROI framework

The study identified three components of ROI for digital learning:

  • impact on student access to higher education
  • impact on learning and completion outcomes
  • impact on economics (the costs of teaching, administration and infrastructure, and the cost to students).

The report is particularly valuable in the way it has addressed the economic issues. Several factors were involved:

  • differences in class size between face-to-face and digital teaching and learning
  • differences in the mix of instructors (tenured and adjunct, full-time and part-time)
  • allocation of additional expenses such as faculty development and learning design support
  • impact of digital learning on classroom and other physical capacity 
  • IT costs specifically associated with digital learning.

The report summarised this framework in the following graphic:

While there are some limitations which I will discuss later, this is a sophisticated approach to looking at the return on investment in digital learning and gives me a great deal of confidence in the findings.

Results

Evidence from the six case studies resulted in the following findings, comparing digital learning with face-to-face teaching.

Digital learning resulted in:

  • equivalent or improved student learning outcomes
  • faster time to degree completion
  • improved access, particularly for disadvantaged students
  • a better return on investment (at four of the institutions): savings for online courses ranged from $12 to $66 per credit hour.

If you have problems believing or accepting these results then I recommend you read the report in full. I think you will find the results justified.

Conditions for success

This is perhaps the most valuable part of the report, because although most faculty may not be aware of this, those of us working in online learning have been aware for some time of the benefits of digital learning identified above. What this report makes clear though are the conditions that are needed for digital learning to succeed:

  • take a strategic portfolio approach to digital learning. This needs a bit of unpacking because of the terminology. The report argues that the greatest potential to improve access and outcomes while reducing costs lies in increasing the integration of digital learning into the undergraduate experience through mixed-modality (i.e. hybrid learning). This involves not just one single approach to course design but a mix, dependent on the demands of the subject and the needs of students. However, there should be somewhat standard course design templates to ensure efficiency in course design and to reduce risk.
  • build the necessary capabilities and expertise to design for quality in the digital realm. The experience of the six institutions emphasises that significant investment needs to be made in instructional design, learning sciences and digital tools and capacity (and – my sidebar – faculty need to listen to what instructional designers tell them)
  • provide adequate student support that takes account of the fact that students will often require that support away from the campus (and 24/7)
  • fully engage faculty and provide adequate faculty development and training by fostering a culture of innovation in teaching
  • tap outside vendors strategically: determine the strategic goals first for digital learning then decide where outside vendors can add value to in-house capacity
  • strengthen analytics and monitoring: the technology provides better ways to track student progress and difficulties

My comments on the report

This report should be essential reading for anyone concerned with teaching and learning in post-secondary education, but it will be particularly important for program directors. 

It emphasises that blended learning is not so much about delivery but about achieving better learning outcomes and increased access through the re-design of teaching that incorporates the best of face-to-face and online teaching. However this requires a major cultural change in the way faculty and instructors approach teaching as indicated by the following:

  • holistic program planning involving all instructors, instructional designers and probably students as well
  • careful advanced planning, and following best practices, including project management and learning design
  • focusing as much on the development of skills as delivering content
  • identifying the unique ‘affordances’ of face-to-face teaching and online learning: there is no general formula for this but it will require discussion and input from both content experts and learning designers on a course by course basis
  • systematic evaluation and monitoring of hybrid learning course designs, so best (and poor) practices can be identified

I have a few reservations about the report:

  • The case study institutions were carefully selected. They are institutions with a long history of and/or considerable experience in online learning. I would like to see more cases built on more traditional universities or colleges that have been able successfully to move into online and especially blended learning
  • the report did not really deal with the unique context of mixed-modularity. Many of the results were swamped by the much more established fully online courses. However, hybrid learning is still new so this presents a challenge in comparing results.

However, these are minor quibbles. Please print out the report and leave it on the desk of your Dean, the Provost, the AVP Teaching and Learning and your program director – after you’ve read it. You could also give them:

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley

But that may be too much reading for the poor souls, who now have a major crisis to deal with.

‘Humans Wanted’: online learning and skills development

Royal Bank of Canada (2018) Humans Wanted Toronto ON: Royal Bank of Canada

I have at last got hold of a full copy of this report that came out a couple of weeks ago. Much to my surprise, I found the report essential reading for anyone in education, mainly because it is relatively specific about the skills that the Canadian job market will need between 2018 and 2021, and the results were not quite what I expected to see.

Conclusions from the report

I can’t better the summary in the report itself:

1. More than 25% of Canadian jobs will be heavily disrupted by technology in the coming decade. Fully half will go through a significant overhaul of the skills required.

2. An assessment of 20,000 skills rankings across 300 occupations and 2.4 million expected job openings shows an increasing demand for foundational skills such as critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving.

3. Despite projected heavy job displacement in many sectors and occupations, the Canadian economy is expected to add 2.4 million jobs over the next four years, all of which will require this new mix of skills.

4. Canada’s education system, training programs and labour market initiatives are inadequately designed to help Canadian youth navigate this new skills economy.

5. Canadian employers are generally not prepared, through hiring, training or retraining, to recruit and develop the skills needed to make their organizations more competitive in a digital economy.

6. Our researchers identified a new way of grouping jobs into six “clusters,” based on essential skills by occupation rather than by industry.

7. By focusing on the foundational skills required within each of these clusters, a high degree of mobility is possible between jobs.

8. Digital fluency will be essential to all new jobs. This does not mean we need a nation of coders, but a nation that is digitally literate.

9. Global competencies like cultural awareness, language, and adaptability will be in demand.

10. Virtually all job openings will place significant importance on judgment and decision making and more than two thirds will value an ability to manage people and resources.

So, no, automation is not going to remove all work for humans, but it is going to change very much the nature of that work, and it is in this sense that technology will be disruptive. Workers will be needed in the future but they will need to be very different workers from the past.

This has massive implications for teaching and learning and the bank is in my view correct in arguing that Canada’s education system is inadequately designed to help Canadian youth navigate this new skills economy.

What skills will be in demand?

Not the ones most of us would have thought that a bank would identify:

© Royal Bank of Canada, 2018

You will see that the most in demand skills will be active listening, speaking, critical thinking and reading comprehension, while the least important skills include science, programming and technology design.

In other words, ‘soft skills’ will be most needed for human work. While this may seem obvious to many educators, it is refreshing to hear this from a business perspective as well.

Methodology

How did the Royal Bank not only identify these skills and their importance, but also how did it put actual numbers in terms of workers against these skills?

The data were derived from an interesting application of big data: an analysis of the skills listed on the web in ‘future-oriented’ job advertisements through media such as LinkedIn, combined with more qualitative interviews with employers, policy-makers, educators and young people.

What does this mean for teaching and learning?

There are several challenges I see:

  • first, getting teachers and instructors to accept that these (and other) skills need to be taught within any subject domain;
  • second, as these skills are not likely to be developed within a singe course, identifying how best to teach these skills at different ages, throughout a program of study, and indeed throughout life;
  • third, codifying these skills in terms of appropriate teaching and assessment methods; too often educators claim they are teaching these skills but if so, it is often implicit or not clear how or even if students acquire these skills.
  • we need to determine how best digital technology/e-learning can support the development of skills. For instance well-designed digital learning can enable skills practice and feedback at scale, freeing teachers and instructors to focus on what needs to be done on a face-to-face basis.

It’s not just about work

The Royal Bank has done a very good job in identifying work-force skills, but these are not the only skills needed in a digital age. Equally if not more important are the skills we need as humans in handling everyday life in a digital age. Examples would be:

  • a wide range of non-work oriented digital literacy skills, such as managing our digital identities (see UBC’s Digital Tattoo as an excellent example) so we as individuals have at least some control over the technology and how it is used
  • understanding the organization and power structures of digital companies and digital technologies: one example might be understanding how to identify and challenge algorithmic decision-making, for instance
  • teaching the important non-digital skills necessary in a digital society (for instance, mindfulness, or social awareness and conduct in both real and online environments).

Identifying such skills and finding ways to integrate the development of such skills within the curriculum is a major challenge but essential if we are to not only survive but thrive as humans in a digital world. We are just getting started on this, but it’s none too soon. In the meantime, the Royal Bank has done a good job in making the discussion about 21st century skills more concrete and practical.

Should online learning strategy be decided centrally?

The University of Ottawa’s e-Learning Plan, 2013

Kim, J. (2018) Looking at the Future of Online learning through an Institutional Lens, Inside Higher Education, February 19

This is an excellent article that discusses the ongoing saga of centralisation vs decentralization regarding online learning. Kim here is arguing, on balance, for a central institutional strategy for online learning.

Similar discussions have been ongoing about the organization of learning technology support units: should individual Faculties or departments manage their own learning technology support units or should they be managed centrally?

The need for institution-wide strategies for online learning

Kim writes:

The challenge is that online programs often develop to serve the particular need of a school, unit or department. Oftentimes, the the growth of low-residency and online learning was not the result of an institutional strategic plan – but rather a local response to particular opportunities….The challenge of uncoordinated online programs is that opportunities for sharing resources and knowledge are often missed. There is a fine line between useful specialization and silos.

Should there be a central strategy for online learning or should we let a million flowers bloom? Kim suggests the following for thinking about online learning through a strategic institutional lens:

  • understand all the online learning efforts that are already occurring at the college or university. The number of online and low-residency programs may be a surprise to many. (This was a certainly something we heard from some provosts when we did the Canadian national survey of online learning in 2017.)
  • university leadership should make a decision if online learning efforts should remain under the authority of each individual school or unit that is running these programs, or if there should be an effort to coordinate and centralize institutional efforts. What is important is to make an active decision.

In other words, there is no right or wrong answer that applies to very institution. The best decision on centralisation or decentralisation will depend on the circumstances. But the decision should not be accidental, driven by history, but should be a conscious choice of the central administration in terms of overall strategy. That is Kim’s argument.

Comment

In the recent national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education

  • 14% of institutions had a fully implemented strategic plan for e-learning’
  • 26% had a plan and were in the processing of implementing it
  • 32% were in the process of developing one.

This means that nearly three-quarters of Canadian colleges and universities believe in the importance of an institutional plan for e-learning.

Note though that there is a difference between centralized organization (a learning technologies or online learning support unit) and centralized strategy and planning (e.g. determining the importance of online learning, priority areas, and resource allocation.) 

Models for planning and managing online learning

Table 1 below shows at least four possible models for managing online learning:

                       Table 1: Policies for online learning
Model Centralized Decentralized
1    Strategy and Organization
2 Strategy  Organization
3 Organization Strategy
4   Strategy and Organization  

Model 1 is the most decentralised, with individual departments or even instructors determining both the decision about which courses to offer online and what resources in terms of support staff will be needed.

In Model 2, the institution sets the overall strategy, but the organization and perhaps even the implementation is delegated to individual departments. This provides more autonomy at the ‘local’ level, but may make it more difficult for the central administration to get its strategy implemented.

In Model 3, there is one central organizational unit to support online learning, but individual departments set their own strategy but must look to the central unit for support services such as instructional design. Again, this allows more autonomy for departments, but allocation of resources becomes a challenge as the central unit has to meet competing demands.

Model 4 is the most centralised, with both strategy and organizational units developed and managed through the Provost’s Office or VP Education.

Which model is best?

Kim points out that historically, most institutions start with model 1 but as online learning expands, there becomes greater pressure to move to other models. He argues that there should be discussion within an institution about the best model, then a decision needs to be made to ensure that it happens.

A complicating factor is that often online learning in an institution gets its start from the unit responsible for distance education, which in many campus-based institutions has been the Continuing Studies division. This may be the main or only unit with instructional designers and media developers. As individual departments and larger Faculties begin to move into online learning , whether fully online or in blended format, for their credit-based programs, they begin to hanker for the same support personnel.

I have had quite a bit of experience with this, having been in at the beginning of online learning and having watched and often been directly impacted organizationally by its development over the years – I even got fired once (actually, politely asked to leave) to make a re-organisation easier, so these are not abstract questions but can affect the life and career of individuals.

One key factor is the size of the institution. In very large research universities, a good case can be made for each large faculty to have its own strategy for online learning – and its own learning technology support (model 1). I worked in one institution where the Faculty of Arts/Humanities was larger than most of the other universities in the province added together. Often in a large Faculty, programming is very much delegated to individual departments so it makes sense that decisions about whether to go online should be made at the departmental level. They are more likely to be closer to the market.

However, even this university still has a large central unit that provides learning technology support and faculty development and training, and over many years has developed several overall institutional strategies for learning technologies, flexible learning, or digital learning. These however of necessity involved widespread discussion across all the interested parties in the university.

Even in very large institutions, there are smaller faculties or departments which are just not large enough to warrant a separate learning technology support unit, and in some cases large Faculties can be very conservative and very reluctant to move anything online, so some direction and cajoling from the central administration may be needed. 

Most of all, though, a central unit can provide connections and sharing of knowledge between the different decentralized support units regarding new learning designs, effective practices, and new research and new technology developments. In other words, there are more opportunities for some specialization in a larger unit, while the provost’s office can provide overall strategy and direction, co-ordination and knowledge sharing. (For a good example, see the University of British Columbia’s Flexibytes).

Matching resources to needs

Online development is rarely even across an institution. Indeed, it is probably a mistake for a medium to large institution to try to move on all fronts when implementing online learning. Some areas will be more ready to go than others, and there will always be limited resources. For this reason there needs to be flexibility

One problem that sometimes arises when there is no central strategy for online learning is that departments or Deans hire contracted support staff for online ‘projects’ using short-term funding. Once the short-term funding runs out, or if other priorities arise (such as the need for a new professor) the contracted staff get terminated, and all the knowledge and experience of developing online courses within that specific subject discipline is lost. 

One arrangement I came across many years ago at the University of South Australia was a service contract system. Deans wanted to have their own learning technology support staff, but the university faced the problem that these support staff were often hired on contract by the Dean then were terminated at the end of their contracts. As a result, the university had centralised the appointment of all learning technology support staff under a director reporting to the Provost, but the Director negotiated with each Dean a contract for the allocation of staff to the Faculty for a period of three years. This allowed support staff such as instructional designers to get to know the specific needs of a subject area and become familiar with instructors, but also allowed the central administration to move support staff to areas where they were most needed, and also provided continuity and secure work for the support staff.

Planning for digital learning

To some extent, this whole discussion is somewhat dated. In the future, we need to think less about ‘online learning’ and more about ‘digital learning and teaching’. Blended learning is breaking down the differences between online learning and face-to-face teaching. Soon all post-secondary instructors and students will be engaged in digital teaching and learning in one form or another.

This of course makes the need for an institutional strategy even more important. How can an institutions ensure that all instructors are properly supported for digital teaching and learning? Where are resources to support faculty instructors most needed? What is the best way to determine the balance between face-to-face and online delivery?

However, in our book, Managing Technology in Higher Education, written in 2011, Albert Sangra and I wrote (p.216):

…expertise in technology and its applications are spread throughout the organization. A good [technology] governance structure ensures that all the key stakeholders are engaged in decision-making at the right time and at the right level…for us, the critical location of decision-making should be at the program level…It is here that the market for the program, and the vision for teaching and learning, should be determined, as well as the method of delivery, and the main technologies to be used, with strong input from central services and learning technology units…’

Thus the real answer is that planning and strategy for digital learning are needed throughout the institution. A central plan that sets directions, priorities and overall resource allocation is essential, but so is planning at the program level (a degree or diploma or certificate program). Within that program plan, individual instructors then have to make decisions that best reflect the needs of the subject matter and above all the students for whom they will be responsible. Figure 1 below provides a chart that captures the ubiquity of decision-making about teaching and learning that is needed in a digital age. Nothing has changed over the last seven years that requires a change to this chart.

© Bates and Sangra, 2011

References

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Chapter 9

Some thoughts on scaling online and digital learning

Image: Fortune.com

Chatlani, S. (2018) How to effectively scale a digital learning model, Education Dive, accessed February 13

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Chapter 7

The sources

The Chatlani article is interesting if a little frustrating, as it is a report on a presentation at a conference of unpublished research (or at least unreferenced in the article) that looks at several case studies of successful scaling of digital learning. (If this research has been published, I would really appreciate access to the report or at least a reference.)

Nevertheless the results reported by two of the researchers, Lou Pugliese, director for the Technology Innovation Action Lab at Arizona State University, and Kate Smith, vice president of academic affairs at Rio Salado College, are really interesting and worth examining.

I have referenced also the research published in Managing Technology in Higher Education on the scaling of the University of British Columbia’s very successful Master of Educational Technology, which is still running today, although originally designed in 2001. The program has undergone a number of major changes over those 16 years but the scaling model has remained largely intact.

It is interesting then to compare the results of the two studies.

The institutional cases

The research reported by Chatlani, funded by the Boston Group and the Gates Foundation, examined the characteristics of digital learning programs from six diverse institutions:

  • Kentucky Community & Technical College System,
  • the University of Central Florida,
  • Georgia State University,
  • Houston Community College,
  • Rio Salado College and
  • Arizona State University. 

These institutions include some of the largest public post-secondary online providers in the USA. UCF was also one of the cases examined in Bates and Sangra.

Results

Pugliese and Smith reported the following four key findings from the study:

  • take a strategic portfolio approach to digital learning. This reflects the UBC MET program, which was developed as part of an institutional strategy to move towards program-based online learning. In fact several other graduate programs using the same model were developed at UBC around the same time;
  • build capabilities and expertise to design for quality in the digital realm. This also reflects the UBC strategy. The MET program was originally developed as a partnership between the Faculty of Education and the Distance Education Unit of UBC’s Continuing Studies department, which provided project management, instructional design, and media production support. Several years later, UBC moved the technical and educational support from Continuing Studies into a central Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, which also incorporated faculty development, to serve the whole university. The Faculty of Education also developed its own learning technology support team.
  • provide the differential student support to succeed in fully online learning. This was a critical component of the MET model. The key here is the difference between fixed and variable costs. Course development costs are mainly fixed; course delivery costs are mainly variable, as they are driven primarily by student numbers. The key savings in scaling comes from the distribution of fixed costs across increasing numbers of students and the lower costs of using adjunct faculty. In the MET model, tenured faculty were responsible for the content and design of the courses and in some cases for online teaching of at least one section. However, most of the delivery was supported by a team of adjunct faculty supervised by tenured faculty members. Student fees (at the same rate as for on-campus courses) more than covered both the costs of development – including the hiring of the necessary extra tenured research faculty – and delivery. Scaling was possible because of the lower cost of adjunct faculty but working to a quality model of delivery that kept student-instructor ratios at 30 or less.
  • engage faculty as true partners, equipping them for success. This was also an essential element of the UBC MET model which engaged faculty from Education from the start. Everything went through normal faculty quality assurance processes, involving a total of 27 faculty consultation meetings over a period of two years before the program even started. Perhaps more importantly, the business model ensured that the bulk of the revenues went directly to the Faculty of Education, which then paid overheads for the program to the central administration. Any profits from the program were ploughed back into faculty hirings. Thus the academic department was rewarded for innovation as well as for its efforts.

Discussion

As the article points out, online learning has been around now for 20 years or more and it is timely to look at what models have been successful in scaling quality online learning – and those that have not. 

The research suggests that scaling with quality requires a delicate balance between:

  • team work involving tenured faculty, specialist online experts such as instructional designers and media producers, and adjunct instructors, with full involvement of faculty in all aspects of the design and development of the programs,
  • using adjunct faculty as instructors to support program delivery as the enrolments grow,
  • managing student-instructor ratios so that adjuncts are not overloaded,
  • ensuring the adjunct instructors are adequately trained or experienced in teaching online.

Other important factors in scaling with quality are:

  • being sure there is an adequate market demand to justify the scale of online/digital programs you are proposing: good market research is essential,
  • being confident that new entrants into the market will not have the scale or quality to capture your market,
  • being sure that there is a sufficient pool of available qualified adjunct instructors,
  • developing a multi-year business plan that will accommodate losses in the first two years in return for later economies of scale and scope,
  • a sympathetic and creative administration that will consider and encourage new funding models.

I look forward to the publication of the report and hope it will be widely disseminated.