June 28, 2017

What is online learning? Seeking definition

Using Kubi robots and iPads for telepresence at Michigan State University: the new online learning?

The survey

One reason I have not been blogging much this year is because I have been heavily engaged in leading a national survey of online learning and distance education in Canadian public post-secondary education. We have now secured sufficient funding to at least complete the survey, thanks to further grants of $80,000 from eCampus Ontario’s Research and Innovation fund, and $20,000 from Pearson Canada.

The questionnaire for the survey has been piloted in 14 institutions and is in the process of being distributed to all the institutions this week. The questionnaire is going to 78 universities, 88 colleges and 46 Cégeps (Collèges d’Enseignment Général Et Professionnelle), a total of 212 institutions in total, all Canadian.

The questionnaire is being routed primarily through the office of the Provost or VP Education in most cases. There are francophone as well as anglophone versions of the questionnaire, depending on the main language used by each institution. Institutions have up to three weeks to complete it. We are asking all institutions to complete the questionnaire whether or not they are currently offering online or distance courses or programs as we are also asking about future directions. The results will be available in early September. 

What are we talking about?

One of our greatest challenges has been ensuring that every institution uses the same understanding of what a distance education course or program means, what constitutes a fully online course, and especially what terms such as blended or hybrid learning mean.

It was clear from feedback from the piloting of the questionnaire in 14 colleges and universities that there is no general agreement about these terms, so we have had to make somewhat arbitrary definitions to guide the institutions. I thought it might be interesting to share these with you and get your reactions, although it is now too late to change the definitions for the survey this year.

Distance education courses. Distance education courses are those where no classes are held on campus – all instruction is conducted at a distance. Distance education courses may use a variety of delivery methods, such as print-based, video/audioconferencing, as well as internet-based.

Online courses. A form of distance education where the primary delivery mechanism is via the internet. These could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously. All instruction is conducted at a distance.

Synchronous online courses. Courses where students need to participate at the same time as an instructor, but at a separate location other than an institutional campus. These courses may be delivered by video conferencing, web conferencing, audio conferencing, etc.

Asynchronous courses. Courses where students are not required to participate in any sessions at the same time as the instructor. These may be print-based courses, or online courses using a learning management system, for instance.

For the purposes of this survey, we wish to exclude inter-campus delivery where students are required to attend a different campus from the instructor. However, we wish to include delivery via the internet or other distance technologies to small learning centres in remote areas.

Online programs. A for-credit program that can be completed entirely by taking online courses, without the need for any on-campus classes. These could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously.

Blended/hybrid courses. These are courses designed to combine both online and face-to-face teaching in any combination. For the purposes of this questionnaire, we are interested in those courses where some, but not all, of the face-to-face teaching has been replaced by online study.

Credit courses. These are courses that lead to institutional credits (degrees, diplomas, etc.). We wish to include information on all credit online courses, whether they are managed by a central service or by individual departments or by Continuing Studies. [For the purpose of this survey, the focus is primarily on online and distance courses and programs for credit]. 

Online contract training. These are online training programs that may or may not be for credit recognition but are designed to meet a particular industry or training need. 

MOOCs. These are massive, open, online courses. The key features are:

  • No fee (except possibly for an end of course certificate),
  • The courses are open to anyone: there is no requirement for prior academic qualifications in order to take the course,
  • The courses are not for credit.

Note that we are distinguishing between distance education and online learning. We are treating online learning as just one form of distance education. We will be particularly interested to see if there are still significant amounts of non-online distance education still in use.

The problem with definitions

Although from about the late 1990s until quite recently, most online learning was asynchronous, and based primarily on the use of text-based learning management systems, that context appears to be rapidly shifting, with more synchronous approaches either replacing or being combined with asynchronous learning (another definition of ‘blended’), and the increasing use of streamed audio and video. What is already clear from the piloting is that we are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what is happening.

We hope that the questionnaire will be able to capture, at least for a moment in time, the extent to which the field of online learning and distance education is fragmenting into many different approaches and delivery methods. In such a volatile context, ‘best practices’ based on a context that is no longer dominant will become more challenged and some interesting questions about the quality and effectiveness of these new approaches are bound to be raised.

But that is jumping ahead. I must learn to be patient and wait for the results to come in. In the meantime, your comments about the definitions we are using or about the value of such a survey will be most welcome.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Athabasca University?

Light at end of tunnel

Climenhaga, D. (2017) Athabasca U’s future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review Albertapolitics.ca, January 19

Climenhaga, D. (2016) Alberta Government names five new members to Athabasca University Board of Governors,Albertapolitics.ca, October 

The good news

I’ve written several times before about the troubles at Athabasca University, which bills itself as Canada’s open university (for a full list of my posts on AU and its troubles, see the end of this post). Most of my posts have been bleak about AU’s future because the news coming out of Alberta about the university was so bad.

So I am very happy to be able at last to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is due to several events in the last six months:

  • the appointment of a new President with extensive experience in the management of Albertan post-secondary educational institutions (Neil Fassina, formerly provost and vice-president academic at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology)
  • gradual renewal of the board with new appointments, and a targeted date (March 2018) for further new appointments to the board
  • the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as ‘the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable’.

In particular the changes to the Board and a new President were essential first steps to secure the future of the university. The NDP government, despite the financial crisis in Alberta due to low oil prices, seems to recognise that Athabasca University is funded per student at a much lower rate than the other universities, and will probably need more operational funding in the future. At the press conference to announce Professor Coates’ appointment, the Minister of Advanced Education stated that the government:

is committed to ensure adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Dr. Coates’s sustainability review. We’ve made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning.

This commitment is important as there are 30,000 students’ futures at stake.

So here is some gratuitous but well meaning advice for the Alberta government and Professor Coates from someone who cares a great deal about the future of the university, and knows a little bit about open and distance education.

Vision first

This is the most important, and actually the most difficult, challenge for Ken Coates and the government. What is the future role for AU in a world that has radically changed since its foundation almost 50 years ago? What added value can open and distance learning provide in the Alberta post-secondary education system? What needs can or does AU serve that are not being served by the other institutions? To answer those questions the university needs to look outward, not inward.

In earlier posts I have suggested what some of those roles could be:

  • widening access, particularly for lifelong learners, aboriginal students, and other potential learners denied access to the conventional post-secondary education
  • innovation in teaching: AU should be a world leader in the design of flexible, cost-effective online learning, a laboratory and test-bed for the rest of the Alberta post-secondary system
  • regional development and research: this is where it should focus its content and programs. Alberta is in the midst of dramatic changes to energy and resource development, climate change, and economic development. Find a niche here that has been left by the other universities and fill that.

However, it is really not for me to suggest a vision from AU. This needs to be created within and for Alberta. But the vision should drive everything else. To get buy-in and support for such a vision, an extensive process of consultation both internally and externally will be needed. This should have been done years ago so it needs to be done not only carefully but quickly.

In particular, all other decisions – about funding, labour contracts, course development – should be dependent on the vision, first and foremost. If there is general buy-in to the vision from all the stakeholder groups, these other thorny issues become much easier to deal with.

The teaching model

Athabasca University was a revolutionary 45 years ago when it introduced its teaching model of open access, continuous enrolment and independent, guided study based on quality printed materials. But that was the late 60s and early 70s. It’s 2017 now and the current teaching model is not only antiquated by modern standards, it is very costly and inflexible. Tightly linked to this is a generation of faculty and administrators who have known nothing else.

There has in fact been considerable internal expertise on the design of online and distance learning at AU, but this expertise has been constantly ignored in terms of actual decision-making about design models, or rather interesting designs have been pushed to the margins and haven’t affected the bulk of the teaching, particularly in the undergraduate programs.

This has to change. Slimmer, more flexible and above all less costly methods of course design and development are needed that take account of the rapid developments in new learning technologies since the 1970s.

I can’t see how this change in teaching models can happen without a major change in personnel, particularly in the academic and administrative areas, and without accompanying changes in labour agreements. AU’s location in the boondocks does not help in recruiting quality academic staff, although online learning means that faculty do not have to be physically located even in Alberta.  

Again, though, decide on appropriate teaching models, then develop labour agreements around this that are fair and reasonable. This will be helped if faculty and administrators buy into the new vision for teaching and learning. Those that don’t should leave. The students deserve better teaching than they are getting at the moment.

System synergy

AU’s role vis-a-vis the other post-secondary institutions in the province needs to be clarified, developed and agreed by not only the other institutions but also the government. In other words, a process such as Ontario’s strategic mandate agreements is needed.

Alberta though has a much smaller system than Ontario’s. It should be possible to get all the universities around a rather small coffee table. British Columbia back in the days of the Open Learning Agency had a Provost’s Council that worked out not only the relationship between OLA and the other universities, but agreed on joint program development, sharing of courses, and credit transfer for open and distance learning. Alberta needs something similar, some kind of forum that enables institutions to agree roles and functions in open and online learning. But again Athabasca needs to work out its vision and role first.

Funding

Although this has been the main focus in recent years to me it is the least of the problems. Even in a cash-strapped province such as Alberta’s, AUs funding is almost in the margin of error in the total provincial budget. But rightly the government doesn’t want to throw good money after bad.

The biggest need is a new approach to IT at the university. AU has had major problems with IT security, and IT management. Whatever vision for the university is decided, it needs to move away from a massive, centralised, local IT operation to more flexible, decentralised, cloud-based solutions. Again though the IT model needs to be driven by the vision for the university, not the other way round.

Will they get it right?

There is still a long way to go before Athabasca gets to the end of the tunnel, and there are several major factors that could still derail it. Indeed, let’s hope that the light isn’t another train that runs right over the university.

My biggest concern is that although the recent steps by the government are all in the right direction (new board, new president and an external review), where is the open and distance education expertise so urgently needed to guide Athabasca into the future? The government, the board, the CEO and even the external consultant have no experience in this field. In what other business other than open and distance education would this be acceptable?

It could be argued that the expertise lies within the institution. If so, over the last ten years there has been a lamentable inability to make good use of this expertise in the planning and management of the university. (See my previous posts below for evidence of this). Indeed, the top people in online and distance education field who were at AU have either retired, moved on or given up trying. Ken Coates needs to tap into this expertise and particularly their knowledge of the barriers that have stifled innovation in teaching and learning at AU.

Also when appointing a new board, the government should make sure that at least one board member is knowledgeable and experienced in open and distance education. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

So I wish Ken Coates the very best in his very challenging mission. But don’t call on me – I’m retired.

Further reading

I am surprised how much space I have devoted in this blog to the troubles at AU. Put them all together, though, and you get a pretty good picture of the challenges it has been facing:

Feb 25, 2013: What’s going on at Athabasca University? (about the firing of four senior staff)

Feb 27, 2013: Athabasca University’s President to stand down – but not soon

Jan 28, 2014: Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring?

Jun 9, 2015: Athabasca University’s Troubles Grow (about a different sustainability report written by the previous interim President)

Jun 12, 2015: Advice to the Alberta Government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report 

Jun 14, 2015: Advice to students about Athabasca University

Jun 30, 2015: What can past history tell us about the ‘crisis’ at Athabasca University?

 

Building a national survey of online learning in Canada

Image: Canada Explore

Image: Canada Explore

The players

Since April I have been leading a small team that has been trying to build from scratch a national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions.

For many years the Babson Survey Research Group has been tracking the growth of online learning in higher education in the USA. With the U.S. Federal Department of Education now collecting this data through its annual IPEDS survey, Jeff Seaman of Babson has been working with Russ Poulin of WCET to help interpret the IPEDS data.

Through the intervention of Tricia Donovan, the director of eCampus Alberta, Jeff and Russ approached me to see if I would be willing to get a Canadian national survey off the ground. I guess I was chosen because through my blog I had been strongly critical of the lack of such data in Canada. (Warning to bloggers: be careful what you ask for as you may end up doing it yourself.)

As a Research Associate with Contact North, I approached its President, Maxim Jean-Louis, for his support. He immediately offered $10,000 towards the cost of the survey. This was a crucial contribution as it enabled me to sound out possible consultants for the project, because Babson had found that the most important contributor to success was ensuring close communication and co-operation with the institutions themselves before the survey was even designed.

The Contact North funding enabled me to approach Dr. Ross Paul, formerly President of two Canadian universities and more importantly, as the author of “Leadership Under Fire”, a book about the role of university presidents in Canada, he was extremely well connected with and knowledgeable about the whole Canadian university sector.

Maxim Jean-Louis also put me in touch with Brian Desbiens, a former college president and also a former chair of the Canadian College Presidents Network, another consultant with an immensely impressive network in the Canadian college sector.

Finally it was immediately clear to us that we needed someone with knowledge and expertise in the francophone sector, and through the assistance of REFAD, the francophone distance education network, Denis Mayer, a former Associate Vice President of Student Services at Laurentian University, also joined the team.

So we now had a steering group for the survey:

  • Tony Bates (lead researcher)
  • Ross Paul (universities)
  • Brian Desbiens (colleges)
  • Denis Mayer (francophone)
  • Tricia Donovan (provincial government agencies)
  • Jeff Seaman (survey design and implementation)
  • Russ Poulin (US liaison)

The process

Our first task was to ensure that we had support, or at least not opposition, from the institutions, about 80 universities and over 200 publicly funded colleges. Fortunately in Canada there are almost no private universities and there is a clear distinction between provincially funded and supported colleges and private career and language schools. Our survey is focused then solely on the public system of post-secondary education, consisting of just over 2 million students.

One challenge is that there is no overall federal responsibility for the delivery of post-secondary education in Canada. This means that there are 10 provinces with 10 slightly different systems of post-secondary education. In addition there are anglophone, francophone and bilingual institutions.

Nevertheless there are two key national organisations, Universities Canada (UC), and Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICAN), that between them cover most of the institutions, so one of our first tasks was to brief them and gain their support in communicating with the institutions. Also there are several francophone organisations that represent the interests of francophone universities and colleges, and the unique system in Québec of CEGEPs, publicly funded pre-university colleges that offer a pre-university qualification that is necessary for admission to Québec’s universities (except for mature students). Secondary school and undergraduate degrees are both one year shorter in Quebec as a result.

These initial contacts with the national or regional organisations enabled us to identify the population base for the survey: the list of institutions to be covered. This enabled the consultants to e-mail directly the provosts and VPs Academic of every institution for their support and participation in the study.

At the same time, the Steering Committee was engaged in a series of discussions around the design of the questionnaires. We had the advantage of the prior work of the Babson Survey Research Group in the USA, but the questionnaires had to be adapted to the unique Canadian post-secondary education system. At the same time we are anxious to ensure that we can make international comparisons. It became quickly clear that we will need several different versions of the questionnaire, as follows:

  •  anglophone universities
  • anglophone colleges
  • francophone universities
  • CEGEPS
  • francophone colleges (outside Québec).

Core questions would be the same across all versions, but others would reflect the unique nature of each institution (e.g. what qualifications were offered partly or wholly online).

To get early feedback on the questionnaire design, two consultants attended the CIRPA conference of Canadian institutional researchers and held a special session devoted to feedback on the initial questionnaire design and especially in the definitions of fully online and blended/hybrid learning.

The first full versions of the questionnaires have now been designed. We have identified 10 universities and eight colleges across all 10 provinces who have volunteered to give feedback on the pilot questionnaire, and they have been asked to reply by the end of December. We are planning one more round of piloting after that, and hope to have the final version of the questionnaire distributed to all the universities and colleges in March.

In order to keep the questionnaire as short as possible, we are collecting as much key data about the institutions, such as their size, from other sources. For instance, the Canadian Virtual University has provided data on distance education enrolments for its dozen or so member institutions that go back to 2001. In the end, we will have an extensive and comprehensive database of Canadian post-secondary educational institutions, and of their activities in online learning.

I am working with Jeff Seaman on the design of the questionnaire analysis, and we will use the Babson Survey Research Group’s data entry and analysis facilities to process the questionnaire data. We envisage one overall, national report in English and French and a number of smaller reports focused on specific sectors, including a specially written report on the francophone sector. These will be published in the summer of 2017, and the results will be presented at the ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October.

Lastly, we will not be identifying any individual institution, unless they expressly request to be identified, but we do aim to make the data open and accessible to other researchers. We hope to locate the data with one or more of the organizations representing the institutions.

Funding

The Babson surveys in the USA benefited from financial support from the Sloan Foundation and also from a number of private sponsors, such as publishers.  Funding frankly has been the biggest challenge so far for the Canadian survey.

We decided to divide the funding requirements into three stages. The first stage would be to acquire funds to develop the institutional support needed, build the database, and design and pilot the questionnaire. The second stage of funding would be to cover the costs of the data collection, data entry, data analysis, report writing and dissemination, as well as having sufficient funds to start the development of the following year’s survey. The third phase would be to cover long-term and regular funding for future annual surveys.

We have successfully completed the first phase of fund raising, thanks to the help of Contact North and the provincial eCampuses (BCcampus, eCampus Alberta, Campus Manitoba and eCampus Ontario). This has raised $45,000.

We are still seeking funding for the second phase. We estimate that we will need somewhere around $100,000 to complete the second phase, and for the third phase we will need to raise about $125,000 a year.

We have submitted requests for second stage funding to eCampus Ontario’s Research and Innovation Fund and to a Canadian foundation, and we are waiting to hear from them. The Canadian arm of a major publisher has also expressed an interest in supporting the survey. However, we are now at the point where we urgently need to secure firm funding for the second stage.

What we need

The project is now at a critical point in its development. We have secured the support of the institutions, we are ready to pilot the questionnaire, and we are building the institutional database. However, we still need the following:

  • money to cover the costs of the actual survey and report writing (in both English and French)
  • feedback on the definitions of online learning, whether we have the right questions, and whether institutions can actually provide the data requested; the piloting will provide this feedback
  • all institutions, large and small, whether they have strong or no online programs at all, to complete the questionnaire.

The benefits

If we are successful in completing the study, we hope that we will have achieved the following:

  • established a reliable snapshot of the state of online learning across Canada in post-secondary education
  • created a comprehensive, national database of Canadian post-secondary educational institutions that could be used for further research purposes
  • provided a baseline for future studies of online learning, so trends can be tracked
  • identified the areas where online learning is growing or declining
  • identified some of the key issues that institutions are facing regarding online learning
  • enabled institutions to see how they compare with other institutions in Canada in terms of their online learning development
  • enabled Canada to compare itself with developments in online learning in other countries.

Your help

Although we are still pursuing a number of possible sources of funding, if you have ideas of where or how to secure the the second and third stages of funding, please contact me at tony.bates@ubc.ca.

In particular, I urge Canadian readers of this blog to give their support within their institution to ensure that we get as good a response as possible to completing the questionnaire so that we have a reliable and comprehensive survey.

Any other comments about the value of the survey or the strategy we are following will also of course be welcome.

In the meantime, watch this space for further developments.

References

Paul, R. (2011) Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 333

 

Online learning for beginners: 10. Ready to go

Click on image to see book

Essential reading for online instructors

This is the last in a series of ten blog posts aimed at those faculty and instructors in higher education new to online teaching or thinking of possibly doing it. The previous nine are:

What you’ve learned

If you have read all previous nine posts in this series, you should now be aware of the following:

  1. Online learning can be done well, or it can be done badly.
  2. Online learning is a professional activity, with evidence-based best practices. You need to be aware of these best practices if you want to succeed in your online teaching.
  3. There are certain conditions where online learning is likely to work, and others where it will be difficult to succeed.
  4. You need then to choose the appropriate mix of online and face-to-face learning, dependent on the context in which you are working.
  5. There are many different approaches and technologies that can be used in online learning. The best choices will depend on your specific learning context but you need to be aware of the choices.
  6. Moving to online learning opens the opportunity to rethink the design of your teaching; indeed you will need to change from a lecture-type approach to a more interactive learning approach if you are to succeed online.
  7. It is important to work with professional instructional designers and media producers if you want a high quality online course or program.
  8. The technology, and to a lesser extent, the pedagogy of online learning continues to evolve.
  9. Thus although, at least in the beginning, it is important to follow best past practices, you also need to be aware of new developments and the potential for innovation in your online teaching.
  10. Really, in the future, online learning will not be considered different or separate from ‘teaching’. It will be an integrated, normal component of all teaching. So you might as well get to learn to use it well as soon as possible. Start now!

Additional resources

Although I hope these posts have helped you decide to teach online, there is always more to learn. Therefore the following additional resources can contribute to your development as an online instructor.

  1. Read Teaching in a Digital Age. This free, online textbook is designed to help you develop the knowledge and skills your students will need in a digital age. It could be read from cover to cover, but it’s more likely to be useful as a resource to be dipped into as and when needed. The book covers:
    • the types of knowledge and the skills students need in a digital age,
    • how online learning can help develop these skills,
    • different approaches to teaching online,
    • how to decide on the right mix of online and face-to-face teaching,
    • how to find and use open educational resources,
    • how to choose between different media,
    • nine steps to quality online learning,
    • organizational requirements for effective online learning,
    • how to creative an effective online learning environment.
  2. Take an online course on how to teach online. This will not only provide you with the knowledge and techniques you will need, but will also give you the experience of what it feels like to study online. Look for programs that allow you to take (and pay) for one course at a time, such as UBC’s Master in Educational Technology. For a list of online programs that will provide you with a good foundation for teaching online, see: Recommended graduate programs in e-learning.
  3. Follow regular online publications written in non-technical language aimed at those teaching online, such as:
  4. For a list of the main journals on research and development in online teaching, see: E-learning journals, and/or the American Association of Computers in Education’s LearnTechLib. I recommend particularly:
  5. At the risk of repeating myself, work with your local Centre for Teaching and Learning, or Centre for Learning Technologies, or Centre for Distance Education, and attend any faculty development workshops on online learning. There is more to learn all the time.

The end

So good luck with your new adventure in teaching at least partly online.

If you have found this series useful, please pass it on to colleagues who you think may also benefit from it.

I’d also be interested in hearing from you of your experiences as newcomers to online teaching.

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

The Malaysian Ministry of Education announced that it will enable students to bring handphones to schools under strict guidelines
Image: © NewStraightsTimes, 2015

Using scenarios to develop ‘soft’ skills

Image: © BottomLinePerformance.com, 2013

Image: © Bottom Line Performance.com, 2013

Boller, S. (2013) Best Practices for Using eLearning in Soft Skills Training Bottom Line Performance, July 13

I blogged recently about the link between online learning and a knowledge-based economy, and discussed particularly the need to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital, knowledge-based economy. These include the development of ‘soft’ skills, such as communication, leadership, management, and conflict resolution skills.

Bottom Line Performance is a leading U.S. corporate training consultancy that runs a blog that is often very useful generally for those using e-learning. The above article is an interview with Alicia Ostermeier, BLP’s Senior Learning Advisor, who provides some useful guidelines for teaching soft skills through e-learning/blended learning, and in particular through the use of scenarios.

I don’t normally promote commercial companies, but developing scenarios for soft skill development would require some skilled technical support and if you do not have someone with that experience in your organisation, you may want to contact BLP directly if you are interested in this approach.