March 18, 2018

Web discussion on the future of the distance teaching university

If you have an hour to spare and are interested in this topic, you can access a video of this webinar organized on March 5 by EDEN as part of Open Education Week.

The recording can be accessed here. You will need to install Adobe Connect to replay the recording.

Further details:

Moderator: Mark Nichols, Open University, UK


  • Sir John Daniel, former Vice-Chancellor, UK Open University
  • Dr. Ross Paul, former President, Windsor and Laurentian Universities, and Vice-President Academic, Athabasca University, Canada
  • Professor António Texeira, Universidade Aberta, Portugal
  • Dr. Tony Bates, a founding member of the UK Open University and now distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University.

Questions discussed:

  • What are the big challenges distance education universities face at the moment?
  • What do you think is their best response to these challenges?
  • Do you have a vision for the future of distance education universities? If so, what is it?
  • What is it that distance universities offer that might be unique in what will increasingly be an online education future?
  • How might distance universities become flexible to adapt to new markets and opportunities?

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.


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


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

How to keep up with new technology in online learning

I was recently asked if I would answer a couple of questions from students in Royal Roads University’s course ‘Leveraging Technology in Higher Education’ in their MA in Higher Education Administration and Leadership.

With the permission of their instructor, Irwin de Vries, and the students, I am sharing my response to the two questions they raised.

Question 1

1. How can an institution make sense of all the new developments, such as what the NMC highlights every year, and incorporate that successfully into their institutional planning?

What a good question! It’s a question I personally struggle with. One could spend every waking moment these days trying to keep up with the latest apps, devices, and waves of tech innovation. Indeed, the fear of not being able to do this forced me into premature retirement – how could I keep up with everything and still play golf whenever I wanted?  (Golf won.)

However, it turns out that while the technology is forever changing, there are a number of ‘coping’ strategies, based on more fundamental principles or theories that do not change so rapidly.

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future

First, the New Media Consortium has a poor track record in accurately predicting technology trends in higher education, mainly in terms of timelines (far too optimistic regarding the application of a particularly technology) but also often in terms of whether a technology in fact turns out to be useful for teaching or learning. Go back for instance to their 2008 report: grassroots video (iTunes, Möbius, etc.), the collaborative web (Google Docs), data mashups, within one or two years, etc.

These tools are often very useful outside of the teaching/learning process but don’t necessarily adapt easily for teaching and learning. More often these tools might have been useful but were not used or were ignored by instructors because they did not meet the immediate needs of the instructors (or the perceived needs of the students).

Institutional vs individual choice

Second, institutional decision-making is based mainly around IT network technology, classroom equipment, and ‘universally used’ commercially licensed software or technology such as word processing (which is one reason why LMSs and webinar technology are so heavily used – the institution pays for and maintains them), but emerging technologies these days are more end-user focused and low cost, so technologies are now being adopted and decided by individual instructors and especially by students, rather than the institution. These low cost technologies tend to be based on mobile phones or tablets and free or low-cost apps. It is only when a technology really takes off in teaching does it make sense for the institution to ‘block buy’ a license if it is a commercial product.

More importantly, it doesn’t make sense for institutions to make institution-wide decisions for most teaching technologies, partly because of wide variations in subject discipline needs, but mainly because with constantly emerging technologies, it’s better for the grassroots instructors and students to adopt as appropriate, hence ensuring more innovation in teaching and learning.

For instructors, usually technology adoption enables them to solve a teaching problem, such as not enough interaction with students, students not attending in bad weather or with long commutes, difficult concepts to teach abstractly, etc. Since the teaching problems often vary from instructor to instructor, it is best to leave such decisions to them. However, instructors can be ‘nudged’ by instructional designers/learning technology support staff, who should be constantly looking for potential new applications of technology, and for faculty who may be interested in trying them.

Lastly, for instructors or instructional designers who want to make a fully considered decision about the best choice or mix of educational media, there is my own SECTIONS model which attempts to identify key factors that should influence choice of media. However, even if this approach is used, in most cases it will be influenced by an instructor’s gut feeling or intuition about what will work best within a particular context -which is more likely to be right than wrong.

The SECTIONS model

The one exception I would make to the decentralization approach to technology selection is where an institution has a strong strategy or plan for digital learning. In this case, part of the strategy might be to combine the choice of a technology (such as tablets) with a plan for faculty development in how to use the technology, based on a clear pedagogical approach. This allows a large step forward to be made. The Justice Institute of BC’s digital learning strategy for the University of Guadalajara in Mexico is a good example. This helps the majority of faculty with the adoption of technology in a consistent and high quality manner. In this case the strategy depended on a clear pedagogical basis for the choice of technology made at an institutional level. However, this is the exception rather than the rule.


As with most educational decisions, context is all important. Instructors and to some extent students are closest to the action and hence are usually in a better position to make an appropriate choice than an institution trying to cover all possible positions.

However, there are guidelines that can be adopted to avoid being swayed by the media hype over the latest technology. Does it solve a problem I’m having? Will it help students to develop the knowledge and skills they will need in the future? Is it easy to use? Is it cheap or free for students? Not rocket science, by any means, but it is surprising how little such obvious questions are asked, especially by the media, when a new technology appears on the horizon.

My response to the second question will follow.

What I wanted to say to the Minister about online learning

A faculty development workshop: a broken system?

The opportunity

I don’t mix with politicians or high level decision-makers, so when I was offered a seat next to Deb Matthews, Ontario’s Minister of Advanced Education, at the ICDE conference in Toronto two week’s ago, I thought about what I wanted to say to her. What could I say that might make a difference?

The pitch

After considerable thought, and realising I would probably have about two minutes max – a true elevator pitch, more than a tweet but less than a blog post – I came up with the following before the morning of the meeting:

Minister, do you want to ensure that Ontario’s universities prepare students appropriately for developing the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age? If so, as a condition of provincial funding, you need to require every university in the province to put in place a systematic and mandatory program for training all instructors in how to teach and how best to integrate technology into their teaching. Without such comprehensive and mandatory programs, nothing will fundamentally change.

Here’s my card: ask one of your staff to call me on why this is necessary, why it is difficult, and how it might be done.

How did I do?

Not well, I’m afraid. By the time Ms. Matthews sat down next to me, the first announcements about the conference were being made. We did shake hands, then she went up and made a very good welcoming speech for the delegates, laying out what Ontario has done and is doing to support access and online learning. The current Ontario government has been a big supporter of online learning, creating eCampus Ontario and putting several million dollars into online course development and OER. It was a scoop for the conference organisers to get her to come, and she was genuinely interested in the conference and its theme (‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’)

She ended her speech, and then she left, surrounded by her minions. I literally had no chance to say anything to her other than ‘hi.’

So I missed my chance. It was no-one’s fault. That is just the nature of Ministerial appearances at big conferences – in and out. Maybe next time I should have made a preliminary pitch or got someone to have set something up, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure I would even get the chance to meet with her, and I have no standing in Ontario other than being a retired academic administrator.

Why what I wanted to say is important

Regular readers of this blog will know why I wanted to say what I set out above. Faculty in universities are trained in research, not in teaching. If lucky they may get a short introductory course when appointed, mainly focused on lecturing effectively and classroom management. Thereafter any form of faculty ‘development’ for teaching is purely voluntary.

This may or may not have been fine when all teaching was face-to-face and focused on knowledge acquisition. It is not fine when we need to develop high level intellectual skills. Teaching students high level intellectual skills needs a different approach from teaching abstract concepts and principles. 

Furthermore, the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired is changing. Students need to acquire the skills of lifelong and independent learning, because what they learn today is likely to be obsolete or redundant in ten years’ time. Students need to know where they can find content, how to verify its validity and reliability, how to analyse it and how to apply it. These are skills that need practice, and they also require nowadays the use of digital technology.

Very few instructors are formally trained in how to do this. It is not rocket science, but it is not always obvious, either. Indeed, teaching in a digital age requires a different mindset. Some instructors will come by this naturally, but most won’t. Therefore formal training for all instructors becomes essential.

Why it’s difficult

Ideally the best way to teach instructional skills is pre-service, with regular opportunities for refreshing and updating while in service. However, this would mean building into post-graduate programs time for learning about teaching and learning, at least for those who want to go on to teach in a university. Neither students, nor especially supervising faculty, would welcome this. However it is much cheaper and more effective to do this training before faculty become tenured – or more importantly before they become set in their ways.

Second, preparation for teaching in universities has to be mandatory and not voluntary. Teaching is a professional activity with its own knowledge base and skills. It is not something to dabble in when you feel like it. Who would want to fly in a plane where the pilot’s training in how to fly the plane was voluntary (even if their knowledge of aerodynamics was superb)? Evidence (see Christensen-Hughes and Mighty, 2010) suggests that fewer than ten per cent of faculty participate in voluntary faculty development programs each year and these are often those who need it the least. It is a broken system.

Furthermore it is a systemic problem. One institution cannot go it alone for the fear it will lose its most promising academic talent and  its best graduate students to those institutions where they do not have to spend time in learning how to teach well.

The big problem then is that universities will not solve this problem themselves, because research is the primary factor that influences tenure and promotion, and anything that takes away from research time – such as time spent learning how to teach well – is unacceptable.

How to solve the problem

In most professions, you are not allowed to practice unless you have met standards approved by a professional body that is recognised by the appropriate government. For instance, you cannot operate as a professional engineer in Ontario unless you are accredited by the Professional Engineers of Ontario, which is the professional accreditation body recognised by the government.

Instructors who wish to teach in universities should meet similar requirements. There is no equivalent professional body for university teaching though. A Ph.D. is a research, not a teaching, qualification.

One thing a government could require is that the universities within its jurisdiction that receive government funding must establish a professional body that requires certification of instructors and requires all new instructors to be accredited. (Some college systems have a somewhat similar requirement, such as the Provincial Instructor Diploma in British Columbia, although it is not mandatory). 

The advantage here is that it would be up to the universities to establish such a program, but the government would not fund institutions unless such programs are in place and required. This would require negotiation between universities and government about content, standards and process for establishing the training requirement, but this is not an impossible task.

Of course, the universities will hate this and faculty would see it as government interference or an attack on academic freedom. What is increasingly unacceptable though is throwing untrained instructors into the classroom without any preparation for teaching, especially given the challenges of teaching in a digital age. If we don’t prepare our instructors better, students won’t get the knowledge and skills that they will need to survive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous digital age.

Minister, please act. If you do, Ontario will lead the world. And I will try to do better next time I meet you.


Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp

A brighter future for Athabasca University?

Mid-career retraining is seen as one possible focus for Athabasca University’s future

Coates, K. (2017) Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University Saskatoon, SK

This report, 45 pages in length plus extensive appendices, was jointly commissioned by the Government of Alberta and the Governors of Athabasca University.

Why the report?

Because Athabasca University, established in 1971 as a fully distance, open university, has been in serious trouble over the last 10 years. In 2015, its Acting President issued a report saying that ‘Athabasca University (AU) will be unable to pay its debt in two years if immediate action is not taken.’ It needed an additional $25 million just to solve its IT problems. Two years earlier, the AU’s senior administrators were savagely grilled by provincial legislators about the financial management of the university, to such an extent that it seemed that the Government of Alberta might well pull the plug on the university.

However, comes a recent provincial election, comes a radical change of government, leading to a new Board and a new President with a five year term. Although these are essential changes for establishing a secure future of the university, in themselves they are not sufficient. The financial situation of the university is temporarily more secure, but the underlying problem of expenses not being matched by revenue remains. It desperately needs more money from a government that is short of revenues since the oil industry tanked. Also its enrolments have started to drop, due to competition from campus-based universities now offering fully online programs. Lastly it still has the same structural problems with an outdated course design and development model and poor student support services, especially on the academic side.

So although the newish government was willing to suspend judgement, it really needed an independent review before shovelling any new money AU’s way – hence this report.

What does the report say?

I will try to summarise briefly the main findings and recommendations, but as always, it is worth reading the full report, which is relatively concise and easy to read:

  • there is substantial student demand in Alberta, across Canada and internationally for AU’s programs, courses and services;
  • the current business model is not financially sustainable and will not support the institution in the coming decades – but ‘it has the potential if significant changes are made to its structure, approach and program mix, to be a viable, sustainable and highly relevant part of the Alberta post-secondary system’;
  • more money is needed to support its operations, especially if it is to remain headquartered in the (small and somewhat remote) Town of Athabasca; the present government funding arrangement is inadequate for the university’s mix of programs and students, especially regarding the support needed for disadvantaged students and those requiring more flexibility in delivery;
  • the emergence of dozens of credible online university alternatives has undermined AU’s competitive advantage – it no longer has a clear and obvious role within the Provincial post-secondary system;
  • AU should re-brand itself as the leading Canadian centre for online learning and 21st century educational technology, but although it has the educational technology professionals needed to provide leadership, it lacks the ICT model and facilities to rise to this opportunity;
  • Open access: AU should expand its activities associated with population groups that are under-represented in the Alberta and Canadian post-secondary system: women in STEM subject, new Canadians, Indigenous Peoples and students with disabilities;
  • diversification of the student body is necessary to achieve economies of scale; in other words it should expand its reach across Canada and internationally and not limit itself just to Alberta;
  • AU should expand its efforts to educate lifelong learners and should expand its career-focused and advanced educational opportunities – particularly mid-career training and training for new work;
  • although there is overwhelming faculty and staff support for AU’s mandate and general approach, there are considerable institutional and financial barriers to effecting a substantial reorientation in AU operations; however, such a re-orientation is critical for its survival.

My comments

Overall, this is an excellent report. Wisely, it does not dwell on the historical reasons why Athabasca University got itself into its current mess but instead focuses on what its future role should be, what it can uniquely contribute to the province, and what is needed to right the ship, including more money.

However, the main challenges, in my view, remain more internal than external. The Board of Governors, senior administration, faculty, staff and students still need to develop together a clear and shared vision for the future of the institution that presents a strong enough value proposition to the government to justify the increased operational and investment funding that is needed. Although the external reviewer does a good job suggesting what some of the elements of such a vision might be, it has to come from the university community itself. This is long overdue and cannot be delayed much longer otherwise the government’s patience will understandably run out. Money itself is not the issue – it is the value proposition that will persuade the government to prioritise funding for AU that still needs to be made by the university itself. In other words it’s a trust issue – if we give you more money, what will you deliver?

The second major challenge, while strongly linked to vision and funding, is the institutional culture. Major changes in course design, educational technology, student support and administration, marketing and PR are urgently needed to bring AU into advanced 21st century practice in online and distance learning. I fear that while there are visionary faculty and staff at AU who understand this, there is still too much resistance from traditionalists and those who see change as undermining academic excellence or threatening their comfort zone. Without these necessary structural and cultural changes though AU will not be able to implement its vision, no matter how persuasive it is. So there is also a competency issue – if we give you more money, can you deliver on your promises?

I think these are still open questions but at least the external review offers a vote of confidence in the university. Now it is up to the university community to turn this opportunity into something more concrete. But it needs to move fast. The window of opportunity is closing fast.