April 26, 2018

‘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.

Meeting the challenge of online degrees for the professions

 

Tina the Avatar from Drexel University’s nursing program. Tina not only responds to questions asked by students but can also be physically examined and will respond according to how she is being treated.

Chatlani, S. (2018) Navigating online professional degrees – potential and caution, Education Dive, March 21

In previous posts, I have pointed out the challenges of getting online qualifications recognised by professional associations, for instance:

The Chatlani article though shows how some institutions have worked with professional associations to obtain recognition.

Which institutions have received recognition from professional associations?

Chatlani looks at several institutions who have succeeded in getting their online professional degrees recognised. These include:

  • Syracuse University College of Law
  • Western Governors University College of Health Professions
  • Faulkner University’s Masters of Science in Counseling
  • The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law

To these institutions I would add a couple of Canadian examples:

Some of these programs are not fully online, but are hybrid, with a good deal of online learning however.

How to get online professional degrees recognized

First, it ain’t easy. It’s no good just trying to convert your on-campus content into an online version. You have to do much more to satisfy professional associations – and quite rightly, in most cases.

The biggest challenge is providing a satisfactory online context for experiential learning: enabling students to apply what they have learned in an online environment that is ‘real’ enough to transfer to an actual workplace. Typical examples would be:

  • use of video, computer simulations, and augmented or virtual reality to teach procedures and/or motor (hands-on) skills
  • use of remote labs/equipment that students can manipulate online
  • ‘virtual’ offices, companies or workplace situations that mirror real companies and their work
  • online development of inter-personal skills through one-on-one online monitoring
  • use of synchronous as well as asynchronous delivery: Syracuse designed their law program so that 50% of each online course will be in real time with students and professors interacting just as they would in a residential program, with intense Socratic dialogue in real time
  • on-campus evaluation of specific skills, such as counselling, even if they are taught online.

In addition to providing appropriate experiential learning, there are general quality issues to be addressed:

  • secure validation of student identity and online assessment;
  • investment in ‘best practice’ online course design, which will involve using learning design and learning technology specialists;
  • opportunity for substantive interaction between faculty and students; 
  • close monitoring of student activities;
  • extensive training of faculty in online teaching.

This is rather a daunting list, even if not all of these requirements apply to all professional training.

Will it be enough?

One has to look to motive here for moving online. One motive is a scarcity of professionals (or more likely, a coming scarcity). This is one major reason for Queen’s University’s Bachelor in Mining Engineering. A shortage of professionals pushes up the costs of professionals and  a shortage of professionals may mean that there are unacceptable delays in court cases (as in Canada), for instance. Offering programs partly or wholly online enables those working or with families to study more flexibly and in the end results in a larger pool of professionals.

Another motive is cost: the cost of traditional, on-campus professional degrees is often so high that many who could benefit from such programs are just unable to afford it. The hope is that online programs can bring down the cost without losing quality.

Chatlani interviewed Christopher Chapman​, CEO of AccessLex Institute, a legal education advocacy group, who argued the hybrid degree option is necessary to make becoming a lawyer more accessible and possibly less expensive:

Truly experimentation in legal education is critical to the long-term future of the field and lawyers. This could allow for the development of better pedagogy and allow for scaling where schools may be able to eventually lower their price point.

However, often professional education does not necessarily scale easily as it may require fairly small class sizes if quality is to be maintained. This is not to say there are no economies of scale: once a simulation or a virtual reality environment is created, it can be used many times with many students, but this often means not only a heavy up-front investment, but also a sophisticated business model that allows for return on investment over several or even many years.

It is worth noting that none of the example institutions above are what might be called elite institutions, who have dominated education for professionals in law, medicine and engineering for many years, and whose alumni are often the ones who set accreditation requirements for the professional associations.

And this is the problem. It benefits existing professionals to limit the number of new professionals by making existing labour scarce. If the people who are responsible for accrediting educational programs for professional recognition benefit by keeping the market restricted and themselves come from elite institutions with no experience of online learning, then online professional programs become a huge risk for the departments planning to offer them and for the students who sign up for them.

The best approach is to ensure the support of the relevant professional associations before investing heavily in such programs. The worst case scenario is to spend lots of money on developing such programs only for students to find that they still cannot get a well paid professional job with their qualification.

That was 2017 in online learning

 

A workshop in St. George’s College, Windsor Castle, where Shakespeare’s first production of the Merry Wives of Windsor was performed before Queen Elisabeth 1

My experience of online learning in 2017

2017 was a very interesting year for me, if not for online learning as a whole. I have a very different interface with online learning these days from most people, more that of an observer than as a participant, which has both advantages and disadvantages, but it does give me a somewhat wider perspective, so first, here’s what I did, then second what I learned from my experience.

What I did in 2017

I had three main avenues into online learning in 2017:

  • my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. Although published in 2015, it is still going strong and has generated several activities. The English version has been downloaded over 60,000 times since it was published in April, 2015, and is now translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese and the first half into Turkish (the second half should be completed soon), with further translations into Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese under way, all by volunteer translators. The book continues to result in keynotes and workshops. This year I gave ‘physical’ keynotes in Barcelona, Toronto, Halifax, Pennsylvania, Windsor Castle (UK), and a webinar to South Australia. I also did several Contact North webinars on topics from the book. These activities allowed me to interact directly with instructors and course designers engaged in online learning;
  • Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation gave me the privilege of personally interviewing instructors doing innovative teaching using learning technologies in universities and colleges in British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. In all I interviewed 23 instructors in 16 different institutions. More importantly I could see exactly what they were doing in context. However, this was still a small proportion of the more than 180 cases reported to date by Contact North;
  • leading the research team for the national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions allowed me to get the ‘big picture’ of online developments in Canadian universities and colleges. Also having to raise the funding for this project ($165,000 in total) brought me into contact with  government agencies engaged with online learning (eCampuses mainly), but also national organisations such as CICAN and Universities Canada, and commercial sponsors such as Pearson and D2L, giving me yet another perspective on agencies engaged with online learning.

Using a mobile phone and QR tags for a video of the anatomy of a dog’s heart: Sue Dawson UPEI

So what did I learn from all this in 2017?

A big leap forward for online learning in Canada in 2017

Complacency is dangerous, but Canada did pretty well in online learning in 2017:

  • most universities and colleges in Canada do at least some fully online and distance courses, enabling wider access in almost every province and territory;
  • enrolments in fully online learning or distance courses are increasing at a rate of 10%-15% per annum (although with considerable provincial variation);
  • probably about 15% of all post-secondary teaching in Canada is now fully online;
  • more and more instructors are integrating online learning into their classroom or campus-based teaching;
  • most Canadian post-secondary institutions see online learning as critically important for their future; 
  • a good deal of innovation in teaching is going on at the individual instructor level;
  • a few provincial governments are solidly supporting online learning and their policies are directly resulting in more digital learning.

Innovation ain’t what you think it is

Innovation in teaching is much more than just using advanced technologies for the first time – and sometimes much less. I was struck in particular about several things from the Pockets of Innovation interviews:

  • most instructors are using new technology (or at least technology new to them) to help with a particular teaching problem or challenge, whether it’s because students don’t come to lectures because of bad weather, or because there are not enough models or samples for every student in the class to spend enough time with, or because students are dropping out of a program because the courses are not properly sequenced or coherent. Technology is best used when it helps solve an actual teaching problem;
  • often though the technology is not enough on its own; it has to be combined with an appropriate change in teaching method or policy that the technology supports or enhances;
  • successful innovation is happening mainly from the bottom up; this is because individual instructors are in the best position to judge the learning context, the learning needs, and which of the zillion new apps and technologies available is the one most likely to fit the situation;
  • the corollary is that institutional or government policies can encourage innovation but cannot predict what it will be: innovation strategy should focus on encouraging risk-taking and rewarding instructors who innovate successfully (i.e. by getting better learning outcomes) rather than privileging particular technologies or even teaching approaches (such as competency-based or experiential learning, for instance, no matter how worthy they are in their own right);
  • most successful teaching innovations are based on easily available and somewhat familiar technologies, such as mobile phones and web conferencing, rather than on ‘state-of-the art’ technologies such as virtual reality or AI;
  • government policy and funding (or lack of it) does make a difference; money talks as can be seen by the impact of government funding for online course development in Ontario and for open educational resources and open text books in British Columbia;
  • few institutions or even provincial governments have a meaningful strategy for supporting innovation in teaching, especially for diffusing innovation throughout an institution or system; as a result innovative teaching still remains in pockets rather than transforming institutions or systems.

There’s a long way to go with open educational resources

OER continue to be a hard sell for most Canadian instructors, despite strong commitment from at least two governments of large provinces. This was evident from both the Pockets of Innovation and the national survey.

This is a topic on its own, but having talked to instructors and seen how they think about teaching, here are my two cents’ worth of thoughts on why OER continue to develop much more slowly than they should:

  • when OER are being promoted, it often comes across as a cult or an ideology rather than a solution to an instructor’s teaching problem. Show instructors how OER can save them time or money. Show them how OER can best be integrated into teaching specific subjects or topics and show the teaching benefits over using commercial products (unfortunately most instructors care less about saving money for students than making their own lives easier – strange that, isn’t it?);
  • the main advantage of expensive commercial textbooks is all the supplementary materials they come with that make life easier for an instructor and students, such as worked examples or solutions, test questions and answers, and automated marking; just publishing an open textbook without linking it to supporting OER doesn’t cut it, but at the moment OER and open textbooks are often developed independently – they need to be better integrated;
  • stop thinking of OER as something different from everything else on the Internet; all open content has value, whether it is specifically designed for educational purposes or not; this means coming up with course design models that exploit open content for the purpose of developing 21st century skills such as knowledge management, analysis of source reliability, etc.
  • at the same time, if an object is meant to be educational, design it better – too many OER are poorly designed in media terms and are not clearly linked to specific learning outcomes; this means scaling up OER production so that it is more easily shareable. Instead of funding individual instructors to create subject-specific OER,  bring all the statistics instructors together, for instance, with instructional designers and media producers, first to check what’s already available and what its limitations are, then to produce better, high quality OER for statistics that everyone can use.
  • try to get experienced faculty who are nearing the end of their careers to write an open textbook as a legacy project, pulling together all their knowledge and experience over their whole career; this is likely to result in innovative, ‘breakthrough’ open textbooks rather than just providing an open version of existing textbooks, and may lead more importantly to revised and more appropriate curricula.

Instructor training in teaching remains a huge problem

One of the findings from my Pocket of Innovation interviews was that less than half the instructors based their innovation on a theory of learning or a change of teaching method to produce different outcomes, such as skills development. Without a grounding in pedagogy and a knowledge of the research into how people learn, it is impossible for most instructors to see the real potential of digital technology for improving their teaching. We still rely too much on instructional designers backstopping faculty who don’t know how to teach effectively.

Is the instructional design support model scalable for blended learning?

Even when fully online learning is only 15% of all teaching, it has been difficult to provide adequate instructional design support. When 80-90% of instructors have the potential to integrate technology into their classroom teaching the current model of faculty support will not be feasible.

One solution to this is to provide instructors with ‘on-demand’ online resources when they need them. For instance:

However useful though such on-demand tools may be, they do not replace the need for some basic grounding in pedagogical principles, which is now absolutely essential if technology is to be used well in teaching.

What next?

Well, looking into 2018 is another blog post, but of one thing I am certain: I won’t be working as hard next year as I did in 2017.

I really enjoyed everything I did, but I cannot go on doing the long-distance travel, which exhausts me.

So I wish you all a great holiday season, so that you can come back refreshed for another interesting year in what surely is one of the most exciting and satisfying areas to be working in these days.

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.

Reference

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