November 18, 2017

How can online learning help Canadian colleges meet the challenges ahead?

Students at Algonquin College, which has a large online program

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. (I answered the first question yesterday). I have also added a few more comments.

Question 2

2. How must colleges change in the next ten years, in order to remain successful as they face the challenges of declining enrolment, decreased funding and shrinking infrastructures?

I am limiting my comments here to Canada’s two year public post-secondary college system, drawing on some of the results and experience from the recent National Survey of Online Learning and Distance Education.

This is another good question. Resources are always limited, and there is no evidence that online learning leads to significant reductions in costs, at least in the short term. Indeed, the evidence suggests that online learning needs initial extra investment at governmental and institutional level, and also at the individual instructor level, if time is considered a cost.

Questionable assumptions

Nevertheless, I have to challenge the assumptions made in this question. They may apply to some jurisdictions or geographical areas, but not to others (at least in Canada). Decreased funding and declining enrolment apply particularly to some of the Maritime provinces and to northern Ontario and rural Saskatchewan, but not to other parts of Ontario (e.g. the GTA) or the BC lower mainland, for instance.

In terms of funding, the Ontario provincial government in fact has put over $12 million recently into online learning, partly for economic reasons (the government has linked it to the development of 21st century skills and the need for lifelong learning) as well as to increase access, particularly in more remote parts of Ontario. 

The main funding gap is for aboriginal communities, where access to post-secondary education is still limited by cost and distance. However, I have seen signs of increased interest in the development of online programs for aboriginal students that at least consider aboriginal culture and pedagogy. These programs can build on increased federal and provincial funding for high speed networks for remote and rural areas in Canada totalling $150 million.

It also appears there may be an online learning funding issue in Québec, which is the only province in the national survey where online enrolments went down in the college sector (CEGEPs in Québec) over the last five years. In response to another question on the survey, Québec institutions much more frequently reported a lack of government funding as a barrier to online learning compared with institutions in other provinces.

Overall, colleges may complain about lack of resources, but compared to most countries, Canada has an extremely well-funded public college system. Most colleges now offer some form of online learning, and there is plenty of room for expansion.

Becoming more efficient

In the Maritimes, institutions are increasingly looking to online learning to increase enrolments from out-of-province students (the tuition fees in maritime provinces being lower) and to keep the out-of-province students they already have. For instance, Dalhousie University in Halifax is now offering summer online courses for the out-of-province students who tend to return home for the summer, so they don’t pick up courses during the summer from institutions in their home province.

Also in Ontario, through OntarioLearn, the colleges collaborate and share online courses, avoiding duplication and thus reducing costs. Contact North through its network of local learning centres and telecommunications network facilitates the delivery of programs from all Ontario colleges and universities into remote areas of Ontario.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick already have a single institution for colleges with local campuses across each province, thus somewhat reducing overheads and duplication of courses, but more importantly ensuring common technology standards and delivery across the system. I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar isn’t developed soon for Saskatchewan rural colleges, which are also struggling financially, and generally have low enrolments. Manitoba already has Campus Manitoba, a consortium of Manitoba’s public post-secondary institutions that encourages collaboration and facilitates student mobility in Manitoba.

Co-operation could be expanded further by provincial articulation committees agreeing on a core set of OER that are jointly developed and shared between colleges. However, that needs to be backed up by more or better faculty development on how to develop and/or use OER.

eCampuses or provincial networks provide (or could provide) a number of services that help keep down costs to both institutions and students, such as open textbook projects (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario), promoting/organizing OER initiatives, province-wide technology licenses, shared learning technology support for very small institutions, province-wide faculty development opportunities, and showcasing innovative projects. I suspect that we will see new eCampuses soon for the Maritimes and maybe Québec.

Conclusion

It can be seen that online learning does offer opportunities for cost savings or expanding access more economically, mainly through inter-institutional collaboration and sharing and by avoiding the construction of new campuses (if politicians and presidents can control their edifice complexes) through absorbing extra numbers through hybrid and full online learning.

More importantly, though, from my perspective, to remain successful, colleges will need to ensure students have developed the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age, and online learning provides a valuable and cost-effective means to enable this to happen (see Teaching in a Digital Age for more details).

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.

Conclusion

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.

Scary tales of online learning and educational technology

The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Centre for Digital Media, Vancouver BC

The Educational Technology Users Group (ETUG) of British Columbia held an appropriately Halloween-themed get together today called ‘The Little Workshop of Horrors’ at which participants were encouraged to share tales of failure and horror stories in the use of learning technologies.

This seemed to me a somewhat risky strategy but it actually worked really well. First the workshop was held in ‘the Hangar’, a large, covered space in (or rather beside) the Centre for Digital Media, a shared building used by UBC, Simon Fraser University, BCIT and the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. The Centre itself is a good example of collaboration and sharing in developing media-based programs, such as its Master of Digital Media. The Hangar lent itself to a somewhat spooky atmosphere, enhanced by a DJ who often accompanied presenters with ghoulish music.

Audrey’s Monsters

The workshop got off to an excellent start with a brilliant keynote from Audrey Watters on the Monsters of Educational Technology (The link will take you to her book on the subject). She identified a range of monsters (the examples are partly Audrey’s, partly mine):

  • Frankenstein’s monster that went wrong because its (hir?) master failed to provide it (em?) with love or social company (teaching machines?): in Audrey’s word’s ‘a misbegotten creature of a misbegotten science’,
  • vampires that suck the blood of students, e.g. by using their personal data (learning analytics?),
  • zombies, i.e. technologies or ed tech ideas that rise and die then rise again (e.g. technology will remove the need for schools, an idea that goes back to the early 1900s),
  • giants that become obsolete and die (Skinner, Merrill)
  • the Blob, which grows bigger and bigger and invades every nook and cranny (MOOCs?)
  • and the dragons, are the libertarian, free-market, Silicon-valley types that preach the ‘destruction’ and ‘re-invention’ of education.

Audrey Watters’ larger point is that if we are not careful, educational technology easily turns itself into a monster that drives out all humanity in the teaching and learning process. We need to be on constant watch, and, whenever we can, we need to take control away from large technology corporations whose ultimate purpose is not educational.

Not only was it a great, on topic, presentation, but it was also such a pleasure to meet at last Audrey in person, as I am a huge fan of her blog.

He was a monster, not because he was a machine, but because he wasn't loved

Confessions

Then came the confessional, at which a series of speakers confessed their sins – or rather, classic failures – about educational technology, often in very funny ways. What was interesting though about most of the tales was that although there was a disaster, in most cases out of the disaster came a lot of good things. (As one speaker said, ‘Success is failing many times without losing your optimism’; or ‘ A sailor gets to know the sea only after he has waded ashore.’).

One presenter reported going to a university to ‘sell’ Blackboard but was so nervous that her presentation was so bad they ended up going with Canvas (you see what I mean about some good coming out of these disasters!) Another described how over 20 years she has been trying to move faculty into more interactive and engaging technology than learning management systems, yet here she is still spending most of her time supporting faculty using an LMS.

One talked about spending years trying to promote IMS-based learning objects, only to find that Google’s search engine made meta-data identification redundant. Revealingly, he felt he knew at the time that the meta-data approach to learning objects was too complex to work, but he had to do it because that was the only way he could get funding. More than one speaker noted that Canada in the past has spent millions of dollars on programs that focused heavily on software solutions (anyone remember EduSource?) but almost nothing on evaluating the educational applications of technology or on research on new or even old pedagogies.

Another spoke about the demise of a new university, the Technical University of British Columbia, that was a purpose-built, new university deliberately built around an “integrated learning” approach, combining heavy use of on-line learning with mixed face-to-face course structures – in 1999. However, by 2002 it had only about 800 FTEs, and a new incoming provincial government, desperate to save money and eager to diminish the previous government’s legacy, closed the university and transferred the students (but not the programs) to Simon Fraser University. Nevertheless, the legacy did live on, with many of the learning technology staff moving later into senior positions within the Canadian higher education system.

I see instructional designers, educational technologists or learning ecology consultants (which was a new title for me) as the Marine Corps of the educational world. They have seen many battles and have (mostly) survived. They have even learned how to occasionally win battles. That’s the kind of wisdom of which academic leaders and faculty and instructors should make much better use.

One participant had such a bad experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as 'the haunted house on the hill.'

One participant had such a bad ed tech experience at Simon Fraser University that she thinks of it as ‘the haunted house on the hill.’

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Demographics and online learning

Image: Z Living Network, 2016

Image: Z Living Network, 2016

Rai, S. (2016) How Millennial Moms Are Parenting Differently Than Their Parents Z Living Network, 7 March

Unauthored (2016)  Survey Finds Millennial Parents Supportive Of DIY Approach To Education, Diverse School Options Parental Herald, 12 August

Boomers had Dr Spock. Millennials have each other.

No institution can now afford to ignore demographics in its strategic planning, and in no area is this more true than in plans for online learning. Traditional distance education (print-based and until very recently, online distance education) has mainly attracted older students with already some experience of higher education. It has been seen as an ideal area for continuing professional education, and the growth of online professional masters degrees is evidence in support of this belief.

However, there is now a significant shift in the overall demographics, particularly in North America. Millennials (those born in the 1980s and 1990s) are now the largest living generation in the USA.

A recent survey by Connections Education (a Pearson company) found that 55% of millennials have taken an online course (higher than any previous generation) and a majority of millennial parents (51 percent) think that high school students should be required to take at least one online course.

This may be behind the continued growth in demand for online learning at a post-secondary level. Students coming into university or college, whether millennials or post-millennials, have grown up in a world where the Internet is part of life and to whom online learning is not an exotic or marginal activity but the natural order of things.

Institutions who want to attract the best and brightest students need to be aware of this and plan for it, not just for professional education programs but also for undergraduate and two year vocational programs. This is particularly important, as I have argued many times, at a program level, where every program needs to have a rational and evidence-based policy that determines the best balance between face-to-face, blended and fully online learning within the program. In particular, to what extent can courses and programs fully exploit the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of social media in support of the learning goals?

So, does your program or institution have a plan or policy for online learning? Is it a good one, and if so what makes it good?

A look at online learning and digital wisdom from Madeira

Curral das Freiras (Nun's Valley) in the centre of Madeira

Curral das Freiras (Nun’s Valley) in the centre of Madeira

Madeira

Madeira is a Portuguese island in the Atlantic about 200 kilometres west of north-west Africa. I’d never been there before this year, but now it’s twice in two months. The first time I had an eight hour stop-over when travelling by ship from Puerto Rico to Malaga in Spain. This time I took almost a week, not just to attend a conference, but also to have time to explore this amazingly beautiful island, which has many different kinds of flowers, such as hydrangeas, clematis, nasturtiums and birds of paradise, all growing wild on the mountain sides.

The island of Madeira is basically a huge extinct volcano rising over 6,000 feet, often almost vertically out of the ocean. This leads to exciting bus rides, which tend to take the high road to get round the coast and the deep ravines.

The conference

I was here to give a keynote speech on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ in the e-learning strand of the 10th Multi Conference on Computer Science and Information Systems in Funchal, Madeira during July 1-4. The conference was organized by IADIS, the International Society for the Development of the Information Society.

Those of us who are specialists in online learning tend to forget that online learning is just one aspect of the information society. What this conference did was to bring together participants from the various branches studying different aspects of the information society. The conference was multi-stranded and covered the following areas:

  • e-Learning
  • Theory and Practice in Modern Computing
  • Game and Entertainment Technologies
  • ICT, Society, and Human Beings
  • Web Based Communities and Social Media
  • Interfaces and Human Computer Interaction
  • Computer Graphics, Visualization, Computer Vision and Image Processing
  • Information Systems Post-implementation and Change Management
  • Connected Smart Cities
  • Big Data Analytics, Data Mining and Computational Intelligence

I was the keynote speaker for the strand on e-learning.

Above the clouds at Pico d'Areeiro

Above the clouds at Pico d’Areeiro

Online learning as a disciplinary area

Given the breadth of the conference, many of the participants in the e-learning strand were either just getting into online learning, or were looking in from the outside. Some who have been working in the field of online learning for many years, can get very frustrated or even angry when new entrants start re-inventing the wheel or discovering for themselves things that have been known for many years within the profession. This was certainly evident from some of the parallel sessions I attended.

However, I think it is pointless to get worked up about this. It is healthy for the field of online learning that it is constantly expanding and bringing in new blood and new perspectives, as well as reinventing the wheel. As a discipline, we have not done a good job in communicating effectively evidence-based knowledge and sound pedagogical principles to newcomers. This is one reason why I wrote my book, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, and why I was pleased to be invited to talk to this conference. We need more efforts to break down the artificial knowledge boundaries in the field of information and communications technologies. Thus I was here as much to learn from others as to teach.

Developing digital wisdom

It would be impossible in the space available to cover all aspects of the e-learning strand. There were sessions on communities of inquiry, online professional and vocational training, inter-cultural differences in online learning, data mining and analysis, and many other topics, but I want to comment on one presentation that focused on the larger societal shifts resulting from a digital society, and in particular suggested a strategy for developing a ‘good’ ICT (information and communications technologies) society.

I was interested in this because of my growing concern about the relationship between the impact of digital technologies and alienation in humans. (It should be remembered that it is still only a week since the British voted to come out of the European Union, and Donald Trump is now the official Republican contender for President of the USA). Put bluntly, are social media in particular leading to the dumbing down of our society?

I therefore went along to a very interesting keynote presentation by Gunilla Bradley, Emeritus Professor at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. She was talking about her forthcoming book, ‘Digital Wisdom’ (not out until 2017).

In her presentation she pointed to a great deal of convergence between globalization, information technologies, social environments, and multiple roles and identities for individuals. As a psychologist, she was particularly interested in the effects of this convergence of forces on human behaviour.

This convergence of forces challenges our sense of:

  • self-identity,
  • self-esteem,
  • integrity,
  • trust in others,
  • empowerment,

These convergent forces also:

  • challenge our ability to empathize,
  • and increase stress.

In particular, individuals are increasingly struggling to find a balance between emotionality and rationality, their gender role, and a balance between involvement and alienation.

In order for humans to achieve this balance in a digital society, she enumerated 10 principles that should influence how digital technologies are deployed and regulated. I won’t list them all but they include

  • democratic versus free market regulation,
  • a focus on human well-being and meeting basic human needs,
  • balance and harmony, etc.

For these principles to be implemented, she recommends 10 actions. Again, I won’t list all these but give some examples below:

  • be guided by the ‘Golden Rule’: treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself
  • revision of economic theories to take account of the 10 principles
  • make these principles a focus for politics at local, national and international levels
  • focus education on developing the 10 principles, particularly at a pre-school level

My comments

This is a selective summary of a much more complex thesis, but I had a number of responses to the presentation

  • I am very glad that someone is looking at the broader implications of the impact of digitalization on society at large. In particular, Bradley’s analysis was not negative but wholly positive and optimistic, accepting the many benefits of digitalization but also questioning how we can reduce the negative elements;
  • it is important to look beyond the immediate and short-term implications of new technologies and think about their longer term impact. For instance, in a rather narrow sense, what is the long-term consequence likely to be of reducing class time and increasing online activities in education, particularly as this pushed down to the younger age groups and pre-school children. How do we get the balance right between screen time and other activities in education?
  • Bradley’s approach is a direct challenge to the neo-liberal, free market approach to ICTs. To date, with the possible exception of the original Internet and the original World Wide Web, the introduction and use of digital technologies are dominated by the desire to make lots of money for private corporations, who control much of the world’s use of ICTs. Is it possible to build alternative pathways for the development and use of ICTs that focus on the general good without destroying innovation and accessibility? What alternative models of governance and control of ICTs are possible?

My immediate reaction to Bradley’s presentation was that she was being hopelessly optimistic and naive, but on reflection, we do need alternatives to the current free market, value-free approach to the development and application of the digital technologies that increasingly dominate our lives. Without a clear vision for the future we want we are unlikely to get it, and Professor Bradley has put forward such a vision. This is becoming more urgent as the consequences of the alienation associated at least in part to the digitalization of our personal lives, work, business, social communication and economics manifest themselves in political phenomena such as Brexit and the U.S. Presidential election.

I am really looking forward to reading her book when it comes out – hopefully as an open, online book!

Funchal seen from Cabo Girão

Funchal seen from Cabo Girão

Images: Tony Bates