July 21, 2017

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 Lastly it still has the same structural problems with an outdated course design and development model and poor student support services, especially on the academic side.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.

Tracking innovations in online learning in Canada

Rue St Jean, Québec City. Temperatures ranged from -17 C to -23 C -without wind chill added

I’ve not been blogging much recently because, frankly, I’ve been too busy, and not on the golf course or ski slopes, either. (Yeah, so what happened to my retirement? Failed again).

Assessing the state of online learning in Canada

I am working on two projects at the moment:

These two projects in fact complement one another nicely, with the first aiming to provide a broad and accurate picture of the extent of online learning in Canada, and the other focusing on the more qualitative aspects of innovation in online learning, and all in time for not only for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada (which was really the creation of a new, independent state in North America) but also ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October, whose theme is, guess what, Teaching in a Digital Age (now there’s a co-incidence).

Of course, I’m not doing this on my own. In both projects I am working with a great group of people.

Methodology

My mandate for Contact North is to identify 8-12 cases of innovation in online learning from all of Canada other than Ontario. I started of course in British Columbia, early in January, and last week I visited six post-secondary institutions in four cities in Québec.

To find the cases, I have gone to faculty development workshops where instructors showcase their innovations, or I have contacted instructional designers I know in different institutions to recommend cases. The institutions are chosen to reflect provinces, and universities and colleges within each province.

Each visit involves an interview with the instructor responsible for the innovation, and where possible a demonstration or examples of the innovation. (One great thing about online learning is that it leaves a clear footprint that can be captured).

I then write up a short report, using a set of headings provided by Contact North, and then return that to the instructor to ensure that it is accurate. I then submit the case report to Contact North.

I am not sure whether Contact North will publish all the cases I report on its web site, as I will certainly cover much more than 8-12 cases in the course of this project. However, it is hoped that at least some of the instructors featured will showcase their innovations at the World Congress of Online Learning.

Progress to date

I have conducted interviews (but not finished the reports yet) for the following:

British Columbia

  • the use of an online dialectical map to develop argumentation skills in undergraduate science students (Simon Fraser University – SFU)
  • peer evaluation as a learning and assessment strategy for building teamwork skills in business school programs (SFU)
  • the development of a mobile app for teaching the analysis of soil samples (University of British Columbia)
  • PRAXIS: software to enable real-time, team-based decision-making skills through simulations of real-world emergency situations (Justice Institute of British Columbia)

Québec

  • comodal synchronous teaching, enabling students to choose between attending a live lecture or participating at the same time from home/at a distance (Laval University)
  • synchronous online teaching of the use of learning technologies in a teacher education program (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières – UQTR)
  • achieving high completion rates in a MOOC on the importance of children’s play (UQTR)
  • a blended course on effective face-to-face teaching for in-service teachers (TÉLUQ)
  • use of iBook Author software for content management for cardiology students and faculty in a teaching hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke University Hospital: CHUS)
  • a decision-making tool to develop active and coherent learning scenarios that leverage the use of learning technologies (Université de Montréal).
  • Mathema-TIC: francophone open educational resources for teaching mathematics in universities and colleges (Université de Montréal).

These visits would not have been possible without the assistance of France Lafleur, an online instructor from UQTR who not only arranged many of the meetings but also did all the driving. Anyone from outside Québec who has tried to drive across the province in winter, and especially tried to navigate and drive to several parts of Montréal the same day, will understand why this help was invaluable.

Response and reaction

Faculty and instructors often receive a lot of criticism for being resistant to change in their teaching. This project however starts from an opposite position. What are faculty and instructors actually doing in terms of innovation in their teaching? What can we learn from this regarding change and the development of new teaching approaches? What works and what doesn’t?

It is dangerous at this stage to start drawing conclusions. This is not a representative selection of even innovative projects, and the project – in terms of my participation – has just started. The definition of innovation is also imprecise. It’s like trying to describe an elephant to someone who’s never seen one: you might find it difficult to imagine, but you’ll know it when you see it.

However, even with such a small sample, some things are obvious:

  • innovation in online teaching is alive and well in Canadian post-secondary education: there is a lot going on. It was not difficult to identify these 11 cases; I could have easily found many more if I had the time;
  • the one common feature across all the instructors I have interviewed is their enthusiasm and passion for their projects. They are all genuinely excited by what they were doing. Their teaching has been galvanised by their involvement in the innovation; 
  • in some of the cases, there are measured improvements in student learning outcomes, or, more importantly, new ’21st century skills’ such as teamwork, evidence-based argumentation, and knowledge management are being developed as a result of the innovation;
  • although again these are early days for me, there seems to be a widening gap between what is actually happening on the ground and what we read or hear about in the literature and at conferences on innovation in online learning. The innovation I am seeing is often built around simple but effective changes, such as a web-based map, or a slight change of teaching approach, such as opening up a lecture class to students who don’t want to – or can’t – come in to the campus on a particular day. However, these innovations are radically changing the dynamics of classroom teaching;
  • blended learning is breaking out all over the place. Most of these cases involve a mix of classroom and online learning, but there is no standard model – such as flipped classrooms – emerging. They all vary quite considerably from each other; 
  • the innovations are still somewhat isolated although a couple have gone beyond the original instructor and have been adopted by colleagues; however there is usually no institutional strategy or process for evaluating innovations and making sure that they are taken up across a wider range of teaching, although instructional designers working together provide one means for doing this. Evaluation of the innovation though is usually just left to the innovator, with all the risks that this entails in terms of objectivity.

Next steps

I still have at least one more case from another institution in British Columbia to follow up, and I now have a backlog of reports to do. I hope to have these all finished by the end of this month.

I have two more trips to organise. The first will be to the prairie provinces:

  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which I hope to do in mid-March.

The next will be to the Maritimes,

  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland, which I will do probably in April or May.

No further cases or institutions have been identified at this moment, and I am definitely open to suggestions in these provinces if you have any. The criterion for choice is as follows:

  • The focus is first and foremost on practice, on actual teaching and learning applications – not policy, funding, planning issues, descriptions of broad services, or broader concerns.
  • The interest is in applications of pedagogy using technology for classroom, blended, and online learning with the emphasis on student learning, engagement, assessment, access, etc. The pedagogy is as important as the technology in terms of innovation.
  • The emphasis is on innovative practices that can be replicated or used by other instructors.
  • We are particularly looking for cases where some form of evaluation of the innovation has been conducted or where there is clear evidence of success.

If you can recommend a case that you think fits well these parameters, please drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca.

In the meantime, look out for the case studies being posted to Contact North’s Pocket of Innovation web site over the next few months. There are also more cases from Ontario being done at the same time.

Webinar on choosing modes of delivery and the role of face-to-face teaching in an online world

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

Why get the bus to campus when you can study online?

On Tuesday I gave another in the Contact North series of webinars designed around my open, online textbook for faculty and instructors, Teaching in a Digital Age.

This focused on Chapter 9 of the book, but with a different twist from last year’s webinar on the same topic, this year’s webinar focused particularly on the move to blended learning, and the need to redefine the role of campus-based teaching when so much can now be done online.

You can download a recording of the webinar from here: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=760bef531b9a8fcf59f5480dd57401ff. However, make sure you have the WebEx ARF player downloaded in order to play the recording – see the download instructions on the above web page if the ‘play’ button doesn’t load the recording.

Also note that the presentation doesn’t start until two minutes into the recording because the introduction was accidentally muted.

 

Are you ready for blended learning?

changing-teaching-methods-2

I’ve just come back from visiting two universities in central Canada and I have also been getting feedback from pilot institutions on the questionnaire we are developing for a survey of online learning in Canada. Although I do not want to anticipate the results of the survey, some things are already becoming clear, especially about blended learning.

Definition

First of course there is the question of definition. What actually is blended learning? It clearly means different things to different people. I have tried to describe it as on a continuum of educational delivery (see graphic below):

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

Blended learning can be seen as

  • nothing more than Powerpoint slides in a classroom lecture,
  • extra homework online after a face-to-face class,
  • a ‘flipped’ classroom where the lecture is recorded and available online, and the class time is used for discussion and questions about the video
  • a totally re-designed course, where careful choices have been made about what is done online and what in class (hybrid).

When there are so many different meanings for the same phrase, it becomes somewhat meaningless. For this reason, one recommendation made to us most strongly was that in our survey blended should be counted only when there is a deliberate replacement of face-to-face time with online learning. At least that should be measurable. But what if, in a flipped class, the lecture time is merely replaced with a face-to-face seminar, with the lecture online? Same amount of face-to-face teaching but an increased workload for the student.

It’s not about quantity; it’s about quality

If we take the broad definition to include all or most of the points above, we can certainly make one fairly confident prediction. Nearly all post-secondary teaching, at least in North America, will be blended. In other words, almost all teaching will be either fully online, or a mix of classroom and online activities, if it is not already. Even in the most traditional lecture-based physics courses, for instance, students are likely to have online exercises to do associated with the course set book.

In fact we’ve been told in some of the feedback on the survey questionnaire that blended learning is already the norm in most Canadian post-secondary institutions. This may or may not be true – hopefully the survey will reject or confirm this assumption – but that seems to be the perception of many of those closest to the action. The issue then is not will blended learning become the norm, but how quickly, and my guess is that nearly all courses in Canadian post-secondary institutions will be online or blended within the next five years.

The key question then is not whether or not blended learning will be the norm, but will it be done well or badly? It is this question that keeps me awake at night, because there is no guarantee that classroom instructors drifting into blended learning know anything about the best practices for online teaching, or indeed whether these best practices will migrate successfully to the many different forms of blended learning that will emerge.

What do we do on campus when students can learn most things online?

One reason I lie awake at night is because we have no evidence-based research or theory that can guide instructors on this question. We certainly have a lot of opinions about what can best be taught online and what face-to-face, and we certainly have a lot of good research and theory, and best practice, about how to teach effectively fully online.

Indeed, it is the on-campus activities that are less well defined when students can study online. Or to put it more bluntly, what can we offer students on campus that makes it worth their time to get out of bed and on the bus on a cold and frosty morning that they can’t get by staying home and studying online? What is the added value of the campus or the classroom?

The answer to this question of course will vary from subject to subject. An experienced instructor will maybe intuitively work this out for herself, but there is a lot of scope for getting it wrong as well. I don’t want to under-rate instructor intuition, but theory and research on this question is desperately needed, at least to offset guessing and ‘I know best’ attitudes. Indeed, for far too long, many on-campus instructors have incorrectly assumed that certain teaching or learning activities can only be done well on campus when in fact we have found they can be done just as well or better online. In the future, if not at present, even laboratory work may be done as well online through the use of remote labs, online simulations and/or augmented reality.

So what guidelines or framework can we offer instructors in making these decisions? I have suggested in Chapter 9 of Teaching in a Digital Age four criteria and a simple process for making a decision about the mode of delivery but I am more aware than anybody how fragile and tentative this is without it being backed by theory and research. It is also one thing to decide to do a blended class rather than a face-to-face class, but quite another to decide what should best be done in each of the different modes of delivery.

Why get on the bus when you can study online?

Why get on the bus when you can study online?

Organizational issues

Another factor which unfortunately is often the first issue that institutions try to determine when moving to blended learning is the organizational structure for the learning support units, such as those housing instructional designers, web and media developers, and technical support for LMSs, etc. For many institutions, it is recognized that mainline, on-campus faculty will need substantial learning technology and instructional design support if they are to move to blended learning, but the problem is perceived as having the support in the wrong places.

In many North American universities, this support is often concentrated in Continuing Studies, because, historically, this is the unit that has supported distance and fully online learning. Now that support is needed for on-campus activities. However, the units supporting fully online courses and programs are usually themselves over-stretched, just managing the fully online courses.

Although it is important eventually to align support to where it is most needed, the problem should not be seen as an organizational issue but as a resource issue: there is just not enough existing resources going into academic support to cope with an expansion into blended learning.

The scaling issue

This is the main reason for my lying awake at night. Institutions are already spending a good deal to support just the fully online courses or programs. We have good models here based on instructional designers and media specialists working in a team with instructors in developing fully online courses. This way, the special design requirements for students studying off campus can be met.

However, at the moment, fully online courses constitute somewhere around 10-15% of all the credit-based teaching in North American universities. What happens when we go to 85% or more of the teaching being blended? The current learning technology support model just won’t be able to handle this expansion, certainly not at the rate that it is being predicted. However, without a design strategy for blended learning, and adequate support for faculty and instructors, it is almost certain that the quality will be poor, and it is certain that all the potential benefits of blended learning for transforming the quality of teaching will not be achieved.

Trying to extend the support system from fully online to blended courses and programs will ultimately be unsustainable. Although support units will be essential to get blended learning successfully started, teaching activities must be economically sustainable, which means faculty and instructors will eventually need to become able to design and manage blended learning effectively without continuous and ongoing support from instructional designers and media producers. This will require a huge training and retraining effort for instructors.

Possible solutions

As always, identifying a challenge is much easier than resolving it. But here are some suggestions (please suggest others):

  • Develop an institutional strategy for teaching and learning. Give priority in terms of resources and support to those academic areas ready and wanting to move into innovative teaching, in whatever mode it takes.
  • Identify additional resources for a move to innovative teaching, in the form of extra instructional designers, media producers and release time for faculty for initial course design and development. (This is a good indicator of just how serious the institution is about changing teaching). This will provide a core of support to get things going in an effective manner.
  • Give priority to supporting innovative blended learning designs, where the course is re-designed with a clear rationale for what is being done online and what face-to-face.
  • In particular give priority to supporting academic programs that have a clear strategy for blended and online learning and how it will be delivered across the program
  • Encourage innovation in blended learning design, but ensure that it is properly evaluated and that there is a strategy, if the innovation is successful, for ensuring the design is more widely applied.
  • Don’t mess with successfully operating support units that already exist. If they were needed before for what they do, they are still needed for that. Set up new units to support the move to blended learning and locate them close to the academic departments where they will be needed. Build an institutional community of practice so that the different support units can learn from each other.
  • The most important suggestion of all: overhaul completely your faculty development and training. Start with an online or blended course on how to teach online or in a blended format. Make it mandatory for instructors getting institutional support for blended or online learning. Provide a teaching track for appointments, promotion and tenure to reward innovative teaching. Redesign the post-graduate experience to ensure that teaching methods and pedagogy are also covered as well as research expertise, and ensure a direct link between such courses and teaching appointments. Provide badges, certificates or post-graduate diplomas or degrees for instructors who can demonstrate they have taken courses on teaching in post-secondary education.
  • Give research into blended learning a high priority in the SSHRC; this is going to be the norm and we need to know what works and what doesn’t. In particular we need some good theory on the pedagogical differences between online and classroom teaching – not comparative research about which is best, but what each is uniquely suitable for within a particular subject discipline and teaching context.

Then you will be ready for blended learning.

Over to you

Do you share my concerns or am I just a nervous Nellie? Should we just leave everyone to work it out for themselves?

Alternatively, what do you think needs to be done to ensure that blended learning is introduced sustainably and with high quality?

Does your institution have a plan for dealing with the move to blended learning? Is it a good plan?

 

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!