August 14, 2018

Why is innovation in teaching in HE so difficult? 4. Integrating online and distance learning into the mainstream

Blended learning: what makes it innovative? Image: Erasmus+

This is the fourth and final post in this series. The previous three were:

Is it really so difficult?

A strong case could be made that at least in North America, higher education systems have been very successful in innovation. For instance, over the last 15 years, online learning has become widespread in most universities and colleges.

In the USA, one in three students now takes at least one distance education/online course for credit (Seaman et al., 2018). Although campus-based enrolments have been static or declining in the USA over the last few years, fully online enrolments have grown by about 5% over the last four years. 

In Canada, online learning in credit based courses has increased from around 5% of all enrolments in 2000 to around 15% of all enrolments in 2017. For the last four years, online enrolments have been increasing at a annual rate of between 12-16% in Canada, and nearly all universities and colleges in Canada now offer at least some fully online courses (Bates et al., 2017). 

However, that is one area where Canada differs from the USA. In the USA, online education is concentrated in a much smaller proportion of institutions in the USA than in Canada. In the USA, 235 institutions command 47% (2,985,347) of the student distance enrolments, but represent only 5% of all higher education enrolments in the USA (Seaman et al. 2018). Basically, some institutions, such as the University of Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State University, have become expert in scaling up online learning to a position where it has become large-scale and self-sustainable.

Then there are MOOCs. Many universities around the world are now offering MOOCs, with over 20 million enrolments a year. There may be criticism about completion rates and lack of accepted qualifications, but nevertheless, even – or especially – the elite universities have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon.

Also, Contact North’s project, Pockets of Innovation, with nearly 200 case studies, has identified that there are many individual instructors in colleges and universities adopting innovative uses of technology in their teaching, mostly independent of any institutional strategy.

However, probably the greatest impact of online learning on teaching in higher education is just getting started and that is the integration of online learning with classroom teaching, in the form of blended or hybrid learning. Bates et al. (2017) found that almost three quarters of institutions in Canada reported that this type of teaching was occurring in their institution. However, two thirds of the institutions reported that fewer than 10% of courses are in this format. In other words, integrated online learning is wide but not yet deep.

And this is where perhaps the biggest challenge of successful innovation lies: ensuring the high quality integration of online and classroom teaching. But we shall see that there are also concerns about how well campus-based institutions with no prior history of credit-based distance education have moved to fully online courses and programs as well.

The challenge of moving from a single mode to a dual mode institution

The most recent issue of the journal Distance Education, edited by Mays, Combrink and Aluko (2018) is a special edition dedicated to the theme of dual-mode provision, and in particular how previously single mode (i.e. solely campus-based) institutions are responding to the particular demands of distance education provision, and whether the quality and effectiveness of such provision is at risk. The editors of this edition believe:

such a decision will necessarily call for the revisiting of an institution’s assumptions about how people learn, how staff should work and how resources should be allocated and what policy changes are needed if quality is to be maintained or enhanced and the offerings sustained.

The articles in this special edition raise a number of questions such as:

  • is the blurring of the boundaries between on-campus and distance learning a good thing?
  • does the concept of distance education remain relevant?
  • are established models of distance education sufficient to inform the design, development and delivery of new kinds of provision, or are new models emerging (or needed)?

In particular, the editors are concerned that:

  • there is a real danger that in the convergence of modes of provision the unique quality concerns of distance provision, regarding, for example, the issues of access, success and cost, and the implications for how people learn and work, may be lost.

Interestingly, the special edition then looks at a series of case studies of the move from single to dual mode not drawn from North America or Europe, but from sub-Saharan Africa, where the motivation to move into distance learning has been driven mainly by changes in demand patterns (too many potential students; not enough institutions).

Application of an innovation adoption framework

Of these case studies, by far the most interesting is the article by Kanwar et. al, of the Commonwealth of Learning, which applies Wisdom et al.’s (2014) innovation adoption framework to provide a qualitative meta-review of barriers to adoption of open and distance learning (ODL) in conventional higher education institutes in Cameroon, Kenya and Rwanda. 

The framework has four key elements (which build on Everett Rogers’ earlier work on the diffusion of innovation):

  • external environment, e.g. national policies and funding, infrastructure/external physical environment
  • organisation of the adopting institution, e.g. institutional policies, organisational structure, leadership
  • nature of the innovation, e.g. complexity, cost, technology 
  • individuals, e.g. skills, perceptions, motivation, value systems of staff and clients affected by the innovation.

Kanwar et al. then used this framework to analyse the content of existing reviews of the adoption of ODL in the three countries. The findings are too detailed and complex to review here (the results varied between the three countries), but the study clearly identified some of the key barriers to adoption in each of the three countries. I was in fact thrilled to see an evidence-based theoretical model used to evaluate innovation.

More importantly, the study resulted in nine recommendations for successful implementation of ODL within campus-based institutions:


  • develop national level policies and funding to encourage the adoption of ODL
  • establish national-level quality assurance mechanisms, equally for on-campus and distance programs
  • strengthen national-level IT infrastructure


  • create institutional policies and clear implementation plans for promoting and supporting ODL
  • establish a centralised and autonomous ODL structure
  • develop a clear costing model for ODL and establish secure forms of funding/business models
  • build staff capacity and provide incentives to faculty to engage in ODL
  • promote research into the effectiveness and outcomes of ODL
  • ensure equivalency in the status and qualifications of ODL students


It would be a mistake to ignore this publication because the cases are drawn primarily from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the issues addressed in these articles will resonate with many working in this field in North America and Europe.

I think the editors are right to be concerned about how well ‘conventional’ institutions are handling the adoption of distance and online learning. For many faculty, moving online is merely a question of transferring their classroom lectures to a web conference.

I was at a Canadian university recently where the design of a ‘blended’ executive MBA was being discussed. The ‘plan’ was to make one of the three weekly lectures in each course available instead by a 90 minute synchronous web conference. One professor insisted that all students had to watch the lecture at the same time so they could discuss it afterwards. No consideration was given to either the context of the students (working businessmen with a busy schedule and family) or to the pedagogy or research on video lectures. Even worse, the faculty were not listening to advice from the excellent specialists from the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.

At another Canadian university which has been running excellent distance education program for years through Extension Services, there is no plan or strategy for e-learning on campus, other than a proposal to distribute the specialist instructional design staff from Extension to the campus-based academic departments (which wouldn’t work as there are not enough specialists to go round each faculty). This also ignores the fact that these specialists are needed to run Extension’s own very successful non-credit programs, which bring money into the university.

So looking down the list of recommendations suggested by Kanwar et al., I can immediately think of at least a dozen Canadian universities for which most of these recommendations would be highly relevant.

I would differ on just a couple of points. There has been a long tradition of dual-mode institutions in North America, especially in universities with a state- or province-wide remit, at least in their early days. In Canada, Queen’s and Guelph Universities in Ontario, Memorial University in Newfoundland, the University of Saskatchewan, Laval University in Québec, and the University of British Columbia are all examples of mainly campus-based institutions with very successful distance programs. The distance education programs were the first to adopt online learning, and gradually, some of the best practices from distance education have been incorporated into blended and hybrid courses.

However, even in these universities, the move to more integrated online and face-to-face teaching faces challenges. UBC for instance did move its distance education staff from Continuing Studies to join a strengthened Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology that also included faculty development. Other institutions have still to make that move in a strategic and careful manner. And the big issue is how do you scale from supporting online courses for 15% of the students to supporting blended learning for all students?

The real issue lies with faculty and especially departments moving to blended or hybrid learning that do not understand the need for learning design or the needs of students who are not on campus all the time. The integration of online and campus-based learning will often highlight the inadequacy of prior campus-based teaching methods. There is much that campus-based faculty can learn from  distance education, in terms of more effective teaching.

At the same time, I don’t think distance educators have all the answers. The Pockets of Innovation have plenty of examples of campus-based faculty thinking up innovative ways to integrate online learning and new technologies into campus-based teaching. My experience in designing online courses was that the best ideas usually came from a highly expert faculty member with a truly deep understanding of the subject matter (see my previous post on VR in interactive molecular mechanics for a good example). I believe that we will need new models for designing blended and hybrid courses, even though distance education has some sound principles that can guide such design.

So in conclusion, innovation of itself is not sufficient: it has to be effective innovation that leads to better outcomes, in terms of access, flexibility, and/or learning effectiveness. Innovation is unlikely to be effective if it merely moves poor classroom teaching online, which is why innovation will remain difficult in higher education.

Over to you

Do you have examples of poor practice in moving to offer distance education courses for the first time, or attempts at integrating online and classroom teaching? 

Even better, do you have examples of where this has been done successfully? What are the lessons you have learned from this?


Bates, T. (ed.) (2017) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2017 Vancouver BC: The National Survey of Online and Distance Education in Canadian Post-Secondary Education.

Kanwar, A. et al., (2018) Opportunities and challenges for campus-based universities in Africa to translate into dual-mode delivery, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2, pp. 140-158

Mays, T. et al. (2018) Deconstructing dual-mode provision in a digital era, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2

Seaman, J.E., Allen, I.E., and Seaman, J. (2018) Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United StatesWellesley MA: The Babson Survey Research Group

Wisdom, J. et al. (2014) Innovation adoption: a review of theories and constructs, Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Sciences Research, Vol. 41, pp. 480-502

Book review: Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas

Qayyum, A. and Zawacki-Richter, O. (eds.) Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas: National Perspectives in a Digital Age Singapore: Springer, US$24+

Why this book?

This book is the first of two volumes aimed at describing how open and distance education (ODE) is evolving to reflect the needs and circumstance of the national higher education systems in various countries. A second goal is to compare how DE is organized and structured in various countries.

What does the book cover?

This first volume covers Australia, Europe and the Americas; the second book (still to come) covers Asia, Africa and the Middle East (including Russia and Turkey).

Who wrote it?

This is a well-edited book, with individual chapters written by experts within each country, following a roughly consistent structure in terms of topics. There is a main chapter for each country, with a useful second opinion from another country expert in terms of a commentary on the main chapter, as follows:

  • Introduction (ODE in a Digital Age): Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter
  • Australia: Colin Latchem (commentary by Som Naidu)
  • Brazil: Fred Litto (commentary by Maria Renata da Cruz Duran and Adnan Qayyum)
  • Canada: Tony Bates (commentary by Terry Anderson)
  • Germany: Ulrich Bernath and Joachim Stöter (commentary by Burkhard Lehmann)
  • United Kingdom: Anne Gaskell (commentary by Alan Tait)
  • United States of America: Michael Beaudoin (commentary by Gary Miller)
  • Conclusions: Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter

What’s in it?

There is some variation between the chapters, reflecting some of the differences between different countries, but most chapters have the following structure:

  • Context: most chapters start with a section that provides the wider context in which ODE operates within a country, either in terms of history or a brief description of the current higher education system as a whole. This sometimes includes how DE is funded (or not funded) by governments.
  • Enrolments and growth: each chapter attempts (heroically in some cases) to estimate just how many distance education students there are within the country and the rate of growth. What is noticeable here is how much variation there is in the accuracy or reliability of these estimates between different countries, partly because of the blurring of definitions between online and blended learning, but partly because in some countries, no-one seems to be counting.
  • Quality assurance/quality control: this describes both the regulatory framework for HE within each country and how that is applied to ODE.
  • Descriptions of specific ODE institutions: these sections describe those specialized institutions that play a major role in ODE within their respective countries.
  • OER and MOOCs. Most chapters discuss the use of open educational resources and MOOCs in their country.
  • The relationship between public and private provision of ODE. This is very useful as the relationship varies considerably between different countries.
  • The future of ODE within each country: this section looks at both challenges and opportunities.

In addition, Qayyum and Zawicki-Richter provide an excellent concluding chapter, that compares the different countries in terms of:

  • size and growth of ODE: ODE enrolments constitute between at least 10-20% of all HE enrolments in Australia, Brazil, Canada and the USA. In the UK and Germany, though, the proportions are likely to be less than 10%;
  • providers of DE: one reason reliable data collection has been difficult is because of the growth in different types of institutions providing DE: specialized ODE providers have in general increased their numbers; more campus-based institutions have become providers of ODE; and private institutions offering ODE have grown. However, this varies considerably from country to country. In the UK, for instance, ODE enrolments have been dropping at the UKOU, but possibly increasing from campus-based providers. In the USA, enrolments from the for-profit ODE providers have been dropping but increasing in the private and public on-campus institutions. What is clear is the impact on ODE enrolments of government policies regarding funding and tuition fees;
  • online vs other forms of DE: again, this differs between countries (and probably even more so in the countries to be covered in the next book). In Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK, ODE is nearly synonymous with online learning; Brazil has ‘leapfrogged’ to mobile learning;
  • the role of government: too complex to summarise here: read the chapter!
  • the function of ODE: ODE appears to play three major functions in HE systems: increasing access; providing greater flexibility to those with access; and ‘abetting in the larger digital transformation of HE’;
  • trends and future challenges: ODE on a macro level is being affected by two factors: the global growth in demand for HE; and the digital revolution. Surprisingly, though, it is less affected by globalization: ‘ODE seems to function mainly, though not wholly, within the nation state’ – except for MOOCs. This chapter has a very good discussion of these issues, particularly the differences between education as a public or private good, and ODE’s role in each.

My comments

The book sets out clearly the extent and importance of ODE in higher education. A careful reading will also indicate the importance of government and institutional policies in supporting or restricting ODE.

This and the second book in this series therefore should be required reading in any post-graduate education program. It should also be required reading by policy analysts in Ministries of Advanced (or Higher) Education. I would also recommend it to Boards of Governors and Provosts/VP Academic in any post-secondary institution. 

I look forward with impatience to reading the second volume, which for me will be even more valuable as I know so little about ODE in many of the countries covered in the second book.

If I have any negative comments, it is about what is not in the book. I think it is a pity that there is no chapter on France, Mexico or Argentina, all of which are very large countries with substantial and uniquely different distance education provision. And of course it is solely about formal post-secondary education. Other books are needed to cover international distance education in the k-12 and corporate sectors.

Also, this book will easily become outdated, given the rapid developments in ODE around the world. It took over two years from the time I was approached to write the chapter and the book’s publication. In this period, the first national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education was published, the results of which had to be hastily accommodated in the last proofs of the book.

Furthermore, the book is an open publication, and is free to download, licensed as open access under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. However, it is not expensive to buy a hard copy, and I hope if you have an an interest in open and distance education you will make this a standard book on your shelves – after you have read it!

(Note: in an earlier version of this post I incorrectly stated that it could not be downloaded for free. My apologies).

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 1. The accreditation agencies?

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America is considered a successful innovation, according to the Christensen Institute

Horn, M. and Dunagan, A. (2018) Innovation and Quality Assurance in Higher Education San Francisco CA: The Christensen Institute

Revisiting an old question

A couple of things recently have led me to reflect once again on this question. There are some obvious reasons for a lack of innovation in teaching in higher education, such as:

  • lack of pedagogical training for post-secondary instructors,
  • the privileging of research over teaching,
  • lack of rewards for good teaching (or lack of punishment for poor teaching)
  • faculty fear of technology,

but there are other, perhaps more subtle, factors that make innovation and change so damned difficult in universities and colleges.

One factor is suggested in the report from the Christensen Institute, which puts the blame squarely on accreditation agencies. I will look at this claim in this post.

However, responses to my recent post on learning management systems, where I suggested that the time has come to move on to other tools for online learning, also suggest other reasons why even online learning is becoming increasingly resistant to change. I will examine this issue – which I think is much more significant – in my next post.

The ‘dead hand’ of accreditation agencies

The more insidious failure of accreditation is the stifling effect it has on innovation at existing institutions.

This is the conclusion from a report from the Christensen Institute (yes, that Christensen, the disruptive one) based on four case studies (yes, just four).

It looked at attempts by the following four institutions in setting up an online operation separate from the main, campus-based institution’s teaching model:

  • Bellevue University’s (Nebraska) Flexxive Program
  • Tiffin University’s (Ohio) Ivy Bridge Program
  • Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America
  • General Assembly’s coding boot camps

The first two innovations failed; the second two succeeded. The difference, according to the report, was the role of the respective accrediting agencies.

The authors argue:

Innovations aimed at redefining a college or university’s value proposition must be insulated from its existing business model or else it will conform to the inputs of the existing business model rather than create a new one….Creating an autonomous unit is critical for a college to launch an innovation aimed at dramatically transforming its value proposition.

Depending on the nature of the innovation, a college or university must work closely with its accreditor to ensure that the new practice is consistent with the accreditor’s quality standards. As a result, accreditation plays a major role in the innovation process for most colleges and universities.

Accreditation as it currently stands is inconsistent, both between accreditors, and between the same accreditor at different points in time. Standards of accreditation vary between accreditors, but their interpretation varies to a larger degree—even between different accrediting teams looking at the same institution. This creates uncertainties for institutional leaders and creates untenable risks for many schools with limited resources that are considering whether to bring innovative programs forward. ….. Institutions that are able to innovate are those blessed by geography—a cooperative, forward-thinking regional accreditor— as well as finances.

… a process that is so subject to individual interpretation and has a track record of inconsistently applying rules and standards cannot be a foundation for regulation supportive of innovation. As countless scholars have shown, investment in innovation does not thrive in climates of uncertainty.

Is it true?

This is a pretty damning condemnation of American accreditation agencies, and I suggest needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I myself have argued that professional accreditation agencies, such as the Professional Engineers of Ontario, certainly stifle innovation when they refuse to accept any qualifications taken through distance education. But university and college accreditation?

There are several reasons why I think the Christensen Institute’s conclusions are too strong:

  • online learning has been expanding rapidly in the USA over the last 10 years, where at least one in three students are taking an online course, a rate of growth much faster than campus-based enrolments, yet the accreditation agencies have done little to prevent this fairly major innovation in teaching; 
  • I challenge the assumption – which is at the core of the Christensen philosophy – that innovation can take place only if it is insulated from an organization’s existing business model. Sure, by definition this may be true of disruptive innovation in business, but nevertheless there has been considerable innovation in terms of introducing online and more recently blended learning in higher education, without disrupting the current business model of universities and colleges;
  • the university accreditation process in the USA is unique, lacks rationality generally in terms of its relationship between government, geography, and institutional governance, and is indeed often inconsistent and contradictory, not only with regard to innovation but often with regard to traditional programs. But yes, it has slowed down – but not prevented – innovation through online learning.

In other words, while no doubt US higher education accreditation agencies may inhibit innovation to some extent, especially with regard to radically new institutions (but perhaps based on a reasonable assessment of possible risk to fee-paying students), this report is too much like a theory trying to find evidence to support it, rather than a systematic study of what not only inhibits but also what enables innovation in higher education. The barriers to innovation in higher education are more complex than just being the fault of the nasty accreditation agencies. More on this in the next post.

Book review: Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries

A mobile school for Delhi street children run by Butterflies. Click to see video

Latchem, C. (2018) Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries Springer: Singapore

The author

I was about to review this book when I was informed of the death of Colin Latchem, its author.

Colin was an Australian consultant, researcher and writer in the field of open and distance learning.  In the 1970s, he was a pioneer in the UK in the development of educational television and learning resources for universities.

He emigrated to Australia in 1982 to become head of the Teaching Learning Group at Curtin University, Perth, a centre responsible for academic staff development, educational technology and open and distance learning. Over the years he became the ‘go-to’ person about open and distance education in South East Asia. He received the Charles A Wedemeyer award in 2002 for best book of the year on open and distance education. He was also co-editor of the SpringerBriefs series on Open and Distance Education. He was formerly the Asia-Pacific Corresponding Editor of The British Journal of Educational Technology.

Colin was a good friend and colleague whom I have known for over 40 years. I cannot think of a more appropriate way to celebrate a true scholar and gentleman than to review his final work.

Definition of open and distance non-formal education (ODL NFE)

Latchem does not provide a precise definition of non-formal education, but distinguishes non-formal learning from informal learning (the spontaneous, incidental acquisition of knowledge) and formal learning provided by schools, colleges and universities. Non-formal learning sits somewhere in between, concerned with providing lifelong learning in support of social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education. It may be provided through NGOs, international or government agencies, employers or social organisations such as community groups.

In open and distance education most of the teaching is conducted by some provider removed in time and space from the learner, using content and approaches that are openly accessible, enabling learners to learn individually or collaboratively at the time and place of their choosing.

The importance of open and distance education for non-formal education

 Some of the figures Latchem provides about the need for non-formal education are staggering: 

  • 263 million children and youth did not have access to schools in 2014
  • 130 million girls are denied the right to formal education, and are four times more likely to be denied education than boys of the same socio-economic group
  • 758 million adults aged 15 years and older remain illiterate, of which two-thirds are women 
  • there are 60 million refugees or displaced persons without access to formal education
  • it would take an extra US$40 billion to provide 12 years of education for all in the developing world, but international aid today is 4% lower than it was in 2010.

Other groups outside the formal education system in developing countries include people with disabilities and people imprisoned. It is of course still the poorest socio-economic groups who have the least access to formal education in developing countries, despite often heroic efforts by national governments.

Latchem argues that conventional face-to-face methods can never meet the scale and extent of the knowledge and skills building and social and behavioural change needed to meet the United Nations’ Millenium Development Goals. Open and distance education non-formal education (ODL NFE) is the only way to meet these needs until formal educational provision becomes globally available to all, and even then ODL NFE will still be needed on a large scale.

However, Latchem claims that there has been little prior research into the effectiveness of ODL NFE in developing countries. What little prior research that has been done indicates that previous attempts to use open and distance learning for non-formal education in developing countries were piecemeal and ineffective, mainly consisting of short-term pilots lacking sustainable funding.  

Latchem concluded that a review of current practice and progress in this field was long overdue and hence the central concern of the book is about identifying ways in which open and flexible forms of lifelong learning have increased social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education.

The structure of the book

There are four parts to the book:

  1. Background to the study, which examines the Global Development Agenda, and introduces the reader to prior research, and the main elements of ODL NFE.
  2. A fairly brief description of the main technologies and media currently in use in ODL NFE, including radio, television, mobile learning, OERs and MOOCs, telecentres, and traditional and performing arts.
  3. A more extensive review of areas in which ODL NFE has been mostly successfully used. These include:
    • out-of-school children and youth
    • adult literacy, ESL
    • gender equity
    • disabled, refugees, prisoners
    • health care, safe water, sanitation and hygiene
    • agriculture and agribusiness
    • small and medium-sized enterprises
    • education for sustainable development
  4. A conclusion, including actions needed

My main takeaways

Firstly, the size of the challenge in providing education for all. I agree with Latchem that although the long-term goal should be formal education for all, in the short-term this will be impossible for many years in many developing countries, and that non-formal education will continue to be critically important in helping to fill the gap, and that open and distance learning is a valuable, cost-effective means to provide this. (It is also cost-effective means to provide formal education, as well, but that is another book).

Second, though, I was blown away by the many cases Latchem provides of successful ODL NFE projects. The book is filled with over 180 cases and urls to video links which demonstrate the applications. I was particularly impressed by the extent and value of telecentres, and the criteria needed for them to succeed. There are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Third, while cost and access remain a major barrier, I was impressed by the extent to which the Internet and ICTs (particularly mobile learning) are being successfully used in many developing countries. I was also impressed with the use of more traditional media, such as puppets, theatre, song and dance, highlighting the importance of cultural adaptation to local needs. Again I believe there are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Nevertheless, while these success stories are encouraging, there are often systemic difficulties that hinder the implementation of ODL NFE. Latchem identifies the following:

  • over-dependence on international aid agencies/NGOs
  • lack of sustainability due to overuse of short-term, small scale pilots and insufficient funding
  • lack of learning pathways from informal to non-formal to formal education
  • the need for a systematic approach/a national strategy for non-formal education
  • lack of reliable broadband connection in rural areas where NFE is most needed
  • lack of content in local languages
  • lack of research and evaluation of projects in terms of outcomes.

Latchem then ends with a set of nine action steps that are needed to advance the ODL NFE agenda.

In summary

This book benefits enormously from being written by a single author, rather than a series of articles by different writers. This provides the book with a coherent and consistent message.

I cannot say how thrilled I was to see so many wonderful projects attempting under great difficulty to make the world a better place. Most of these were firmly community-based, and locally designed and maintained, if often with some international assistance. It is one of the most optimistic books I have read for a long while.

It also highlights the naïvity and wrong-headedness of many Western approaches to the use of technology in developing countries, such as believing the importation of American MOOCs (or whatever is the latest technology) is a sustainable solution to education for all. There is a role for MOOCs, but are best developed locally in local languages, for instance, and more importantly, embedded in a local organisation and infrastructure that makes the material likely to be used effectively.

Some of the early content will be familiar to most readers of this blog, but the real target for this book are policy-makers in developing countries trying to tackle the challenge of education for all. This book provides powerful evidence of the role that open and distance education non-formal education can play in making education for all a reality. This is a fitting end to a wonderful career – thank you, Colin.

Woolf University: the Airbnb of higher education or a sheep in wolf’s clothing?

Broggi, J.D. et al. (2018) Building the first blockchain university, Oxford UK, April 3

You are going to hear a lot about Woolf University over the next year or so and possibly much longer. This is in some ways a highly innovative proposal for a new type of university, but in other ways, it is a terribly conservative proposal, an extension of the Platonic dialogue to modern times. It could only have come from Oxford University academics, with its mix of blue sky dreaming, the latest technological buzz, and regression to cloistered academe.

The proposal

As always, I am going to recommend that you read the original paper from cover to cover. It has a number of complex, radical proposals that each need careful consideration (the whitepaper would make an excellent topic for an Oxbridge tutorial).

I am not sure I completely understand the financial aspect of the blockchain tokens (but that probably puts me with 99.99999 per cent of the rest of the world). But the basic ideas behind the university are as follows:

  • Woolf University will issue blockchain-guaranteed ‘contracts’ between an individual professor and an individual student;
  • Woolf University will initially include only professors who have a post-graduate research degree from one of the 200 ‘top-ranked’ universities;
  • the core blockchain contract consists of an agreement to deliver a one hour, one-on-one tutorial, for which the student will directly pay the instructor (in real money, but tied to a blockchain token system which I don’t fully understand);
  • the tutorial can be delivered face-to-face, or over the Internet (presumably synchronously – Skype is suggested), but the maximum number of students per tutorial is set at two;
  • the contract (and payment) is initiated once the student ‘accepts’ the contract with a push of a button on their cell phone. If the tutor fails to deliver the tutorial, the student is automatically refunded (and offered another instructor). Instructors who miss a tutorial will be fined by the university in the form of a deduction from the next tutorial payment;
  • on successful completion of the tutorial (which will include a written essay or other assessable pieces of work from the student) the blockchain registers the grade against the student record;
  • once the student has accumulated enough ‘credits’ within an approved program they will be issued with a Woolf University degree;
  • a full student workload consists of two classes a week over 8 weeks in each of three semesters or a total of 144 meetings over three years for a degree;
  • annual tuition is expected to be in the order of $20,000 a year, excluding scholarships;
  • instructor payments will depend on the number and cost of tutorials, but at four a week would range from $38,000 to $43,000 per annum with fees in the range of $350-$400 per tutorial;
  • colleges of a minimum of 30 individual instructors can join Woolf University and issue their own qualifications, but each college’s qualification requirements must also meet Woolf University’s criteria. Colleges can set their own tutorial fee above a minimum of $150 an hour. Colleges’ instructors must meet the qualification requirements of Woolf University;
  • the first college, called Ambrose, will consist of 50 academics from Oxford University, and Woolf has invited academics from Cambridge University to set up another college;
  • Woolf University will be a not-for-profit institution. There will be a deduction of 0.035% of each financial transaction to build the Woolf Reserve to update and maintain the blockchain system. There will also be a student financial aid program for scholarships for qualified students;
  • Woolf University would be managed by a Faculty Council with voting rights on decision-making from every employed instructor;
  • Ambrose College will deduct 4% from each tuition fee for administrative overheads.

There are other proposals such as a language school, peer review, etc.

What’s to like?

This is clearly an effort to cut out the institutional middleman of university and institutional administration. Although the tutorial fees are close to the average of universities in the UK and the more elite state universities in the USA, students are getting a one-on-one learning experience from an instructor who is highly qualified (at least in terms of content).

I was fortunate to have a tutorial system when I was an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield at the UK, and it worked very well, although we had between two and four students at each tutorial, and only in the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. Such tutorials are excellent for developing critical thinking skills, because each statement you make as a student is likely to be challenged by the professor or one of the other students.

Woolf University has highly idealistic goals for democratic governance – by the faculty – and its main attraction is offering alternative and regular employment for the very large number of poorly paid but highly qualified adjunct professors who can’t get tenure at regular universities. However there is no suggestion of student representation in the governance process, and the use of faculty is demand driven – if no student wants your course, no money – which seems an even more precarious position than working as an adjunct.

Most of all, though, it is a serious attempt to provide an independent system of academic validation of qualifications through the use of blockchain which could lead to better standardization of degree qualifications.

What’s not to like?

Well, the first thing that jumps to my mind is conflict of interest. If faculty are already employed by a traditional university, Woolf will be a direct, and if successful, a very dangerous competitor. Will universities allow their best faculty to moonlight for a direct competitor? If instructors cannot get employment in a traditional university, will they be as well qualified as the instructors in the regular system? The corollary though is that Woolf may force universities to pay their adjunct faculty better, but that will increase costs for the existing universities.

Second, the tuition fees may be reasonable by the absurdly inflated cost of HE tuition fees in the UK, but these are double or triple the fees in Canada, and much higher than the fees in the rest of Europe.

Third, the tutorial is just one mode of teaching. The report recommends (but does not insist) that instructors should also provide recorded lectures, but there are now so many other ways for students to learn that it seems absurd to tie Woolf to just the one system Oxbridge dons are familiar with.  The proposal does not address the issue of STEM teaching or experiential learning. All the examples given are from Greek philosophy. Not all my tutorials were great – it really depended on the excellence of the professor as a teacher as well as a scholar and that varied significantly. (It is also clear from reading the report that the authors have no knowledge about best practices in online teaching, either). The whole proposal reeks of the worst kind of elitism in university teaching.

Will it succeed?

Quite possibly, if it can sell the substitute Oxbridge experience to students and if it can explain more clearly its business model and in particular how the blockchain currency will work with regard to the payment of instructors. What can make or break it is the extent to which traditional universities will go to protect their core faculty from being hijacked by Woolf. 

I’m somewhat baffled by the claims that this new business model will be much much more cost-effective than the current system. Academic salaries make up almost 70% of the cost of a traditional university so the savings on administration alone are a comparatively small proportion of the costs of higher education, and the proposed tuition fees are still very high. It seems to be more a solution for the problem of unemployed Ph.D.s than the problem of expanding more cost-effectively quality higher education to large numbers of students.

Nevertheless, it is a very interesting development. I am guessing that this will ultimately fail, because establishing its credentials as equivalent to the elite universities will be a hard sell, and costs to students will be too high, but much will be learned about the strengths and weaknesses of blockchain in higher education, resulting in a better/more sustainable higher education model developing in another way. It is definitely a development to be carefully tracked.