April 21, 2018

Stanford University to be fully online by 2025?

A Stanford sophomore experiences the virtual world at its Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Today I have received a tip from a close colleague that Stanford University is planning to build a partnership with Alphabet Inc., the owner of Google, to enable Stanford to become a fully online global university by 2025. 

Because the university is on an Easter break, it was difficult to find anyone at Stanford to verify this rumour, but the planning seems to be quite advanced. Apparently a highly confidential strategic planning committee has been working for some time on a plan to convert all programs at Stanford into a fully online format, using advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR and AR), and data analytics (DA), technologies in which both Stanford and Google are world leaders.

This will enable Stanford to offer fully accredited degrees to many thousands of students worldwide at a fraction of the current tuition fees, which are currently just under $50,000 a year. Once fully online, the low tuition fees, estimated be around $1,000 a year, will be made possible by a highly innovative business plan being worked out jointly by Stanford and Google. Stanford plans to sell that part of the campus that will no longer be needed for teaching purposes. The Farm, as it is affectionately known, is over 8,000 acres, located close to Silicon Valley. With real estate currently selling at approximately $65 million an acre in Stanford, just selling off half the land will provide sufficient capital for the investment needed to convert all programs into an online mode, leaving the other half of the land for research and administrative purposes. The partnership with Google will allow Google to use data analytics from student online activity for commercial purposes, which will more or less cover the operational costs of online delivery.

I did manage to get hold of a couple of the committee, who asked not to be named as they are not authorised to give information on this project. However, both were very excited. ‘We won’t have to sack any of the current professorial staff, as we still need their subject expertise’, said one. The other said he was really looking forward to developing the first fully augmented reality engineering degree. ‘This could have huge implications,’ he said. ‘Imagine designing a whole bridge without actually having to physically test it! It’s only ever been tried once before without VR and it didn’t work.’ The Director of Stanford University’s Division of Continuing Studies said, ‘You know, it’s not such a big deal. We’ve been delivering online courses in our division for nearly 20 years, so we do know what we’re doing.’

Others outside the university I talked to though were not quite so sanguine. A spokesperson from WCET was concerned about how the accreditation or professional bodies would react. ‘It’s one thing for the university to give degrees; it’s quite another to get recognized by the Accreditation Boards for Engineering and Technology, who in the past have not accepted any online qualifications. But, hey, it’s Stanford, so who knows?’

My personal view is that it still has to get through Stanford’s Senate and Board of Governors. This will be the real test. However, if it is successful, this model will be totally disruptive of the rest of post-secondary education worldwide. If Stanford can scale its model, it could be not just a global university, but THE one university for the whole world. How cool would that be? 

In the meantime, enjoy April the first.

Important developments in indigenous online learning

Esquimalt singers and dancers celebrate the partnership. Image: RRU

Royal Roads University (2018) First Nations Technology Council and Royal Roads University celebrate partnership in education, innovation Victoria BC: Royal Roads University, press release, 23 February

The First Nations Technology Council of British Columbia and Royal Roads University have recently announced a partnership that aims to leverage RRU’s expertise in digital learning with the First Nations Technology Council’s ‘comprehensive digital skills program designed to support the full, equitable participation and leadership of Indigenous peoples in the province’s fastest growing economic sector.’

Melanie Mark, BC’s Minister of Advanced Education, Skills and Training at the announcement commented:

By providing people with the right training and education to work towards jobs in the tech sector, we will support the success of students, job seekers and technology companies throughout our great province, and build a strong, sustainable economy that works for everyone.

The First Nations Technology Council’s program will include training modules that provide skills in

  • web development/coding,
  • GIS/GPS Mapping,
  • communications,
  • software testing,
  • network technician and office basics and
  • professional practice skills.

Royal Roads University’s Centre for Teaching & Educational Technologies will provide the tools and platform to deliver the program scheduled to launch in fall 2018.

The First Nations Technology Council provides direct technology related services through fee for service and earned income programs that create less reliance on government funded programs and grants, while continuing to advance the use of digital technologies in First Nations communities. The First Nations Technology Council is a central convener between government, industry, academia and First Nations communities to ensure comprehensive, sustainable and appropriate technology based programs and services are developed and funded.

Comment 

I think this is exciting news and is just the kind of initiative Canada needs if it is to go any way towards meeting the goals of reconciliation with its indigenous population.

I don’t have any more details than what was announced in the press release, but I noted the careful wording. This is about supporting First Nations’ communities in BC through the design of digital learning, but not necessarily distance learning. Royal Roads University uses a blended model of campus-based and fully online (although more recently for financial reasons its strategy has been to reduce the campus component on a number of programs). Thus RRU is well placed to combine design and delivery of digital materials with local-based community support within First Nations communities around the province.

My hope from this partnership is that we will start to see some new designs for digital learning emerging, that incorporate indigenous ways of learning with best online learning design practices, resulting in unique and culturally appropriate learning designs for indigenous learners that at the same time prepare them for life and work in a digital society.

Further reading

Simon, J. et al. (2014) Post-secondary distance education in a contemporary colonial context: Experiences of students in a rural First Nation in Canada International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Volume 15, Number 1 

Bates, T. (2017) Is indigenous online learning an oxymoron? in ‘What I learned from the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning, Online Learning and Distance Education Resources, 23 October

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).

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Athabasca University?

Light at end of tunnel

Climenhaga, D. (2017) Athabasca U’s future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review Albertapolitics.ca, January 19

Climenhaga, D. (2016) Alberta Government names five new members to Athabasca University Board of Governors,Albertapolitics.ca, October 

The good news

I’ve written several times before about the troubles at Athabasca University, which bills itself as Canada’s open university (for a full list of my posts on AU and its troubles, see the end of this post). Most of my posts have been bleak about AU’s future because the news coming out of Alberta about the university was so bad.

So I am very happy to be able at last to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is due to several events in the last six months:

  • the appointment of a new President with extensive experience in the management of Albertan post-secondary educational institutions (Neil Fassina, formerly provost and vice-president academic at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology)
  • gradual renewal of the board with new appointments, and a targeted date (March 2018) for further new appointments to the board
  • the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as ‘the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable’.

In particular the changes to the Board and a new President were essential first steps to secure the future of the university. The NDP government, despite the financial crisis in Alberta due to low oil prices, seems to recognise that Athabasca University is funded per student at a much lower rate than the other universities, and will probably need more operational funding in the future. At the press conference to announce Professor Coates’ appointment, the Minister of Advanced Education stated that the government:

is committed to ensure adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Dr. Coates’s sustainability review. We’ve made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning.

This commitment is important as there are 30,000 students’ futures at stake.

So here is some gratuitous but well meaning advice for the Alberta government and Professor Coates from someone who cares a great deal about the future of the university, and knows a little bit about open and distance education.

Vision first

This is the most important, and actually the most difficult, challenge for Ken Coates and the government. What is the future role for AU in a world that has radically changed since its foundation almost 50 years ago? What added value can open and distance learning provide in the Alberta post-secondary education system? What needs can or does AU serve that are not being served by the other institutions? To answer those questions the university needs to look outward, not inward.

In earlier posts I have suggested what some of those roles could be:

  • widening access, particularly for lifelong learners, aboriginal students, and other potential learners denied access to the conventional post-secondary education
  • innovation in teaching: AU should be a world leader in the design of flexible, cost-effective online learning, a laboratory and test-bed for the rest of the Alberta post-secondary system
  • regional development and research: this is where it should focus its content and programs. Alberta is in the midst of dramatic changes to energy and resource development, climate change, and economic development. Find a niche here that has been left by the other universities and fill that.

However, it is really not for me to suggest a vision from AU. This needs to be created within and for Alberta. But the vision should drive everything else. To get buy-in and support for such a vision, an extensive process of consultation both internally and externally will be needed. This should have been done years ago so it needs to be done not only carefully but quickly.

In particular, all other decisions – about funding, labour contracts, course development – should be dependent on the vision, first and foremost. If there is general buy-in to the vision from all the stakeholder groups, these other thorny issues become much easier to deal with.

The teaching model

Athabasca University was a revolutionary 45 years ago when it introduced its teaching model of open access, continuous enrolment and independent, guided study based on quality printed materials. But that was the late 60s and early 70s. It’s 2017 now and the current teaching model is not only antiquated by modern standards, it is very costly and inflexible. Tightly linked to this is a generation of faculty and administrators who have known nothing else.

There has in fact been considerable internal expertise on the design of online and distance learning at AU, but this expertise has been constantly ignored in terms of actual decision-making about design models, or rather interesting designs have been pushed to the margins and haven’t affected the bulk of the teaching, particularly in the undergraduate programs.

This has to change. Slimmer, more flexible and above all less costly methods of course design and development are needed that take account of the rapid developments in new learning technologies since the 1970s.

I can’t see how this change in teaching models can happen without a major change in personnel, particularly in the academic and administrative areas, and without accompanying changes in labour agreements. AU’s location in the boondocks does not help in recruiting quality academic staff, although online learning means that faculty do not have to be physically located even in Alberta.  

Again, though, decide on appropriate teaching models, then develop labour agreements around this that are fair and reasonable. This will be helped if faculty and administrators buy into the new vision for teaching and learning. Those that don’t should leave. The students deserve better teaching than they are getting at the moment.

System synergy

AU’s role vis-a-vis the other post-secondary institutions in the province needs to be clarified, developed and agreed by not only the other institutions but also the government. In other words, a process such as Ontario’s strategic mandate agreements is needed.

Alberta though has a much smaller system than Ontario’s. It should be possible to get all the universities around a rather small coffee table. British Columbia back in the days of the Open Learning Agency had a Provost’s Council that worked out not only the relationship between OLA and the other universities, but agreed on joint program development, sharing of courses, and credit transfer for open and distance learning. Alberta needs something similar, some kind of forum that enables institutions to agree roles and functions in open and online learning. But again Athabasca needs to work out its vision and role first.

Funding

Although this has been the main focus in recent years to me it is the least of the problems. Even in a cash-strapped province such as Alberta’s, AUs funding is almost in the margin of error in the total provincial budget. But rightly the government doesn’t want to throw good money after bad.

The biggest need is a new approach to IT at the university. AU has had major problems with IT security, and IT management. Whatever vision for the university is decided, it needs to move away from a massive, centralised, local IT operation to more flexible, decentralised, cloud-based solutions. Again though the IT model needs to be driven by the vision for the university, not the other way round.

Will they get it right?

There is still a long way to go before Athabasca gets to the end of the tunnel, and there are several major factors that could still derail it. Indeed, let’s hope that the light isn’t another train that runs right over the university.

My biggest concern is that although the recent steps by the government are all in the right direction (new board, new president and an external review), where is the open and distance education expertise so urgently needed to guide Athabasca into the future? The government, the board, the CEO and even the external consultant have no experience in this field. In what other business other than open and distance education would this be acceptable?

It could be argued that the expertise lies within the institution. If so, over the last ten years there has been a lamentable inability to make good use of this expertise in the planning and management of the university. (See my previous posts below for evidence of this). Indeed, the top people in online and distance education field who were at AU have either retired, moved on or given up trying. Ken Coates needs to tap into this expertise and particularly their knowledge of the barriers that have stifled innovation in teaching and learning at AU.

Also when appointing a new board, the government should make sure that at least one board member is knowledgeable and experienced in open and distance education. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

So I wish Ken Coates the very best in his very challenging mission. But don’t call on me – I’m retired.

Further reading

I am surprised how much space I have devoted in this blog to the troubles at AU. Put them all together, though, and you get a pretty good picture of the challenges it has been facing:

Feb 25, 2013: What’s going on at Athabasca University? (about the firing of four senior staff)

Feb 27, 2013: Athabasca University’s President to stand down – but not soon

Jan 28, 2014: Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring?

Jun 9, 2015: Athabasca University’s Troubles Grow (about a different sustainability report written by the previous interim President)

Jun 12, 2015: Advice to the Alberta Government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report 

Jun 14, 2015: Advice to students about Athabasca University

Jun 30, 2015: What can past history tell us about the ‘crisis’ at Athabasca University?

 

Brexit and online learning in Europe

Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Little England triumphs

Well, Little England has triumphed at last. The votes in suburban and industrial England and Wales were enough to defeat Londoners, Scots and the Northern Irish. So not only can we expect the future dismantling of the European Union, we will also probably see the end of the United Kingdom. Poor Queen – she must feel sick as a parrot as she considers the consequences. Also the old, as always, punished the young. The young mainly wanted to be outward looking Europeans; the old outvoted them, forcing them to remain in Little England (unless, like I did, they can escape).

It was not a surprise to me. Right up to the closing of the voting, and despite a last day uplift in the Remain support in opinion polls, and despite the bookies and the smart money, I was convinced that Britain would leave. Like most referendums, it was driven by emotion, not logic, and for many Brits, when they got in the voting booth, their emotions would take over.

Freedom!

Punish the bastards (the bastards being ‘them’, the invisible but omniscient ‘elite’ who have got us into this mess.)

Back to the glory days when Britain ruled the world and England won football matches.

No more Frogs and Krauts telling us what to do.

No more invasion by Syrians and terrorists.

How predictable. How sad.

It is a disaster that could have been avoided. David Cameron is staying on for three months ‘to steady the ship.’ Sorry, Mr. Cameron, but the ship has already sunk, and it was you who pulled the plug when you thought a nice little referendum would get those pesky Euroskeptics in your party off your back. What a petty motivation for destroying not only a country but a continent.

Well, of course, it won’t be as bad as that, will it? The panic and shock will slowly dissipate, the money people will work out new ways to make money, and Putin won’t be nasty and invade the Baltic states, will he? People are resilient and will find a new way through.

So let’s look forward and see what the implications are for online learning in Europe, which is almost as important as the Euro nations soccer championship (will England be disqualified now)?

Then

In the 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of online learning happening in Europe, although there were several big open universities: the UK Open University was dominant, but there were also sizeable open universities in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. In online learning, some Norwegian distance education institutes, such as NKI, were launching online courses. When EDEN, the European Distance Education Network, started in the early 1990s it was mainly dominated by the big open universities, but it began to expand its membership by dropping institutional membership and moving to individual membership. This was important in bringing in many new participants, some of whom were European leaders in online learning. But the UK OU was still the major player, even though it was relatively slow in moving to online learning.

At the same time, the European Commission had launched a number of major funding programs that focused on ICTs (information and communications technologies) in education, such as the DELTA program. These were often large, unwieldy projects that required participants from several countries, particularly from those countries that were struggling economically or were ‘new’ to the EU, and also required sometimes a minimum of three industrial partners. Although such projects often got bogged down in trying to balance the interests of all the participants, were often slowed down by stifling bureaucratic requirements from the EC, and one or two participants from more economically advanced countries ended up doing most of the work, these programs were useful for widening the expertise in the area of online and digital learning across a large number of member states and brought new players into the game. However, in the early 1990s there were only 12 or so member states.

Now

The most significant change has been the expansion to 28 states, incorporating most of the Eastern European countries that were part of the Soviet Union. The EC still has major programs that provide funding for ICTs in education projects (although digital is now the more favoured term). More importantly, many more countries all over Europe now have substantial experience in online learning, as was evident from the recent EDEN conference. Nevertheless, Britain is still a dominant force in this area and has been a major contributor to EC programs in online and digital learning.

Not only will the withdrawal of UK participants be a major blow for many of these European projects, but also UK universities and consultants in the field of online and digital learning will lose out on major funding opportunities and the opportunity to learn from working with European partners. This may not be as bad as in other areas of collaboration or business, because academics and educators will still go to international conferences and share experiences, but nevertheless there will be a net loss both for British and European online practitioners.

What went wrong?

There are people closer to the action who are better placed than I am, but here’s my two cents worth, anyway:

  • Europe got too big, too quickly. It was difficult enough to get consensus with 12 countries with relatively similar economic and social contexts, even if the languages were different. Expanding to 28 countries covering an immensely wide range of languages, cultures and above all, economic circumstances without a change to the overall governance/political model has led to gridlock in decision-making;
  • as a result, the European Union has failed to deal adequately with its three most important challenges: the recovery from the economic recession in 2008; the immigration crisis; and its relationship with Russia. It has showed weakness in responding to each of these admittedly difficult challenges, with negative implications for the average Joe and Joe-ess in Europe and Britain;
  • Britain too suffered badly from the economic recession. Most of its major banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Many of those bankers are still in place, earning almost obscene amounts of money. Although the economy has picked up since 2008, the British government has been running an austerity-focused economic policy, which hits hard unemployed and low income workers and families. Many working class people in the former industrial parts of England have been unemployed through five generations, since the devastation of UK manufacturing industries in the 1980s. Both of the two major political parties have been run until recently by ‘establishment’ figures from public school/Oxbridge backgrounds. A major theme in the run-up to the referendum was the rejection of advice from ‘experts’ (economists, politicians, international leaders and think tanks, the Bank of England) who were seen as an untrustworthy elite who benefit from the status quo. The class war is alive and strong in the UK and getting worse, as a result.
  • at the same time, fed by a viciously simplistic and racist tabloid press, many middle class Brits feel that they are no longer getting the respect they feel they deserve; the Empire has crumbled and their culture is being threatened by a wave of immigrants. England is already full. Last year, Britain, which has a population of 54 million and is geographically smaller than the Canadian Maritimes, took 360,000 immigrants, compared to the whole of Canada (population 34 million), who took 260,000. There are genuine fears that immigrant numbers will increase much more over the coming years, as the Middle East disintegrates further. The Leave proponents deliberately played on these fears.

So in this referendum, there was what we have also seen in the run-up to the USA presidential election: a weird alliance of what appear to be extreme right and extreme left wing voters rejecting and overwhelming the moderate, ‘rationale’ centre in politics. However, unless the genuine grievances of these groups are addressed, we will see similar so-called ‘irrational’ political upheavals in the future. In particular, the widening gap between rich and poor needs to be addressed or we will all end up victims to so-called ‘irrationality’.