August 14, 2018

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 2. Legacy systems

 

In my first post in this series, I looked at the role of accreditation agencies in blocking innovation. I suggested that while they may seriously inhibit disruptive innovation, accreditation agencies have not prevented online learning for credit from becoming widely established in higher education in a relatively short space of time (15 years or so), at least in North America, and this in fact is a major innovation in teaching in higher education.

Indeed, protecting students from wasting money on disruptive experiments with a high risk of failure may in fact be more important for accreditation agencies in the semi-privatised American higher education system, where you pay first then discover later whether it was worth it. 

Thus there are other, more important factors, than accreditation agencies that inhibit innovation in higher education. Often, faculty get the blame for obstructing change, and this certainly can be a factor. But this is sometimes unfair; there are also other factors inhibiting innovation that are just as important.

In particular, many universities and colleges have long histories, and over that period they have invested heavily in older technologies and systems that just won’t go away. These legacy systems are one of the biggest inhibitors of innovation.

Buildings

Brock Commons Tallwood House at UBC – currently the tallest mass timber building in the world—which opened in July 2017.

I go up to the UBC campus about once or twice a year these days. Each time, it is unrecognisable from my previous visit due to new building construction. (Students posted a sign on a footpath diversion which said ‘UBC is the only place in the universe where the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.’).

Not all this building is classroom space. For instance the Tallwood Tower is a student residence, much needed in a city where the price of housing is so high. But if you are building 17 storey student residences, and have acres of lecture halls and classrooms, you are not going to get rid of campus-based teaching any time soon. The issue then is: are the new buildings suitably designed for digital learning? But old buildings far outnumber new ones, no matter how quickly you build. These old classrooms and lecture halls, with their raked seating, podiums for lecturers at the front, very much determine what kind of teaching will take place.

Older technologies

But it is not just traditional campus-based universities which have legacy systems that inhibit innovation. Indeed, what were once ‘disruptive’ institutions themselves when created can easily become stuck within their original legacy systems. The experiences in recent years of the UK Open University, Athabasca University, the Télé-université (Téluq), and UNISA, where print has been the core medium of teaching, are good examples.

Although these institutions have some of the world’s leading experts on online and digital learning, changing the core teaching design for the bulk of their academic programs has proved a major challenge. Not only do these institutions have an army of print editors and graphic designers, but in particular faculty in these institutions, many of whom have been there since the institution was founded, are embedded in the culture of print design. It will probably take a new generation of faculty, and probably a separate autonomous unit focused on digital learning, for these monolithic institutions to adapt successfully to the digital world, and some may not have enough time to do this.

Management 

Another legacy is the governance structure of universities and colleges. This varies considerably from institution to institution, but in many institutions, the person responsible for strategic decisions about the direction of teaching and learning is not qualified or experienced in online or digital learning (or often management, for that matter). They are usually mainline academics who have become AVPs Teaching and Learning or some similar position. This may be necessary for them to influence other academics, and they may have the sense to build a strong and close working relationship with the Director of the Teaching and Learning Centre, and/or the Centre for Online Learning, but too often decisions about teaching direction are made without sound pedagogical or technological understanding. The fall-back position as a result tends to be to prioritise innovation in classroom teaching.

Furthermore I noticed when doing the 2017 national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education that about one third of all the VPs Academic changed during the year. The ‘normal’ term of a Vice President in Canada is about five years if all goes well, and sometimes it may be renewed for another five years. But in practice, if one third are changing each year that actual term is more likely closer to three years.

Why is this an inhibitor of innovation? I have been closely involved fairly recently with two universities where the Provost’s Office has initiated a strategy for flexible or online learning, but then either the President or the VP Academic has left, and everything stops for at least two years until the new appointments find their feet – if you are lucky. In one case the new VP Academic was not interested in continuing the online development so everything just stopped, except, of course, for the brave individual instructors who wanted to innovate without any institutional support. Ironically, some level of continuity in strategy is necessary for innovation to take hold.

Learning management systems

This series started as a result of my questioning why we are still using the LMS more than twenty years after its initial development. This will be the subject of the third post in this series, but again, once an institution is heavily invested in not just the LMS in principle, but even in a specific LMS, there is a very high cost of change.

The value of the LMS is its institutional convenience. It provides a centrally managed, secure environment in which to house a course. Any other approach to using technology for online or digital learning has this massive legacy hurdle to overcome. This will be the subject of the third and final post in this series.

Lack of an innovation strategy for teaching

How serious is the management factor as an inhibitor of innovation in teaching since in practice, most innovation starts from the bottom up? However, as Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation have demonstrated, few institutions have a strategy for expanding an innovative practice beyond the initial instructor who developed the new approach.

There are several necessary elements for a successful innovation strategy for teaching:

  • ideally a general institutional vision or strategy for teaching in the future to provide a framework for priorities in the allocation of resources and to encourage change generally in teaching;
  • initial resources to encourage instructors to try something new, to compensate for the extra time and to provide specialist advice, where needed;
  • a systematic, independent evaluation of the effectiveness of the innovation, in terms of learning, increased flexibility for students, etc;
  • a process to share the results of the innovation with other instructors both within and beyond the department;
  • a process for deciding on the wider adoption of the innovation within or beyond a department;
  • further evaluation of the more general adoption.

Without this or some other strategy for supporting innovative teaching, it will remain isolated and will not affect the overall  innovation of teaching in the institution.

What can you do about legacy systems?

This is a tough question, and more likely to be best answered by those used to migrating computer systems, such as the Canadian government’s Phoenix pay system (not), but here are some of my suggestions:

  • make sure you have a strategic plan for teaching and learning: this should not only identify legacy systems that are inhibiting change, and suggest new, more appropriate systems, but also suggest strategies for gradually replacing or changing them so the new systems are fit for the new purpose;
  • encourage a skunk-works unit that is free to experiment with new tools and approaches on a limited scale, but within a strategy for implementing more widely successful innovations from the skunk-works;
  • develop new parallel systems so that for a period, both the old and new systems are running together, to give time to make the transition and train people in the new system; this should have a clear timeline and schedule, e,.g. the transition should be complete within five years;
  • ensure any new systems or tools are flexible and easily replaceable, to accommodate for future changes;
  • change your management structure so that those in charge of legacy systems that need to be replaced are not influencing decisions about new systems – which they will try to block;
  • look carefully at costs and budgets, so that any large future investments, e.g. in IT systems or hardware, enable future flexibility, and that investments in outdated legacy systems are gradually phased out;
  • make sure there is some financial flexibility for encouraging the adoption of new tools and processes that might replace more expensive legacy systems – for instance, rather than build a new campus or building, would online delivery be a better investment?

All this makes me think that it would be a lot easier to design new institutions from scratch – but then they would soon become outdated themselves. The trick is to build a flexible, dynamic organisation that can accommodate new ideas, approaches and tools without throwing everything else out of the bucket. In other words, in a university or college, protect the core mission of knowledge creation and dissemination, but be prepared to change constantly how you do this.

‘Making Digital Learning Work’: why faculty and program directors must change their approach

Completion rates for different modes of delivery at Houston Community College

Bailey, A. et al (2018) Making Digital Learning Work Boston MA:The Boston Consulting Group/Arizona State University

Getting blended learning wrong

I’ve been to several universities recently where faculty are beginning to develop blended or ‘hybrid’ courses which reduce but do not eliminate time on campus. I must confess I have mixed feelings about this. While I welcome such moves in principle, I have been alarmed by some of the approaches being taken.

The main strategy appears to be to move some of the face-to-face lectures online, without changing either the face-to-face or the online lecture format. In particular there is often a resistance to asynchronous approaches to online learning.  In one or two cases I have seen, faculty have insisted that students watch the Internet lectures live so that there can be synchronous online discussion, thus severely limiting the flexibility of ‘any time, any place’ for students.

Even more alarming, academic departments seem to be approaching the development of new blended learning programs the same way as their on-campus programs – identify faculty to teach the courses and then let them loose without any significant faculty development or learning design support. Even worse, there is no project management to ensure that courses are ready on time. Why discuss the design of the online lectures when you don’t do that for your classroom lectures? 

Trying to move classroom lectures online without adaptation is bound to fail, as we saw from the early days of fully online learning (and MOOCs). I recognise that blended or hybrid learning is different from fully online learning, but it is also different from face-to-face teaching. The challenge is to identify what the added value is of the face-to-face component, when most teaching can be done as well or better, and much more conveniently for students, online, and how to combine the two modes of delivery to deliver better learning outcomes more cost-effectively.  In particular, faculty are missing the opportunity to change their teaching method in order to get better learning outcomes, such as the development of high-level intellectual skills.

The real danger here is that poorly designed blended courses or programs will ‘fail’ and it is ‘blended learning’ that is blamed, when really it’s ignorance of best teaching practices on the part of faculty, and program directors especially. The problem is that faculty, and particularly senior faculty such as Deans and program directors, don’t know what they don’t know, which is why the report, ‘Making Digital Learning Work’ is so important. The report provides evidence that digital learning needs a complete change in culture and approaches to course and program development and delivery for most academic departments. Here’s why.

The report

The Arizona State University Foundation and Boston Consulting, funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, conducted a study of the return on investment (ROI) of digital learning in six different institutions. The methodology focused on six case studies of institutions that have been pioneers in post-secondary digital education:

  • Arizona State University
  • University of Central Florida
  • Georgia State University
  • Houston Community College
  • The Kentucky Community and Technical College System
  • Rio Salado Community College.

These are all large institutions (over 30,000 students each) and relatively early adopters of online learning. 

The study had three aims:

  • define what ROI means in terms of digital education, and identify appropriate metrics for measuring ROI
  • assess the impact of digital learning formats on institutions’ enrolments, student learning outcomes, and cost structures
  • examine how these institutions implemented digital learning, and identify lessons and promising practices for the field.

The study compared results from three different modes of delivery:

  • face-to-face courses
  • mixed-modality courses, offering a mix of online and face-to-face components, with the online component typically replacing some tradition face-to-face teaching (what I would call ‘hybrid learning)
  • fully online courses.

The ROI framework

The study identified three components of ROI for digital learning:

  • impact on student access to higher education
  • impact on learning and completion outcomes
  • impact on economics (the costs of teaching, administration and infrastructure, and the cost to students).

The report is particularly valuable in the way it has addressed the economic issues. Several factors were involved:

  • differences in class size between face-to-face and digital teaching and learning
  • differences in the mix of instructors (tenured and adjunct, full-time and part-time)
  • allocation of additional expenses such as faculty development and learning design support
  • impact of digital learning on classroom and other physical capacity 
  • IT costs specifically associated with digital learning.

The report summarised this framework in the following graphic:

While there are some limitations which I will discuss later, this is a sophisticated approach to looking at the return on investment in digital learning and gives me a great deal of confidence in the findings.

Results

Evidence from the six case studies resulted in the following findings, comparing digital learning with face-to-face teaching.

Digital learning resulted in:

  • equivalent or improved student learning outcomes
  • faster time to degree completion
  • improved access, particularly for disadvantaged students
  • a better return on investment (at four of the institutions): savings for online courses ranged from $12 to $66 per credit hour.

If you have problems believing or accepting these results then I recommend you read the report in full. I think you will find the results justified.

Conditions for success

This is perhaps the most valuable part of the report, because although most faculty may not be aware of this, those of us working in online learning have been aware for some time of the benefits of digital learning identified above. What this report makes clear though are the conditions that are needed for digital learning to succeed:

  • take a strategic portfolio approach to digital learning. This needs a bit of unpacking because of the terminology. The report argues that the greatest potential to improve access and outcomes while reducing costs lies in increasing the integration of digital learning into the undergraduate experience through mixed-modality (i.e. hybrid learning). This involves not just one single approach to course design but a mix, dependent on the demands of the subject and the needs of students. However, there should be somewhat standard course design templates to ensure efficiency in course design and to reduce risk.
  • build the necessary capabilities and expertise to design for quality in the digital realm. The experience of the six institutions emphasises that significant investment needs to be made in instructional design, learning sciences and digital tools and capacity (and – my sidebar – faculty need to listen to what instructional designers tell them)
  • provide adequate student support that takes account of the fact that students will often require that support away from the campus (and 24/7)
  • fully engage faculty and provide adequate faculty development and training by fostering a culture of innovation in teaching
  • tap outside vendors strategically: determine the strategic goals first for digital learning then decide where outside vendors can add value to in-house capacity
  • strengthen analytics and monitoring: the technology provides better ways to track student progress and difficulties

My comments on the report

This report should be essential reading for anyone concerned with teaching and learning in post-secondary education, but it will be particularly important for program directors. 

It emphasises that blended learning is not so much about delivery but about achieving better learning outcomes and increased access through the re-design of teaching that incorporates the best of face-to-face and online teaching. However this requires a major cultural change in the way faculty and instructors approach teaching as indicated by the following:

  • holistic program planning involving all instructors, instructional designers and probably students as well
  • careful advanced planning, and following best practices, including project management and learning design
  • focusing as much on the development of skills as delivering content
  • identifying the unique ‘affordances’ of face-to-face teaching and online learning: there is no general formula for this but it will require discussion and input from both content experts and learning designers on a course by course basis
  • systematic evaluation and monitoring of hybrid learning course designs, so best (and poor) practices can be identified

I have a few reservations about the report:

  • The case study institutions were carefully selected. They are institutions with a long history of and/or considerable experience in online learning. I would like to see more cases built on more traditional universities or colleges that have been able successfully to move into online and especially blended learning
  • the report did not really deal with the unique context of mixed-modularity. Many of the results were swamped by the much more established fully online courses. However, hybrid learning is still new so this presents a challenge in comparing results.

However, these are minor quibbles. Please print out the report and leave it on the desk of your Dean, the Provost, the AVP Teaching and Learning and your program director – after you’ve read it. You could also give them:

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley

But that may be too much reading for the poor souls, who now have a major crisis to deal with.

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.

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).

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.