April 23, 2017

What counts when you cost online learning?

Poulin, R. and Straut, T. (2017) Distance Education Price and Cost Report Boulder CO: WCET

This highly controversial report has generated considerable discussion in WCET’s own Forum, and has received a good deal of media coverage. When you read the report you will see why.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the finding that respondents to the survey on which this report is based were by and large of the opinion that distance education costs more than classroom teaching. But you need to read the report more carefully to understand why respondents responded in this way. It all comes down to how you cost distance education or online learning. In particular, you need to understand the context of the report. 

As always, you should read the report itself, not my summary, especially if you disagree with what’s in my summary.

The context

The context for this report is very political and very American (by which I mean USAnian, i.e. applying specifically to the USA). The report is more about price – what institutions charge students – than it is about cost.

The cost of tuition (the fees students or their parents pay to the institution) continues to increase in the USA way beyond the rate of inflation, and many institutions not only charge the same tuition rates for online or distance education courses, but also add additional fees. In other words, many American institutions increase the price for an online or distance course compared to its face-to-face equivalent.

However, the political perception, especially in state legislatures, is that distance education is cheaper than on-campus teaching, so some states (e.g. Wisconsin and Florida) have introduced legislation or initiatives to reduce the price of online learning courses below that of face-to-face programs.

As the authors note:

Historically, distance education’s mission has been to overcome the barriers of place or time. The mission was not to control costs. In fact, to reach some locations is costly. Distance education should not be held accountable to a mission it was never given.

distance education professionals are caught in a higher education economics ethos that shuns open examination of price and cost…and are expected to answer to a “controlling cost” mission that was not given them in the first place.

It is within this context that WCET decided to do the study in order to challenge some of the assumptions about the price and cost of distance education.

Methodology

As always, you need to know the methodology in order to interpret the results. The report indeed is very transparent about its methodology, which is not tucked away in an appendix or not discussed at all (which seems to be a practice that is increasing in many so-called ‘studies’ these days), but is front and centre in the report.

Definitions

The authors provide the following definition:

  • Price – This is the amount of money that is charged to a student for instruction. The components are tuition and fees. In the questions, we will be clear as to which “price” component (tuition, fees, or total price) is being queried. 
  • Cost – This is the amount of money that is spent by the institution to create, offer, and support instruction. 
  • Distance Education – When thinking of “distance education,” we favor the Babson Survey Research Group definition of 80% or more of the course being taught at a distance.

Sample

WCET surveyed mainly its own members and members of other distance education consortia. Overall, 197 responded.

We had hoped for more participation in the survey. It is important to note that the responses provided represent only the institutional representatives who answered the survey questions. Even though we provide comparisons between the responding population and the overall higher education population, we do not assert that the results may be generalized to the universe of all institutions of higher education in the U.S. and Canada that offer distance education courses.

What can be said is that the response came mainly from distance education and educational technology professionals, rather than faculty or senior administrators, mainly in public HE institutions.

Main results

I will deal with these very briefly, although the detailed findings are more nuanced.

  1. The price of DE is generally higher than for face-to-face teaching. More than half (54%) of the respondents reported that their institution charged more for distance education courses than for on-campus courses.
  2. A majority of respondents believed that the cost of DE was higher than for face-to-face teaching on certain defined components (e.g. faculty development, technologies, instructional design, assessments, state authorization – a long and complex process of ‘accrediting’ DE courses unique to the USA).
  3. ‘Experts’ in the costs of DE tended to disagree that costs of DE are necessarily higher
  4. The experts also noted that cost discussions are often avoided by higher education leadership and that more could be done to control costs, not just in distance education.

The reports main conclusions

The conclusions were split into recommendations for legislators and institutions:

For legislators

  • focus questions on future costs and in particular the likely impact of investing in buildings vs distance education in terms of the impact of the cost to students
  • provide more incentives for institutions to reduce the price to students
  • don’t be prescriptive but help institutions develop a vision for state higher education that is realistic and shared

For institutions

  • pay as much attention to the cost to students as to the cost to the institution of various delivery methods
  • be more open about costs and track them for all modes of delivery
  • changing the cost structure requires structural changes in how we design and deliver programs; this requires leadership from the senior administration.

My comments on the report

The report is right to draw attention to the creeping costs to students (e.g. price) resulting from institutional policies in the USA. What is also apparent is that there is a large disconnect between institutions and government about the cost of distance education. Many educators believe that DE is more expensive; government thinks it should be cheaper. Somewhere in the middle is a discussion about quality: does cheaper mean worse?

Cherry-picking costs

Unfortunately, though, for methodological reasons, I fear the report has confused rather than clarified the discussion about costs and price. In particular, by focusing on components that are specific to distance education, such as faculty support, the use of technologies, and the cost of state authorization of DE, the report has clearly given the impression that most educators believe that distance education is more expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

It is unfortunate that the report has given this impression because you cannot just look at the costs of specific components of distance education without looking also at specific components of face-to-face teaching that are not represented in the costs of distance education, in particular the very substantial ‘sunk’ costs of buildings, parking, etc. There are better ways of measuring the costs of distance education and online programs – see Chapter 7 in Bates and Sangra (2011).

Making DE cost-effective

While we can develop cost-effective fully online programs, this normally depends on generating new revenues from new students. Offering online courses as an alternative to already existing students on campus, while increasing access and student flexibility, is much more financially risky.

Again, this can be managed cost-effectively, but it depends on having enough students taking both on-campus and online versions of the course, and the use of additional adjunct professors for online courses with more than 30 students. Bringing in new students who you wouldn’t get without the courses being online is the best bet to ensure economic viability. ‘Diluting’ your on-campus students by offering the same course online will add costs unless the numbers can justify it.

What about the costs of blended learning?

One last point. I think we are going to have a period of considerable cost turmoil as we move to blended learning, because this really does add costs unless there are dramatic redesigns, especially of the large first and second year classes. Carol Twigg of the National Centre for Academic Transformation for many years has been able to bring down costs – or more often increase effectiveness for the same cost – for these large lecture classes by using blended learning designs (although there are some criticisms of her costing methodology).

By and large though, while fully online courses can maybe increase enrolments by 10-15% and therefore help pay their way, we will have major cost or academic time problems if we move to nearly all courses being blended, without increased training for faculty, so they can manage without the same level of support provided by instructional designers, etc. that are normally provided for fully online courses (see ‘Are we ready for blended learning?‘).

Moving forward 

I’m glad then that WCET has produced a report that focuses not only on the costs of distance education to institution but also on pricing policies. There is in my view no economic justification for charging more for an online course than a face-to-face course as a matter of principle. You need to do the sums and institutions are very bad at doing this in a way that tracks the cost of activities rather than throwing everything into one bucket then leaking it out at historical rates to different departments.

Institutions need to develop more rigorous methods for tracking the costs of different modes of delivery while also building in a measure of the benefits as well. If the report at least moves institutions towards this, it will have been well worth it.

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?

 

2016: The Year I Failed Retirement

Cruising is a bit of a challenge for me

I don’t think I’m temperamentally suited to cruises

The new age of retirement

I decided in April 2014 ‘to stop (nearly) all professional activities from now onwards’. I argued that ‘it is dangerous for a consultant to become adrift from the reality of teaching and management’ and ‘this is not a profession where you can be half in and half out.’

In particular, I wanted to write a ‘farewell’ book that would try to capture my expertise for those who might benefit from 40 years of teaching online and at a distance. I completed that book, Teaching in a Digital Age, almost exactly a year later, in April, 2015.

I realised that this might entail some follow-up, such as appearances at conferences or webinars to publicize the book, but that ought to be over by the end of 2015. 2016 would be the year to finally let go, play lots of golf, travel with my wife and fix all the things around the house that I’ve been putting off for years. So how is that going?

Not so good. Certainly I have played lots of golf, my wife and I took our first cruise, and we went on a trip up the west coast of British Columbia to the Great Bear Rain Forest, and saw two grizzly bears in the wild, but the work part didn’t pan out as I had expected.

'Bent-ear' was in the forest on the bank opposite our Zodiac

‘Bent-ear’ was on the bank of the Atnarko River, about 50 metres away

Here is the list of my activities in 2016.

Ryerson University

I was honoured to be invited to be a distinguished visiting professor for 2016 by the Raymond G. Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University. Ryerson is probably in general terms the most innovative university in Canada, and I had a somewhat tenuous but very welcome prior connection with Chang through its Digital Education Strategies unit. Leonora Zefi, Naza Djafarova and other colleagues in DES had provided valuable feedback on early drafts of my book.

DES has been supporting a number of innovative online teaching projects at Ryerson, such as the Law Practice Program and Lake Devo animations, and is developing expertise in research into educational games.

Lake Devo friendship 2

Lake Devo animation supports online role-play activity in an educational context.

Part of my duties was to present at the annual Chang Talks and also to sit in on a meeting to help develop an institutional e-learning strategy for Ryerson.

Conferences, presentations and workshops

Although I have done far less than in earlier years, I still had a number of academic engagements:

  • six keynotes/presentations: two in Toronto (Ryerson University and Nelson Publishing), and once each in Budapest (EDEN), Madeira (IADIS), Philadelphia (Drexel University), and Kingston, Ontario (Queen’s University);
  • two workshops, one for Chinese university presidents on managing learning technologies at UBC; and one at Ryerson University, Toronto to help develop their eLearning strategy;
  • nine webinars (to universities in Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Australia, and Alberta, to European Union educational policy-makers in Brussels, and three Contact North webinars offered internationally), all on topics from my book;
  • attendance at two demofests in Vancouver/Burnaby where innovators from post-secondary institutions in British Columbia demonstrated what they are doing;
  • several press interviews.
The Pestana Casino Park Hotel, Funchal, site of the IADIS conference - hey, someone has to do this.

The Pestana Casino Park Hotel, Funchal, site of the IADIS conference – hey, someone has to do this.

Teaching in a Digital Age

The book has continued to generate a lot of activity. The English version has been downloaded over 46,000 times and the book has been translated into French, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Portuguese. There are also translations under way in Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew. Voluntarily translating a 500 page book into another language requires a huge amount of work, but if it had not been published under an open license, it is unlikely to have been translated into so many different languages, all by volunteers. There are also a couple of major adaptations, one in South Africa (English), and one in Argentina (Spanish), to suit regional requirements. Contact North and BCcampus have sites that host both the English and French versions, and BCcampus also hosts the Vietnamese version.

I am of course delighted at the success of the book, and I am very happy to provide the necessary help to get the translations into Pressbooks, deal with translation issues, and to help the organizations providing translations with understanding the Creative Commons licensing agreement.

However, it is been a struggle to get some of the organizations supporting the translations to understand fully the concept of openness. Some have just made print copies available and have yet to provide a url from where anyone can download a copy in the appropriate language, or a digital copy that could be made available through the BCcampus web site. Thus ensuring the translations are also fully open and accessible online is still very much a work in progress on my part.

10 Fundamentals of Online Learning

During 2016 I did a series of 10 blog posts called ‘Online Learning for Beginners’, realising that although Teaching in a Digital Age had been downloaded over 46,000 times, there are still many faculty who are not yet committed enough to online learning to even look at the book.

Contact North then edited and published my 10 guides as a short, 37 page booklet, ‘The Ten Fundamentals Of Teaching Online‘ that is really a first step towards getting faculty and instructors to read Teaching in a Digital Age, and more importantly to challenge some of the myths and misunderstandings that many faculty have about teaching online. The Ten Fundamentals was published in October this year and has so far been downloaded just over 300 times and has already been translated into Spanish by a professor in Argentina.

Blogging

During the year I did 74 blog posts, which is little more than one a week, compared with the 213 blog posts in 2013, the year before I decided to retire. So I have definitely reduced my blogging activity.

However, although I am blogging 70% less than I used to, my blog site was more active in 2016 than in any previous years, with a total of 417,000 hits. In fact, the number of hits to the site was 33% higher in 2016 than in 2014. This is somewhat surprising, since the golden rule of blogging is that the more you blog, the more hits you will get.

blog-stats-dec-16-2

If though we look at Table 1 below, I can perhaps explain this anomaly. The year the post was published is in brackets; TIDA means the post was an early draft of a section of Teaching in a Digital Age)

Table 1: No. of hits per post in 2016 (top 20 posts)

The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) 38,618
A short history of educational technology (2014: TIDA) 33,367
What Is Distance Education? (2008) 20,961
Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) 14,636
The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age (2014; TIDA) 14,435
Learning theories and online learning (2014; TIDA) 12,017
Deciding on appropriate media for teaching and learning (2014; TIDA) 11,423
A student guide to studying online (2012) 8,042
Advice to students about Athabasca University (2015) 6,860
The role of communities of practice in a digital age (2014; TIDA) 6,282
Building an effective learning environment (2016) 6,156
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) 6,113
Key characteristics of learners in a digital age……(2014; TIDA) 5,109
Is the ADDIE model appropriate for teaching in a digital age? (2014; TIDA) 4,793
5. Models for selecting media and technology: 5. Media or technology? (2011) 4,157
Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice (2014; TIDA) 4,021
Teaching in a Digital Age (2015) 3,722
Why learner support is an important component in the design of teaching.…(2014; TIDA) 3,469
Does technology change the nature of knowledge? (2009) 3,380
Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 7: Design course structure…(2012) 3,197

 

There was only one post published in 2016 (Building an Effective Learning Environment) that appears in the top 20 posts (in terms of the number of hits) for 2016, and even that was a summary/discussion of Appendix A in Teaching in a Digital Age. Nine other posts in the top 20 were early drafts of sections of Teaching in a Digital Age.

My interpretation of this is that the blog site is being used increasingly as a resource, rather than as a news site, especially by students who are studying on courses about online learning and teaching. This means that each year different students are coming back to the same posts. I cannot explain though why they are using drafts from my blog site rather than (or as well as) using the text of the book. There is though apparently a strong relationship and interaction between my blog site and the book.

Also three of the top five posts, and five of the top ten posts, are ‘general’ posts for online students about studying online. There are of course many more students than instructors, which explains why these are topics that come near to the top each year.

‘Can you teach real engineering online’ has generated the most number of comments (127 in all) and continues to be a lively forum seven years after it was originally published (and an indication of student frustration at the limited opportunities to study engineering online). ‘The worlds’ largest supplier of free online learning?’, about ALISON, has generated 104 comments and is also still active. ‘What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs’ has generated 54 comments, but there was only one comment on this post this year, and only one post on MOOCs reached the top 20 in 2016, which suggests interest in MOOCs may be waning, at least among my readers.

The national survey of online learning in Canada

Finally, one activity that I hadn’t planned for in 2016 that is taking up a great deal of my time is the proposed national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions, in collaboration with the Babson Survey Research Group. This activity will continue into 2017.

Must do better

Although I am reducing my level of activity, I’m still playing, although at a somewhat slower pace. In terms of actually retiring though I am definitely failing, at least a ‘D’ if not an ‘F’. I will try to do better next year.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Are you ready for blended learning?

changing-teaching-methods-2

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

Definition

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

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

Blended learning can be seen as

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why get on the bus when you can study online?

Why get on the bus when you can study online?

Organizational issues

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

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

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

The scaling issue

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

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

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

Possible solutions

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

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

Then you will be ready for blended learning.

Over to you

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

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

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