August 15, 2018

Reading between the lines: the ‘intangibles’ in quality online teaching and learning

Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Teaching needs empathy, intuition and imagination, as well as technical competence.

Contact North has organised a series of four webinars highlighting the practical advice and guidelines offered in my online, open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. The first webinar took place last week on September 29. It covered the first five chapters in the book, which discuss:

  • the implications of the major changes taking place in education
  • epistemologies that drive approaches to teaching and learning
  • different teaching methods and their appropriateness for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society.

The aim of the webinar was not to cover the same ground as in the book,  but to provide an opportunity for participants to raise questions or comments about these issues, which was what they did. I received and answered nearly 30 different questions in the one hour. You can access the recording here:

In particular, there were questions about the importance of passion in teaching, whether learners today are really different, how to engage passive learners or introverts online, how to get students to take responsibility for learning, how to get students to collaborate online, and lastly whether cognitivism is an epistemology or a learning theory. I did answer all these questions briefly within the webinar.

On listening again to the recording, though, I was struck by the interest or concern of participants for what I would call the intangibles or the more human aspects in teaching and learning, such as the importance of passion in teaching and learning, dealing with learners’ ‘readiness’ or motivation to learn, building relationships between online learners and instructors, and how to encourage/develop interaction, discussion and collaboration between learners.

This brought home to me that for most instructors, teaching is not just a technical activity that can be categorized, systematised and computerised, but is a fundamentally human practice that requires empathy, intuition, and imagination. These are qualities that cannot be automated.

The next webinar, which will cover chapters 6-9 on media and technology selection, will be on November 3, 2015. For more details, click here.


Review of ‘Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda.’

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

It is somewhat daunting to review a book of over 500 pages of research on any topic. I doubt if few other than the editors are likely to read this book from cover to cover. It is more likely to be kept on one’s bookshelf (if these still exist in a digital age) for reference whenever needed. Nevertheless, this is an important work that anyone working in online learning needs to be aware of, so I will do my best to cover it as comprehensively as I can.

Structure of the book

The book is a collection of about 20 chapters by a variety of different authors (more on the choice of authors later). Based on a Delphi study and analysis of ‘key research journals’ in the field, the editors have organized the topic into three sections, with a set of chapters on each sub-section, as follows:

1. Macro-level research: distance education systems and theories

  • access, equity and ethics
  • globalization and cross-cultural issues
  • distance teaching systems and institutions
  • theories and models
  • research methods and knowledge transfer

2. Meso-level research: management, organization and technology

  • management and organization
  • costs and benefits
  • educational technology
  • innovation and change
  • professional development and faculty support
  • learner support services
  • quality assurance

3. Micro-level: teaching and learning in distance education

  • instructional/learning design
  • interaction and communication
  • learner characteristics.

In addition, there is a very useful preface from Otto Peters, an introductory chapter by the editors where they justify their structural organization of research, and a short conclusion that calls for a systematic research agenda in online distance education research.

More importantly, perhaps, Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter demonstrate empirically that research in this field has been skewed towards micro-level research (about half of all publications).  Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly given its importance, costs and benefits of online distance education is the least researched area.

What I liked

It is somewhat invidious to pick out particular chapters, because different people will have different interests from such a wide-ranging list of topics. I have tended to choose those that I found were new and/or particularly enlightening for me, but other readers’ choices will be different. However, by selecting a few excellent chapters, I hope to give some idea of the quality of the book.

1. The structuring/organization of research

Anderson and Zawacki-Richter have done an excellent job in providing a structural framework for research in this field. This will be useful both for those teaching about online and distance education but in particular for potential Ph.D. students wondering what to study. This book will provide an essential starting point.

2. Summary of the issues in each area of research

Again, the editors have done an excellent job in their introductory chapter in summarizing the content of each of the chapters that follows, and in so doing pulling out the key themes and issues within each area of research. This alone makes the book worthwhile.

3. Globalization, Culture and Online Distance Education

Charlotte (Lani) Gunawardena of the University of New Mexico has written the most comprehensive and deep analysis of this issue that I have seen, and it is an area in which I have a great deal of interest, since most of the online teaching I have done has been with students from around the world and sometimes multi-lingual.

After a general discussion of the issue of globalization and education, she reviews research in the following areas:

  • diverse educational expectations
  • learners and preferred ways of learning
  • socio-cultural environment and online interaction
  • help-seeking behaviours
  • silence
  • language learning
  • researching culture and online distance learning

This chapter should be required reading for anyone contemplating teaching online.

4. Quality assurance in Online Distance Education

I picked this chapter by Colin Latchem because he is so deeply expert in this field that he is able to make what can be a numbingly boring but immensely important topic a fun read, while at the same time ending with some critical questions about quality assurance. In particular Latchem looks at QA from the following perspectives:

  • definitions of quality
  • accreditation
  • online distance education vs campus-based teaching
  • quality standards
  • transnational online distance education
  • open educational resources
  • costs of QA
  • is online distance education yet good enough?
  • an outcomes approach to QA.

This chapter definitely showcases a master at the top of his game.

5. The elephant in the room: student drop-out

This is a wonderfully funny but ultimately serious argument between Ormond Simpson and Alan Woodley about the elephant in the distance education room that no-one wants to mention. Here they start poking the elephant with some sticks (which they note is not likely to be a career-enhancing move.) The basic argument is that institutions should and could do more to reduce drop-out/increase course completion. This chapter also stunned me with providing hard data about really low completion rates for most open university students. I couldn’t help comparing these with the high completion rates for online credit courses at dual-mode (campus-based) institutions, at least in Canada (which of course are not ‘open’ institutions in that students must have good high school qualifications.)

Woodley’s solution to reducing drop-out is quite interesting (and later well argued):

  • make it harder to get in
  • make it harder to get out

In both cases, really practical and not too costly solutions are offered that nevertheless are consistent with open access and high quality teaching.

In summary

The book contains a number of really good chapters that lay out the issues in researching online distance education.

What I disliked

I have to say that I groaned when I first saw the list of contributors. The same old, same old list of distance education experts with a heavy bias towards open universities. Sure, they are nearly all well-seasoned experts, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se (after all, I see myself as one of them.)

But where are the young researchers here, and especially the researchers in open educational resources, MOOCs, social media applications in online learning, and above all researchers from the many campus-based universities now mainstreaming online learning? There is almost nothing in the book about research into blended learning, and flipped classrooms are not even mentioned. OK, the book is about online distance learning but the barriers or distinctions are coming down with a vengeance. This book will never reach those who most need it, the many campus-based instructors now venturing for the first time into online learning in one way or another. They don’t see themselves as primarily distance educators.

And a few of the articles were more like lessons in history than an up-to-date review of research in the field. Readers of this blog will know that I strongly value the history of educational technology and distance learning. But these lessons need to be embedded in the here and now. In particular, the lessons need to be spelled out. It is not enough to know that Stanford University researchers as long ago as 1974 were researching the costs and benefits of educational broadcasting in developing countries, but what lessons does this have for some of the outrageous claims being made about MOOCs? A great deal in fact, but this needs explaining in the context of MOOCs today.

Also the book is solely focused on post-secondary university education. Where is the research on online distance education in the k-12/school sector or the two-year college/vocational sector? Maybe they are topics for other books, but this is where the real gap exists in research publications in online learning.

Lastly, although the book is reasonably priced for its size (C$40), and is available as an e-text as well as the fully printed version, what a pity it is not an open textbook that could then be up-dated and crowd-sourced over time.


This is essential reading for anyone who wants to take a professional, evidence-based approach to online learning (distance or otherwise). It will be particularly valuable for students wanting to do research in this area. The editors have done an incredibly good job of presenting a hugely diverse and scattered area in a clear and structured manner. Many of the chapters are gems of insight and knowledge in the field.

However, we have a huge challenge of knowledge transfer in this field. Repeatedly authors in the book lamented that many of the new entrants to online learning are woefully ignorant of the research previously done in this field. We need a better way to disseminate this research than a 500 page printed text that only those already expert in the field are likely to access. On the other hand, the book does provide a strong foundation from which to find better ways to disseminate this knowledge. Knowledge dissemination in a digital world then is where the research agenda for online learning needs to focus.


Does distance education socialize students? A study from Québec

image ©www.ameriquefranç, 2014

image © www.amériquefranç, 2014

Loisier, J. (2014) Socialisation des Etudiants en FAD au Canada Francophone Montréal QC: REFAD

REFAD (the Canadian francophone distance education network) has published a very interesting research paper on socialization and distance education in francophone Canada by one of its research consultants, Dr. Jean Loisier. If you can read French, and are interested in research on the extent to which socialization exists and the role it plays in online and distance education, this report is essential reading. (Because of the value of this report, I hope it will be made available in English so that it can have a wider market).

As well as providing a good review of theoretical issues around the subject of socialization in education, which takes into account  students’ use of social media, the report is based on in-depth interviews with 26 distance education leaders in the majority of francophone post-secondary institutions, and 121 questionnaires received from distance education instructors.

The report covers six topics:

  • characteristics of francophone distance learners and their mode of distance learning (individual, cohort, flexible);
  • technologies that support or discourage socialization;
  • teaching strategies that focus or not on collaborative activities;
  • phenomena associated with group activities;
  • the need for “social relations” between students;
  • actions taken by Canadian institutions to support the integration of distance students, and the importance these institutions give to different aspects of socialization in relation to educational goals, and the importance these aspects of socialization have in maintaining and strengthening ties within the Francophone communities outside Quebec.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize a 144 page report in French, but Loisier’s conclusions in particular are quite provocative (if I have translated correctly!). He notes that while most distance education leaders support the idea of collaborative learning and the socialization of students, in practice this does not happen often in distance programs, and in any case collaborative learning often conflicts with the desire of distance students for individual and flexible learning. Furthermore, socialization does not occur automatically online merely by putting students together in groups. Nevertheless, there are important educational goals that are best facilitated through collaborative learning, but careful planning and a framework/context  are needed that avoid the more affective or emotional elements of socialization, and focus more on the cognitive elements of learning in a group.

This is one of the most interesting, provocative and useful research reports I’ve read in a long while.

Developing a strategy for lifelong learners in Canadian universities and colleges (and its implications for online learning)

© Pat Cegan’s ‘Source of Inspiration‘, 2012

Council of Ontario Universities (2012) Increased numbers of students heading to Ontario universities Toronto ON: COU

Changing demographics

This press release from the Council of Ontario Universities shows that students NOT coming direct from high school now constitute 24% of all new admissions, and enrollments from this sector are increasing faster than those from students coming direct from high schools.

This trend is likely to continue and grow, given the demographics of Canada. Birth rates are low (the City of Vancouver has 60,000 less k-12 students than it did 10 years ago, although some of this is due to families migrating to Surrey and other cities/suburbs, where house prices are more affordable), whereas the demands of the workplace and in particular the growth of knowledge-based industries is requiring continuous and lifelong learning.

Also, many two-year colleges and particularly Canadian Institutes of Technology are now seeing a large proportion of university graduates applying for admission. (BCIT once claimed that 50% of all new enrollments were university graduates).

Canada relies heavily on immigration (over 260,000 new immigrants a year) and most of the adults among these immigrants will need to spend at least some time upgrading their qualifications to meet Canadian professional and vocational requirements.

It is then just a matter of time before lifelong learners outnumber high school leavers in Canadian college and undergraduate programs (I suspect that this is already the case in some inner city two year colleges). But our systems are still designed to cater primarily for 18-21 year old, full-time, campus-based students. It is no surprise then that in some colleges and universities in Canada, enrollments are actually dropping, despite governments pushing for and even providing funding for more enrollments.

A strategy for lifelong learning

In a recent report by the Canadian Virtual University the report notes:

Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden, Japan, and Australia, have recognized and seized upon the importance of lifelong learning in improving skills and innovation and are devising ambitious strategies to help their citizens become lifelong learners. Canada does not have a lifelong learning system in place, nor a plan to transform the rhetoric of lifelong learning into a coherent vision and a plan for action.

In my review of the report, I commented that the current Conservative Federal government is unlikely to develop a lifelong learning strategy for Canada. Education is a provincial responsibility, and this federal government believes in less rather than more intervention in provincial matters. It would make sense for a provincial government to develop a strategy for lifelong learning but this means working across several ministerial silos, such as economic development, education, immigration, and social services, and working collaboratively with the educational institutions. It would also require a vision and commitment rarely found in Canadian provincial politics.

More importantly, I see lifelong learning as a responsibility mainly of the institutions themselves. Their mandate is to provide post-secondary education to all students who can benefit from it. There should be no discrimination on the grounds of age. If the target population is getting older, then institutions need to adapt their policies and strategies to meet the needs of that changing demographic.

This means of course more flexible delivery and a greater focus on online learning. However, it means much more than that. Here are some strategic considerations resulting from a change in the demographics of university and college students.


Many lifelong learners have already been through the public post-secondary education system. Many will already have diplomas or degrees. They also usually have life experiences that are highly relevant to the topic or subject area under study. This means developing methods of teaching that both engage and involve learners (yes, it means treating students as adults).

Fortunately, there are already well developed methods for teaching adults (with the ugly name of andragogy), but this of course will require systematic training of faculty.

It also suggests to me that web 2.0 technologies in particular will be appropriate for this type of learner, enabling them to draw on their work and life experiences, take responsibility for their learning, develop multimedia projects, learn collaboratively, and use these tools in the way that they will often do in the workplace.


In any class, students are likely to be increasingly diverse, with some students straight from high school weak on the basics, some older students needing revision but not wanting to start from scratch, and other students secure in the basics but more interested in recent developments in the subject, or the application of their basic knowledge to new topic areas. This will require much more individualization of the curriculum.

Again, the technology can be really useful here. All content can be digitized, loaded on the web and indexed or tagged, activities can be set that require knowledge and application of the content, students can be placed in groups for collaborative learning around topic based or inquiry based curricula, and students can work in collaboration with the instructor to develop their own learning goals, outcomes and path through the materials.

One area where online learning can be particularly valuable is providing coherent qualifications for newly emerging areas of knowledge through inter-institutional collaboration. There may be only one specialist in a newly emerging area such as nanotechnology in one institution, but by combining expertise on this area from two or three universities, it would be possible to develop a full masters degree, and sufficient mass of students internationally for such a topic.

Organizational structures

The reconsideration of the strict division of credit from non-credit programs is now much overdue. Post-secondary institutions have ghettoized non-credit learning into Divisions of Continuing Education or Extension, whose main mandate for the last 25 years has been to make a profit from non-credit programs to help cross-subsidize the credit programs. Many institutions refuse to recognize even their own non-credit courses for credit. The main effect of MOOCs will be to destroy the for-profit continuing education programs. Why pay Hicksville State University for a non-credit course on advanced web design when you can get one free from MIT? More importantly, though, continuing education programs are often run completely independently of the credit programs in terms of curriculum content.

Academic departments in particular need to see post-secondary education as a continuous and ongoing process that will engage their students throughout their lifetime. As Martha Piper, a former President of UBC, once said: “Once a UBC student, always a UBC student” (a frightening thought in some cases). Thus there should be a smooth integration of undergraduate and post-graduate programming, with careful consideration given to the role and purposes of non-credit, certificate, and applied masters programs.

For instance, it should be possible to transfer individual non-credit courses, and certificates, from the same institution, into a masters program. Certificates can have a more open admission policy, but students can transfer into a masters program by demonstrating competence in the certificate program. Also, in many Canadian jurisdictions, inter-institutional transfer of credits will become increasingly important to support lifelong learning.

Admission policies

Admission policies and course requirements designed for 18 year olds leaving high school are not likely to suit a 35 year old immigrant with a degree in engineering. Institutions in Canada vary considerably in their recognition of international qualifications. Lifelong learners provide an equal challenge to admission policies. However, institutions run the risk of missing out on brilliant ’rounded’ students because they don’t fit the square holes needed to get into an institution. Even elite institutions will need to look at more flexible admission policies for lifelong learners.

Funding models

Whereas I believe that everyone should have a chance of a state-subsidized post-secondary education, how long should this commitment last? For one degree? Two degrees? Should people in the workforce with university degrees and the means to pay full cost be subsidized by other taxpayers who may not even have been able to take a university education?

One way to expand lifelong learning would be through developing full cost-recovery applied masters programs. This would allow institutions to increase enrollments and hire additional research faculty from the tuition revenues alone. However in such cases, once a charge for general university overheads are paid off, the funds should be controlled by the academic department(s) offering the program. This would provide incentives for departments to treat lifelong learning seriously. There are already some successful online examples of this strategy (see the Masters in Educational Technology and the Masters in Rehab Science at UBC).

And perhaps our public institutions can then also return to the old UK Workers’ Educational Association model of free adult education for those just interested in learning (as in the graphic). It will remind us that lifelong learning covers a wide range of different learning needs, and different models of funding will need to be developed.


This is a big topic and I’ve hardly scratched the surface. Also, there are others better qualified to sound off about lifelong learning. However, both demographics and economic development require post-secondary educational institutions to focus more seriously on lifelong learning and the implications for the institution. Online learning can be – indeed has to be – an important part of the solution, but as always, there are many other important factors as well to be considered.

In essence, this is an institutional strategic planning issue and should be tackled as such. Data needs to be collected on demographic and enrollment trends as part of a broader environmental scan. A SWOT analysis will also be needed. But as with all strategic planning, what matters most is strategic vision, thinking and  and commitment. But the earlier institutions start to address this issue, the better.

The Victoria, Australia website on iPads for Learning

iPads for Learning, Victoria, Australia

I am making two exceptions with this post. I don’t normally cover k-12 (too large an area and too different from post-secondary education), and I don’t normally steal Richard Elliott’s thunder, but this item is so good I had to comment on it.

Richard Elliott’s monthly e-Learning Watch is always chock full of links to interesting e-learning sites and his latest is no exception. In this edition he directs us to the Victoria Government’s iPads for Learning web site, which is terrific, for a number of reasons.

First it has listed some of the educational affordances of iPads, most of which would apply to post-secondary education as well as schools.

Second it has produced a very pragmatic online handbook for planning, preparing, implementing and evaluation programs using iPads

Third it has suggestions for specific uses in the classroom by teachers.

Fourth it has a one-stop shop for a whole range of educational apps for the school sector, including reviews (although this is one feature that does not transfer quite so well to post-secondary education).

Lastly, it’s an easy-to-navigate, well-designed web site. (I particularly liked the video on the Animalia iPad app – definitely on my Christmas present list for my grandkids. Some of their photos of kids using the iPad – such as the one at the head of this post – are also excellent)

Above all, it constantly focuses on what learners can do.

If you’re hesitating about using an iPad in your teaching go to this site – it will convince you. All you need is a little imagination to transfer this to a post-secondary education context.