April 24, 2017

Online learning for beginners: 4. ‘What kinds of online learning are there?’

©acreelman.blogspot.com, 2013

©acreelman.blogspot.com, 2013

This is the fourth of a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other three are:

In the third post, I pointed out that MOOCs were just one of the many different types of online learning. In this post, I will provide more detail about the various approaches to online learning, and will also provide a personal evaluation of each approach in terms of quality. This post will be a little longer than normal, as there are not only many approaches to online learning, but the field is also rapidly changing and developing.

Different approaches to online learning

In the first post, ‘What is online learning’? I pointed out that there is a continuum of teaching, from no use of online learning through blended learning, to fully online (or distance) learning. However, even within these categories, there are different possible approaches:

1. Online class notes

Approach

Students access Powerpoint slides and pdfs from a class web site which may be a part of an institution’s learning management system (see below) or it may be just a web site created by the instructor or made available by the institution. Usually the same slides or notes that are given to students taking an on-campus class are put up on the web site for online students, often on a weekly basis.  Online students access the relevant documents, and take the same assessments or exams as on-campus students, either remotely, in the form of computer-marked assignments, or on campus. If online students have questions, they can usually e-mail the instructor. Students usually work individually, although if a learning management system is available, there may be voluntary online discussion between students through the LMS’s discussion forum or social media.

Evaluation

This method is often used by novice online instructors. It requires, on the surface, little extra work for the instructor, once the materials are loaded.

The main problem is that such an approach is not adapted to the needs of online learners, who usually need more support than this model provides. The Powerpoint slides or pdfs do not allow for student interaction with the learning materials (unless they are re-written to do this). If there is a problem with the materials, in terms of the content not being clear, every student is likely to have the same difficulty. Instructors in this model therefore often find that they are overwhelmed with e-mail. If there are not activities (other than reading) scheduled for every week, students tend to get behind. Coming on-campus to do assignments or exams is also a problem for students who have chosen the online option because they have difficulty in getting to campus on a scheduled basis. Students in such courses often feel isolated and unsupported, and therefore such courses usually have much higher non-completion rates. And in the end, instructors find that this approach ends up being a lot more work than they anticipated.

2. Recorded lectures

Approach

The increased availability of technology such as lecture capture, which records classroom lectures on digital video and stores them for later downloading over the Internet, and desk-top cameras, has resulted in many instructors offering online courses built around recorded lectures. The lectures are usually the same as those for on-campus classes. Many MOOCs, as well as courses for credit, use recorded lectures as the main form of delivery.

Evaluation

This approach is again convenient for instructors, especially if they are giving a face-to-face lecture anyway and have technical help in recording and storing the lectures. However this approach suffers from many of the same problems as the class notes method above. An additional problem is that if the recording is of a normal 50 minute lecture, students often suffer from what is known as cognitive overload. Although students viewing a recorded lecture have the opportunity to stop and replay material, this can mean that a 50 minute lecture may take up several hours for an online student. MOOC designers, and TED talk designers, have realised this and often they have limited a single video to 10-20 minutes in length. Nevertheless this does not work so well in a full credit program with maybe 39 lectures over a 13 week semester. Providing transcripts of the lectures is not only time consuming and adds costs, but again increases the cognitive load for students. Lastly, there is considerable research that questions the value of lectures as a teaching method.

3. Webinars

Approach

These are ‘live’ sessions usually consisting of a lecture delivered over the Internet, supported by Powerpoint slides with opportunities for live online chat for the participants. Webinars can be recorded and made available for online access at another time. Again, ‘good’ webinars tend to be broken up into smaller 5-10 segments of presentation followed by either online voice or more commonly (for group management reasons) text comments and questions contributed by participants to which the lecturer responds.

Evaluation

Webinars come closer to mirroring a live face-to-face class than either class notes or recorded lectures, and need relatively little adaptation or change for instructors. While webinars tend to be more interactive than recorded lectures, again it is difficult to cover a whole curriculum through webinars alone. Also participants need to be available at a set time, which restricts the flexibility or availability for online students, although the availability of the recording can offset that to some extent. Webinars using a lecture format also suffer from the same pedagogical limitations for online students as recorded lectures.

4. Instructionally-designed online courses based on a learning management system

These are probably the most common form of online courses for credit and more importantly, they have proved themselves with high completion rates and quality learning.

Approach

A whole science of instructional design has been developed since the 1940s based on pedagogical theory, research on how students learn, the appropriate use of technology, and the evaluation of learning outcomes, and this approach has been applied systematically to the design of fully online and increasingly blended courses. Usually an instructor will work with a professional instructional designer to redesign a classroom course or even a new course for use by online, distance learners. The instructor will be asked to define desired learning objectives, or learning outcomes, the content will be chosen to support the development of such objectives, and organised into ‘blocks’ of study (weekly or more) so that the whole curriculum can be covered over the semester. Assessment will be linked to the desired learning objectives. Sometimes objectives are determined through an analysis of the assessment requirements for equivalent face-to-face classes, if these are not already formally defined. Decisions will be made about which media (text, audio, video, computing) to use in terms of their appropriateness for meeting the defined learning objectives. Particular attention is paid to providing regular student activities, and managing student and instructor workload. Online learning management systems are often used to provide a structure for the course, opportunities for instructor-monitored student discussion, and online assessment tools.

Evaluation

This approach has been used very successfully with the design of fully online courses, usually leading to high completion rates and good quality learning outcomes. In some cases, it has also been successfully applied to blended courses. It is from this approach that many of the best practices in online learning have been identified. It means working in a team, often consisting of a senior faculty member, and for large classes, sessional or contract instructors and/or teaching assistants, an instructional designer, and other technical support staff, such as web designers, that can be called upon as necessary. However, this approach appears initially to be more costly for an institution, and more work for an instructor. It can take up to two years to design and develop a large fully online course, although courses for small classes (less than 40) can be designed in a  much shorter period. However, if the course or program attracts new students, tuition and other revenues can offset many of the additional costs, for instance, paying for release time for faculty to work on course design and development.

This is an interactive infographic. To see more detail on each of the five stages, click on each stage in the graphic © Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

This is an interactive infographic. To see more detail on each of the five stages, click on each stage in the graphic
© Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

5. Designs based on open education and emerging technologies

Approach

This is a bit of a rag-bag category for a small but growing number of online course designs that seek fully to exploit specific characteristics of new media and open educational approaches. These might include:

  • connectivist MOOCs‘ that focus on the contributions of all participants in an extended online network;
  • courses built around social media tools such as blogs, wikis, and e-portfolios;
  • approaches that exploit open educational resources, such as open textbooks and content freely available over the Internet;
  • courses built around emerging technologies, such as virtual worlds, gaming, and augmented reality.

Common features of such courses are increased activity and choices for learners, more diversity in course designs, and ‘agile’ or quick design and development. In such courses, students are often encouraged to seek, analyse, evaluate and apply content to real world issues or contexts, rather than the instructor being primarily responsible for content choice and delivery.

Evaluation

The main rationale for such courses is as follows:

  • they are more appropriate for developing the skills and knowledge learners need in a digital age;
  • they are more active and engaging for learners, resulting in deeper learning;
  • they make better use of new technologies by exploiting their unique teaching potential;
  • these approaches usually result in quicker and relatively low-cost course development and delivery compared with the instructional design approach;
  • they are transforming teaching into a more modern, relevant methodology that better suits today’s learners.

However, such approaches require highly confident and effective instructors with experience in using new technology for teaching, combined with the team approach described earlier. Above all instructors need to have a good grasp of both pedagogy and technology, as well as subject expertise. Direct instructional design and technology support is also essential. Most of these approaches are so new that there is relatively little research on their effectiveness. They are therefore a high risk activity for an instructor, especially those with little experience of online teaching.

This is a very abbreviated description of fast-developing, constantly changing approaches to online learning. You are especially encouraged to do the follow-up reading below.

Implications

  1. It is generally a mistake to merely transport your classroom teaching to an online environment. Online students work in different contexts and have different needs to students in face-to-face classes. Online courses need to be redesigned to accommodate the unique requirements of online learners.
  2. There is a strong body of knowledge about how to design online courses well. You ignore this at your peril. Consequences of ignoring best practices may include poor learning results, a much heavier work-load than anticipated, and dissatisfied students and superiors.
  3. It is best to work in a team. Instructional designers have knowledge about teaching online that most instructors lack. While you will always be in control of content selection, assessment and overall teaching approach, instructional designers need to be listened to as equals.
  4. New technologies have the promise of radically changing teaching, making it more relevant, more engaging for students, and more exciting and challenging for an instructor.

Follow-up

This is a very simplified account of the different kinds of online learning. For a more extensive coverage, see:

For more on the effectiveness of lectures, see:

For more on cognitive load and online learning design, see:

For more on instructional design, see:

For more on designs based on open education and emerging technologies see:

For more on emerging technologies in online learning see:

Up next

When should I use online learning? (This will be much shorter, I promise!)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Building an effective learning environment

Learning environment 2

I was asked by the Chang School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University to do a master class on this topic at their ChangSchoolTalks on February 17, based on Appendix 1 in my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

I was a little surprised by the request. I had moved what had originally been the second chapter of the book to an appendix, as I thought it was rather obvious and most instructors would already be aware of the key factors in an effective learning environment, so I was somewhat nervous about doing a master class for faculty and instructors on this topic.

As it turned out, I need not have worried. The master class was the first to be fully booked and the way the master class developed suggested that participants found the topic both stimulating and challenging. I think the reason for this is that my approach to building an effective learning environment is driven by a particular philosophy of education that is not always understood in post-secondary education. For this reason I thought I would share with you my thoughts on this in this post.

Learning as a ‘natural’ human activity

One premise behind building an effective learning environment is that it is inbuilt in humans to learn. If we had not been reasonably good at learning, we would have been killed off early in the earth’s history by faster, bigger and more ferocious animals. The ability not only to learn, but to learn in abstract and conscious ways, is therefore part of human nature.

If that is the case, a teacher’s job is not to do the learning for the student, but to build a rich environment that facilitates the kind of learning that will benefit the learner. It is not a question of pouring knowledge into a student’s head, but enabling the learner to develop concepts, think critically, and apply and evaluate what they have learned, by providing opportunities and experiences that are relevant to such goals.

Learning as development

A second premise is that knowledge is not fixed or static, but is continually developing. Our concept of heat changes and becomes richer as we grow older and become more educated, from understanding heat through touch, to providing a quantitative way of measuring it, to understanding its physical properties, to being able to apply that knowledge to solving problems, such as designing refrigerators. In a knowledge-based society, knowledge is constantly developing and growing, and our understanding is always developing.

This is one reason why I believe that one negative aspect of competency-based education is its attempt to measure competencies in terms of ‘mastery’ and limiting them to competencies required by employers. The difference between a skill and a competency is that there is no limit to a skill. You can continually improve a skill. We should be enabling students to develop skills that will carry them through maybe multiple employers, and enable them to adapt to changing market requirements, for instance.

If then we want students to develop knowledge and skills, we need to provide the right kind of learning environments  that encourage and support such development. Although analogies have their limitations, I like to think of education as gardening, where the learners are the plants. Plants know how to grow; they just need the right environment, the right balance of sun and shadow, the right soil conditions, enough water, etc. Our job as teachers is to make sure we are providing learners with those elements that will allow them to grow and learn. (The analogy breaks down though if we think of learners as having consciousness and free will, which adds an important element to developing an effective learning environment.)

There are many possible effective learning environments

Teaching is incredibly context-specific so the learning environment must be suitable to the context. For this reason, every teacher or instructor needs to think about and build their own learning environment that is appropriate to the context in which they are working. Here are some examples of different learning environments:

  • a school or college campus
  • an online course
  • military training
  • friends, family and work
  • nature
  • personal, technology-based, learning environments
A personal learning environment Image: jason Hews, Flikr

A personal learning environment
Image: jason Hews, Flikr

Nevertheless I will argue that despite the differences in context, there are certain elements or components that will be found in most effective learning environments.

In developing an effective learning environment, there are two issues I need to address up front:

  • First, it is the learner who has to do the learning.
  • Second, any learning environment is much more than the technology used to support it.

With regard to the first, teachers cannot do the learning for the learner. All they can do is to create and manage an environment that enables and encourages learning. My focus then in terms of building an effective learning environment is on what the  teacher can do, because in the end that is all they can control. However, the focus of what the teacher does should be on the learner, and what the learner needs. That of course will require good communication between the learners and the teacher.

Second, many technology-based personal learning environments are bereft of some of the key components that make an effective learning environment. The technology may be necessary but it is not sufficient. I suggest below what some of those components are.

Key components

These will vary somewhat, depending on the context. I will give examples below, but it is important for every individual teacher to think about what components may be necessary within their own context and then on how best to ensure these components are effectively present and used. (There is a much fuller discussion of this in Appendix 1 of my book)

Learner characteristics

This is probably the most important of all the components: the learners themselves. Some of the key characteristics are listed below:

  • what are their goals and motivation to learn what I am teaching them?
  • in what contexts (home, campus, online) will they prefer to learn?
  • how diverse are they in terms of language, culture, and prior knowledge?
  • how digitally capable are they?

Given these characteristics, what are the implications for providing an effective learning environment for these specific learners?

Content

  • what content do students need to cover? What are the goals in covering this content?
  • what sources of content are necessary? Who should find, evaluate, and apply these sources: me or the students? If the learners, what do I need to provide to enable them to do this?
  • how should the content be structured? Who should do this structuring: me or the learners? If learners, what do I need to provide to help them?
  • what is the right balance between breadth and depth of content for the learners in this specific context?
  • what activities will learners need in order to acquire and manage this content?

Skills

  • what skills do students need to develop?
  • what activities will enable learners to develop and apply these skills? (e.g. thinking, doing, discussing)
  • what is the goal in skill development? Mastery? A minimal level of performance? How will learners know this?

Learner support

  • what counselling and/or mentoring will learners need to succeed?
  • how will learners get feedback (particularly on skills development)?
  • how will learners relate to other learners so they are mutually supporting?

Resources

  • how much time can I devote to each of the components of a learning environment? What’s the best way to split my time?
  • what help will I get from other teaching staff, e.g. teaching assistants, librarians? What is the best way to use them?
  • what facilities will the learners have available (e.g. learning spaces, online resources)?
  • what technology can the learners use; how should this be managed and organized?

Assessment

  • what types of assessment should be used? (formative, essays, e-portfolios, projects)?
  • how will these measure the content and skills that learners are expected to master?

These questions are meant mainly as examples. Each teacher needs to develop and think about what components will be necessary in their context and how best to provide those components.

For instance, I did not include culture as a component. In some contexts, cultural change is one of the most important goals of education. Negative examples of this might include the culture of privilege encouraged in private British boarding schools, or the attempt to replace indigenous cultures with a western culture, as practiced in Canada with aboriginal residential schools. More positive cultural components may be to encourage inclusivity or ethical behaviour. Again, each teacher should decide on what components are important for their learners.

Necessary but not sufficient

Thinking about and implementing these components may be necessary, but they are not sufficient in themselves to ensure quality teaching and learning. In addition effective teaching still needs:

  • good design
  • empathy for the learners
  • teacher competence (e.g. subject knowledge)
  • imagination to create an effective learning environment.

Conclusions

The learners must do the learning. We need to make sure that learners are able to work within an environment that helps them do this. In other words, our job as teachers is to create the conditions for success.

There are no right or wrong ways to build an effective learning environment. It needs to fit the context in which students will learn. However, before even beginning to design a course or program, we should be thinking of what this learning environment could look like.

Technology now enables us to build a wide variety of effective learning environments. But technology alone is not enough; it needs to include other components for learner success. This is not to say that self-managing learners cannot build their own effective, personal learning environments, but they need to consider the other components as well as the technology.

Questions

  1. What other components would you add to a successful learning environment?
  2. Could you now design a different and hopefully better learning environment for your courses or programs? If so, what would it look like?
  3. Is this a helpful way to approach the design of online learning or indeed any other form of learning?

 

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: https://contactnorth.webex.com/contactnorth/lsr.php?RCID=67ca245af5fa7a21546ba37e10f306ba

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.

 

Book review: A History of the Open University

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had one myself).

The image is of Robin Wilson, an OU math lecturer (and incidentally the son of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who helped create the OU). The floral shirt was de rigueur in the early 1970s (I had a few myself).

Weinbren, D. (2105) The Open University: A History Manchester: Manchester University Press/The Open University, 274 pp + notes, £18.99, C$31.61, US$22.30 (paperback edition)

Why you should read this book

From the book cover:

This analysis of the Open University’s precedents, personalities, politics and pedagogies contextualises learners’ experiences and illuminates the change in the values of our society, our ideas about learning and our use of a variety of media.

Despite the florid writing in the publisher’s blurb, this is an accurate summary of the importance of this book, which should be read by anyone interested in open learning, distance learning, equality of access to higher education, changing pedagogies, the role of media in teaching and learning, the politics of creating radically new institutions of higher education, how higher education has changed in terms of value and purpose over the last 45 years, and, most important of all, how open learning can truly transform the lives of individuals.

What the book covers

The book is in four parts, which I will briefly summarise.

Part I: Creating a university of the air

This part covers the origins of the university within the socio-political context of Britain in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is a fascinating story in itself, of how a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and Jennie Lee, his Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Education and Science, drove through their vision of a technocratic university for the masses, how the original vision was modified from a University of the Air to a multi-media university, and how the university survived a change of government which brought Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives to power in the year that the OU opened. This is mandatory reading for policy wonks interested in how to bring about radical change in higher education.

Chapter 1 provides a broad overview of the challenges, developments and successes of the university over its 45 years existence. For those without the time to read the whole book, this chapter provides a useful encapsulation of the main points covered later.

Chapter 2 provides a more detailed account of the creation of the university, covering the political, socio-economic, pedagogical, and media components. It should be noted that many commentators believe that the Open University was ‘the most original innovation in 20th century British higher education’ and a ‘national treasure.’ This chapter helps to explain why.

In this part of the book, Weinbren captures well the social and political conditions, and above all the idealism and philosophies, that underpinned the creation and establishment of the Open University.

Part II: The first two decades

It is one thing to create a new institution; it is quite another to make it work. Indeed, the author notes that other attempts at innovation in higher education, such as the UK Open Polytechnic and the OU e-University, failed dismally after being created.

This part looks in detail at the governance and administrative structures, the role of academics, tutors and counsellors, the pedagogical models, the use of media, and the regional structure.

Weinbren points out that the intention from the start was to develop a degree-granting university with the highest possible academic standards:

Jennie Lee was adamant that the OU should be comparable to other universities in terms of its academic standards, rather than merely representing an educational second chance for the marginalised.

One reason for the OU’s relatively quick acceptance by the rest of the UK higher education sector was the high quality of the course materials which were used extensively by professors (and students) in the other universities. Another reason was the widespread engagement of academics from other universities as tutors or external examiners, who were often initially surprised by the quality of work produced by OU students.

Weinbren addresses particularly well the challenges the OU faced in terms of scale and the need for learner support for students working alone all over the country. (The OU started on day one in 1971 with 25,000 students and has grown since to 150,000 undergraduates and 30,000 postgraduates in 2014, with almost as many taking non-credit courses or modules.)

Weinbren, like the OU itself, struggles with integrating the competing pedagogical philosophies of behaviourist approaches to the design and development of high quality, mass-produced, course materials, and  learner-centred approaches based on face-to-face tutorials and summer schools. Overall, though, he emphasises that the fundamental pedagogical approach of the OU is focused on students developing personal meaning through interaction not only with course materials but also with faculty/tutors and other students, both face-to-face and later online. He describes with clarity how the often changing and complex learner support systems worked.

This chapter also explains why the Conservatives under Mrs. Thatcher continued to support the OU, despite concerns from some Ministers and the national press about ‘Marxist bias’ in its publicly available materials (especially the broadcasts). Thatcher had little time for traditional universities and saw in the OU a chance for reforming and galvanising the higher education system, especially with regard to improved cost-effectiveness.

This chapter also discusses the rapid development and changes in the use of media at the OU, with broadcasting over time playing a less direct role in teaching, greater use of recorded media such as cassettes, and the development of home experiment kits for science and technology courses.

Part III: The OU since the 1990s

This part is much influenced by the many changes since 1990 in the overall higher education system in Britain, and the consequent attempts by the OU at adaptation and accommodation to such changes. The key change has been the shift from direct government funding for teaching and learning to funding largely through student fees supported by loans (the OU now relies almost entirely on student fees), and the attempt by governments (both Labour and Conservative) to introduce more competition between universities and a more ‘market-oriented’ approach. This has resulted in the OU being treated as just any other university by government, rather than the special and separate treatment it received in earlier years.

Also over the past 45 years, the whole HE sector in the UK has expanded rapidly, making access at least theoretically more open to a much higher proportion of the population. Another important development has been the increased use of online learning by conventional universities. Together these have eroded some of the unique differences and advantages of the OU over the rest of the system.

The OU has responded to these changes in a number of ways, including:

  • expanding its international reach, especially but not exclusively in the rest of Europe;
  • the development of continuing education courses and modules;
  • more diversification regionally to respond to national political devolution;
  • contracts with non-commercial agencies, such as the National Health Service, as well as commercial organisations
  • leading the charge to quality assurance processes;
  • moving increasingly to online learning, and in the process, reducing dramatically the high-cost summer schools and face-to-face tutorial support; and integrating the role of counsellors with that of tutors;
  • increased use of learner-centred and project-based learning;
  • creation of open educational resources, such as FutureLearn and BBC/OU programs aimed at the general public.

Although Weinbren does a good job of covering the increasingly diverse and wide-ranging activities of the OU in the years from 1990 to the present, the OU’s unique role and place in the UK HE system becomes inevitably more fuzzy and its future direction less clear. However, the same criticism could apply to the whole of the UK HE sector, which seems to be increasingly forced back to a highly selective and tiered system, by government policies based on a more commercialised and employer-focused view of higher education. The OU’s place in such a system is by no means clear.

Part IV: Half a century of learning

This is a truly wonderful chapter about the student experience at the OU and lets students speak in their own words. This chapter helps explain why the OU is such an iconic component of British culture, and why it is so loved by students and staff alike (it consistently comes out top in student satisfaction in annual surveys of British universities). More importantly, this chapter clearly demonstrates how the OU has changed millions of students lives for the better.

Weinbren looks at several aspects of the student experience. While the OU has a very broad mix of incomes and occupations, it has opened up higher education particularly to working class families, students with disabilities, prisoners, those without high school qualifications, and above all to women. In this sense it is a truly open university, offering not just opportunities but also qualifications and realistic chances of success for everyone.

Weinbren illustrates how important the OU has been to women, particularly in the early year of the OUs, in terms of personal development and increased self-esteem. The importance of summer schools for engaging students and making them feel part of a university community is particularly well described. I also read with great interest how the OU enabled both Republican and Loyalist prisoners in Northern Ireland ‘to develop political confidence and an understanding of methods other than violence’, some going on to become politicians following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Above all, this chapter provides an excellent antidote to the current market-oriented and functional philosophy of higher education now so prevalent in Britain and elsewhere. If you can read only one chapter, this is the one.

Personal reflections on the book

The OU was a very important part of my life for 20 years. I was one of the first staff appointed in 1969, and I ended up doing at one time or another research and evaluation into the educational effectiveness of different media (including the BBC television and radio programs), designing and writing course units, marking student assignments, directing summer schools, and attending endless meetings about policies, directions and the use of media. I left the OU in 1989, partly because I was frustrated that it wasn’t changing fast enough, particularly with regard to the use of online learning. It’s hard for me then to be objective in reviewing Weinbren’s book and even more so in assessing the contribution of the OU to higher education.

Nevertheless, the book captures wonderfully my lived experience of the OU, especially the student response. Weibren has blended together an impeccable range of resources, anecdotes, events and above all personal contributions from academics, staff and students at the OU into a well-written, captivating chronicle that reflects the spirit as well as the history of the OU.

There are criticisms, of course. At times, it becomes a hagiography of an institution (if that’s possible). Weinbren does describe the many criticisms of the OU, but always provides a contradictory positive contribution to offset each criticism. In particular, he could have been harsher about the OU’s increased bureaucracy and sclerosis as it has become older. True, there have been many innovations, for instance, in the use of technology, but changing its cumbersome and now outdated course development system has proved to be extremely difficult. Although it was one of the first institutions to adopt online learning, it has been a real struggle to make it a central rather than a peripheral part of the teaching system.

More importantly, Weinbren does not look into the future, yet there are surely lessons for the future from his book. The OU is facing an almost existential crisis, with many competitors, a very difficult financial situation, and massive changes and innovation going on elsewhere in the UK higher education system. What is the role of the OU in the 21st century? In what ways can it continue to provide a unique and valuable contribution? What teaching model will best meet the needs of its students in the 21st century? This is probably another book altogether, but Weinbren is particularly well placed to ask and address these issues. As I say to Ph.D. students, the conclusion is your chance to let rip and say what you really think now you have established your credentials. It’s a pity that Weinbren did not take this opportunity, but he has probably other means to let his views be known.

These though are minor caveats. Weinbren has undertaken an extremely challenging task and met the challenge superbly. I hope you will enjoy the book as much as I have. More importantly, there are very important lessons to be drawn from this book about the nature of university education, equity, and government policy toward higher education.

Who are your online students?

Student at computer at home 2

Clinefelter, D. L., & Aslanian, C. B. (2015). Online college students 2015: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.

The survey

This is an interesting report based on a survey of 1,500 individuals nationwide (USA) who were:

  • at least 18 years of age;
  • had a minimum of a high school degree or equivalent;
  • and were recently enrolled, currently enrolled or planning to enroll in the next 12 months in either a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree program or a fully online certificate or licensure program.

Main findings

This is a very brief summary of a 53 page report packed with data, which I strongly recommend reading in full, especially if you are involved with marketing or planning online programs or courses, but here is a brief tasting menu:

1. Competition for online students is increasing

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2015) show that college enrollments [in the USA] declined by close to 2%, yielding 18.6 million college students today. About 5.5 million of these students are studying partially or fully online. At the same time, competition for these online students is increasing. Between 2012 and 2013, 421 institutions launched online programs for the first time, an increase of 23% to 2,250 institutions.

2. The main motivation for online students is to improve their work prospects

Roughly 75% of online students seek further education to change careers, get a job, earn a promotion or keep up to date with their skills…..Colleges that want to excel in attracting prospective online students must prepare them for and connect them to the world of work.

3. As competition for students stiffens, online students expect policies and processes tailored to their needs

For example, the amount of transfer credit accepted has consistently been ranked one of the top 10 factors in selecting an institution.

4. In online education, everything is local

Half of online students live within 50 miles of their campus, and 65% live within 100 miles….It is critical that institutions have a strong local brand so that they are at the top of students’ minds when they begin to search for a program of study.

5. Affordability is a critical variable

Forty-five percent of respondents to the 2015 survey reported that they selected the most inexpensive institution. … Thus, it is not surprising that among 23 potential marketing messages, the most appealing were “Affordable tuition” and “Free textbooks.”

6. We could do better

21% reported “Inconsistent/poor contact and communication with instructors,” and 17% reported “Inconsistent/poor quality of instruction. ” More contact with regular faculty was requested, especially as advisors.

7. Blended learning is an option – for some

About half of the respondents indicated they would attend a hybrid or low-residency option if their program was not available fully online. But 30% said they would not attend if their program was not available online.

8. The program or major drives the selection process.

60% indicated they selected their program of study first and then considered institutions.

9. Online students are diverse

Online students have a wide range of needs and backgrounds. Even the age factor is changing, with more and more students under 25 years of age choosing to study online for their undergraduate degrees.

10. Cost matters

Undergraduates reported paying $345 per credit, and graduate students reported paying $615 per credit, on average (equivalent to around $25,000 for a full degree). Applicants need clear and easily accessible information about the costs of studying online and the financial aid rules regarding online students.

As I said, this is just a taste of an information-packed report, which is useful not only to those marketing programs to students, but also for convincing faculty of the importance of online learning.

But remember: this is a study of online students in the USA. There may be problems in generalising too much to other jurisdictions.