May 25, 2017

Ease of use as a criterion for technology selection in online learning

Image: © Daily Express, 2012

Reliability is important! Image: © Daily Express, 2012

I felt myself cringing as I wrote this section for my book on ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. Talk about do what I say and not what I do, especially the part about spending a small amount of time in properly learning about a technology before using it. I was almost half way through writing this book, before I worked out that ‘Parts’ were in fact introductions to ‘Chapters’ and ‘Chapters’ really were sections of chapters, in Pressbook terminology. I also didn’t work out until this week how to actually publish it once it was available in html format.  Oh, that’s what this button is for!

However, ease of use is a critical criterion for media selection. Who wants to spend hours fiddling with the technology when teaching or learning, unless you’re a geek or a computer scientist? ‘Transparency’ is the key word. So here’s my contribution, under the letter ‘E’ in the SECTIONS model.

9.3 The SECTIONS Model: Ease of Use

In most cases, the use of technology in teaching is a means, not an end. Therefore it is important that students and teachers do not have to spend a great deal of time on learning how to use educational technologies, or on making the technologies work. The exceptions of course are where technology is the area of study, such as computer science or engineering, or where learning the use of software tools is critical for some aspects of the curriculum, for instance computer-aided design in architecture, spreadsheets in business studies, and geographical information systems in geology. In most cases, though, the aim of the study is not to learn how to use a particular piece of educational technology, but the study of history, mathematics, or biology.

Computer and information literacy

If a great deal of time has to be spent by the students and teachers in learning how to use for instance software for the development or delivery of course material, this distracts from the learning and teaching. Of course, there is a basic set of literacy skills that will be required, such as the ability to read and write, to use a keyboard, to use word processing software, to navigate the Internet and use Internet software, and increasingly to use mobile devices. These generic skills though could be considered pre-requisites. If students have not adequately developed these skills in school, then an institution might provide preparatory courses for students on these topics.

It will make life a lot easier for both teachers and students if an institution has strategies for supporting students’ use of digital media. For instance, at the University of British Columbia, the Digital Tattoo project prepares students for learning online in a number of ways:

  • introducing students to a range of technologies that could be used for their learning, such as learning management systems, open educational resources, MOOCs and e-portfolios
  • explaining what’s involved in studying online or at a distance
  • setting out the opportunities and risks of social media
  • advice on how to protect their privacy
  • advice on how to make the most of connecting, networking and online searching
  • how to prevent cyberbullying
  • maintaining a professional online presence.

If your institution does not have something similar, then you could direct your students to the Digital Tattoo site, which is fully open and available to anyone to use.

It is not only students though who may need prior preparation. Technology can be too seductive. You can start using it without fully understanding its structure or how it works. Even a short period of training – an hour or less – on how to use common technologies such as a learning management system or lecture capture could save you a lot of time and more importantly, enable you to see the potential value of all features and not just those that you stumble across.

Orientation

A useful standard or criterion for the selection of course media or software is that ‘novice’ students (i.e. students who have never used the software before) should be studying within 20 minutes of logging on. This 20 minutes may be needed to work out some of the key functions of the software that may be unfamiliar, or to work out how the course Web site is organized and navigated. This is more of an orientation period though than learning new skills of computing.

If we do need to introduce new software that may take a little time to learn, for instance, a synchronous ‘chat’ facility, or video streaming, it should be introduced at the point where it is needed. It is important though to provide time within the course for the students to learn how to do this.

Interface design

The critical factor in making technology transparent is the design of the interface between the user and the machine. Thus an educational program or indeed any Web site should be well structured, intuitive for the user to use, and easy to navigate.

Interface design is a highly skilled profession, and is based on a combination of scientific research into how humans learn, an understanding of how operating software works, and good training in graphic design. This is one reason why it is often wise to use software or tools that have been well established in education, because these have been tested and been found to work well.

The traditional generic interface of computers – a keyboard, mouse, and graphic user interface of windows and pull-down menus and pop-up instructions – is still extremely crude, and not isomorphic with most people’s preferences for processing information. It places very heavy emphasis on literacy skills and a preference for visual learning. This can cause major difficulties for students with certain disabilities, such as dyslexia or poor eyesight. However, in recent years, interfaces have started to become more user friendly, with touch screen and voice activated interfaces.

Nevertheless a great deal of effort often has to go into the adaptation of existing computer or mobile interfaces to make them easy to use in an educational context. The Web is just as much a prisoner of the general computer interface as any other software environment, and the educational potential of any Web site is also restricted by its algorithmic or tree-like structure. For instance, it does not always suit the inherent structure of some subject areas, or the preferred way of learning of some students.

There are several consequences of these interface limitations for teachers in higher education:

  • it is really important to choose teaching software or other technologies that are intuitively easy to use, both by the students in particular, but also for the teacher in creating materials and interacting with students;
  • when creating materials for teaching, the teacher needs to be aware of the issues concerning navigation of the materials and screen lay-out and graphics. While it is possible to add stimulating features such as audio and animated graphics, this comes at the cost of bandwidth. Such features should be added only where they serve a useful educational function, as slow delivery of materials is extremely frustrating for learners, who will normally have slower Internet access that the teacher creating the materials. Furthermore, web-based layout on desktop or laptop computers does not automatically transfer to the same dimensions or configurations on mobile devices, and mobile devices have a wide range of standards, depending on the device. Given that the design of Web-based materials requires a high level of specialized interface design skill, it is preferable to seek specialist help, especially if you want to use software or media that are not standard, institutionally supported tools. This is particularly important when thinking of using new mobile apps, for instance;
  • third, we can expect in the next few years some significant changes in the general computer interface with the development of speech recognition technology, adaptive responses based on artificial intelligence, and the use of haptics (e.g. hand-movement) to control devices. Changes in basic computer interface design could have as profound an impact on the use of technology in teaching as the Internet has.

Reliability

The reliability and robustness of the technology is also critical. Most of us will have had the frustration of losing work when our word programming software crashes or working ‘in the cloud’ and being logged off in the middle of a piece of writing. The last thing you want as a teacher or instructor is lots of calls from students saying they cannot get online access, or that their computer keeps crashing (if the software locks up one machine, it will probably lock up all the others!). Technical support can be a huge cost, not just in paying technical staff to deal with service calls, but also in lost time of students and teachers.

This means that you do not want to be at the ‘bleeding’ edge in your choice of technology, if it is to be used in any significant and regular form of teaching. It is best to wait for at least a year for new apps or software to be fully tested before adopting them. It is wise then not to rush in and buy the latest software up-date or new product – wait for the bugs to be ironed out.  Also if you plan to use a new app or technology that is not generally supported by the institution, check first with IT services to ensure there are not security, privacy or institutional bandwidth issues.

A feature of online learning is that peak use tends to fall outside normal office hours. Thus it is really important that your course materials sit on a reliable server with high-speed access and 24 hour, seven days a week reliability, with automatic back-up on a separate, independent server located in a different building. Ideally, the servers should be in a secure area (with for instance emergency electricity supply) with 24 hour technical support, which probably means locating your servers with central IT services. Increasingly online learning materials and courses are being located ‘in the cloud’, which means it is all the more important to ensure that materials are safely and independently backed up.

However, the good news is that most commercial educational software products such as learning management systems and lecture capture, as well as servers, are very reliable. Open source software too is usually reliable but probably slightly more at risk of technical failure or security breaches. If you have good IT support, you should receive very few calls from students on technical matters. The main technical issue that faculty face these days appears to be software up-grades to learning management systems. This often means moving course materials from one version of the software to the new version. This can be costly and time-consuming, particularly if the new version is substantially different from the previous version. Overall, though, reliability should not be an issue.

In summary, ease of use requires professionally designed commercial or open source course software, specialized help in graphics, navigation and screen design for your course materials, and strong technical support for server and software management and maintenance. Certainly in North America, most institutions now provide IT and other services focused specifically on supporting technology-based teaching. However, without such professional support, a great deal of your time as a teacher will be spent on technical issues, and to be blunt, if you do not have easy and convenient access to such support, you would be wise not to get heavily committed to technology-based teaching until that support is available.

Questions for consideration

Some of the questions then that you need to consider are:

  1. How intuitively easy to use is the technology you are considering, both by students and by yourself?
  1. How reliable is the technology?
  1. How easy is it to maintain and up-grade the technology?
  1. The company that is providing the critical hardware or software you are using: is it a stable company that is not likely to go out of business in the next year or two, or is it a new start-up? What strategies are in place to secure any digital teaching materials you create should the organisation providing the software or service cease to exist?
  1. Do you have adequate technical and professional support, both in terms of the technology and with respect to the design of materials?

Feedback

  1. I guess my main concern with this section is whether it is still needed these days. Most institutions, at least in Canadian post-secondary education, have moved in recent years to make sure there is professional IT support for technology for teaching as well as for communications and administration. Much of the newer technologies, such as apps, use relatively simple programming and hence tend to be much more reliable. Some advances have been made in interface design. Faculty themselves have become more tech savvy and learners of course have grown up using digital technologies. Does this all make ‘Ease of Use’ as a criterion redundant now? If not, is this section far too cautious? Should I be encouraging faculty to take more risks?
  2. Is the criterion that ‘novice’ students (i.e. students who have never used the software before) should be studying within 20 minutes of logging on a valid and useful criterion when selecting a platform for teaching and learning?
  3. I actually wrote ‘we can expect in the next few years some significant changes in the general computer interface with the development of speech recognition technology, adaptive responses based on artificial intelligence, and the use of haptics (e.g. hand-movement) to control devices‘ in 2003 (Bates and Poole, 2003). Here we are 11 years later. Will things still be the same in another 11 years time – or will real progress be made in the next few years in interface design? Is Siri the future?
  4. you do not want to be at the ‘bleeding’ edge in your choice of technology’. Do you agree?
  5. Any other comments? In particular do you have examples of good practice that could strengthen this section that I could use?

Up next

Cost as a criterion for media selection. This one will be fun.

Writing an open textbook: a mid-term report on the technology

Open textbooks free 2

I’m about half-way through writing my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ I’ve done about five and a half chapters, and I would like to share my views on the underlying technology that I am using, because, while it does the job reasonably well, we are clearly in the Version 1.0 stage of software development, from an author’s perspective. I believe there is a major opportunity to develop a software authoring framework that fully exploits the open characteristics of a textbook, but we are not there yet.

Background

I’m writing this book more or less on my own, although I do have some support from an instructional designer and I’m anticipating getting some help with marketing once the book is complete. I’m also getting a lot of useful feedback, because I am publishing as the book is being developed (the first five chapters are already available here) and also publishing excerpts in this blog.

My main technical support is coming from BCcampus, which is managing a large open textbook project on behalf of the British Columbia provincial government. My book is not directly related to the provincial government-funded project, which at this stage is focused primarily on converting existing print textbooks to open, online versions. However, as the project advances, more open textbooks will need to be written from scratch. (For more on the BCcampus open textbook project project, see here.)

BCcampus has taken an ‘off-the-shelf’ open source authoring software ‘shell’ called Pressbooks, which in itself is based on WordPress. BCcampus has made some further adaptations to Pressbooks for the open textbooks that BCcampus is helping to develop. I have used the BCcampus version of Pressbooks to create my own textbook. However, anyone can use Pressbooks for free, if they wish to write an openly published book.

What I am trying to do

My goals are two-fold:

  • to openly publish a textbook on teaching in a digital age, aimed at teachers, instructors and faculty.
  • to explore ways to incorporate best teaching practice and an open education philosophy within the design of the book.

This is a report on where I’ve got to so far in authoring the book, using the Pressbooks/BCcampus template, and in particular on what I’m finding regarding the potential and limitations of the software for authoring an open textbook.

What works

It is extremely easy to start authoring with Pressbooks. After you log in to the Pressbooks main page, you can easily set up an account which is password protected. Once you have an account, you will be assigned a url which will take you to your admin page, from where you can author your book.

Anyone who has used WordPress for blogging will have no difficulty whatsoever in getting started in Pressbooks. If you already have a structure for the book in your mind, and know what you want to write, you can be writing within less than ten minutes of signing up with Pressbooks. You can also open accounts for others, such as co-authors, an editor, or an instructional designer, with password-protected access to the editing part.

Pressbooks allows you to work in private or to publish each chapter or section when ready. You can ‘export’ , in several versions, such as ePub, pdf or html, for free downloading. BCcampus is also making available, at cost, printed versions of their textbooks. The ‘exported’ version looks clean and replicates almost exactly the edited version, with embedded urls, diagrams, headings and indentation. The variety of exported formats enables use of the textbooks on various mobile devices and tablets. If the recommended technological structure is followed when writing and editing, the reader can easily navigate through the book in a variety of ways.

Thus, for basic book writing and publishing, Pressbooks is easy to use, comprehensive in the devices it can be used on, and pleasant to read.

Challenges

From the perspective however of an open textbook, I found the following challenges:

Lack of interactivity

Those of you used to using a learning management system are likely to be frustrated by the lack in Pressbooks of common features found within an LMS, such as ways to provide feedback on exercises, places where readers/students can add their own contributions, or places where monitored and edited discussions can take place. Thus some of the key opportunities to make a book more interactive and open are currently not available, without going outside the Pressbooks environment. There are two reasons for this.

1. Pressbooks was originally designed for supporting fiction writers, and as such works perfectly for them (providing they can manage to write easily in WordPress). If you want a straight read through a book, it is perfect, but this is not what you necessarily want with an educational textbook.

2. BCcampus has added some useful features, such as widgets that allow you to insert text boxes for learning objectives, student exercises, and key take-aways, but has had to disable the comment feature because the textbooks are likely to be used by many instructors with different classes. BCcampus is rightly worried that it would be confusing and overwhelming for multiple instructors if students across all the classes shared the same comment boxes. However, as an author, I want to integrate both the activities and the student responses to the activities, and above all I want comments and feedback on what I’ve written.

There are in fact really several distinct stages or uses of an open textbook:

  • book creation (which I am going through now), where feedback is needed by the author. At this stage, the comment feature is really essential. Ideally, it should be at the end of each chapter and part.
  • response from individual readers once the book is completed. I’m already getting these, as I’m publishing as I go. At least in the early days, feedback is again essential, and it would be quite manageable for the author to monitor the comments at this stage. However, over time, adoption by instructors, accumulated spam, and repetitious comments may lead the author to want to disable this feature.
  • adoption as part of a course. At this stage the comment feature needs to be disabled (or cleared), and replaced probably by a course web site, wiki or discussion forum linked specifically to a particular instructor and their course.

What I’d really like is a widget where I can just drop in a comment box in the right place, and the ability as an author to open, clear or disable it, as well as monitoring and where necessary editing it. It could be switched to open or private.

I have also explored some possible open source discussion forums or wikis, and computer-based test services, but these would have to sit outside the textbook, and I haven’t found a satisfactory service yet (although I haven’t looked very hard – suggestions welcome.)

The technological structure of the book

Unlike many online books that you will find on Kindle or iPads, Pressbooks does not output in discrete pages. The way it manages the structure of the book to enable fluent navigation by the reader is not immediately transparent to an author writing a book.

The two key features are Parts and Chapters. I assumed (incorrectly) that Parts were sub-units or sections of Chapters. This suited me, as I’m expecting a diverse audience with a wide range of prior knowledge. I assumed that many would not want to read a whole chapter on say design models, but may have a particular interest in some of the models and not in others. However, I made the basic mistake of not reading the BCcampus Authors’ Manual carefully before starting (and when I did read it, I did not understand it.) What I hadn’t realised was that Chapters link to Parts and the Parts are not intended to have much, if any, content.

Parts are really an introduction to the substance, a kind of organiser for the actual following content, which take place in the Chapters. Think of a novel: Part 1: 1969, Chapter 1: Boy meets girl. However, I rushed off and wrote Parts like sections of a chapter then cut and pasted each Part into a Chapter. I got half-way through writing the book before realising this was a mistake, thanks to a very helpful recent meeting with staff from BCcampus.

So I have ended up using a Part like an advance organiser for a chapter, and the Chapter feature for each section of a ‘Part’. This works well now, the navigation is much better, and it avoids the reader having to scroll down through an 8,000 word chapter. Some ‘Chapters’ in Pressbooks terminology are only a couple of paragraphs long and I have renamed them sections, with the Part containing the Chapter name. I also use the Part to state the purpose of the Chapter, what is covered in the chapter, and the key takeaways.

However, as you can see, the Pressbooks terminology of Parts and Chapters is really misleading. Worse, I spent two whole days cutting and repasting content I had already written in order to get the content into the right technological structure required by the software.

No mark-up facility

Unlike Word, an editor or a co-author cannot mark up drafts in Pressbooks (or WordPress for that matter – if there is a plug-in for this, please let me know.) This makes co-production of a book and getting feedback much more frustrating, especially as there is no comment feature.

If you are writing a co-edited or co-authored book, this is a major limitation, and a better strategy might be to initially edit in Google Docs or Word, then transfer everything when finished into Pressbooks or another publishing software shell. Even then, this is not a good solution because of the high risk of losing material during the transfer – and in any case, when is an open textbook ever finished? It should be a work in continuous updating.

Even for a single author, though, the inability to mark up drafts in Pressbooks is a considerable nuisance, especially if the comment feature is disabled. Not only my instructional designer, but also several readers who are following the development of the book, are copying sections from the Pressbook version into Word, marking up suggested corrections in Word, sending me the Word document, which I then go through then make any necessary changes in the Pressbooks version.

What is needed of course is a mark-up plug-in for WordPress, which would have much wider value than just open textbook authoring.

Limitations of WordPress

Some of these limitations are also limitations of writing and editing in WordPress. The feature for creating tables is so difficult to use that it is essentially useless. Some of the formatting doesn’t transfer when cutting and pasting to another screen page (which I have to do often), such as text alignment. I spend an enormous amount of time scrolling up to the top of the page, looking for the toolbox menu, to add urls, italics, lists, or indents, sometimes accidentally transferring out of the editing page and thus losing some of the more recent writing. (Apparently, in the new version of WordPress 4, the scrolling issue to get to the toolbar will be resolved – the toolbar will stay at the top of the screen, however far down you scroll).

However, I am spending far too much time on editing and not enough on creative writing. Editing is always a time-consuming but necessary activity when writing, but I really could do without technology frustrations when editing.

Conclusions

Pressbooks is a workable solution for writing an open textbook, but it works best if you want just a simple read through by the reader, in the manner of a traditional textbook. If though you want to make it more interactive, and open to comment, criticisms and substantive contributions from other people, then the current Pressbooks software is very limiting.

Pressbooks is a classic case of taking a new medium and merely transferring the format and structure of a previously existing medium. Although this is probably an essential and useful first step, what is really required is a complete re-design that fully exploits the characteristics or affordances of the new medium. For this to happen, though, a partnership between software engineers, potential authors and instructional designers is needed. However, there is a great opportunity here for creating truly innovative open source software for supporting open textbooks, if anyone has the time and resources to do this.

Authors such as myself also need to work out the difference (if any) between an open textbook and a learning management system. There are real difficulties in making everything in a course open, mainly because of hacking, spam and other external nuisances that can seriously disrupt a serious, engaged educational experience. The same applies to blogs and open textbooks. If the comment feature is too open it becomes overwhelmed with hacking and spam (I’m clearing about 50 bot-generated messages a day from my blog comment box – I don’t want to also have to spend this time keeping the comments on an open textbook under control.)

However, even accepting that an open textbook is not a substitute for an LMS, authors need to think carefully how the textbook can best be integrated or adopted within a course. Sample activities, suggestions for model answers, etc., can all be included. Above all, though, authors need to be clear when writing as to what will be done within the technological limitations of the textbook, what is best done outside the textbook, and how best to integrate these two elements.

I have to say I haven’t worked this out yet. It’s still a work in progress.

Over to you

As you can see, I am somewhat bumbling my way through the technology side of the writing, learning mainly through experience, although BCcampus has been more than helpful. I’d really like to hear though from other open textbook authors: is your experience similar or very different and if so why? Have you used different authoring software and how did that go?

Also, on the technology side, I’m still very open to other technology solutions, so long as they can be seamlessly integrated with Pressbooks. I have gone too far now to move to another software solution. But any suggestions welcome.

A new approach to online lab classes from the University of South Carolina

 Histology USC

Adams, S. and Duvall, B. (2014) Designing, building and supporting online lab courses, University Business, February 4

This article is a summary of a presentation made at the University Business conference last June. It describes how two biology professors at the University of South Carolina, Roger Sawyer and Robert Ogilvie, developed an online course on histology that was built around students being able to drill down into images of the cell at various levels through the use of a large repository of digitized slides of cells, accompanied by a voice over narrative:

Using Adobe Presenter to create the slides and WebMic to record the audio, Sawyer and Ogilvie built lectures, grouped slides together and developed quizzes. The program offered the flexibility for faculty to record and post content right from their desktops. With each set of slides, students can move ‘bit by bit,’ drilling deep down into a cell, reading the accompanying information, and listening to a narrative as they go. Since the self-paced content requires large files, it is hosted offline via Screencast (by TechSmith).

This was partly driven by space limitations in USC’s physical labs, and partly by increasing demand for students with health sciences qualifications. This approach has enabled the course to jump from 70 enrollments a year to 350. At the same time, student performance for the online students is the same as for the on-campus students, and over 90% of students rate the course highly on a number of variables.

One reason for the success of this approach is that the two professors worked closely with instructional designers and the university’s media services department. The team developed their own tool for recording audio over the slides (webMic), using ‘off-the-shelf’ apps, rather than programming from scratch.

There is a video recording of the presentation available here, which is worth watching because as well as describing the histology project, it also looks how online learning is being integrated into physical labs at USC, and the impact on room design. In other words, students and faculty need online access not only from home and office, but also while in the lab.

2020 Vision: Outlook for online learning in 2014 and way beyond

 2020 visionTaking the long view

Doug Saunders in the Globe and Mail on  January 4 wrote an interesting piece on prediction, entitled: “Gadgets alone don’t make the future.” Having shown how amazingly accurate technologists in 1961 were in predicting what technologies would roll out in the future, he also showed how poorly they predicted how these gadgets would impact on our lives. In summary:

‘We are very good at guessing where our inventions might lead. We are very poor in understanding how humans might change their lives….the decision of what kind of life to live between the screens remains a political one, shaped not by our inventions but by our own decisions.’

Last year I spent some time discussing the value of predictions. One point I didn’t mention is the limitation of predicting just one year ahead, because you can’t identify the long term directions, and so often you’re driven by what happened in the very recent past, i.e. last year, because that’s the latest and often only data you have. More importantly, though, looking one year ahead assumes that there is no choice in what technologies we will use and how we will use them, because they are already entering our society. Also, this is likely to be the last year in which I make predictions for the future. I will be 75 in April, and I plan to stop all paid professional activities at that point (although I will keep my blog, but more as a journalist than as a practitioner).

So this seems to be a good point to look not just at 2014, but where we might be going five to ten years from now, and in doing this, I want to include choice or human decision-making as well as technological determinism. In other words, what kind of online learning do I expect in the future, given what I know so far?

The disappearance of online learning as a separate construct

In 2020, people won’t be talking about online learning as such. It will be so integrated with teaching and learning that it will be like talking today about whether we should use classrooms. In fact, we may be talking much more about classrooms or the campus experience in 2020, because of online learning, and how it is changing the whole way that students are learning. There is likely to be heated discussions about the role and purpose of campuses and school buildings, the design of classrooms, and who needs to be there (teachers and students) and more importantly what for, when students can do so much of their learning online – and generally prefer to, because of the flexibility, and of their control over their own learning. The big changes then are likely to be on-campus, rather than on-line.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

Multi-mode delivery concentrated in fewer institutions – but more diversity

Quite a few public and smaller private post-secondary institutions will be gone or radically transformed by 2020. Particularly at risk are smaller, low status state or provincial universities and colleges or their campuses in metropolitan areas, where there is local and regional competition for students. They will have lost students to more prestigious universities and high status vocationally oriented institutions using online and flexible learning to boost their numbers. Government will be increasingly reluctant to build new campuses, looking to more flexible and more cost effective online delivery options to accommodate increasing demand. Nevertheless, politics will occasionally trump economics, with small new universities and colleges still being created in smaller towns away from the larger urban areas. Even these though will have much smaller campuses than today and probably as much as 50% of all course enrollments online, often in partnership with more established and prestigious universities through course sharing and credit transfer.

Those institutions that have survived will be offering students a range of choices of how they can access learning. Courses or programs will be deliberately designed to accommodate flexibility of access. Thus students will be able to decide whether to do all their studying on campus, all of it online, or a mix of both, although courses or programs are likely to have a common assessment strategy (see below). This will not be driven so much by academic or even political decisions, but by students voting with their feet (or mouses) to study at those institutions that provide such flexibility.

Multi-purpose, open delivery, with multiple levels of service and fees

Content will be multi-purposed, depending on a learner’s goals. Thus the same content can be part of a credit-based degree-level course, program or competency, part of a non-credit certificate or diploma, or available as open access. Learners will also be able to choose from a range of different course or program components, dependent on their needs and interests. Because most content will be open and modular, in the form of open textbooks, open multimedia resources, and open research, institutions will offer a variety of templates for courses and programs built around open content. For example, for a degree in physics, certain topics must be covered, with a strong recommendation for the sequence of study, but within those core levels of competency, there will be a variety of routes or electives towards a final degree, where broadly based learning outcomes are set, but multiple routes are offered for progress to these outcomes. Those content components can be accessed from a wide range of approved sources. It is the competency and academic performance of the learner that the institution will accredit.

Most institutions will have an open education portal, that contains not only a wide range of open educational resources, but also a range of open services, such as program templates or free academic guidance for specific target groups, as part of their enrollment strategy. Although such portals are likely to include materials from a wide range of sources from around the world, special emphasis will be given to open content developed by their own faculty, based on their latest research or scholarship, as a way of branding their institution. iTunesU, MIT’s Opencourseware, OpenLearn, and MOOCs are early prototypes, but content quality in the future will be greatly improved in terms of pedagogical and media design to accommodate online learners. Also states and provinces will also establish system-wide portals of open educational resources, particularly at the k-12 and two year college level (see eLearnPunjab and open.bccampus.ca as prototype models).

Because academic content is almost all open, free and easily accessible over the Internet, students will not pay tuition fees for content delivery, but for services such as academic guidance and learning support, and these fees will vary depending on the level of service required. Thus students who want a traditional course that covers guidance on and access to content, tutorial help, access to campus facilities, feedback and assessment will pay full fee (some of which may still be government subsidized in the public system). Students who want just open access will pay nothing, but will get few if any support services, and if they need a formal assessment, they will need to pay for this (although again this may be subsidized in a public system). Other students may want feedback and some form of continuous assessment, but will not want to pay for full tutorial support.

There are several consequences of this increased flexibility. Some institutions will specialize in small-class, on-campus education at high cost. Others will focus on high quality delivery through a variety of delivery modes, with a particular emphasis on course design and learner support. Some institutions will focus on low cost, competency-based open access programs, supported by businesses requiring specific skilled labour, and a few institutions will be specialists in fully online distance delivery operating on a national or international basis, at a lower cost but equally high quality as campus-based institutions. The majority of institutions though will become multi-purpose, multiple delivery institutions because of the economies of scale and scope possible.

Goodbye to the lecture-based course

In most institutions, courses based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks will have disappeared. There are several reasons for this. The first is that all content can be easily digitalized and made available on demand at very low cost. Second, institutions will be making greater use of dynamic video (not talking heads) for demonstration, simulations, animations, etc. Thus most content modules will be multi-media. Third, open textbooks incorporating multi media components and student activities will provide the content, organization and interpretation that are the rationale for most lectures. Lastly, and most significantly, the priority for teaching will have changed from information transmission and organization to knowledge management, where students have the responsibility for finding, analyzing, evaluating, sharing and applying knowledge, under the direction of a skilled subject expert. Project-based learning, collaborative learning and situated or experiential learning will become much more widely prevalent. Also many instructors will prefer to use the time they would have spent on a series of  lectures in providing more direct, individual and group learner support, thus bringing them into closer contact with learners.

This does not mean that lectures will disappear altogether, but they will be special events, and probably multi-media, synchronously and asynchronously delivered. Special events might include a professor’s summary of his latest research, the introduction to a course, a point mid-way through a course for taking stock and dealing with common difficulties, or the wrap-up to a course. It will provide a chance for an instructor to makes themselves known, to impart their interests and enthusiasm, and to motivate learners, but this will be just one, relatively small, but important component of a much broader learning experience for students.

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Goodbye to the written exam – and welcome to the final implementation of lifelong learning

For most post-secondary qualifications, written exams will have been replaced by assessment through multimedia portfolios of student work. These will show not only students’ current knowledge and competencies, but also their progression over time, and a range of equally important skills, such as their ability to work collaboratively, self-management of learning, and general communication skills. Assessment will be mainly on a continuous, on-going basis.

As well as change in the method of assessing learning there will be greater variety in the range of accredited qualifications. Degrees, certificates and diplomas will still be important, but these will be complemented with a wide range of assessments of informal or non-formal learning, such as badges, some offered by post-secondary institutions, others offered by employers’ organizations or co-operatives of professionals. University and college diplomas and degrees will increasingly be seen as milestones on the journey to lifelong learning, and for demographic and economic reasons, the lifelong learning market will become a much larger market than the high school leaver market.

This means academic departments will need to develop programs and courses that range from introductory or foundational through undergraduate degrees to professional masters to lifelong learning, again using similar content modules adapted to different markets, as well as creating or adapting new content, based on the latest research in a field, for these newer markets. Much of the lifelong market will lend itself to online and hybrid learning, but in different structures (short modules, for instance) than the undergraduate and higher degree market. Universities and colleges will increasingly compete with the corporate training industry for these post-postgraduate learners, who will be able and willing to afford top dollar for top-level lifelong learning opportunities, based on the latest research coming out of universities, government and businesses.

However, a large part of the lifelong learning market will become occupied by communities of practice and self-learning, through collaborative learning, sharing of knowledge and experience, and crowd-sourcing new ideas and development, particularly assisted by an evolution of what are now known as cMOOCs. Such informal learning provision will be particularly valuable for non-governmental or charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, Greenpeace or UNICEF, or local government, looking for ways to engage communities in their areas of operation. These communities of learners will be open and free, and hence will provide a competitive alternative to the high priced lifelong learning programs being offered by research universities. This will put pressure on universities and colleges to provide more flexible arrangements for recognition of informal learning, in order to hold on to their current monopoly of post-secondary accreditation.

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

Image: © Etienne Wenger, 2010

New financial models

Because most content will be freely accessible, and because students will pay incrementally for a wide variety of services, new financial models will need to be developed, to support the flexibility and range of services that students will increasingly demand and require. The biggest move is likely to be away from block funding or enrollment-driven funding by government towards pay-for-service through student fees for teaching. There will be further separation of the funding for research and teaching (this has already happened in some countries, such as in England and Wales.) As a result government financing may well change, so that students are given a post-secondary grant at the age of 17, and have the right to decide how to spend that grant on post-secondary education, rather than funding institutions directly for teaching.

This may have some unexpected benefits for academic departments. Under this model it makes much more sense to fund programs directly from fees for the program, than to pool grants and fees centrally then break out money for teaching and filter it down through the departments. Thus program fees or service fees  would come to academic departments (or more accurately the program areas) directly, then the programs would pay for university services such as registration and financial services on a direct cost basis, plus a percentage for general overheads. This is already happening in some public universities at post-graduate levels, where tuition fees for online professional masters more than cover all the costs, direct and indirect, of a program, including the cost of full-time research professors who teach on the program.

This model would also have two other benefits. It would put pressure on service departments, such as HR, financial services, the Registry, etc., to become more cost-efficient, because direct costs to programs become more transparent. Second, since online students do not need a range of campus services such as campus building maintenance, lighting, and heating, it would lead to the different costs of online vs campus-teaching becoming more transparent and comparable, with an economic incentive to move more towards the most cost-efficient delivery model.

There are also disadvantages. Some model would be needed to support more expensive programs to deliver, or programs that are specialized but important in a university community. However, a program-based financial model may help save small departments who are struggling for minimal enrolments from their local market. Online courses can open the market to regional or international students and offer the chance of collaboration and partnership with other institutions, through course and student sharing.

The disaggregation of institutional activities required for the flexible delivery of programs in a world where content is free offers opportunities for rethinking how teaching and learning is funded.

Systematic faculty development and training

Since content will be freely accessible, institutions’ reputation and branding will increasingly depend on the way they support learners. This will put much greater emphasis on instructors having good teaching skills as well as subject expertise. Thus most universities and colleges will require faculty to have assessed teaching skills before tenure or permanent appointment, and equal attention will be given to teaching expertise as research in promotion. This will mean incorporating teaching practice and methods within most post-graduate subject areas, college instructors having compulsory pre-service teacher training, and regular faculty having systematic ongoing professional development as new technologies and new teaching approaches develop over time. The immediate benefit of this will be better student retention rates and higher quality learning outcomes.

Devolved decision-making and organizational models

A move to program-based funding, the need for effective course designs to attract students, the differentiation of services, the increased professionalism in teaching, and freely available open content will result in a move to systematic program planning and team teaching. A typical team will consist of a senior research professor, several junior or adjunct professors, an instructional designer/project manager and a media/web designer. The senior faculty member, in collaboration with the other team members, will be responsible for decisions about curriculum content, methods of learner support, and assessment standards. The team will develop assessment criteria and rubrics, and where necessary hire additional instructors for learner support and marking of assessments , under the supervision of the senior faculty members.

One consequence will be the disappearance of central centres for teaching and technology, except in small institutions. Instructional design staff will be located in program areas and will be responsible with academic faculty for faculty development activities, as well as with overall course design input. There will be increased demand for media designers, while instructional designers will be in less demand in the future, but still necessary to support faculty, especially as new learning technologies develop.

Student privacy, data security and student online behaviour will become more difficult

Learning will increasingly be delivered through student-owned devices, and learners will increasingly integrate social life, work and study in a seamless manner. Services will increasingly be delivered through the cloud. Security agencies, Internet-based companies and knowledge-based companies will constantly be seeking access to student data, especially student learning performance and online behaviour, as this information will be increasingly valuable for state security and commercial reasons. As a result it will become increasingly difficult for institutions to protect student data and their privacy. This may turn out to be the biggest challenge for students, institutions, and government in the next 20 years and could seriously inhibit the development of online learning in the future, if students or faculty lose trust in the system.

The future is about choices

This is my view about where we could be going with online learning in the next five to ten years. However, I will not be making the decisions, as I am retiring in April. If you do not like this vision, then you are in a position to influence a different kind of vision. Although as McLuhan says, we are shaped by our devices, we also shape the world around these devices. The worst thing we could do is to leave it to computer scientists to decide our future.

The value such a vision lies not in its detail, but in identifying some of the key choices or decisions that will need to be made. So here are the decisions that are thrown up by this vision for the future, for students, faculty, institutions and government (and some of these, such as those about campus facilities, should be being made right now):

Students and learners

  • at this point in my life, what are my learning goals? What is the best way to meet these? Where can I get advice for this?
  • do I need a qualification and if so, what kind?
  • what is the best way for me to access this learning? On-campus; online; or a mix of both?
  • what kind of learning support do I need?
  • how much do I want to – or must I – pay for these services?
  • what institution or other method of delivery will provide what I want? Where can I get independent advice on this?
  • how can I protect my privacy when I am online studying?

Faculty and instructors

  • why do students need to come to campus? What am I offering on-campus that they couldn’t get online? Have I looked up the research on this?
  • what teaching methods will lead to the kind of learning outcomes that students will need in life?
  • what should be my role if content is freely available online?
  • what kind of teaching spaces do I need for what I want to offer on campus?
  • how should I best use my time in teaching? In what kind of teaching activities can I really make a difference for students?
  • if I create new or original content for my teaching, should I make it openly available to anyone to use?
  • what methods of assessment should I use in a digital age? How do I assess prior or informal learning?
  • what kind of courses or programs should we be offering for lifelong learners?
  • what do I need to know about student data, and the protection of student privacy?
  • what training or professional development do I need to ensure that I can meet the learning needs of my students?

Institutions

  • what kind of campus will we need in 10 years time?
  • what proportion of course enrollments are likely to be accessed off-campus?
  • what will be the best way to accommodate more students – online learning or more buildings?
  • what kind and number of teaching spaces will we need?
  • what partnerships or strategies should we adopt to protect our enrollment base?
  • what are our strategies and policies regarding open educational resources?
  • what is our strategy for lifelong learning?
  • what financial models should we put in place to encourage innovation in teaching and to attract students?
  • how do we ensure that faculty have the skills necessary for teaching in a digital age?
  • how can we best reward innovation and high quality teaching?
  • what kind of organization and staff do we need to support faculty in their teaching?
  • how do we best protect student data and privacy (as well as our staff’s) in a digital age?

Government

  • what kind of post-secondary system, in terms of institutional differentiation, program delivery and innovations in teaching, do we need in a digital age?
  • how many, and what kind of, campuses do we need when students are also studying online? What is the best way to accommodate expansion in the system?
  • how can we best support system-wide open education, to reduce costs and increase quality?
  • how should we fund post-secondary education in a digital age? How much and what should ‘first-time’ students pay for themselves? What should lifelong learners who have already been through the system pay? What funding models would encourage innovation in teaching and help improve quality?
  • how can online learning help to increase the productivity of the post-secondary educational system? What can we do to encourage this?
  • what does government need to do to protect student data and student privacy?

What’s YOUR vision?

I won’t be around to make or influence these decisions, but most of you will. Are there decisions I’ve missed? What decisions would you make? What’s your vision for the future?

If you are willing to share just one response to any of these questions or decisions, this will be very much appreciated. Because the future will be increasingly about sharing knowledge.

The danger of cloud based LMSs

Davis, B. (2013) Desire2Learn ‘in recovery mode,’ says there has been no data loss to university systems The Record.com, February 1

Bryen, W. (2013) Desire2Learn second system outage ‘very disruptive’ for CU-Boulder faculty, students Daily Camera, University of Colorado, January 31

Many universities in the USA and Canada have been hit by a serious outage of their learning management system, Desire2Learn. It appears that all universities who use Desire2Learn’s cloud computing facility have been affected. Those running D2L on their own servers will not be directly affected.

Virginia Jamieson, D2L’s senior director of corporate communications, stated:

We are experiencing significant challenges in one of our cloud data centers and that is dramatically impacting some students’ online experience. This stems from the file virtualization hardware not interacting well with the storage environment.

Among the universities affected are the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University, from where many of the staff at Desire2Learn have graduated, and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Apparently Desire2Learn has been hit by several outages recently.

Why no back-up?

I didn’t expect one of my 2013 predictions to happen so soon – see ’10. Expect the unexpected.’

I obviously have misunderstood cloud computing. I thought the whole point was independent back-up, so if one server goes down, others can pick it up. Please enlighten me.