October 19, 2017

Results from the Canadian survey of online learning now available

Bates, T. (ed.) (2017) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2017 Vancouver BC: The National Survey of Online and Distance Education in Canadian Post-Secondary Education.

The anglophone version of the public report, as well as the full technical report, is now available for free downloading (Click on the title above or onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca – you will be asked for your e-mail address and a password).

The francophone version of the public report will be available on October 27 from https://formationenlignecanada.ca

Key findings of the report are:

  • Canada is a ‘mature’ online learning market: almost all Canadian colleges and universities now offer online courses and many have been doing so for 15 years or more;
  • there is at least one institution in every province that offers online courses or programs;
  • online enrolments have expanded at a rate of 10%-15% per annum over the last five years;
  • online learning now constitutes between 12%-16% of all post-secondary teaching for credit;
  • online learning courses can be found in almost all subject areas;
  • online learning is providing students with increased access and greater flexibility;
  • two-thirds of Canadian post-secondary institutions see online learning as very or extremely important for their future plans

  • most institutions have or are developing a strategy or plan for online learning
  • LMSs are used in almost every institution, but no particular brand dominates the Canadian market
  • a wide range technologies are being used with or alongside the LMS,the most predominant (over half the institutions) being online conferencing/webinar technologies, video-streaming and print;
  • OER are used in just under half of all institutions but moderately and open textbooks in less than 20%
  • there was no or little use reported of learning analytics, AI applications or competency-based learning, although tracking such use is difficult, as they are instructor- rather than institution-driven
  • hybrid learning (defined as a reduction in classroom time replaced by online learning activities) is widespread in terms of institutions, but low in use in most institutions (less than 10% of classes), although again this is not easily tracked; however, it was reported to lead to innovative teaching;
  • MOOCs were delivered in less than 20% of institutions in the 12 months prior to the survey, and one third reported they did not intend to offer MOOCs in the future
  • the main benefits of online learning were seen as:
    • increased access/flexibility
    • increased enrolments
    • more innovative teaching;
  • the main barriers were seen as:
    • lack of resources (particularly learning technology support staff)
    • faculty resistance
    • lack of government support (reported most in Québec and least in Ontario);
  • there were difficulties in obtaining reliable online course enrolment data: most institutions are not systematically tracking this and there are variations between provinces;
  • the report ends by recommending a standard system for reporting on digital learning.

Implications

The report deliberately does not draw out any implications or make any value judgements. Readers should draw their own conclusions. However here are my personal thoughts on the results, and these do not necessarily reflect those of the rest of the team:

  • smaller institutions (below 2,000 students) found lack of resources particularly difficult and were less likely to offer online courses: what could be done to provide better support for such institutions that want to offer more online teaching?
  • government support to institutions for online learning varied widely from province to province, and this showed in the figures for enrolment and for innovative teaching: some provinces may need to reconsider their policies and support for online learning or they will fall further behind other provinces in online provision for students
  • many institutions are in the process of developing strategies or plans for online learning: what worked and what did not work in those institutions that already have plans in place that could help inform those institutions now still developing plans in this area?

Next steps

This report would not have been possible without the support of many different organizations which are listed in the report itself. In particular, though, we are indebted to the staff in all the institutions who responded to the survey.

This is the first national snapshot of online and distance learning for both colleges and universities in Canada but its value will be much enhanced by a more longitudinal set of studies. The research team is working with potential sponsors to establish a stronger organizational structure, more secure long-term funding, and a more representative steering committee for the survey. I will be reporting back as these developments evolve.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone who helped make this report a reality.

Will I see you at the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning this week?

The conference

ICDE’s world conference lands at the Sheraton Hotel in Toronto this week.

I am very much looking forward to the coming week in Toronto. I am not usually a great fan of very large conferences, but this one seems to be somewhat different, with a huge number of smaller, interactive sessions and few if any large keynotes given by old white men (yes, people like me) with lots of ‘telling’ and not much discussion.

Nevertheless, this old white man is pretty busy at this conference. In all, I have four formal sessions, as well as several informal functions.

The national survey of online and distance education in Canadian post-secondary education

What: We will be launching the report on the national survey, briefly presenting the results, then discussing the implications. This is the first pan-Canadian survey of online learning of all public post-secondary institutions in Canada, universities AND colleges.

When: Tuesday, October 17, 4.00 pm, Osgoode West Room.

For more information on the survey: Go to: https://onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca/ to download the report; see also: Responses to the Canadian survey of online and distance learning.

Three sessions on my book: Teaching in a Digital Age

What: I am doing three seminar-type sessions on my open, online textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, under the heading of Guidelines for Designing Teaching and Learning. If you wish to attend you are advised to read first the recommended chapters from the book (click on time and place links below for the recommended readings) if you have not already done so, as this will be more a discussion of the issues than formal presentations.

When:

Monday, October 16, 3.00 – 4.00 pm, City Hall Room

Presentation 1:

Building an Effective Learning Environment – How to Enable More Flexible Models of Learning Design to be Created and Applied

Presentation 2:

Making the Choice – How to Choose between Online, Blended or Campus-Based Delivery for Effective Learning 

Wednesday, October 18, 11:45 am – 12:45 pm, Maple Room

Presentation 1:

Choosing Media – How They Differ and How to Make the Best Choices for My Teaching 

Presentation 2:

How Open Education Will Revolutionize Higher Education: The Impact of Open Research, Open Textbooks, OERs and Open Data on Course Design and Delivery 

Thursday, October 19, 11.00 am – 12 noon, City Hall Room

Presentation 1:

Ensuring Quality – How to Design and Deliver Quality Courses in a Supportive Learning Environment

Presentation 2:

General discussion of the design issues raised in the book.

Nine steps to quality teaching

Networking

Perhaps the most important part of any conference like this is networking. If you want to connect, try texting me at 604-418-7484. It will be great to meet in person any of my blog or book readers!

Try to make it a coffee or lunch break, though, as I want to go to many of the other sessions. 

Hope to see you at the conference!

The day Spain lost Catalonia

People waiting to vote on the independence referendum in Barcelona

I’m in Barcelona for a conference on innovation in teaching in higher education, organized by the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). As I worked at UOC for a while between 2003-2009, I have many good friends here.

On Sunday, I went with friends, whose 20 year old student daughter was a volunteer, to visit the local voting station for the referendum. When we got there, we found the crowd above. People were waiting for two to three hours in order to vote, in a referendum that the Spanish federal government had ruled was illegal.

Although there was no violence at this polling station in the San Gervasi district, you will all have seen the appalling scenes of voters such as these being beaten and attacked by the Spanish federal police, the Guardia Civil. Police broke into schools and community centres to snatch the ballot boxes, cut the provincial and municipal government Internet connections, and beat voters and community members who were trying to protect the ballot boxes from seizure by the Spanish government.

Before yesterday, I had mixed feelings about the Catalan independence referendum. I want to see a broader Europe with fewer nationalistic boundaries. I am strongly opposed to Brexit, and I want Québec to be a unique part of Canada.

But Spain is different. For many centuries the Spanish state based in Madrid has been an imperialistic power in Catalonia. Until the late 1880s, the Spanish government ran Catalonia as a colony of Spain, with a governor appointed from Madrid and a large Spanish garrison in the Ciutadella to keep the Catalans in line. The Catalans in the Spanish Civil War were republicans, who fought Franco to the death and as a result were punished for it. Since the end of the Franco regime, Catalonia has pushed increasingly for more autonomy, and by and large has been denied it. The Basques have more autonomy than Catalonia, yet Catalonia is the most prosperous part of Spain and contributes more to Federal revenues than it receives.

So the referendum was about much more than local nationalism. Many behind the independence movement want Catalonia to be a republic, and this is the real fear of the government in Madrid. It should be remembered that as recently as 1981, a part of the Spanish army attempted a coup d’état to overthrow the democratically elected government and replace it with a monarchical dictatorship. It is not insignificant that the current Spanish government recently placed one of the ringleaders of the coup d’état as the new chief of police of the Catalan police force.

The Spanish federal government has been unbelievably stupid in the way it has tried to stop this referendum. Because Catalonia (especially Barcelona and the surrounding region) has been so prosperous, it has attracted ‘domestic’ immigrants from all over Spain who do not want Catalonian independence. Had a proper, fully democratic referendum been held, it is highly probable that the majority would have voted ‘no’ to independence. That might still happen.

But by denying everyone in Catalonia the right to express their views on this issue, and by using unjustified violence to suppress voting, the Spanish government has alienated a much larger swathe of ordinary Catalans who previously were at best lukewarm and more likely hostile to the independence movement.

What has impressed me most has been the non-violent but quietly determined way hundreds of thousands of Catalans have turned out to the voting stations to defend their rights as citizens to express their views through the ballot box, whether or not they support independence. This is the closest to a non-violent revolution you will see in what is supposed to be a democratic European country.

However, what Spain now has is a major constitutional crisis. There are wild calls from Catalan politicians for a unilateral declaration of independence. The only way out of this is to allow a free and properly monitored referendum overseen by European Union officials within the next sixth months and a commitment by the Spanish federal government to abide by the decision of the Catalan voters. Catalans deserve no less for their fortitude and civility in the face of totally unjustified state violence.

In the meantime, it is going to be difficult here. I had tickets for a Barcelona soccer match on Sunday, but it was played behind closed doors because of concerns about security and a protest by the club about the violence over the referendum. There will be a general strike tomorrow which means the conference I am attending will probably be cancelled, or, like the football match, will be a ‘closed’ event, involving only the speakers and those with internet access. I may have problems getting back to Canada on Wednesday if air transport has not recovered from a shutdown on Tuesday.

But despite all the troubles, there are worse places in the world to be stranded than Barcelona. Yes, I do love the place.

Only in Barcelona will you get a meal served to look like a Joan Miro painting: my anchovy ‘starter’ at the Nectari restaurant, Carrer Valencia.

Responses to the Canadian survey of online and distance learning

Hi, everyone, and welcome back. I hope you all had a great summer. As many readers will know, I am leading a team conducting a survey of online and distance learning in Canadian public post-secondary educational institutions. You can get more general information about the survey from earlier posts:

During the summer the survey team has been extremely busy. We have now completed the collection of data and have started on the analysis and report writing.

Thanks to support from Contact North, we are building a web site for the survey which will contain news about the survey, access to the reports, and opportunities to discuss the results and their implications. However this won’t be ready for a couple of weeks, so I wanted to provide an update on where we are at the moment, especially as I know some of you have been engaged in collecting data for the survey (many thanks!). 

Building a database of institutions

As this is the first year for the survey the focus is exclusively on provincially funded and accredited post-secondary educational institutions, which still represent by far the majority of post-secondary institutions and students in Canada.

One challenge the survey faced was the lack of a commonly used, publicly accessible database of all Canadian public post-secondary educational institutions. We worked our way through the membership listings of Universities Canada, Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICAN), Maclean’s EduHub, and provincial government web sites. From Statistics Canada we could find only aggregate data on student enrolments broken down by province and by part-time or full time students, but not data for individual institutions. 

We ended up with a list of 203 institutions, once we had eliminated duplications, incorporated affiliated colleges and universities with the main institution awarding the qualification, and removed institutions not funded by provincial governments. We also identified institutions by language (anglophone or francophone) and their total student headcount (full-time and part-time), almost entirely from information publicly available through provincial government web sites, although not all provinces provide this information. We then had to identify the appropriate contact person in each institution (usually Provosts or VPs Education).

This process resulted in 

  • 72 universities (35%),
  • 81 colleges outside Québec (40%), and
  • 50 CEGEPs/colleges within Québec (25%).

Of the 203 institutions, 70 (34%) were either francophone institutions or were bi-lingual institutions with a separate francophone program. 

One thing that became clear even at this stage is that there is no consistency between provinces and Statistics Canada on how data about students is collected or reported. Several different measures are used: student headcount (full time, or full time and part-time); student course enrolments; student FTEs (full-time equivalents); and student program enrolments, with variations within each of these broad categories. Also some data include non-credit, continuing education students as well as students taking courses for credit. All this variation in student statistics makes inter-provincial comparisons very difficult. In the end, for the database of all institutions, we used primarily official provincial student headcounts, the measure most common across all provinces.

Statistics Canada’s most recent figures for Canadian post-secondary student enrolments are for the fall of the 2014/2015 academic year (in our survey, we are looking at fall 2016 enrolments). Statistics Canada’s enrolment numbers are based on program counts and not student counts. If a student is enrolled in more than one program as of the snapshot date, then all of their programs are included in the count.

Table 1: Comparison of StatCan student enrolment numbers, and student headcount totals from institutions in the survey population base

Without knowing more about the basis on which Statistics Canada built its data, we cannot explain the difference between the two populations sets, but the differences are relatively small, except for CEGEPs. We are confident we have included all the CEGEP institutions but we probably do not have all enrolled students counted, just those for which the Québec provincial government provides funding, from which we derived the data. Nevertheless, if we take Statistics Canada data as the comparator, our population base appears to represent a very large proportion (93%) of students studying for institutional credit at Canadian public post-secondary institutions.

We will be providing on the survey web site a list of all the institutions we included in the population database.

Response rates

The questionnaire itself was online and was accessed using a link unique for each participant institution. The final cut-off date for the full questionnaire was June 30, 2017. At this point, for those institutions that had not responded, an invitation was sent to complete a shorter questionnaire that excluded questions on student enrolments.

Table 2: Response rate by type of institution

It can be seen that 128 institutions (63%) completed the full questionnaire, and 140 (69%) completed either the full or the shorter version of the questionnaire. The response rate was lower for small institutions (59% overall for institutions with less than 2,000  students, compared with 79% for institutions with more than 10,000 students). The responding institutions were spread proportionately across all provinces and nearly all territories.

If we look at the response rate by the number of student enrolments, Table 3 below indicates that the survey covered institutions with 78% of the overall Canadian student population in public post-secondary education.

Table 3: Student headcounts for institutions responding compared to overall student headcounts.

Conclusion

It should be remembered that this was a voluntary survey with no formal government requirement to complete. Our target was a 75% response rate, which we have achieved in terms of the number of students covered by the survey, although the number of institutions covered fell a little short of the target at 69%. Nevertheless we think we have a large enough response rate to make valid and reliable statements about the state of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education.

This would not have been possible without first of all a huge effort by the institutions to provide the data, and secondly a great deal of support from the various professional associations such as CICAN, Universities Canada, the eCampuses in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, Contact North, REFAD, and others too numerous to describe in a short blog post.

Next steps

We are now in the process of analyzing the results. We expect to have a draft report that will go out to selected readers in two weeks time. We will then produce two ‘public’ reports:

  • a main executive report that covers the main findings (in English and French)
  • a full research report that provides an analysis of all the data collected from the survey.

Both these reports will be ready for publication and a launch at the ICDE World Conference on Online Learning in Toronto on October 17, 2017. 

We will also be developing a number of sub-reports, such as one on francophone institutions, and one on Ontario (which was a primary funder of the survey).

In the meantime, as soon as the survey web site is ready I will let you know. This will contain preliminary results and an update on activities surrounding the survey, such as future plans and developments, and, from October 17, copies of all the reports as they become available.

Virtual Reality and education: some thoughts

I spent a very interesting evening this week at a Vancouver VR Community event at Mobify‘s headquarters in downtown Vancouver. Mobify is a provider of progressive web apps for e-commerce and has a really cool area for events such as this one, with lots of open spaces.

Vancouver is part of a growing North West Pacific Silicon Valley, and there are now over 500 members of the Vancouver VR community, which indicates how much activity and development are going into VR, at least in this region. 

The event was a mix of show and tell, and an opportunity to play with and experience some VR programs. Most of the applications available to play with at the VR event were typically combat games (including a very realistic one-on-one boxing encounter) but I was more interested in possible educational applications (although the boxing app might come in useful on a dark night on campus).

I particularly enjoyed using Google Blocks, a free software program for developing 3D models, that was being demonstrated by  Scott Banducci who runs a company that hosts VR events (VRtogo). With the headset on and a couple of hand-operated panels that include a colouring palette and tools for moving and stretching objects, it was easy even for a novice such as me to create in a few minutes a really cool 3D model of a plane. There is an excellent introductory video on the Google Blocks web site that explains the process. 

This was my first visit and I hardly knew anyone there (I was the oldest person by at least 40 years). I was hoping to meet someone from one of the many educational institutions in the Vancouver area who might be interested in using VR for teaching and learning but most of the people there not surprisingly were developers or producers of VR. Nevertheless this seems like a great community of practice and I strongly recommend anyone in the Vancouver area interested in the educational use of VR to join. The next event is at Mobify at 6.15 pm on August 22.

In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts about the use of VR, for what they are worth.

  1. VR is not just a fad that will disappear. There are already a large number of commercial applications, mainly in entertainment and public relations, but also increasingly for specific areas of training (more on that below). There is already a lot of excellent, off-the-shelf software for creating VR environments, and the cost of hardware is dropping rapidly (although good quality headsets and other equipment are still probably too expensive for required use by large numbers of students).
  2. What killed earlier two-dimensional VR developments such as Second Life for widespread educational use was the high cost and difficulty of creating the sets and contexts for learning. Thus even if the hardware and software costs for VR are low enough for individual student use, it is the production costs of creating educational contexts and scenarios that are likely to inhibit its use.
  3. Thus most suitable educational applications are likely to be where the cost of alternative or traditional ways of learning are too expensive or too dangerous. In particular, VR would be good for individual, self-learning in contexts where real environments are not easily accessible, or where learners need to cope with strong emotions when making decisions or operating under pressure in real time. Examples might be emergency management, such as shutting down an out-of-control nuclear reactor, or defusing a bomb, or managing a fire on an oil tanker. However, not only will the VR environment have to be realistic, as much attention will need to be paid to creating the specific learning context. The procedure for defusing the bomb and the interaction between learner and the virtual bomb must also be built in to the production. Thus VR may often need to be combined with simulation design and quality media production to be educationally effective, again pushing up the cost. For these reasons, medicine is a likely area for experiment, where traditional training costs are really high or where training is difficult to provide with real patients.
  4. Having said that, we need more experimentation. This is still a relatively new technology, and there may be very simple ways to use it in education that are not costly and meet needs that cannot be easily met in traditional teaching or with other existing technology. For this to happen, though, educators, software developers, and media producers need to come together to play and experiment. The VR Vancouver Community seems to me to be an ideal venue to do this. In the meantime, I can’t wait to see Bad Cookies Pictures VR horror movie when it comes out! Now that will be an immersive experience.

And since originally posting this, I have been directed to the blog post of Ryan Martin, a trainer on Vancouver Island, who has come up with a more comprehensive list of ways to learn through VR, with some excellent links.

If you know of other examples and are willing to share them, I will add the links to this post.

 

A better ranking system for university teaching?

Who is top dog among UK universities?
Image: © Australian Dog Lover, 2017 http://www.australiandoglover.com/2017/04/dog-olympics-2017-newcastle-april-23.html

Redden, E. (2017) Britain Tries to Evaluate Teaching Quality Inside Higher Ed, June 22

This excellent article describes in detail a new three-tiered rating system of teaching quality at universities introduced by the U.K. government, as well as a thoughtful discussion. As I have a son and daughter-in-law teaching in a U.K. university and grandchildren either as students or potential students, I have more than an academic interest in this topic.

How are the rankings done?

Under the government’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), universities in England and Wales will get one of three ‘awards’: gold, silver and bronze (apparently there are no other categories, such as tin, brass, iron or dross for those whose teaching really sucks). A total of 295 institutions opted to participate in the ratings.

Universities are compared on six quantitative metrics that cover:

  • retention rates
  • student satisfaction with teaching, assessment and academic support (from the National Student Survey)
  • rates of employment/post-graduate education six months after graduation.

However, awards are relative rather than absolute since they are matched against ‘benchmarks calculated to account for the demographic profile of their students and the mix of programs offered.’ 

This process generates a “hypothesis” of gold, silver or bronze, which a panel of assessors then tests against additional evidence submitted for consideration by the university (higher education institutions can make up to a 15-page submission to TEF assessors). Ultimately the decision of gold, silver or bronze is a human judgment, not the pure product of a mathematical formula.

What are the results?

Not what you might think. Although Oxford and Cambridge universities were awarded gold, so were some less prestigious universities such as the University of Loughborough, while some more prestigious universities received a bronze. So at least it provides an alternative ranking system to those that focus mainly on research and peer reputation.

What is the purpose of the rankings?

This is less clear. Ostensibly (i.e., according to the government) it is initially aimed at giving potential students a better way of knowing how universities stand with regard to teaching. However, knowing the Conservative government in the UK, it is much more likely to be used to link tuition fees to institutional performance, as part of the government’s free market approach to higher education. (The U.K. government allowed universities to set their own fees, on the assumption that the less prestigious universities would offer lower tuition fees, but guess what – they almost all opted for the highest level possible, and still were able to fill seats).

What are the pros and cons of this ranking?

For a more detailed discussion, see the article itself but here is my take on it.

Pros

First this is a more thoughtful approach to ranking than the other systems. It focuses on teaching (which will be many potential students’ initial interest in a university) and provides a useful counter-balance to the emphasis on research in other rankings.

Second it has a more sophisticated approach than just counting up scores on different criteria. It has an element of human judgement and an opportunity for universities to make their case about why they should be ranked highly. In other words it tries to tie institutional goals to teaching performance and tries to take into account the very large differences between universities in the U.K. in terms of student socio-economic background and curricula.

Third, it does provide a simple, understandable ‘award’ system of categorizing universities on their quality of teaching that students and their parents can at least understand.

Fourth, and most important of all, it sends a clear message to institutions that teaching matters. This may seem obvious, but for many universities – and especially faculty – the only thing that really matters is research. Whether though this form of ranking will be sufficient to get institutions to pay more than lip service to teaching remains to be seen.

Cons

However, there are a number of cons. First the national student union is against it, partly because it is heavily weighted by student satisfaction ratings based on the National Student Survey, which thousands of students have been boycotting (I’m not sure why). One would have thought that students in particular would value some accountability regarding the quality of teaching. But then, the NUS has bigger issues with the government, such as the appallingly high tuition fees (C$16,000 a year- the opposition party in parliament, Labour, has promised free tuition).

More importantly, there are the general arguments about university rankings that still apply to this one. They measure institutional performance not individual department or instructor performance, which can vary enormously within the same institution. If you want to study physics it doesn’t help if a university has an overall gold ranking but its physics department is crap or if you get the one instructor who shouldn’t be allowed in the building.

Also the actual quantitative measures are surrogates for actual teaching performance. No-one has observed the teaching to develop the rankings, except the students, and student rankings themselves, while one important measure, can also be highly misleading, based on instructor personality and the extent to which the instructor makes them work to get a good grade.

The real problem here is two-fold: first, the difficulty of assessing quality teaching in the first place: one man’s meat is another man’s poison. There is no general agreement, at least within an academic discipline, as to what counts as quality teaching (for instance, understanding, memory of facts, or skills of analysis – maybe all three are important but can how one teaches to develop these diverse attributes be assessed separately?).

The second problem is the lack of quality data on teaching performance – it just isn’t tracked directly. Since a student may take courses from up to 40 different instructors and from several different disciplines/departments in a bachelor’s program, it is no mean task to assess the collective effectiveness of their quality of teaching. So we are left with surrogates of quality, such as completion rates.

So is it a waste of time – or worse?

No, I don’t think so. People are going to be influenced by rankings, whatever. This particular ranking system may be flawed, but it is a lot better than the other rankings which are so much influenced by tradition and elitism. It could be used in ways that the data do not justify, such as justifying tuition fee increases or decreased government funding to institutions. It is though a first systematic attempt at a national level to assess quality in teaching, and with patience and care could be considerably improved. But most of all, it is an attempt to ensure accountability for the quality of teaching that takes account of the diversity of students and the different mandates of institutions. It may make both university administrations and individual faculty pay more attention to the importance of teaching well, and that is something we should all support.

So I give it a silver – a good try but there is definitely room for improvement. 

Thanks to Clayton Wright for drawing my attention to this.

Next up

I’m going to be travelling for the next three weeks so my opportunity to blog will be limited – but that has been the case for the last six months. My apologies – I promise to do better. However, a four hour layover at Pearson Airport does give me some time for blogging!

A brighter future for Athabasca University?

Mid-career retraining is seen as one possible focus for Athabasca University’s future

Coates, K. (2017) Independent Third-Party Review of Athabasca University Saskatoon, SK

This report, 45 pages in length plus extensive appendices, was jointly commissioned by the Government of Alberta and the Governors of Athabasca University.

Why the report?

Because Athabasca University, established in 1971 as a fully distance, open university, has been in serious trouble over the last 10 years. In 2015, its Acting President issued a report saying that ‘Athabasca University (AU) will be unable to pay its debt in two years if immediate action is not taken.’ It needed an additional $25 million just to solve its IT problems. Two years earlier, the AU’s senior administrators were savagely grilled by provincial legislators about the financial management of the university, to such an extent that it seemed that the Government of Alberta might well pull the plug on the university.

However, comes a recent provincial election, comes a radical change of government, leading to a new Board and a new President with a five year term. Although these are essential changes for establishing a secure future of the university, in themselves they are not sufficient. The financial situation of the university is temporarily more secure, but the underlying problem of expenses not being matched by revenue remains. It desperately needs more money from a government that is short of revenues since the oil industry tanked. Also its enrolments have started to drop, due to competition from campus-based universities now offering fully online programs. Lastly it still has the same structural problems with an outdated course design and development model and poor student support services, especially on the academic side.

So although the newish government was willing to suspend judgement, it really needed an independent review before shovelling any new money AU’s way – hence this report.

What does the report say?

I will try to summarise briefly the main findings and recommendations, but as always, it is worth reading the full report, which is relatively concise and easy to read:

  • there is substantial student demand in Alberta, across Canada and internationally for AU’s programs, courses and services;
  • the current business model is not financially sustainable and will not support the institution in the coming decades – but ‘it has the potential if significant changes are made to its structure, approach and program mix, to be a viable, sustainable and highly relevant part of the Alberta post-secondary system’;
  • more money is needed to support its operations, especially if it is to remain headquartered in the (small and somewhat remote) Town of Athabasca; the present government funding arrangement is inadequate for the university’s mix of programs and students, especially regarding the support needed for disadvantaged students and those requiring more flexibility in delivery;
  • the emergence of dozens of credible online university alternatives has undermined AU’s competitive advantage – it no longer has a clear and obvious role within the Provincial post-secondary system;
  • AU should re-brand itself as the leading Canadian centre for online learning and 21st century educational technology, but although it has the educational technology professionals needed to provide leadership, it lacks the ICT model and facilities to rise to this opportunity;
  • Open access: AU should expand its activities associated with population groups that are under-represented in the Alberta and Canadian post-secondary system: women in STEM subject, new Canadians, Indigenous Peoples and students with disabilities;
  • diversification of the student body is necessary to achieve economies of scale; in other words it should expand its reach across Canada and internationally and not limit itself just to Alberta;
  • AU should expand its efforts to educate lifelong learners and should expand its career-focused and advanced educational opportunities – particularly mid-career training and training for new work;
  • although there is overwhelming faculty and staff support for AU’s mandate and general approach, there are considerable institutional and financial barriers to effecting a substantial reorientation in AU operations; however, such a re-orientation is critical for its survival.

My comments

Overall, this is an excellent report. Wisely, it does not dwell on the historical reasons why Athabasca University got itself into its current mess but instead focuses on what its future role should be, what it can uniquely contribute to the province, and what is needed to right the ship, including more money.

However, the main challenges, in my view, remain more internal than external. The Board of Governors, senior administration, faculty, staff and students still need to develop together a clear and shared vision for the future of the institution that presents a strong enough value proposition to the government to justify the increased operational and investment funding that is needed. Although the external reviewer does a good job suggesting what some of the elements of such a vision might be, it has to come from the university community itself. This is long overdue and cannot be delayed much longer otherwise the government’s patience will understandably run out. Money itself is not the issue – it is the value proposition that will persuade the government to prioritise funding for AU that still needs to be made by the university itself. In other words it’s a trust issue – if we give you more money, what will you deliver?

The second major challenge, while strongly linked to vision and funding, is the institutional culture. Major changes in course design, educational technology, student support and administration, marketing and PR are urgently needed to bring AU into advanced 21st century practice in online and distance learning. I fear that while there are visionary faculty and staff at AU who understand this, there is still too much resistance from traditionalists and those who see change as undermining academic excellence or threatening their comfort zone. Without these necessary structural and cultural changes though AU will not be able to implement its vision, no matter how persuasive it is. So there is also a competency issue – if we give you more money, can you deliver on your promises?

I think these are still open questions but at least the external review offers a vote of confidence in the university. Now it is up to the university community to turn this opportunity into something more concrete. But it needs to move fast. The window of opportunity is closing fast.

Pushing the boundaries of higher education – in Barcelona

The pavement of Passeig de Gracia, Barcelona

If you are going to push any boundaries, Barcelona is as good a place as any to do it. Home of Antoni Gaudi, Joan Miró, Picasso (for a significant period in his work), the chef Ferran Adrià, and the fully online Open University of Catalonia (UOC – Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, established as early as 1995), Barcelona has long been in the forefront of innovation and change.

The headquarters of UOC on Avenida Tibidabo

UOC is running an event up to and including October 3 that

will address the challenges that current higher education models face and showcase innovative initiatives and practices that offer creative answers for pressing issues.

Speakers include:

  • Terry Anderson (Emeritus Professor at Athabasca University and Director of the Canadian Institute Distance Education Research)
  • Lisa Marie Blaschke (Director of the Master of Distance Education and E-Learning at Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg, Germany
  • Jim Groom (Instructional Technologist, Co-founder Reclaim Hosting)
  • Brian Lamb (‎Director of Open learning and Innovation Thompson Rivers University, Canada)
  • Allison Littlejohn (Academic Director for Learning and Teaching and Professor of Learning Technology at The Open University, UK)
  • Annette Markham (Professor MSO of Information Studies and Co-Director of the Digital Living Masters Programme at Aarhus University, Denmark)
  • Yishay Mor (Director of the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in teaching at the Levinsky College of Education, Israel)
  • Rikke Toft Nørgård (Associate Professor in Educational Design and Technology at the Center for Teaching Development and Digital Media, Aarhus University, Denmark)
  • Philipp Schmidt (Director of Learning Innovation at the MIT Media Lab)
  • and yours truly

I will be focusing in my contribution on the changing nature of online learning (from mainly fully online, text-based, asynchronous to a blend of face-to-face teaching, video-based synchronous, asynchronous and social media) and the implications for faculty/teacher development and training.

There are still places open for the event. For further information, go to the web site. See ya in Barcelona!

The front of an apartment building on Consell de Cent

DIY online courses on Facebook

Hughes, M. (2017) Facebook is letting Groups create online learning courses – what could possibly go wrong?  The Next Web, 1 June

It has been a depressing week for me, with terrorist bombings, Trump’s environmental blunder, trade wars and political uncertainty in British Columbia. We are currently without an effective government but that seems not to be a problem for anyone.

However, I did have one good laugh this week that I want to share with you. This came from Matthew Hughes blog (Matthew is at the University of Roehampton, in the UK). He is reporting on news (fake news?) that Facebook is enabling anyone running a Facebook Group to create their own online courses. As he says, tongue in cheek: what could possibly go wrong from an organization with such high standards of credibility?

  • Well, we might begin by looking at the problems that collaborative MOOCs have been facing, especially moderating discussions. Who and how will that moderation be done?
  • Then there’s the likely make-up of the participants  – will this just be more opinion swapping between people with the same world view? 
  • Who will accredit or validate the knowledge in such courses? The learners themselves, probably – and look again at the problems with that in many MOOCs.
  • how will the data that Facebook collects through such Groups be used? You will never know.

This is not to argue that good quality online courses will be impossible through Facebook Group – but once the necessary quality standards are applied, how will it then look different from any other online course delivered on other platforms? What’s the added value?

My point here is that technology alone is never a solution to an educational issue. Do the benefits of the technology (the added value) outweigh the negatives – in this case Big Brother watching you?

One last point while I’m on about Facebook. A Facebook account is a true zombie. You cannot kill it. I ‘signed out’ of Facebook within six months of joining it in 2007, for privacy reasons primarily, and have never used it since, but I still get e-mail messages from them asking me to look at someone I know who has just posted something on Facebook, and I keep getting messages from Facebook to log back in. GO AWAY, FACEBOOK!!!! You are not wanted here.

Update on Canadian survey of online learning

This update builds on two earlier posts:

The online questionnaire has now been distributed by e-mail to every public university and college in Canada, a total of 215 institutions in all. The questionnaire will have been routed through the office of the Provost or VP Education, although it is probable that several people will be involved in each institution in collecting data for the questionnaire. 

There are in fact five versions of the questionnaire:

  • anglophone universities
  • francophone universities
  • anglophone colleges
  • francophone colleges (outside Québec)
  • CEGEPs 

The questionnaire asks for data on

  • distance education enrolments, irrespective of method of delivery
  • online student enrolments (headcount and student course registrations) at different academic levels and in different program areas
  • how many years the institution has been offering online courses
  • the current status of blended and hybrid courses
  • the main technologies being used
  • information about any MOOCs offered
  • future institutional directions in online learning
  • benefits and challenges of online learning.

The deadline for completion has been set at June 12. 

We anticipate the main report will be ready in September, with sub-reports for the following sectors:

  • all universities (anglophone and francophone)
  • all colleges, institutes and CEGEPs
  • all francophone institutions (report in French)

We will also produce other sub-reports on request (for example, a provincial analysis) as well as infographics.

The reports will be available for free on request and the data will be housed at the Ontario College Application Service, and, subject to privacy requirements, will be open to other researchers.

There will be a full presentation of the report and its results at the ICDE Conference on Online Learning in Toronto in October.

We are reliant on e-mails and contact information being up-to-date and sometimes e-mails with attachments get filtered out as spam. So, if you are working in a Canadian public post-secondary institution and are not aware that this data is being collected for this survey, please contact your Provost’s Office to check that the invitation has been received. We need a high response rate from every institution to ensure that the results are valid.

However, to date we are pleased with the immediate response – we already have over 20 full responses within the first week.