September 20, 2018

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 2. Legacy systems

 

In my first post in this series, I looked at the role of accreditation agencies in blocking innovation. I suggested that while they may seriously inhibit disruptive innovation, accreditation agencies have not prevented online learning for credit from becoming widely established in higher education in a relatively short space of time (15 years or so), at least in North America, and this in fact is a major innovation in teaching in higher education.

Indeed, protecting students from wasting money on disruptive experiments with a high risk of failure may in fact be more important for accreditation agencies in the semi-privatised American higher education system, where you pay first then discover later whether it was worth it. 

Thus there are other, more important factors, than accreditation agencies that inhibit innovation in higher education. Often, faculty get the blame for obstructing change, and this certainly can be a factor. But this is sometimes unfair; there are also other factors inhibiting innovation that are just as important.

In particular, many universities and colleges have long histories, and over that period they have invested heavily in older technologies and systems that just won’t go away. These legacy systems are one of the biggest inhibitors of innovation.

Buildings

Brock Commons Tallwood House at UBC – currently the tallest mass timber building in the world—which opened in July 2017.

I go up to the UBC campus about once or twice a year these days. Each time, it is unrecognisable from my previous visit due to new building construction. (Students posted a sign on a footpath diversion which said ‘UBC is the only place in the universe where the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.’).

Not all this building is classroom space. For instance the Tallwood Tower is a student residence, much needed in a city where the price of housing is so high. But if you are building 17 storey student residences, and have acres of lecture halls and classrooms, you are not going to get rid of campus-based teaching any time soon. The issue then is: are the new buildings suitably designed for digital learning? But old buildings far outnumber new ones, no matter how quickly you build. These old classrooms and lecture halls, with their raked seating, podiums for lecturers at the front, very much determine what kind of teaching will take place.

Older technologies

But it is not just traditional campus-based universities which have legacy systems that inhibit innovation. Indeed, what were once ‘disruptive’ institutions themselves when created can easily become stuck within their original legacy systems. The experiences in recent years of the UK Open University, Athabasca University, the Télé-université (Téluq), and UNISA, where print has been the core medium of teaching, are good examples.

Although these institutions have some of the world’s leading experts on online and digital learning, changing the core teaching design for the bulk of their academic programs has proved a major challenge. Not only do these institutions have an army of print editors and graphic designers, but in particular faculty in these institutions, many of whom have been there since the institution was founded, are embedded in the culture of print design. It will probably take a new generation of faculty, and probably a separate autonomous unit focused on digital learning, for these monolithic institutions to adapt successfully to the digital world, and some may not have enough time to do this.

Management 

Another legacy is the governance structure of universities and colleges. This varies considerably from institution to institution, but in many institutions, the person responsible for strategic decisions about the direction of teaching and learning is not qualified or experienced in online or digital learning (or often management, for that matter). They are usually mainline academics who have become AVPs Teaching and Learning or some similar position. This may be necessary for them to influence other academics, and they may have the sense to build a strong and close working relationship with the Director of the Teaching and Learning Centre, and/or the Centre for Online Learning, but too often decisions about teaching direction are made without sound pedagogical or technological understanding. The fall-back position as a result tends to be to prioritise innovation in classroom teaching.

Furthermore I noticed when doing the 2017 national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education that about one third of all the VPs Academic changed during the year. The ‘normal’ term of a Vice President in Canada is about five years if all goes well, and sometimes it may be renewed for another five years. But in practice, if one third are changing each year that actual term is more likely closer to three years.

Why is this an inhibitor of innovation? I have been closely involved fairly recently with two universities where the Provost’s Office has initiated a strategy for flexible or online learning, but then either the President or the VP Academic has left, and everything stops for at least two years until the new appointments find their feet – if you are lucky. In one case the new VP Academic was not interested in continuing the online development so everything just stopped, except, of course, for the brave individual instructors who wanted to innovate without any institutional support. Ironically, some level of continuity in strategy is necessary for innovation to take hold.

Learning management systems

This series started as a result of my questioning why we are still using the LMS more than twenty years after its initial development. This will be the subject of the third post in this series, but again, once an institution is heavily invested in not just the LMS in principle, but even in a specific LMS, there is a very high cost of change.

The value of the LMS is its institutional convenience. It provides a centrally managed, secure environment in which to house a course. Any other approach to using technology for online or digital learning has this massive legacy hurdle to overcome. This will be the subject of the third and final post in this series.

Lack of an innovation strategy for teaching

How serious is the management factor as an inhibitor of innovation in teaching since in practice, most innovation starts from the bottom up? However, as Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation have demonstrated, few institutions have a strategy for expanding an innovative practice beyond the initial instructor who developed the new approach.

There are several necessary elements for a successful innovation strategy for teaching:

  • ideally a general institutional vision or strategy for teaching in the future to provide a framework for priorities in the allocation of resources and to encourage change generally in teaching;
  • initial resources to encourage instructors to try something new, to compensate for the extra time and to provide specialist advice, where needed;
  • a systematic, independent evaluation of the effectiveness of the innovation, in terms of learning, increased flexibility for students, etc;
  • a process to share the results of the innovation with other instructors both within and beyond the department;
  • a process for deciding on the wider adoption of the innovation within or beyond a department;
  • further evaluation of the more general adoption.

Without this or some other strategy for supporting innovative teaching, it will remain isolated and will not affect the overall  innovation of teaching in the institution.

What can you do about legacy systems?

This is a tough question, and more likely to be best answered by those used to migrating computer systems, such as the Canadian government’s Phoenix pay system (not), but here are some of my suggestions:

  • make sure you have a strategic plan for teaching and learning: this should not only identify legacy systems that are inhibiting change, and suggest new, more appropriate systems, but also suggest strategies for gradually replacing or changing them so the new systems are fit for the new purpose;
  • encourage a skunk-works unit that is free to experiment with new tools and approaches on a limited scale, but within a strategy for implementing more widely successful innovations from the skunk-works;
  • develop new parallel systems so that for a period, both the old and new systems are running together, to give time to make the transition and train people in the new system; this should have a clear timeline and schedule, e,.g. the transition should be complete within five years;
  • ensure any new systems or tools are flexible and easily replaceable, to accommodate for future changes;
  • change your management structure so that those in charge of legacy systems that need to be replaced are not influencing decisions about new systems – which they will try to block;
  • look carefully at costs and budgets, so that any large future investments, e.g. in IT systems or hardware, enable future flexibility, and that investments in outdated legacy systems are gradually phased out;
  • make sure there is some financial flexibility for encouraging the adoption of new tools and processes that might replace more expensive legacy systems – for instance, rather than build a new campus or building, would online delivery be a better investment?

All this makes me think that it would be a lot easier to design new institutions from scratch – but then they would soon become outdated themselves. The trick is to build a flexible, dynamic organisation that can accommodate new ideas, approaches and tools without throwing everything else out of the bucket. In other words, in a university or college, protect the core mission of knowledge creation and dissemination, but be prepared to change constantly how you do this.

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 1. The accreditation agencies?

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America is considered a successful innovation, according to the Christensen Institute

Horn, M. and Dunagan, A. (2018) Innovation and Quality Assurance in Higher Education San Francisco CA: The Christensen Institute

Revisiting an old question

A couple of things recently have led me to reflect once again on this question. There are some obvious reasons for a lack of innovation in teaching in higher education, such as:

  • lack of pedagogical training for post-secondary instructors,
  • the privileging of research over teaching,
  • lack of rewards for good teaching (or lack of punishment for poor teaching)
  • faculty fear of technology,

but there are other, perhaps more subtle, factors that make innovation and change so damned difficult in universities and colleges.

One factor is suggested in the report from the Christensen Institute, which puts the blame squarely on accreditation agencies. I will look at this claim in this post.

However, responses to my recent post on learning management systems, where I suggested that the time has come to move on to other tools for online learning, also suggest other reasons why even online learning is becoming increasingly resistant to change. I will examine this issue – which I think is much more significant – in my next post.

The ‘dead hand’ of accreditation agencies

The more insidious failure of accreditation is the stifling effect it has on innovation at existing institutions.

This is the conclusion from a report from the Christensen Institute (yes, that Christensen, the disruptive one) based on four case studies (yes, just four).

It looked at attempts by the following four institutions in setting up an online operation separate from the main, campus-based institution’s teaching model:

  • Bellevue University’s (Nebraska) Flexxive Program
  • Tiffin University’s (Ohio) Ivy Bridge Program
  • Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America
  • General Assembly’s coding boot camps

The first two innovations failed; the second two succeeded. The difference, according to the report, was the role of the respective accrediting agencies.

The authors argue:

Innovations aimed at redefining a college or university’s value proposition must be insulated from its existing business model or else it will conform to the inputs of the existing business model rather than create a new one….Creating an autonomous unit is critical for a college to launch an innovation aimed at dramatically transforming its value proposition.

Depending on the nature of the innovation, a college or university must work closely with its accreditor to ensure that the new practice is consistent with the accreditor’s quality standards. As a result, accreditation plays a major role in the innovation process for most colleges and universities.

Accreditation as it currently stands is inconsistent, both between accreditors, and between the same accreditor at different points in time. Standards of accreditation vary between accreditors, but their interpretation varies to a larger degree—even between different accrediting teams looking at the same institution. This creates uncertainties for institutional leaders and creates untenable risks for many schools with limited resources that are considering whether to bring innovative programs forward. ….. Institutions that are able to innovate are those blessed by geography—a cooperative, forward-thinking regional accreditor— as well as finances.

… a process that is so subject to individual interpretation and has a track record of inconsistently applying rules and standards cannot be a foundation for regulation supportive of innovation. As countless scholars have shown, investment in innovation does not thrive in climates of uncertainty.

Is it true?

This is a pretty damning condemnation of American accreditation agencies, and I suggest needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I myself have argued that professional accreditation agencies, such as the Professional Engineers of Ontario, certainly stifle innovation when they refuse to accept any qualifications taken through distance education. But university and college accreditation?

There are several reasons why I think the Christensen Institute’s conclusions are too strong:

  • online learning has been expanding rapidly in the USA over the last 10 years, where at least one in three students are taking an online course, a rate of growth much faster than campus-based enrolments, yet the accreditation agencies have done little to prevent this fairly major innovation in teaching; 
  • I challenge the assumption – which is at the core of the Christensen philosophy – that innovation can take place only if it is insulated from an organization’s existing business model. Sure, by definition this may be true of disruptive innovation in business, but nevertheless there has been considerable innovation in terms of introducing online and more recently blended learning in higher education, without disrupting the current business model of universities and colleges;
  • the university accreditation process in the USA is unique, lacks rationality generally in terms of its relationship between government, geography, and institutional governance, and is indeed often inconsistent and contradictory, not only with regard to innovation but often with regard to traditional programs. But yes, it has slowed down – but not prevented – innovation through online learning.

In other words, while no doubt US higher education accreditation agencies may inhibit innovation to some extent, especially with regard to radically new institutions (but perhaps based on a reasonable assessment of possible risk to fee-paying students), this report is too much like a theory trying to find evidence to support it, rather than a systematic study of what not only inhibits but also what enables innovation in higher education. The barriers to innovation in higher education are more complex than just being the fault of the nasty accreditation agencies. More on this in the next post.

Is Blackboard dying? The latest instalment in LMS wars.

Feldstein, M. (2018) Canvas Surpasses Blackboard Learn in US Market Share, eLiterate, July 8

Kroner, G. (2018) Sensationalizing LMS Market Share in an Era of Fake News, edutechnica, July 13

Don’t assume nothing happens in online learning during the long summer vacation. This little bombshell landed on my screen: 

Blackboard’s continuing loss of market share is at the tipping point of changing from a serious problem to an existential threat.

So speaks Michael Feldstein, reporting that Canvas is now ‘installed’ in two more universities/colleges than Blackboard. From Feldstein’s blog:

Kroner challenges these figures and quotes Phill Miller, chief learning and innovation officer at Blackboard, who said:

the data shared by Feldstein were “not consistent with our own,” which show that “Blackboard remains the dominant ed-tech company around the globe.”

Purely on this data, Feldstein’s claim does appear to be ‘fake news’. Kroner probably is more correct when he says that there is a nice market balance between several competing companies:

  • Blackboard: 28%
  • Canvas: 28%
  • Moodle: 23%
  • Brightspace (D2L): 12%.

But two other factors need to be born in mind.The first is the trend (see the diagram at the start of this post, from the eLiterate blog). The trend is clearly moving away from Blackboard towards other LMS providers. The diagram shows that from being dominant in the 1990s, Blackboard’s market share has declined considerably while that of Canvas, Moodle and D2L have consistently grown. 

However, note that Feldstein’s data apply only to North America (USA and Canada) while Phill Miller claims that globally Blackboard is still dominant. Also, Feldstein reports that Canvas’ focus today is increasingly on the corporate market, suggesting that Canvas sees relatively little room for more growth in the HE market.

Much more significantly, Feldstein claims that Blackboard is in serious financial trouble, needing to make increasingly large interest payments to its private equity owner, Providence Equity, arising from the time that Providence Equity bought Blackboard. To quote Feldstein:

So because of its financing, Blackboard’s continuing loss of market share is at the tipping point of changing from a serious problem to an existential threat.

All worrying if you have a lot of courses in Blackboard.

My views

They are probably not worth much, because I haven’t used an LMS in the last 10 years. However, I was somewhat involved at UBC in the creation of WebCT , which was later bought by Blackboard, so I use that rather tenuous connection as justification for my comments.

What surprises me is that in an age of multimedia and social media, and particularly given the low cost of developing apps and the growth of cloud computing, anyone is using an LMS at all – so 20th century, man! 

As I have said many times, an LMS is merely a digital filing cabinet, somewhat useful to store and arrange your digital learning materials and student activities. An LMS – a specialised database – is just one way to do this. The main issue is not the storage but the interface: how easy is it to store what you want, arrange it and find it, both for instructors and more importantly, for students. Security of course is another issue. Unfortunately so many things have been bolted on to the original database that the interfaces have grown increasingly unwieldy and confusing to students and instructors alike.

I think the LMS has had a much longer run than it deserves. Even though many instructors now are moving to video and web conferencing, evidence from the recent Canadian survey of online learning shows that nearly all institutions are still using legacy LMS systems.

However, today we should be using much more accessible, flexible and simpler tools for online learning. This would involve integrating from scratch mobile and social media tools to give much more power to student content creation and management so they can develop the skill of knowledge management, among other skills. This ‘collage’ of tools would be assembled according to the type of learning that will best enable students to learn skills as well as to access and reproduce content. The LMS does an adequate job on content management but does nothing for skills development, and more importantly the LMS perpetuates the transmission model of teaching where instructors control all content development and management.

So fighting over LMSs systems is like fighting over dying star systems. Move to another world, dude.

For further posts on this topic see:

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 3. Learning management systems

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 2. Legacy systems

Book review: Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries

A mobile school for Delhi street children run by Butterflies. Click to see video

Latchem, C. (2018) Open and Distance Non-formal Education in Developing Countries Springer: Singapore

The author

I was about to review this book when I was informed of the death of Colin Latchem, its author.

Colin was an Australian consultant, researcher and writer in the field of open and distance learning.  In the 1970s, he was a pioneer in the UK in the development of educational television and learning resources for universities.

He emigrated to Australia in 1982 to become head of the Teaching Learning Group at Curtin University, Perth, a centre responsible for academic staff development, educational technology and open and distance learning. Over the years he became the ‘go-to’ person about open and distance education in South East Asia. He received the Charles A Wedemeyer award in 2002 for best book of the year on open and distance education. He was also co-editor of the SpringerBriefs series on Open and Distance Education. He was formerly the Asia-Pacific Corresponding Editor of The British Journal of Educational Technology.

Colin was a good friend and colleague whom I have known for over 40 years. I cannot think of a more appropriate way to celebrate a true scholar and gentleman than to review his final work.

Definition of open and distance non-formal education (ODL NFE)

Latchem does not provide a precise definition of non-formal education, but distinguishes non-formal learning from informal learning (the spontaneous, incidental acquisition of knowledge) and formal learning provided by schools, colleges and universities. Non-formal learning sits somewhere in between, concerned with providing lifelong learning in support of social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education. It may be provided through NGOs, international or government agencies, employers or social organisations such as community groups.

In open and distance education most of the teaching is conducted by some provider removed in time and space from the learner, using content and approaches that are openly accessible, enabling learners to learn individually or collaboratively at the time and place of their choosing.

The importance of open and distance education for non-formal education

 Some of the figures Latchem provides about the need for non-formal education are staggering: 

  • 263 million children and youth did not have access to schools in 2014
  • 130 million girls are denied the right to formal education, and are four times more likely to be denied education than boys of the same socio-economic group
  • 758 million adults aged 15 years and older remain illiterate, of which two-thirds are women 
  • there are 60 million refugees or displaced persons without access to formal education
  • it would take an extra US$40 billion to provide 12 years of education for all in the developing world, but international aid today is 4% lower than it was in 2010.

Other groups outside the formal education system in developing countries include people with disabilities and people imprisoned. It is of course still the poorest socio-economic groups who have the least access to formal education in developing countries, despite often heroic efforts by national governments.

Latchem argues that conventional face-to-face methods can never meet the scale and extent of the knowledge and skills building and social and behavioural change needed to meet the United Nations’ Millenium Development Goals. Open and distance education non-formal education (ODL NFE) is the only way to meet these needs until formal educational provision becomes globally available to all, and even then ODL NFE will still be needed on a large scale.

However, Latchem claims that there has been little prior research into the effectiveness of ODL NFE in developing countries. What little prior research that has been done indicates that previous attempts to use open and distance learning for non-formal education in developing countries were piecemeal and ineffective, mainly consisting of short-term pilots lacking sustainable funding.  

Latchem concluded that a review of current practice and progress in this field was long overdue and hence the central concern of the book is about identifying ways in which open and flexible forms of lifelong learning have increased social equality, employment and development for those denied formal education.

The structure of the book

There are four parts to the book:

  1. Background to the study, which examines the Global Development Agenda, and introduces the reader to prior research, and the main elements of ODL NFE.
  2. A fairly brief description of the main technologies and media currently in use in ODL NFE, including radio, television, mobile learning, OERs and MOOCs, telecentres, and traditional and performing arts.
  3. A more extensive review of areas in which ODL NFE has been mostly successfully used. These include:
    • out-of-school children and youth
    • adult literacy, ESL
    • gender equity
    • disabled, refugees, prisoners
    • health care, safe water, sanitation and hygiene
    • agriculture and agribusiness
    • small and medium-sized enterprises
    • education for sustainable development
  4. A conclusion, including actions needed

My main takeaways

Firstly, the size of the challenge in providing education for all. I agree with Latchem that although the long-term goal should be formal education for all, in the short-term this will be impossible for many years in many developing countries, and that non-formal education will continue to be critically important in helping to fill the gap, and that open and distance learning is a valuable, cost-effective means to provide this. (It is also cost-effective means to provide formal education, as well, but that is another book).

Second, though, I was blown away by the many cases Latchem provides of successful ODL NFE projects. The book is filled with over 180 cases and urls to video links which demonstrate the applications. I was particularly impressed by the extent and value of telecentres, and the criteria needed for them to succeed. There are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Third, while cost and access remain a major barrier, I was impressed by the extent to which the Internet and ICTs (particularly mobile learning) are being successfully used in many developing countries. I was also impressed with the use of more traditional media, such as puppets, theatre, song and dance, highlighting the importance of cultural adaptation to local needs. Again I believe there are lessons here for developed as well as developing countries.

Nevertheless, while these success stories are encouraging, there are often systemic difficulties that hinder the implementation of ODL NFE. Latchem identifies the following:

  • over-dependence on international aid agencies/NGOs
  • lack of sustainability due to overuse of short-term, small scale pilots and insufficient funding
  • lack of learning pathways from informal to non-formal to formal education
  • the need for a systematic approach/a national strategy for non-formal education
  • lack of reliable broadband connection in rural areas where NFE is most needed
  • lack of content in local languages
  • lack of research and evaluation of projects in terms of outcomes.

Latchem then ends with a set of nine action steps that are needed to advance the ODL NFE agenda.

In summary

This book benefits enormously from being written by a single author, rather than a series of articles by different writers. This provides the book with a coherent and consistent message.

I cannot say how thrilled I was to see so many wonderful projects attempting under great difficulty to make the world a better place. Most of these were firmly community-based, and locally designed and maintained, if often with some international assistance. It is one of the most optimistic books I have read for a long while.

It also highlights the naïvity and wrong-headedness of many Western approaches to the use of technology in developing countries, such as believing the importation of American MOOCs (or whatever is the latest technology) is a sustainable solution to education for all. There is a role for MOOCs, but are best developed locally in local languages, for instance, and more importantly, embedded in a local organisation and infrastructure that makes the material likely to be used effectively.

Some of the early content will be familiar to most readers of this blog, but the real target for this book are policy-makers in developing countries trying to tackle the challenge of education for all. This book provides powerful evidence of the role that open and distance education non-formal education can play in making education for all a reality. This is a fitting end to a wonderful career – thank you, Colin.

What do online college students want and like?

Magda, A. and Aslanian, C. (2018) Online College Students 2018: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences Louisville KY: The Learning House Inc.

This is the seventh report on the survey of 1,500 past, present, and prospective fully online college students in the USA conducted by Learning House and Aslanian Market Research. (I added the USA – like many such reports there is no mention of anything outside the USA.)

Methodology

1,500 individuals were surveyed nationwide. Respondents were at least 18 years of age; had a minimum of a high school diploma or equivalent; and were recently enrolled, currently enrolled, or planned to enroll in the next 12 months in a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree, certificate, or licensure program. 

The sample for this survey was weighted to include approximately 40% graduate students to ensure a large enough sample for meaningful conclusions. The data are presented for both undergraduate and graduate students combined unless there were noteworthy differences.  All the states in the USA were represented in the sample. 

A sample of 1,500 represents an approximate sampling error of +/-3% at a 95% confidence level. Therefore, differences between these survey results over 6 percentage points may be significant. Only differences between the surveys that are at least 10 percentage points were addressed in the report to err on the side of caution. The margin of sampling error is greater for subgroups. 

From my perspective, although the sample size is small, it seems pretty representative of students taking fully online courses, although differences between sub-groups are more likely to be less valid, and it may be somewhat overloaded on graduate students.

Results

The report has nine main findings:

  • mobile-friendly content is critical. The overwhelming majority of students use mobile devices not only to search for their online program of study (87%) but also to complete online coursework (67%)
  • online students need career services. Many online students are looking for career advancement even though just over half are already employed full-time. ‘Online access to career services, including opportunities to engage with a counselor or mentor, is an integral part of a high-touch institution’s value.’
  • online learning is providing a positive return on students’ investment. Eighty-six percent of online students believe the value of their degree equals or exceeds the cost they paid for it. For students who have experienced both in-person and virtual classrooms, 85% feel that learning online is as good or better than attending courses on campus.
  • online students support innovations that decrease the cost and time to complete a degree. Nearly or just over half the students surveyed supported:
    • competency-based learning
    • stackable certificates
    • ‘text-book free’ courses/OERs
  • interactions and relationships with peers are key to online students’ success. Fifty-seven percent of past and current online students report that interactions with classmates are very important to their academic success.
  • multichannel approaches to advertising and marketing are necessary to attract online students. Students used both traditional marketing methods and digital media to gather information about programs of interest.
  • an online degree’s value is more than its price. ‘Online college students will point to the importance of a program matching their needs as being the most important factor in their decision, and it seems that a faster completion time can also outweigh scholarships.’
  • the flexibility of online programs outweighs the benefits of on-campus teaching for online students. It is not just the ability to study any place, any time that attracts students but also aspects such as continuous enrolment, accelerated programs and flexible credit transfer that matter.

Comment

There are relatively few comprehensive studies of online students and their needs, and this report is a valuable addition. As online students move from being a small minority to a substantial proportion of post-secondary enrolments (at least one third of students in the USA take at least one online course and in Canada around 15% of all course enrolments are now online) institutions will need to pay more attention to the specific needs of students who study primarily off-campus.

In the past this has tended to be done well by departments specializing in distance education, such as Continuing Education units, but as online learning becomes integrated into mainstream programs, all academic and administrative departments need to be aware of the special needs of online students.

Also, the national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions has to date focused on institutional data such as course enrolments and policies for online learning. In the future we plan also to include surveys of online students, if we can find the funding and suitable partners.

Woolf University: the Airbnb of higher education or a sheep in wolf’s clothing?

Broggi, J.D. et al. (2018) Building the first blockchain university, Oxford UK, April 3

You are going to hear a lot about Woolf University over the next year or so and possibly much longer. This is in some ways a highly innovative proposal for a new type of university, but in other ways, it is a terribly conservative proposal, an extension of the Platonic dialogue to modern times. It could only have come from Oxford University academics, with its mix of blue sky dreaming, the latest technological buzz, and regression to cloistered academe.

The proposal

As always, I am going to recommend that you read the original paper from cover to cover. It has a number of complex, radical proposals that each need careful consideration (the whitepaper would make an excellent topic for an Oxbridge tutorial).

I am not sure I completely understand the financial aspect of the blockchain tokens (but that probably puts me with 99.99999 per cent of the rest of the world). But the basic ideas behind the university are as follows:

  • Woolf University will issue blockchain-guaranteed ‘contracts’ between an individual professor and an individual student;
  • Woolf University will initially include only professors who have a post-graduate research degree from one of the 200 ‘top-ranked’ universities;
  • the core blockchain contract consists of an agreement to deliver a one hour, one-on-one tutorial, for which the student will directly pay the instructor (in real money, but tied to a blockchain token system which I don’t fully understand);
  • the tutorial can be delivered face-to-face, or over the Internet (presumably synchronously – Skype is suggested), but the maximum number of students per tutorial is set at two;
  • the contract (and payment) is initiated once the student ‘accepts’ the contract with a push of a button on their cell phone. If the tutor fails to deliver the tutorial, the student is automatically refunded (and offered another instructor). Instructors who miss a tutorial will be fined by the university in the form of a deduction from the next tutorial payment;
  • on successful completion of the tutorial (which will include a written essay or other assessable pieces of work from the student) the blockchain registers the grade against the student record;
  • once the student has accumulated enough ‘credits’ within an approved program they will be issued with a Woolf University degree;
  • a full student workload consists of two classes a week over 8 weeks in each of three semesters or a total of 144 meetings over three years for a degree;
  • annual tuition is expected to be in the order of $20,000 a year, excluding scholarships;
  • instructor payments will depend on the number and cost of tutorials, but at four a week would range from $38,000 to $43,000 per annum with fees in the range of $350-$400 per tutorial;
  • colleges of a minimum of 30 individual instructors can join Woolf University and issue their own qualifications, but each college’s qualification requirements must also meet Woolf University’s criteria. Colleges can set their own tutorial fee above a minimum of $150 an hour. Colleges’ instructors must meet the qualification requirements of Woolf University;
  • the first college, called Ambrose, will consist of 50 academics from Oxford University, and Woolf has invited academics from Cambridge University to set up another college;
  • Woolf University will be a not-for-profit institution. There will be a deduction of 0.035% of each financial transaction to build the Woolf Reserve to update and maintain the blockchain system. There will also be a student financial aid program for scholarships for qualified students;
  • Woolf University would be managed by a Faculty Council with voting rights on decision-making from every employed instructor;
  • Ambrose College will deduct 4% from each tuition fee for administrative overheads.

There are other proposals such as a language school, peer review, etc.

What’s to like?

This is clearly an effort to cut out the institutional middleman of university and institutional administration. Although the tutorial fees are close to the average of universities in the UK and the more elite state universities in the USA, students are getting a one-on-one learning experience from an instructor who is highly qualified (at least in terms of content).

I was fortunate to have a tutorial system when I was an undergraduate at the University of Sheffield at the UK, and it worked very well, although we had between two and four students at each tutorial, and only in the last two years of my bachelor’s degree. Such tutorials are excellent for developing critical thinking skills, because each statement you make as a student is likely to be challenged by the professor or one of the other students.

Woolf University has highly idealistic goals for democratic governance – by the faculty – and its main attraction is offering alternative and regular employment for the very large number of poorly paid but highly qualified adjunct professors who can’t get tenure at regular universities. However there is no suggestion of student representation in the governance process, and the use of faculty is demand driven – if no student wants your course, no money – which seems an even more precarious position than working as an adjunct.

Most of all, though, it is a serious attempt to provide an independent system of academic validation of qualifications through the use of blockchain which could lead to better standardization of degree qualifications.

What’s not to like?

Well, the first thing that jumps to my mind is conflict of interest. If faculty are already employed by a traditional university, Woolf will be a direct, and if successful, a very dangerous competitor. Will universities allow their best faculty to moonlight for a direct competitor? If instructors cannot get employment in a traditional university, will they be as well qualified as the instructors in the regular system? The corollary though is that Woolf may force universities to pay their adjunct faculty better, but that will increase costs for the existing universities.

Second, the tuition fees may be reasonable by the absurdly inflated cost of HE tuition fees in the UK, but these are double or triple the fees in Canada, and much higher than the fees in the rest of Europe.

Third, the tutorial is just one mode of teaching. The report recommends (but does not insist) that instructors should also provide recorded lectures, but there are now so many other ways for students to learn that it seems absurd to tie Woolf to just the one system Oxbridge dons are familiar with.  The proposal does not address the issue of STEM teaching or experiential learning. All the examples given are from Greek philosophy. Not all my tutorials were great – it really depended on the excellence of the professor as a teacher as well as a scholar and that varied significantly. (It is also clear from reading the report that the authors have no knowledge about best practices in online teaching, either). The whole proposal reeks of the worst kind of elitism in university teaching.

Will it succeed?

Quite possibly, if it can sell the substitute Oxbridge experience to students and if it can explain more clearly its business model and in particular how the blockchain currency will work with regard to the payment of instructors. What can make or break it is the extent to which traditional universities will go to protect their core faculty from being hijacked by Woolf. 

I’m somewhat baffled by the claims that this new business model will be much much more cost-effective than the current system. Academic salaries make up almost 70% of the cost of a traditional university so the savings on administration alone are a comparatively small proportion of the costs of higher education, and the proposed tuition fees are still very high. It seems to be more a solution for the problem of unemployed Ph.D.s than the problem of expanding more cost-effectively quality higher education to large numbers of students.

Nevertheless, it is a very interesting development. I am guessing that this will ultimately fail, because establishing its credentials as equivalent to the elite universities will be a hard sell, and costs to students will be too high, but much will be learned about the strengths and weaknesses of blockchain in higher education, resulting in a better/more sustainable higher education model developing in another way. It is definitely a development to be carefully tracked.

 

Some very good news for Athabasca University (and its students)

Athabasca University convocation

Graney, J. (2018) Athabasca University gets $4.9 million grant to upgrade outdated IT Edmonton Journal, June 8

One year on from the delivery of the Coates Report, an external review of the university, the Alberta provincial government has announced a one-off additional grant of almost $5 million to the university to help it overcome some of the problems it has been facing. The money is earmarked as follows:

  • $1.5 million to implement the university’s new strategic plan, which is in response to the recommendations in the Coates Report
  • $1.5 million to develop and implement a plan to improve student delivery services
  • $1.5 million to implement the university’s plan to upgrade its IT system, moving to a cloud-based system
  •  $400,000 to develop a long-range plan to renew the university’s teaching and learning framework.

The grant will enable Athabasca University to modernize significantly its digital learning environment and upgrade the existing IT infrastructure.

Marlin Schmidt, the Minister for Advanced Education in Alberta, is quoted as saying:

I am pleased with the progress made by the university to ensure that the recommendations in the Coates Report are implemented. I know these additional investments will support the university’s long-term success.

Comment

This is very good news for both the university and especially its students. It indicates that the Alberta government has confidence in the future of the university, and the funding provides necessary resources for modernizing and improving the quality of its teaching and other student services.

Once again though I am disappointed by the headline in the Edmonton Journal. ‘Athabasca University gets $4.9 million to become a world leader in digital learning’ would  have been a more accurate headline.

True, the university needs to upgrade its IT infrastructure, which was the subject of a scathing audit by the provincial auditor-general, but the majority of the funding has quite rightly gone to ensuring that the overall strategic plan is implemented, and to improving the quality of student services and the quality of teaching.

Congratulations to everyone at AU on getting this far so quickly since the Coates Report. Now you just have to do it.

 

More developments in teaching science online

Screen shot from A101’s Virtual Reality of Human Anatomy (YouTube)

Matthews, D. (2018) Scepticism over Google plan to replace labs with virtual reality, Times Higher Education, June 7

The Harvard Gazette (2018) Virtual lab to extend reach of science education Harvard Gazette, June 6

It was interesting that I came across these two completely separate news announcements on the same day.

Google and Labster

The THE article is about a partnership between Google and the Danish virtual reality company, Labster. Among the 30 ‘virtual reality’ labs planned are ones allowing training in confocal microscopy, gene therapy and cytogenetics.

Arizona State University, one of the major online providers in the USA, will be the first institution to use the labs in VR this autumn, launching an online-only biological sciences degree. It has worked with Labster to develop the VR labs. Students will require access to their own VR headsets such as Google’s Daydream View, which costs US$99, used in combination with specific brands of smartphones. 

Harvard and Amgen

The second article from the Harvard Gazette announces a partnership between the Amgen Foundation and edX at Harvard University to establish a platform called LabXchange, ‘an online platform for global science education that integrates digital instruction and virtual lab experiences, while also connecting students, teachers, and researchers in a learning community based on sharing and collaboration.’ 

The term ‘virtual lab’ is used differently from the Google/Labster sense. Amgen, a major biotechnology company in the USA, is investing $6.5 million in grant funding to Harvard University to develop, launch and grow the LabXchange platform for teachers and students globally. LabXchange will include a variety of science content, such as simulated experiments, but more importantly it will provide an online network to connect students, researchers and instructors to enable ‘learning pathways’ to be built around the online materials.

Comment

It is interesting and perhaps somewhat unnerving to see commercial companies in the USA moving so strongly into online science teaching in partnership with leading universities.

Of course, the THE had to choose a snarky headline suggesting that you can’t teach science wholly online, rather than have the headline focus on the innovation itself. As with all innovation, the first steps are likely to be limited to certain kinds of online teaching or experiments, and in the end it will come down as much to economic factors as to academic validity. Can virtual labs and online science teaching scale economically better than campus-based courses and at the same quality or better?

More importantly I would expect that the technology will lead to new and exciting approaches not only to science teaching, but also to science research. Already some researchers are using virtual reality and mathematical modelling to explore variations in DNA sequences, for instance. Virtual and augmented reality in particular will lead to science being taught differently online than in physical labs, for different purposes.

At the same time, the two developments are very different. The Google/Labster/ASU partnership is pushing hard the technology boundaries in teaching science, using proprietal VR, whereas the Harvard/Amgen/edX partnership is more of a networked open educational resource, providing access to a wide range of online resources in science. Both these developments in turn are different from remote labs, which provide online access to controlling ‘real’ experimental equipment.

Lastly, both new developments are what I call ‘We’re gonna’ projects. They are announcements of projects that have yet to be delivered. It will be interesting to see how much the reality matches the hype in two year’s time. In the meantime, it’s good to see online learning being taken seriously in science teaching. The potential is fascinating.

Free online courses on English for Syrian refugees

FutureLearn’s Basic English 1: Elementary. Click on image to access course.

FutureLearn (2018) New free online courses launched to help Syrian refugees continue their education FE News.co.uk, June 8

Kings College, the University of London, has partnered with FutureLearn, the U.K. Open University’s MOOC platform, to deliver a series of twelve new free online courses to assist refugees affected by conflict in the Middle East. The first two courses, Basic English 1: Elementary, and Basic English 2: Pre-Intermediate, start on June 18.

The courses are a result of an interesting project called PADILEA, which stands for The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access, whose partners are King’s College, LondonKiron Open Higher Education (Germany), FutureLearn in the UK, Al al-Bayt University in Jordan and the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. The PADILEA project will provide blended academic programmes, including Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), targeted online learning, and classroom-based learning to displaced students who are in refugee camps and other communities.

While the course content is specifically designed for people affected by the Syrian crisis, they are open to all people in the region and beyond for free. Learners can join the courses from any device, computer or smartphone with an internet connection. The courses will also have Arabic translations.

Comment

This is an example of the huge potential of MOOCs to improve accessibility to education and meet some very pressing needs. The PADILEA MOOCs are more focused and targeted than many other MOOCs but still have a large potential audience and have a very important goal. Professor Bronwyn Parry at King’s College perfectly captured the significance of this project:

In the scale of the enormity of the ongoing conflict in the region, English courses may seem a relatively small affair but access to education is absolutely vital and offers opportunity and hope for an entire generation whose lives have been devastated by war and displacement.

I have already reported on Kiron University’s efforts to help refugees with online learning. In some ways, online learning for refugees is like a band-aid for someone who is bleeding to death. It can only help reduce some of the effects caused by more fundamental political and economic issues that still need to be urgently addressed, but nevertheless band-aids are still useful when you are bleeding.

I hope though that eventually a more long-term and stable solution will be found for the education of the millions still stuck in refugee camps hoping to transition to a more normal existence – or better still, remove the need for refugee camps in the first place. 

A new survey of online learning in Canadian universities and colleges for 2018

The News

Following the success of the 2017 national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education, an invitation to participate in the 2018 version of the survey will go out to all Canadian universities and colleges in the next few days.

The team

This year the team is being led by Tricia Donovan, formerly Director of eCampus Alberta, with support from Eric Martel, Denis Mayer, Vivian Forssman, Brian Desbiens, Ross Paul, Jeff Seaman, Russ Poulin, and myself.

Funding

With support so far confirmed from eCampus Ontario, Contact North, Campus Manitoba and BCcampus, we have the minimum funding required to guarantee the survey this year, but we are also in discussions with other sponsors.

Questionnaire

The questionnaire will be similar to last year but there will be some changes in the light of experience from last year. The focus however will still be on obtaining accurate data about online and distance learning enrolments, and institutional policies.

Distribution

As a result of the 2017 survey, we now have a more complete list of institutions and more accurate contact information for each institution. The invitation will go to the main contact in each institution, with a copy to other contacts on our list. The questionnaire will continue to have both anglophone and francophone versions. We have added to the existing database some federal institutions, some private colleges with significant public funding, and some institutions we missed last year, especially in Québec.

Once again, we will be asking a wide range of organizations to help in the promotion of the 2018 survey.

Response time

We will be asking all institutions to complete the survey within three weeks of receiving the invitation, as we did last year. We anticipate having the 2018 reports ready by November, 2018.

Organization

With the help of the Ontario College Admission System, we have established a non-profit organization, the Canadian Digital Learning Research Association/Association Canadienne de Recherche sur la Formation en Ligne, to administer the funding and management of the survey. The Directors of the Association are Tricia Donovan, Denis Mayer and myself.

We will also be establishing a longer-term advisory group, but our priority at the moment is to get out this year’s questionnaire.

Web sites

The two existing survey web sites, onlinelearningsurveycanada.ca and formationenlignecanada.ca, will continue. We will maintain all the 2017 reports and data, but we are creating new spaces for the 2018 survey.

What you can do

If you work in a Canadian university or college, please lend your support to this survey. Last year’s results have already had a tremendous impact on institutional and government policies.

In most cases the invitation will have gone to the Provost’s Office or the Office of the VP Education, with copies to other centres such as Continuing Studies, Institutional Research, the Registry or the Centre for Teaching and Learning, depending on the institutional organization.

If by June 22, 2018 you think your institution should have received an invitation to participate but you have heard nothing, and you should have done, please contact tricia.donovan01@gmail.com or tony.bates@ubc.ca.

We know that internal communication can sometimes be a problem!

And thank you!

If you are involved in providing data or answers to the questionnaire, we thank you sincerely for your efforts. We realise the survey involves quite a lot of work and we do really appreciate your efforts if you are involved