April 29, 2017

Research on ‘academic innovation centres’ supporting online learning

One of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

UT Austin Learning Sciences was one of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

Bishop, M. and Keehn, A. (2015) Leading Academic Change: An Early market Scan of Leading-edge Postsecondary Academic Innovation Centers Adelphi ML: William E. Kirwan centre for Academic Innovation, University System of Maryland

What is this paper about?

This is a paper about the development of ‘academic innovation centers’ in the USA. These go by a variety of names, such as ‘the Centre for Teaching and Learning’ or ‘the Centre for Learning Sciences’, but they are basically integrating faculty development, instructional design and a range of other services for faculty (and in some cases also directly for students) to provide a locus for innovation and change in teaching and learning.

Methodology

Information was collected in three ways:

  • a Leading Academic Change summit, to which 60 academic innovation leaders were invited to engage in discussions around how academic transformation efforts are unfolding in their campuses
  • interviews with 17 ‘particularly  innovative academic transformation leaders’, to talk about the evolution of teaching and learning centres at their institutions
  • a ‘national’ survey of campus centres for teaching and learning; 163 replied to the survey (there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the USA).

Main results and conclusions

The paper should be read carefully and in full, as there are some interesting data and findings, but here are the main points I was interested in:

  • the information collected in this study ‘seems to point to the  emergence of new, interdisciplinary innovation infrastructures within higher education administration.’
  • this includes new senior administrative positions, such as Vice Provost for Innovation in Learning and Student Success, or Associate Provost for Learning Initiatives
  • the new centres bring together previously separate support departments into a single integrated centre, thus breaking down some of the previous silos around teaching and learning
  • their focus is on online, blended and hybrid course design or re-design, improving faculty engagement with students, and leveraging instructional/learning platforms  for  instruction.
  • some of the centres are going beyond faculty development and are focusing on ensuring new initiatives lead to student success;
  • the leaders of these new centres are usually respected academics (rather than instructional designers, for instance) who may lack experience or knowledge in negotiating institutional cultures or change management

Comment

Despite the methodological issues with such a study, which the authors themselves recognise, the evidence of the development of these ‘academic innovation centres’ fits with my recent experience in visiting Canadian universities over the last two years or so, although I suspect this study focuses more on the ‘outliers’ with regard to innovation and change in USA universities and colleges.

What I find particularly interesting are the following:

  • the desire to ensure that faculty become the leaders of such centres, even though they may lack experience in bringing about institutional change, and in addition may not have a strong background in learning technologies. Perhaps they should read the book I co-wrote with Albert Sangra, ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education‘, which directly addresses these issues;
  • the study found that neither technology nor even faculty success was the leading focus of these centres, but rather student success. This is a much needed if subtle change of direction, although the report did not suggest how the link between innovation in teaching and student success might be identified or measured. I suspect that this will be a difficult challenge.
  • where does the move to integrated centres leave Continuing Studies departments, which often have the instructional design and online learning expertise (at least in many Canadian universities)? The actual location of such staff is not so important as the intent to work collaboratively across institutional boundaries, but for that to happen there has to be a strongly supported common vision for the future development of teaching and learning shared across all the relevant organizational divisions. Organisational re-alignment can’t operate successfully in a policy vacuum.

Nevertheless if what is reported here is representative of what is happening in at least some of the leading U.S. universities, it is encouraging, although I would like to see a more rigorous and comprehensive study of the issue before I throw my hat into the air.

Using MOOCs to help refugees

Refugees applying to the University of Magdeburg in Germany

Refugees applying to the University of Magdeburg in Germany

Yohannes, M. and Bhatti, J. (2015) Migrants get help through German online university, USA Today, October 29

This article reports on Kiron University, a non-profit university set up exclusively to support refugees awaiting official asylum status while remaining in their host countries. Currently it is supporting approximately 1,000 students from 60 different countries.

The Kiron web site states:

Kiron is an international university for refugees, headquartered in Germany, providing refugees with higher education and the opportunity to graduate at a university free of charge. Because the first two years of the degree programs are online, Kiron’s students can study flexibly from all over the world and according to their own schedule. The special circumstances refugees have to face are carefully considered by offering additional services like preparation courses for university, language courses, psychological counselling, life coaching, hardware, internet access and facilities such as Kiron’s campus in Berlin. All of this is also free of charge.

For the first two years, Kiron’s students can choose courses out of the whole universe of MOOCs. Kiron takes these courses, modifies them, and designs study programs with real-life working sessions, projects in teamwork, mentoring, student support and modern ways of learning and testing. All of this is done with the careful supervision of their partner universities as well as experienced professors, experts in education and established educational institutions. For the third year, Kiron’s students go to a classic university attending regular courses. They can choose out of a variety of well established institutions like RWTH Aachen, the Applied University Heilbronn or the Open University of West Africa.

Kiron has a campus in Berlin which provides a housing option for more than 500 students and the opportunity to offer 20 seminar rooms and 10 lecture rooms, to support the online curriculum via tutorials and on-campus class experiences.

Kiron is funded currently by a German foundation but is also using crowdfunding to provide scholarships for refugees (see https://kiron.university/). The cost to Kiron for one student for an academic year is approximately 400 euros (US$450), although a full scholarship costs Kiron 1,200 euros (US$1,400). As well as funding, Kiron is looking for volunteers to help with its programs.

Kiron has asked selected scholars across different disciplines such as philosophy and computer science to join their evaluation board and help them understand better who refugees are and how they can help them. Kiron would like to financially support academic field studies as well as the publication of academic research in the field of (forced) migration and e-learning. Several research projects are already in preparation and will be presented to the public at a conference in Berlin.

Comment

Although I would like to know more about Kiron, this seems a splendid idea. Less than 1% of refugees globally have access to higher education, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of the estimated 60 million refugees globally, around half are under 18 — a record high — meaning many young people have little opportunity to train for future jobs. I believe the Arab Open University is working with refugees in Jordan. (I would be happy to publicise any such efforts in this blog).

All this makes me wonder though whether some of the existing open universities in the U.K., Netherlands, Spain and Canada could not partner with Kiron or establish their own programs to extend both the range of courses and support the learning of refugees, given the millions still in refugee camps.

For instance, the new Canadian government has pledged to accept 25,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas this year. However, that will still leave many thousands more waiting to be processed. “People have to wait for a year to have an interview to begin the asylum process, which means that in this time they can’t even do a language course,” said Kiron co-founder Markus Kressler, a graduate student who runs the online university with 80 other volunteers. Could not Athabasca University for instance work with UNHCR and Kiron to identify those waiting processing for Canada, and provide them with appropriate courses and programs before they arrive? I’m sure there are many obstacles to this, but having refugees arriving with qualifications from your own country must certainly benefit both the refugees and the host country.

In the meantime I hope you will join me in supporting Kiron, in one way or another.

Using scenarios to develop ‘soft’ skills

Image: © BottomLinePerformance.com, 2013

Image: © Bottom Line Performance.com, 2013

Boller, S. (2013) Best Practices for Using eLearning in Soft Skills Training Bottom Line Performance, July 13

I blogged recently about the link between online learning and a knowledge-based economy, and discussed particularly the need to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital, knowledge-based economy. These include the development of ‘soft’ skills, such as communication, leadership, management, and conflict resolution skills.

Bottom Line Performance is a leading U.S. corporate training consultancy that runs a blog that is often very useful generally for those using e-learning. The above article is an interview with Alicia Ostermeier, BLP’s Senior Learning Advisor, who provides some useful guidelines for teaching soft skills through e-learning/blended learning, and in particular through the use of scenarios.

I don’t normally promote commercial companies, but developing scenarios for soft skill development would require some skilled technical support and if you do not have someone with that experience in your organisation, you may want to contact BLP directly if you are interested in this approach.

 

 

MIT introduces credit-based online learning

MIT entrance

Bradt, S. (2015) Online courses + time on campus = a new path to an MIT master’s degree MIT News, October 7

MIT is famous for its non-credit MOOCs, but now, for the first time, it is offering a credit program at least partially online.

The one year Master in Supply Chain Management will consist of one semester taking online courses and one semester on campus, starting in February, 2016. This will run alongside the existing 10 month on-campus program. The online classes that make up the first semester will cost US$150, while the exam is $400 to $800. The second semester on campus will cost at least half what it costs for the yearlong program, which would mean about another $17,000. Students will still need to meet MIT’s academic standards for admission. It is expected to take about 30 to 40 students a year into the new program. The program will be offered using MIT’s own edX platform.

Since many other universities have been offering a mix of online and campus-based programs for many years, perhaps of more interest is MIT’s announcement of a new qualification, a MicroMaster, for those that successfully complete just the online portion of the program. MIT states that those that do well on the MicroMaster will ‘significantly enhance their chances of being accepted to the full master’s program‘.

Comment

First, congratulations to MIT for finally getting into credit-based online learning. This is a small but significant step.

It will be interesting to see how much the Master’s online courses differ in design from MOOCs. Will there be more interaction with the MIT faculty in the Master’s program? Will MIT use existing best practice in the design of credit-based online learning, or will they use a different model closer to MOOCs? If so, how will that affect the institution’s willingness to accept credit for MOOCs? All interesting questions.

Online learning and a knowledge-based economy

Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Knowledge-based industries include entertainment, such as video games design

Florida, R. and Spencer, G. (2015) Canada has two growth models, but we’ve been neglecting one Globe and Mail, Oct 7

Boyd, D. (2015) Canada’s party leaders neglecting renewable energy in election talks Globe and Mail, Oct 7

If you are not Canadian, please bear with me in this post, as although these articles focus on Canada, what I have to say will apply to many other economically advanced countries – and I will get to the online learning bit eventually.

The Canadian election

Three parties are running very close in the Canadian federal election, which takes place on October 19. All three parties (Conservatives, who form the current government; the NDP, the official opposition; and the Liberals), have made the economy a central plank of their campaign. In essence the election is being fought primarily on which party is best able to advance the Canadian economy.

Surprisingly though all three parties are very backward looking in their economic strategies. The Conservative government has based its economic strategy primarily around the resource-based industries of oil and mining extraction, and agriculture. It is also supporting free trade through free trade agreements with Europe (CETA) and 22 countries around the Pacific (TPP) as well as the 25 year old North American free trade agreement between Canada, the USA and Mexico (NAFTA), but still with high tariffs and protection for the Canadian dairy industry. Interestingly, there has been almost no discussion by the major Canadian political parties about the copyright and intellectual property agreements in these pacts, yet these have tremendous implications for developing home-grown innovative industries.

The Conservative economic strategy has recently run into severe problems due to a crash in commodity prices, and the oil industry in particular is in trouble due to excess capacity, low prices and increasing environmental and aboriginal land claim pressures that have resulted in difficulties in getting the oil to market.

The NDP, which has its roots in labour and the union movement, is pushing to support manufacturing industries, such as auto production. The Liberals are focusing on taxation and funding policies that are aimed at encouraging small businesses and protecting the current economy. The Liberals though have pledged a small increase (around ($100 million) to support incubators and new start-ups.

These are all very 20th century approaches to the economy, and frankly are not very different from one another at a strategic level. Where are the long-term strategies or plans that will support new knowledge-based industries?

The knowledge economy

Richard Florida, an urban economist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and Greg Spencer, a research associate, have pointed out in their article in the Globe and Mail that:

the real sources of sustained prosperity and rising living standards are knowledge, innovation and creativity. Canada has neglected the development of its knowledge-based economy….Cities are the central organizing unit on the knowledge economy, with knowledge and creativity concentrated in Canada’s largest city regions.’

Florida and Spencer then go on to define five key ‘pillars’ that are needed to build Canada’s knowledge economy:

  • increased urban density
  • a shift from investment in roads to an investment in transit and high-speed rail, to make communication quicker and easier
  • more compact and affordable housing in cities to encourage young knowledge-workers to come together
  • increasing the minimum wage and replacing low-wage service jobs with more creative approaches to service provision
  • increased taxing and spending powers to cities.

Noticeably they do not mention high quality post-secondary education.

Renewable energy

David Boyd, an environmental lawyer, in a separate article argues that Canada’s government to date has ignored the potential of renewable energy, focusing instead on trying to extract and move carbon-heavy oil, gas and coal, through pipelines and tankers. Instead, he argues, future economic growth will be driven by developments in renewable energy such as solar, wind and geo-thermal power. He argues that Canada has the potential to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources within two decades.

Canada has an unenviable reputation as being a major emitter of greenhouse gases, particularly through its production of heavy crude and bitumen from the oil sands. It is increasingly clear that there will be an increasing charge on the production of such carbon, mainly through direct carbon taxes (as has been the case here in British Columbia for a number of years, with success in driving down carbon emissions) or indirect cap and trade schemes (which are coming in Ontario and Quebec). Even major investment funds are now looking at carbon-emitting industries as high risk investments for the future. As a result the Canadian oil industry must now find cleaner ways to extract and treat oil and petroleum.

Renewable and clean energy however depends on invention and innovation to develop economically efficient sources of energy. In other words, it needs a heavy investment in developing new knowledge that will drive the development of new, clean technologies.

The increasing demand for high level knowledge workers

Neither article in the Globe and Mail made the link to the need for high level knowledge workers to grow the knowledge economy. It is as if it is almost taken for granted that Canada’s universities and colleges will develop such workers. However, although Canadian institutions may train academic researchers, engineers, media designers and developers and entrepreneurial business people, they need to have the right skills to work effectively in a knowledge-based economy. We are talking about a highly competitive market here. All advanced developed countries want to be leaders in innovation. Will Canada produce the researchers, engineers and managers with the right skills for a knowledge-based economy? In particular will they develop people skilled in knowledge management, creativity, problem solving, design, entrepreneurialism, critical thinking, etc.?

Online learning and the knowledge economy

This is where online learning becomes critically important. In my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I focus specifically on the kind of skills that will be needed in a knowledge intensive economy, and demonstrate that online learning has a key role to play in developing such skills (although of course it is not the only way).

However, this is just one person’s contribution. Canada needs to focus much more on identifying the knowledge and skills that will be needed in knowledge intensive industries and ensure that our educational institutions know how to develop such skills. In particular are we using the appropriate teaching methods and technologies that will help learners develop these skills and knowledge?

Those countries that can harness new knowledge to clean and innovative industries will surely be the economic drivers of the future. I just wish that our political parties would pay more attention to developing strategies that support a knowledge-based economy, because the fate of Canada as a prosperous country with an enviable standard of living and quality of life absolutely depends on this.