April 30, 2017

What is online learning? Seeking definition

Using Kubi robots and iPads for telepresence at Michigan State University: the new online learning?

The survey

One reason I have not been blogging much this year is because I have been heavily engaged in leading a national survey of online learning and distance education in Canadian public post-secondary education. We have now secured sufficient funding to at least complete the survey, thanks to further grants of $80,000 from eCampus Ontario’s Research and Innovation fund, and $20,000 from Pearson Canada.

The questionnaire for the survey has been piloted in 14 institutions and is in the process of being distributed to all the institutions this week. The questionnaire is going to 78 universities, 88 colleges and 46 Cégeps (Collèges d’Enseignment Général Et Professionnelle), a total of 212 institutions in total, all Canadian.

The questionnaire is being routed primarily through the office of the Provost or VP Education in most cases. There are francophone as well as anglophone versions of the questionnaire, depending on the main language used by each institution. Institutions have up to three weeks to complete it. We are asking all institutions to complete the questionnaire whether or not they are currently offering online or distance courses or programs as we are also asking about future directions. The results will be available in early September. 

What are we talking about?

One of our greatest challenges has been ensuring that every institution uses the same understanding of what a distance education course or program means, what constitutes a fully online course, and especially what terms such as blended or hybrid learning mean.

It was clear from feedback from the piloting of the questionnaire in 14 colleges and universities that there is no general agreement about these terms, so we have had to make somewhat arbitrary definitions to guide the institutions. I thought it might be interesting to share these with you and get your reactions, although it is now too late to change the definitions for the survey this year.

Distance education courses. Distance education courses are those where no classes are held on campus – all instruction is conducted at a distance. Distance education courses may use a variety of delivery methods, such as print-based, video/audioconferencing, as well as internet-based.

Online courses. A form of distance education where the primary delivery mechanism is via the internet. These could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously. All instruction is conducted at a distance.

Synchronous online courses. Courses where students need to participate at the same time as an instructor, but at a separate location other than an institutional campus. These courses may be delivered by video conferencing, web conferencing, audio conferencing, etc.

Asynchronous courses. Courses where students are not required to participate in any sessions at the same time as the instructor. These may be print-based courses, or online courses using a learning management system, for instance.

For the purposes of this survey, we wish to exclude inter-campus delivery where students are required to attend a different campus from the instructor. However, we wish to include delivery via the internet or other distance technologies to small learning centres in remote areas.

Online programs. A for-credit program that can be completed entirely by taking online courses, without the need for any on-campus classes. These could be delivered synchronously or asynchronously.

Blended/hybrid courses. These are courses designed to combine both online and face-to-face teaching in any combination. For the purposes of this questionnaire, we are interested in those courses where some, but not all, of the face-to-face teaching has been replaced by online study.

Credit courses. These are courses that lead to institutional credits (degrees, diplomas, etc.). We wish to include information on all credit online courses, whether they are managed by a central service or by individual departments or by Continuing Studies. [For the purpose of this survey, the focus is primarily on online and distance courses and programs for credit]. 

Online contract training. These are online training programs that may or may not be for credit recognition but are designed to meet a particular industry or training need. 

MOOCs. These are massive, open, online courses. The key features are:

  • No fee (except possibly for an end of course certificate),
  • The courses are open to anyone: there is no requirement for prior academic qualifications in order to take the course,
  • The courses are not for credit.

Note that we are distinguishing between distance education and online learning. We are treating online learning as just one form of distance education. We will be particularly interested to see if there are still significant amounts of non-online distance education still in use.

The problem with definitions

Although from about the late 1990s until quite recently, most online learning was asynchronous, and based primarily on the use of text-based learning management systems, that context appears to be rapidly shifting, with more synchronous approaches either replacing or being combined with asynchronous learning (another definition of ‘blended’), and the increasing use of streamed audio and video. What is already clear from the piloting is that we are trying to describe a very dynamic and fast changing phenomenon, and the terminology often struggles to keep up with the reality of what is happening.

We hope that the questionnaire will be able to capture, at least for a moment in time, the extent to which the field of online learning and distance education is fragmenting into many different approaches and delivery methods. In such a volatile context, ‘best practices’ based on a context that is no longer dominant will become more challenged and some interesting questions about the quality and effectiveness of these new approaches are bound to be raised.

But that is jumping ahead. I must learn to be patient and wait for the results to come in. In the meantime, your comments about the definitions we are using or about the value of such a survey will be most welcome.

One reason we are not getting enough engineers in Canada: the professional associations

The CN Tower in Toronto: construction supervised by an engineer originally from Iran

From nearly 2,500 posts over nine years, none has generated so many comments as Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? 

What you will see from the comments from readers is a deep and widespread frustration at the lack of recognition by Canadian professional engineering associations of any courses or programs taken by distance. This is now getting to the point where it is becoming a national scandal. Rather than your having to read through the 120 comments or so on this post, I will summarise them for you.

Accreditation as a professional engineer in Canada

I am not an engineer by background, so please correct me if I am wrong about the process. But this seems to me to be how it works.

In order to obtain work as a professional engineer in Canada, most employers require you to be accredited through the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board (CEAB). However, this means applying to one of the provincial accreditation agencies such as the Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) or the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), who assess your qualifications and issue membership to their organisation.

These organisations are groups made of of professional engineers and educators (usually Deans of Engineering Schools in universities and Institutes of Technology), so it is a self-regulating process. Usually the minimum qualification for membership is a four year bachelor’s degree in engineering from a Canadian university or its equivalent (i.e. a university in the USA whose engineering program is recognized by the U.S. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

The decision about what foreign qualifications will be accepted is entirely at the discretion of the Canadian professional associations. This is not unlike other professions in Canada, such as teaching, medicine or nursing.

The professional association will require an individual to take further qualifications if it deems the existing qualifications do not meet the standards set.

Engineering and online learning in Canada

Until very recently, there were no fully online undergraduate courses, let alone degree programs, offered by Canadian universities in engineering. That is beginning to change. For instance:

  • Queens University, Ontario is now offering a fully online Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology. This program is particularly directed at those already working in the mining industry. Queen’s University is one of the oldest and most well-established public universities in Canada;
  • McMaster University, Ontario, is developing an online B.Tech (mainly software engineering) in partnership with Mohawk College. Students can take a diploma program from Mohawk then take the third and fourth year courses from McMaster University. Although the campus-based B. Tech. is well-established and successful, the online version is still in development and not yet available at the time of writing. McMaster University is another well-established Canadian public university with an outstanding reputation in engineering, especially in the automative and steel industries;
  • Cape Breton University, Nova Scotia, offers a one year online B.Tech Manufacturing degree. It is available to students with technology diploma programs from colleges across Canada which have an articulation agreement in place with CBU providing for immediate advanced standing in the BET (Manufacturing) program. Students complete the B. Tech program via distance format in as little as one academic year.

These are the only online programs in engineering from accredited Canadian universities that I know about. If you know of others please let me know.

In addition there are more (but not many) accredited universities in the USA that offer fully online engineering degrees, for example:

  • the University of North Dakota (a highly respected state university) has been offering a range of engineering courses (civil, mechanical, petroleum) mainly or fully online for several years. 
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics)

Will these qualifications be recognised?

Here’s what Queen’s University states about its Bachelor of Mining Engineering Technology:

The BTech program is unaccredited. Graduates seeking professional licensure would need to apply to write the Board Exams in mining engineering. In Ontario, the application would go to the Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO). As with applications from an accredited program, graduates would also need to write the law and ethics exam, and complete the required supervised work experience program in order to be considered for licensure.

Neither the McMaster nor the Cape Breton web sites provides any statement about professional accreditation.

What do the professional associations say about online or distance learning?

The Professional Engineers of Ontario (PEO) stated in 2016 that

  • ‘PEO does not recognize online or distance education.’

Similarly from APEGA:

  • ‘The current Board of Examiners practice is that they do not recognize distance learning programs.’ 

So frankly, don’t bother to take an online program in engineering in Canada if you want to be a professional engineer.

Determining eligibility: obfuscation and confusion

Furthermore the whole process of identifying from the professional associations whether an online program would be accepted is circuitous and unhelpful. One reader of my blog wrote and told me that he had written to APEGA to ask whether the University of North Dakota engineering degree would be recognised as a qualification towards membership of APEGA. Here is the response he received:

The eligibility of any courses you’ve completed will be determined by our Academic Examiners. If the courses were completed in Canada, you will need to submit the transcripts for them to be reviewed. If they were from outside of Canada, you will need to obtain an Academic Assessment Report from World Education Services (WES).

In other words, spend several thousand dollars in tuition fees, THEN we will tell you whether we accept your qualifications or not.

Note that the UND program had already been accredited by the ABET in the USA. Alberta’s APEGA was in fact prepared to make an exception for this degree, but this was not acceptable to Ontario’s PEO. Discussions were to continue with the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, but I could find no record of such discussions in a search of their recent documentation. So who knows whether or not the UND degree will be accepted by which provincial association?
Or let’s say you are a recent immigrant with an engineering degree from another country. In Alberta, the Alberta Council for Admissions and Transfer (ACAT) is the official body that provides information on admission requirements to engineering programs in Alberta universities and colleges. If you go to the ACAT web site to find out whether you degree would be accredited in Alberta, you are referred to another web site, The Canadian Information Centre for International Credentials. They then refer you back to APEGA.

Why it’s a scandal

Without obtaining a P.Eng. from the professional engineering association in a particular province, it is difficult if not impossible to get a job as a professional engineer. Of course such associations are important to ensure that engineering is being done professionally. Nobody wants their bridges to collapse or car parks on shopping malls to crash into shoppers below (Oh, wait – both of those did happen recently in Ontario).

Why we need high standards in engineering qualifications: Elliott Lake shopping mall collapse

But are these organizations making it unnecessarily difficult for people to qualify as professional engineers? From the 120 comments or so to my blog, there is strong evidence that they are. Yet at the same time we have great hand-wringing from employers, especially, about the lack of qualified engineers.

Let’s be clear about this. This engineering gap is not going to be met purely from high school leavers going into engineering programs at conventional universities. The demographics mean that many of those already working at the technical level in engineering will need upgrading and further qualifications, many while still working – hence the brave but unaccredited program from Queen’s University in mining engineering. Presumably employers will take these graduates even if the PEO holds its nose and sniffs at them because the program was done online.

I heard recently on CBC radio there are currently 18,000 engineers in Canada who came from Iran, one of whom was the supervisor for the construction of the CN tower in Toronto. We will need more engineers from immigrants who should be able to upgrade their existing engineering qualifications online while working at a lower level, without having to start from scratch.

I am not arguing that all engineering can be done fully online. Hands-on experience with equipment and laboratory work are essential. However, increasingly we are seeing co-op programs where employers provide that hands-on experience, often with more advanced and newer equipment than the universities have. Furthermore, more and more engineering is itself virtual (automation for driverless cars, for instance). Simulations and animations are increasingly replacing hands-on training. All the theoretical components of an engineering degree can be handled just as well online, and probably better, than in a face-to-face lecture class.

APEGA and PEO, like many professional bodies, are basically a closed shop or guild that restrict entry to create shortages so that members then can charge higher fees. More importantly they are often run, on a voluntary basis, by older engineers who are blissfully ignorant of new developments in engineering education. At a time when we need more highly qualified people we need greater flexibility in accepting credentials from other countries and more openness to online and distance education qualifications.

It’s time the professional associations in engineering realised that this is the 21st century and recognized appropriate online qualifications.

Tracking innovations in online learning in Canada

Rue St Jean, Québec City. Temperatures ranged from -17 C to -23 C -without wind chill added

I’ve not been blogging much recently because, frankly, I’ve been too busy, and not on the golf course or ski slopes, either. (Yeah, so what happened to my retirement? Failed again).

Assessing the state of online learning in Canada

I am working on two projects at the moment:

These two projects in fact complement one another nicely, with the first aiming to provide a broad and accurate picture of the extent of online learning in Canada, and the other focusing on the more qualitative aspects of innovation in online learning, and all in time for not only for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada (which was really the creation of a new, independent state in North America) but also ICDE’s World Congress on Online Learning in Toronto in October, whose theme is, guess what, Teaching in a Digital Age (now there’s a co-incidence).

Of course, I’m not doing this on my own. In both projects I am working with a great group of people.


My mandate for Contact North is to identify 8-12 cases of innovation in online learning from all of Canada other than Ontario. I started of course in British Columbia, early in January, and last week I visited six post-secondary institutions in four cities in Québec.

To find the cases, I have gone to faculty development workshops where instructors showcase their innovations, or I have contacted instructional designers I know in different institutions to recommend cases. The institutions are chosen to reflect provinces, and universities and colleges within each province.

Each visit involves an interview with the instructor responsible for the innovation, and where possible a demonstration or examples of the innovation. (One great thing about online learning is that it leaves a clear footprint that can be captured).

I then write up a short report, using a set of headings provided by Contact North, and then return that to the instructor to ensure that it is accurate. I then submit the case report to Contact North.

I am not sure whether Contact North will publish all the cases I report on its web site, as I will certainly cover much more than 8-12 cases in the course of this project. However, it is hoped that at least some of the instructors featured will showcase their innovations at the World Congress of Online Learning.

Progress to date

I have conducted interviews (but not finished the reports yet) for the following:

British Columbia

  • the use of an online dialectical map to develop argumentation skills in undergraduate science students (Simon Fraser University – SFU)
  • peer evaluation as a learning and assessment strategy for building teamwork skills in business school programs (SFU)
  • the development of a mobile app for teaching the analysis of soil samples (University of British Columbia)
  • PRAXIS: software to enable real-time, team-based decision-making skills through simulations of real-world emergency situations (Justice Institute of British Columbia)


  • comodal synchronous teaching, enabling students to choose between attending a live lecture or participating at the same time from home/at a distance (Laval University)
  • synchronous online teaching of the use of learning technologies in a teacher education program (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières – UQTR)
  • achieving high completion rates in a MOOC on the importance of children’s play (UQTR)
  • a blended course on effective face-to-face teaching for in-service teachers (TÉLUQ)
  • use of iBook Author software for content management for cardiology students and faculty in a teaching hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Sherbrooke – Sherbrooke University Hospital: CHUS)
  • a decision-making tool to develop active and coherent learning scenarios that leverage the use of learning technologies (Université de Montréal).
  • Mathema-TIC: francophone open educational resources for teaching mathematics in universities and colleges (Université de Montréal).

These visits would not have been possible without the assistance of France Lafleur, an online instructor from UQTR who not only arranged many of the meetings but also did all the driving. Anyone from outside Québec who has tried to drive across the province in winter, and especially tried to navigate and drive to several parts of Montréal the same day, will understand why this help was invaluable.

Response and reaction

Faculty and instructors often receive a lot of criticism for being resistant to change in their teaching. This project however starts from an opposite position. What are faculty and instructors actually doing in terms of innovation in their teaching? What can we learn from this regarding change and the development of new teaching approaches? What works and what doesn’t?

It is dangerous at this stage to start drawing conclusions. This is not a representative selection of even innovative projects, and the project – in terms of my participation – has just started. The definition of innovation is also imprecise. It’s like trying to describe an elephant to someone who’s never seen one: you might find it difficult to imagine, but you’ll know it when you see it.

However, even with such a small sample, some things are obvious:

  • innovation in online teaching is alive and well in Canadian post-secondary education: there is a lot going on. It was not difficult to identify these 11 cases; I could have easily found many more if I had the time;
  • the one common feature across all the instructors I have interviewed is their enthusiasm and passion for their projects. They are all genuinely excited by what they were doing. Their teaching has been galvanised by their involvement in the innovation; 
  • in some of the cases, there are measured improvements in student learning outcomes, or, more importantly, new ’21st century skills’ such as teamwork, evidence-based argumentation, and knowledge management are being developed as a result of the innovation;
  • although again these are early days for me, there seems to be a widening gap between what is actually happening on the ground and what we read or hear about in the literature and at conferences on innovation in online learning. The innovation I am seeing is often built around simple but effective changes, such as a web-based map, or a slight change of teaching approach, such as opening up a lecture class to students who don’t want to – or can’t – come in to the campus on a particular day. However, these innovations are radically changing the dynamics of classroom teaching;
  • blended learning is breaking out all over the place. Most of these cases involve a mix of classroom and online learning, but there is no standard model – such as flipped classrooms – emerging. They all vary quite considerably from each other; 
  • the innovations are still somewhat isolated although a couple have gone beyond the original instructor and have been adopted by colleagues; however there is usually no institutional strategy or process for evaluating innovations and making sure that they are taken up across a wider range of teaching, although instructional designers working together provide one means for doing this. Evaluation of the innovation though is usually just left to the innovator, with all the risks that this entails in terms of objectivity.

Next steps

I still have at least one more case from another institution in British Columbia to follow up, and I now have a backlog of reports to do. I hope to have these all finished by the end of this month.

I have two more trips to organise. The first will be to the prairie provinces:

  • Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which I hope to do in mid-March.

The next will be to the Maritimes,

  • Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland, which I will do probably in April or May.

No further cases or institutions have been identified at this moment, and I am definitely open to suggestions in these provinces if you have any. The criterion for choice is as follows:

  • The focus is first and foremost on practice, on actual teaching and learning applications – not policy, funding, planning issues, descriptions of broad services, or broader concerns.
  • The interest is in applications of pedagogy using technology for classroom, blended, and online learning with the emphasis on student learning, engagement, assessment, access, etc. The pedagogy is as important as the technology in terms of innovation.
  • The emphasis is on innovative practices that can be replicated or used by other instructors.
  • We are particularly looking for cases where some form of evaluation of the innovation has been conducted or where there is clear evidence of success.

If you can recommend a case that you think fits well these parameters, please drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca.

In the meantime, look out for the case studies being posted to Contact North’s Pocket of Innovation web site over the next few months. There are also more cases from Ontario being done at the same time.

2016: The Year I Failed Retirement

Cruising is a bit of a challenge for me

I don’t think I’m temperamentally suited to cruises

The new age of retirement

I decided in April 2014 ‘to stop (nearly) all professional activities from now onwards’. I argued that ‘it is dangerous for a consultant to become adrift from the reality of teaching and management’ and ‘this is not a profession where you can be half in and half out.’

In particular, I wanted to write a ‘farewell’ book that would try to capture my expertise for those who might benefit from 40 years of teaching online and at a distance. I completed that book, Teaching in a Digital Age, almost exactly a year later, in April, 2015.

I realised that this might entail some follow-up, such as appearances at conferences or webinars to publicize the book, but that ought to be over by the end of 2015. 2016 would be the year to finally let go, play lots of golf, travel with my wife and fix all the things around the house that I’ve been putting off for years. So how is that going?

Not so good. Certainly I have played lots of golf, my wife and I took our first cruise, and we went on a trip up the west coast of British Columbia to the Great Bear Rain Forest, and saw two grizzly bears in the wild, but the work part didn’t pan out as I had expected.

'Bent-ear' was in the forest on the bank opposite our Zodiac

‘Bent-ear’ was on the bank of the Atnarko River, about 50 metres away

Here is the list of my activities in 2016.

Ryerson University

I was honoured to be invited to be a distinguished visiting professor for 2016 by the Raymond G. Chang School of Continuing Education at Ryerson University. Ryerson is probably in general terms the most innovative university in Canada, and I had a somewhat tenuous but very welcome prior connection with Chang through its Digital Education Strategies unit. Leonora Zefi, Naza Djafarova and other colleagues in DES had provided valuable feedback on early drafts of my book.

DES has been supporting a number of innovative online teaching projects at Ryerson, such as the Law Practice Program and Lake Devo animations, and is developing expertise in research into educational games.

Lake Devo friendship 2

Lake Devo animation supports online role-play activity in an educational context.

Part of my duties was to present at the annual Chang Talks and also to sit in on a meeting to help develop an institutional e-learning strategy for Ryerson.

Conferences, presentations and workshops

Although I have done far less than in earlier years, I still had a number of academic engagements:

  • six keynotes/presentations: two in Toronto (Ryerson University and Nelson Publishing), and once each in Budapest (EDEN), Madeira (IADIS), Philadelphia (Drexel University), and Kingston, Ontario (Queen’s University);
  • two workshops, one for Chinese university presidents on managing learning technologies at UBC; and one at Ryerson University, Toronto to help develop their eLearning strategy;
  • nine webinars (to universities in Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Australia, and Alberta, to European Union educational policy-makers in Brussels, and three Contact North webinars offered internationally), all on topics from my book;
  • attendance at two demofests in Vancouver/Burnaby where innovators from post-secondary institutions in British Columbia demonstrated what they are doing;
  • several press interviews.
The Pestana Casino Park Hotel, Funchal, site of the IADIS conference - hey, someone has to do this.

The Pestana Casino Park Hotel, Funchal, site of the IADIS conference – hey, someone has to do this.

Teaching in a Digital Age

The book has continued to generate a lot of activity. The English version has been downloaded over 46,000 times and the book has been translated into French, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Portuguese. There are also translations under way in Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew. Voluntarily translating a 500 page book into another language requires a huge amount of work, but if it had not been published under an open license, it is unlikely to have been translated into so many different languages, all by volunteers. There are also a couple of major adaptations, one in South Africa (English), and one in Argentina (Spanish), to suit regional requirements. Contact North and BCcampus have sites that host both the English and French versions, and BCcampus also hosts the Vietnamese version.

I am of course delighted at the success of the book, and I am very happy to provide the necessary help to get the translations into Pressbooks, deal with translation issues, and to help the organizations providing translations with understanding the Creative Commons licensing agreement.

However, it is been a struggle to get some of the organizations supporting the translations to understand fully the concept of openness. Some have just made print copies available and have yet to provide a url from where anyone can download a copy in the appropriate language, or a digital copy that could be made available through the BCcampus web site. Thus ensuring the translations are also fully open and accessible online is still very much a work in progress on my part.

10 Fundamentals of Online Learning

During 2016 I did a series of 10 blog posts called ‘Online Learning for Beginners’, realising that although Teaching in a Digital Age had been downloaded over 46,000 times, there are still many faculty who are not yet committed enough to online learning to even look at the book.

Contact North then edited and published my 10 guides as a short, 37 page booklet, ‘The Ten Fundamentals Of Teaching Online‘ that is really a first step towards getting faculty and instructors to read Teaching in a Digital Age, and more importantly to challenge some of the myths and misunderstandings that many faculty have about teaching online. The Ten Fundamentals was published in October this year and has so far been downloaded just over 300 times and has already been translated into Spanish by a professor in Argentina.


During the year I did 74 blog posts, which is little more than one a week, compared with the 213 blog posts in 2013, the year before I decided to retire. So I have definitely reduced my blogging activity.

However, although I am blogging 70% less than I used to, my blog site was more active in 2016 than in any previous years, with a total of 417,000 hits. In fact, the number of hits to the site was 33% higher in 2016 than in 2014. This is somewhat surprising, since the golden rule of blogging is that the more you blog, the more hits you will get.


If though we look at Table 1 below, I can perhaps explain this anomaly. The year the post was published is in brackets; TIDA means the post was an early draft of a section of Teaching in a Digital Age)

Table 1: No. of hits per post in 2016 (top 20 posts)

The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) 38,618
A short history of educational technology (2014: TIDA) 33,367
What Is Distance Education? (2008) 20,961
Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) 14,636
The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age (2014; TIDA) 14,435
Learning theories and online learning (2014; TIDA) 12,017
Deciding on appropriate media for teaching and learning (2014; TIDA) 11,423
A student guide to studying online (2012) 8,042
Advice to students about Athabasca University (2015) 6,860
The role of communities of practice in a digital age (2014; TIDA) 6,282
Building an effective learning environment (2016) 6,156
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) 6,113
Key characteristics of learners in a digital age……(2014; TIDA) 5,109
Is the ADDIE model appropriate for teaching in a digital age? (2014; TIDA) 4,793
5. Models for selecting media and technology: 5. Media or technology? (2011) 4,157
Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice (2014; TIDA) 4,021
Teaching in a Digital Age (2015) 3,722
Why learner support is an important component in the design of teaching.…(2014; TIDA) 3,469
Does technology change the nature of knowledge? (2009) 3,380
Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 7: Design course structure…(2012) 3,197


There was only one post published in 2016 (Building an Effective Learning Environment) that appears in the top 20 posts (in terms of the number of hits) for 2016, and even that was a summary/discussion of Appendix A in Teaching in a Digital Age. Nine other posts in the top 20 were early drafts of sections of Teaching in a Digital Age.

My interpretation of this is that the blog site is being used increasingly as a resource, rather than as a news site, especially by students who are studying on courses about online learning and teaching. This means that each year different students are coming back to the same posts. I cannot explain though why they are using drafts from my blog site rather than (or as well as) using the text of the book. There is though apparently a strong relationship and interaction between my blog site and the book.

Also three of the top five posts, and five of the top ten posts, are ‘general’ posts for online students about studying online. There are of course many more students than instructors, which explains why these are topics that come near to the top each year.

‘Can you teach real engineering online’ has generated the most number of comments (127 in all) and continues to be a lively forum seven years after it was originally published (and an indication of student frustration at the limited opportunities to study engineering online). ‘The worlds’ largest supplier of free online learning?’, about ALISON, has generated 104 comments and is also still active. ‘What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs’ has generated 54 comments, but there was only one comment on this post this year, and only one post on MOOCs reached the top 20 in 2016, which suggests interest in MOOCs may be waning, at least among my readers.

The national survey of online learning in Canada

Finally, one activity that I hadn’t planned for in 2016 that is taking up a great deal of my time is the proposed national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions, in collaboration with the Babson Survey Research Group. This activity will continue into 2017.

Must do better

Although I am reducing my level of activity, I’m still playing, although at a somewhat slower pace. In terms of actually retiring though I am definitely failing, at least a ‘D’ if not an ‘F’. I will try to do better next year.


Online learning in 2016: a personal review
















Image: © Institute for Economics and Peace. Canada is ranked seventh most peaceful. We don’t know where it ranks though in terms of online learning.

A personal review

I am not going to do a review of all the developments in online learning in 2016 (for this, see Audrey Watters’ excellent HackEducation Trends). What I am going to do instead is review what I actually wrote about in 2016 in this blog, indicating what to me was of particular interest in online learning during 2016. I have identified 38 posts I wrote in which I have explored in some detail issues that bubbled up (at least for me) in 2016.

1. Tracking online learning

Building a national survey of online learning in Canada (134 hits)

A national survey of university online and distance learning in Canada (1,529 hits)

In the USA, fully online enrollments continue to grow in 2014 (91 hits)

Are you ready for blended learning? (389 hits)

What the Conference Board of Canada thinks about online learning (200 hits)

I indulged my obsession with knowing the extent to which online learning is penetrating post-secondary education with five posts on this topic. In a field undergoing such rapid changes, it is increasingly important to be able to track exactly what is going on. Thus a large part of my professional activity in 2016 has been devoted to establishing, almost from scratch, a national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions. I would have written more about this topic, but until the survey has been successfully conducted in 2017, I have preferred to keep a low profile on this issue.

However, during 2016 it did become clear to me, partly as a result of pilot testing of the questionnaire, and partly through visits to universities, that blended learning is not only gaining ground in Canadian post-secondary education at a much faster rate than I had anticipated, but is raising critical questions about what is best done online and what face-to-face, and how to prepare institutions and instructors for what is essentially a revolution in teaching.

This can be best summarized by what I wrote about the Conference Board of Canada’s report:

What is going on is a slowly boiling and considerably variable revolution in higher education that is not easily measured or even captured in individual anecdotes or interviews.

2. Faculty development and training

Getting faculty and instructors into online learning (183 hits)

Initiating instructors to online learning: 10 fundamentals (529 hits)

Online learning for beginners: 10. Ready to go (+ nine other posts on this topic = 4,238 hits)

5 IDEAS for a pedagogy of online learning (708 hits)

This was the area to which I devoted the most space, with ten posts on ‘Online Learning for Beginners’, aimed at instructors resisting or unready for online learning. These ten posts were then edited and published by Contact North as the 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online.

Two fundamental conclusions: we need not only better organizational strategies to ensure that faculty have the knowledge and training they will need for effective teaching and learning in a digital age, but we also need to develop new teaching strategies and approaches that can exploit the benefits and even more importantly avoid the pitfalls of blended learning and learning technologies. I have been trying to make a contribution in this area, but much more needs to be done.

3. Learning environments

Building an effective learning environment (6,173 hits)

EDEN 2016: Re-imagining Learning Environments (597 hits)

Culture and effective online learning environments (1,260 hits)

Closely linked to developing appropriate pedagogies for a digital age is the concept of designing appropriate learning environments, based on learners’ construction of knowledge and the role of instructors in guiding and fostering knowledge management, independent learning and other 21st century skills.

This approach I argued is a better ‘fit’ for learners in a digital age than thinking in terms of blended, hybrid or fully online learning, and recognizes that not only can technology to be used to design very different kinds of learning environments from school or campus based learning environments, but also that technology is just one component of a much richer learning context.

4. Experiential learning online

A full day of experiential learning in action (188 hits)

An example of online experiential learning: Ryerson University’s Law Practice Program (383 hits)

Is networked learning experiential learning? (163 hits)

These three posts explored a number of ways in which experiential learning is being done online, as this is a key methodology for developing skills in particular.

5. Open education

Acorns to oaks? British Columbia continues its progress with OERs (185 hits)

Talking numbers about open publishing and online learning (113 hits)

Towards an open pedagogy for online learning (385 hits)

These posts also tracked the development of open publishing and open educational resources, particularly in British Columbia, leading me to conclude that the OER ‘movement’ has far too narrow a concept of open-ness and that in its place we need an open pedagogy into which open educational resources are again just one component, and perhaps not the most significant.

6. Technology applications in online learning

An excellent guide to multimedia course design (659 hits)

Is video a threat to learning management systems? (603 hits)

Some comments on synchronous online learning technologies (231 hits)

Amongst all the hype about augmented reality, learning analytics and the application of artificial intelligence, I found it more useful to look at some of the technologies that are in everyday use in online learning, and how these could best be used.

7. Technology and alienation

Technology and alienation: online learning and labour market needs (319 hits)

Technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (512 hits)

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction (375 hits)

Automation or empowerment: online learning at the crossroads (1,571 hits)

Why digital technology is not necessarily the answer to your problem (474 hits)

These were more philosophical pieces, prompted to some extent by the wider concerns of the impact of technology on jobs and how that has influenced Brexit and the Trump phenomena.

Nevertheless this issue is also very relevant to the teaching context. In particular I was challenging the ‘Silicon Valley’ assumption that computers will eventually replace the need for teachers, and in particular the danger of using algorithms in teaching without knowing who wrote the algorithms, what their philosophy of teaching is, and thus what assumptions have been built into the use of data.

Image: Applift

Image: Applift

8. Learning analytics

Learning analytics and learning design at the UK Open University (90 hits)

Examining ethical and privacy issues surrounding learning analytics (321 hits)

Continuing more or less the same theme of analysing the downside as well as the upside of technology in education, these two posts looked at how some institutions, and the UK Open University in particular, are being thoughtful about the implications of learning analytics, and building in policies for protecting privacy and gaining student ‘social license’ for the use of analytics.

9. Assessment

Developing a next generation online learning assessment system (532 hits)

This is an area where much more work needs to be done. If we are to develop new or better pedagogies for a digital age, we will also need better assessment methods. Unfortunately the focus once again appears to be more on the tools of assessment, such as online proctoring, where large gains have been made in 2016, but which still focus on proctoring traditional assessment procedures such as time-restricted exams, multiple choice tests and essay writing. What we need are new methods of assessment that focus on measuring the types of knowledge and skills that are needed in a digital age.

For instance, e-portfolios have held a lot of promise for a long time, but are still being used and evaluated at a painfully slow rate. They do offer though one method for assessment that reflects much better the needs of assessing 21st century knowledge and skills. However we need more imagination and creativity in developing new assessment methods for measuring the knowledge and skills needed for a digital age.

That was the year that was

Well, it was 2016 from the perspective of someone no longer teaching online or managing online learning:

  • How far off am I, from your perspective?
  • What were the most significant developments for you in online learning in 2016?
  • What did I miss that you think should have been included? Perhaps I can focus on this next year.

I have one more post looking at 2016 to come, but that will be more personal, looking at my whole range of online learning activities in 2016.

In the meantime have a great seasonal break and I will be back in touch some time in the new year.