November 20, 2017

A brighter future for Athabasca University?

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

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

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

Why the report?

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

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 Lastly it still has the same structural problems with an outdated course design and development model and poor student support services, especially on the academic side.

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

What does the report say?

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

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

My comments

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

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

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

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

Is networked learning experiential learning?

Image: © Justin Grimes, The Guardian, 2013

Image: © Justin Grimes, The Guardian, 2013

Campbell, G. (2016) Networked learning as experiential learning Educause Review, Vol. 51 No. 1, January 11

This is an interesting if somewhat high level discussion by the Vice-Provost for Learning Innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University, USA, of the importance of networked learning as experiential learning:

the experience of building and participating within a digitally mediated network of discovery and collaboration is an increasingly necessary foundation for all other forms of experiential learning in a digital age. Moreover, the experience of building and participating within a digitally mediated network of discovery is itself a form of experiential learning, indeed a kind of metaexperiential learning that vividly and concretely teaches the experience of networks themselves.

This article might be useful for those who feel a need for a pedagogical or philosophical justification for networked learning. However, I have two reservations about Campbell’s argument which are closely related:

  • Campbell appears in one part of the article to be arguing students need some kind of academic training to understand the underlying nature of digital networking, but he is not too clear in the article about what that entails or indeed what that underlying nature is, beyond the purely technical;
  • second, I struggled to see what the consequences of the argument are for me as a teacher: what should I be doing to ensure that students are using networked learning as experiential learning? Does this happen automatically?

I think Campbell is arguing that instructors should move away from selecting and packaging information for students, and allow them to build knowledge through digital networks both within and outside the academy. I of course agree with this part of the argument, but the hard part is knowing the best ways to do this so that learners achieve the knowledge and skills they will need.

As with all teaching methods, networked learning and/or experiential learning can be done well or badly. I would like to see (a) a more precise description of what networked learning means to Gardner in terms of practice, and (b) some guidelines or principles to support instructors in using networked learning as a form of experiential learning. This needs to go beyond what we know about collaborative learning in online groups, although even the application of what we know about this would be a big step forward for most instructors.

Without a clear analysis of how digital networking results in learning, and how this differs from non-digital networked learning, networked learning runs the risk of being yet another overworked buzzword that really doesn’t help a great deal.

Despite my reservations I encourage you to take a look at this article and see if you can make more sense of it than I have, because I believe that this is a very important development/argument that needs further discussion and critical analysis.

For a more pragmatic take on this topic see:

LaRue, B. and Galindo, S. (2009). ‘Synthesizing Corporate and Higher Education Learning Strategies’. in Rudestam, K. and Schoenholtz-Read, J. (eds.) Handbook of Online Learning: Innovations in  Higher Education and Corporate Training Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

 

What students spend on textbooks and how it affects open textbooks

Avoid bookstore line-ups - adopt an online, open textbook Image:  The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Avoid bookstore line-ups – adopt an online, open textbook
Image: The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Hill, P. (2015) Bad Data Can Lead To Bad Policy: College students don’t spend $1,200+ on textbooks, e-Literate, November 8

Caulfield, M. (2015) Asking What Students Spend on Textbooks Is the Wrong Question, Hapgood, November 9

Just wanted to draw your attention to two really interesting and useful blog posts about the cost of textbooks.

First thanks to Phil Hill for correcting what I and many other have been saying: that students are spending more than $1,000 a year on textbooks. It turns out that what students are actually spending is around $530 – $640 (all figures in this post are in U.S. dollars and refer to U.S. post-secondary education.) Furthermore, student spending on textbooks has actually declined (slightly) over the last few years (probably as a result of increasing tuition fees – something has to give).

Mike Caulfield however points out that the actual cost of recommended textbooks is over $1,000 a year (or more accurately, between $968 and $1221, depending on the mix of rental and newly purchased books), and that this is the figure that counts, because if students are spending less, then they are putting their studies at risk by not using recommended texts.

For instance, a report by consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG found that the cost of textbooks has jumped 82% since 2002. As a result, 65% of about 2,000 students say they have opted out of buying (or renting) a required textbook because of the price. According to the survey, 94% of the students who had skipped buying textbooks believed it could hurt their performance in class. Furthermore, 48% of the students said that they had altered which classes they take due to textbook costs, either taking fewer classes or different classes.

More importantly, students and significantly their families do not look at the cost of textbooks in isolation. They also take into account tuition fees and the cost of living, especially if they are studying away from home. So they are likely to consider what they are expected to spend on textbooks rather than what they will actually spend when deciding on post-secondary education. The high cost of textbooks is just another factor that acts as a deterrent for many low income families.

Whether you take the actual expenditure of around $600 a year  per student or the required spending of $1,220, having open textbooks available not only results in very real savings for students, but also will have a more important psychological effect in encouraging some students and parents to consider post-secondary education who might not do so otherwise. Getting the methodology of costing textbooks right is important if we are to measure the success of open textbooks, but whichever way you look at it, open textbooks are the right way to go.

Lastly, if you are encouraging your students to become digitally literate, I suggest that you ask them to read the two posts, which, as well as dealing with an issue in which your students will have a major interest, are paragons of well-researched writing, and above all courteous and respectful in their differences.

Who are your online students?

Student at computer at home 2

Clinefelter, D. L., & Aslanian, C. B. (2015). Online college students 2015: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Louisville, KY: The Learning House, Inc.

The survey

This is an interesting report based on a survey of 1,500 individuals nationwide (USA) who were:

  • at least 18 years of age;
  • had a minimum of a high school degree or equivalent;
  • and were recently enrolled, currently enrolled or planning to enroll in the next 12 months in either a fully online undergraduate or graduate degree program or a fully online certificate or licensure program.

Main findings

This is a very brief summary of a 53 page report packed with data, which I strongly recommend reading in full, especially if you are involved with marketing or planning online programs or courses, but here is a brief tasting menu:

1. Competition for online students is increasing

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2015) show that college enrollments [in the USA] declined by close to 2%, yielding 18.6 million college students today. About 5.5 million of these students are studying partially or fully online. At the same time, competition for these online students is increasing. Between 2012 and 2013, 421 institutions launched online programs for the first time, an increase of 23% to 2,250 institutions.

2. The main motivation for online students is to improve their work prospects

Roughly 75% of online students seek further education to change careers, get a job, earn a promotion or keep up to date with their skills…..Colleges that want to excel in attracting prospective online students must prepare them for and connect them to the world of work.

3. As competition for students stiffens, online students expect policies and processes tailored to their needs

For example, the amount of transfer credit accepted has consistently been ranked one of the top 10 factors in selecting an institution.

4. In online education, everything is local

Half of online students live within 50 miles of their campus, and 65% live within 100 miles….It is critical that institutions have a strong local brand so that they are at the top of students’ minds when they begin to search for a program of study.

5. Affordability is a critical variable

Forty-five percent of respondents to the 2015 survey reported that they selected the most inexpensive institution. … Thus, it is not surprising that among 23 potential marketing messages, the most appealing were “Affordable tuition” and “Free textbooks.”

6. We could do better

21% reported “Inconsistent/poor contact and communication with instructors,” and 17% reported “Inconsistent/poor quality of instruction. ” More contact with regular faculty was requested, especially as advisors.

7. Blended learning is an option – for some

About half of the respondents indicated they would attend a hybrid or low-residency option if their program was not available fully online. But 30% said they would not attend if their program was not available online.

8. The program or major drives the selection process.

60% indicated they selected their program of study first and then considered institutions.

9. Online students are diverse

Online students have a wide range of needs and backgrounds. Even the age factor is changing, with more and more students under 25 years of age choosing to study online for their undergraduate degrees.

10. Cost matters

Undergraduates reported paying $345 per credit, and graduate students reported paying $615 per credit, on average (equivalent to around $25,000 for a full degree). Applicants need clear and easily accessible information about the costs of studying online and the financial aid rules regarding online students.

As I said, this is just a taste of an information-packed report, which is useful not only to those marketing programs to students, but also for convincing faculty of the importance of online learning.

But remember: this is a study of online students in the USA. There may be problems in generalising too much to other jurisdictions.

 

 

A review of MOOCs and their assessment tools

What kind of MOOC?

What kind of MOOC?

Chauhan, A. (2014) Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS): Emerging Trends in Assessment and Accreditation Digital Education Review, No. 25

For the record, Amit Chauhan, from Florida State University, has reviewed the emerging trends in MOOC assessments and their application in supporting student learning and achievement.

Holy proliferating MOOCs!

He starts with a taxonomy of MOOC instructional models, as follows:

  • cMOOCs
  • xMOOCs
  • BOOCs (a big open online course) – only one example, by a professor from Indiana University with a grant from Google, is given which appears to be a cross between an xMOOC and a cMOOC and had 500 participants.
  • DOCCs (distributed open collaborative course): this involved 17 universities sharing and adapting the same basic MOOC
  • LOOC (little open online course): as well as 15-20 tuition-paying campus-based students, the courses also allow a limited number of non-registered students to also take the course, but also paying a fee. Three examples are given, all from New England.
  • MOORs (massive open online research): again just one example is given, from UC San Diego, which seems to be a mix of video-based lecturers and student research projects guided by the instructors
  • SPOCs (small, private, online courses): the example given is from Harvard Law School, which pre-selected 500 students from over 4,000 applicants, who take the same video-delivered lectures as on-campus students enrolled at Harvard
  • SMOCs: (synchronous massive open online courses): live lectures from the University of Texas offered to campus-based students are also available synchronously to non-enrolled students for a fee of $550. Again, just one example.

MOOC assessment models and emerging technologies

Chauhan describes ‘several emerging tools and technologies that are being leveraged to assess learning outcomes in a MOOC. These technologies can also be utilized to design and develop a MOOC with built-in features to measure learning outcomes.’

  • learning analytics on MIT’s 6.002x, Circuits and Electronics. This is a report of the study by Breslow et al. (2013) of the use of learning analytics to study participants’ behaviour on the course to identify factors influencing student performance.
  • personal learning networks on PLENK 2010: this cMOOC is actually about personal learning networks and encouraged participants to use a variety of tools to develop their own personal learning networks
  • mobile learning on MobiMOOC, another connectivist MOOC. The learners in MobiMOOC utilized mobile technologies for accessing course content, knowledge creation and sharing within the network. Data were collected from participant discussion forums and hashtag analysis to track participant behaviour
  • digital badges have been used in several MOOCs to reward successful completion of an end of course test, participation in discussion forums, or in peer review activities
  • adaptive assessment:  assessments based on Item Response Theory (IRT) are designed to automatically adapt to student learning and ability to measure learner performance and learning outcomes. The tests include different difficulty levels and based on the response of the learner to each test item, the difficulty level decreases or increases to match learner ability and potential. No example of actual use of IRT in MOOCs was given.
  • automated assessments: Chauhan describes two automated assessment tools, Automated Essay Scoring (AES) and Calibrated Peer Review™ (CPR), that are really automated tools for assessing and giving feedback on writing skills. One study on their use in MOOCs (Balfour, 2013) is cited.
  • recognition of prior learning: I think Chauhan is suggesting that institutions offering RPL can/should include MOOCs in student RPL portfolios.

Chauhan concludes:

Assessment in a MOOC does not necessarily have to be about course completion.  Learners can be assessed on time-on-task; learner-course component interaction; and a certification of the specific skills and knowledge gained from a MOOC….. Ultimately, the satisfaction gained from completing the course can be potential indicator of good learning experiences.

Alice in MOOCland

Chauhan describes the increasing variation of instructional methods now associated with the generic term ‘MOOC’, to the point where one has to ask whether the term has any consistent meaning. It’s difficult to see how a SPOC for instance differs from a typical online credit course, except perhaps in that it uses a recorded lecture rather than a learning management system or VLE. The only common factor in these variations is that the course is being offered to some non-registered students, but then if they have to pay a $500 fee, surely that’s a registered student? If a course is neither massive, nor open, nor free, how can it be a MOOC?

Further, if MOOC participants are taking exactly the same course and tests as registered students, will the institution award them credit for it and admit them to the institution? If not, why not? It seems that some institutions really haven’t thought this through. I’d like to know what Registrar’s make of all this.

At some point, institutions will need to develop a clearer, more consistent strategy for open learning, in terms of how it can best be provided, how it calibrates with formal learning, and how open learning can be accommodated within the fiscal constraints of the institution, and then where MOOCs might fit with the strategy. It seems that a lot of institutions – or rather instructors – are going into open learning buttock-backwards.

More disturbing for me though is the argument Chauhan makes for assessing everything except what participants learn from MOOCs. With the exception of automated tests, all these tools do is describe all kinds of behaviour except for learning. These tools may be useful for identifying factors that influence learning, on a post hoc rationalization, but you need to be able to measure the learning in the first place, unless you see MOOCs as some cruel form of entertainment. I have no problem with trying to satisfy students, I have no problem with MOOCs as un-assessed non-formal education, but if you try to assess participants, at the end of the day it’s what they learn that matters. MOOCs need better tools for measuring learning, but I didn’t see any described in this article.

Further, if MOOC participants are taking exactly the same course and tests as registered students, will the institution award them credit for it and admit them to the institution? If not, why not? It seems that some institutions really haven’t thought this through. I’d like to know what Registrar’s make of all this.

At some point, institutions will need to develop a clearer, more consistent strategy for open learning, in terms of how it can best be provided, how it calibrates with formal learning, and how open learning can be accommodated within the fiscal constraints of the institution, and then where MOOCs might fit with the strategy. It seems that a lot of institutions – or rather instructors – are going into open learning buttock-backwards.

More disturbing for me though is the argument Chauhan makes for assessing everything except what participants learn from MOOCs. With the exception of automated tests, all these tools do is describe all kinds of behaviour except for learning. These tools may be useful for identifying factors that influence learning, on a post hoc rationalization, but you need to be able to measure the learning in the first place, unless you see MOOCs as some cruel form of entertainment. I have no problem with trying to satisfy students, I have no problem with MOOCs as un-assessed non-formal education, but if you try to assess participants, at the end of the day it’s what they learn that matters. MOOCs need better tools for measuring learning, but I didn’t see any described in this article.

References

Balfour, S. P. (2013). Assessing writing in MOOCs: Automated Essay Scoring and Calibrated Peer review. Research & Practice in Assessment, Vol. 8, No. 1

Breslow, L., Pritchard, D. E., DeBoer, J., Stump, G. S., Ho, A. D., & Seaton, D. T. (2013). Studying learning in the worldwide classroom: Research into edx’s first mooc. Research & Practice in Assessment, 8, 13-25.