August 15, 2018

How serious should we be about serious games in online learning?

An excerpt from the video game ‘Therapeutic Communication and Mental Health Assessment’ developed at Ryerson University

In the 2017 national survey of online learning in post-secondary education, and indeed in the Pockets of Innovation project, serious games were hardly mentioned as being used in Canadian universities or colleges. Yet there was evidence from the Chang School Talks in Toronto earlier this month that there is good reason to be taking serious games more seriously in online learning.

What are serious games?

The following definition from the Financial Times Lexicon is as good a definition as any:

Serious games are games designed for a purpose beyond pure entertainment. They use the motivation levers of game design – such as competition, curiosity, collaboration, individual challenge – and game media, including board games through physical representation or video games, through avatars and 3D immersion, to enhance the motivation of participants to engage in complex or boring tasks. Serious games are therefore used in a variety of professional situations such as education, training,  assessment, recruitment, knowledge management, innovation and scientific research. 

So serious games are not solely educational, nor necessarily online, but they can be both.

Why are serious games not used more in online learning?

Well, partly because some see serious games as an oxymoron. How can a game be serious? This may seem trivial, but many game designers fear that a focus on education risks killing the main element of a game, its fun. Similarly, many instructors fear that learning could easily be trivialised through games or that games can cover only a very limited part of what learning should be about – it can’t all be fun. 

Another more pragmatic reason is cost and quality. The best selling video games for instance cost millions of dollars to produce, on a scale similar to mainstream movies. What is the compelling business plan for educational games? And if games are produced cheaply, won’t the quality – in terms of production standards, narrative/plot, visuals, and learner engagement – suffer, thus making them unattractive for learners?

However, probably the main reason is that most educators simply do not know enough about serious games: what exists, how they can be used, nor how to design them. For this reason, the ChangSchoolTalks, organised each year by the School of Continuing Studies at Ryerson University, this year focused on serious games.

The conference

The conference, held on May 3rd in Toronto, consisted of nine key speakers who have had extensive experience with serious games, organised in three themes:

  • higher education
  • health care
  • corporate

The presentations were followed by a panel debate and question and answer session. The speakers were:

This proved to be an amazingly well-selected group of speakers on the topic. In one session run by Sylvester Arnab, he had the audience inventing a game within 30 seconds. Teams of two were given a range of  existing games or game concepts (such as Dictionary or Jeopardy) and a topic (such as international relations) and had up to two minutes to create an educational game. The winning team (in less than 30 seconds) required online students in political sciences to represent a country and suggest how they should respond to selected Tweets from Donald Trump.

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I suffered from such information overload from recent conferences that I had to go and lie down. It was at this conference where that happened! It has taken three weeks for me even to begin fully processing what I learned.

What did I learn?

Probably the most important thing is that there is a whole, vibrant world of serious games outside of education, and at the same time there are many possible and realistic applications for serious games in education, and particularly in online learning. So, yes, we should be taking serious games much more seriously in online learning – but we need to do it carefully and professionally.

The second lesson I learned is that excellent online serious games can be developed without spending ridiculous amounts of money (see some examples below). At the same time, there is a high degree of risk. There is no sure way of predicting in advance that a new game will be successful. Some low-cost simple games can work well; some expensively produced games can easily flop. This means careful testing and feedback during development.

For these and other reasons, research being conducted at Ryerson University and funded by eCampus Ontario is particularly important. Naza Djafarova and colleagues at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education are conducting research to develop a game design guide to enhance the process by which multidisciplinary teams, engaged in the pre-production stage, approach the design of a serious game. They have developed a process called the Art of Game Design methodology, for multidisciplinary teams involved in the design of serious games, and appraised in participatory workshops.

The Chang School has already developed a few prototype games, including:

  • Lake Devo, a virtual learning environment enabling online role-play activity in an educational context. Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios.
  • Skills Practice: A Home Visit that promotes the application of knowledge and skills related to establishing a therapeutic nurse-client relationship and completing a mental health assessment. Students assume the role of a community health nurse assigned to complete a home visit. Working with nurses and professors from George Brown College, Centennial College this project is working to establish a ‘virtual hospital’ with several serious games focused on maternity issues.

Thus serious games are a relatively high risk, high return activity for online learning. This requires building on best practices in games design, both within and outside education, sharing, and collaboration. However, as we move more and more towards skills development, experiential learning, and problem-solving, serious games will play an increasingly important role in online learning. Best to start now.

What counts when you cost online learning?

Poulin, R. and Straut, T. (2017) Distance Education Price and Cost Report Boulder CO: WCET

This highly controversial report has generated considerable discussion in WCET’s own Forum, and has received a good deal of media coverage. When you read the report you will see why.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the finding that respondents to the survey on which this report is based were by and large of the opinion that distance education costs more than classroom teaching. But you need to read the report more carefully to understand why respondents responded in this way. It all comes down to how you cost distance education or online learning. In particular, you need to understand the context of the report. 

As always, you should read the report itself, not my summary, especially if you disagree with what’s in my summary.

The context

The context for this report is very political and very American (by which I mean USAnian, i.e. applying specifically to the USA). The report is more about price – what institutions charge students – than it is about cost.

The cost of tuition (the fees students or their parents pay to the institution) continues to increase in the USA way beyond the rate of inflation, and many institutions not only charge the same tuition rates for online or distance education courses, but also add additional fees. In other words, many American institutions increase the price for an online or distance course compared to its face-to-face equivalent.

However, the political perception, especially in state legislatures, is that distance education is cheaper than on-campus teaching, so some states (e.g. Wisconsin and Florida) have introduced legislation or initiatives to reduce the price of online learning courses below that of face-to-face programs.

As the authors note:

Historically, distance education’s mission has been to overcome the barriers of place or time. The mission was not to control costs. In fact, to reach some locations is costly. Distance education should not be held accountable to a mission it was never given.

distance education professionals are caught in a higher education economics ethos that shuns open examination of price and cost…and are expected to answer to a “controlling cost” mission that was not given them in the first place.

It is within this context that WCET decided to do the study in order to challenge some of the assumptions about the price and cost of distance education.


As always, you need to know the methodology in order to interpret the results. The report indeed is very transparent about its methodology, which is not tucked away in an appendix or not discussed at all (which seems to be a practice that is increasing in many so-called ‘studies’ these days), but is front and centre in the report.


The authors provide the following definition:

  • Price – This is the amount of money that is charged to a student for instruction. The components are tuition and fees. In the questions, we will be clear as to which “price” component (tuition, fees, or total price) is being queried. 
  • Cost – This is the amount of money that is spent by the institution to create, offer, and support instruction. 
  • Distance Education – When thinking of “distance education,” we favor the Babson Survey Research Group definition of 80% or more of the course being taught at a distance.


WCET surveyed mainly its own members and members of other distance education consortia. Overall, 197 responded.

We had hoped for more participation in the survey. It is important to note that the responses provided represent only the institutional representatives who answered the survey questions. Even though we provide comparisons between the responding population and the overall higher education population, we do not assert that the results may be generalized to the universe of all institutions of higher education in the U.S. and Canada that offer distance education courses.

What can be said is that the response came mainly from distance education and educational technology professionals, rather than faculty or senior administrators, mainly in public HE institutions.

Main results

I will deal with these very briefly, although the detailed findings are more nuanced.

  1. The price of DE is generally higher than for face-to-face teaching. More than half (54%) of the respondents reported that their institution charged more for distance education courses than for on-campus courses.
  2. A majority of respondents believed that the cost of DE was higher than for face-to-face teaching on certain defined components (e.g. faculty development, technologies, instructional design, assessments, state authorization – a long and complex process of ‘accrediting’ DE courses unique to the USA).
  3. ‘Experts’ in the costs of DE tended to disagree that costs of DE are necessarily higher
  4. The experts also noted that cost discussions are often avoided by higher education leadership and that more could be done to control costs, not just in distance education.

The reports main conclusions

The conclusions were split into recommendations for legislators and institutions:

For legislators

  • focus questions on future costs and in particular the likely impact of investing in buildings vs distance education in terms of the impact of the cost to students
  • provide more incentives for institutions to reduce the price to students
  • don’t be prescriptive but help institutions develop a vision for state higher education that is realistic and shared

For institutions

  • pay as much attention to the cost to students as to the cost to the institution of various delivery methods
  • be more open about costs and track them for all modes of delivery
  • changing the cost structure requires structural changes in how we design and deliver programs; this requires leadership from the senior administration.

My comments on the report

The report is right to draw attention to the creeping costs to students (e.g. price) resulting from institutional policies in the USA. What is also apparent is that there is a large disconnect between institutions and government about the cost of distance education. Many educators believe that DE is more expensive; government thinks it should be cheaper. Somewhere in the middle is a discussion about quality: does cheaper mean worse?

Cherry-picking costs

Unfortunately, though, for methodological reasons, I fear the report has confused rather than clarified the discussion about costs and price. In particular, by focusing on components that are specific to distance education, such as faculty support, the use of technologies, and the cost of state authorization of DE, the report has clearly given the impression that most educators believe that distance education is more expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

It is unfortunate that the report has given this impression because you cannot just look at the costs of specific components of distance education without looking also at specific components of face-to-face teaching that are not represented in the costs of distance education, in particular the very substantial ‘sunk’ costs of buildings, parking, etc. There are better ways of measuring the costs of distance education and online programs – see Chapter 7 in Bates and Sangra (2011).

Making DE cost-effective

While we can develop cost-effective fully online programs, this normally depends on generating new revenues from new students. Offering online courses as an alternative to already existing students on campus, while increasing access and student flexibility, is much more financially risky.

Again, this can be managed cost-effectively, but it depends on having enough students taking both on-campus and online versions of the course, and the use of additional adjunct professors for online courses with more than 30 students. Bringing in new students who you wouldn’t get without the courses being online is the best bet to ensure economic viability. ‘Diluting’ your on-campus students by offering the same course online will add costs unless the numbers can justify it.

What about the costs of blended learning?

One last point. I think we are going to have a period of considerable cost turmoil as we move to blended learning, because this really does add costs unless there are dramatic redesigns, especially of the large first and second year classes. Carol Twigg of the National Centre for Academic Transformation for many years has been able to bring down costs – or more often increase effectiveness for the same cost – for these large lecture classes by using blended learning designs (although there are some criticisms of her costing methodology).

By and large though, while fully online courses can maybe increase enrolments by 10-15% and therefore help pay their way, we will have major cost or academic time problems if we move to nearly all courses being blended, without increased training for faculty, so they can manage without the same level of support provided by instructional designers, etc. that are normally provided for fully online courses (see ‘Are we ready for blended learning?‘).

Moving forward 

I’m glad then that WCET has produced a report that focuses not only on the costs of distance education to institution but also on pricing policies. There is in my view no economic justification for charging more for an online course than a face-to-face course as a matter of principle. You need to do the sums and institutions are very bad at doing this in a way that tracks the cost of activities rather than throwing everything into one bucket then leaking it out at historical rates to different departments.

Institutions need to develop more rigorous methods for tracking the costs of different modes of delivery while also building in a measure of the benefits as well. If the report at least moves institutions towards this, it will have been well worth it.

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.

The cost of developing an open textbook: $80,000 – $130,000

The main cost of an open textbook is the author's time

The main cost of an open textbook is the author’s time

Open textbooks may be free, but they are not without cost.

So what is the cost of developing an open textbook from scratch?

Answer: a minimum of $80,000, more likely around $130,000.

Here’s how I arrived at the figure, based on my own open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Context and ‘sponsors’

As always in education, the context is important. I wrote the book as an individual, without the very considerable ‘hidden’ support that working in a university or college often provides. However, working as an individual meant that I was able to track most of the costs.

Second, although I was working as an individual, I did have two very valuable external ‘sponsors’:

  • BCcampus: The BC Open Textbook project, that BCcampus manages on behalf of the provincial government, meant that I had a ready-made platform, based on BCcampus’s own version of PressBooks, on which to develop and host the book. Furthermore, I received essential technical support and help from the BCcampus team when developing the book;
  • Contact North/Contact Nord: Contact North is a somewhat similar organization in Ontario to BCcampus in British Columbia. In particular, it provides professional learning opportunities in digital and online learning for faculty and instructors across the 22 colleges and 24 universities in Ontario. CN saw the book as a potentially valuable resource, and provided some financial support for the development of the book, as well as commissioning a French translation of the book (due later in the summer).

I also received a lot of support and feedback from the online learning ‘community of practice’ while writing the book. Without this support, it would have been very difficult for me to produce a high quality online textbook.

How much work for the author?

How much work is there in writing an open textbook? This is one of those ‘length of a piece of string’ questions, but while not clocking every minute, I did keep a track of how much time it took me.

Again, though, context is important. I am a very experienced writer, with 12 commercially published books behind me. I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to write about and quickly developed a structure and plan for the book. A lot of potential content already existed from many of the blog posts I had been writing. Others without such experience will almost certainly need more time.

Figure 1 below gives a breakdown of my time spent writing and editing:

Figure 1: Timeline for writing 'Teaching in a Digital Age'

Figure 1: Timeline for writing ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’

I spent roughly 20 hours a week on writing and editing, over roughly 50 weeks, so 1,000 hours of my time is a pretty reasonable estimate. This works out at roughly six months work over one year.

In reality, of course, in my context this was done for free. However, this would be equal to a minimum of $50,000 in salary for someone working full-time in a college or university, and for a consultant it would be even higher. So I would estimate the opportunity cost of writing this book to be a minimum of $50,000, with probably $75,000 being a more realistic ‘average’ cost for most authors.

It should be noted that:

  • I published first drafts as blog posts, in order to get feedback from the several thousand professionals who follow my blog;
  • I ‘published when ready’: in other words, once a chapter was ready after the above feedback had been incorporated, I published the chapter on the book web site. Thus the book slowly grew between June 2014 to February 2015, which also brought in more feedback;
  • I spent nearly all March, 2015, on a major re-edit of the book, splitting up or re-integrating some chapters, removing redundancies, checking references, and copy editing.

Instructional design/editing

I hired an independent instructional designer/editor to review and advise on the overall structure of the book, each draft chapter, the design of activities and other ‘pedagogical features’, and the actual writing. It was essential to have someone with instructional design experience responsible for providing a second opinion throughout the book. The Centre for Digital Learning at Ryerson University also provided regular and valuable feedback on drafts of chapters on a voluntary basis. These activities to some extent replaced the normal (and valuable) role of an editor from a commercial publisher.

The total cost of this support was $9,000. However, given that I also have a background in instructional design, the costs may be higher for another author, especially in the early stages of designing the book.

Graphics design

I hired a graphic designer, not to do actual graphics, but to advise on the design and layout of the book, and to do a cover for the book. I contracted the designer when the book was two-thirds finished. His input was valuable, but limited to designing frames for imported graphics, and to the design of the book cover. I mainly used graphics imported from other web publications, or designed graphics for the text myself, using Powerpoint. The cost of the graphic designer was in the range of $5,000 – $10,000 (he was on contract to Contact North).

Next time, I would do this differently. In another post I have described the problems of fitting graphics to different versions of the book. I really needed a graphics designer who was familiar with publishing for mobile devices. I should have hired the designer before I started writing the book, and then worked out a way of testing graphics for each version (html, pdf, mobi, etc.) as I wrote the book. In fact, designing for an open textbook requires specialist knowledge, and I’m not even sure that this knowledge or even appropriate software for fitting graphics into different versions exist yet, but it is really important. I suspect though that one would need a minimum of $10,000 to cover the graphics design, probably more, in order to work in the way that is needed.

Copyright clearance

Although recent changes in Canadian law and Supreme Court decisions on copyright have made it much easier to include third-party material without copyright clearance, it is essential in an open textbook to ensure that all materials can be freely reproduced and re-used. Thus while I may be willing to waive my rights, I cannot do it for material where other people own the rights. Thus I had to make sure that all third party material in my book, such as extracts from other written work, and particularly graphics, were:

  • in the public domain, or
  • covered by an appropriate Creative Commons license, or
  • covered by a written permission for use in an open textbook by the copyright owner.

I therefore hired a graduate student from UBC’s School of Library and Information Sciences to trawl through the whole book and ensure that all material was cleared for open publishing. She produced a detailed spreadsheet for each case (about 120 in total), identifying the source of the material and whether rights were cleared or approved for open publishing. This often meant tracking down the original creator of material already freely available on the Web. In the end, we had two refusals (alternatives were found and used), and five cases (all web-based graphics) where the original creator could not be found, but the material was in widespread use on the Internet, and in these five cases I took the risk of reproduction. In all other cases I have cast-iron clearance.

A systematic approach to copyright clearance is really essential for open publication, and there is a real cost in doing this. In this project approximately $5,000 was spent but an average figure would probably be around $7,500. It is money though well spent.

Technical support

As mentioned earlier, BCcampus provided the platform (their own version of Pressbooks, built on WordPress), advised me on how to get started, and provided essential technical support as I developed the book. They offered this service free, because basically I was a ‘marginal’ cost on their own major open textbook project.

There are though a number of alternative platforms, including Pressbooks, for open publishing that are available for free or at reasonably low cost, but someone working with such platforms would have to pay possibly somewhere in the region of $1,000-$2,000 annually for technical support, because things will always go wrong, and in particular hackers will try to corrupt the site.


I used the following for marketing the book:

  • my own blog posts, Twitter feed and LinkedIn network
  • the WCET Frontier’s newsletter
  • Contact North’s worldwide media release
  • book reviews in academic journals (to come).

Each of these helped (or should help) to boost the number of visits to the book web site, but the only real cost is the Contact North media release, at around $10,000, but again an essential cost in getting the book to the right market.

Summary of costs

Figure 2 collects together these costs:

Figure x: Costs for developing Teaching in a Digital Age

Figure 2: Costs for developing an open textbook

I have provided both a minimal cost and a more realistic average cost. All these individual items can be contested, and some of these costs may be hidden or absorbed through clever accountancy, but to offer a high quality open textbook, there is no arguing that there are real and substantial costs.


If original texts are to be developed as open textbooks, we need sustainable business models. These can take several forms:

1. Sponsorship

This was the model used for Teaching in a Digital Age, with the author offering his time free, BCcampus supporting the technical side, and Contact North funding the direct costs of instructional and graphic design, and marketing.

Universities or colleges could also act as sponsors in the same way (and for the same reasons) that they sponsor MOOCs or other open educational resources

2.  Government funding

This is the model used to support the BC Open Textbook project. This would be a very practical way for governments to reduce direct costs to students and to provide a practical implementation of a policy for open education.

3. Crowdsourcing

This may be a way for an author to recover costs. The book would be partly or even wholly published, and potential readers would be asked to donate towards the cost of the book. This however would require some means by which payment could be collected and audited, which would add to the overall cost. This might be a viable model though where there is strong demand for the product, with individual readers donating as little as $10 each, although it might sully the purity of the concept of open-ness, and is a high risk for the author if there is no demand for the book.

4. Other models

One possibility I am considering is using my textbook to raise money to support, for instance, African students wanting but unable to attend university, by having a link to a suitable charity and asking readers to donate $10 to the charity if they download the book.

There are many other possible models and I would like to hear from readers with suggestions.

However, at the end of the day, there are real and substantial costs to developing open textbooks and it is important to be not only aware of this but to be willing to find appropriate means to support open publishing in education.

In my next post, I will answer the question: was it worth it?

Yale University to offer an online master of medical science

Yale University 2

Korn, M. (2015) Yale Will Offer Web-Based Master of Medical Science Degree Wall Street Journal, March 10

This for me is much more significant than the announcement of the first xMOOCs. It is a sign that even the elite Ivy League universities are recognising the validity of online learning for credit, even in the most demanding of subject areas, after ignoring or even denigrating online learning for many years.

However, before you all rush to sign up, note the sticker price: US$83,162 – the same cost as for the on-campus program, which has been limited to 40 students a year. One reason probably for such a high price for an online program is that Yale is contracting 2U Inc to help with the design and delivery of the program.

Another high cost factor is that the program requires hands-on clinical stints at field sites near students and at least three meetings on Yale’s New Haven, Conn., campus for activities such as cadaver dissection. Yale is aiming eventually for about 360 students across both the on-campus and online programs.

Yale’s move reinforces my view that there is still room for major expansion by top research universities into the online professional masters’ market. However, it will be important to price these at a level that makes them attractive to lifelong learners.

So good on Yale for leading the way for other Ivy League institutions. Now let’s hope someone else can do this at a more reasonable tuition fee (which in my view would be in the range of $15,000-$25,000 for the equivalent of a one year master’s program).