May 23, 2018

What UBC has learned about doing MOOCs

Coursera certificate 2

Engle, W. (2104) UBC MOOC Pilot: Design and Delivery Vancouver BC: University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia, a premier public research university in Canada, successfully delivered five MOOCs in the spring and summer of 2013, using the Coursera platform. This report is an evaluation of the experience.

The report is particularly valuable because it provides details of course development and delivery, including media used and costs. Also UBC has been developing online courses for credit for almost 20 years, so it is interesting to see how this has impacted on the design of their MOOCs.

The MOOCs

1. Game Theory I: K. Leyton Brown (UBC); M. Jackson and Y.Shoham (Stanford University)

2. Game Theory II: K. Leyton Brown (UBC); M. Jackson and Y.Shoham (Stanford University)

3. Useful Genetics: R. Redfield, UBC

4. Climate Literacy: S. Harris and S. Burch, UBC

5. Introduction to Systematic Program Design: G. Kizcales, UBC

In terms of comparability I’m going to treat Game Theory I and II as one MOOC, as combined they were about the same length as the other MOOCs (between 8-12 weeks)

Basic statistics

330,150 signed up (82,500 on average per course)

164,935 logged in at least once (41,000 per course)

12,031 took final exam (3,000 per course)

8,174 earned course certificate (2,000 per course)

60-70% already had a post-secondary degree

30-40% were North American, with participants from nearly every country in the world.

Course development

None of the instructors had taught an online course before, but were supported by instructional designers, media development staff, and academic assistants (graduate and undergraduate students).

One major difference between UBC MOOCs and its online credit courses (which are primarily LMS-based) was the extensive use of video, the main component of the MOOC pilot courses.

Video production

305 videos constituting a total of 65 hours were produced. Each MOOC used a different method of production:

  • Intensive studio (Climate Literacy)
  • Hybrid studio plus instructor desktop (Systematic Program Design)
  • Light studio production (Game Theory I and II)
  • Instructor desktop (Useful Genetics)

Web pages

All the MOOCs except Games Theory also included weekly modules as HTML-based web pages, which is a variation of the Coursera design default model. Altogether 98 HTML module pages were developed. The weekly modules were used to provide guidance to students on learning goals, amount of work expected, an overview of activities, and additional quiz or assignment help. (All standard practice in UBC’s LMS-based credit courses.)

Assessment

1,049 quiz questions were developed, of which just over half were graded.

There were four peer assessments in total across all the MOOCs.

Course delivery

As well as the faculty member responsible for each MOOC, graduate and undergraduate academic assistants were a crucial component of all courses, with the following responsibilities:

  • directly assisting learners
  • troubleshooting technical problems
  • conducting quality assurance activities

There was very little one-on-one interaction between the main instructor and learners, but academic assistants monitored and moderated the online forum discussions.

Costs

As always, costing is a difficult exercise. Appendix B of the report gives a pilot total of $217,657, but this excludes academic assistance or, perhaps the most significant cost, instructor time.

Working from the video production costs ($95,350) and the proportion of costs (44%) devoted to video production in Figure 1 in the report, I estimate the direct cost at $216,700, or approximately $54,000 per MOOC, excluding faculty time and co-ordination support, but including academic assistance.

However, the range of cost is almost as important. The video production costs for Climate Literacy, which used intensive studio production, were more than six times the video production costs of Systematic Program Design (hybrid studio + desktop).

MOOCs as OERs

  • the UBC instructors are using their MOOC materials in their own on-campus, for-credit classes in a flipped classroom model
  • courses are left open and active on Coursera for self-paced learning
  • porting of video materials as open access YouTube videos
  • two courses (Climate Literacy and Useful Genetics) added Creative Commons licenses for re-use

Challenges

  • copyright clearance (Coursera owns the copyright so third party copyright needs to be cleared)
  • higher than expected time demands on all involved
  • iterative upgrades to the Coursera platform
  • partner relationship management (UBC + Coursera + Stanford University) was time-consuming.
  • training and managing academic assistants, especially time management
  • the Coursera platform limited instructors’ ability to develop desired course activities
  • Coursera’s peer assessment functionality in particular was limiting

Lessons

  • UBC’s prior experience in credit-based online learning led to better-designed, more interactive and more engaging MOOCs
  • learners always responded positively to instructor ‘presence’ in forums or course announcements
  • MOOC students were motivated by grades
  • MOOC students were willing to critically engage in critiquing instructors’ expertise and teaching
  • open publishing via MOOCs is a strong motivator for instructors
  • MOOCs require significant investment.

Conclusion

All the MOOCs received positive feedback and comments from students. UBC was able to gain direct experience in and knowledge of MOOCs and look at how this might inform both their for-credit on-campus and online teaching. UBC was also able to bring its experience in for-credit online learning to strengthening the design of MOOCs. Lastly it was able to make much more widely known the quality of UBC instructors and course materials.

Comment

First, congratulations to UBC for

  • experimenting with MOOCs
  • conducting the evaluation
  • making the report publicly available.

It is clear from the comments of participants in the appendices that at least some of the participants (we don’t know how many) were very pleased with the courses. As usual though with evaluation reports on MOOCs, there is no assessment of learning other than the end of course quiz-based tests. I don’t care too much about completion rates, but some measurement of student satisfaction would have been helpful.

It is also significant that UBC has now decided to move from Coursera to edX as its platform for MOOCs. edX, which is open source and allows partners to modify and adapt the platform, provides the flexibility that Coursera lacked, despite its many iterative ‘improvements’.

This also demonstrates the hubris of MOOC platform developers in ignoring best design principles in online learning when they designed their platforms. It is clear that UBC designers were able to improve the design of their MOOCs by drawing on prior for-credit online experience, but also that the MOOC platforms are still very limited in enabling the kind of learning activities that lead to student engagement and success.

The UBC report also highlighted the importance (and cost) of providing some form of learner support in course delivery. The use of academic assistants in particular clearly made the MOOCs more interactive and engaging, as well as limited but effective interventions from the instructors themselves, once again supported by (and confirming) prior research on the importance of instructor presence for successful for-credit online learning.

I very much appreciate the cost data provided by UBC, and the breakdown of production and delivery costs is extremely valuable, but I have to challenge the idea of providing any costs that exclude the time of the instructors. This is by far the largest and most important cost in MOOCs and the notion that MOOCs are free of instructor cost is to fly in the face of any respectable form of economics.

It is clear that MOOCs are more expensive to date per hour of study time than LMS-based for-credit online courses. We still do not have enough data to give a precise figure, and in any case, as the UBC study shows, cost is very much a factor of design. However, even without instructors costs, the UBC MOOCs at $54,000 each for between 8-12 weeks are already more than the average cost of a 13 week for-credit LMS-based online course, including instructor time.

This is partly due to the increased instructor time in preparation/production, but also to the higher cost of video production.  I am not against the use of video in principle, but it must add value. Using it for content transmission when this can be done so much more cheaply textually and/or by audio is a waste of the medium’s potential (although perhaps more motivating for the instructor).

More importantly, every institution contemplating MOOCs needs to do a cost-benefit exercise. Is it better to invest in MOOCs or credit-based online learning or both? If MOOCs are more expensive, what are the added benefits they provide and does this more than make up for not only the extra cost, but the lost opportunity of investing in (more) credit-based online learning or other forms of campus-based learning? I know what my answer would be.

 

Transforming university teaching and learning: UBC’s strategy for flexible learning

UBC campus, Vancouver BC

UBC campus, Vancouver BC

Flexible Learning Implementation Team (2014) Flexible Learning – Charting a Strategic Vision for UBC (Vancouver Campus. Vancouver BC: Office of the Provost, University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s premier research universities with almost 60,000 students. It usually features within the top 30 universities worldwide in university rankings.

For the last 18 months, UBC has been developing a comprehensive strategy for teaching and learning for the future, and last week issued a report on its vision and how it plans to implement that vision. Although Flexible Learning is the term UBC has chosen to describe this strategy, it is in fact far more comprehensive and wide ranging than just blended or fully online learning. It is really about the transformation of teaching and learning in response to local, regional and global changes and challenges, based on a substantial amount of prior research, internal discussion, and input from external consultants (declaration of interest: I played a very small part in some of the early discussions of strategy).

First, the breaking news, then a summary of the main points from the strategy document.

Breaking news

This really represents the first concrete actions resulting from this strategic initiative.

  1. Research report published on UBC’s first four MOOCs: These MOOCs were delivered through the Coursera platform. I will cover this report in a separate blog post.
  2. Moving from Coursera to edX: UBC has now joined edX as a Charter Member, giving it a seat on edX’s Academic Advisory Board. UBC will develop four new MOOCs for delivery on edX in 2014-2015.
  3. Revamping Continuing and Professional Education: UBC has established, within the Provost’s Office, a new unit to work in close partnership with Faculties in developing both applied and access programs. More on this and how it affects the current Division of Continuing Studies later in this post.
  4. Improving the learning technology ecosystem: basically a response to widespread faculty disenchantment with the implementation of the latest version of UBC’s LMS, Blackboard Connect.

However, these four developments are literally the tip of an iceberg, which is much larger and more significant.

The strategic vision

As always, I recommend a careful reading of the whole 22 page document, even though it is not the easiest of reads. Any summary diminishes the complexity of the discussion, because there are so many inter-related themes and developments to which the university is attempting to respond. I provide this summary though in the hope that it will spike your interest enough to make the effort, as I see this document as one of the most significant for the future of public higher education in Canada – and elsewhere.

What does the university mean by flexible learning?

From the document (p.2)

We define Flexible Learning as UBC’s response to the opportunities and challenges presented by rapid advances in information and communication technologies, informed by the results of learning research and motivated by the objectives of improving student learning, extending access to UBC and strengthening university operating effectiveness.

See below for more detail on what that actually means.

What’s driving the change?

  • learner and employer expectations: need for a flexible workforce, greater flexibility in delivery and offerings, and more emphasis on measurable outcomes
  • demographics: increased global demand, with the local population of students older and often working
  • policy of governments (generally): growing reliance on tuition revenue; a belief that online learning is cheaper
  • disruptive technologies: MOOCs, cloud, mobile, adaptive learning, automated assessment, learning analytics…..

Market segmentation

Different categories of learners:

  • traditional university students (65% of the market), younger, mainly ‘commuting’: want rich campus-based learning experiences
  • convenience-driven degree-seekers: older, working, want blended/online learning
  • practitioners: seeking credentials for professional development; able to pay; under-represented to date at UBC
  • growth learners: seeking non-credentialed learning; a large and growing market segment.

All segments want more flexibility, both in delivery and range of content offerings.

Main objectives (for flexible learning)

  1. improved student learning
  2. expanded access to UBC content
  3. greater operating effectiveness

Main strategies

1. Strengthening UBC’s traditional role: through:

  • blended learning (including integration of MOOC content)
  • improving the campus experience and more personalization of learning through more modular programming
  • strategic academic program transformation

2. Revenue growth: through:

  • strategic expansion of continuing/professional education, especially applied master’s programs, certificates, badges
  • expanding access through ‘bridging’, e.g. PLA, MOOCs, summer programs

3. Academic partnerships (joining edX is one example)

Governance and management

The UBC Board and Executive approved the outline plan in 2013. Two teams were established within the Provost’s Office:

  • a leadership team, responsible for developing vision, strategy and policies, chaired by the Provost, with eight members
  • an implementation team, with another eight members, chaired by a Vice Provost.

Support is also provided by staff from the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology and from the IT Division, as well as designated contact people within each Faculty.

UBC has committed a total of $5 million ($1 million already spent) to support this initiative. (The total UBC annual operating budget is over $1 billion).

Comment

I’m watching this as someone completely outside the university. UBC is a very large and complex organization, once described by one former Provost as being managed by 12 barons all plotting to become king (although the climate is very different today). I cannot judge how far the reality of what’s happening on the ground differs from the vision, and in any case it is still very early days.

However, it is important to stress that this is a university-wide initiative (at least for the main Vancouver campus – UBC also has a semi-autonomous and much smaller campus in the interior of the province.) The strategy seems to have widespread support at the senior executive level, and a lot of momentum resulting from an infusion of significant money but more importantly as a result of widespread discussion and consultation within the university. Certainly the blended learning component is already getting a lot of traction, with some major re-designs of large undergraduate classes already in progress. How all this affects though the main body of the faculty and students at the hard edge of teaching and learning is impossible for me to judge.

The establishment of a new ‘hub’ within the Provost’s office for continuing and professional education (CPE) is particularly interesting since UBC has long had a strong and extensive Division of Continuing Studies, which offers a wide range of non-credit programming. However,

  • the ability to re-purpose existing content from credit courses into certificates, badges and non-credentialed offerings such as MOOCs,
  • the growing market for professional masters programs, especially online,
  • the increasing reconfiguration of higher education as a continuous lifelong learning escalator rather than a series of different, discrete floors (bachelors, masters, doctorates, non-credit),
  • the opportunities for revenue generation flowing directly back to the faculties,

all make essential a rethinking of the whole CPE activities of a university.

At the same time, the Division of Continuing Studies at UBC, as elsewhere, has many staff with a range of special skills and knowledge, such as

  • marketing,
  • direct access to employers and industry (often through the hiring of working professionals as part-time instructors),
  • the ability to identify and take risks with emerging content areas,
  • experience in operating in a highly market-driven, competitive cost-recovery/profit environment.

These are not attributes currently within the capacity or even interest of most academic departments. It will be an interesting challenge to see how the knowledge and experience of the Division of Continuing Studies can best be integrated with the new initiative, and how the new development in the Provost’s Office affects the operation of the Division of Continuing Studies.

Another critical factor is the appointment of a new President, who has pledged support for the strategy. However, he also said on his inauguration that the university will increase its base funding for research by at least $100-million. He did not specify though where the money would come from. I leave you to compare that to the $5 million allocated to this initiative and to judge how much impact finding another $100 million base funding for research might have on teaching and learning at UBC. I know, it’s not a zero sum game, but….

Overall, though, I find it heartening that UBC is showing such leadership and initiative in grappling with the major forces now impacting on public universities. It has a vision and a plan for teaching and learning in the future, that looks at teaching, technology, students and the changing external environment in an integrated and thoughtful manner, which in itself is a major accomplishment. It will be fascinating to see how all this actually plays out over time.

A review of a Harvard/MIT research paper on edX MOOCs

 edX graphic

Ho, A. et al. (2014) HarvardX and MITx: The First Year of Open Online Courses Fall 2012-Summer 2013 (HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1), January 21

This 32 page report provides a range of data and statistics about the first 17 MOOCs offered through edX by MIT and Harvard.

Methodology

MOOCs raise a number of interesting challenges when doing research, such as measuring participation, and defining success. In any interpretation of the results, these methodological challenges need to be considered. The researchers identified the following challenges:

1. Post-hoc research. The research design was established after the courses were designed and delivered, so data on some key critical research variables (e.g., socio-economic status) were not available or collected.

2. Variation in the object of the research. Although limited to MOOCs offered on the edX platform, the 17 MOOCs varied considerably in educational objectives, style, length, types of learner and other factors.

3. Measuring levels of participation. Participants varied from those who logged in only once to those that completed a certificate (and then some who went on to take more MOOCs). As a result, the researchers came up with four mutually exclusive categories of participation:

  • Only Registered: Registrants who never access the courseware.
  • Only Viewed: Non-certified registrants who access the courseware, accessing less than half of the available chapters.
  • Only Explored: Non-certified Registrants who access more than half of the available chapters in the courseware.
  • Certified: Registrants who earn a certificate in the course.

4. Percentages are misleading when numbers are large. This was a new one for me. I know one should never use percentages when n <20, specially when generalizing beyond the sample, but in this instance, the researchers argue that small percentages (e.g. <5%) are also misleading when the number the percentage refers to can be very large, e.g. when 3% = 1,400 students who completed a certificate. In such cases, the absolute numbers matter more than the percentage, so the researchers claim.

5. Measures of success The researchers argue that traditional measures of academic success, such as the percentage of those who successfully complete a course, are not valid (the word used is ‘counter-productive’) for open online courses.

Main results

Participation

  • 17 MOOCs
  • 841,687 course registrations: average per MOOC: 51,263
  • 597,692 ‘persons’: average of 1.4 MOOCs per person
  • 292,852 (35%) never engaged with the content (“Only registered”)
  • 469,702 (56%) viewed (i.e. clicked on a module) less than half of the content (“Only viewed”)
  • 35,937 (4%) explored more than half the content, but did not get a certificate (average per MOOC: 2,114)
  • 43,196  (5%) earned certificates (average per MOOC: 2,540)

Participants

  • 234,463 (33%) report a high school education or lower
  • 66% of all participants, and 74% of all who obtained a certificate, have a bachelor’s degree or above
  • 213,672 (29%) of all participants, and 33% of all who obtained a certificate, are female
  • 26 was the median age, with 45,844 (6%) over 50 years of age
  • 20,745 (3%) of all participants were from the UN listed least developed countries
  • there are ‘considerable differences in …. demographics such as gender, age… across courses.”

Comments

First, congratulations to Harvard and MIT for not only doing this research on MOOCs, but also for making it openly available and releasing it early.

Second, I agree that percentages can be misleading, a focus on certification is not the best way to assess the value of a MOOC, and that absolute figures matter for assessing the value of MOOCs. However, this is NOT the way most commentators and the media have focused on MOOCs. Percentages and certification DO matter if MOOCs are being seen as a substitute or a replacement for formal education. MOOCs need to be judged for what they are, a somewhat unique – and valuable – form of non-formal education.

Third, if we do look at absolute numbers, they are in my view not that impressive – an average of 2,540 per course earning a certificate, and less than 5,000 per course following more than half the content. The Open University, with completely open access, was getting higher numbers of students completing credit-based foundation courses when it started. The History Channel (a cable TV channel in North America) does a lot better, in terms of numbers. We have already seen overall average numbers for MOOCs dropping considerably as they have become more common. So when we account for the Hawthorne effect, the results are certainly not startling.

Fourth, these results so much reminded me of the research on educational broadcasting 30 years ago (for more details, see footnote). If you substituted ‘MOOC’ for ‘educational television’, the results would be almost identical (except there was a higher proportion of women than men participating). Perhaps they should read my very old book, “Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation.” (I still have a few copies in a cupboard somewhere).

Lastly, this brings me to my final point. Where is the reference to relevant previous research or theory (see, for instance the footnote to this post)? There are certainly unique aspects to MOOCs that deserve to be researched. However, while MOOCs may be new, non-formal learning is not, nor is credit-based online learning, nor is open education, nor is educational broadcasting, of which MOOCs are a new format. Much of what we already know about these areas also applies to some aspects of MOOCs. Once again, though, Harvard and MIT seem to live in an environment that pays no attention to what happens outside their cocoon. If it’s not theirs, it doesn’t count. This is simply not good enough. In no other field would you get away with ignoring all previous research or work in related areas such as credit-based online learning, open education or educational broadcasting.

Having got that off my chest, I did find the paper well written and interesting and certainly worth a careful read. I look forward to reading – and reviewing – future papers.

Footnote: MOOCs and the onion theory of educational broadcasting

I eventually found a copy of my book. I blew the dust off it and guess what I found.

Here’s what I wrote about ‘levels of commitment’ in non-formal educational broadcasting in 1984 (p.99):

At the centre of the onion is a small core of fully committed students who work through the whole course, and, where available, take an end-of-course assessment or examination. Around the small core will be a rather larger layer of students who do not take any examination but do enrol with a local class or correspondence school. There may be an even larger layer of students who, as well as watching and listening, also buy the accompanying textbook, but who do not enrol in any courses. Then, by far the largest group, are those that just watch or listen to the programmes. Even within this last group, there will be considerable variations, from those who watch or listen fairly regularly, to those, again a much larger number, who watch or listen to just one programme.

Now compare this to Figure 2 (p.13) of the Harvard/MIT report:

MOOC onionI also wrote (p.100):

A sceptic may say that the only ones who can be said to have learned effectively are the tiny minority that worked right through the course and successfully took the final assessment…A counter argument would be that broadcasting can be considered successful if it merely attracts viewers or listeners who might otherwise have shown no interest in the topic; it is the numbers exposed to the material that matter…the key issue then is whether broadcasting does attract to education those who would not otherwise have been interested, or merely provides yet another opportunity for those who are already well educated…There is a good deal of evidence that it is still the better educated in Britain and Europe that make the most use of non-formal educational broadcasting.

Thanks for the validation of my 1984 theory, Harvard/MIT.

Reference

Bates, A. (1984) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation. London: Constable

 

A MOOC platform open to all?

© RubyLane.com, 2013

Empson, R. (2013) edX Merges With Stanford’s Class2Go To Build An Open-Source Online Learning Platform Tech Crunch, April 3

Empson, R. (2012) Class2Go: Stanford’s New Open-Source Platform For Online Education Tech Crunch, September 17

Markoff, J. (2013) Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break New York Times, April 4

Stanford engineers have developed an open source MOOC platform called Course2Go that is different from the proprietary platforms developed and used by Coursera and Udemy.

What makes it different is

its early dedication to building and maintaining a totally open-source platform. This means that the platform aims to be both free of cost and of pricey IP, while professors are free to contribute to Class2Go’s code and get involved in the development of the platform, as well as to collaborate with other institutions and organizations.

Rather than build its own platform, edX has decided to make use of Course2Go.

Although not stated in those terms, Class2Go will no longer be focused on building its own, independent platform, and instead its team will devote all of its attention to helping edX go open-source. In other words, Stanford will be integrating all of the features of its existing Class2Go platform into the edX platform, using Class2Go’s infrastructure as an internal platform for online coursework for on-campus and distance learners.

As of June 1, the company said, developers everywhere will be able to freely access the source code of the edX learning platform, including code for its Learning Management System (LMS); Studio, a course authoring tool; xBlock, an application programming interface (API) for integrating third-party learning objects; and machine grading API’s. In addition, edX will look to encourage participation from third-party developers by providing technical and process guidelines as well as additional support.

At the same time, edX has announced that it has developed a tool for automatically grading essay-type answers based on the use of artificial intelligence.

The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to first grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously.

The software will assign a grade depending on the scoring system created by the teacher, whether it is a letter grade or numerical rank. It will also provide general feedback, like telling a student whether an answer was on topic or not.

The New York Times article also presents some of the standard criticisms to automated essay marking, which to date has serious issues regarding validity, i.e. nonsense answers that use the right words get highly graded, while valid answers that use non-standard wording are failed or marked lowly.

Comment

The development of an open source MOOC platform seems to me to not only make a lot of sense technologically (how many different MOOC platforms do we need?), but more importantly allows any institution to offer its own MOOC without having to go through commercial operators such as Coursera. This will substantially bring down the cost of participating in MOOCs for most institutions (see a later post coming shortly). However, more consideration needs to be given to less objectivist or behaviourist approaches to teaching when developing these tools. For instance, it would be good to see Course2Go developing software (and the accompanying human approaches) to manage discussion groups on a large scale.

The bigger question is when will these Ivy League engineers start talking to educators about pedagogy, educational validity, and the nature of learning? I have no objection in principle about researching and developing teaching approaches that will work on a very large scale, so long as they adequately deal with the essentials of teaching and learning, and not just build what is relatively easy to develop in engineering terms.

This is what makes the current focus within x-MOOCs so infuriating. There is clearly huge potential for some major breakthroughs in developing large-scale, low-cost education, but some recognition that this needs to be a team effort that requires educational as well as engineering input on an equal basis is absolutely essential, otherwise it can end up being an extremely dangerous and destructive development, given the weight given to Ivy League developments in the mainstream media.

Outlook for online learning in 2013: online learning comes of age

FunTab Class 9.1 Android ICS Tablet: will 2013 be the year of the tablet?

In a previous post, I talked about the difficulties in making predictions in online learning. Bearing in mind the hazardous nature of this endeavour, here are my predictions – or perhaps better, I should say ‘forecasts’ – for online learning in 2013. The percentages are not probabilities in a statistical sense, but an estimate of the proportion of institutions in Canada that will move in these directions in 2013. Thus in (1) below, I forecast that for between 10-30% of Canadian universities and colleges, online learning starts to become a core activity affecting all its teaching areas during 2013.

The forecasts are listed in my order of importance, in terms of their likely impact on post-secondary education.

1. From the periphery to the centre: one year 10-30%; three years: 30-50%; five years: 60-80%

This is the year online learning comes of age. If we take 1995 as the first year that online learning really took off with the development of web-based online courses, then online learning becomes 18 years of age in 2013 (you get to vote in federal elections at 18 in Canada – and even drink alcohol in some provinces.).

More importantly, I see 2013 as a terrific year for online learning, where it moves from being an interesting sidebar, operating on the fringes of an institution’s core, to becoming central to an institution’s operation. In particular, online learning will not continue to be supported or housed mainly in Continuing Education or Faculty of Extension, but will start to become integrated within the core activities of faculties and academic departments. If this is so – and I will provide some evidence that this is already beginning to happen – then another set of sub-forecasts fall from this.

2. Hybrid learningone year 20-40%; three years: 40-60%; five years: 70-90%

What’s primarily going to drive this move to the centre is not MOOCs but hybrid learning, by which I mean the re-design of courses to integrate the best of online and campus-based teaching. This is being driven by dissatisfaction with very large lecture classes in first and second year university courses, the need for increased productivity/better learning in times of economic austerity, and faculty’s increasing familiarity with online learning in supporting regular lecture-based classroom teaching.

Initially in many institutions the move will be crude pedagogically, with an emphasis on video recording of lectures and flipped classes, or merely increasing the amount of online learning supporting regular classes. Over time, though, as instructors get more experience in hybrid learning, get more instructional design support, and greater pressure from the administration, full course re-design will increase, but major redesigns around hybrid learning may take as long as five years in many institutions. One reason for this slow adoption of re-design is the current lack of appropriate models for hybrid learning that have been tested and evaluated; this will change though as experience grows. Best practice for hybrid learning will emerge, as it did for fully online learning.

I see this move being quicker and more in-depth in Canada than the USA, because Canada has a large number of dual-mode institutions, i.e. institutions that for many years have had both on-campus and distance programs. Many of these institutions (and more importantly, many faculty) already have extensive experience in fully online courses, mechanisms to register, support and assess online learners, and the expertise and technical staff to facilitate a move to hybrid learning. However, the support staff are often not located within the academic departments, so some reorganization will be necessary, and this will take time.

Although the USA has a number of dual-mode institutions, especially among the land grant universities, it also has a great number of institutions that are either very new to online learning, or have outsourced or isolated online learning from the main campus activities, or even more so, some very prestigious institutions that have no online activities and are just waking up and smelling the coffee (mainly the MOOC brand). However, this slow start for many institutions may be mitigated by the tendency of US institutions to move faster and farther than Canadian institutions, once they get going. Thus Canadian institutions have a window of opportunity to become leaders in hybrid learning but it won’t be open very long.

3. A strategic institutional approach to online and flexible learning: one year 5-15%; three years: 15-25%; five years: 25-50%

I expect to see online learning increasingly appearing as strategic initiatives within institutional plans (where institutions actually have concrete plans, which is still a surprisingly small proportion). A good example of such a strategic approach is the University of Western Sydney, which has developed a detailed strategy for hybrid learning which includes the issuing of iPads to all first year students. I know at least five universities in Canada that are currently in the process of developing strategic initiatives or plans for online, hybrid or flexible learning. I know there are many more institutions out there starting to move in this direction.

There are several factors that will drive this trend during 2013:

  • political pressure, from boards and governments looking for greater productivity and innovation. Ontario is a good example.
  • MOOCs: intelligently run institutions will ask themselves the broader question of what their long-term goals and strategies are for online learning before making any significant investments in MOOCs, but boards and faculty wanting to jump into MOOCs will start forcing this question. For an excellent discussion of this issue, see Joshua Kim’s post on MOOCs, Online Learning and the Wrong Conversation; also see  What should we do about MOOCs?” – the Board of Governors discusses.
  • changing demographics: as the population gets older, so do students. In many traditional, campus-based institutions, over the next few years there will be more students over 25 years of age than under – many two year colleges already have passed this point. In other words, lifelong learners will exceed high school leavers in new admissions. Is the institution ready for this demographic change? If not, it will lose students and funding. Online learning is likely to be a key strategy for dealing with this future shock.
  • the move to hybrid learning: this will raise issues of resources, organization, and priorities – in other words, you will need a plan
  • a slow but gradual move towards more formal academic planning; deciding on the methods of delivery – such as hybrid or fully online – as well as what courses or programs to offer will fit naturally into such planning cycles and decision-making.

However, many institutions will struggle with this development in 2013. Planning is often resisted by faculty as being bureaucratic (poorly done it can be) and as restricting their academic freedom (which is nonsense, but nevertheless a reality, unless they themselves get involved.) Furthermore, there are few places to go to get help with planning for online learning (my phone number is 604…..), other than private sector companies (see outsourcing below) who have their own interests. Nevertheless developing institutional strategies for online learning will become increasingly necessary.

4. Outsourcingone year 0-10%; three years: 5-15%; five years: 15-25% (figures for Canada – double for USA)

This is a corollary of the previous three trends. I see this as more pertinent to the USA than to Canada, where most institutions have at least some resources and experience already in online learning, and also are wary of private-public partnerships. However, I do see some institutions outsourcing all or a significant part of their online learning activities to organizations such as Academic Partnerships, Pearson or its subsidiaries, or 2U. In order of probability, I list the services most likely to be outsourced:
  • 24×7 technical support
  • learning management systems
  • marketing of online courses
  • online student administration:
  • registration, assignment submission, assessment
  • learner support/tutoring
  • course design
  • all online activities as a separate unit, with fees/royalties paid to the institution

The decision to outsource will vary from smart (it’s not a core activity and they can do it better and cheaper than we can) to not so smart (panic: we’re so far behind it’s the only way we can catch up.) In the long run, if online learning moves to the core, i.e. hybrid learning, then you can’t afford all the expertise to be externally owned and controlled. However, not all online learning activities are core or unique to an institution, so I do see outsourcing increasing in 2013, sometimes even for good reasons.

5. The evolution of MOOCs: the trough of disillusionment? One year: 20-30% of institutions; three years: 5-15%; five years: 10-20% (having reaching the plateau of productivity, the rest having exited the MOOC market).

Whither MOOCs in 2013? Well, first, they are not going away. Indeed in many ways I expect activity to ramp up in 2013 as many new MOOCs now in development begin to roll out. EdX in particular will be worth watching with a number of courses due out in the spring. I will be particularly interested in their design. Will the EdX courses reflect best practice in online learning (from the past) or new features based on recent research into cognitive learning, or new features drawn solely from the information sciences – or even best, a mix of all these? Or will it be the same old, same old recorded lectures?

I suspect that towards the end of the year, MOOCs will start entering the trough of disillusionment, although I doubt if they will hit bottom until 2014, when evaluation reports start to roll in, and the universities participating decide whether the business model works for them. I think there is enough momentum though to carry them through 2013.

© The technology hype cycle: Gartner Inc, 2012

I do expect MOOCs to survive over the long term, but they will be smaller, more diverse in design and targeting, and better integrated within ‘the system’ of post-secondary education. Indeed, some, such as the current cMOOCs, will continue to exist outside or in parallel to the formal education system. MOOCs will in essence fill a niche, or rather a range of niches, and important niches at that. They will not though have as much impact on institutions as the move to hybrid learning and fully online credit programs, although MOOCs will help to open up, but only a little, many previously ‘closed’ institutions. MOOCs will provide an accessible, low-cost source of up-dating for professionals, although there will still be increased demand for qualifications from lifelong learners through credit programming. MOOCs though, at least as we know them, will not solve the challenge of providing high quality, effective education to the billions in developing countries who most need it, because of language, lack of Internet access, and materials that are inappropriate for their learning needs.

The biggest impact of MOOCs from an institutional perspective in North America is likely to be on continuing education departments, many of whom for survival have relied on income from fees for their mainly non-credit courses. MOOCs will not destroy that market but will cause a lot of financial problems for these departments, especially where they have been offering non-credit online courses at a high fee. The response I think will be for many universities to charge a small fee for participation, and a larger fee for assessment, which will have a dramatic downward impact on numbers enrolling for MOOCs. Other institutions (or in particular instructors) will cap numbers (turning them into SOOCs – small open online courses) and run them in parallel with their credit courses, and some institutions may even offer credit to ‘open’ students who successfully complete such ‘capped’ courses, even if such students were not previously admitted to the university. (See University of Maine PI as an example). I also see some two-year colleges developing MOOCs, although they already have competition from providers such as Alison. Open universities are also likely to be impacted, but not as much as one might think, because they offer credit programs, and have in some cases been leaders in offering open educational resources (e.g. the UK Open University’s OpenLearn).

Lastly, we are likely to see some real innovation in online learning design in MOOCs. There is less risk in getting things wrong in a ‘free’ course, so more to be gained by an instructor in taking a risk, and the challenge of handling very large numbers requires innovation in software and design approaches, and a chance at getting large data sets and statistically significant results with the very large numbers involved (and no ethics committee to go through, in many cases.). The successful innovations will in most cases easily transfer over to credit online courses, so everyone will benefit.

At the same time, sadly many instructors will go on delivering video lectures, and will get away with it because of their research reputation or the brand name of the institution to which they are (often nominally) attached. However, MOOCs could and should be much more than this.

6. Open text books: One year: 25-35%: Three years: 45-55%; Five years: 90-95% 

From a tiny seed a forest grows. In 2012 the provincial government of British Columbia announced an open text book scheme. In essence, it is asking BC institutions to come forward with proposals for developing open text books for large enrollment courses, such as Psychology 100. The program is modelled on a similar program from the state of California. The idea is that the text once developed will be available for free for all students taking Psychology 100 across the province, although it will be left to individual instructors to decide whether or not to use the open textbook or other commercially available textbooks.

This is an incredibly smart political and educational move, for several reasons:
  • Post-secondary students in BC are currently spending on average over $700 a year on text books. This will reduce their costs dramatically, and the government gets the credit
  • Secondly, at least in the case of BC, it doesn’t cost the government any new money. It already had a modest annual online course development fund of $750,000, managed by BCCampus, which will now be used to develop the textbooks.
  • Third, if you are developing an online textbook, it makes a lot of sense to include student activities, video clips, OER animations or simulations, etc. In other words, you not only get a textbook, but a wrap-around course. Individual instructors can add, amend or remove not only content but also the wrap-around material, so they can individualize parts of a course without having to redesign the whole thing – AND they get a feeling of ownership that way
  • If, as I hope, two of the leading research universities, such as UBC and the University of Victoria or Simon Fraser University, were to get together, they could ensure that the text book would cover at least 50% of the students enrolled in that level of course in the province, and would put enormous pressure on the other universities to follow suit. If they were to partner with universities in other provinces, the costs of developing such wrap-around courses would come down dramatically for each institution. Thus this has the potential for scaling up dramatically.

If I was a betting man, I think this is the place where the OER movement will end up. It provides the means to combine open content, pedagogy, delivery, course individualization, student cost savings, and economies of scale. What’s not to like about this (unless you’re a commercial publisher?). Indeed, there are only two things that can really stop this from taking off: faculty intransigence (not invented here; interferes with my academic freedom); and political lobbying by publishers, which I don’t underestimate.

7. The year of the tablet? One year: 10-15%: Three years: 20-25%; Five years: 40-50% 

Of all the predictions, this is the one where I have least certainty. Logically, tablet use should grow in 2013. It’s the obvious way to store and access textbooks, they provide any time anywhere access to learning, they are more portable and cheaper than laptops, and they could provide extraordinary interactivity with learning materials. Perhaps even more importantly in the long run, students can use tablets for collecting multimedia in-the-field evidence, and for creating multimedia demonstrations of their learning. One or two universities are already giving all first year students a free tablet, such as the University of Western Sydney.

However, there are many reasons why this is going to be slow progress in 2013:

  • first, at least in North America, they are still too expensive. They need, like the Aakash 2 in India, to come down in price below $100. More significantly in Canada, roaming costs are still too high, as soon as you step outside the campus. If we can pre-load online courses and open textbooks, then a higher tablet price might be acceptable, but the roaming charges are a killer
  • no-one’s designing courses for tablets, but until we do, we won’t get the true affordances of the technology. It is simply not sufficient just to transfer over courses designed around a learning management system. The extra cost to the student cannot be justified. If, however, we started designing courses around the affordances of the technology, and in particular if we have tablets that enable the creation and adaptation of multimedia materials by the student, then their use could be better justified
  • tablets are still better at publishing and distribution than the creation of materials, although they are getting better. Indeed a lot of thinking suggests that they are complementary to rather than a replacement for laptops. If that is true, then tablets remain too expensive for education on a large scale
  • you need an institutional strategy for blended and online learning into which the use of tablets can be fitted; one-off experiments in individual courses or even programs will be hard to justify
  • the technology is still evolving rapidly, so what first year students get this year could easily be obsolete by the time they get to their fourth year.

So there are too many uncertainties to be confident about tablets taking off this year in post-secondary education, although I do believe their time will come.

8. Flexible course design (FCD) One year: 10-15%: Three years: 20-25%; Five years: 40-50% 

We are now getting much more into speculation than evidence-based forecasting, so treat this as very tentative.

I see FCD as being somewhere in between the full, ADDIE-type instructional design model, and the complete lack of pedagogy in video lecture-based online and hybrid learning. It will be developed in response to VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, which is a pretty good description of online learning these days.

I see FCD as being different from rapid instructional design (RID), although it shares some commonality. The focus in FCD is not so much to reduce the cost of course design, by shortening the process (as in RID), but to enshrine core pedagogical principles while responding to a constantly changing academic, technological and organizational context. FCD also tends to be more constructivist in its approach compared with the more behaviourist approach often found in RID. In particular, FCD will increasingly focus on the design and integration of learner-directed activities, such as project work and multimedia assignments, which cannot be easily controlled or specified in detail or in advance, and to integrating new and educationally relevant technologies as they become available. FCD will also not fight traditional teaching methods applied to online learning, but will work with faculty to gradually modify their practices to a more pedagogically sound approach over a period of time.

9. International

Mexico

Watch Mexico. Mexico waxes and wains in online learning. For many years, Tec de Monterrey (private), Universidad de Guadalajara (public), and a number of other universities have had successful online programs, but these have reached less than 5% of post-secondary learners. However, the new President has promised a national online virtual university, and more significantly, has promised to open up Mexico’s telecommunications industry to more competition. The latter should result in the cost of Internet access declining rapidly from its very high current level, opening up a huge market for online learning, as currently less than 30% of the population have Internet access at home. I see 2013 as a year when the foundations are solidified for a rapid growth in online learning in subsequent years.

Asia (especially India)

Asia already has massive numbers of online learners, particularly in South Korea, Malaysia and China. India now has the Aakash 2 tablet, and a strategy for online science teaching through the Indian Institues of Technology, and is likely to expand its online teaching rapidly, although lack of infrastructure and Internet access remain huge barriers. However, the government of India is putting in place a national high speed network connecting the major universities and colleges. India also has a thriving e-learning service and course design industry, mainly focused to date on international and business services but which will be able to ramp up online learning in India very quickly as Internet access improves, mainly through university and college campuses also being opened up for off-campus students requiring online access. In terms of sheer numbers, then, India will continue to develop and evolve its e-learning activities.

10. Expect the unexpected: One year: 100%; Three years: 100%; Five years: 100%

These are the monsters lurking in the shadows. In online learning, the only thing you can really be certain of is the uncertainty. These are Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns, so by definition they are unpredictable or non-forecastable.

However, there are also some known unknowns that perhaps we should discuss. (MOOCs are good examples – they were known in 2011, but the likelihood that they would take off in 2012 in the way they did was not known, at least by most pundits.) Here are some possible bogeymen to lie awake worrying about:

  • the privatization of post-secondary education in the USA. Many states are in dire financial trouble. Will this result in some states privatizing their public post-secondary education systems? What price would Alabama State University fetch from a commercial buyer and how would that affect the state’s finances? If some states do decide on privatization, expect online learning to increase – indeed, online learning will likely increase in financially challenged states without privatization, because, rightly or wrongly, it will be seen as cheaper; also expect federal student financial aid to take a hit in the USA as Congress grapples with the deficit.
  • a major Internet player (Apple, Google, Facebook or Amazon) jumps into the online learning market, perhaps in partnership with some elite universities, and takes a major share of the for-credit online market, because of lower costs, quality content, and accreditation from elite universities (but with a different category of degree from their on-campus programs)
  • The US Congress backs publishers and shuts down all publicly funded open educational resources; copyright legislation is tightened on US-based Internet companies making it all but impossible to use educational resources over the Internet for free
  • major power shortages/outages, due to bad weather/a surge in energy prices/political activists (pick your reason) makes online delivery increasingly unreliable during winter
  • quantum computing arrives at a reasonable cost and completely changes the game.

You could have fun adding to this list, but you get my point. There’s not much we can do about even the expected, never mind the unexpected, so really there’s no point worrying about it until it happens.

We’re in charge: creating our own future

First, you will note that I am more of a fox than a hedgehog. Most of these forecasts are a continuation of existing developments rather than startling new advances in online learning. Also the future is not going to be delivered to us; we need to create it ourselves. This means post-secondary institutions thinking through the role and purpose of online learning very carefully, rather than being driven by external and often hostile forces. However, post-secondary education is a slow moving machine, and change takes time.

Overall, though, you can see I am starting 2013 much more optimistically than for many years. Online learning will come of age, will become a central, core activity in most universities, will be strategically planned and managed, pedagogy will become more important, and learning as a result will become deeper, richer and more flexibly accessible. If all that happens in 2013, I will be more than pleased.

May your 2013 be as good as this if not better.

Now, given that more heads are better than one in forecasting, where do you see online learning going in 2013?