July 23, 2017

Online learning and a knowledge-based economy

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

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

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

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

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

The Canadian election

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

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

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

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

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

The knowledge economy

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

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

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

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

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

Renewable energy

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

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

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

The increasing demand for high level knowledge workers

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

Online learning and the knowledge economy

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

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

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

 

Why successful consortia for online learning are so difficult

The five steps of online system collaboration © Rachel Fishman, 2013

The five steps of online system collaboration © Rachel Fishman, 2013

Fishman, R. (2013) State U Online Washington DC: The New America Foundation

Fishman, R. (2014) Seeking Your Input on Online Consortia and Online Community Colleges WCET Frontiers

It would seem obvious that there would be great advantage in building consortia for online courses, so that courses could be shared between institutions, thus saving institutions the cost of developing new courses that are already being offered by other institutions. In particular, when you have a single state system of universities and two year colleges, it seems even more obvious. This is basically the idea behind the new Ontario Online initiative, for universities (Ontario already has a collaborative system, OntarioLearn, a partnership of 24 Ontario community colleges that have pooled their resources to increase online learning options.)

However, credit-based online courses have been around for many years, and yet there are very few successful consortia (Open Universities Australia is one good example.) The University of Florida System is a more recent example, as is the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.

Rachel Fishman’s report, State U Online, was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and tracks the development of online university consortia in the USA. She  identifies five steps that a state can take to build an integrated state-wide online system, and provides case studies of systems and institutions that have reached each ‘level.’

  1. Clearinghouse: State institutions collaborate to provide a clearinghouse of courses and degrees that a student can easily search. However, students must apply to each institution individually, and credit transfer between institutions is not automatic. Contact North provides such a portal in Ontario.
  2. Shared contracts: State institutions join together to purchase shared contracts for resources like a common LMS or services such as web conferencing or professional development around online learning. BCcampus operates something similar in British Columbia.
  3. Shared student services: state systems provide a variety of student support services at all (participating) institutions within the system, such as advising, local study centres, or even more common, proctored examination centres.
  4. Shared and articulated credentials: state systems have created carefully articulated efforts that include easy transfer of credit among institutions and shared credentialing. (This would include OntarioLearn)
  5. Shared credentials beyond state borders:  Several state systems create collaborative inter-institutional and inter-state efforts that take all of the previous steps, and allow students to move freely beyond state borders. Great Plains IDEA is an example from the USA, and Open Universities Australia is another example.

Fishman argues in the report that ‘public institutions should strongly consider adopting a system wide or consortia approach, in a manner that fits their unique contexts‘ and makes seven recommendations that will help strengthen such consortia.

However, in her blog post for WCET Frontiers, where she is asking for input for a new study on consortia in two-year colleges, she acknowledges that ‘[these five] categories may not be as distinct or as linear as I have made them out to be. And for some states, there are many barriers already in place that prevent institutions from even being able to come together and collaborate in the first place.’

Comments

The State U Online report should be compulsory reading for politicians and policy makers interested in course sharing and creating consortia.

However, what the report does not adequately address are the economics of online learning. Course sharing is not just about delivery of content, but also about providing learner support. If an institution takes a course from another institution, who will provide that ongoing learner support and assessment? It is the learner support that costs money (at least twice the cost of course development), and it is in the details of who will do the teaching of the online course – and how that gets paid for – where consortia so often break down. Having a strong and robust business model that adequately ensures the costs of all partners are adequately covered, and any surplus revenues are appropriately shared, is essential for successful consortia, but these conditions are very difficult to meet.

Another major barrier is academic distrust of other institutions: ‘Our courses are always good; yours are garbage.’ Also, for obvious reasons, faculty often feel uncomfortable teaching a course designed by someone else, and into the design of which they had no input.

For consortia to work, there has to be a synergy and a mutual respect for the other partners in the consortium. In a large system it is unrealistic to expect automatic transfer of credits between every institution in the system, although some states, such as California and Florida, have gone a long way to building equivalencies between courses in different institutions that facilitate formal credit transfer arrangements, through subject discipline articulation committees. But that is very hard work, takes many years to build, and requires a common vision and mutual respect. That is very hard to achieve in systems that put so much emphasis on competition and rankings.

So yes, consortia are desirable, but it ain’t easy. In the meantime, if you know of any successful online consortia let Rachel Fishman know (and me, too!)

Research from the Michigan Virtual University on a connectivist MOOC

 MVU MOOC report

Ferdig, R. et al. (2014) Findings and reflections from the ‘K-12 Teaching in the 21st Century’ MOOC Lansing MI: Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute

We are now beginning to get some in-depth research or evaluations of MOOCs. This one is from a team at Kent State University that developed a five week ‘connectivist’ MOOC aimed principally at three distinct audiences: high school students interested in becoming teachers, preservice teachers, and inservice teachers in the K-12 system.

I provide here a very brief summary of the report (as always, you should read the report for yourself if my summary gets you interested). Italics are direct quotes from the report.

Goal of the MOOC

How can we get teachers to think more deeply about reinventing education?

MOOC design

facilitators take on the role of connecting people around an idea for the purpose of bettering our understanding of the
idea. A connectivist-based MOOC draws on the extensive number of participants as well as the existing open repository of content to develop an experience. Participants are both teachers and learners in a process – not a product.

The course was designed around four principles often associated with teaching in the 21st century: connected learning, personalization, collaboration, and reflection.

Core technology

Coursesites by Blackboard provided the basic platform for content and discussion, supplemented by the use of participants’ social media networks and technologies. In addition participants were asked to create an ‘artifact’ to represent their learning.

Use of partners/co-facilitators

Kent State provided core facilitators for the MOOC, but they also invited other co-facilitators from schools, colleges and universities both in Michigan and from several other states.

Qualifications

Badges and continuing education units were given for successful participation.

Main results

Participants (data at time of enrollment, i.e. all participants)

Start of course: 673; end of course: 848; mainly from Michigan and surrounding states, although 12 were international

School teachers: 42%; k-12 students: 23%; post-secondary students: 16%; 19% other (inc. school administrators, university faculty); 80% female.

Participants’ response to the MOOC (168 participants who completed a post-course survey)

Most participants who responded enjoyed the MOOC, with in-service teachers enjoying it the most. Th main criticism (especially from the k-12 students) was the amount of work involved in following the MOOC.

Very active participation in the online discussion forums (within the Coursesites LMS)

There were over 6,000 actual posts (comments) and over 65,000 ‘hits’/looks over a five week period, from just over 300 of the participants – but almost to-thirds did not participate at all.

Types of participation

Lurkers (i.e. did not participate in LMS discussion forums – they may have participated through social media): 63%. There were accounts created in Facebook, Twitter, Delicious and blogs related to the course which indicated active social media connections both for registered participants and with those who had not registered for the course but were interested. However, these numbers were relatively small, and hard to measure.

Passive participation was defined as doing the minimum amount of work required to complete the course. Some of the passive participants were K-12 students forced to complete the MOOC for a class requirement.

There were also preservice teachers and inservice teachers who could be described as passive participants. These participants often completed the course; however, much like the high school students, their posts were limited to one or two sentences per posts. Their comments were also superficial, for example, “Nice job” or “I like what you did.”

Active participants participated in four ways:

  • informing personal practice
  • sharing the MOOC with their communities
  • leadership within the MOOC community
  • critical colleagues

The authors’ main conclusions

The seeking and sharing of digital media highlights that people want to form and engage in communities, and the growing interest in MOOCs shows this is true of educational communities as well….

Learning takes place in communities; depending on the implementation, technology has the capability to create and sustain the communities’ learning and practice….. Evidence in this report suggests that such activities can lead to positive outcomes, particularly as they relate to getting teachers to think more deeply about teaching and learning in the 21st century.

My comments

Even though (or perhaps because) this is a self-evaluation, this is a very useful report. I was fascinated for instance that this course ended with more participants than when it started, due to the ‘publicity’ of social media connections during the course itself.  It was interesting too that some of the participants in this MOOC were not necessarily willing participants – being forced to participate as part of a formal credit program. This seems to me to go against the whole purpose of a connectivist MOOC.

More importantly for me, the report highlights some of the ways research can be conducted on MOOCs and also some of the challenges. The study identifies the importance, from a research perspective, of having some kind of platform that can gather student data and track student behaviour, such as levels or types of participation. However, given the importance of social media for connectivist MOOCs, some way of accurately tracking related social media activity is critical. It seems to me that this is a problem that appropriate software could solve (further development of gRRShopper?), although privacy issues would need to be addressed as well. (Perhaps the spy agencies can help here – just joking!)

I agree completely with the authors when they write:

Researchers have already provided ample evidence that asking if a technology works is the wrong question. A more appropriate question is: under what conditions do certain types of MOOCs work?

Another even more pertinent question is: What prior research into credit-based online learning applies – and what does not apply – to different kinds of MOOCs? This might save a lot of time re-inventing the wheel, particularly for xMOOCs. I am getting sick of hearing from research on xMOOCs that immediate feedback helps retention – we have known that for nearly 100 years. We do need though for instance to assess the importance and most useful roles, if any, of instructors/facilitators/subject matter experts in MOOCs, and whether MOOCs can succeed with reduced ‘expert’ participation. This report suggests almost the opposite – connectivist MOOCs work best with a wide range of facilitators – but what are the hidden costs of this?

Finally, I also agree with the authors that completion rates are not the best measure of success for MOOCs. This MOOC does seem to have raised some interesting questions for participants. I’m just curious about their answers. Despite the very good work done by the instructors/researchers of this MOOC, I am still left with the question: what did the participants actually learn from this MOOC? For instance, what would an analysis of the student ‘artifacts’ have told us about their learning? Unless we try to answers questions about what actual learning took place then it will remain difficult if not impossible to measure the true value of different kinds of MOOC, and I think that would be a pity.

In the meantime, this report is definitely recommended reading for anyone interested in doing research on or evaluating MOOCs.

An analysis of OERs for adult education in Europe

oerukFalconer, I. et al. (2013) Overview and Analysis of Practices with Open Educational Resources in Adult Education in Europe Seville, Spain: European Commission Institute for Prospective Technological Studies

McGill, L., Falconer, I., Dempster, J.A., Littlejohn, A. and Beetham, H. Journeys to Open Educational Practice:  UKOER/SCORE Review Final Report. JISC, 2013

OER4Adults

The first report, with the short title of OER4Adults, is an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe.

The report is based on an analysis of the OER4Adults inventory of over 150 OER initiatives of relevance to adult education and lifelong learning in Europe, and on a survey of the leaders of 36 OER initiatives that focus on adult and lifelong learners in Europe.

The analysis revealed 6 ‘tensions’ that drive developing practices around OER in adult learning (extracted from the Executive Summary):

Open versus free

There is considerable confusion between ‘free’ (no financial cost) and ‘open’, which is compounded by lack of clear licensing information on many OER. Low awareness of licensing is pronounced among adult educators and lifelong learners; common practice is to use free (no cost) resources without worrying unduly about IPR. The confusion [is compounded] by restrictive but ‘free’ practices (such as many MOOCs). [Such confusion] is a barrier to collaboration across sectors that can produce OER of value to adult learners, and hinders the collection of evidence of the benefits of OER with a consequent threat to funding streams.

Traditional versus new approaches

The majority of OER providers have traditional Higher Education views of teacher-directed pedagogy that are out of line with the direction in which adult learning is heading. Furthermore, the question of credit for OER study that is appropriate to lifelong and workplace learners is seldom tackled. The findings raise the possibility that approaches that work well in a university context may be less appropriate elsewhere. Cross-sector collaboration between universities and those who know the lifelong learning context could lead to more effective resources.

Altruism versus marketisation

Individuals working in OER initiatives are strongly altruistic in their motivations, and these ideals engender strong commitment and team working. However, they tend to overlook the wider social context in which open learning initiatives are being supported by institutions primarily because of the brand recognition they create, and the importance of brand, as opposed to quality, in learner choice of resources. Brand is particularly significant for adult learners whose digital literacy tends to be low.

Community versus openness

Community-building is seen by initiatives as essential for successful uptake of OER. Communities can raise awareness, spread practice, and boost confidence. But equally a community can, by its norms, be closed in practice to ‘others’. Transferring resources produced in one community such as a university to another such as a group of workplace learners can be difficult. This makes collaboration across sectors particularly important at resource development stage. The open licence is essential in enabling such collaboration.

Mass participation versus quality

The ability of the masses to participate in production of OER – and a cultural mistrust of getting something for nothing – give rise to user concerns about quality. Commercial providers/publishers who generate trust through advertising, market coverage and glossy production, may exploit this mistrust of the free. This is particularly significant given the low ability of lifelong learners to evaluate resources for themselves. Belief in quality is a significant driver for OER initiatives, but the issue of scale-able ways of assuring quality in a context where all (in principle) can contribute has not been resolved, and the question of whether quality transfers unambiguously from one context to another is seldom [addressed]. A seal of approval system is not infinitely scale-able, while the robustness of user reviews, or other contextualised measures, has not yet been sufficiently explored.

Add-on versus embedded funding

Initiatives focused on adult learning contexts tend to have more diverse funding streams than those focused on more formal educational contexts. They are less likely to be reliant on government funding and more likely to be involved in cross-sector partnerships or exchanges. They have a larger community base and greater embeddedness in ongoing practices, rather than being perceived as a one-off funded ‘project’ that comes to an end when the funding ends. They are less worried about the ongoing sustainability of their work.

Journeys to Open Educational Practice

This is a report on the evaluation and synthesis of the JISC/HE Academy OER Phase 3 programme in the United Kingdom (which is part of but separate from the European Union – you need to be British – or Canadian – to understand this.)

Main findings (taken from Summary of Key Lessons Learned):

Culture and Practice

In the past, many sharing and technology change projects were hampered by the attitude of participants, and while negative views of open practices are still the case for many, this is rapidly changing with tutors and senior managers becoming more receptive to open practices and using technology. … However, working with OER [Open Educational Resources] and open practices is not a straight forward process with issues remaining in communication, training, legal, procedural, practical and infrastructural areas…All of this activity is substantial and mean[s] that even [those experienced on OER projects] were not able to leapfrog or simplify many of the stages every OER project has to engage in. 

Releasing and using OER

it is also important to consider the OER freedoms (c.f. UNESCO Access2OER report). In that framework, there are three essential freedoms inherent in “open”, which are legal freedom, technical freedom, and educational freedom. Legal freedom embodies licensing, and is the main OER freedom recognised. Technical freedoms include the freedom to access easily, to download, to disaggregate easily, etc. Finally, educational freedom captures whether the resource is sufficiently open for it to be adaptable to various circumstances, and easy to understand and localise. …. Overall, this threefold “freedoms”-based approach to OER enables users to take ownership, to change and adapt, and thus to participate as fully as possible and develop their own capabilities.

Institutional processes

Existing institutional policies for IPR, teaching, learning and assessment, quality and marketing may need to be adapted to incorporate OER and OEP into institution-wide practice. These include:

  • policies specifically on OER or OEP  
  • staff development activities
  • digital literacy activities
  • institutional infrastructure to support OERs

Detailed examples to illustrate all these and other findings are given in the report.

Conclusions

These two reports are essential reading for anyone interested in developing or using open educational resources, and really need to be read in full. The reports bring together a great range of experience in the actual practice of open educational resources, as distinct from the rhetoric.

It can be seen that while progress is being made in the acceptance and use of OERs, it is still a hard struggle. What seems a very simple idea in principle becomes exceedingly complex in practice. This of course is due partly to restrictive copyright and licensing rules in many countries, but also due to a large degree on institutional and cultural issues. Organizations such as the Creative Commons are working hard to deal with the technical and legal issues. The institutional and cultural barriers are more difficult to resolve but are not limited to just OERs. Such barriers really inhibit all use of learning technologies in ways that enable their potential to be fully exploited.

Having said that, if OERs are to be adopted on a large scale, thought needs to be given to simplifying the process, so that individual instructors or even course teams do not have to worry about the legal, technical and educational barriers. This requires some pretty smart institutional processes to be put in place to support OER use and adoption, as well as a good deal of faculty development and training. Until that is done, academics will be reluctant to change.

Further developments in competency-based learning

Salt Lake City: HQ of Western Governors’ University

Fain, P. (2013) Rise of customized learning, Inside Higher Education, March 5

Contact North (2013) Western Governors’ University, The Gamechangers in Online Learning Series, Sudbury ON: Contact North

Competency-based learning allows students to study at their own pace and often allows them to build on previous learning and experience to jump ahead in a program, so long as they can demonstrate through an exam their already existing level of competency. This works very well for adult learners.

Contact North has a full description of how Western Governors’ University works. WGU is perhaps the leading institution in competency-based learning. The Inside Higher Education article discusses WGU’s expansion into Washington State, Texas, Tennessee and Missouri, and also describes some other institutions also moving into competency-based learning.

The one disadvantage of competency-based learning is that students tend to study in isolation from other students (although supported by an instructor), so it tends to be not so appropriate for more qualitative and critical-thinking based subject areas. The advantage is that students can start almost immediately on enrollment, and work at their own pace, sometimes finishing much more quickly than in a paced, 13 week semester..

The big challenge is to align competency-based learning with the North American Carnegie system of credit hours. Institutions such as WGU have to jump through hoops to equate their ‘competencies’ to credit hours in order for students to be eligible for US Federal loans. However, all  part-time students are at a disadvantage in qualifying for government loans or grants, whether competency-based or cohort.