September 20, 2018

Why is innovation in teaching in HE so difficult? 4. Integrating online and distance learning into the mainstream

Blended learning: what makes it innovative? Image: Erasmus+

This is the fourth and final post in this series. The previous three were:

Is it really so difficult?

A strong case could be made that at least in North America, higher education systems have been very successful in innovation. For instance, over the last 15 years, online learning has become widespread in most universities and colleges.

In the USA, one in three students now takes at least one distance education/online course for credit (Seaman et al., 2018). Although campus-based enrolments have been static or declining in the USA over the last few years, fully online enrolments have grown by about 5% over the last four years. 

In Canada, online learning in credit based courses has increased from around 5% of all enrolments in 2000 to around 15% of all enrolments in 2017. For the last four years, online enrolments have been increasing at a annual rate of between 12-16% in Canada, and nearly all universities and colleges in Canada now offer at least some fully online courses (Bates et al., 2017). 

However, that is one area where Canada differs from the USA. In the USA, online education is concentrated in a much smaller proportion of institutions in the USA than in Canada. In the USA, 235 institutions command 47% (2,985,347) of the student distance enrolments, but represent only 5% of all higher education enrolments in the USA (Seaman et al. 2018). Basically, some institutions, such as the University of Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State University, have become expert in scaling up online learning to a position where it has become large-scale and self-sustainable.

Then there are MOOCs. Many universities around the world are now offering MOOCs, with over 20 million enrolments a year. There may be criticism about completion rates and lack of accepted qualifications, but nevertheless, even – or especially – the elite universities have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon.

Also, Contact North’s project, Pockets of Innovation, with nearly 200 case studies, has identified that there are many individual instructors in colleges and universities adopting innovative uses of technology in their teaching, mostly independent of any institutional strategy.

However, probably the greatest impact of online learning on teaching in higher education is just getting started and that is the integration of online learning with classroom teaching, in the form of blended or hybrid learning. Bates et al. (2017) found that almost three quarters of institutions in Canada reported that this type of teaching was occurring in their institution. However, two thirds of the institutions reported that fewer than 10% of courses are in this format. In other words, integrated online learning is wide but not yet deep.

And this is where perhaps the biggest challenge of successful innovation lies: ensuring the high quality integration of online and classroom teaching. But we shall see that there are also concerns about how well campus-based institutions with no prior history of credit-based distance education have moved to fully online courses and programs as well.

The challenge of moving from a single mode to a dual mode institution

The most recent issue of the journal Distance Education, edited by Mays, Combrink and Aluko (2018) is a special edition dedicated to the theme of dual-mode provision, and in particular how previously single mode (i.e. solely campus-based) institutions are responding to the particular demands of distance education provision, and whether the quality and effectiveness of such provision is at risk. The editors of this edition believe:

such a decision will necessarily call for the revisiting of an institution’s assumptions about how people learn, how staff should work and how resources should be allocated and what policy changes are needed if quality is to be maintained or enhanced and the offerings sustained.

The articles in this special edition raise a number of questions such as:

  • is the blurring of the boundaries between on-campus and distance learning a good thing?
  • does the concept of distance education remain relevant?
  • are established models of distance education sufficient to inform the design, development and delivery of new kinds of provision, or are new models emerging (or needed)?

In particular, the editors are concerned that:

  • there is a real danger that in the convergence of modes of provision the unique quality concerns of distance provision, regarding, for example, the issues of access, success and cost, and the implications for how people learn and work, may be lost.

Interestingly, the special edition then looks at a series of case studies of the move from single to dual mode not drawn from North America or Europe, but from sub-Saharan Africa, where the motivation to move into distance learning has been driven mainly by changes in demand patterns (too many potential students; not enough institutions).

Application of an innovation adoption framework

Of these case studies, by far the most interesting is the article by Kanwar et. al, of the Commonwealth of Learning, which applies Wisdom et al.’s (2014) innovation adoption framework to provide a qualitative meta-review of barriers to adoption of open and distance learning (ODL) in conventional higher education institutes in Cameroon, Kenya and Rwanda. 

The framework has four key elements (which build on Everett Rogers’ earlier work on the diffusion of innovation):

  • external environment, e.g. national policies and funding, infrastructure/external physical environment
  • organisation of the adopting institution, e.g. institutional policies, organisational structure, leadership
  • nature of the innovation, e.g. complexity, cost, technology 
  • individuals, e.g. skills, perceptions, motivation, value systems of staff and clients affected by the innovation.

Kanwar et al. then used this framework to analyse the content of existing reviews of the adoption of ODL in the three countries. The findings are too detailed and complex to review here (the results varied between the three countries), but the study clearly identified some of the key barriers to adoption in each of the three countries. I was in fact thrilled to see an evidence-based theoretical model used to evaluate innovation.

More importantly, the study resulted in nine recommendations for successful implementation of ODL within campus-based institutions:

Government

  • develop national level policies and funding to encourage the adoption of ODL
  • establish national-level quality assurance mechanisms, equally for on-campus and distance programs
  • strengthen national-level IT infrastructure

Institutions

  • create institutional policies and clear implementation plans for promoting and supporting ODL
  • establish a centralised and autonomous ODL structure
  • develop a clear costing model for ODL and establish secure forms of funding/business models
  • build staff capacity and provide incentives to faculty to engage in ODL
  • promote research into the effectiveness and outcomes of ODL
  • ensure equivalency in the status and qualifications of ODL students

Comment

It would be a mistake to ignore this publication because the cases are drawn primarily from sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the issues addressed in these articles will resonate with many working in this field in North America and Europe.

I think the editors are right to be concerned about how well ‘conventional’ institutions are handling the adoption of distance and online learning. For many faculty, moving online is merely a question of transferring their classroom lectures to a web conference.

I was at a Canadian university recently where the design of a ‘blended’ executive MBA was being discussed. The ‘plan’ was to make one of the three weekly lectures in each course available instead by a 90 minute synchronous web conference. One professor insisted that all students had to watch the lecture at the same time so they could discuss it afterwards. No consideration was given to either the context of the students (working businessmen with a busy schedule and family) or to the pedagogy or research on video lectures. Even worse, the faculty were not listening to advice from the excellent specialists from the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning.

At another Canadian university which has been running excellent distance education program for years through Extension Services, there is no plan or strategy for e-learning on campus, other than a proposal to distribute the specialist instructional design staff from Extension to the campus-based academic departments (which wouldn’t work as there are not enough specialists to go round each faculty). This also ignores the fact that these specialists are needed to run Extension’s own very successful non-credit programs, which bring money into the university.

So looking down the list of recommendations suggested by Kanwar et al., I can immediately think of at least a dozen Canadian universities for which most of these recommendations would be highly relevant.

I would differ on just a couple of points. There has been a long tradition of dual-mode institutions in North America, especially in universities with a state- or province-wide remit, at least in their early days. In Canada, Queen’s and Guelph Universities in Ontario, Memorial University in Newfoundland, the University of Saskatchewan, Laval University in Québec, and the University of British Columbia are all examples of mainly campus-based institutions with very successful distance programs. The distance education programs were the first to adopt online learning, and gradually, some of the best practices from distance education have been incorporated into blended and hybrid courses.

However, even in these universities, the move to more integrated online and face-to-face teaching faces challenges. UBC for instance did move its distance education staff from Continuing Studies to join a strengthened Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology that also included faculty development. Other institutions have still to make that move in a strategic and careful manner. And the big issue is how do you scale from supporting online courses for 15% of the students to supporting blended learning for all students?

The real issue lies with faculty and especially departments moving to blended or hybrid learning that do not understand the need for learning design or the needs of students who are not on campus all the time. The integration of online and campus-based learning will often highlight the inadequacy of prior campus-based teaching methods. There is much that campus-based faculty can learn from  distance education, in terms of more effective teaching.

At the same time, I don’t think distance educators have all the answers. The Pockets of Innovation have plenty of examples of campus-based faculty thinking up innovative ways to integrate online learning and new technologies into campus-based teaching. My experience in designing online courses was that the best ideas usually came from a highly expert faculty member with a truly deep understanding of the subject matter (see my previous post on VR in interactive molecular mechanics for a good example). I believe that we will need new models for designing blended and hybrid courses, even though distance education has some sound principles that can guide such design.

So in conclusion, innovation of itself is not sufficient: it has to be effective innovation that leads to better outcomes, in terms of access, flexibility, and/or learning effectiveness. Innovation is unlikely to be effective if it merely moves poor classroom teaching online, which is why innovation will remain difficult in higher education.

Over to you

Do you have examples of poor practice in moving to offer distance education courses for the first time, or attempts at integrating online and classroom teaching? 

Even better, do you have examples of where this has been done successfully? What are the lessons you have learned from this?

References

Bates, T. (ed.) (2017) Tracking Online and Distance Education in Canadian Universities and Colleges: 2017 Vancouver BC: The National Survey of Online and Distance Education in Canadian Post-Secondary Education.

Kanwar, A. et al., (2018) Opportunities and challenges for campus-based universities in Africa to translate into dual-mode delivery, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2, pp. 140-158

Mays, T. et al. (2018) Deconstructing dual-mode provision in a digital era, Distance Education, Vol. 39. No. 2

Seaman, J.E., Allen, I.E., and Seaman, J. (2018) Grade Increase: Tracking Distance Education in the United StatesWellesley MA: The Babson Survey Research Group

Wisdom, J. et al. (2014) Innovation adoption: a review of theories and constructs, Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Sciences Research, Vol. 41, pp. 480-502

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 2. Legacy systems

 

In my first post in this series, I looked at the role of accreditation agencies in blocking innovation. I suggested that while they may seriously inhibit disruptive innovation, accreditation agencies have not prevented online learning for credit from becoming widely established in higher education in a relatively short space of time (15 years or so), at least in North America, and this in fact is a major innovation in teaching in higher education.

Indeed, protecting students from wasting money on disruptive experiments with a high risk of failure may in fact be more important for accreditation agencies in the semi-privatised American higher education system, where you pay first then discover later whether it was worth it. 

Thus there are other, more important factors, than accreditation agencies that inhibit innovation in higher education. Often, faculty get the blame for obstructing change, and this certainly can be a factor. But this is sometimes unfair; there are also other factors inhibiting innovation that are just as important.

In particular, many universities and colleges have long histories, and over that period they have invested heavily in older technologies and systems that just won’t go away. These legacy systems are one of the biggest inhibitors of innovation.

Buildings

Brock Commons Tallwood House at UBC – currently the tallest mass timber building in the world—which opened in July 2017.

I go up to the UBC campus about once or twice a year these days. Each time, it is unrecognisable from my previous visit due to new building construction. (Students posted a sign on a footpath diversion which said ‘UBC is the only place in the universe where the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.’).

Not all this building is classroom space. For instance the Tallwood Tower is a student residence, much needed in a city where the price of housing is so high. But if you are building 17 storey student residences, and have acres of lecture halls and classrooms, you are not going to get rid of campus-based teaching any time soon. The issue then is: are the new buildings suitably designed for digital learning? But old buildings far outnumber new ones, no matter how quickly you build. These old classrooms and lecture halls, with their raked seating, podiums for lecturers at the front, very much determine what kind of teaching will take place.

Older technologies

But it is not just traditional campus-based universities which have legacy systems that inhibit innovation. Indeed, what were once ‘disruptive’ institutions themselves when created can easily become stuck within their original legacy systems. The experiences in recent years of the UK Open University, Athabasca University, the Télé-université (Téluq), and UNISA, where print has been the core medium of teaching, are good examples.

Although these institutions have some of the world’s leading experts on online and digital learning, changing the core teaching design for the bulk of their academic programs has proved a major challenge. Not only do these institutions have an army of print editors and graphic designers, but in particular faculty in these institutions, many of whom have been there since the institution was founded, are embedded in the culture of print design. It will probably take a new generation of faculty, and probably a separate autonomous unit focused on digital learning, for these monolithic institutions to adapt successfully to the digital world, and some may not have enough time to do this.

Management 

Another legacy is the governance structure of universities and colleges. This varies considerably from institution to institution, but in many institutions, the person responsible for strategic decisions about the direction of teaching and learning is not qualified or experienced in online or digital learning (or often management, for that matter). They are usually mainline academics who have become AVPs Teaching and Learning or some similar position. This may be necessary for them to influence other academics, and they may have the sense to build a strong and close working relationship with the Director of the Teaching and Learning Centre, and/or the Centre for Online Learning, but too often decisions about teaching direction are made without sound pedagogical or technological understanding. The fall-back position as a result tends to be to prioritise innovation in classroom teaching.

Furthermore I noticed when doing the 2017 national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education that about one third of all the VPs Academic changed during the year. The ‘normal’ term of a Vice President in Canada is about five years if all goes well, and sometimes it may be renewed for another five years. But in practice, if one third are changing each year that actual term is more likely closer to three years.

Why is this an inhibitor of innovation? I have been closely involved fairly recently with two universities where the Provost’s Office has initiated a strategy for flexible or online learning, but then either the President or the VP Academic has left, and everything stops for at least two years until the new appointments find their feet – if you are lucky. In one case the new VP Academic was not interested in continuing the online development so everything just stopped, except, of course, for the brave individual instructors who wanted to innovate without any institutional support. Ironically, some level of continuity in strategy is necessary for innovation to take hold.

Learning management systems

This series started as a result of my questioning why we are still using the LMS more than twenty years after its initial development. This will be the subject of the third post in this series, but again, once an institution is heavily invested in not just the LMS in principle, but even in a specific LMS, there is a very high cost of change.

The value of the LMS is its institutional convenience. It provides a centrally managed, secure environment in which to house a course. Any other approach to using technology for online or digital learning has this massive legacy hurdle to overcome. This will be the subject of the third and final post in this series.

Lack of an innovation strategy for teaching

How serious is the management factor as an inhibitor of innovation in teaching since in practice, most innovation starts from the bottom up? However, as Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation have demonstrated, few institutions have a strategy for expanding an innovative practice beyond the initial instructor who developed the new approach.

There are several necessary elements for a successful innovation strategy for teaching:

  • ideally a general institutional vision or strategy for teaching in the future to provide a framework for priorities in the allocation of resources and to encourage change generally in teaching;
  • initial resources to encourage instructors to try something new, to compensate for the extra time and to provide specialist advice, where needed;
  • a systematic, independent evaluation of the effectiveness of the innovation, in terms of learning, increased flexibility for students, etc;
  • a process to share the results of the innovation with other instructors both within and beyond the department;
  • a process for deciding on the wider adoption of the innovation within or beyond a department;
  • further evaluation of the more general adoption.

Without this or some other strategy for supporting innovative teaching, it will remain isolated and will not affect the overall  innovation of teaching in the institution.

What can you do about legacy systems?

This is a tough question, and more likely to be best answered by those used to migrating computer systems, such as the Canadian government’s Phoenix pay system (not), but here are some of my suggestions:

  • make sure you have a strategic plan for teaching and learning: this should not only identify legacy systems that are inhibiting change, and suggest new, more appropriate systems, but also suggest strategies for gradually replacing or changing them so the new systems are fit for the new purpose;
  • encourage a skunk-works unit that is free to experiment with new tools and approaches on a limited scale, but within a strategy for implementing more widely successful innovations from the skunk-works;
  • develop new parallel systems so that for a period, both the old and new systems are running together, to give time to make the transition and train people in the new system; this should have a clear timeline and schedule, e,.g. the transition should be complete within five years;
  • ensure any new systems or tools are flexible and easily replaceable, to accommodate for future changes;
  • change your management structure so that those in charge of legacy systems that need to be replaced are not influencing decisions about new systems – which they will try to block;
  • look carefully at costs and budgets, so that any large future investments, e.g. in IT systems or hardware, enable future flexibility, and that investments in outdated legacy systems are gradually phased out;
  • make sure there is some financial flexibility for encouraging the adoption of new tools and processes that might replace more expensive legacy systems – for instance, rather than build a new campus or building, would online delivery be a better investment?

All this makes me think that it would be a lot easier to design new institutions from scratch – but then they would soon become outdated themselves. The trick is to build a flexible, dynamic organisation that can accommodate new ideas, approaches and tools without throwing everything else out of the bucket. In other words, in a university or college, protect the core mission of knowledge creation and dissemination, but be prepared to change constantly how you do this.

Why is innovation in teaching in higher education so difficult? 1. The accreditation agencies?

Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America is considered a successful innovation, according to the Christensen Institute

Horn, M. and Dunagan, A. (2018) Innovation and Quality Assurance in Higher Education San Francisco CA: The Christensen Institute

Revisiting an old question

A couple of things recently have led me to reflect once again on this question. There are some obvious reasons for a lack of innovation in teaching in higher education, such as:

  • lack of pedagogical training for post-secondary instructors,
  • the privileging of research over teaching,
  • lack of rewards for good teaching (or lack of punishment for poor teaching)
  • faculty fear of technology,

but there are other, perhaps more subtle, factors that make innovation and change so damned difficult in universities and colleges.

One factor is suggested in the report from the Christensen Institute, which puts the blame squarely on accreditation agencies. I will look at this claim in this post.

However, responses to my recent post on learning management systems, where I suggested that the time has come to move on to other tools for online learning, also suggest other reasons why even online learning is becoming increasingly resistant to change. I will examine this issue – which I think is much more significant – in my next post.

The ‘dead hand’ of accreditation agencies

The more insidious failure of accreditation is the stifling effect it has on innovation at existing institutions.

This is the conclusion from a report from the Christensen Institute (yes, that Christensen, the disruptive one) based on four case studies (yes, just four).

It looked at attempts by the following four institutions in setting up an online operation separate from the main, campus-based institution’s teaching model:

  • Bellevue University’s (Nebraska) Flexxive Program
  • Tiffin University’s (Ohio) Ivy Bridge Program
  • Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America
  • General Assembly’s coding boot camps

The first two innovations failed; the second two succeeded. The difference, according to the report, was the role of the respective accrediting agencies.

The authors argue:

Innovations aimed at redefining a college or university’s value proposition must be insulated from its existing business model or else it will conform to the inputs of the existing business model rather than create a new one….Creating an autonomous unit is critical for a college to launch an innovation aimed at dramatically transforming its value proposition.

Depending on the nature of the innovation, a college or university must work closely with its accreditor to ensure that the new practice is consistent with the accreditor’s quality standards. As a result, accreditation plays a major role in the innovation process for most colleges and universities.

Accreditation as it currently stands is inconsistent, both between accreditors, and between the same accreditor at different points in time. Standards of accreditation vary between accreditors, but their interpretation varies to a larger degree—even between different accrediting teams looking at the same institution. This creates uncertainties for institutional leaders and creates untenable risks for many schools with limited resources that are considering whether to bring innovative programs forward. ….. Institutions that are able to innovate are those blessed by geography—a cooperative, forward-thinking regional accreditor— as well as finances.

… a process that is so subject to individual interpretation and has a track record of inconsistently applying rules and standards cannot be a foundation for regulation supportive of innovation. As countless scholars have shown, investment in innovation does not thrive in climates of uncertainty.

Is it true?

This is a pretty damning condemnation of American accreditation agencies, and I suggest needs to be taken with a grain of salt. I myself have argued that professional accreditation agencies, such as the Professional Engineers of Ontario, certainly stifle innovation when they refuse to accept any qualifications taken through distance education. But university and college accreditation?

There are several reasons why I think the Christensen Institute’s conclusions are too strong:

  • online learning has been expanding rapidly in the USA over the last 10 years, where at least one in three students are taking an online course, a rate of growth much faster than campus-based enrolments, yet the accreditation agencies have done little to prevent this fairly major innovation in teaching; 
  • I challenge the assumption – which is at the core of the Christensen philosophy – that innovation can take place only if it is insulated from an organization’s existing business model. Sure, by definition this may be true of disruptive innovation in business, but nevertheless there has been considerable innovation in terms of introducing online and more recently blended learning in higher education, without disrupting the current business model of universities and colleges;
  • the university accreditation process in the USA is unique, lacks rationality generally in terms of its relationship between government, geography, and institutional governance, and is indeed often inconsistent and contradictory, not only with regard to innovation but often with regard to traditional programs. But yes, it has slowed down – but not prevented – innovation through online learning.

In other words, while no doubt US higher education accreditation agencies may inhibit innovation to some extent, especially with regard to radically new institutions (but perhaps based on a reasonable assessment of possible risk to fee-paying students), this report is too much like a theory trying to find evidence to support it, rather than a systematic study of what not only inhibits but also what enables innovation in higher education. The barriers to innovation in higher education are more complex than just being the fault of the nasty accreditation agencies. More on this in the next post.

How to deal with online learning ‘deniers’ in your institution

Lieberman, M. (2018) Overcoming faculty resistance – or not? Inside Higher Education, March 14

I’ve been a bit slow on picking up on this (thanks to WCET for bringing it to my attention), but this is such a useful article that it’s well worth reading if you are encountering faculty or instructor resistance to online learning.

This article is in response to an earlier IHE article from a professor who declared that he has no interest in teaching online, despite many colleagues’ attempts to convince him otherwise.

What Lieberman has done is interview seven experts about the most productive way to respond to online learning ‘deniers’ (my term, not his). What Lieberman specifically asked of them was:

  • What percentage of faculty members do you believe hold views similar to this professor?
  • Should institutional leaders try to change the minds of faculty members who are firmly opposed to digital forms of learning, or is it OK to leave a certain proportion of the faculty teaching in a more traditional format if they choose?
  • What do you do on your campus (or what can be done on campuses more generally) to convince skeptical faculty members that teaching online is both possible and practical — and how successful has it been?

For once, I’m not going to attempt to summarise their comments, because they are so rich and varied, but if your job is to support faculty and instructors in teaching online, you will not fail to learn something useful from this article.

But there are a couple of things I would add that were not covered by the other experts:

  • focus on issues where instructors feel vulnerable or will readily admit to a teaching problem (e.g. too large a class for student interaction, too many students not completing a course, not enough equipment for all students to see or interact with, etc.) and explore if the use of technology could help improve this situation – not necessarily fully online but get a foot in the door to getting the instructor to teach at least something outside the classroom or lab that will help with a perceived limitation of their specific face-to-face class; but it must solve their problem, not yours;
  • link online learning to the development of digital skills and 21st century skills within a particular discipline area – for instance, ensuring students are aware of the main digital tools being used in their profession and why they are useful; using online learning for teaching ‘virtual’ collaboration skills in science or business; etc. Many instructors are becoming aware that they need to teach these skills, but don’t know how to do this. This is an opening for online learning;
  • show how online learning can reduce their current teaching workload, through, for example, automated marking, peer/student feedback and evaluation, reduced lecture time and office hours, identifying at risk students, etc.
  • take a strategic approach to online learning at a program level – for instance start slowly with a few online learning activities in the first year for most courses, moving to more hybrid combinations in the middle years, building up to perhaps a few fully online courses in the final year; ‘resistant’ instructors, by working alongside more committed instructors, become caught up in a general climate of online being used appropriately.

It is true you can take a horse to water, but not make it drink. So first, make it thirsty! 

That was 2017 in online learning

 

A workshop in St. George’s College, Windsor Castle, where Shakespeare’s first production of the Merry Wives of Windsor was performed before Queen Elisabeth 1

My experience of online learning in 2017

2017 was a very interesting year for me, if not for online learning as a whole. I have a very different interface with online learning these days from most people, more that of an observer than as a participant, which has both advantages and disadvantages, but it does give me a somewhat wider perspective, so first, here’s what I did, then second what I learned from my experience.

What I did in 2017

I had three main avenues into online learning in 2017:

  • my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. Although published in 2015, it is still going strong and has generated several activities. The English version has been downloaded over 60,000 times since it was published in April, 2015, and is now translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese and the first half into Turkish (the second half should be completed soon), with further translations into Farsi, Arabic, Hebrew and Japanese under way, all by volunteer translators. The book continues to result in keynotes and workshops. This year I gave ‘physical’ keynotes in Barcelona, Toronto, Halifax, Pennsylvania, Windsor Castle (UK), and a webinar to South Australia. I also did several Contact North webinars on topics from the book. These activities allowed me to interact directly with instructors and course designers engaged in online learning;
  • Contact North’s Pockets of Innovation gave me the privilege of personally interviewing instructors doing innovative teaching using learning technologies in universities and colleges in British Columbia, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. In all I interviewed 23 instructors in 16 different institutions. More importantly I could see exactly what they were doing in context. However, this was still a small proportion of the more than 180 cases reported to date by Contact North;
  • leading the research team for the national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions allowed me to get the ‘big picture’ of online developments in Canadian universities and colleges. Also having to raise the funding for this project ($165,000 in total) brought me into contact with  government agencies engaged with online learning (eCampuses mainly), but also national organisations such as CICAN and Universities Canada, and commercial sponsors such as Pearson and D2L, giving me yet another perspective on agencies engaged with online learning.

Using a mobile phone and QR tags for a video of the anatomy of a dog’s heart: Sue Dawson UPEI

So what did I learn from all this in 2017?

A big leap forward for online learning in Canada in 2017

Complacency is dangerous, but Canada did pretty well in online learning in 2017:

  • most universities and colleges in Canada do at least some fully online and distance courses, enabling wider access in almost every province and territory;
  • enrolments in fully online learning or distance courses are increasing at a rate of 10%-15% per annum (although with considerable provincial variation);
  • probably about 15% of all post-secondary teaching in Canada is now fully online;
  • more and more instructors are integrating online learning into their classroom or campus-based teaching;
  • most Canadian post-secondary institutions see online learning as critically important for their future; 
  • a good deal of innovation in teaching is going on at the individual instructor level;
  • a few provincial governments are solidly supporting online learning and their policies are directly resulting in more digital learning.

Innovation ain’t what you think it is

Innovation in teaching is much more than just using advanced technologies for the first time – and sometimes much less. I was struck in particular about several things from the Pockets of Innovation interviews:

  • most instructors are using new technology (or at least technology new to them) to help with a particular teaching problem or challenge, whether it’s because students don’t come to lectures because of bad weather, or because there are not enough models or samples for every student in the class to spend enough time with, or because students are dropping out of a program because the courses are not properly sequenced or coherent. Technology is best used when it helps solve an actual teaching problem;
  • often though the technology is not enough on its own; it has to be combined with an appropriate change in teaching method or policy that the technology supports or enhances;
  • successful innovation is happening mainly from the bottom up; this is because individual instructors are in the best position to judge the learning context, the learning needs, and which of the zillion new apps and technologies available is the one most likely to fit the situation;
  • the corollary is that institutional or government policies can encourage innovation but cannot predict what it will be: innovation strategy should focus on encouraging risk-taking and rewarding instructors who innovate successfully (i.e. by getting better learning outcomes) rather than privileging particular technologies or even teaching approaches (such as competency-based or experiential learning, for instance, no matter how worthy they are in their own right);
  • most successful teaching innovations are based on easily available and somewhat familiar technologies, such as mobile phones and web conferencing, rather than on ‘state-of-the art’ technologies such as virtual reality or AI;
  • government policy and funding (or lack of it) does make a difference; money talks as can be seen by the impact of government funding for online course development in Ontario and for open educational resources and open text books in British Columbia;
  • few institutions or even provincial governments have a meaningful strategy for supporting innovation in teaching, especially for diffusing innovation throughout an institution or system; as a result innovative teaching still remains in pockets rather than transforming institutions or systems.

There’s a long way to go with open educational resources

OER continue to be a hard sell for most Canadian instructors, despite strong commitment from at least two governments of large provinces. This was evident from both the Pockets of Innovation and the national survey.

This is a topic on its own, but having talked to instructors and seen how they think about teaching, here are my two cents’ worth of thoughts on why OER continue to develop much more slowly than they should:

  • when OER are being promoted, it often comes across as a cult or an ideology rather than a solution to an instructor’s teaching problem. Show instructors how OER can save them time or money. Show them how OER can best be integrated into teaching specific subjects or topics and show the teaching benefits over using commercial products (unfortunately most instructors care less about saving money for students than making their own lives easier – strange that, isn’t it?);
  • the main advantage of expensive commercial textbooks is all the supplementary materials they come with that make life easier for an instructor and students, such as worked examples or solutions, test questions and answers, and automated marking; just publishing an open textbook without linking it to supporting OER doesn’t cut it, but at the moment OER and open textbooks are often developed independently – they need to be better integrated;
  • stop thinking of OER as something different from everything else on the Internet; all open content has value, whether it is specifically designed for educational purposes or not; this means coming up with course design models that exploit open content for the purpose of developing 21st century skills such as knowledge management, analysis of source reliability, etc.
  • at the same time, if an object is meant to be educational, design it better – too many OER are poorly designed in media terms and are not clearly linked to specific learning outcomes; this means scaling up OER production so that it is more easily shareable. Instead of funding individual instructors to create subject-specific OER,  bring all the statistics instructors together, for instance, with instructional designers and media producers, first to check what’s already available and what its limitations are, then to produce better, high quality OER for statistics that everyone can use.
  • try to get experienced faculty who are nearing the end of their careers to write an open textbook as a legacy project, pulling together all their knowledge and experience over their whole career; this is likely to result in innovative, ‘breakthrough’ open textbooks rather than just providing an open version of existing textbooks, and may lead more importantly to revised and more appropriate curricula.

Instructor training in teaching remains a huge problem

One of the findings from my Pocket of Innovation interviews was that less than half the instructors based their innovation on a theory of learning or a change of teaching method to produce different outcomes, such as skills development. Without a grounding in pedagogy and a knowledge of the research into how people learn, it is impossible for most instructors to see the real potential of digital technology for improving their teaching. We still rely too much on instructional designers backstopping faculty who don’t know how to teach effectively.

Is the instructional design support model scalable for blended learning?

Even when fully online learning is only 15% of all teaching, it has been difficult to provide adequate instructional design support. When 80-90% of instructors have the potential to integrate technology into their classroom teaching the current model of faculty support will not be feasible.

One solution to this is to provide instructors with ‘on-demand’ online resources when they need them. For instance:

However useful though such on-demand tools may be, they do not replace the need for some basic grounding in pedagogical principles, which is now absolutely essential if technology is to be used well in teaching.

What next?

Well, looking into 2018 is another blog post, but of one thing I am certain: I won’t be working as hard next year as I did in 2017.

I really enjoyed everything I did, but I cannot go on doing the long-distance travel, which exhausts me.

So I wish you all a great holiday season, so that you can come back refreshed for another interesting year in what surely is one of the most exciting and satisfying areas to be working in these days.