July 20, 2018

Is Blackboard dying? The latest instalment in LMS wars.

Feldstein, M. (2018) Canvas Surpasses Blackboard Learn in US Market Share, eLiterate, July 8

Kroner, G. (2018) Sensationalizing LMS Market Share in an Era of Fake News, edutechnica, July 13

Don’t assume nothing happens in online learning during the long summer vacation. This little bombshell landed on my screen: 

Blackboard’s continuing loss of market share is at the tipping point of changing from a serious problem to an existential threat.

So speaks Michael Feldstein, reporting that Canvas is now ‘installed’ in two more universities/colleges than Blackboard. From Feldstein’s blog:

Kroner challenges these figures and quotes Phill Miller, chief learning and innovation officer at Blackboard, who said:

the data shared by Feldstein were “not consistent with our own,” which show that “Blackboard remains the dominant ed-tech company around the globe.”

Purely on this data, Feldstein’s claim does appear to be ‘fake news’. Kroner probably is more correct when he says that there is a nice market balance between several competing companies:

  • Blackboard: 28%
  • Canvas: 28%
  • Moodle: 23%
  • Brightspace (D2L): 12%.

But two other factors need to be born in mind.The first is the trend (see the diagram at the start of this post, from the eLiterate blog). The trend is clearly moving away from Blackboard towards other LMS providers. The diagram shows that from being dominant in the 1990s, Blackboard’s market share has declined considerably while that of Canvas, Moodle and D2L have consistently grown. 

However, note that Feldstein’s data apply only to North America (USA and Canada) while Phill Miller claims that globally Blackboard is still dominant. Also, Feldstein reports that Canvas’ focus today is increasingly on the corporate market, suggesting that Canvas sees relatively little room for more growth in the HE market.

Much more significantly, Feldstein claims that Blackboard is in serious financial trouble, needing to make increasingly large interest payments to its private equity owner, Providence Equity, arising from the time that Providence Equity bought Blackboard. To quote Feldstein:

So because of its financing, Blackboard’s continuing loss of market share is at the tipping point of changing from a serious problem to an existential threat.

All worrying if you have a lot of courses in Blackboard.

My views

They are probably not worth much, because I haven’t used an LMS in the last 10 years. However, I was somewhat involved at UBC in the creation of WebCT , which was later bought by Blackboard, so I use that rather tenuous connection as justification for my comments.

What surprises me is that in an age of multimedia and social media, and particularly given the low cost of developing apps and the growth of cloud computing, anyone is using an LMS at all – so 20th century, man! 

As I have said many times, an LMS is merely a digital filing cabinet, somewhat useful to store and arrange your digital learning materials and student activities. An LMS – a specialised database – is just one way to do this. The main issue is not the storage but the interface: how easy is it to store what you want, arrange it and find it, both for instructors and more importantly, for students. Security of course is another issue. Unfortunately so many things have been bolted on to the original database that the interfaces have grown increasingly unwieldy and confusing to students and instructors alike.

I think the LMS has had a much longer run than it deserves. Even though many instructors now are moving to video and web conferencing, evidence from the recent Canadian survey of online learning shows that nearly all institutions are still using legacy LMS systems.

However, today we should be using much more accessible, flexible and simpler tools for online learning. This would involve integrating from scratch mobile and social media tools to give much more power to student content creation and management so they can develop the skill of knowledge management, among other skills. This ‘collage’ of tools would be assembled according to the type of learning that will best enable students to learn skills as well as to access and reproduce content. The LMS does an adequate job on content management but does nothing for skills development, and more importantly the LMS perpetuates the transmission model of teaching where instructors control all content development and management.

So fighting over LMSs systems is like fighting over dying star systems. Move to another world, dude.

Is there online learning in North Korea?

An online lecture from a North Korean university

Kang, T-J. (2018) Online learning in North Korea The Diplomat, May 25

You may have noticed that North Korea has been in the news quite a bit recently, so the question arose in my mind, is there online learning in North Korea?

No, your intrepid reporter did not hop on a plane to Pyongyang and interview the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un. No need: this article from the Diplomat answered the question quite nicely.

Yes, North Korea has (fairly recently) started delivering streamed lectures at a distance through some of its more prestigious universities, such as Kim Il-sung University. This prestigious university recently awarded degrees to those who finished their program via a distance learning course for the first time. You can even watch a promotional video from a North Korean web site. (It helps if you speak Korean, which I don’t, and it took over 10 minutes to download the 48 second video.) Students can watch the programs on laptops, tablets or mobile phones.

But how many have mobile phones? The Diplomat reports that in 2015 the number of mobile phone subscribers in North Korea reached 3.24 million, (about 13%) and that about 60 percent of the population in Pyongyang, the capital, between 20 and 50 years old are using mobile phones. (If you deduct for government exaggeration and add for technology development since 2015, these figures are probably a reasonable estimate).

However, access to the Internet internationally is prohibited to students.

So while online learning may be allowing for more flexibility in delivery, it is not necessarily widening access. You still have to be admitted to a prestigious university to get the online courses.

Comment

North Korea appears to be in roughly the same position as China in the mid-1980s, when China created the Chinese Central Television and Radio University, which is now well established and has millions of students. Cuba also has online distance education, but students are not permitted to access the Internet internationally.

However, as in China in the 1980s, North Korea is using largely streamed or broadcast lectures, which do not exploit fully the power of the Internet and in particular put a heavy emphasis on information transmission at the expense of skills development and knowledge management – but then that’s not so different from the practice of many online courses in Canada and the USA.

The lesson clearly is that it is not enough just to use the technology; you also need to change the teaching method to get the full benefits of online learning. But at least North Korea is moving into online learning.

If anyone has more information about online learning in North Korea, please share!

Should online learning strategy be decided centrally?

The University of Ottawa’s e-Learning Plan, 2013

Kim, J. (2018) Looking at the Future of Online learning through an Institutional Lens, Inside Higher Education, February 19

This is an excellent article that discusses the ongoing saga of centralisation vs decentralization regarding online learning. Kim here is arguing, on balance, for a central institutional strategy for online learning.

Similar discussions have been ongoing about the organization of learning technology support units: should individual Faculties or departments manage their own learning technology support units or should they be managed centrally?

The need for institution-wide strategies for online learning

Kim writes:

The challenge is that online programs often develop to serve the particular need of a school, unit or department. Oftentimes, the the growth of low-residency and online learning was not the result of an institutional strategic plan – but rather a local response to particular opportunities….The challenge of uncoordinated online programs is that opportunities for sharing resources and knowledge are often missed. There is a fine line between useful specialization and silos.

Should there be a central strategy for online learning or should we let a million flowers bloom? Kim suggests the following for thinking about online learning through a strategic institutional lens:

  • understand all the online learning efforts that are already occurring at the college or university. The number of online and low-residency programs may be a surprise to many. (This was a certainly something we heard from some provosts when we did the Canadian national survey of online learning in 2017.)
  • university leadership should make a decision if online learning efforts should remain under the authority of each individual school or unit that is running these programs, or if there should be an effort to coordinate and centralize institutional efforts. What is important is to make an active decision.

In other words, there is no right or wrong answer that applies to very institution. The best decision on centralisation or decentralisation will depend on the circumstances. But the decision should not be accidental, driven by history, but should be a conscious choice of the central administration in terms of overall strategy. That is Kim’s argument.

Comment

In the recent national survey of online and distance learning in Canadian post-secondary education

  • 14% of institutions had a fully implemented strategic plan for e-learning’
  • 26% had a plan and were in the processing of implementing it
  • 32% were in the process of developing one.

This means that nearly three-quarters of Canadian colleges and universities believe in the importance of an institutional plan for e-learning.

Note though that there is a difference between centralized organization (a learning technologies or online learning support unit) and centralized strategy and planning (e.g. determining the importance of online learning, priority areas, and resource allocation.) 

Models for planning and managing online learning

Table 1 below shows at least four possible models for managing online learning:

                       Table 1: Policies for online learning
Model Centralized Decentralized
1    Strategy and Organization
2 Strategy  Organization
3 Organization Strategy
4   Strategy and Organization  

Model 1 is the most decentralised, with individual departments or even instructors determining both the decision about which courses to offer online and what resources in terms of support staff will be needed.

In Model 2, the institution sets the overall strategy, but the organization and perhaps even the implementation is delegated to individual departments. This provides more autonomy at the ‘local’ level, but may make it more difficult for the central administration to get its strategy implemented.

In Model 3, there is one central organizational unit to support online learning, but individual departments set their own strategy but must look to the central unit for support services such as instructional design. Again, this allows more autonomy for departments, but allocation of resources becomes a challenge as the central unit has to meet competing demands.

Model 4 is the most centralised, with both strategy and organizational units developed and managed through the Provost’s Office or VP Education.

Which model is best?

Kim points out that historically, most institutions start with model 1 but as online learning expands, there becomes greater pressure to move to other models. He argues that there should be discussion within an institution about the best model, then a decision needs to be made to ensure that it happens.

A complicating factor is that often online learning in an institution gets its start from the unit responsible for distance education, which in many campus-based institutions has been the Continuing Studies division. This may be the main or only unit with instructional designers and media developers. As individual departments and larger Faculties begin to move into online learning , whether fully online or in blended format, for their credit-based programs, they begin to hanker for the same support personnel.

I have had quite a bit of experience with this, having been in at the beginning of online learning and having watched and often been directly impacted organizationally by its development over the years – I even got fired once (actually, politely asked to leave) to make a re-organisation easier, so these are not abstract questions but can affect the life and career of individuals.

One key factor is the size of the institution. In very large research universities, a good case can be made for each large faculty to have its own strategy for online learning – and its own learning technology support (model 1). I worked in one institution where the Faculty of Arts/Humanities was larger than most of the other universities in the province added together. Often in a large Faculty, programming is very much delegated to individual departments so it makes sense that decisions about whether to go online should be made at the departmental level. They are more likely to be closer to the market.

However, even this university still has a large central unit that provides learning technology support and faculty development and training, and over many years has developed several overall institutional strategies for learning technologies, flexible learning, or digital learning. These however of necessity involved widespread discussion across all the interested parties in the university.

Even in very large institutions, there are smaller faculties or departments which are just not large enough to warrant a separate learning technology support unit, and in some cases large Faculties can be very conservative and very reluctant to move anything online, so some direction and cajoling from the central administration may be needed. 

Most of all, though, a central unit can provide connections and sharing of knowledge between the different decentralized support units regarding new learning designs, effective practices, and new research and new technology developments. In other words, there are more opportunities for some specialization in a larger unit, while the provost’s office can provide overall strategy and direction, co-ordination and knowledge sharing. (For a good example, see the University of British Columbia’s Flexibytes).

Matching resources to needs

Online development is rarely even across an institution. Indeed, it is probably a mistake for a medium to large institution to try to move on all fronts when implementing online learning. Some areas will be more ready to go than others, and there will always be limited resources. For this reason there needs to be flexibility

One problem that sometimes arises when there is no central strategy for online learning is that departments or Deans hire contracted support staff for online ‘projects’ using short-term funding. Once the short-term funding runs out, or if other priorities arise (such as the need for a new professor) the contracted staff get terminated, and all the knowledge and experience of developing online courses within that specific subject discipline is lost. 

One arrangement I came across many years ago at the University of South Australia was a service contract system. Deans wanted to have their own learning technology support staff, but the university faced the problem that these support staff were often hired on contract by the Dean then were terminated at the end of their contracts. As a result, the university had centralised the appointment of all learning technology support staff under a director reporting to the Provost, but the Director negotiated with each Dean a contract for the allocation of staff to the Faculty for a period of three years. This allowed support staff such as instructional designers to get to know the specific needs of a subject area and become familiar with instructors, but also allowed the central administration to move support staff to areas where they were most needed, and also provided continuity and secure work for the support staff.

Planning for digital learning

To some extent, this whole discussion is somewhat dated. In the future, we need to think less about ‘online learning’ and more about ‘digital learning and teaching’. Blended learning is breaking down the differences between online learning and face-to-face teaching. Soon all post-secondary instructors and students will be engaged in digital teaching and learning in one form or another.

This of course makes the need for an institutional strategy even more important. How can an institutions ensure that all instructors are properly supported for digital teaching and learning? Where are resources to support faculty instructors most needed? What is the best way to determine the balance between face-to-face and online delivery?

However, in our book, Managing Technology in Higher Education, written in 2011, Albert Sangra and I wrote (p.216):

…expertise in technology and its applications are spread throughout the organization. A good [technology] governance structure ensures that all the key stakeholders are engaged in decision-making at the right time and at the right level…for us, the critical location of decision-making should be at the program level…It is here that the market for the program, and the vision for teaching and learning, should be determined, as well as the method of delivery, and the main technologies to be used, with strong input from central services and learning technology units…’

Thus the real answer is that planning and strategy for digital learning are needed throughout the institution. A central plan that sets directions, priorities and overall resource allocation is essential, but so is planning at the program level (a degree or diploma or certificate program). Within that program plan, individual instructors then have to make decisions that best reflect the needs of the subject matter and above all the students for whom they will be responsible. Figure 1 below provides a chart that captures the ubiquity of decision-making about teaching and learning that is needed in a digital age. Nothing has changed over the last seven years that requires a change to this chart.

© Bates and Sangra, 2011

References

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Chapter 9

More advice to students thinking of studying online

Image: More4kids.com, 2013

One of my most popular blog posts is A student guide to studying online. However, it was written five years ago, so I have just updated it, making sure all the links are still working and where necessary replacing dead links with new ones. 

In particular, I have added links to an excellent new book on how to master an online degree, and a link to a very useful general study guide from the UK’s 360 GSP. Below are reviews of both resources.

Mastering an online degree

Kayser, C. (2016) How to Master an Online Degree: A Guide to Success Calgary: Cybercrime Analytics Inc.

This is an excellent, short book (60 pages) that ‘is a must-read for anyone who endeavors to earn a degree online.’ It is written from a (successful) online student’s perspective, based on Christopher’s own experience leading to a fully online Bachelor of General Studies from Athabasca University in Canada, an online Masters in Criminal Justice and an additional Graduate Certificate in Cybercrime and Security from Boston University in the USA. Christopher has walked the talk.

The book covers the following topics:

  • Basic considerations for every course (including timelines, meeting deadlines, writing skills, etc.)
  • Technology tips
  • Developing meaningful relations with administrators and faculty
  • Discussion boards and discussions
  • Quizzes, exams and assignments
  • Research, plagiarism and citations
  • Navigating the ‘Course from Hell’ (extremely valuable advice here!)
  • Surviving a course meltdown
  • Course evaluations

I don’t know of any other book that builds so well on a student’s hard-earned experience of online learning and that shares that experience so well in advising others contemplating online learning.

My only disappointment is that the book itself is neither online nor open, although it costs under $10 and is easily ordered and delivered via Amazon.

53 smart tips for students

360 GSP (2018) Comprehensive Guide to Better Study: 53 Smart Tips for Students London, UK: 360 GSP. 

This ‘extensive guide shares more than 50 detailed, science-backed tips on everything to do with study. It’s jam-packed with useful resources, links, quizzes and recommendations to help you study more effectively.’

Although this is a general guide for students, including on-campus and corporate learners, it contains excellent advice that will be very useful for online students, covering the following topics:

Part 1 – Read more effectively

Part 2 –  Write more effectively

Part 3 – Improve your memory

Part 4 – Improve your concentration

Part 5 – Build your study environment

Part 6 – Manage your time

It had lots of tips that were new to me. I liked the CARS framework for choosing quality sources, for instance, which is really important for digital learning, and who knew coffee was bad for studying? (I’ll stick to wine, thank you.) The section on organising your home study environment is particularly important for online learners (no stooping over the computer, please).

I have only two, minor criticisms. It did read a lot like my mother giving me good advice. She may have been right, but I could feel myself wriggling at times. The second is a bit more serious and might have stopped the wriggling. The site claims that the tips are ‘science-based’ but no links or evidence were given. I would have found that useful, especially about the negative effect of coffee on studying: after all, the site does suggest checking your sources.

However I hope these and the other resources available at A student guide to studying online will help you, if you are a student, to achieve all your learning goals.

Who has the most expensive higher education system for students?

Tuition fees and student debt (source: Sutton Trust)

Tuition fees and student debt (source: Sutton Trust)

Kirby, P. (2016) Degrees of Debt: Funding and finance for undergraduates in Anglophone countries London, UK: The Sutton Trust

The answer, in a comparison between the major anglophone nations of England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland (NI), USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (NZ) is clearly: England. Graduates from English universities will leave with twice the debt of even private universities in the USA (£44,500 compared with the equivalent of £29,000 for for-profit universities in the USA and around £20,000 for public and private non-profits). Scotland will have the lowest average student debt (around £10,000), followed by Canada.

A good degree of caution is needed in interpreting these results. Tuition fees can vary considerably, both within countries (e.g. Canada) and between different kinds of institution in the same country (e.g. the USA). Student debt is influenced not just by the level of tuition fees but also by the availability of grants to students, parental contributions, and the availability of part-time work while studying. There are always problems with converting from several different currencies into one standard currency (in this case the U.K £). Debt also is influenced by the economic benefits following from graduation; debt is much more serious if there are few well-paying jobs after graduation. Canadian students may not feel this way, but they are fortunate in that within the first 10 years of graduating their annual income will average twice their total student debt, making repayment more manageable than in all the other countries except Scotland.

Main conclusions

Even allowing for understandable methodological difficulties, the differences are stark, and the consequences significant. These are best described by the report’s own main conclusions:

  • the average English student faces the highest levels of graduate debt within the major anglophone countries;   
  • however, the vast majority of English students’ study-related debt is held by the state, which has relatively clear repayment conditions compared to other Anglophone countries;
  • as a result [of the high tuition fees], the number  of  part-time  and  mature  students  enrolling  at  UK  institutions  across  recent years has dropped precipitously
  • while full-time undergraduate university enrolment [in England] has recovered since the imposition of £9,000 fees in 2012, university needs to remain a viable option for everyone, especially those from poorer backgrounds, who are   disproportionately under-represented across the UK professional landscape.

Comment

I am coming to the end of ten days spent in England, talking to friends who include an experienced primary school headmistress, and family who include two professors at English universities, two grandsons about to go to university, and two nieces who have recently completed their university studies. This is not a representative sample, but all week I have been hearing a tale of woe about public education in England.

The current Conservative government seems to be ideologically driven towards the privatisation of public education in England. Government funding for universities has been replaced by tuition fees, and the government wants to introduce market competition between schools and also between universities in the belief that this will drive up ‘quality’. Nevertheless there is no empirical evidence in the UK that shows that students from academies (which are replacing local government-run schools) or institutional competition through tuition pricing in universities is leading to better learning outcomes.

The Conservatives seem to have a completely wrong concept of education, based on set curricula, repeated testing of content, highly selective ‘weeding out’ of students who do not fit this paradigm, and governance by unelected trusts or corporations, a model of education that is clearly influenced by the British public boarding school system from which most of the Conservative government ministers have graduated. The current English education system is in a time warp that seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 2020s.

The results of these government policies have been high levels of stress and anxiety for school children in particular, a fundamental weakening (as intended) of the concept of public education, accompanied by a stagnant economy which is barely above the level following the economic recession of 2008. Could it be that English productivity and innovation are suffering as a result of these misguided educational policies?