April 20, 2018

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?

Using 2D virtual reality for online role playing

Lake Devo friendship 2

Koechli, L. and Glynn, M. (2014) Diving into Lake Devo: Modes of Representation and Means of Interaction and Reflection in Online Role-Play IRRODL, Vol. 15, No.4

Djafarova, N., Abramowitz, and Bountrogianni, M. (2014) Lake Devo – creation, collaboration and reflection through a customizable online role-play environment Online Learning Consortium, 2014

Introduction

This is the second of a series of blogs spotlighting the work of the Chang School of Continuing Education, Ryerson University, Toronto, in developing innovative online learning initiatives. The first post provided a broad overview of the online learning initiatives at Ryerson.

Lake Devo

Lake Devo was designed by the Centre for Digital Education Strategies at The G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education in 2009 to support online role-play activity in an educational context. Lake Devo is essentially a simplified virtual reality tool that is easy to use by both instructors and students.

Learners work synchronously, using visual, audio, and text elements to create avatars and interact in online role-play scenarios. Role-play activity is captured and published as a 2-D “movie” that a group of learners may review, discuss, debate and analyze in Lake Devo’s self-contained debrief area. Lake Devo’s chat tool allows users to check in with each other “out of role” while they are using the tool.

Examples of work produced by learners in Lake Devo can be seen here.

My interest in Lake Devo is that it is a relatively simple way for learners to construct role playing activities for developing a range of skills. The two papers listed above provide a full description of the project. I have worked with the project team to produce this summary.

Why Lake Devo?

Lake Devo was designed for several reasons:

  • instructors found that role-playing using a text-based learning management system was limiting;
  • many instructors lacked familiarity with other possible tools such as 3D virtual worlds;
  • instructors could not commit the time required to learn and integrate most standard 3D virtual worlds into their teaching.

The Lake Devo website was designed to provide an infrastructure for online role-play activities, while allowing for flexibility so that it could be used across disciplines, as well as in multiple delivery formats (e.g., fully online, hybrid, class-room).

Lake Devo is named after an outdoor pond outside the Chang Building in Toronto used by Ryerson students for skating in the winter. The pond was funded in part by the Devonian Foundation of Calgary, hence its nickname by students.

An experiential and constructivist rationale

Lake Devo was designed to meet the following goals:

  1. Provide experience with the knowledge construction process.
  2. Provide experience in and appreciation for multiple perspectives.
  3. Embed learning in realistic and relevant contexts.
  4. Encourage ownership and voice in the learning process.
  5. Embed learning in social experience.
  6. Encourage the use of multiple modes of representation.
  7. Encourage self-awareness of the knowledge construction process.

The project team set out to develop an environment that offered a middle ground between text-only online role-play environments and highly complex 3D virtual environments. They deliberately chose not to design a fully realistic world in which to interact, but rather an environment for role-play dialogue that would offer added channels of expression to support interpersonal communication, as well as an integrated debrief area. In other words, Lake Devo was developed to be a minimalist virtual world that was relatively easy to use while retaining the key characteristics of role playing. In particular it offers:

  • Simple visual and audio modes of representation such as avatars, background images, and sound effects
  • An integrated debrief area that includes a shareable, multimedia artifact, and a forum for discussion

Creating a role play exercise in Lake Devo

There are several steps or stages in developing a role play exercise in Lake Devo:

  • an instructor works out the learning goals and process by which students will use Lake Devo to meet these goals;
  • a ‘community’ must be created, usually a class of students; their names are entered into a database;
  • groups of students within the ‘community’ are either randomly assigned or specified by the instructor;
  • a group leader is identified;
  • learners are issued passwords to access their project;
  • each group member creates a visual representation, or avatar, of his or her role-play character using the Character Creation tool, which allows customization from a menu of physical attributes such as skin tone, hair colour and style, clothing colour, and facial features, from a library of images;
  • the group agrees on a time to meet synchronously online to role-play;
  • the group members participate as their avatars in a spontaneous dialogue by typing in their comments, which forms a “script.” Text during the scripting can be entered as speech, thought, or action;
  • learners may select sounds from a built-in library to insert in the script;.
  • a Backstage Group Chat area assists learners in planning the role-play and discussing logistics as the role-play unfolds;
  • the role-play dialogue is automatically saved, but each learner may edit his or her character’s dialogue after the live role-play activity;
  • once a group has finalized their role-play, they publish it to their Lake Devo Community list in the form of a 2D narrative movie;
  • the movie format allows all to participate in the debriefing, which occurs in a discussion area below each movie.

In most cases, a Lake Devo exercise is a graded, sometimes culminating, project that takes place in the latter half of a course, with a number of weeks allowed for scenario development, planning and, ultimately, the synchronous role play activity and debrief.

What has it been used for?

Lake Devo has been used by instructors and students in the following areas:

  • Interdisciplinary Studies,
  • Retail Management,
  • Fundraising Management,
  • Early Childhood Studies,
  • Food Security,
  • Entrepreneurial Mentoring.

Lake Devo has been used by a total of ten online instructors, for at least eight different courses, involving over 35 sections of students. Instructors have also been involved in user testing for the environment, as well as in demonstrations of the environment for fellow faculty.

Cost

The Lake Devo system was designed internally by staff from the Centre for Digital Education Strategies at Ryerson. It is available for use by instructors and/or students at no cost.

Students and instructors require no special software or equipment to make use of the Lake Devo environment. Internet access and creative ideas for role-play scenarios are all that is needed.

There are some minor ongoing maintenance costs for the Digital Education Strategies Unit. With respect to the use of the site, the main cost then is the up-front instructor time to design their own Lake Devo learning activities.

Feedback

Student reaction has been collected and feedback overall has been positive. In particular both instructors and students have found it easy to use.

While student satisfaction with the features of the environment has remained consistent, the Digital Education Strategies team has adopted a continuous improvement approach to the design of the environment and has fully revised the environment over the past 5 years, in keeping with student feedback. Examples of student responses can be found in the graphic below.

Lake Devo student response 2

Further information

Instructors from other institutions may use Lake Devo. They can request access through the site by completing the “sign up for an account” form on the web site.

For further information please contact either maureen.glynn@ryerson.ca or lkoechli@ryerson.ca



Research on ‘academic innovation centres’ supporting online learning

One of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

UT Austin Learning Sciences was one of the Academic Innovation Centres in the study

Bishop, M. and Keehn, A. (2015) Leading Academic Change: An Early market Scan of Leading-edge Postsecondary Academic Innovation Centers Adelphi ML: William E. Kirwan centre for Academic Innovation, University System of Maryland

What is this paper about?

This is a paper about the development of ‘academic innovation centers’ in the USA. These go by a variety of names, such as ‘the Centre for Teaching and Learning’ or ‘the Centre for Learning Sciences’, but they are basically integrating faculty development, instructional design and a range of other services for faculty (and in some cases also directly for students) to provide a locus for innovation and change in teaching and learning.

Methodology

Information was collected in three ways:

  • a Leading Academic Change summit, to which 60 academic innovation leaders were invited to engage in discussions around how academic transformation efforts are unfolding in their campuses
  • interviews with 17 ‘particularly  innovative academic transformation leaders’, to talk about the evolution of teaching and learning centres at their institutions
  • a ‘national’ survey of campus centres for teaching and learning; 163 replied to the survey (there are over 4,000 colleges and universities in the USA).

Main results and conclusions

The paper should be read carefully and in full, as there are some interesting data and findings, but here are the main points I was interested in:

  • the information collected in this study ‘seems to point to the  emergence of new, interdisciplinary innovation infrastructures within higher education administration.’
  • this includes new senior administrative positions, such as Vice Provost for Innovation in Learning and Student Success, or Associate Provost for Learning Initiatives
  • the new centres bring together previously separate support departments into a single integrated centre, thus breaking down some of the previous silos around teaching and learning
  • their focus is on online, blended and hybrid course design or re-design, improving faculty engagement with students, and leveraging instructional/learning platforms  for  instruction.
  • some of the centres are going beyond faculty development and are focusing on ensuring new initiatives lead to student success;
  • the leaders of these new centres are usually respected academics (rather than instructional designers, for instance) who may lack experience or knowledge in negotiating institutional cultures or change management

Comment

Despite the methodological issues with such a study, which the authors themselves recognise, the evidence of the development of these ‘academic innovation centres’ fits with my recent experience in visiting Canadian universities over the last two years or so, although I suspect this study focuses more on the ‘outliers’ with regard to innovation and change in USA universities and colleges.

What I find particularly interesting are the following:

  • the desire to ensure that faculty become the leaders of such centres, even though they may lack experience in bringing about institutional change, and in addition may not have a strong background in learning technologies. Perhaps they should read the book I co-wrote with Albert Sangra, ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education‘, which directly addresses these issues;
  • the study found that neither technology nor even faculty success was the leading focus of these centres, but rather student success. This is a much needed if subtle change of direction, although the report did not suggest how the link between innovation in teaching and student success might be identified or measured. I suspect that this will be a difficult challenge.
  • where does the move to integrated centres leave Continuing Studies departments, which often have the instructional design and online learning expertise (at least in many Canadian universities)? The actual location of such staff is not so important as the intent to work collaboratively across institutional boundaries, but for that to happen there has to be a strongly supported common vision for the future development of teaching and learning shared across all the relevant organizational divisions. Organisational re-alignment can’t operate successfully in a policy vacuum.

Nevertheless if what is reported here is representative of what is happening in at least some of the leading U.S. universities, it is encouraging, although I would like to see a more rigorous and comprehensive study of the issue before I throw my hat into the air.