September 22, 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

More developments in teaching science online

Screen shot from A101’s Virtual Reality of Human Anatomy (YouTube)

Matthews, D. (2018) Scepticism over Google plan to replace labs with virtual reality, Times Higher Education, June 7

The Harvard Gazette (2018) Virtual lab to extend reach of science education Harvard Gazette, June 6

It was interesting that I came across these two completely separate news announcements on the same day.

Google and Labster

The THE article is about a partnership between Google and the Danish virtual reality company, Labster. Among the 30 ‘virtual reality’ labs planned are ones allowing training in confocal microscopy, gene therapy and cytogenetics.

Arizona State University, one of the major online providers in the USA, will be the first institution to use the labs in VR this autumn, launching an online-only biological sciences degree. It has worked with Labster to develop the VR labs. Students will require access to their own VR headsets such as Google’s Daydream View, which costs US$99, used in combination with specific brands of smartphones. 

Harvard and Amgen

The second article from the Harvard Gazette announces a partnership between the Amgen Foundation and edX at Harvard University to establish a platform called LabXchange, ‘an online platform for global science education that integrates digital instruction and virtual lab experiences, while also connecting students, teachers, and researchers in a learning community based on sharing and collaboration.’ 

The term ‘virtual lab’ is used differently from the Google/Labster sense. Amgen, a major biotechnology company in the USA, is investing $6.5 million in grant funding to Harvard University to develop, launch and grow the LabXchange platform for teachers and students globally. LabXchange will include a variety of science content, such as simulated experiments, but more importantly it will provide an online network to connect students, researchers and instructors to enable ‘learning pathways’ to be built around the online materials.

Comment

It is interesting and perhaps somewhat unnerving to see commercial companies in the USA moving so strongly into online science teaching in partnership with leading universities.

Of course, the THE had to choose a snarky headline suggesting that you can’t teach science wholly online, rather than have the headline focus on the innovation itself. As with all innovation, the first steps are likely to be limited to certain kinds of online teaching or experiments, and in the end it will come down as much to economic factors as to academic validity. Can virtual labs and online science teaching scale economically better than campus-based courses and at the same quality or better?

More importantly I would expect that the technology will lead to new and exciting approaches not only to science teaching, but also to science research. Already some researchers are using virtual reality and mathematical modelling to explore variations in DNA sequences, for instance. Virtual and augmented reality in particular will lead to science being taught differently online than in physical labs, for different purposes.

At the same time, the two developments are very different. The Google/Labster/ASU partnership is pushing hard the technology boundaries in teaching science, using proprietal VR, whereas the Harvard/Amgen/edX partnership is more of a networked open educational resource, providing access to a wide range of online resources in science. Both these developments in turn are different from remote labs, which provide online access to controlling ‘real’ experimental equipment.

Lastly, both new developments are what I call ‘We’re gonna’ projects. They are announcements of projects that have yet to be delivered. It will be interesting to see how much the reality matches the hype in two year’s time. In the meantime, it’s good to see online learning being taken seriously in science teaching. The potential is fascinating.

Don’t want to retire? Alternatives to dying on campus

Tony looking old

Kaskie, B. et al. (2012) Promoting Workplace Longevity and Desirable Retirement Pathways Within Academic Institutions TIAFF-CREF Institute, March

Marcus, J. (2015) Aging faculty who won’t leave thwart universities’ attempts to cut costs The Hechinger Report, October 9

The problem

I couldn’t resist this one. Students who wish their boring old prof would just die in the middle of his lecture should be careful what they wish for: it’s increasingly likely to happen.

The problem is that old, tenured faculty just won’t quit, goddammit, now that mandatory retirement at 65 has been abolished. (I retired when there was still mandatory retirement. Three years later I got a letter from the Faculty Association saying that mandatory retirement had been abolished at UBC. I was terrified: I thought I would have to go back.)

While 36 percent of all workers plan to put off their retirements beyond the age of 65, the proportion of university and college faculty who intend to delay stepping down is more than double that, according to Kaskie et al., who are from the University of Iowa.

The Hechinger Report reports that:

It’s a big, big problem for universities that are trying to cut costs and improve productivity, making it harder for them to respond to declining enrollments and changing student demand for new kinds of majors, and blocking younger PhDs from entering the workforce.

Kaskie et al. note that:

Developing a strategic response to the continued aging of the academic workforce must become a higher priority among leaders of higher education.

They go on to suggest a number of such strategic responses:

  • wellness programs tailored for aging employees; (Yoga for mechanical engineers?)
  • offering workplace accommodations most useful to aging employees (presumably even lower teaching loads, and not after bed time)
  • developing retirement pathways varied in structure and not offered consistently to both faculty and staff. (I don’t see that one getting much traction with activist faculty).

So I’m not sure these strategies will have much effect. Old profs know when they are on to a good thing.

Solutions

Asking profs to retire early because it will save the university money is more likely to make them stay on longer, just to spite the administration. Indeed, it is the administration you would like to avoid if you can, with all those boring meetings, and the barriers to doing what you really want to do that are constantly thrown up by the administration.

So, as an old and happily retired prof, I have a couple of suggestions for my younger colleagues approaching 65 that eluded the researchers at the University of Iowa.

1. Teach online

Many profs want to stay on for the teaching. You rightly claim that after 35 years in the field, you still have much to offer. You could still do this by stepping down from full-time work, and working as an adjunct faculty teaching online, not so much for the money (you will be shocked to realise how little adjuncts are paid, and even more grateful for your more than generous pension), but for the flexibility and the contact with students.

Online teaching can be done from home, and at whatever time you like, so long as the work is covered. No more dreary commutes and no more avoiding that terrible colleague down the corridor who always buttonholes you with her latest paranoia. Teaching online will not only help keep you engaged and up to date in your subject, but the social media you learn to use may even help you to communicate with your grandchildren.

You will be surprised how satisfying online teaching is (especially if you get some training and experience before you retire.)

2. Become a consultant

This is a more personal solution and won’t work for everyone, but it sure worked for me. Many professors develop strong and valuable contacts outside the university where their expertise is needed and appreciated. You may well be the only person with the knowledge and experience in your field (and if you’re not, what have you been doing for the last 35 years?).

What’s hard for people to understand is the wonderful freedom you have as a self-employed consultant. You can – and should – tell it as it is. No more obfuscating or worrying about the consequences of speaking bluntly. That’s what you are paid for, and as a consultant you may be the only one who can speak truth to power.

I have to say that most of the time, I wasn’t saying anything that someone in the organisation didn’t know already – and listening is even more important than talking as a consultant – but often these people within the organisation who do know are not being listened to. Pay someone else a gob of money for the same advice and it’s more likely to be acted on. And if it isn’t, who cares? You just walk away at the end of the contract, thus avoiding the frustration of so many jobs when you can’t do what you want to do.

However, if you want to be successful as a consultant, there are some things you should do before you leave the university:

  • first, build up that network of external contacts who may be future clients, and develop some goodwill and ‘name recognition’ – perhaps by offering free advice over a cup of coffee;
  • start doing some serious consultancy work before you retire from the university. Most institutions will allow up to one day a week for public service or consultancies. Be careful though to avoid conflict of interest. Make sure your Dean or head of department knows what you are doing. In some circumstances, it may be necessary for contracts to be with the university, rather than you as an individual, while you are still working for the university. If so, discuss the possibility of continuing as an independent contractor when you leave, both with the external client and with your institution. Remember that there are benefits to the university in your leaving; being able to take contracts with you is then part of the negotiation;
  • find a good accountant and incorporate your consultancy company, before you leave. You need to be careful about taxes, and you also need to have a system in place for accurately tracking consultancy income and expenses. It is particularly important to keep your consultancy income and expenses clearly separate from your personal income and expenses. A good accountant can be really helpful with this. It will depend on the circumstances, but I managed to live on my pensions and invest the consultancy income, thus providing financial security well into the future, while having an extra store of money for the occasional special holiday or family gathering.

Becoming a consultant enabled me to work more or less the amount I wanted to until I was 75. Even then I only stopped working as a paid consultant to do the third solution.

3. Write a book

Yes, you’ve probably already written several academic books, but stopping to write a book when you are towards the end of a career has a number of advantages.

First, you need the time that comes when you are no longer working full time. Second, you can step back a little and look at your career’s work in a broader perspective. Probably most of the books you have written have been rather narrowly focused and technical. When you are retired you can see the big picture. Now is a chance to pull all your knowledge and experience together into a readable, more widely accessible book, a kind of lifetime perspective on a topic.

In other words, it’s your legacy. If somewhat challenging – and who doesn’t need a challenge when retiring? – writing such a book can be immensely satisfying.

Conclusion

No, it’s not a good enough reason – for you at any rate – to retire just to save the university some money. But there is life after and outside the university. I had the most satisfying years of work in my life after leaving the university, although I loved what I was doing there. And seriously, universities do need new blood – and you don’t have to spill yours to make it happen.

Developing a coherent approach to mobile learning

The JIBC Emergency Social Services app

The JIBC Emergency Social Services app

The Justice Institute of British Columbia (JIBC) is an unusual organization, focusing on the training of police, fire, corrections and paramedical personnel, as well as providing training for social service departments of the BC provincial government.

Tannis Morgan, Associate Dean, JIBC Centre for Teaching, Learning and Innovation, has just posted a very interesting post, Mobile Learning at an Applied Institution, on why and how JIBC has developed its mobile learning strategy, which includes issuing pre-loaded iPads to participants in some programs. If you have any interest in mobile learning, the post is well worth reading. You should click on the graphic at the end of the post under ‘Presentation for ETUG 2014’ for more information from slides prepared for an ETUG workshop.

Particularly worth noting is that most of JIBC’s mobile applications are open and free, because the materials are of direct value to all personnel working in this area, whether they are taking a JIBC course or not. Making the material developed for clients such as the government’s emergency social services department open and free has resulted in more enrolments, as employees and managers see the value of the service that JIBC is providing.

The success or otherwise of online students in the California Community College system

 Online offerings vary widely across subject

Johnson, H. and Mejia, M. (2014) Online learning and student outcomes in California’s community colleges San Francisco CA: Public Policy Institute of California, 20 pp

I’m not a great fan of studies into completion rates in online learning, because most studies fail to take into account a whole range of factors outside of the mode of delivery that influence student outcomes. However, this study is an exception. Conducted by researchers at the highly influential PPIC, it takes a very careful look at how well students across the whole California community college system (CCCS) do in online learning, and there are some very interesting findings that may not come as a surprise to experienced observers of online learning, but will certainly provide fodder for both supporters and skeptics of online learning.

Why the study is important

Several reasons:

  • California’s community colleges offer more online credit courses than any other public higher education institution in the country. By 2012, online course enrollment in the state’s community colleges totaled almost one million, representing about 11 percent of total enrollment
  • Over the past ten years, online course enrollment has increased by almost 850,000, while traditional course enrollment has declined by almost 285,000.
  • Community colleges are more likely than other institutions of higher education [in the USA] to serve nontraditional students. These students often have employment and family obligations and therefore may potentially benefit the most from online learning.
  • The state of California is investing $57 million over the next five to six years for online learning initiatives within the California Community College system
  • The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) provided … access to unique longitudinal student- and course-level data from all of the state’s 112 community colleges

Main findings

  • Between 2008–09 and 2011–12, total credit enrollment at California’s community colleges declined by almost a million. The scarcity of traditional courses has been a factor in the huge increase in online enrollments. With the state cutting support to community colleges by more than $1.5 billion between 2007–08 and 2011–12, community colleges experienced an unprecedented falloff in enrollment 
  • online course success rates are between 11 and 14 percentage points lower than traditional course success rates.
  • in the long term, students who take online classes tend to be more successful than those who enroll only in traditional courses…students who take at least some online courses are more likely than those who take only traditional courses to earn an associate’s degree or to transfer to a four-year institution.
  • for students juggling school, family and work obligations, the ability to maintain a full-time load by mixing in one or two online courses per term may outweigh the lower chances of succeeding in each particular online course.
  • if a student’s choice is between taking an online course or waiting for the course to be offered in a classroom at a convenient time, taking the online course can help expedite completion or transfer
  • participation in online courses has increased for each of the state’s largest ethnic groups—and online enrollment rates for African American students, an underrepresented group in higher education in California, are particularly high. However, these rates are much lower among Latino students.

Main recommendations

  • move from ad hoc offerings to more strategic planning of online courses
  • improve the ability to transfer credits between community colleges and between colleges and the state’s universities
  • improve the design and provide more consistency in the quality of online courses between institutions
  • adopt a standardized learning management system across all colleges
  • collect systematic information on the cost of developing and maintaining online courses

My comments

This is another excellent and succinct research report on online learning, with a very strong methodology and important results, even if I am not at all surprised by the outcomes. I would expect online completion rates for individual courses to be lower than for traditional courses as students taking online courses often have a wider range of other commitments to manage than full-time, on campus students.

Similarly, I’m not surprised that online course success is lightly lower for community colleges than for universities (if we take both the figures from Ontario and my own experience as a DE director) and for certain ethnic groups who suffer from a range of socio-economic disadvantages. Online learning is more demanding and requires more experience in studying. Post-graduate students tend to do better at online learning than undergraduate students, and final year undergraduate students tend to do better than first year undergraduate students. Nevertheless, as the study clearly indicates, over the long term online learning provides not only increased access but also a greater chance of success for certain kinds of students.

I am worried though that online learning in California has ‘succeeded’ because of the massive cuts to campus-based education. It is better than nothing, but online learning deserves to be considered in its own right, not as a cheaper alternative to campus-based education. Online learning is not a panacea. Different students have different needs, and a successful public post secondary education system should cater to all needs. In the meantime, this is one of the most useful studies on online completion rates.