December 16, 2017

What inter-provincial differences tell us about government policy on online learning

I have just completed two sub-reports on the 2017 national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary institutions. The first was on the responses from Ontario institutions, and the second on responses from institutions in British Columbia (also to be available shortly on the survey web site). 

When the results from these two surveys, together with the response from Quebec institutions in the main report, are analysed, some interesting inter-provincial differences emerge, indicating the impact of different government policies towards online learning.  

Response rates

Responses to the survey varied considerably from province to province, although there was a response from at least one institution in every province or territory except Nunavut.


Table 1: Response rates by province

Responses were particularly high from Ontario, with 39 out of 46 (86%) institutions responding. On the other hand, institutions in Québec had a lower response rate on average. The response rate for Québec universities was slightly lower than the national average (two thirds responded compared with three-quarters nationally) but there was a much lower response from the equivalent of colleges in the Québec system, the CEGEPs (29 out of 50 – 58%). 

Institutions offering distance education courses

Distance education includes all forms of delivery to students off-campus, not just online. Of the 140 institutions responding to the questionnaire, 116 (83%) said they offered distance education courses, and 19 (13%) did not. In all provinces and territories except Nunavut, there was at least one institution offering distance education programs. Institutions responding that they did not offer distance education programs were smaller in size, with fewer than 7,500 students.

Of the 19 institutions who replied that they do not offer distance education, 16 were CEGEPs. This is not surprising in that there is a central distance education program for CEGEPs, Cégep à distance. Nevertheless, in addition to the Cégep à distance program, 12 of the CEGEPs surveyed also offered their own distance education courses. The lower response rate for CEGEPs is probably because a larger proportion do not offer distance or online courses compared with the rest of Canada.

On the other hand almost all responding institutions in Ontario and British Columbia offer online courses, as well as all ten responding universities in Québec (even though Université Téluq is a specialist fully distance university in Québec).

Varying rates of growth

The most striking differences between the three provinces were in terms of the rate in which online course enrolments are growing. Table 2 provides a comparison of rates of growth in online enrolments.

Table 2: Differences in annual online course enrolment growth rates, 2011-2015

It can be seen that for those institutions that provided data, online course enrolments grew across the country by an average of 13% per annum in universities and 15% per annum in colleges, between 2011-2015.

The growth rate though was much greater in Ontario (enrolments actually doubled in the college sector over the five years) and considerably less in British Columbia than the national average (especially low growth in the BC college sector).

However, in Québec, online enrolments in the CEGEP sector actually went down by 3% overall between 2011 and 2015. The cause for this was a sharp drop in course enrolments at Cégep à distance during this period (see Table 4 below), although the change was volatile, Cégep à distance enrolments increasing in 2012 before declining in the remaining three years. More importantly, perhaps, though is the steady increase in online enrolments from the regular CEGEPs, which increased seven-fold over the five years, although they still constitute just a quarter of all the CEGEP enrolments.

Table 3: Online course enrolments, CEGEPs, 2011-2015

Nevertheless it appears that there are major changes taking place in the CEGEP sector, which raises questions about not only institutional but also provincial goals and strategies in this sector.

However all the results regarding online course enrolments need to be viewed with caution. We were able to get online course enrolment data from only about a half of the institutions across the country, and some key institutions offering online learning did not or were unable to provide the data.

Also growth rates are heavily influenced by market maturity. It is difficult to grow if you have reached capacity. We are not able to tell from the overall course enrolment data exactly how many overall course enrolments there are in each province, so we don’t know if the slower rate of growth in BC is because it is reaching capacity quicker than the rest of the system because it started earlier and from a larger enrolment base. We are aiming to get better data in subsequent surveys.

Nevertheless because institutions who did provide data were able to provide consistent data internally for online enrolments between 2011 and 2015, the results should be considered reasonably reliable, although more and better data are needed in future years.

Use of technology

There were also differences between the three provinces in their use of technology.

Institutions in all provinces used learning management systems.

However, institutions in Québec and British Columbia were more likely also to use web conferencing and Ontario less likely than the national average. On the other hand institutions in Québec made greater use of recorded video than institutions in other provinces.

Both BC and Ontario institutions were more likely to use social media and Québec less than the national average.

Both BC and Ontario used OER more and Québec considerably less than the national average, and the use of open textbooks was higher in BC than elsewhere.

Benefits and challenges

Ontario institutions were more likely to see online learning as helping with a shortage of physical teaching spaces, and also this applied to institutions in British Columbia.

Institutions in British Columbia in particular complained of  lack of training for instructors in teaching online.

Lastly, Québec institutions were much more likely to report lack of provincial government support for online learning as a barrier, and institutions in Ontario and to a lesser extent in British Columbia were much less likely to report this.

Varying provincial policies

These results need to be set in the context of different provincial policies for online learning.

British Columbia was first to develop a provincial strategy for online learning. In 2003 it created BCcampus, a province wide organization that works with the post-secondary institutions. BCcampus offered a range of services, including shared services such as province-wide software licensing, a community of practice for those working in online learning, and significantly, funding opportunities for the institutions to develop online courses. This led to a growth of online courses up to about 2011, when there was a change of strategy and the resources for online learning were re-allocated to support open educational resources and open textbooks.

In Alberta, eCampus Alberta had a somewhat similar role to BCcampus, providing a portal for online courses, but was funded mainly through contributions from the provincial post-secondary institutions, and when there were severe budget cuts due to the sudden drop in oil prices in 2014, funding stopped and it closed in 2016. However Campus Manitoba is still active.

The big change though came in Ontario. First in 2013 the provincial government allocated funds to the Council of Ontario Universities to develop online courses and a portal for all the post-secondary online courses, then in 2015 the provincial government created eCampus Ontario, with funds to allocate to institutions for the development of online courses and programs and open educational resources, as well as a research and development fund.

However, Québec, the second largest province in Canada, has no equivalent service. Instead it has two fully distance institutions, Téluq in the university sector, and Cégep à distance in the college sector.

Conclusions

While it is necessary to hedge these conclusions with concerns about the quality of the data, there does seem to be strong evidence that the growth of online learning is driven as much if not more by government policies and strategies as by institutional initiative. Basically, money talks. The recent rapid growth in online enrolments in Ontario coincide with the Ontario government’s funding of eCampus Ontario, whereas in British Columbia, the initial burst of online course development in the early 2000s has slowed as the funding for online course development has been switched to open textbooks and OER.

Québec on the other hand is (as usual) more complex and interesting. The regular universities appear to be moving into online learning at about the same pace as the rest of the country, but if anything the college sector is going backwards in terms of enrolments, mainly due to the dramatic drop in enrolments in Cégep à distance in the last two or three years. However there are signs that some of the regular CEGEPs are moving to fill this gap. 

I am reluctant to comment on the CEGEP sector as it is very different and I live very far away. CEGEPs range from large urban colleges, to small regional colleges, and many place a heavy emphasis on engagement with their local community. However, the Québec Minstière de l’Education et de l’Enseignement supérieur is faced with a challenge here. How important is online learning to its college sector? If it is important, what needs to be done to strengthen it? Put more money into Cégep à distance to strengthen its online capacity, or encourage the other CEGEPs to move into space – or both? 

In the meantime, what about British Columbia? Is it reaching capacity in its fully online enrolments or is it now falling behind the rest of the country? In this context, are open textbooks the best place to put its resources? 

Lastly, the results showing greater use of OER in British Columbia and Ontario and open textbooks in British Columbia raises the question about what Québec’s strategy should be for OER. Given that French is a minority language and therefore there is likely to be a shortage of francophone OER, should Québec try to be an international leader in the development of francophone open educational resources or is this not where Québec’s focus in online learning needs to be? Are there greater priorities?

These are all questions that more and better data could help answer – although more data may raise even more questions!

I’d be really interested in your views on some of the questions I’ve raised.

 

What I wanted to say to the Minister about online learning

A faculty development workshop: a broken system?

The opportunity

I don’t mix with politicians or high level decision-makers, so when I was offered a seat next to Deb Matthews, Ontario’s Minister of Advanced Education, at the ICDE conference in Toronto two week’s ago, I thought about what I wanted to say to her. What could I say that might make a difference?

The pitch

After considerable thought, and realising I would probably have about two minutes max – a true elevator pitch, more than a tweet but less than a blog post – I came up with the following before the morning of the meeting:

Minister, do you want to ensure that Ontario’s universities prepare students appropriately for developing the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age? If so, as a condition of provincial funding, you need to require every university in the province to put in place a systematic and mandatory program for training all instructors in how to teach and how best to integrate technology into their teaching. Without such comprehensive and mandatory programs, nothing will fundamentally change.

Here’s my card: ask one of your staff to call me on why this is necessary, why it is difficult, and how it might be done.

How did I do?

Not well, I’m afraid. By the time Ms. Matthews sat down next to me, the first announcements about the conference were being made. We did shake hands, then she went up and made a very good welcoming speech for the delegates, laying out what Ontario has done and is doing to support access and online learning. The current Ontario government has been a big supporter of online learning, creating eCampus Ontario and putting several million dollars into online course development and OER. It was a scoop for the conference organisers to get her to come, and she was genuinely interested in the conference and its theme (‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’)

She ended her speech, and then she left, surrounded by her minions. I literally had no chance to say anything to her other than ‘hi.’

So I missed my chance. It was no-one’s fault. That is just the nature of Ministerial appearances at big conferences – in and out. Maybe next time I should have made a preliminary pitch or got someone to have set something up, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure I would even get the chance to meet with her, and I have no standing in Ontario other than being a retired academic administrator.

Why what I wanted to say is important

Regular readers of this blog will know why I wanted to say what I set out above. Faculty in universities are trained in research, not in teaching. If lucky they may get a short introductory course when appointed, mainly focused on lecturing effectively and classroom management. Thereafter any form of faculty ‘development’ for teaching is purely voluntary.

This may or may not have been fine when all teaching was face-to-face and focused on knowledge acquisition. It is not fine when we need to develop high level intellectual skills. Teaching students high level intellectual skills needs a different approach from teaching abstract concepts and principles. 

Furthermore, the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired is changing. Students need to acquire the skills of lifelong and independent learning, because what they learn today is likely to be obsolete or redundant in ten years’ time. Students need to know where they can find content, how to verify its validity and reliability, how to analyse it and how to apply it. These are skills that need practice, and they also require nowadays the use of digital technology.

Very few instructors are formally trained in how to do this. It is not rocket science, but it is not always obvious, either. Indeed, teaching in a digital age requires a different mindset. Some instructors will come by this naturally, but most won’t. Therefore formal training for all instructors becomes essential.

Why it’s difficult

Ideally the best way to teach instructional skills is pre-service, with regular opportunities for refreshing and updating while in service. However, this would mean building into post-graduate programs time for learning about teaching and learning, at least for those who want to go on to teach in a university. Neither students, nor especially supervising faculty, would welcome this. However it is much cheaper and more effective to do this training before faculty become tenured – or more importantly before they become set in their ways.

Second, preparation for teaching in universities has to be mandatory and not voluntary. Teaching is a professional activity with its own knowledge base and skills. It is not something to dabble in when you feel like it. Who would want to fly in a plane where the pilot’s training in how to fly the plane was voluntary (even if their knowledge of aerodynamics was superb)? Evidence (see Christensen-Hughes and Mighty, 2010) suggests that fewer than ten per cent of faculty participate in voluntary faculty development programs each year and these are often those who need it the least. It is a broken system.

Furthermore it is a systemic problem. One institution cannot go it alone for the fear it will lose its most promising academic talent and  its best graduate students to those institutions where they do not have to spend time in learning how to teach well.

The big problem then is that universities will not solve this problem themselves, because research is the primary factor that influences tenure and promotion, and anything that takes away from research time – such as time spent learning how to teach well – is unacceptable.

How to solve the problem

In most professions, you are not allowed to practice unless you have met standards approved by a professional body that is recognised by the appropriate government. For instance, you cannot operate as a professional engineer in Ontario unless you are accredited by the Professional Engineers of Ontario, which is the professional accreditation body recognised by the government.

Instructors who wish to teach in universities should meet similar requirements. There is no equivalent professional body for university teaching though. A Ph.D. is a research, not a teaching, qualification.

One thing a government could require is that the universities within its jurisdiction that receive government funding must establish a professional body that requires certification of instructors and requires all new instructors to be accredited. (Some college systems have a somewhat similar requirement, such as the Provincial Instructor Diploma in British Columbia, although it is not mandatory). 

The advantage here is that it would be up to the universities to establish such a program, but the government would not fund institutions unless such programs are in place and required. This would require negotiation between universities and government about content, standards and process for establishing the training requirement, but this is not an impossible task.

Of course, the universities will hate this and faculty would see it as government interference or an attack on academic freedom. What is increasingly unacceptable though is throwing untrained instructors into the classroom without any preparation for teaching, especially given the challenges of teaching in a digital age. If we don’t prepare our instructors better, students won’t get the knowledge and skills that they will need to survive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous digital age.

Minister, please act. If you do, Ontario will lead the world. And I will try to do better next time I meet you.

Reference

Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp

Tracking online learning in the USA – and Ontario

Babson 2012 enrollment graph Allen, I. and Seaman, J. (2014) Grade Change: Tracking Online Learning in the United States Wellesley MA: Babson College/Sloan Foundation

This is the eleventh annual report in this invaluable series on tracking online education in the United States of America. It is invaluable, because, through the consistent support of the Sloan Foundation, the Babson College annual survey provides a consistent methodology that allows for the tracking of the growth and development of online learning in the USA over more than a decade.

There is nothing comparable in Canada, but nevertheless I will use this post to try and draw some comparisons between the development of online earning in the USA and at least the largest system in Canada, that of Ontario, which does have at least some data. Also, Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a system wide initiative aimed at strengthening Ontario’s online learning activities. The Sloan/Babson surveys have important lessons for Ontario’s new initiative.

Methodology

The survey is sent to the Chief Academic Officer (CAO) of every higher education institution in the USA (private and public, universities and two year colleges), over 4,600 in all. Over 2,800 responses were received from institutions that accounted for just over 80% of all higher education enrollments in the USA (most non-responses came from small institutions, i.e. institutions with 1,500 students or less, who were far less likely to have online courses, as a sector).

An online course is defined in this report as one in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online as a normal part of an institution’s program. MOOCs are therefore considered a completely different category from the ‘normal’ credit-based online courses in this report.

What is the report about?

The scope of the report can best be described from the questions the report seeks to answer:

  • What is Online Learning, what is a MOOC?
  • Is Online Learning Strategic?
  • Are Learning Outcomes in Online Comparable to Face-to-Face?
  • Schools Without Online Offerings
  • How Many Students are Learning Online?
  • Do Students Require More Discipline to Complete Online Courses?
  • Is Retention of Students Harder in Online Courses?
  • What is the Future of Online Learning?
  • Who offers MOOCs?
  • Objectives for MOOCs
  • Role of MOOCs

Main findings

This relatively short report (40 pages, including tables) is so stuffed with data that it is somewhat invidious to pick and choose results. Because it is short and simply written you are strongly recommended to read it yourself in full. However, here are the main points I take away:

Growth of credit-based online learning continues but is slowing

Sounds a bit like an economic report on China, doesn’t it? Allen and Seaman claim that a total of 7.1 million students are now taking at least one online course, or roughly 34% of all enrollments. (Note: ‘% taking at least one course’ is not the same as ‘% of all course enrollments’ which would be a better measure.) Online learning enrollments were up 6.5% in 2013, a slowing of the rate of growth which had been in the 10-15% range per annum in recent years. Nevertheless, online enrollments are still growing five times faster that enrollments in general in the USA, and most CAOs anticipate that this growth in online learning enrollments will continue into the future.

MOOCs are still a very small component of online learning

The number of institutions offering MOOCs rose from 2.6% in 2012 to 5% in 2103. The majority of institutions offering MOOCs are doctoral/research and there is a high proportion in the private, not-for-profit sector. This sector has been historically less involved in credit-based online learning.

Graph sectors with online learning

Less than a quarter of CAOs believe that MOOCs represent a sustainable method for offering online courses, down from 28 percent in 2012, and a majority of academic leaders (64%) have concerns that credentials for MOOC completion will cause confusion about higher education degrees.

Sector differences

The report identifies some clear differences between the different sectors in the USA’s very diverse post-secondary education system. Small institutions (less than 1,500) and doctoral/research institutions are far less likely to offer online courses. CAOs from institutions not offering online learning tend to be more critical of the quality of online learning and far less likely to think it essential to their future.

Of the CAOs from institutions offering online courses, nearly one-quarter believe online outcomes to be superior, slightly under 20 percent think them inferior, with the remainder (57%) reporting that the learning outcomes are the same as for classroom delivery

What about Canada – and Ontario in particular?

I have long lamented that we have no comparable data on online learning in Canada. The government of Ontario did do a census of all its universities and colleges in 2010 and found just under 500,000 online course registrations, or 11% of all university and college enrollments, with online enrollments in universities (13%) higher than in two-year colleges (7%). If we extrapolate from the USA figures (highly dubious, I know) which showed a 16% increase in online enrollments between fall 2010 and fall 2012, this would put Ontario’s online enrollments in 2012 at approximately 563,000.

More significantly, the Ontario government survey provided hard data on course completion rates:

  • the median in the college sector for the 20 colleges that responded to the question was 76.1% with most institutions reporting results between 70% and 79%.
  • the median in the university sector for the 15 universities that responded was 89% with most universities reporting results from 85% to 95%.

Contact North did a ‘cross-country check-up’ in 2012. It concluded (p.14):

Using proxy data (estimates provided by a variety of different organizations and a standard measure of full-time equivalent student set at 9.5 course registrations per FTE), we can estimate that there are between 875,000 and 950,000 registered online students in Canada (approximately 92,105 – 100,000 full-time students) at college and universities studying a purely online course at any one time.

The problem though is that these are one-off studies. While the government of Ontario is to be congratulated on doing the 2010 survey, it decided not to continue it in the following years (or more accurately, it did not decide to repeat it.) The Contact North data is at best a rough estimate, again valuable in itself, but needs to done on a more systematic and regular basis across the country (Canada’s higher education system is devolved to each of 12 provinces with no federal responsibility or office for post-secondary education, and Statistics Canada has been cut back in recent years by the current Conservative Government).

However, there is now hope. The government of Ontario has just established Ontario Online, a collaborative Centre of Excellence that will be governed and operated by the province’s colleges and universities. It has a start-up budget of $42 million. One of the first things it should do is to repeat and expand the 2010 survey, to establish a baseline for measuring the province’s progress in online learning. The expansion should include also measurement of hybrid/blended learning (preferably using the same definitions as the Babson survey for comparative purposes.) To do this accurately, institutions will need to categorize the type of courses they are offering in their courses’ database, if they have not already done this to date. Without such a baseline of data, it will be almost impossible to assess not just the success of Ontario Online, but of online learning in general in Ontario.

I would also hope that as the country’s largest province, with probably the greatest number of online courses and enrollments, Ontario will take leadership at the national Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) to get the survey it has developed adopted and administered by all provinces across Canada. Politicians and experts can huff and puff all they like about the importance of online learning, but if they don’t measure it, it’s all just hot air.

In summary, many thanks to Sloan and Babson College for their invaluable work. Ontario has done far more than any other province in Canada to identify the extent of online learning, and is poised to make an even greater breakthrough through its new Ontario Online initiative. However, systematic data collection is essential for measuring the success of any online learning initiatives or strategies.

Ontario at last establishes “Ontario Online”

 Ontario map

Bradshaw, J. (2104) Ontario to launch $42million central hub for online postsecondary classes, Globe and Mail, January 14

After more than two years discussion and consultation, it has been officially announced that Ontario’s government will spend $42-million establishing a centre that aims to drive new online learning opportunities for university and college students across the province.

At this stage, there seems to be four key goals for the new centre:

  • offer ‘state-of-the art, scalable’ online courses that can be used across the province
  • automatic credit transfer of these courses between member universities, and between member two-year colleges (thus avoiding unnecessary duplication, and obtaining economies of scale)
  • a sharing of best practices in online pedagogy and resources
  • a common portal of courses (which Contact North has already in place – whether this will be replaced or amended remains to be seen).

Ontario Online will be run by the province’s colleges and universities as an independent not-for-profit enterprise. The province has established a ‘sector steering committee’ with representatives not only from the universities and colleges, but also from OntarioLearnOntario Universities Online and Contact North, to oversee implementation. (Although, according to the Globe and Mail, the province’s instructors who are already delivering online learning are a little miffed that they are not directly represented on the steering committee.)

It won’t start actual operations until 2015, although $12 million will be available to the designated Centre of Excellence in fiscal year 2013-2014, i.e. before April, and $2.5 million has already been allocated for online learning projects under the province’s Productivity and Information Fund.

It should be noted that this initiative will build on an already very active post-secondary online learning environment, with more than 500,000 online registrations in over 18,000 online courses offered by the province’s post-secondary institutions, according to data collected by the provincial government in 2010.

Comment

It will be quite a challenge for Ontario’s 22 universities and 24 colleges to come together and work co-operatively through Ontario Online. It seems that participation in Ontario Online is voluntary, so it will be interesting to see who finally signs up to join, and what degree of success they have in developing ‘common’ courses that can be used across different institutions. $42 million may sound like a lot of money, but it won’t go far among 46 institutions.

Also, there are likely to be elections in Ontario before the centre is finally operational, so it will also be interesting to see if the new government will continue to support this initiative, given that the province is struggling with a large budget deficit and a faltering economy.

Nevertheless, whatever the challenges, this is clearly a move in the right direction. It offers an opportunity to provide a more integrated post-secondary system (Ontario is notorious for its lack of credit transfers between institutions), and perhaps more importantly, to experiment with ways to increase both quality and productivity through online learning.

A review of the HEQCO report on productivity and quality in online learning in higher education

The view from HEQCO, Toronto

The view from HEQCO, Toronto

Carey, T., & Trick, D. (2013). How Online Learning Affects Productivity, Cost and Quality in Higher Education: An Environmental Scan and Review of the Literature. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario

Why this paper is important

In July, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario published the above report. This is a very important development for online learning in post-secondary education as it takes a very hard look at quality, cost and productivity and comes forward with recommendations to government. This is a paper that is likely to be read (and should be read) by legislators, state and government policy makers, university and college boards and senior university and college administrators.

I am also exploring through a series of blogs the issue of productivity and online learning, partly because of dissatisfaction with the current state of thinking about this issue, which became apparent working with this project.

For this reason, I am setting aside my hat as an Advisory Board member who commented on the penultimate draft, and and am here providing a full analytic review of the paper. To do this, I have had to reproduce key parts of the document, but I strongly recommend that the HEQCO document is read in full. Quotes from the actual paper are in italics, although I have edited and abbreviated in part.

The paper focuses on the following questions:

  • What are the cost implications of a shift to online learning? Specifically, does a greater use of online instruction save institutions or systems money and, if so, under what circumstances?
  • What do we know about the relationship between online learning and important variables that are often considered when discussing the “quality” of an institution or of a system?

Main findings

  • The evidence reviewed suggests that, for a range of students and learning outcomes, fully online instruction produces learning that is on par with face-to-face instruction.
  • the students most likely to benefit are those who are academically well prepared and highly motivated to learn independently. Students who are not well prepared to learn at the postsecondary level or do not devote the necessary time to learning are less likely to benefit from online learning and may in fact do better in a face-to-face setting.
  • the provincial government… should have an interest in making sure [well-prepared and motivated students] have online learning opportunities available to them. These opportunities should serve students’ learning needs, and – if carried out at large scale – should produce cost efficiencies for higher education institutions, the student or both.
  • there is no evidence that all of the learning outcomes expected of postsecondary students in Ontario can be achieved solely by online learning. 

Main recommendations to the Ontario provincial government and Ontario universities and colleges

  • set a target that, within three years, a specified list of high-demand university and college programs that are primarily or entirely online will be available to Ontario students.
  • set a target that, within three years, a specified list of high-demand courses will be available online and will be accepted for credit at all Ontario universities and colleges that offer a program in that discipline.
  • a set of high-quality degree programs that qualify the student for admission to any Ontario graduate school, and a set of high-quality courses that are accepted for credit by every Ontario institution, will be preferable to a multiplicity of courses and programs that operate on a small scale.
  • By working with other institutions in Ontario and elsewhere, Ontario colleges and universities can leverage and help shape emerging developments in online learning.
  • Coordination will be required to ensure that economies of scale are achieved in an environment of rapid technological change. 
  • Ontario colleges and universities should be encouraged to work with peer institutions to ensure that engagement with advances in online learning fully supports the province’s strategic goals for quality and access in a time of constrained funding. 
  • An effective government strategy will begin by adapting existing regulatory infrastructure to remove unnecessary barriers to high-quality online education. 
  • Hybrid courses that blend online learning with face-to-face instruction should also be encouraged where they improve learning outcomes. Hybrid courses fit well within the government’s existing regulatory structure and so present fewer policy challenges. 

Methodology

We have looked especially for meta-analyses which compare traditional versus online education at a system, course or activity level. We have made only secondary use of studies and reports from individual instances or instructors where institutionalization and sustained use have not been addressed.

Costs:

There is remarkably little empirical literature that documents the costs of online education relative to face-to-face education. So very little evidence on costs is available in this report

The authors though do provide an extensive list of barriers to cost reduction.

The authors conclude this section as follows:

To the extent that online education reduces costs, there is no consensus about who should or would benefit from the reduction. Students seek lower tuition fees; governments seek reduced subsidies for higher education; university employees seek better compensation. This situation presents a principal-agent problem: it is difficult to motivate change when those affected by change will not receive the contemplated financial benefit.

Emerging developments

The following emerging developments are discussed:

  • Affordable and open textbooks
  • Adaptive interactions with learning resources
  • Optimizing student-instructor interaction time
  • Targeting instructional effort based on student program data
  • Minimizing marginal costs via Massive Open Online Courses

The authors also identify several common themes across the individual developments:

  • Aligning Support to the Student’s Individual Learning Needs
  • “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally” to Achieve Benefits at Scale
  • Transparency and Knowledge Intensity in Instructional Design
  • Reputational Capital From and For Online Learning
  • The Challenge of Investment at/for Scale

Observations (for recommendations, see above)

Fully online education presents opportunities for major economies of scale. By definition, these economies can only be achieved if a large scale is reached.

Fully online education has the potential to provide a high-quality education – for some students, in some fields of study – at significantly lower unit costs than traditional forms of instruction. The cost savings have the potential to help fund the cost of improving traditional learning, including the costs of introducing hybrid models that lead to better learning outcomes. The challenge is to make it happen.

What is striking to us about these viewpoints is the agreement that what is least likely to be done effectively at scale and with technological mediation is precisely what matters most in higher education.

My critique

Overall, this is an excellent report that will be valuable to policy makers, if they read it in full. The danger is that they will jump to the recommendations, which are not really the strength of this report. Its value lies in exploring assumptions and beliefs about online learning and productivity and providing data and evidence that sometimes supports such beliefs, and other times challenges them. The section on emerging developments is particularly strong, especially the analysis of common themes across the individual developments.

Comparative quality of online learning

Although the authors focused their literature review on ‘meta-analyses of rigorous experimental studies’, the result is a master lesson on why such studies are usually a waste of time, particularly with regard to ‘quality’ defined in this report as to whether online learning achieves equal learning outcomes to face-to-face teaching. Such studies on using different media and technologies to deliver education date back until the early 1970s, and results are consistent: mode of delivery is less important than method of teaching and multiple other factors. In statistical terms, variance within experimental groups is larger than variations between experimental groups. In plain language, the pedagogy matters, a point recognized by the authors later in the document when they acknowledge the importance of instructional design.

This is one reason why I am cautious about the research on ‘non-traditional’ students that suggests that online learning works less well for them. While I do not disagree with this in general, it can work well for some in this group when designed to meet their specific needs. The problem is that the Jaggars and Di Xu research quoted to support the conclusion in the HEQCO report is based on data from U.S. community colleges, many of which have a very poor record of using instructional design and best practices in online learning. You have to look at the quality of the teaching (in both modes), not just the delivery method.The HEQCO authors also correctly note that while many of Jaggars/Di Xu findings point to performance differences between online and face-to-face learning that are statistically significant, the differences are fairly small.

Costs

This is by far the most disappointing part of the study. The report draws on only two actual studies of the costs of online learning (both from the USA), neither of which are very helpful.

For reasons of time pressure and consistency, the authors decided to limit their research review to studies published in the last five years. As a result, studies such as my own on the cost of the University of British Columbia’s fully online Master in Educational Technology (which was originally published in 2003) are not included, even though the study provides a comprehensive analysis of the costs and more importantly the cost structures of a program that is still running on much the same cost basis as in 2003. This program has been remarkably successful with the following features:

  • fully cost-recoverable (including overheads and planning) from tuition fees alone
  • tuition fees the same as for on-campus graduate programs (fee level regulated by government)
  • over 300 students in the program each year with over 900 course enrolments
  • courses can be taken and paid for individually
  • 70-80 admissions a year, and 70-80 graduates a year, thus with a degree completion rate (for those enrolling in the full degree program) of over 90%.

This program alone has more than doubled the number of graduate students in the whole of the Faculty of Education and UBC has adopted this cost model for a number of its other professionally based masters programs, such as rehab science and creative writing. Not to include this because the study was done 10 years ago is almost perverse, because it shows that for certain kinds of courses, and certain kinds of students, online learning can be far more productive than face-to-face teaching. It is perverse, because real productivity gains only become apparent over time – a five year window is often too small to see the full benefits.

Emerging developments

For me, this was by far the strongest part of the paper, particularly the analysis of common themes across the developments. The paper is worth reading for this section alone.

Recommendations

Although I would support all the recommendations, they are very cautious.Partly because of the weakness or lack of research into online learning, costs and productivity, the recommendations necessarily have to be cautious.

However, since HEQCO itself is a government-funded policy research organization, perhaps an obvious recommendation would have been for more research on the costs of online learning, given the paucity of studies. Another area for research would be on institutional barriers and government policies that prevent greater scalability or adoption of online learning in Ontario universities.

It is still shocking to me that Ontario has such a poor system of credit transfer even between universities that make it almost impossible to set up consortium programs or enable student students to select combinations of courses/programs from different universities, given that a main advantage of online learning is that students could take courses from any university in Ontario. Maybe government regulation is necessary in this area, since the universities and colleges were given $65 million I believe over a year ago to solve this problem and haven’t done so yet.

None of the recommendations really addresses the issue of scale. I’m not sure I agree with the statement on p. 43:  What is striking to us about these viewpoints is the agreement that what is least likely to be done effectively at scale and with technological mediation is precisely what matters most in higher education, i.e. modelling, coaching, enabling students to construct knowledge, etc. Certainly, most MOOCs don’t do this, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that with a focused effort on instructional design, we could not design more cost-effective, high quality learning experiences through online programs on a larger scale than at present but not necessarily at massive level. This would combine lower cost per student with higher quality learning: the Nirvana of educational productivity

Thus I would like to have seen a recommendation to government and the institutions to put in the same level of investment as for MOOCs, but to develop a model that combines best practices in online learning combined with new technologies such as social media, to build partly self-supporting student learning communities on a larger scale than current campus-based programs, with high quality learning outcomes and completion rates. I think it could be done, but it needs substantial investment beyond the risk level of most individual universities, which is why government should be a partner.

Conclusion

Despite my criticisms this is an excellent report on a difficult topic and completed within a tight timeframe. It provides grist for productive discussions on costs and quality and really advances our understanding of the challenges of increasing productivity without losing quality in higher education.

Reference

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2013) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (especially Chapter 7: Resources, Money and Decision-Making).