November 18, 2017

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Athabasca University?

Light at end of tunnel

Climenhaga, D. (2017) Athabasca U’s future seems brighter as Saskatchewan prof named to conduct sustainability review Albertapolitics.ca, January 19

Climenhaga, D. (2016) Alberta Government names five new members to Athabasca University Board of Governors,Albertapolitics.ca, October 

The good news

I’ve written several times before about the troubles at Athabasca University, which bills itself as Canada’s open university (for a full list of my posts on AU and its troubles, see the end of this post). Most of my posts have been bleak about AU’s future because the news coming out of Alberta about the university was so bad.

So I am very happy to be able at last to see light at the end of the tunnel. This is due to several events in the last six months:

  • the appointment of a new President with extensive experience in the management of Albertan post-secondary educational institutions (Neil Fassina, formerly provost and vice-president academic at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology)
  • gradual renewal of the board with new appointments, and a targeted date (March 2018) for further new appointments to the board
  • the appointment of Dr. Ken Coates as ‘the independent third-party reviewer who will try to figure out how the perpetually broke AU can be made sustainable’.

In particular the changes to the Board and a new President were essential first steps to secure the future of the university. The NDP government, despite the financial crisis in Alberta due to low oil prices, seems to recognise that Athabasca University is funded per student at a much lower rate than the other universities, and will probably need more operational funding in the future. At the press conference to announce Professor Coates’ appointment, the Minister of Advanced Education stated that the government:

is committed to ensure adequate funds are in place to run the institution throughout Dr. Coates’s sustainability review. We’ve made sure the money is there to keep the lights on, people working and students learning.

This commitment is important as there are 30,000 students’ futures at stake.

So here is some gratuitous but well meaning advice for the Alberta government and Professor Coates from someone who cares a great deal about the future of the university, and knows a little bit about open and distance education.

Vision first

This is the most important, and actually the most difficult, challenge for Ken Coates and the government. What is the future role for AU in a world that has radically changed since its foundation almost 50 years ago? What added value can open and distance learning provide in the Alberta post-secondary education system? What needs can or does AU serve that are not being served by the other institutions? To answer those questions the university needs to look outward, not inward.

In earlier posts I have suggested what some of those roles could be:

  • widening access, particularly for lifelong learners, aboriginal students, and other potential learners denied access to the conventional post-secondary education
  • innovation in teaching: AU should be a world leader in the design of flexible, cost-effective online learning, a laboratory and test-bed for the rest of the Alberta post-secondary system
  • regional development and research: this is where it should focus its content and programs. Alberta is in the midst of dramatic changes to energy and resource development, climate change, and economic development. Find a niche here that has been left by the other universities and fill that.

However, it is really not for me to suggest a vision from AU. This needs to be created within and for Alberta. But the vision should drive everything else. To get buy-in and support for such a vision, an extensive process of consultation both internally and externally will be needed. This should have been done years ago so it needs to be done not only carefully but quickly.

In particular, all other decisions – about funding, labour contracts, course development – should be dependent on the vision, first and foremost. If there is general buy-in to the vision from all the stakeholder groups, these other thorny issues become much easier to deal with.

The teaching model

Athabasca University was a revolutionary 45 years ago when it introduced its teaching model of open access, continuous enrolment and independent, guided study based on quality printed materials. But that was the late 60s and early 70s. It’s 2017 now and the current teaching model is not only antiquated by modern standards, it is very costly and inflexible. Tightly linked to this is a generation of faculty and administrators who have known nothing else.

There has in fact been considerable internal expertise on the design of online and distance learning at AU, but this expertise has been constantly ignored in terms of actual decision-making about design models, or rather interesting designs have been pushed to the margins and haven’t affected the bulk of the teaching, particularly in the undergraduate programs.

This has to change. Slimmer, more flexible and above all less costly methods of course design and development are needed that take account of the rapid developments in new learning technologies since the 1970s.

I can’t see how this change in teaching models can happen without a major change in personnel, particularly in the academic and administrative areas, and without accompanying changes in labour agreements. AU’s location in the boondocks does not help in recruiting quality academic staff, although online learning means that faculty do not have to be physically located even in Alberta.  

Again, though, decide on appropriate teaching models, then develop labour agreements around this that are fair and reasonable. This will be helped if faculty and administrators buy into the new vision for teaching and learning. Those that don’t should leave. The students deserve better teaching than they are getting at the moment.

System synergy

AU’s role vis-a-vis the other post-secondary institutions in the province needs to be clarified, developed and agreed by not only the other institutions but also the government. In other words, a process such as Ontario’s strategic mandate agreements is needed.

Alberta though has a much smaller system than Ontario’s. It should be possible to get all the universities around a rather small coffee table. British Columbia back in the days of the Open Learning Agency had a Provost’s Council that worked out not only the relationship between OLA and the other universities, but agreed on joint program development, sharing of courses, and credit transfer for open and distance learning. Alberta needs something similar, some kind of forum that enables institutions to agree roles and functions in open and online learning. But again Athabasca needs to work out its vision and role first.

Funding

Although this has been the main focus in recent years to me it is the least of the problems. Even in a cash-strapped province such as Alberta’s, AUs funding is almost in the margin of error in the total provincial budget. But rightly the government doesn’t want to throw good money after bad.

The biggest need is a new approach to IT at the university. AU has had major problems with IT security, and IT management. Whatever vision for the university is decided, it needs to move away from a massive, centralised, local IT operation to more flexible, decentralised, cloud-based solutions. Again though the IT model needs to be driven by the vision for the university, not the other way round.

Will they get it right?

There is still a long way to go before Athabasca gets to the end of the tunnel, and there are several major factors that could still derail it. Indeed, let’s hope that the light isn’t another train that runs right over the university.

My biggest concern is that although the recent steps by the government are all in the right direction (new board, new president and an external review), where is the open and distance education expertise so urgently needed to guide Athabasca into the future? The government, the board, the CEO and even the external consultant have no experience in this field. In what other business other than open and distance education would this be acceptable?

It could be argued that the expertise lies within the institution. If so, over the last ten years there has been a lamentable inability to make good use of this expertise in the planning and management of the university. (See my previous posts below for evidence of this). Indeed, the top people in online and distance education field who were at AU have either retired, moved on or given up trying. Ken Coates needs to tap into this expertise and particularly their knowledge of the barriers that have stifled innovation in teaching and learning at AU.

Also when appointing a new board, the government should make sure that at least one board member is knowledgeable and experienced in open and distance education. Surely that’s not too much to ask?

So I wish Ken Coates the very best in his very challenging mission. But don’t call on me – I’m retired.

Further reading

I am surprised how much space I have devoted in this blog to the troubles at AU. Put them all together, though, and you get a pretty good picture of the challenges it has been facing:

Feb 25, 2013: What’s going on at Athabasca University? (about the firing of four senior staff)

Feb 27, 2013: Athabasca University’s President to stand down – but not soon

Jan 28, 2014: Is Athabasca University moving away from tutoring?

Jun 9, 2015: Athabasca University’s Troubles Grow (about a different sustainability report written by the previous interim President)

Jun 12, 2015: Advice to the Alberta Government on Athabasca University’s sustainability report 

Jun 14, 2015: Advice to students about Athabasca University

Jun 30, 2015: What can past history tell us about the ‘crisis’ at Athabasca University?

 

What do we mean by ‘open’ in education?

Malala 2

I’m just a committed and even stubborn person who wants to see every child getting quality education

Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Prize speech, 2014

This is the first of five posts on ‘open-ness’ in education for my online open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, covering:

  • open education, open access and open universities (this post)
  • open educational resources
  • open textbooks, open research and open data
  • the implications of ‘open’ for course and program design
  • a scenario for a post-graduate program based on an approach to ‘open’ design.

Once again, I’m saving the best until the end!

Open education

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in open education, mainly related to open educational resources and MOOCs. Although in themselves OER and MOOCs are important developments, they tend to cloud other developments in open education that are likely have even more impact on education as a whole. It is therefore necessary to step back a little to get a broader understanding of open education. This will help us better understand the significance of these and other developments in open education, and their likely impact on teaching and learning now and in the future.

Open education as a concept

Open education can take a number of forms:

  • education for all: free or very low cost school, college or university education available to everyone within a particular jurisdiction, usually funded primarily through the state;
  • open access to programs that lead to full, recognised qualifications. These are offered by national open universities or more recently by the OERu;
  • open access to courses or programs that are not for formal credit, although it may be possible to acquire badges or certificates for successful completion. MOOCs are a good example;
  • open educational resources that instructors or learners can use for free. MIT’s OpenCourseware, which provides free online downloads of MIT’s video recorded lectures and support material, is one example;
  • open textbooks, online textbooks that are free for students to use;
  • open research, whereby research papers are made available online for free downloading;
  • open data, that is, data open to anyone to use, reuse, and redistribute, subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share.

Each of these developments is discussed in more detail below, except for MOOCs, which are discussed extensively in Chapter 7.

Education for all – except higher education

Open education is primarily a goal, or an educational policy. An essential characteristic of open education is the removal of barriers to learning. This means no prior qualifications to study, no discrimination by gender, age or religion, affordability for everyone, and for students with disabilities, a determined effort to provide education in a suitable form that overcomes the disability (for example, audio recordings for students who are visually impaired). Ideally, no-one should be denied access to an open educational program. Thus open learning must be scalable as well as flexible.

State-funded public education is the most extensive and widespread form of open education. For example, the British government passed the 1870 Education Act that set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 13 in England and Wales. Although there were some fees to be paid by parents, the Act established the principle that education would be paid for mainly through taxes and no child would be excluded for financial reasons. Schools would be administered by elected local school boards. Over time, access to publicly funded education in most economically developed countries has been widened to include all children up to the age of 18. UNESCO’s Education for All (EFA) movement is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth and adults, supported, at least in principle, by 164 national governments. Nevertheless today there are still many millions of ‘out-of-school’ children worldwide.

Access to post-secondary or higher education though has been more limited, partly on financial grounds, but also in terms of ‘merit’. Universities have required those applying for university to meet academic standards determined by prior success in school examinations or institutional entry exams. This has enabled elite universities in particular to be highly selective. However, after the Second World War, the demand for an educated population, both for social and economic reasons, in most economically advanced countries resulted in the gradual expansion of universities and post-secondary education in general. In most OECD countries, roughly 35-60 per cent of an age cohort will go on to some form of post-secondary education. Especially in a digital age, there is an increasing demand for highly qualified workers, and post-secondary education is a necessary doorway to most of the best jobs. Therefore there is increasing pressure for full and free open access to post-secondary, higher or tertiary education.

However, as we saw in Chapter 1, the cost of widening access to ever increasing numbers results in increased financial pressure on governments and taxpayers. Following the financial crisis of 2008, many states in the USA found themselves in severe financial difficulties, which resulted in substantial cuts to the public education system. Thus solutions that enable increased access without a proportionate increase in funding are almost desperately being sought by governments and institutions. It is against this background that the recent interest in open education should be framed.

As a result, open is increasingly (and perhaps misleadingly) being associated with ‘free’. While the use of open materials may be free to the end user (learners), there are real costs in creating and distributing open education, and supporting learners, which has to be covered in some way. Thus a sustainable and adequate system of publicly funded education is still the best way to ensure access to quality education for all. Other forms of open education are steps towards achieving fully open access to higher education.

Open access in higher education

Open universities

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a rapid growth in the number of open universities that required no or minimal prior qualifications for entry. In the United Kingdom, for instance, less than 10 per cent of students leaving secondary education in 1969 went on to university. This was when the British government established the Open University, a distance teaching university open to all, using a combination of specially designed printed texts, and broadcast television and radio, with one week residential summer schools on traditional university campuses for the foundation courses (Perry, 1976). The Open University started in 1971 with 25,000 students in the initial entry intake, and now has over 200,000 registered students. It has been consistently ranked by government quality assurance agencies in the top ten U.K. universities for teaching, and in the top 30 for research, and number one for student satisfaction (out of over 180). It currently has over 200,000 registered students. However, it can no longer cover the full cost of its operation from government grants and there is now a range of different fees to be paid.

There are now nearly 100 publicly funded open universities around the world, including Canada (Athabasca University and Téluq). These open universities are often very large. The Open University of China has over one million enrolled undergraduate students and 2.4 million junior high school students, Anadolou Open University in Turkey has over 1.2 million enrolled undergraduate students, the Open University of Indonesia (Universitas Terbuka) almost half a million, and the University of South Africa 350,000. These large, degree awarding national open universities provide an invaluable service to millions of students who otherwise would have no access to higher education (see Daniel, 1998, for a good overview). It should be noted however that there is no publicly funded open university in the USA, which is one reason why MOOCs have received so much attention there.

As well as the national open universities, which usually offer their own degrees, there is also the OERu, which is basically an international consortium of mainly British Commonwealth and U.S. universities and colleges offering open access courses that enable learners either to acquire full credit for transfer into one of the partner universities or to build towards a full degree, offered by the university from which most credits have been acquired. Students pay a fee for assessment.

10.7.2 Limitations of open access education

Open, distance, flexible and online learning are rarely found in their ‘purest’ forms. No teaching system is completely open (minimum levels of literacy are required, for instance). Thus there are always degrees of open-ness. Open-ness has particular implications for the use of technology. If no-one is to be denied access, then technologies that are available to everyone need to be used. If an institution is deliberately selective in its students, it has more flexibility with regard to choice of technology for distance education. It can for instance require all students who wish to take an online or blended course to have their own computer and Internet access. It cannot do that if its mandate is to be open to all students. Truly open universities then will always be behind the leading edge of educational applications of technology.

Despite the success of many open universities, open universities often lack the status of a campus-based institution. Their degree completion rates are often very low (the U.K. OU’s degree completion rate is 22 per cent – Woodley and Simpson, 2014 – but nevertheless still higher for whole degree programs than for most single MOOC courses). And as noted previously, there are no comparable publicly funded open universities in the USA (the Western Governors’ University is the most similar), although private, for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix fill a similar niche in the market.

Lastly, some of the open universities have been around for more than 40 years and have not always quickly adapted to changes in technology, partly because of their large size and their substantial prior investment in older technologies such as print and broadcasting, and partly because they do not wish to deny access to students without the latest technology. Thus they are now increasingly challenged by both an explosion in access to conventional universities, which has taken up some of their market, and new developments such as MOOCs and open educational resources, which are the topic of the next section.

Feedback, please

This part is fairly descriptive, but still necessary, I believe. However, here are some questions I have:

  1. Open education is a huge topic. Have I done it justice in the space available – given that I have separate sections on other aspects such as OERs and open textbooks?
  2. Do you think it is necessary to provide the context of ‘education for all’ and ‘open universities’ when discussing approaches to open-ness today? Or is all this now irrelevant? (I have to say this is the impression I’m sometimes given by advocates of OER and MOOCs).
  3. I clearly have a bias towards adequate, publicly funded education as the best way to increase access and open-ness. Do I push this too much, or not enough?
  4. Is there a future for open universities?

Up next

Open educational resources: principles; Creative Commons licenses; sources; limitations; how to use OERs

References

Daniel, J. (1998) Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education. London: Kogan Page

Perry, W. (1976) The Open University Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Woodley, A. and Simpson, O. (2014) ‘Student drop-out: the elephant in the room’ in Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

 

Can online learning lead to productivity gains through savings on campus facilities?

Wilfred Laurier University is proposing a campus in Milton Ontario - but would it be more productive to use online learning?

Wilfred Laurier University has proposed a campus in Milton Ontario – but would it be more productive to use online learning?

Apologies for the web site being down on November 10, due to a domain registration problem with CIRA which has now been resolved.

This is the last but one post on the theme of productivity and online learning.

This is a continuation of the discussion on whether online learning can increase educational ‘productivity.’ Previous posts in this series include:

There is a CIDER webinar presentation on the HEQCO report available from here

In this post I want to explore the opportunities for increased productivity through online learning replacing campus-based activities.

Publicly-funded campus-based universities

Can campus-based institutions increase productivity through online learning reducing their costs of campus-based activities (or more realistically, through expanding activity at a lower marginal cost through online learning)? This might be done in a number of ways, for example, by:

  • handling an expansion of student enrollments through online learning, instead of building extra campus facilities to handle the increase
  • more intensive use of existing facilities, such as science labs or lecture theatres, for instance, by students spending more time on simulations or remote labs and less on hands-on labs, or reducing demands on lecture halls through blended learning.

How much scope is there for such campus-based economies? Certainly in Canada, as demographics change and a greater proportion of the student population is made up of adult or lifelong learners, the pattern of demand on campus facilities will change. Married professionals with full-time jobs are less likely to want to use the sports facilities or the student union, for instance, (but may demand child care facilities), but more particularly, more students working either partly or wholly online will have knock-on effects on a very wide range of campus facilities, such as reducing the number of cars coming on campus (one university president told me that this was the best argument she had heard for online learning), the demand for on-campus residences, food services and many other areas. Some of these, of course, such as parking and food services, are run as either cost-recovery or profit-generating activities, but many others, such as the heating and maintenance of buildings, are a large drain on resources.

We can see the implications of this if we look at the publicly stated operating budget of one of Canada’s largest universities, the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus.

 Activity

 

Amount ($)

 

%

President’s Office

7,148,000

1

Faculties + VP Academic’s Office

596,363,000

63

IT

38,381,000

4

Library

38,510,000

4

Research

19,848,000

2

Communications/fund raising

31,782,000

3

Student support/welfare/aid

66,849,000

7

HR

11,759,000

1

Resources/operations
  • financial

19,095,000

2

  • campus facilities

95,870,000

10

Miscellaneous

27,394,000

3

 Total

 

953,011,000

 

100

UBC’s Annual Operating Budget, 2012/2013 (from: 2013/14 Budget: Presentation to the Governors, pp. 42-48). Because of rounding, totals may not add to exact numbers.

It can be seen that operating costs associated with campus facilities constitute about 10 per cent of the total budget. IT Services spends another $4 million on classroom technologies each year, for a total of almost $100 million a year. Even a 10 per cent saving on facilities’ operating costs would save $10 million a year. If, as likely, UBC adds another 10 per cent of students over the next 10 years (6,000) and just half of these were fully online, that would be 3,000 students not using or requiring facilities on campus. There are also environmental benefits (less traffic pollution, less use of physical resources) although these need to be offset a little by the environmental impact of students working from home, using electricity and their own computers, etc.

The impact on capital costs will be even higher, but much harder to calculate. In essence, most new university  building development is paid for from long-term government loans (or donations), and is usually in a totally separate budget from the operating costs. Nevertheless there is a real cost in constructing new buildings, which has to be paid for in some way. Smart accountants or VPs Finance are probably already doing cost-benefit analyses of the potential impact on capital expenditures from an increase in online learning, and how potential savings could be transferred to improving teaching and learning – and if not, they should be.

On the other hand, it is clear that there are also severe limits on increased savings from facilities through the use of online learning. Almost two-thirds of the operating budget comes entirely from the cost of faculty and senior academic administrators. We have discussed earlier that though there are certainly ways to improve faculty productivity through online learning, there is a danger of reducing the human element in university-level teaching, particularly if the aim is to develop the higher order learning skills needed in the 21st century. Nevertheless there appears to be more scope in looking for ways to increase faculty productivity through online learning than through savings on facilities, but nevertheless there are possibilities.

Open universities

Institutions that do not require students to come to a campus at all, such as open universities, do not have to worry about the cost of campus facilities for students. This can result in some dramatic savings and/or increases in productivity. During the late 80s and early 90s, the UK Open University (UKOU) was ranked in the top 10 per cent of universities in the U.K. for teaching, and in the top third for research. It is currently third on student satisfaction. During the 1980s, the Open University in Britain was turning out undergraduates at approximately half the cost of campus-based universities, although if the OU’s generally lower or slower graduation rate (around 40% over seven years) is taken into account, the differences are less marked. However,  in 2012 the U.K. government removed its subsidy to the U.K. Open University, which as a result now has fees of £5,000 (C$8,000) per year for the equivalent of one year’s full-time study (although most OU students are part-time, so take fewer units and longer to graduate than full-time campus-based students). This fee probably reflects the real cost of the OU’s operation. OU tuition fees though are still much lower than tuition fees in the English campus-based universities, which are in the range of £9,000 (C$14,500) a year.

Especially for economically developing countries, large open universities such as UNISA in South Africa, Universitas Terbuka in Indonesia, the Anadolu Open University in Turkey, and Indira Gandhi National Open University in India, all with well over 250,000 students a year, are likely to remain a major means by which to meet the rapidly growing demand for post-secondary education, because their unit costs are so much lower. However, they have been ‘productive’ not because of the use of online learning, but through massive economies of scale achieved through broadcasting and printed material. Furthermore, the most successful, in terms of graduation rates, still have to invest very heavily in local student support. More than 25% of the OU’s operating budget goes on regional services, almost twice what they spend on the BBC broadcast programs. Merely adding online learning to the existing course development process may indeed increase their costs. It will take major structural changes for online learning to bring major cost savings to large open universities and indeed the culture and the organizational requirements may well make this impossible.

Walton Hall, which houses the office of the Vice-Chancellor, the UK Open University

Walton Hall, the UK Open University

Virtual universities

There are still surprisingly few publicly-funded fully online universities in the world. The oldest and possibly still the strongest is the Open University of Catalonia in Spain, with close to 50,000 students. In 2008, the Open University of Portugal converted all its courses to online. The Open University of the Netherlands is now mainly online. However, the legacy investments in print and broadcasting have made it difficult for even open universities such as Athabasca to go fully online.

I find the lack of publicly-funded online universities very strange. Governments have been incredibly timid over the last 20 years in this respect, especially given the rhetoric of how online learning is going to save the world. Given what we know now about the costs of online learning, and the conditions for success, it should not be difficult to create a highly cost-effective, more ‘productive’ online university, by building it from scratch. It would be an opportunity to really explore the best way to leverage the productivity of online learning. However, it will be important to not only take some risks, but also to have those risks balanced by a careful analysis of current best practices in online learning. Any government ministers listening?

For-profit universities

For-profit universities that have at least part of their operations fully online, such as the University of Phoenix, also have been able to achieve major productivity gains (even if these productivity gains have often been used to boost profits rather than reduce costs to students – in 2011, the University of Phoenix made a profit for its shareholders of $1.2 billion, as much as the total operating cost of a large tier 1 public university such as UBC). Again, though, these productivity gains have as much to do with standardized content, an absence of any research activities, lower cost instructor contracts, and some nimble footwork around federal financial aid for students, as with the use of online learning, although savings on facilities will have played at least some role in the productivity of its online operations. Unfortunately though the University of Phoenix does not provide a breakdown of its operating costs for the public, so we can only speculate on the productivity gains from online delivery, compared with its campus-based operation. Maybe other for-profits, such as Kaplan or Laureate, might be more forthcoming.

Consortia

Many attempts have been made to create virtual universities through consortia. In such models, existing campus-based institutions get together to create a ‘virtual’ university, which has no campus, and where students take online courses from a range of member institutions in the consortium, usually with a student gaining a qualification from their ‘local’ member institution. Probably the most successful such consortium to date is Open Universities Australia, an educational organization owned by eight of Australia’s leading universities, although there are altogether 20 universities offering courses through the consortium. This makes a profit for its members through the sharing of courses. The University of the West Indies and the University of the South Pacific are two other consortium-type distance education universities that have been running for over 25 years, although they also depend heavily on local campuses for technology delivery of the distance programs as well as face-to-face teaching. The Virtual University of the Small States of the Commonwealth (VUSSC) is a relatively new consortium covering 32 small island states, enabling them to share courses and offer a wider range of online programs than would be possible on their own. (I will be writing more about this project in another post).

However, there are more failures than successes in getting effective online university consortia to work, including Universitas 21 Global and Fathom, to mention just a couple. Those that have succeeded also have a very strong and important campus component.  Nevertheless the potential is there for  online consortia, and it will be interesting to see if VUSSC and the newly-formed OERu are successful – I sincerely hope so.

Summary and conclusions

  • first, there appear to be opportunities for modest but still significant productivity gains through more effective use of existing facilities through online learning
  • where these facilities-based productivity gains have occurred on traditional campuses it has been unintentional rather than planned and almost certainly not yet measured
  • nevertheless, government, university and college planners should be taking into consideration the potential of productivity gains from a greater use of online learning, particularly when considering the expansion of systems. To take one obvious example, expansion of university and college places in the outer suburbs of Toronto might be more cost-effectively addressed by existing institutions increasing their online offerings rather than building satellite campuses across the region – but the analysis remains to be done
  • building new institutions from scratch, based on what we now know about how best to combine online and campus-based activities, should enable major productivity gains (more learning for less cost) – but it remains to be tried with this goal in mind, rather than as a political activity
  • much more research, involving online learning specialists, financial specialists, and key policy makers in both institutions and government, is needed if this potential is to be achieved.

Next

I will be doing one last post in this series, in which I will try to summarize the discussion and comments across all the posts in the series. The aim is to identify the factors where online learning could have the strongest chance of improving productivity in higher education. All I can say at this stage is that if it was a statistical factor analysis, no one factor would score higher than .3 – but added together, there is a chance to make a significant difference.

In the meantime, some questions:

  • am I dreaming in thinking that online learning could result in better, more cost-effective use of physical facilities? If so, can you provide examples?
  • even if there was a strong case for using online learning rather than building new facilities, is this likely to happen? After all, Presidents love to open new buildings
  • have I missed an important fully online, publicly funded university? If so, how did this get started? Was it based on faith or a cost-benefit analysis (stop laughing.)

OER and social inclusion: review of special edition of ‘Distance Education’

© www.pace.gb.com

Distance Education, the journal of the Australian Open and Distance Learning Association (ODLAA), has just published a special edition on OER and social inclusion. It is edited by Grainne Conole, of the University of Leicester.

Content

I’ll start with quotes from the editorial:

we need to move beyond the creation of OER repositories to consideration of how they can be used effectively….The hypothesis is that making OER freely available will lead to their being used more by learners and teachers….However, despite the rhetoric about new social and participatory media generally and OER specifically, the reality is that their uptake and reuse in formal educational contexts has been disappointing….The focus [in the articles] on the relationship between OER and social inclusion/exclusion is particularly valuable, given the underpinning philosophy associated with the OER movement in terms of widening participation and the assumption that education is a right that should be freely accessible to all.”

There follows eight articles and three ‘reflections’. There are four articles each from the UK and Australia, and one each from Germany, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

Andy Lane (UKOU) gives a good if brief overview of the main history, concepts and differences between OERs, open learning, and open education before reviewing the findings of a study dealing with best practices for widening participation in higher education study through the use of OERs in six European open and distance learning organizations. Main conclusions:

  • even among six open and distance universities (ODUs), there was wide variation in how OERs are being developed or used
  • they are not yet able to measure how OER are truly widening either formal or informal engagement in HE study
  • many people who are not ODU students value being able to freely access and learn from ODU OER designed for self-study, compared with open recorded lessons or slide presentations from conventional teaching
  • OER are fine for confident and experienced learners, but this is less true of those targeted for schemes aimed at widening participation, who will need additional support mechanisms.

Bossu, Bull and Brown (USQ and Massey University) explore some of the policies and initiatives that might play significant roles in enabling the use and development of OER in Australia. Main findings:

  • OER are not part of the Australian government’s or universities’ strategies to increase social inclusion
  • Australian universities have been slow to embrace this revolution mainly because of fierce competition between Australian universities for market share of tuition-paying students and a lack of a convincing business model for OER (‘there’s no money in OER’)
  • most OER initiatives have been confined to small/isolated projects in Australian universities
  • those students who most need access to higher education often lack technology access, so OER are unavailable to them
  • few university preparatory courses available as OER, and none recognized for admission

Nikoi and Armellini (Aberystwyth and Leicester Universities), based on interviews with 90 students, academics and senior managers, found that for OER to have an impact on higher education in terms of learner benefit and social inclusion, OER need a mix of four factors:

  • purpose: what an OER initiative will help achieve
  • process: what resources, systems, quality control mechanisms are needed
  • product: types of OERs, licensing arrangements, target audiences
  • policy: governance and assessment of future implications

Finally, they conclude that institutions can do far more to promote universal access to high quality resources and social inclusion.

Willems and Bossu (Monash and U of New England) argue that while equity reasons often underpin the provision of OER, challenges continue to be experienced by those most disadvantaged  in accessing OER. Challenges include:

  • language of instruction
  • contextualization/localization
  • technology access

Richter and McPherson (U of Duisburg-Essen and U of Leeds) also explore questions such as

  • whether Western policymakers can avoid the repetition of some of the failures of the past in terms of foreign aid;
  • how educators/content providers can foster a worldwide knowledge society
  • if OER can realistically overcome the educational gap and foster educational justice.

They answer these questions positively and suggest six, mainly technical, recommendations to support OER in foreign contexts.

Eileen Scanlon (UKOU) provides and discusses two examples of inquiry and observation tools for science as OER for developing a better understanding of science for the general public.

Hockings, Brett and Terentjevs (U of Wolverhampton) describe an OER project that aims to teach academics how to teach inclusively, i.e. for social diversity. They suggest three models for embedding the principles of inclusive learning and teaching through the use of OER

Hodgkinson-Williams and Paskevicius (U of Cape Town) report on an empirical study of how University of Cape Town post-graduate students have assisted in the process of reworking academic teaching materials as OER, and what they had to go through to make the OER socially inclusive, within a conceptual framework of activity theory.

In the three, short ‘reflection’ articles, Terry Harding (Christian Education Ministries) complains that non-government distance education programs for school children are discriminated against by the Commonwealth (Federal) government of Australia. Liam Phelan (University of Newcastle, NSW) asks whether OER will change the nature of how we look at and particularly assess and accredit ‘autodidactic’ learning. Don Olcott Jr., writing from Abu Dhabi, examines four issues: blending OER into the day-to-day management of teaching and learning in institutions; the relationship between formal and non-formal approaches to OER; developing sustainable business models for OER; mobilizing awareness and use of OER.

Comment

I have mixed feelings about this edition. Little evidence was produced in these articles that OER does anything to foster social inclusion – indeed there is evidence here to the contrary. Also little or no evidence was available in these articles about success of OER in terms of learning or even in most articles the extent of its adoption – just too hard to measure, apparently.

For those who believe in the value and importance of OER, this is more than discouraging. Maybe Australia and Europe are behind on this, and if authors were from North America, they may have been more enthusiastic and less questioning. On the other hand, maybe some cold water is needed to cool down the hype around OER.

However, I did learn a lot from these articles, although the law of diminishing returns seemed to apply towards the end (or maybe I was just getting tired). The main points:

  • The articles did take in general a critically reflective approach and in one or two cases provided empirically based analyses of actual use (or non-use) of OER.
  • They brought home to me that the real challenge is the integration of OER in a wider learning environment, particularly in formal education, but also it appears in informal education as well. There needs to be some broader learning context or environment for OER to be useful.
  • There were some constructive ideas about how to make OER work.
  • And I did come away with my view reinforced that OER alone are not going to increase social inclusion or widen access to higher education, although they may still be a useful component of a broader strategy.

But it all looks like hard work to make them effective. Now on the other hand MOOCs……

 

Is open and distance learning the solution for developing countries?

Nick Moe-Price, of the International Council for Distance Education, is leading an interesting discussion on ‘Is open and distance learning the key to Quality Higher Education for All?’ in UNESCO’s blog: Educational Technology Debate: Exploring ICT in Learning and Developing Countries (thanks to Stephen Downe’s OL Daily for directing me to this).

Here’s my initial contribution to the debate:

As someone who has worked all his life in open and distance learning, I of course fully support the expansion of distance and open learning. 

However, it should not be considered an either/or, for any country. For economic development and a civilized society we need mass education, or education for all, but delivered in a variety of forms. 

To be honest I don’t accept the argument that the ONLY way to expand access to education is through open and distance learning. Developing or less economically advanced countries will still need more physical schools, colleges and universities, including some elite research institutions focused especially on that country’s needs. However, open and distance learning could and probably should constitute a larger proportion if all learners are to be served. This means thinking carefully about how to build an integrated system so that all needs are served. 

One way to ensure that distance education is just as accepted as conventional education is to build new institutions with a mandate and resources (including training) for both campus-based and online teaching. In particular, over the next decade, we shall see more and more hybrid learning, where students do some study on campus and the rest online, so the dividing line between distance and campus-based teaching becomes increasingly blurred. 

Even with a broadened mandate for campus-based institutions, though, we are still likely to need some dedicated, large-scale mega distance teaching universities. In other words, there is no single solution, but the need for an integrated, multi-faceted approach to expanding educational opportunities around the world. But distance education and open learning will play an increasingly important part in any such strategy.

And please join in the debate yourself.