August 14, 2018

Productivity and online learning redux

If only it was this simple: Image© Course Gateway, 2013

If only it was this simple: Image© Course Gateway, 2013

Summarizing the previous posts

In previous posts (see end of this post), I tried to identify a range of areas where online learning might enable productivity gains. In this post I will bring them together and state what I believe are the areas that offer the potential for the greatest gains, given current knowledge. At this stage my conclusions are very subjective but I hope they will provide a framework for further studies and for better and more systematic data collection.

Access

There are fairly strong arguments (but little hard data) to suggest that online learning can help governments boost participation rates more effectively than by building more campuses and funding more campus-based education. Productivity is increased by eventually getting more graduates than would otherwise have been possible without online learning and the flexibility it allows.

The reasons to support this argument are as follows:

  • Particularly in jurisdictions where there is already a high participation rate, increasing that rate further means reaching out to groups that have to date been largely excluded from post-secondary education. Since existing data indicates that online learning appeals particularly to lifelong learners, working adults and older learners, online learning is more likely to appeal to this target group. To date though there has been little attempt to measure the impact of reaching otherwise excluded groups through online learning. More hard data is needed to support this argument.
  • there is some evidence to suggest that online learning has lower overhead costs than campus-based education. If this is correct, it may be more productive to expand online learning rather than build new campuses when attempting to increase participation rates. Again though there are few studies that provide hard data to show that overhead costs are indeed lower for online learning.
  • it has been argued that hybrid and online learning provides existing students with more flexibility, allowing them to combine work with part-time study, thus allowing them either to complete studies they could not afford without part-time work, or to complete more quickly than they would without the flexibility that online learning provides. Of course the argument could work in reverse. By providing more flexibility, students may take longer to graduate. Once again, it should be possible to test either argument empirically, but again there are few if any studies that have looked at this.

Thus online learning offers the promise of increasing productivity through increasing participation and speed to graduation  at less cost, but there are few studies to date to either support or refute these claims. It should be noted though that in most cases, the data to test these arguments is within institutional databases; it has just not been extracted and analyzed for this purpose.

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

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

Free or massively scalable content

Nowhere in online learning is there such potential for increases in educational productivity as in content development and delivery. Once learning materials are created, they can be stored, accessed, delivered and used by an unlimited number of learners, thus potentially achieving large economies of scale and thereby reducing costs per learner (see graph at beginning of this post).

Another important factor contributing to economies of scale in online learning is the increasing availability of open educational resources. Particularly in foundational courses and many ‘standard’ undergraduate courses, ‘open’ material is already available and does not have to be re-created. The main cost is selecting and organizing existing open source materials, but this is likely to be less time-consuming for faculty than creating materials from scratch. Open online textbooks can have a direct and immediate impact on reducing student costs.

Nevertheless there are many impediments to achieving productivity gains through free or massively scalable content:

  • faculty often see themselves as  creating unique and original material in their teaching; this is true occasionally and needs to be respected, especially where faculty are teaching about their own and related research. Often though faculty are merely repackaging prior knowledge. That prior knowledge is increasingly being made available and open for anyone to use.
  • the shelf life of much academic material is increasingly short; thus content needs to be constantly maintained and updated
  • there may not be a massive market for many specialist online courses thus preventing economies of scale from being achieved. However, there are many ways to increase market reach with online learning, including going global, collaborating and sharing materials, courses and programs with partner institutions in the same or other jurisdictions, repackaging content for different markets (e.g. for casual learners, certificates, or degrees). Such strategies though will also require reviewing and often changing admission policies, intellectual property agreements and other practices that restrict access to ‘institutional’ content.
  • the quality of open educational resources developed by faculty working alone, without applying best course design practices, is often very low and such ‘open’ resources are often not considered suitable for re-use
  • content development and delivery is a relatively small proportion of the cost of credit-based online learning (from 15-20%); the main costs are in learner support.

Despite these impediments, in certain circumstances (i.e. where there is a large market and best practices are applied to content design), online content development and delivery is already resulting in increased productivity in post-secondary education, although it has yet to be well measured.

Course design based on sound pedagogical principles

One important reason for the success of many for-credit online courses and programs has been the introduction of best practices in course design, drawing on cognitive science research, best teaching practices, and prior experience of teaching students at a distance. These practices include situated learning, drawing on learners’ own work and life experiences, student time-management support, collaborative learning, student activities resulting in greater time on task, and regular and constructive feedback to students through continuous assessment.

In particular a focus in online courses on ’21st century skills’ development, such as knowledge management and independent learning, would have two benefits. It would improve outputs (turning out graduates with the skills needed). Second, content development and delivery becomes subsidiary to helping students find, analyze, organize and apply content themselves. Thus less time would be spent by instructors on course development and delivery.

Such practices of course could be be used in classroom teaching, but good online course design templates are more easily scaled and reproduced, and the technology lends itself to such approaches to learning. Productivity is improved through application of such quality course design because more students achieve higher levels of learning and more students complete courses and programs. Thus although it is not the technology itself that results in better outcomes, the technology facilitates the change to more effective teaching methods.

Once again though, while teachers and students who have been engaged in such new designs often claim better outcomes, there is still a lack of convincing empirical research to support these beliefs. Nevertheless, a focus on better design replicated on a large scale through online learning should have a major impact on improving productivity.

Learner support

What little research that has been done on costs of credit-based online learning indicates that course delivery (which includes both learner support and student assessment) accounted for the largest overall cost of an online program (37%), almost three times more than course development, over the life of an online program (Bates and Sangra, 2011).

Instructional MOOCs (xMOOCs) have basically removed learner support, at least in terms of human (instructor) support, but this has resulted in a very low number of MOOC learners passing end-of-course assessments of learning. Indeed, prior research into credit-based learning has established that instructor online ‘presence’ is a critical factor in retaining students. So far, it has proved difficult to scale up learner support on a massive scale, except through the use of computer technology, such as automated feedback. However, Carey and Trick (2013) and indeed faculty at elite institutions who are offering xMOOCs (see Thrun and ‘the Magic of the Campus‘) have argued that such computer support does not support ‘the learning that matters most’.

Although computer-based feedback and adaptive learning facilitate comprehension and technical mastery outcomes, computer-based approaches to learner support to date has been inadequate for formal assessment of higher order learning skills such as original, critical or strategic thinking, evaluation of strategies or alternative explanations. To assess such forms of learning, deep expertise and qualitative assessment is required, and to date not only human instructors, but instructors with a deep subject understanding and high levels of expertise, are needed to both develop and assess such high level skills. Given the long history of trying to apply artificial intelligence to instruction, immediate and major breakthroughs seem unlikely, at least in the short term.

A l'école, Jean Marc Cote, 1901.

A l’école, Jean Marc Cote, 1901.

However, there are other ways in which the productivity of learner support might be improved. In cMOOCs that are more like communities of practice and thus contain many participants with already high levels of expertise, that expertise and judgement can be provided by the participants themselves. (The issue then is how do people get to such high levels of expertise in the first place – we need more research/experience with cMOOCs to know whether they are also good for learners with initially low levels of knowledge in a particular subject domain. Some combination of expert/instructors plus a community of practice approach might be necessary for such learners, but might still operate successfully with much higher instructor:learner ratios than in conventional, credit-based learning.)

Also, credit-based online learning has achieved some economies of scale and scope by re-organizing the learner support process, through the hire and training in online learner support of lower-paid contact adjuncts who still have high level academic qualifications, under the supervision of a senior faculty member. In other words, team teaching approaches, with the senior academic working more as a teaching consultant, setting curriculum, designing assessments and creating rubrics, and supervising the learner support provided by a team of adjuncts, can help not only reduce costs but also achieve modest economies of scale in learner support, especially when combined with best practices in course design.

Innovation vs standardization

In industry, innovation is often another way of saying ‘investment in technology’. However, there is more to innovation than just replacing a human activity with a computer-based activity. What the technology usually brings about is a change in process at the same time.

Thus there is a natural tension between ‘best practice’, based on experience of doing things in an ‘old’ way, and innovation, which means doing something differently. Indeed Christensen (2008) distinguished between ‘sustaining’ innovation, which builds and improves on best practices, and ‘disruptive’ innovation, where a new technology results in sweeping away old ways of doing something. Real, sustainable innovation occurs then when new technology is combined with new processes.

In education, perhaps the main ‘process’ that we need to examine is the instructional model, particularly that based around the lecture system. I am not arguing that lectures no longer have a purpose. However, the teaching model based on three lectures a week over 13 weeks used primarily to deliver information to students is now redundant, given that information is ubiquitous and if not free, increasingly available at low cost over the Internet. Thus knowledge management becomes more important than mere access to knowledge. If we look at xMOOCs though we have taken a new technology – video lecture capture and Internet transmission – and applied it to an outdated model of teaching. True innovation requires a change of process or method as well as a change of technology.

Earlier though I argued that we need to apply best practices in course design to the use of technology. By definition, best practices are based on tried and true methods. However, in post-secondary education, these ‘best practices’ are not the prevailing teaching method on most campuses (except perhaps the very elite, where they can be applied on a face-to-face basis to small classes.). As public post-secondary education has become massified, the lecture has become the default model, because in a classroom based system, it has proved the only way to ‘scale up.’ Online learning offers an opportunity to break out of this redundant and increasingly less productive lecture model of teaching, as it does not develop the skills needed in the 21st century.

There are then really two routes to innovation. The least risky is the sustainable development approach, finding ways to incorporate and more importantly adapt ‘best practices’ on a massive scale through online learning. This will mean increasing productivity in relatively small steps. The advantage of this approach is that it is more likely to preserve and protect the core values of ‘higher’ education. The other route is ‘disruptive’ innovation – jumping into an entirely different way of doing something based around a new or emerging technology. This is more likely to bring much greater productivity gains, but the risks are much higher. It could well result in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In reality, institutions, and individuals within those institutions, cannot control disruptive innovation – it comes from outside. However, institutions can control sustainable innovation. Indeed if they do not they are much more vulnerable to disruptive innovation. Thus it is important to find new best practices that are easily scalable, while meeting the needs of 21st century learners at high quality. This is probably the most sensible way to bring about radically better productivity. But it’s not going to be easy.

Conclusions

So here are my personal views on online learning and productivity, based on this analysis.

1. Government and institutional leaders need to set improved productivity as a key goal for investment in learning technologies. This means setting benchmarks and implementing means of measuring success or otherwise in improving productivity through learning technologies/online learning. Data analytics now make this measurement more feasible than in the past, but it also requires models or a theoretical framework for assessing what constitutes productivity in a post-secondary educational setting.

2. Understanding the basic cost structures of online learning, compared to the costs of classroom teaching, is an essential first step to increasing productivity in post-secondary education. It is risky to assume that online learning is always more cost-effective or productive; the circumstances need to be right.

3.Content is only one component of teaching (and an increasingly less important component); other components such as learner support and assessment are even more important. Care is needed then because changes in methods of online content development and delivery could have negative knock-on cost and productivity consequences in other areas of course delivery, such as learner support and assessment. In looking at productivity issues, all these factors need to be examined together.

4. Any attempts at scaling or increasing economies of scope in content development and delivery need to be balanced by ensuring quality does not suffer. However, online course development has the potential, through good course design, to improve quality rather than reduce it.

5. The ‘learning that matters most’ mainly addresses university teaching, but also increasingly technical, vocational and corporate training; the aim is to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society. Online learning can handle the ‘learning that matters most’ as well, in most cases, as on-campus teaching, although there will always be some exceptions.

6. However, there are major difficulties in scaling up the learner support and assessment activities that are needed for the learning that matters most, both online or on campus. The danger in scaling up is the loss of quality in terms of learning outcomes.

7. Adaptive learning software that helps individualize learning, and learning analytics, may help to a small degree in enabling instructors to handle slightly more students without loss of quality, but cannot as yet replace a skilled instructor, and probably never will. Higher education requires expertise and qualitative assessment for the learning that matters most, and that will need human instructors.

8. New online course designs built around the use of new technologies have greater potential for increases in productivity – through producing better learning outcomes – for the learning that matters most, than through scaling up, i.e. by increasing teacher:student ratios.

9. We need more empirical research on the relationship between teaching methods, mode of delivery, costs, and the type of learning outcomes that constitute the ‘learning that matters most’ (not to mention better definitions).

Now it’s your turn

As I’ve said, this has been a struggle for me to work through the issues of online learning and productivity. The whole purpose of this arduous exercise is to promote debate and discussion about productivity and online learning. So I’d really welcome your comments. It would be great to hear from people with experience in productivity in other areas besides education, and to hear from those in education about the potential or dangers of applying the thinking around productivity to online learning.

So go for it!

Other posts in the series

© Ann Helmond 2009

© Ann Helmond 2009

Productivity and online learning: an summary of the main concepts

productivity wordsThis is the first of two final posts in the series on whether online learning can increase educational ‘productivity.’ In this post I discuss some of the issues in identifying how online learning could lead to productivity gains in post-secondary education. In the second post, I will try to pull the main conclusions together

A list of all the previous posts in this series can be found at the end of this post.

Why this is a difficult topic

I have to say that this has been a bit of a hard slog. It’s not a topic that seems to fire the interest of most of the readers of this blog (at least in terms of the number of hits each post gets.) Nevertheless, I do believe that a hard look at the potential and limitations of online learning for improving the productivity of higher education is important. Politicians and, as Alex Usher calls them in his excellent blog, ‘techno-fetishist windbags who tried to make us all believe that …. MOOCs were an unstoppable wave of the future‘, often make at best naive comments about the ‘productivity’ of online learning, without really understanding what productivity means in educational terms, or explaining how the claimed productivity gains will occur. ‘Free’ to students of itself does not guarantee productivity gains, for instance, if the students are learning nothing or very little.

Another reason why it’s a hard slog is because little serious work has been done up to now on the topic of the productivity of online learning. Tom Carey’s and David Trick’s’s report for HEQCO is one of the few works on online learning that even raises the issue of productivity, and I think they would be the first to say that their report is very much a beginning of the discussion.There is almost no systematic research on the costs or ‘inputs’ of online learning, and certainly no cost research on some of the new forms of online learning, such as hybrid learning, mobile learning, OERs, or MOOCs (just because they are free to students does not mean there are no costs involved). In other words, we lack some of the really basic data needed for us to talk about productivity intelligently.

More importantly, though, while there is a large literature on the productivity of commercial companies or nation states, we don’t have a clear or agreed conceptual framework or definition of what productivity means in education, especially in terms of ‘output.’

Fears around ‘productivity’ in education

One reason of course for the lack of interest in productivity in education among educators is that the topic has undertones of commercialization. Many educators see education as a public good, which should be appropriately funded by the state, i.e. taxpayers, because the whole of society benefits from well educated people. Looking at costs or return on investment is ideologically disturbing for many of us working in education. But the real fear is that policy-makers and computer scientists will try to use ‘productivity’ in online learning as a way of eliminating instructors or teachers.

However, for me productivity in education can be put in very simple terms: is our society collectively (learners, taxpayers, parents, faculty, and other key stakeholders) getting the best bang for the bucks we are spending on education? If we can increase productivity we can educate more students to a higher level for the same investment. Why wouldn’t we want to do that?

Second, as we have seen from the posts so far, there is little at least immediately to fear from computers replacing faculty or teachers. Demand for post-secondary education far exceeds supply, but more importantly, there are extremely strong educational reasons why at least into the foreseeable future computers cannot do many of the really valuable things needed in teaching at a post-secondary level. Nevertheless, there are some things that online learning can do that could ease somewhat the financial stresses on the system, as we shall see, and we should be paying more attention to this.

Some key concepts and principles

I do not pretend to be an expert on productivity, despite a background in economics. Nevertheless, there are some basic concepts or ideas that need to be considered when trying to apply ‘productivity’ to online education.

Inputs and costs

Key terms in discussion of productivity in other contexts are ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’. Inputs in education can be measured in various ways, but cost is one convenient way of counting input. The time that faculty and learners spend on teaching and learning is also a key input factor, which could be converted into an equivalent cost figure. Investment in technology and the human support required to make it effective is another input measure. Although not without some problems, though, the measurement of input with regard to online learning is not conceptually difficult. It’s just that it’s not been done up to now.

Outputs

It’s when we come to outputs that there are more conceptual difficulties. How do we measure output in education, and in particular how do we relate outputs to inputs? What is the best way to measure outputs in education? OECD and other agencies use measures such as participation rates, graduation rates, standardized tests, etc. but at a post-secondary level these measures are more difficult. For instance there is a lot of mobility across different sectors of post-secondary education, with almost as many students transferring out of universities into two year colleges or institutes of technology as the other way. Do we count people who transfer halfway as drop-outs? How is this tracked? Does online learning facilitate this mobility (I believe it does) and is this mobility a good thing (I believe it is)? Lifelong learners have different needs from high school leavers. How important are these groups relative to each other, and does online learning serve one group better than another?

Many of the conceptual issues around international national standardized testing such as PISA apply even more so to measuring outputs at a post-secondary level. For instance, how do you measure what students have learned and more particularly relate that to the mode of delivery such as classroom versus online? How for instance do you measure creativity, originality and critical thinking, and relate that to teaching method and/or mode of delivery? In particular, what if, as I believe, online learning lends itself to new or better learning outcomes that have not to date been targeted in classroom teaching? One example would be the development of 21st century skills, such as digital literacy embedded within a specific subject domain. Thus we need to be careful when measuring productivity through online learning that we are not under-measuring some of its unique advantages. Furthermore, if it could be shown that learners learn more quickly, or instructors have to spend less time teaching to get the same results, this too would be a valid way of measuring improvements in productivity.

At the same time, it has to be acknowledged that there is wide disagreement among educators about the nature of learning, so what may be a perfectly acceptable means of increasing productivity for one person may be totally unacceptable to another. In essence, there are likely to be strong disagreements about the definition of valid measures of output, and how to obtain such outputs, which makes the discussion of productivity in education all that more difficult. One way to deal with this of course is to ask people to state what they see as valid outputs, then try to relate the use of online learning to meeting such outputs in a more productive way.

Scale and scope

One way to increase productivity in industry is through economies of scale: a standardized product that can be replicated very cheaply. MOOCs are a classic example of this in online learning: the same content delivered to hundreds of thousands of learners, with almost no variation to take account of individual differences, tastes or requirements (and almost no delivery costs, for that matter, except where broadband Internet access is expensive).

Production line car engines

There are some difficulties though with this concept being applied in education, particularly regarding standardized products. Especially at a university level, there is an argument for variations in the curricula taught across institutions, for example. This is partly to do with freedom of expression and partly with the need for heterogeneity and diversity in the knowledge base. Many would agree that we would not want all Canadian universities teaching exactly the same content in all subject areas. However, there may be more agreement on sharing common core foundation courses between different universities or colleges, which online learning would enable, thus achieving some economies of scale. The HEQCO report in particular emphasised the opportunities for economies of scale that online learning offers, but then pulled back, arguing that scaling is more difficult if not impossible for the ‘learning that matters most’ (see below).

It is worth noting that ‘economies of scale’ are associated with an industrial economic model, but online learning is based on digital not manufacturing technologies. Economies of scope are more associated with post-industrial economies. Economies of scope enable many variations on a standard product to meet individual needs at a low marginal cost for each variation. An example from industry would be different models of cars built around a common chassis and/or engine. An example from online learning would be a core curriculum with many optional routes through the material, using adaptive technologies that respond to the inputs from individual students in different ways, depending on the needs of the learner.

Digital technology in particular allows for an almost unlimited range of ‘options’ at low marginal cost. Social media take this even further with the concept of the ‘long tail’ strategy of of selling a large number of unique items with relatively small quantities sold of each. Applied to online learning, it would mean mounting a course for which there was very little demand locally, but would have a large market world wide.  While there has been quite a lot of discussion about economies of scale in online and open learning, the potential for economies of scope have been less well understood or discussed.

© The Social Enterprise Blog, 2009

© The Social Enterprise Blog, 2009

Replacement of labour by technology

A key way to improve productivity in the business world is to replace high cost labour with lower cost technology. Post-secondary education certain has high cost labour, which constitutes a major part of total costs. There is great interest then among policy makers and politicians in the possibility of computer-based learning replacing high labour costs, which partly explains the excitement about MOOCs.

However, there will be no productivity gains by replacing labour (instructors) with technology (computer-based learning), unless outputs are maintained or improved. It is important then to examine carefully the current state of computer-based learning, to see which parts of teaching and learning can effectively replace human instructors. This means disaggregating the different tasks or roles of instructors, and looking at those outputs that can be achieved better through computer-assisted learning as it exists now or in the near future. There is also a deeper philosophical issue, which is whether certain aspects of teacher-learner relationships should be replaced by computers. Are there some parts of the educational process that needs to remain ‘human’?

Process design and management

Another productivity issue is the efficient design and management of the processes by which ‘inputs’ are turned into ‘outputs.’ In a car company this would be the manufacturing process. The more one can simplify and/or reduce the cost of ‘processing’, while maintaining or enhancing quality, the greater the productivity.

A key process in education is the method of teaching. If we consider for example the development of 21st century skills such as independent learning, this will be heavily influenced not just by the content being taught, but how the teacher designs and/or how learners conduct activities that enable learners to develop such skills. In online learning this is usually called course design. We will see that course design can be in fact a major factor in increasing the productivity of online learning.

Learning that matters most

Lastly, it’s important that any attempt to measure productivity in education takes account of the nature of learning, and the different views of what constitutes learning. For me academic learning is a developmental process through which learners develop increasingly deeper and more complex understanding, and above all a capacity for learning how to learn within a particular subject domain or discipline. This means pushing beyond the superficial presentation and reproduction of information to students understanding what a subject discipline is really about and behaving and thinking as a professional within that subject domain. This for me is the kind of learning that matters most, as Tom Carey has described it in the HEQCO report. My experience of teaching online leads me to believe strongly that this kind of teaching is not only possible but often achieved in online learning. The challenge though is to scale that kind of learning or rather to find ways of teaching online that enable such learning to be successful across large numbers at less cost.

Connectivism and the wisdom of the crowd

Lastly we need in any discussion of productivity in online learning to consider a newly emerging area, the impact of social media and in particular the impact of massive inter-connections and communications across the Internet, on learning and knowledge.

Some, such as George Siemens and Stephen Downes, argue that informal learning, through online communities of practice or ad hoc or informal online connections through social media, and self-learning through Internet searching and networking, has massive potential for reducing the costs of education by content becoming increasingly freely accessible on the Internet and by eliminating or dramatically reducing the need for professional teachers.

© Ann Helmond 2009

© Ann Helmond 2009

 The next step

These are all different ways to look at productivity within a system. It can be seen that it is not a trivial issue and given its complexity, focusing on the productivity potential of online learning  is unlikely to provide policy-makers with the clear, simple answers that they seek. But I still think it is a worthwhile effort to examine at least the potential for online learning to increase productivity, to clarify the issues in doing this, and to have a stab at defining those areas that look most promising, and perhaps even more importantly, identifying possible dangers in certain approaches to productivity.

So in the next and last post in this series, I will attempt to identify those areas where online learning offers the greatest potential for productivity gains in post-secondary education.

Your turn

I would really like to hear from readers about:

  • whether you agree or disagree with these concepts or whether you think I have misunderstood what productivity means in post-secondary education
  • whether this post is useful for you in thinking about the role of online learning in your institution

Previous posts in this series include:

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

 

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Look back in anger? A review of online learning in 2013

Toronto's mayor was the story of 2013 in Canada

Toronto’s mayor was the story of 2013 in Canada

Well, where did 2013 go? It seems like only last week I was writing the 2012 review!This year, I did better with my predictions for 2013 in my Outlook for Online Learning in 2013, as we shall see

Another year of the MOOC

Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of developments around MOOCs in 2013. She concluded:

 If 2012 was, as The New York Times decreed, the year of the MOOC, 2013 might be described as the year of the anti-MOOC as we slid down that Gartner Hype Cycle from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” 

Certainly, MOOCs dominated the online learning agenda during 2003. However, it is in my view too early to decide that MOOCs are now on the slope of disillusionment, despite Sebastian Thrun’s throwing his hands in the air at Udacity. According to the European Commission, at the end of 2013 there are more than 1,100 MOOCs worldwide, and the shock wave continues to ripple well beyond North America into other parts of the world.

I will write more about where I see MOOCs going in my Outlook for 2014 in the new year, but looking back, I wouldn’t change anything that I wrote about MOOCs at the end of 2012:

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

Indeed, developments during 2013, with one exception, have merely reinforced my 2012 position. The exception came from listening to Stephen Downes in Lyon talking about his vision of cMOOCs, which, if or when fully implemented, would be much more interesting than anything we have seen to date from the major MOOC providers. Indeed, I was struck by a recent comment from someone with 15 years of experience in designing face-to-face, blended and online credit programs: I am trying to understand what MOOCs can offer that my understanding of educational design, learning design and online and distance education does not include. I’m afraid that the answer continues to be: ‘Nothing,‘ at least for the moment.

Indeed, in many ways, MOOCs have become a major distraction from developing more innovative and more relevant applications of online learning for credit. MOOCs may be free to learners, but they are not free for institutions. With the average cost of just developing an xMOOC being between $50,000 – $100,000, this means that with over 1,000 MOOCs, more than $50 million to $100 million has been spent on non-credit courses that could have been spent on producing online courses for credit, leading to recognized credentials. In itself, this focus on non-formal learning might be OK, if it was tied to some clear policy objective, but we certainly haven’t seen the return on investment from MOOCs to date.

Of course, this money is unlikely to have been spent on online credit courses if MOOCs hadn’t come along. It has to be recognized that MOOCs have grabbed the attention of elite universities who until the advent of MOOCs had paid no attention to online learning. More importantly MOOCs have also gotten the attention of university boards of governors, politicians, policy-makers and even government ministers, which credit-based online learning has never done. This has forced many universities for the first time to think strategically about online learning, and where MOOCs fit within such a strategy, which has been really good for my consultancy business – and probably for credit-based online learning as well.

The problem though is that outside those with experience or knowledge of online learning, MOOCs are being seen (and deliberately portrayed by elite universities) as the only form of online learning worth considering. The danger is that if or when the MOOC bubble bursts, all forms of online learning could be tarred with the same brush at the same time. However, this is looking forward, and early in the new year I will discuss more about where I think MOOCs are going in my Outlook for 2014.

The key point here is that while MOOCs may have been getting the media attention, for most professionals working in online learning in post-secondary education, what was happening within the institutions was rather different. Let’s look at some of these other developments in 2013.

Institutional strategies for online learning

Partly as a result of MOOCs, but also because of moves toward integrating online learning with classroom teaching, a number of institutions have either developed or started to develop a more strategic approach to online learning. For instance, I was personally involved in discussions around strategic planning for online learning in 2013 with the University of British Columbia, the University of Ottawa, York University, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Thompson Rivers University, and Western University, in Canada, and Deakin University, in Australia. I can’t think of another year where there has been so much interest at an institutional level in thinking strategically about online learning.

These plans meant setting priorities and goals for online and hybrid learning and in some cases targets for online course development. In Ontario this was partly driven by government intervention, requiring universities and colleges to come forward with their plans for online learning as part of a broader exercise in defining clear institutional mandates. Tied to these strategies were considerations of resources, organization and methods of working, some of which will be described more fully below.

From the periphery to the centre

The focus on strategies for online learning resulted in some cases in thinking about appropriate types of organization to support online learning. In many Canadian universities, online learning had been seen as an extension of distance education, and hence the responsibility mainly of Continuing Studies or Extension Departments, but with the move to hybrid learning and the move to online professional masters programs, mainline academic departments are needing access to the skills of instructional designers and web designers that until recently had been located elsewhere.

No single solution to this issue seems to have been found, but many Canadian institutions now have established central units that report to the Provost and serve the faculties directly. As well as including support for online learning, these units now also cover general faculty development as well as distance learning.This has the advantage of facilitating the transfer of teaching innovations from one academic department throughout the institution. In some institutions these centres for teaching, learning and technology have grown rapidly, with some numbering more than 60 staff.

Hybrid learning

I saw in 2013 many Canadian universities and some colleges introducing flipped classrooms, where students view a taped lecture then come to class to discuss, solve problems, or do project work around the topic of the lecture. This is particularly popular for breaking up large lecture classes and making them more interactive.

While I did come across some interesting discussions about the implications of this for classroom furniture and the design and layout of classrooms, I didn’t come across more radical designs that moved away from taping lectures to really thinking about the affordances of online learning and the campus from a design perspective. Maybe next year.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

An increased push from government to use online learning for greater academic productivity

In Ontario, the Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities starkly presented the situation facing universities and colleges in Ontario over the next few years: take more students, produce better quality outcomes, but receive no more money, because there isn’t any. He challenged the institutions to look to technology to increase productivity. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario commissioned a report on online learning, productivity and quality.

Ontario is not alone. Severe funding cuts in the USA has led governments, particularly state governors, to press the case for online learning to provide a lower cost alternative to campus-based education. At a Federal level, the Obama government has poured millions of dollars into fostering open educational resources. In British Columbia, the government is bringing in an open textbook program to reduce students’ textbook costs. MOOCs, rightly or wrongly, have led politicians and policy-makers to believe that online learning can dramatically reduce costs.

This is an interesting development, because until recently, most online learning professionals have been more than happy if their online students performed as well as the on-campus counterparts, and could do this at no more cost. Partly because of the fear of push-back from academics, (‘Online learning will take our jobs away’), the argument has rarely been made that online learning could lead to better results at less cost. Increased productivity up to now has not been a key goal for online learning (access and flexibility have been the key rationales). This is changing, and as professionals we need to be better prepared for this push, which is why I tried this year to start a debate about online learning and productivity through a series of posts.

Open educational resources

There were three significant developments in OERs (apart from MOOC) in 2013 for me:

  • the BC open textbook project, which is now under way, which aims to save students $800-$1,000 a year on textbooks
  • the formation of the OERu, which aims to enable students to acquire full degree credentials from recognized universities through free, open courses
  • OER4Adults, an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe, which sets out the ‘tensions’ that inhibit greater use of OERs

What interested you?

Below are the top 10 posts in terms of ‘hits’ during 2013. (All posted in 2013, except where the first year posted is given. Number of hits refers though only to 2013, not all-time total hits for earlier posts):

Top 10 posts for 2013

Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) 13,190
What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs (2012) 8,814
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) 5,800
What Is Distance Education? (2008) 5,652
The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) 5,146
Outlook for online learning in 2013:  5,138
Online learning in California generates controversy 4,992
What’s going on at Athabasca University?
3,440
MOOCs, MIT and Magic 3,226
E-learning quality assurance standards,… and research (2010) 2,977

Four of the top five are of particular interest to graduate students, and are mainly the result of ‘trawling’ for information about graduate programs available online. (Incidentally, the post on the world’s largest supplier of free online learning wasn’t about MOOCs, but about Alison, an online provider of training materials.)

I was interested to note that the top five posts were all posted before 2013. One reason for this of course is that many posts in 2013 are of less than 12 months duration, so have had less time to build interest. If we look at the top 10 posted in 2013, we would add to the four above the following:

How online learning is going to affect classroom design 2,370
Harvard’s current thinking on MOOCs 1,490
MOOCs, Norway, and the ecology of digital learning 1,333
Discussing design models for hybrid/blended learning and the impact on the campus 1,283
North Korea launches two MOOCs 1,200
MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer 1,077
My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology 1,069

So four of the top 10 posts in 2013 were about MOOCs, and two were about hybrid learning.

Although only one of my eight posts on ‘aha’ moments in educational technology got into the top 10, the series as a whole did quite well, with a total of 5,200 hits, or an average of 650 hits per post. Also, the Nine Steps to Quality Online Learning, started in 2012, continued to do well during 2013, with 6,470 hits for an average of 808 per post. Similarly, the series Models for Selecting and Using Technology, started in 2011, also did well during 2013, with 2,341 hits for an average of 585 per post. I’m getting a better rate of persistence on these series than many MOOCs, by the way.

On the other hand, my series on productivity and online learning has generally been a bust, with hits averaging around 200 per post. However, this is, I hope, a series that will, like some of my other series, build over time, as more and more people come to realise its importance. It is still early days yet.

I’d be really interested to hear from readers where I should be focusing my posts in 2014.

Conclusions

Another interesting year, but also a frustrating one, mainly due to the MOOC phenomenon. There are far more important developments going on in online learning than MOOCs, and the continuous hype, arrogance, and ignorance particularly of the MOOC computer scientists in elite universities has made me more angry than I have been since the dot com bust in 2000, when the media and elite universities were bragging about turning online learning into a huge money-making machine – and we know how that ended.

Nevertheless, MOOCs have been important in getting online learning noticed, even if for the wrong reasons. Let’s hope 2014 will see a more focused approach on improving productivity while maintaining or increasing the quality of post-secondary education. It is clear that the system cannot go on in the way it has been going, and online learning can play an important role, as much in improving quality as in reducing costs.

However, it is important to set realistic expectations. There is no single, simple solution to improving a vast complex, higher education system. There is no silver bullet.

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.)

Improving productivity in online learning: can we scale ‘the learning that matters most’?

Can 'the magic of the campus' be replicated online - and at scale?

Can ‘the magic of the campus’ be replicated online – and at scale?

The story so far

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 the last post, I concluded:

  • there are major economies of scale in using computer-based feedback for facilitating comprehension and technical mastery outcomes
  • computer-based feedback, when well designed, can also be useful in providing student feedback for more complex forms of learning, such as alternative strategies, critical thinking and evaluation
  • however computer-based analyses to date are inadequate for formal assessment of these higher order learning skills, where deep expertise and qualitative assessment is required, and where learners may provide new insights or alternative explanations
  • redesign of courses with a greater focus on student discovery (finding, analyzing and applying content) within a learning design offers more modest but still significant potential for increases in productivity, mainly through better learning outcomes (development of 21st century skills) and through more effective use of senior research professors’ time.

Learner-instructor interaction and economies of scale

In this current post, I examine particularly the learner-instructor interaction, and discuss whether online learning can provide economies of scale in this area. This is particularly important, because research on credit-based online learning has shown that course delivery (which includes both learner support and student assessment) accounted for the largest overall cost of an online program (37%), almost three times more than course development, over the life of an online program (Bates and Sangra, 2011).

Can we scale ‘the learning that matters most’?

This important question has been raised in the HEQCO report by Tom Carey and David Trick. It is this issue I wish to address here, since scaling up the delivery of content, and learner-content interaction, through online learning is relatively easy, although both depend on good course design for effective learning.

What is more challenging is whether we can also scale the kind of ‘learning that matters most’, namely helping students when they struggle with new concepts or ideas, helping students to gain deep understanding of a topic or subject, helping students to evaluate a range of different ideas or practices, providing students with professional formation or development, understanding the limits of knowledge, and above all enabling students to find, evaluate and apply knowledge appropriately in new or ill-defined contexts.

Before looking at whether or not such activities can be scaled, it is important to challenge the view, such as Sanjay Sharma’s at MIT, that such forms of learning can only be achieved on campus. There is also more than a hint of this assumption in the HEQCO report, at least with respect to undergraduate education. Those of us who have taught online will know that it is possible to develop these kinds of learning outcomes online, especially but not exclusively at graduate level. Strategies such as scaffolding or supporting knowledge construction through online discussion and dialogue, student reflection through e-portfolios, and above all personal online interventions and communication between students and instructor, have all been found to lead to learning outcomes at least as equivalent to those of students studying the same subjects on-campus (see references below).

There will remain a relatively few learning activities that matter most that are best done on campus, such as the development of hands-on skills, but there will be others, such as knowledge management, that may well be best done online. More importantly, there will be some students who really need the environment provided by a campus, and others that will prefer an online environment.

The issue is not can the learning that matters most be done online, but can it be scaled up through online learning? Certainly, I would argue that the main criticism of xMOOCs is that they spectacularly fail to address this form of learning. However, cMOOCs, when they operate at the level of communities of practice with relatively shared levels of understanding and knowledge among the participants, do have at least the potential for such economies of scale while maintaining or even improving quality of learning outcomes. The challenge though is how one accounts for the hidden costs of the participation of experts in such professional sharing, which rely heavily on volunteering or ‘moonlighting’ from a paid job by those with the expertise. I suspect though that even if these costs were calculated, they would still prove more ‘productive’ than conventional campus-based classes for this type of learner. However, the cost-effectiveness research has yet to be done.

The challenge though is scaling up the kinds of interaction between students and instructors that enable diagnosis of a student’s learning difficulties, that facilitate deep understanding of a subject, that encourage creative and original thinking, especially within undergraduate education. Adaptive learning and learning analytics may help to some extent, but in my view cannot yet come close to matching the skill of an experienced and skilled instructor. If instructors are to have enough time to engage in these kinds of dialogue and communication with students, there is clearly a limit on the number of students they can handle. Thus there is a possibility of small increases in productivity, aided by developments such as adaptive learning and learning analytics, but not major ones, in this aspect of teaching and learning.

Scaling the assessment of ‘learning that matters most.’

When ‘the magic of the campus’ is raised, one of the implicit assumptions is that student assessment is more valid because of the personal knowledge that faculty develop of a student in their entirety, and not just in their formal academic work: how they conduct themselves in class discussion (not just what they say, but how they say it), their interests and knowledge outside the formal curriculum (e.g. do they read widely or participate in valued extra-curricula activities), and the impression students make in social activities with faculty. This ‘tacit’ knowledge of a particular student that faculty acquire on campus can heavily influence the final assessment of a student, beyond that of the final exam. As they say at Oxford University, ‘Is he one of us?’

I was fortunate to have done my undergraduate degree in a department where every ‘honours’ student was well known by every faculty member. We were told that in the final exam, we could not get a worse grade than was already determined, but we could improve on it by a really good performance. In other words, the final exam was more of a rite of passage – the assessment was already more or less in place. This was only possible because of the ‘deep’ knowledge that faculty had already gained of the students. The fear that many faculty have of of online learning is that this kind of knowledge of a student is impossible ‘at a distance.’

Again, however, at least some elements of this ‘getting to know students’ can be achieved online, through continuous assessment, the use of e-portfolios and participation in online discussions. Again, the similarities between online learning and campus teaching are often greater than the differences. The problem is scaling up this kind of in-depth academic relationship between student and instructor, both for classroom and online teaching. Although the actual ratio may be difficult to specify, it is clear that this kind of relationship cannot be built up if the instructor:student ratio is in the thousands.

The fact is though that undergraduate students in most public universities are not in the fortunate position that I was. Even in their final year, many find themselves are in classes of over 100 students. They will probably be better off in an online class of 30 students, and even in an online class of 100, they may have more personal interaction with the instructor than in a lecture theatre, if the course is well designed. However, scaling up much beyond this ratio is not going to enable the more personal intellectual relationship to develop that allows for the more informal ‘I know what this student is capable of’ relationship, either online or on campus.

In short, for assessment based on deep knowledge of a student’s progress and capabilities, the scope for economies of scale are limited. In this sense, teacher:student ratios do matter, so economies of scale through online learning will be difficult to achieve for these higher order learning skills.

Conclusions

This has been a particularly difficult blog to write which suggests I may still not be thinking clearly about this topic, so please help me out! However, here is where I stand on this issue so far:

1. The ‘learning that matters most’ mainly addresses university teaching, but I suspect also increasingly technical, vocational and corporate training; the aim is to develop the knowledge and skills needed in a knowledge-based society.

2. Online learning can handle the ‘learning that matters most’ as well, in most cases, as on-campus teaching, although there will always be some exceptions.

3. However, there are major difficulties in scaling up the learner support and assessment activities that are needed for the learning that matters most, both online or on campus. The danger in scaling up is the loss of quality in terms of learning outcomes.

4. Adaptive learning software that helps individualize learning, and learning analytics, may help to a small degree in enabling instructors to handle slightly more students without loss of quality, but cannot as yet replace a skilled instructor, and probably never will.

5. New online course designs built around the use of new technologies have greater potential for increases in productivity – through producing better learning outcomes – for the learning that matters most, than through scaling up, i.e. by increasing teacher:student ratios.

6. We need more empirical research on the relationship between teaching methods, mode of delivery, costs, and the type of learning outcomes that constitute the ‘learning that matters most’ (not to mention better definitions).

Your input

First I’d really welcome responses to this post. In particular:

  • Is ‘the learning that matters most’ a useful concept for university teaching? Do you agree with my descriptions of it?
  • Have I missed something obvious in the possibility for scaling these learner support and assessment activities?
  • Can adaptive learning software and learning analytics take some or all of the load off instructors in developing such learning outcomes?
  • What would new online course designs that increase productivity look like? Do you have actual examples that have been implemented?

Next

In my next post on this topic, I will discuss an area where I think there is huge potential for increasing productivity through online learning, and that is through savings in physical overheads.

References

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 5, No.2.

Baker, C. (2010) The Impact of Instructor Immediacy and Presence for Online Student Affective Learning, Cognition, and Motivation The Journal of Educators Online Vol. 7, No. 1

Bates, A. and Sangrà, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley and Son

Garrison, D. R. & Cleveland-Innes, M. (2005). Facilitating cognitive presence in online learning: Interaction is not enough. American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 3

Harasim, L. (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies New York/London: Routledge

Jonassen, D., Davidson, M., Collins, M., Campbell, J. and Haag, B. (1995) ‘Constructivism and Computer-mediated Communication in Distance Education’, American Journal of Distance Education, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp 7-26.

Paloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2007) Building Online Learning Communities San Francisco: John Wiley and Co.

Richardson, J. C., & Swan, K. (2003). Examining social presence in online courses in relation to students’ perceived learning and satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7 (1), 68-8 8.

Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating London/New York: Routledge

Sheridan, K. and Kelly, M.  (2010) The Indicators of Instructor Presence that are Important to Students in Online Courses MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 6, No. 4