August 15, 2018

Book review: Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas

Qayyum, A. and Zawacki-Richter, O. (eds.) Open and Distance Education in Australia, Europe and the Americas: National Perspectives in a Digital Age Singapore: Springer, US$24+

Why this book?

This book is the first of two volumes aimed at describing how open and distance education (ODE) is evolving to reflect the needs and circumstance of the national higher education systems in various countries. A second goal is to compare how DE is organized and structured in various countries.

What does the book cover?

This first volume covers Australia, Europe and the Americas; the second book (still to come) covers Asia, Africa and the Middle East (including Russia and Turkey).

Who wrote it?

This is a well-edited book, with individual chapters written by experts within each country, following a roughly consistent structure in terms of topics. There is a main chapter for each country, with a useful second opinion from another country expert in terms of a commentary on the main chapter, as follows:

  • Introduction (ODE in a Digital Age): Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter
  • Australia: Colin Latchem (commentary by Som Naidu)
  • Brazil: Fred Litto (commentary by Maria Renata da Cruz Duran and Adnan Qayyum)
  • Canada: Tony Bates (commentary by Terry Anderson)
  • Germany: Ulrich Bernath and Joachim Stöter (commentary by Burkhard Lehmann)
  • United Kingdom: Anne Gaskell (commentary by Alan Tait)
  • United States of America: Michael Beaudoin (commentary by Gary Miller)
  • Conclusions: Qayyum and Zawacki-Richter

What’s in it?

There is some variation between the chapters, reflecting some of the differences between different countries, but most chapters have the following structure:

  • Context: most chapters start with a section that provides the wider context in which ODE operates within a country, either in terms of history or a brief description of the current higher education system as a whole. This sometimes includes how DE is funded (or not funded) by governments.
  • Enrolments and growth: each chapter attempts (heroically in some cases) to estimate just how many distance education students there are within the country and the rate of growth. What is noticeable here is how much variation there is in the accuracy or reliability of these estimates between different countries, partly because of the blurring of definitions between online and blended learning, but partly because in some countries, no-one seems to be counting.
  • Quality assurance/quality control: this describes both the regulatory framework for HE within each country and how that is applied to ODE.
  • Descriptions of specific ODE institutions: these sections describe those specialized institutions that play a major role in ODE within their respective countries.
  • OER and MOOCs. Most chapters discuss the use of open educational resources and MOOCs in their country.
  • The relationship between public and private provision of ODE. This is very useful as the relationship varies considerably between different countries.
  • The future of ODE within each country: this section looks at both challenges and opportunities.

In addition, Qayyum and Zawicki-Richter provide an excellent concluding chapter, that compares the different countries in terms of:

  • size and growth of ODE: ODE enrolments constitute between at least 10-20% of all HE enrolments in Australia, Brazil, Canada and the USA. In the UK and Germany, though, the proportions are likely to be less than 10%;
  • providers of DE: one reason reliable data collection has been difficult is because of the growth in different types of institutions providing DE: specialized ODE providers have in general increased their numbers; more campus-based institutions have become providers of ODE; and private institutions offering ODE have grown. However, this varies considerably from country to country. In the UK, for instance, ODE enrolments have been dropping at the UKOU, but possibly increasing from campus-based providers. In the USA, enrolments from the for-profit ODE providers have been dropping but increasing in the private and public on-campus institutions. What is clear is the impact on ODE enrolments of government policies regarding funding and tuition fees;
  • online vs other forms of DE: again, this differs between countries (and probably even more so in the countries to be covered in the next book). In Australia, Canada, the USA and the UK, ODE is nearly synonymous with online learning; Brazil has ‘leapfrogged’ to mobile learning;
  • the role of government: too complex to summarise here: read the chapter!
  • the function of ODE: ODE appears to play three major functions in HE systems: increasing access; providing greater flexibility to those with access; and ‘abetting in the larger digital transformation of HE’;
  • trends and future challenges: ODE on a macro level is being affected by two factors: the global growth in demand for HE; and the digital revolution. Surprisingly, though, it is less affected by globalization: ‘ODE seems to function mainly, though not wholly, within the nation state’ – except for MOOCs. This chapter has a very good discussion of these issues, particularly the differences between education as a public or private good, and ODE’s role in each.

My comments

The book sets out clearly the extent and importance of ODE in higher education. A careful reading will also indicate the importance of government and institutional policies in supporting or restricting ODE.

This and the second book in this series therefore should be required reading in any post-graduate education program. It should also be required reading by policy analysts in Ministries of Advanced (or Higher) Education. I would also recommend it to Boards of Governors and Provosts/VP Academic in any post-secondary institution. 

I look forward with impatience to reading the second volume, which for me will be even more valuable as I know so little about ODE in many of the countries covered in the second book.

If I have any negative comments, it is about what is not in the book. I think it is a pity that there is no chapter on France, Mexico or Argentina, all of which are very large countries with substantial and uniquely different distance education provision. And of course it is solely about formal post-secondary education. Other books are needed to cover international distance education in the k-12 and corporate sectors.

Also, this book will easily become outdated, given the rapid developments in ODE around the world. It took over two years from the time I was approached to write the chapter and the book’s publication. In this period, the first national survey of online learning in Canadian post-secondary education was published, the results of which had to be hastily accommodated in the last proofs of the book.

Furthermore, the book is an open publication, and is free to download, licensed as open access under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. However, it is not expensive to buy a hard copy, and I hope if you have an an interest in open and distance education you will make this a standard book on your shelves – after you have read it!

(Note: in an earlier version of this post I incorrectly stated that it could not be downloaded for free. My apologies).

Corruption in higher education: a wake-up call

Staff at Pavol Jozef Safarik University, Kosice, Slovakia were accused of taking bribes to admit students to its Medical School

Staff at Pavol Jozef Safarik University, Kosice, Slovakia have been accused of taking bribes to admit students to the Medical School

Daniel, J. (2016) Combatting Corruption and Enhancing Integrity: A Contemporary Challenge for the Quality and Integrity of Higher Education: Advisory Statement for Effective International Practice: Washington DC/Paris: CHEA/UNESCO

Daniel, J. (2016) Lutter contre la corruption et renforcer l’intégrité : un défi contemporain pour la qualité et la crédibilité de l’enseignement supérieur: Déclaration consultative pour des pratiques internationales efficaces Washington DC/Paris: CHEA/UNESCO

Those of us working in online learning are often berated by academic colleagues about the possible lack of integrity in online learning due to issues such as plagiarism, diploma mills, or ‘easy’ qualifications lacking rigorous academic process. Such cases do occur, but having read this document, it seems that the more traditional areas of higher education are prone to far more egregious forms of corruption.

Where do we find corruption?

At the end of this report, there is a list of references chronicling corruption in higher education in Australia, China, the Czech Republic, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Slovakia, South Africa, and the USA. And those are just the ones who have been recently caught.

The report puts it bluntly:

This Advisory Statement is a wake-up call to higher education worldwide – particularly to quality assurance bodies. HEIs [higher education institutions], governments, employers and societies generally, in both developed and developing countries, are far too complacent about the growth of corrupt practices, either assuming that these vices occur somewhere else or turning a deaf ear to rumours of malpractice in their own organizations.

What kinds of corruption?

You name it, it’s in this report. In fact, the report describes 29 different kinds of corrupt practices. Here are just a few examples:

  • giving institutions licenses, granting degree-awarding powers, or accrediting programmes in return for bribes or favours.
  • altering student marks in return for sexual or other favours.

  • administrative pressure on academics to alter marks for institutional convenience.

  • publishing false recruitment advertising.

  • impersonation of candidates and ghost writing of assignments.

  • political pressures on higher education institutions to award degrees to public figures.

  • publication by supervisors of research by graduate students without acknowledgement.

  • higher education institutions publishing misleading news releases or suppressing inconvenient news.

Who is sounding the alarm?

Although the writer of the report is Sir John Daniel, a fellow Research Associate at Contact North, and former Vice-Chancellor, the Open University, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO and President of the Commonwealth of Learning, the report draws on meetings of expert groups from the following organizations:

  • UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP)
  • the International Quality Group of the US Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA/CIQG).

What’s causing this?

Corruption is as much about lack of ethical behaviour and rampant self-interest as about policies and practices. The report though points to two key factors that are contributing to corruption:

  • the huge appetite for higher education among the young populations of the developing world puts great pressures on admissions processes;
  • the steadily developing sophistication and borderless nature of information and communications technology (ICT) has expanded the opportunities for fraudsters in all walks of life.

What are the recommended solutions?

There are of course no easy solutions here. The report points out that there are both ‘upstream’ possibilities for corruption at the level of government and accrediting agencies, and downstream, from individuals desperate to get into and succeed within an increasingly competitive higher education system. In the middle are the institutions themselves.

The report separates its recommendations for combatting corruption then into several target areas:

  1. the regulation of higher education systems
  2.  the teaching role of higher education institutions
  3. student admissions and recruitment
  4. student assessment
  5. credentials and qualifications
  6. research theses and publications
  7. through increased public awareness

It is interesting that while the report emphasizes the importance of internal quality assurance processes within HEIs, it also notes that the more ‘mature’ an HE system becomes, the more external quality assurance agencies, such as accreditation boards and government ministries, tend to pass quality assurance responsibilities back to the institutions. The report notes that students themselves have a very important role to play in demanding transparency and whistle-blowing.

A call to action

The report ends with the following:

  • governments, quality assurance agencies and HEIs worldwide must become more aware of the threat that corruption poses to the credibility, effectiveness and quality of higher education at a time when its importance as a driver of global development has never been higher.

  • external quality assurance agencies should do more to review the risks of corruption in their work and HEIs must ensure that their IQA [internal quality assurance] frameworks are also fit for the purpose of combatting corruption.

  • training and supporting staff in identifying and exposing corrupt practices should be stepped up.

  • creating networks of organizations that are fighting corruption and greater North-South collaboration in capacity building for this purpose are highly desirable.

So next time some sanctimonious academic sneers at the academic integrity of online learning, just point them in the direction of this report.

Appropriate interventions following the application of learning analytics

Humble Pie 2

SAIDE (2015) Siyaphumelela Inaugural Conference May 14th – 15th 2015 SAIDE Newsletter, Vol. 21, No.3

Reading sources in the right order can avoid you having to eat humble pie. Immediately after posting Privacy and the Use of Learning Analytics in which I questioned the ability of learning analytics to suggest appropriate interventions, I came across this article in the South African Institute of Distance Education’s (SAIDE) newsletter about a conference in South Africa on Exploring the potential of data analytics to inform improved practice in higher education: connecting data and people.

At this conference, Professor Tim Renick, Vice-President of Georgia State University in the USA, reported on his institution’s accomplishment of eliminating race and income as a predictor of student success.

This has been achieved through implementing various initiatives based on data mining of twelve years’ worth of student data. The university’s early warning system, based on predictive analysis, has spawned a number of tested and refined low cost, scalable, innovative programmes such as:

  • supplemental instruction by former successful students;
  • formation of freshman learning communities which entail groups of 25 students enrolled in “meta-majors” ;
  • block scheduling of courses ;
  • re-tooled pedagogies involving adaptive learning software;
  • and small, prudent financial retention grants.

The combination of the above has resulted in phenomenally reduced student attrition.

I have no further comment (for once!). I would though be interested in yours.

Incidentally, there were other interesting articles in the SAIDE newsletter, including:

Each of these reports has important lessons for those interested in these issues that go far beyond the individual cases themselves. Well worth reading.

 

What do we mean by quality when teaching in a digital age?

© Insights, 2012

© Insights, 2012

Before I start on my nine steps to quality learning for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, I have needed to ‘clear the decks’ about what we mean by quality. I thought this bit might be useful to share, as quality is a very slippery concept at the best of times.

The aim of this chapter is to provide some practical guidelines for teachers and instructors to ensure quality teaching in a digital age. Before I can do this, however, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by ‘quality’ in education, because I am using ‘quality’ here in a very specific way.

Definitions

Probably there is no other topic in education which generates so much discussion and controversy as ‘quality’. Many books have been written on the topic, but I will cut to the chase and give my definition of quality up-front. For the purposes of this book, quality is defined as:

teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.

This of course is the short answer to the question. A longer answer means looking, at least briefly, at:

  • institutional and degree accreditation
  • internal (academic) quality assurance processes
  • differences in quality assurance between traditional classroom teaching and online and distance education
  • the relationship between quality assurance processes and learning outcomes
  • ‘quality assurance fit for purpose’: meeting the goals of education in a digital age.

This will then provide the foundations for my recommendations for quality teaching that will follow in this chapter.

Institutional and degree accreditation

Most governments act to protect consumers in the education market by ensuring that institutions are properly accredited and the qualifications they award are valid and are recognised as of being of ‘quality.’ However, the manner in which institutions and degrees are accredited varies a great deal. The main difference is between the USA and virtually any other country.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Network for Education Information states in its description of accreditation and quality assurance in the USA:

Accreditation is the process used in U.S. education to ensure that schools, postsecondary institutions, and other education providers meet, and maintain, minimum standards of quality and integrity regarding academics, administration, and related services. It is a voluntary process based on the principle of academic self-governance. Schools, postsecondary institutions and programs (faculties) within institutions participate in accreditation. The entities which conduct accreditation are associations comprised of institutions and academic specialists in specific subjects, who establish and enforce standards of membership and procedures for conducting the accreditation process.

Both the federal and state governments recognize accreditation as the mechanism by which institutional and programmatic legitimacy are ensured. In international terms, accreditation by a recognized accrediting authority is accepted as the U.S. equivalent of other countries’ ministerial recognition of institutions belonging to national education systems.

In other words, in the USA, accreditation and quality assurance is effectively self-regulated by the educational institutions and faculty through their control of accreditation agencies, although the government does have some ‘weapons of enforcement’, mainly through the withdrawal of student financial aid for students at any institution that the U.S. Department of Education deems to be failing to meet standards.

In many other countries, government has the ultimate authority to accredit institutions and approve degrees, although in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom, this is often exercised by arm’s length agencies appointed by government, but consisting mainly of representatives from the various institutions within the system. These bodies have a variety of names, but Degree Quality Assurance Board is a typical title.

However, more important than the formal lines of responsibility for quality is how the accrediting agencies actually operate. Usually, once a degree program is approved, there is little follow-up or monitoring afterwards, unless formal complaints are subsequently made about the quality of the program, although many institutions now voluntarily review programs every five years or so. Also, once an institution has been accredited, the accreditation agency may delegate back to the institution the approval of it own degree programs, providing that it has an internal process in place for assuring quality, although where government is formally responsible, new degrees may still come to an accrediting agency, to ensure there is no duplication within the system, that there is a defined market for the program, or where approval to deviate from government guidelines on fees may be requested. Nevertheless, mainly to ensure academic freedom from direct government interference, universities in particular have a large degree of autonomy in most economically advanced countries for determining ‘quality’ in programming.

However, in recent years, some regulatory agencies such as the United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education have adopted formal quality assurance processes based on practices that originated in industry. The U.K. QAA’s Quality Code for Higher Education which aims to guide universities on what the QAA is looking for runs to several hundred pages. Chapter B3 on Learning and Teaching is 25 pages long and has seven indicators of quality. Indicator 4 is typical:

Higher education providers assure themselves that everyone involved in teaching or supporting student learning is appropriately qualified, supported and developed.

Many institutions as a result of pressure from external agencies have therefore put in place formal quality assurance processes over and beyond the normal academic approval processes (see Clarke-Okah et al., 2014, for a typical, low-cost example).

Internal quality assurance

It can be seen then that the internal processes for ensuring quality programs within an institution are particularly important. Although again the process can vary considerably between institutions, at least in universities the process is fairly standard. A proposal for a new degree will usually originate from a group of faculty/instructors within a department. The proposal will be discussed and amended at departmental and/or Faculty meetings, then once approved will go to the university senate for final approval. The administration in the form of the Provost’s Office will usually be involved, particularly where resources, such as new appointments, are required.

Although this is probably an over-generalisation, significantly the proposal will contain information about who will teach the course and their qualifications to teach it, the content to be covered within the program (often as a list of courses with short descriptions), a set of required readings, and usually something about how students will be assessed. Increasingly, such proposals may also include broad learning outcomes for the program.

If there is a proposal for courses within a program or the whole program to be delivered fully online, it is likely that the proposal will come under intense internal scrutiny. What is unlikely to be included in a proposal though is what methods of teaching will be used. This is usually considered the responsibility of individual faculty members. It is this aspect of quality with which this chapter is concerned.

Lastly, some institutions require every program to be reviewed after five or more years of operation, or at the discretion of the senior administration. Again whether and how this is done varies considerably. One common approach is for an internal review process, with an internal evaluation report by a committee set up by the department offering the program, followed by a review of the internal committee’s report by external assessors. This review may or (more frequently) may not lead to significant changes in a program, but this will depend on the instructors responsible for teaching the program agreeing to implement any recommended changes. Less frequently, where enrolment for a program has declined to unacceptable levels or where external complaints about a program have been received, the Vice President Academic may call for an external review of the program, in which case anything is possible, up to and including closure of the program.

Jung and Latchem (2102), in a review of quality assessment processes in a large number of online and distance education institutions around the world, make the following important points about quality assurance processes within institutions:

  • focus on outcomes as the leading measure of quality
  • take a systemic approach to quality assurance
  • see QA as a process of continuous improvement
  • move the institution from external controls to an internal culture of quality
  • poor quality has very high costs so investment in quality is worthwhile.

In particular, Butcher and Wilson-Strydom (2013) warn:

you should not assume that creating quality assurance structures… automatically improves quality….Institutional quality assurance structures and processes are important, but beware of making them an exercise in compliance for accountability, rather than a process of learning and self-improvement that really improves quality.

There are many guidelines for quality traditional classroom teaching. Perhaps the most well know are those of Chickering and Gamson (1987), based on an analysis of 50 years of research into best practices in teaching. They argue that good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Online courses and programs

Because online learning was new and hence open to concern about its quality, there have also been many guidelines, best practices and quality assurance criteria created and applied to online programming. All these guidelines and procedures have been derived from the experience of previously successful online programs, best practices in teaching and learning, and research and evaluation of online teaching and learning.

Some degree quality assurance boards (such as the QAA in the UK and PEQAB in Ontario) have put in place specific ‘benchmarks’ for online courses. A comprehensive list of online quality assurance standards, organizations and research on online learning can be found in Appendix 3. Graham et al. (2001) applied Chickering and Gamson’s seven principles for face-to-face teaching to the evaluation of four online courses from a mid-western university in the USA, and adapted these principles for online learning.

Thus ensuring quality in online learning is not rocket science. There is plenty of evidence of what works and what doesn’t, which will be examined in more detail in this chapter. There is no need to build a bureaucracy around this, but there does need to be some mechanism, some way of calling institutions when they fail to meet these standards. However, we should also do the same for campus-based teaching. As more and more already accredited (and ‘high quality’) campus-based institutions start moving into hybrid learning, the establishment of quality in the online learning elements of programs will become even more important.

Thus there are plenty of evidence-based guidelines for ensuring quality in teaching, both face-to-face and online. The main challenge then is to ensure that teachers and instructors are aware of these best practices and that institutions have processes in place to ensure that guidelines for quality teaching are implemented and followed.

Quality assurance, innovation and learning outcomes

It may have been noted that most QA processes are front-loaded, i.e. they look at inputs – such as the academic qualifications of faculty, or the processes to be adopted for effective teaching, such as clear learning objectives – rather than outputs, such as what students have actually learned. They also tend to be backward-looking, that is, they focus on past best practices.

This is particularly important for evaluating new teaching approaches. Butcher and Hoosen (2014) state:

The quality assurance of post-traditional higher education is not straightforward, because openness and flexibility are primary characteristics of these new approaches, whereas traditional approaches to quality assurance were designed for teaching and learning within more tightly structured frameworks.

 However, Butcher and Hoosen (2014) go on to say that:

fundamental judgements about quality should not depend on whether education is provided in a traditional or post-traditional manner …the growth of openness is unlikely to demand major changes to quality assurance practices in institutions. The principles of good quality higher education have not changed…. Quality distance education is a sub-set of quality education…Distance education should be subject to the same quality assurance mechanisms as education generally.’

Such arguments though offer a particular challenge for teaching in a digital age, where it is argued that learning outcomes need to include the development of skills such as independent learning, facility in using social media for communication, and knowledge management, skills that have not been explicitly identified in the past. Quality assurance processes are not usually tied to specific types of learning outcomes, but are more closely linked to general performance measures such as course completion rates, time to degree completion and grades based on past learning goals.

Furthermore, we have already seen in Chapters 9 and 10 that new media and new methods of teaching are emerging that have not been around long enough to be subject to analysis of best practices. A too rigid view of quality assessment based on past practices could have serious negative implications for innovation in teaching and for meeting newly emerging learning needs. ‘Best practice’ may need occasionally to be challenged, so new approaches can be experimented with and evaluated.

Quality assurance: fit for purpose in a digital age

Maxim Jean-Louis, the President of Contact North, at a presentation in 2010 to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, made a very useful distinction about different ways of looking at quality in education:

  • Quality as ‘Excellence’– a definition that sets abstract goals for institutions and academic communities to always striving to be the best, mainly taken as having elitist undertones. In post-secondary education this could mean winning Nobel prizes, attraction of research funds or the “best” faculty as measured by research output and teaching evaluations. The drawback here is that this tends to also exclude the work of the ‘further education’ sectors, and is not applied equally between disciplines (citation counts do not exist for historians and many other subjects).
  • Quality as ‘Meeting a pre-determined standard’– a definition that requires only a given standard to be met, e.g. a minimum grade, basic competency, the ability to read, write, use a computer, etc. [It might also include competencies and skills, degree completion rates, time to degree completion, etc.] The drawback of this is that setting and measuring this ‘standard’ is difficult at best and idealistic at worst.
  • Quality as ‘fitness for purpose’ – in this construction of quality, we have to decide the extent to which the service or product meets the goals set – does this course or program do what it says it was going to do? Such a construction of quality allows institutions/sectors to define goals themselves according to their mandate and concentrates on meeting the needs of their customers (whether this be upgrading learners, graduate researchers, industry, etc.).

Quality assurance processes must address the increasing diversity of our educational systems. Distance education organizations are not the same as elite traditional universities and shouldn’t try to be. This would mean looking for different measures of quality in the Open University, for instance, than in Cambridge University. Neither one is necessarily better (depending on what they are trying to achieve), but the learning experience ought to be different, even though the intended learning outcomes may be similar; this will mean different design criteria but not necessarily different criteria for assessing the quality of the learning.

In the meantime, much more attention needs to be directed at what campus-based institutions are doing when they move to hybrid or online learning. Are they following best practices, or even better, developing innovative, better teaching methods? The design of xMOOCs and the high drop-out rates of many new two year colleges new to online learning in the USA suggest they are not.

This means that different types of institution will and should evaluate quality differently. If the goal or purpose is to develop the knowledge and skills that learners will need in a digital age, then this is the ‘standard’ by which quality should be assessed, while at the same time taking into account what we already know about general best practices in teaching. The recommendations for quality teaching in a digital age that follow in this chapter are based on these principles.

Over to you

There is so much I wanted to write here about the stupidity of the current system of institutional accreditation and internal quality assurance processes, especially but not exclusively in the United Kingdom, but this section is meant as an introduction to practical guidelines for teaching and learning. So I’ve tried to be uncharacteristically restrained in writing this section. But feedback is even more welcome than usual.

1. (a) First, are there any incorrect facts in this section? This is a large and complex topic and it is easy to get things wrong.

(b) Have I left out anything really important about assessing quality in teaching and learning?

2. One problem with this topic is that it tends to gravitate between two polarised positions: those who believe in absolute truth and those who are relativists. Absolute truthers believe that there is a God-given set of ‘quality’ standards that are set primarily by elite institutions that everyone else should strive to meet. Relativists (like myself) believe that quality is in the eye of the beholder; it all depends on what your goals are. Hence my definition of quality is set among the rather limited goal in one way – and extremely ambitious in another – of developing teaching methods that will help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will need in a digital age. So: any views on my definition of quality? Is it fit for purpose?

3. What do you think of the current system of (a) institutional accreditation and (b) internal quality assurance processes?

My own view is that institutional accreditation is definitely needed to protect against really incompetent or downright dishonest organisations, but, depending on the jurisdiction, it is very much an insider’s process and not very transparent, and while current accreditation processes may set minimum standards it certainly doesn’t do much to improve quality in the system.

Similarly, internal quality assurance processes are far too cosy and protect the status quo. The internal program approval processes are based again on peer review of a very limited kind, with often ‘I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine’ approach to program approval. I’ve been on a number of program reviews as an external reviewer, but rarely see any significant changes, despite sometimes scathing reviews from the externals.

And as for formal QA processes, they are the kiss of death for quality, tangling faculty and administrators in incredibly bureaucratic processes without dealing with the real issues around quality teaching and learning.

Of course, all these practices are in the name of protecting academic freedom, which is important – but surely better processes can be derived for improving quality without threatening academic freedom.

4. So lastly, is it wise for me to restrain myself from adding these types of comments in the book – or will I muddy the waters of what is to come if I do?

References and further reading

Butcher, N. and Wilson-Strydom, M. (2013) A Guide to Quality in Online Learning Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Butcher, N. and Hoosen, S. (2014) A Guide to Quality in Post-traditional Online Higher Education Dallas TX: Academic Partnerships

Chickering, A., and Gamson, Z. (1987) ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education’ AAHE Bulletin, March 1987.

Clarke-Okah, W. et al. (2014) The Commonwealth of Learning Review and Improvement Model for Higher Education Institutions Vancouver BC: Commonwealth of Learning

Graham, C. et al. (2001) Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses The Technology Source, March/April

Jung, I. and Latchem, C. (2012) Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Distance Education and e-Learning New York/London: Routledge

Review of ‘Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda.’

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Drop-out: the elephant in the DE room that no-one wants to talk about

Zawacki-Richter, O. and Anderson, T. (eds.) (2014) Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda Athabasca AB: AU Press, pp. 508

It is somewhat daunting to review a book of over 500 pages of research on any topic. I doubt if few other than the editors are likely to read this book from cover to cover. It is more likely to be kept on one’s bookshelf (if these still exist in a digital age) for reference whenever needed. Nevertheless, this is an important work that anyone working in online learning needs to be aware of, so I will do my best to cover it as comprehensively as I can.

Structure of the book

The book is a collection of about 20 chapters by a variety of different authors (more on the choice of authors later). Based on a Delphi study and analysis of ‘key research journals’ in the field, the editors have organized the topic into three sections, with a set of chapters on each sub-section, as follows:

1. Macro-level research: distance education systems and theories

  • access, equity and ethics
  • globalization and cross-cultural issues
  • distance teaching systems and institutions
  • theories and models
  • research methods and knowledge transfer

2. Meso-level research: management, organization and technology

  • management and organization
  • costs and benefits
  • educational technology
  • innovation and change
  • professional development and faculty support
  • learner support services
  • quality assurance

3. Micro-level: teaching and learning in distance education

  • instructional/learning design
  • interaction and communication
  • learner characteristics.

In addition, there is a very useful preface from Otto Peters, an introductory chapter by the editors where they justify their structural organization of research, and a short conclusion that calls for a systematic research agenda in online distance education research.

More importantly, perhaps, Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter demonstrate empirically that research in this field has been skewed towards micro-level research (about half of all publications).  Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly given its importance, costs and benefits of online distance education is the least researched area.

What I liked

It is somewhat invidious to pick out particular chapters, because different people will have different interests from such a wide-ranging list of topics. I have tended to choose those that I found were new and/or particularly enlightening for me, but other readers’ choices will be different. However, by selecting a few excellent chapters, I hope to give some idea of the quality of the book.

1. The structuring/organization of research

Anderson and Zawacki-Richter have done an excellent job in providing a structural framework for research in this field. This will be useful both for those teaching about online and distance education but in particular for potential Ph.D. students wondering what to study. This book will provide an essential starting point.

2. Summary of the issues in each area of research

Again, the editors have done an excellent job in their introductory chapter in summarizing the content of each of the chapters that follows, and in so doing pulling out the key themes and issues within each area of research. This alone makes the book worthwhile.

3. Globalization, Culture and Online Distance Education

Charlotte (Lani) Gunawardena of the University of New Mexico has written the most comprehensive and deep analysis of this issue that I have seen, and it is an area in which I have a great deal of interest, since most of the online teaching I have done has been with students from around the world and sometimes multi-lingual.

After a general discussion of the issue of globalization and education, she reviews research in the following areas:

  • diverse educational expectations
  • learners and preferred ways of learning
  • socio-cultural environment and online interaction
  • help-seeking behaviours
  • silence
  • language learning
  • researching culture and online distance learning

This chapter should be required reading for anyone contemplating teaching online.

4. Quality assurance in Online Distance Education

I picked this chapter by Colin Latchem because he is so deeply expert in this field that he is able to make what can be a numbingly boring but immensely important topic a fun read, while at the same time ending with some critical questions about quality assurance. In particular Latchem looks at QA from the following perspectives:

  • definitions of quality
  • accreditation
  • online distance education vs campus-based teaching
  • quality standards
  • transnational online distance education
  • open educational resources
  • costs of QA
  • is online distance education yet good enough?
  • an outcomes approach to QA.

This chapter definitely showcases a master at the top of his game.

5. The elephant in the room: student drop-out

This is a wonderfully funny but ultimately serious argument between Ormond Simpson and Alan Woodley about the elephant in the distance education room that no-one wants to mention. Here they start poking the elephant with some sticks (which they note is not likely to be a career-enhancing move.) The basic argument is that institutions should and could do more to reduce drop-out/increase course completion. This chapter also stunned me with providing hard data about really low completion rates for most open university students. I couldn’t help comparing these with the high completion rates for online credit courses at dual-mode (campus-based) institutions, at least in Canada (which of course are not ‘open’ institutions in that students must have good high school qualifications.)

Woodley’s solution to reducing drop-out is quite interesting (and later well argued):

  • make it harder to get in
  • make it harder to get out

In both cases, really practical and not too costly solutions are offered that nevertheless are consistent with open access and high quality teaching.

In summary

The book contains a number of really good chapters that lay out the issues in researching online distance education.

What I disliked

I have to say that I groaned when I first saw the list of contributors. The same old, same old list of distance education experts with a heavy bias towards open universities. Sure, they are nearly all well-seasoned experts, and there’s nothing wrong with that per se (after all, I see myself as one of them.)

But where are the young researchers here, and especially the researchers in open educational resources, MOOCs, social media applications in online learning, and above all researchers from the many campus-based universities now mainstreaming online learning? There is almost nothing in the book about research into blended learning, and flipped classrooms are not even mentioned. OK, the book is about online distance learning but the barriers or distinctions are coming down with a vengeance. This book will never reach those who most need it, the many campus-based instructors now venturing for the first time into online learning in one way or another. They don’t see themselves as primarily distance educators.

And a few of the articles were more like lessons in history than an up-to-date review of research in the field. Readers of this blog will know that I strongly value the history of educational technology and distance learning. But these lessons need to be embedded in the here and now. In particular, the lessons need to be spelled out. It is not enough to know that Stanford University researchers as long ago as 1974 were researching the costs and benefits of educational broadcasting in developing countries, but what lessons does this have for some of the outrageous claims being made about MOOCs? A great deal in fact, but this needs explaining in the context of MOOCs today.

Also the book is solely focused on post-secondary university education. Where is the research on online distance education in the k-12/school sector or the two-year college/vocational sector? Maybe they are topics for other books, but this is where the real gap exists in research publications in online learning.

Lastly, although the book is reasonably priced for its size (C$40), and is available as an e-text as well as the fully printed version, what a pity it is not an open textbook that could then be up-dated and crowd-sourced over time.

Conclusion

This is essential reading for anyone who wants to take a professional, evidence-based approach to online learning (distance or otherwise). It will be particularly valuable for students wanting to do research in this area. The editors have done an incredibly good job of presenting a hugely diverse and scattered area in a clear and structured manner. Many of the chapters are gems of insight and knowledge in the field.

However, we have a huge challenge of knowledge transfer in this field. Repeatedly authors in the book lamented that many of the new entrants to online learning are woefully ignorant of the research previously done in this field. We need a better way to disseminate this research than a 500 page printed text that only those already expert in the field are likely to access. On the other hand, the book does provide a strong foundation from which to find better ways to disseminate this knowledge. Knowledge dissemination in a digital world then is where the research agenda for online learning needs to focus.