July 17, 2018

The current madness in online learning: case no. 1

Goldsmiths College

Coughlan, S. (2018) University offers science degree online for £5,650 per year, BBC News, March 6

If you want to know what the very opposite of an open higher education system is, look no further than that country of privilege, class, and isolationism called England. 

This is a report of a new Bachelor of Science degree being offered fully online in the United Kingdom by one of my old alma maters, Goldsmiths College, the University of London, where I did a wonderful post-graduate certificate in education that set me up for life in teaching. The new Goldsmiths B. Sc. (actually a three-year bachelor in computer science) is deliberately targeted at part-time, working students.

Great – so far. It’s good to see a full bachelor’s degree in science being made available fully online, targeted at part-time students. 

But the mad part is that the tuition cost for this three year degree is – wait for it – £16,950 (£5,650 a year). That is roughly C$30,000, or C$10,000 a year. 

What makes it even more crazy is that this is an attempt to provide a lower cost alternative to the regular fees now being paid by students for on-campus education in England and Wales, for which tuition fees alone are around C$16,000 a year. This is because the U.K. government in 2010 cut funding for the costs of teaching in English universities, requiring the universities to recover the teaching costs through tuition fees alone. In parallel, part-time students were no longer eligible for government-backed student loans.

And why, you may ask, is the University of London offering this fully online B.Sc. when the U.K’s Open University has been offering at least a distance one since 1971? (And a full science degree at that, covering all the basic sciences.)  

As a result of government policy, the UK Open University has had to triple its tuition fees over this period, to roughly – wait for it – £17,184 for its full three year Bachelor of Natural Sciences. What a co-incidence that Goldsmith’s fees for their new online B. Sc. are £16,950, just £200 below the OU’s! 

The government policies on tuition fees and student loans have been devastating for the UK OU, which is targeted mainly at part-time students, and which had no tuition fees when it was founded in 1971. Its numbers have fallen by 30% between 2010-11 and 2015-16. 

The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that part-time student numbers in England have fallen 56% since 2010, from 243,355 in 2010-11 to just 107,325 in 2015-16. In terms of economic development, this is madness in government policy. In a digital society, lifelong learning is not a luxury but a necessity, and will not just benefit the individual but the whole economy. I shudder to think of the long term implications for English prosperity in the future – even without Brexit.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? I have four grand-children living in England, but their parents, who, like me, are wealthy middle class now, are willing and just about able to support their children at university. However, in 1959 I was working full time at what would now be called a minimum wage and desperate to get any form of post-secondary education. I found out that although I was 21 and had been working for several years, because of my low salary and the low income of my parents, I was eligible for a grant from the London County Council. Not only were my fees covered, but I even got a small maintenance grant that with work in the vacations enabled me to study full time. I got a place in Sheffield University, and the rest is history. However, without that support, not only would I not have succeeded in my life, nor would my children be where they are today.

I have no problem with a minimal level of tuition fees, as in Canada, provided that there is some kind of financial support to allow those on low incomes or who are unemployed to take full advantage of post-secondary educational opportunities. But no-one should be denied the opportunity of a post-secondary education because they cannot afford it. England is more backward today than it was in 1959 in this respect, which is why I am so angry. All that blood, sweat and tears that the working class suffered during and after the Second World War – and for what?

‘It’s the rich what gets the gravy and the poor what gets the blame.’ Was it ever thus in England?

‘Why does Canada have so much online learning?’

My workshop in Denmark on the design of blended learning 

Online learning in Canada 

I was doing my usual stuff in Denmark this week, a keynote on ‘Teaching for a digital age: why blended learning is so important,’ when someone at the end of my keynote asked me why does Canada have so much online learning.

The question kind of stopped me in my tracks. My presentation was about designing courses for a digital age, not about our recent survey, but I had thrown in a couple of slides to show the expansion of online learning both in the USA and in Canada over the last 10-15 years. Our survey did indicate quite clearly the following (among other things):

  • the vast majority of  post-secondary education institutions in Canada do offer at least some credit-based online learning courses
  • the rate of growth in fully online enrolments over the last five years has been strong (between 12-15% per annum)
  • online learning now constitutes between 12%-16% of all credit based teaching
  • as well as fully online courses, a large majority of Canadian universities and colleges are moving aggressively into blended and hybrid learning
  • most Canadian post-secondary institutions consider online learning very or extremely important for their future.

Remember, this expansion is in credit-based online learning, not MOOCs. In Canada. less than 20% of institutions were developing MOOCs in the year 2015-2016.

But is this a lot? 

Well, everything’s relative. 

We tend to compare ourselves with the USA, and our results weren’t so different from the Babson and the more recent U.S. Federal government surveys, although making such comparisons are always fraught because the two systems are somewhat different. Nevertheless in comparison for instance with the U.S. public universities and two year colleges, it is likely that Canada has at least the same proportion of online course enrolments, if not more.

I’m not sure whether 12-15% of courses enrolments being fully online is a lot in absolute terms. There’s probably more room for growth yet, but I doubt if most of the existing campus-based institutions will go much over 20% of all their teaching being fully online. Where the real growth is likely to be from now on is in blended and hybrid learning.

I’m assuming from the question that Denmark does not have a lot of fully online or distance learning. However, I also came across a recent opinion piece from Richard Garrett of the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education, entitled: ‘Whatever happened to the promise of online learning?’. Garrett pointed out that in the United Kingdom:

‘distance, flexible and distributed’ students peaked at about 11% of undergraduates (c.220,000) and 10% of postgraduates (c.55,000) in 2009/10. By 2015/16, total distance enrollment had fallen by 35%, most obviously at sub-degree level but also among bachelor’s and master’s students. Over the same period, full-time students were up 9%.

This of course is completely different from what’s happening in the U.S. and Canada. So what is the explanation for this discrepancy between North America and at least two countries in Europe?

Key factors influencing growth in online learning

This is one of those questions where I think your guess will be as good as mine. This is an area where we need more facts and more research. However, here are my thoughts on this.

1. The growth of lifelong learning

With the development of a knowledge-based economy,and with the amount of research and knowledge increasing rapidly each year, more and more people will need to go on learning new things well after they finish their full-time post-secondary education. A lot of this can be done informally (such as through the Danish adult education centres or MOOCs), but there has certainly been strong growth in North America in fully online professional masters programs, for instance. Such programs will become increasingly important given the need for continuous learning in a knowledge-based society.

2. History and geography

It is important to understand that Denmark is a small, compact European country that you can drive across in five hours. Hardly anyone lives more than an hour’s drive (or bike ride) from a post-secondary institution, tuition is free, and there is an excellent campus-based higher education system – so there has probably been little demand for distance education programs in Denmark.

The University of Southern Denmark (Syddansk Universitet), Odense

Also for many, many years Scandinavian countries have had a very strong adult education movement, where both credit and non-credit courses are taken in the long, dark evenings at local adult education centres, thus catering for lifelong learners.

On the other hand, in both Canada and many parts of the USA, many provinces and states established public, land-grant universities with a mission to provide not only on-campus education, but lifelong learning opportunities, particularly in health and education, for everyone in the state or province, including or especially those living in sparsely populated areas. At such institutions, distance education was offered long before online learning appeared. Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, started offering correspondence-based distance education in the late 19th century, using the Royal Mounted Police to deliver the packages to remote areas. The University of British Columbia, one of the largest campus-based research universities in Canada, located in Vancouver, has offered distance education across the whole province since the 1930s.

When online learning appeared around the early 1990s, it was natural for the departments providing distance education in Canada to move into online learning. Our survey found that many institutions in Canada have been offering online learning for 15 years or more.

This experience in fully online learning of course is invaluable as instructors move more into blended and hybrid learning.

3. Government policy

The sudden drop in distance education (and hence online) students in the U.K. is almost certainly due to recent government policy. Garrett wrote:

The primary cause of the distance learning drop was higher tuition fees and reduced public funding for part-time undergraduates. Almost all domestic distance learners in UK higher education study part-time. Distance enrollment held up better than part-time numbers overall, which almost halved over the period.

The UK’s largest distance institution, the Open University, dropped from 209,000 to 126,000 students between 2009/10 and 2015/16. Other institutions saw distance enrollment rebound in recent years but the total is still short of the 2009/10 baseline, and some 64,000 domestic distance students are scattered across 124 colleges and universities.

In comparison several provincial governments in Canada, and federal and state governments in the USA, have encouraged online learning through targeted funding. For instance several provinces have set up eCampuses to provide funding for online courses, open textbooks and open educational resources, for faculty development opportunities, and for shared services, to encourage online learning. Although the Obama administration’s tightening of student financial aid rules has led to a large drop in online enrolments in the for-profit university sector, this has been more than compensated by increases in online enrolments in the state-funded universities and colleges in the USA. 
Again, given the ‘gig’ economy, the need for lifelong learning, and the increasing proportion of students who are working to keep down the debt resulting from tuition fees of $16,000 a year, the U.K. government’s policies regarding student financial support, and its impact on online learning and lifelong learning, could be considered catastrophic for the future British economy, unless it is quickly reversed.

4. 21st century skills

One other factor that is likely to increase pressure for more online or at least blended learning is the need to develop the skills that students will need in the 21st century, such as independent learning, IT skills embedded within a subject domain, and knowledge management. Online learning is particularly useful in not only helping students directly to develop such skills, but also in providing opportunities for practicing and demonstrating such skills, through, for instance, e-portfolios.

5. The negative impact of open universities on online learning

More controversially, I will argue that where there has been a large and important open university, this has resulted in slower growth in online learning, for two separate reasons.

Most open universities were designed in the 1970s around a heavy, front-ended print development model requiring a very large investment. It is common in such institutions for it to take two years or more to develop a course, with an army of support staff as well as faculty. This was possible with very large numbers of enrolments, through economies of scale.

However, such large industrial-type organizations have found it very difficult to move into online learning, and especially into more rapid, lightweight designs. Even now, there are still large numbers of either print-based courses, or print-based courses merely transferred to online delivery, in many of the open universities. As a result, enrolments are dropping in open universities, while more traditional universities have been able to adopt a more agile and low-cost but still good quality online course design and development model. Indeed, long-established open universities seem to be struggling in all countries where online learning is being developed.

Also, there was evidence from the Canadian survey that where a fully distance institution or open university operated, this seems to have inhibited or slowed down the adoption of distance and hence online courses in the campus-based institutions within the rest of the province. Thus in Alberta, the Universities of Alberta and Calgary have really left distance programs (other than MOOCs) to Athabasca University, whose enrolments have been in decline (partly because they have lost lots of students from Ontario, where online learning has been growing rapidly in Ontario universities and colleges). Similarly in Québec, the province-wide Cégep à Distance been losing enrolments without a corresponding increase in online enrolments from the other Cégeps. Open or distance universities or colleges then tend to have a negative effect on online enrolments in the overall system.

Is more online learning a good thing?

But is this general growth in online learning a good thing? For instance, will this undermine the value of the campus? As someone working in online learning, it is an assumption on my part that in general, if done well, online learning is a good thing and we could do with more of it, mainly because it suits a large number of students, giving them flexibility and easier access, but also because I genuinely believe that it can help develop somewhat better than traditional teaching the knowledge and skills that students will need in the 21st century. However, it does not suit all students or subject disciplines or topics, so it needs to be used selectively.

Furthermore, as with all teaching, it can be done well or it can be done badly. There is no or little evidence to date that online learning is any less costly than campus-based teaching, mainly because with developments spread across a large number of institutions, it is difficult to generate economies of scale. Quality online learning requires good faculty development and adequate technical and pedagogical support, and that costs money.

Nevertheless, online learning in general will probably continue to grow, especially through blended or hybrid learning, mainly for economic reasons, because online learning is a very powerful means to develop the knowledge and skills that our students will need in the future, and because of the greater flexibility and access to learning it provides for students.

Odense is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the writer of fairy tales, such as ‘the Emperor’s Clothes’

Correction: an earlier version of this post attributed the Observatory of Borderless Education quote to David Kernohan. It was actually Richard Garrett whom I was quoting. My apologies to Richard and David.

UK backs away from privatizing higher education – for now

Winnett, R. and Paton, G. (2012) American-backed private universities plan dropped, Daily Telegraph, January 23

Not because the Conservative government thinks it’s a bad idea, but because they already have a full slate of controversial legislation to get through, and their coalition partners won’t support it. See: How Britain is moving to the privatization of higher education for the background on this.

For-profits, student loans, new rules, and how these affect students in the USA, Canada and the UK

For profits are in the news again for several reasons.

The Obama administration has produced new rules that determine whether for-profit institutions will qualify for federal aid in the form of student loans. Schools will maintain access to government-paid tuition if at least 35 percent of its former students are repaying their loans, or the estimated annual loan payment of a typical graduate must not be bigger than 30 percent of his or her discretionary income, or 12 percent of his or her total earnings. (see Nelson, 2011, for full details of the new rules). Forbes magazine reports that the stock values of the major for-profit universities rose 12% on the news, since the final draft of the rules were clearer/simpler and easier to measure (and less severe than originally proposed).

At the same time, Apollo Group (the owners of the University of Phoenix) announced that it has written down the value of BPP, its UK-owned company, which suggests that it is less optimistic about making ‘easy money’ out of the attempt by the UK government to increase competition between UK universities. Nevertheless Apollo is still committed to the long-term future of BPP. Until the UK announces how it intends to ‘regulate’ competition between UK universities, BPP’s future will remain uncertain, but it looks like Apollo is taking a bet on the possibility that things will ‘open up’ for them in Britain. (See also: The calamitous state of higher education in the UK).

Also today, the Presidents of British Columbia’s four research intensive universities called for a reduction on the interest rates for student loans for students in public universities, which at 2.5% above prime, are the highest in Canada, and also with the shortest repayment time. The call is timely, because interest rates in Canada, which have remained very low since the 2008 recession, are predicted to rise from September.

Lastly, also this week, the Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities of Ontario announced that it will move away from funding post-secondary institutions solely by growth or number of FTEs, and will negotiate individually with each institution on its ‘strengths’, such as student satisfaction, employment rates and student mobility, with a special emphasis on excellence in teaching. (How this will be measured and rewarded remains to be determined).


Nelson, L. (2011) Your guide to ‘gainful employment’ Inside Higher Education, June 3

Associated Press (2011) Sector Snap: Higher ed. stocks surging on new rule, Forbes.com, June 2

Baker, S. (2011) New doubts on for-profits in Britain, Times Higher Education Supplement/Inside Higher Education, June 3

Steffenhagen, J. (2011) Student loan interest rates too high, say BC universities, Vancouver Sun, June 2

Bradshaw, J. (2011) Ontario shakes up education funding, Globe and mail, June 2


Underlying each of these moves is a more fundamental question: what is public policy regarding the funding of higher education? How much should students pay? It seems that we are seeing an almost unexplained or certainly less than transparent shift in public policy away from the state funding post-secondary education to a user-pay system. The UK is leading the charge, with the backdoor move to privatization through for-profits and increased tuition fees in public institutions occurring quite rapidly in the USA. Canada is still supporting a state-funded system but is gradually increasing the proportion of cost paid by students through tuition fee increases and could be doing more to reduce the burden of student debt, at least in some provinces such as BC.

On the other side, the Obama rules for for-profits look very moderate. But why would these be restricted to the for-profit sector? Would it not be reasonable to ask the same of our public institutions? Shouldn’t they be ensuring that at least 35% of their students are able to repay their loans after graduation? This still leaves plenty of room for universities to produce scholars with no interest in getting jobs, after all.

I am not against the principle of students paying tuition fees, as long as they are not a major deterrent to poor or disadvantaged students going to university or college. What I would like to see though from our politicians is where they stand on the issue of public funding for universities. Is it both a public and private good (which suggests a mix of state and personal funding)? Once that principle becomes established, then it becomes easier to deal with issues such as student loans, student loan repayments, etc. What is not acceptable is policy by default, or stealth, or even worse, on an inconsistent case-by-case basis, which seems to be the situation in all three countries at the moment, with the possible exception of the UK, where the government’s intention to privatize higher education is quite clear (or, rather,  it became so after the election).

Also, while I support the idea of having some means of measuring ‘output’ or ‘quality’ of our post-secondary institutions, is it not somewhat bizarre that the only regulated measure in the USA is the proportion of people able to repay their student debt? Or perhaps that says it all about what their higher education system has become. Meanwhile, I welcome the move by Ontario’s Minister to look at other factors besides student numbers in funding post-secondary institutions, especially the idea of negotiating individually with each institution on its ‘strengths’. However, the government could well be replaced after a fall provincial election, but if it isn’t, it will be interesting to see how viable the new method will be.

UK public universities become privatized while the banks are state-funded

Photo: Prince Charles and Camilla being attacked in their car

You have probably seen the images of Prince Charles and Camilla’s car being attacked by a mob during protests at the British government’s decision to increase undergraduate tuition fees to $14,000 a year (£9,000). Although not condoning the violence, the students are right to be angry.

What the government has done is to cut all university budgets by 40%. Even with tuition fees at $14,000 a year, some analysts fear that universities will not be able to balance their budgets, especially if they do not reach their target numbers, as seems inevitable with fees at this level. For instance a recent report by the Universities and Colleges Union based on research done by two professors at the University of Strathclyde states that:

‘Universities at risk – the impact of cuts in higher education spending on local economies’, published today by UCU, places 49 of England’s 130 higher education institutions at ‘very high’, ‘high’, or ‘high-medium’ risk of serious impact from the proposals, which could leave them vulnerable to merger or, in the worst-case scenario, closure.’

The British Open University, which will suffer the same level of cuts as the other universities, is in a particularly difficult position. Its charter to offer open access to a university education depends on low income students being able to afford its fees.

Part of its strategy will be the same as many other UK universities – look for business opportunities to bring in more revenues to subsidize the rest of the university. This will be a tough task for several reasons. First of all, it’s always had an aggressive marketing policy to generate revenues, so somewhere it has to find completely new markets for its services and products. Second, it will be competing with 142 other universities all in the same boat, with a similar strategy to find ways to increase revenues. Third, as with the other universities, this will detract many of its core faculty away from their basic duties of teaching and research to support marketing initiatives.

Expect to see the brain drain in Britain increase as the best faculty look to move to other countries where they can concentrate on research and teaching. Also expect to see the heavy marketing of online courses in Canada and elsewhere from British institutions desperate for money and trading on their former glory. (In Canada, these used to be called ‘remittance men’: The ‘Remittance Men’ who came to Canada were second sons, which under British tradition of the time meant that these individuals should expect to inherit nothing from their family’s estate.)

Basically, the Conservative-Lib Dem government has withdrawn the state from the funding of undergraduate education. It has turned the universities into businesses dependent on selling services. The irony of this is that at the same time, Britain effectively nationalized the banking system – so the UK now has subsidized banks and private universities. As Gordon Gecko says in Wall Street, it’s the dream of every stock market since the Pharaoh’s – privatize the profits, nationalize the risk. Because the government had to fork out such huge money to rescue the banks, it now has to cut all public services to pay for it – the same as in Ireland.

In the UK’s case, it is particularly invidious that young people, potential students, who had no responsibility whatsoever for the financial crisis, are directly paying for the incompetence and greed of the financial sector. This is the fuel to spark a violent revolution, and I say this with real trepidation as all my family are living and studying or working (so far) in England.

Photo od students rioting, London 2010