September 20, 2018

Our responsibility in protecting institutional, student and personal data in online learning

Image: © Tony Bates, 2018

WCET (2018) Data Protection and Privacy Boulder CO: WCET

United States Attorney’s Office (2018) Nine Iranians Charged With Conducting Massive Cyber Theft Campaign On Behalf Of The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps New York: U.S. Department of Justice

With the recent publicity about unauthorised use of personal data on Facebook to manipulate elections in the USA and the U.K., and the above report about Iranians hacking universities for research results and intellectual property, everyone now has to take as much responsibility as possible for making sure personal data is secure and used only for authorised purposes.

This is particularly true for those of us working in online learning, where most of our interaction with students is online. Most institutions using learning management systems provide a secure area for student-instructor interactions – security is one reason why universities and colleges pay big bucks for IT systems, and making sure our student data and interactions are kept secure is a major reason for using a learning management system.

However, there are increasing reasons for working outside secure LMSs. Faculty and students now have blogs and wikis that are more open, although most require a password to allow for content to be added or comments to be made. ‘Good’ institutions ensure that student and faculty blogs and wikis are also protected from hacking. For instance, the University of British Columbia offers web and wiki facilities free of charge for all students and faculty and provides the security to support this. This blog is hosted by Contact North, which provides stronger security than I could as an individual or through an affordable commercial agency.

The problem comes when instructors and students start using unrestricted social media tools for instructional purposes. This all becomes ‘product’ for the social media companies and their advertisers (and very valuable product, given that university and college students are more likely to be high income earners after graduation.)

I was an early adopter of Facebook, back in 2005, but within 12 months I became inactive. It was not a company I felt I could trust, even back in 2005. I have good news for Facebook addicts who are wanting to get off of Facebook – life even within the online world is perfectly manageable, enjoyable and effective without Facebook. I do still keep in touch with my family and friends perfectly well and my professional life has if anything improved without Facebook.

Here I admit to being conflicted as I am still a heavy user of Google Search (although I prefer to use Firefox rather than Chrome). I was influenced by the Google corporate policy of ‘Do No Evil’ in its early days. Now Google Search is just one part of the umbrella company Alphabet, whose corporate motto is currently ‘Do the right thing’ – but for whom? It comes down more to pragmatics than ethics in the end. I can manage quite happily and easily without Facebook – I can’t without Google Search. 

This points to the problem we have as individuals in a digital society. Our power to control the use of our personal data is quite limited. We are now at the point where government regulation becomes unfortunately a necessity. (I say unfortunately because this is likely to limit to some extent innovation and change, but then so do the semi-monopolies of Amazon, Alphabet, Apple and Facebook, at least limiting change outside their systems). 

In the meantime, WCET has come to our rescue with a very useful site which really contains all you need to know about privacy and security. As their site says:

This is not just an IT problem! A breach could occur from an unintentional action by non-technical staff or student that could expose personal or institutional data to criminals and place the institution at risk by merely using weak passwords, connecting to dangerous networks, or opening suspicious emails. All members of an academic community must be trained with data protection best practices to preserve the security of the institution.

The WCET site contains links to the following:

  • their Frontiers blog posts on privacy and security issues
  • links to relevant recorded webcasts
  • links to a number of tools and reports on improving/protecting cybersecurity.

Essential reading for us all.

Now forgive me while I go and change all my passwords. 

Dispelling some myths about distance education in the USA

Source: WCET, via IPEDS

Taylor-Straut, T. (2018) Distance Education Enrollment Growth – Major Differences Persist Among Sectors Boulder CO: WCET, 1 March

This is another valuable analysis by the WCET of the 2016 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data that reports distance education course enrollments in the USA. This is the fourth year that IPEDS have been collecting such data, and Terri Taylor-Straut looks at some of the trends in both overall enrollment and distance education enrollment in the USA over that period.

Myth no. 1: most DE in the USA is from the for-profit universities

There are various ways to calculate this, but enrollments in for-profits such as University of Phoenix, Laureate, Kaplan, etc., constitute about 13% of all post-secondary distance education enrollments. Most students taking distance education courses in the USA take them from public institutions (70%). In fact more students take DE courses from not-for-profit private universities than from for-profits (18%). That is a change from 2012, when the for-profits had about 20% of all DE enrollments, compared with about 16% for the not-for profits.

Myth no. 2: The U.S. HE system is continuing to grow

Overall enrollments are down by 4% from 2012 to 2016. Enrollments in the public universities are down 2% over the same period. However, overall enrollments for the for-profits are down by 34%. Enrollments in the private, not-for-profits were up 2%.

Myth no. 3: DE enrollments have reached their peak

While overall enrollments are slightly down over the four years, DE enrollments increased by 17% overall, despite a drop of 22% in enrollments in the for-profits. What is really interesting is that the private not-for-profits DE enrollments were up nearly 50% over the same period. DE enrollments in the public sector increased by 20%.

Myth no. 4: Higher education in the USA is largely private

As the report concludes:

public institutions continue to educate the vast majority of students, both on campus and by distance education courses.

See chart at the head of this post for the evidence.

Comment

WCET has no intention to place value judgments on the different sectors or the results from IPEDS. I however have no such compunction (long live the border).

I draw two conclusions from these data:

  • publicly funded higher education is still the main driver of higher education in the U.S. Any attempt to weaken it by funding cuts at the state level, or by reducing student financial aid at the federal level, will have a disproportionately large negative effect on US higher education overall;
  • distance education, or probably more accurately, fully online learning, no longer is tainted with the stain of lower quality but is now increasingly accepted as a valuable addition to higher education offerings, even, or especially, by the more prestigious private, not-for-profit universities.

I will be interested in your comments (especially from across the border!)

Further reading

T. Bates (2018) Is distance education stealing on-campus students? Online learning and distance education resources, 1 February

Is distance education stealing on-campus students?

On campus – or online?

Poulin, R. (2018) Distance Ed Growth – Access is a Big Motivator, but it’s Complicated, WCET Frontiers, February 1

This post is essential reading for university and college administrators. It combines the latest U.S. Department of Education data on distance and overall enrolments with a specific survey asking institutions why online and distance education is growing so rapidly when overall enrolments in the USA are static. It therefore raises some fundamental policy issues for institutions.

For Canadian readers, while there are significant differences between the two systems, I think the findings here will be equally true for Canada, since I will show in this post that we have a similar situation with even greater expansion of online learning while overall enrolments have been largely static over the last couple of years.

Enrolments trends

USA

Phil Hill of eLiterate did an analysis of the data recently released by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. Russ Poulin of WCET summarised this in his blog post in the table below:

Table 1: Growth in DE and overall enrolments in US Higher Education: 2012-2016

Source: Poulin, 2018, from Hill, P. and NCES

It can be seen that the number and percentage of ALL students enrolled in higher education is slightly down, but the number of students taking all courses at a distance has grown by 30.1%.

Canada

We can see a similar trend in Canada. The graph below is from Alex Usher’s One Thought blog, which in turn is derived from Statistics Canada.

Figure 1: Total enrolments by Institution Type, Canada, 2006-07 to 2015-16

Source: Usher, A. (2018) Student Numbers, One Thought to Start Your Day, January 9

It can be seen that overall enrolments in universities have been almost flat over the last four years and have declined slightly in colleges over the last two years.

On the other hand, our national survey of online and distance education in Canadian post-secondary education found that over the period 2011-2015, online college enrolments outside Québec increased by 15% per annum (60% 0verall), and for all universities (including Québec) increased by 14% per annum (56% overall). The situation in the Quebec colleges (CEGEPs) was more complicated with an overall decline of 5% in online enrolments over the same period.

Are online enrolments eating the campus lunch?

Russ Poulin at WCET was gnawing away at two questions that these data raised in his mind:

  • what is driving the expansion of online/distance education when overall enrolments are flat? Access, more money, other reasons?
  • are online enrolments being achieved at the expense of campus-based classes?

So, as any good researcher would, he sent out a questionnaire to WCET member institutions and received 192 responses, including a very interesting set of open ended comments. His blog post summarises the responses and I recommend you read it in full, but the following chart gets to the essence:

Figure 2: Reasons for the growth in Distance Education

Source: Poulin, R. (2018)

What does it mean?

Here are my key takeaways:

  • it’s complex: there are several reasons for the growth of online learning: increasing access and/or greater student convenience are not mutually exclusive to increasing revenues, for instance;
  • only 19% believed the move to online learning is primarily about increasing revenues;
  • just under half said it does not affect campus-based enrolments; these are students who would not have come to campus
  • nearly two thirds reported that distance education (probably meaning online learning, the distinction was not made in the survey) is leading to more blended/hybrid options, i.e. it is beginning to impact on classroom teaching, a similar finding to ours in the national survey.

The primary reason for ‘flat’ or declining overall enrolments is demographic. There are fewer 18 year olds than 10 years ago in both countries (and if the Dreamers in the USA are kicked out, that number will go down even more). However, both international and online students, many of them older and in the work force, have helped to compensate for this demographic loss, although recently international on-campus student enrolments have decreased in the USA and accelerated in Canada, making the growth of online learning even more important for the USA institutions.

Faculty and instructors should welcome this surge in online learning, because without it, many would have lost their jobs.

Lastly, online learning is now impacting classroom teaching. This means that institutions need policies, strategies and probably some funding reallocation to support the move to blended/hybrid learning, and faculty development and training in digital learning will become even more essential. Institutions that do not move in this direction run the risk of losing enrolments and with it funding.

Isn’t it nice to see policy issues being driven by data rather than opinions? Well done, Russ and WCET.

Latest data on USA distance education enrolments

An extract from the Digital Learning Compass infographic available from here

Digital Learning Compass (2017) Distance Education Enrolment Report 2017 Wellesley MA

A new partnership for the analysis of distance education data in the USA

First, a little background. Most of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the reports from the Babson Survey Research Group (BSRG) on the state of online learning in the USA. When the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Survey (IPEDS) began collecting data on distance learning enrolments in the Fall of 2012, BSRG stopped collecting its own data then formed a partnership with e-Literate and WCET to create Digital Learning Compass with the following goal:

To be the definitive source of information on the patterns and trends of U.S. postsecondary distance learning.

The Distance Education Enrolment Report 2017 is Digital Learning Compass’s analysis of the data collected by IPEDS for the fall of 2015.

Main results

In brief, in the USA in 2015:

  • distance education enrolments increased by almost 4% 
  • almost 30% of all post-secondary students in the USA are taking at least one DE course
  • 14% of all students are taking only DE courses
  • 83% of DE enrolments are in undergraduate courses
  • just over two-thirds of DE enrolments are in public universities or colleges
  • although there has been increased growth in DE enrolments for public and for non-profit private universities, DE enrolments in for-profit institutions declined in 2015 for the third year in a row, driven by substantial decreases in just a few of the for-profit institutions
  • almost half of all DE enrolments are concentrated in less than 5% of all institutions, with the top 47 institutions accounting for almost a third of all DE students
  • the following institutions saw the greatest year-on-year growth in DE enrolments:
    • University of Southern New Hampshire (from 11,286 to 56,371 in one year)
    • Western Governors University,
    • Brigham Young University-Idaho,
    • University of Central Florida,
    • Grand Canyon University
  • the number of students studying on a campus has dropped by almost one million (931,317) between 2012 and 2015.

More detailed analysis can be found from:

Comment

First a declaration of interest: I am working closely with both Jeff Seaman of Babson and Russ Poulin of WCET on the Canadian national survey of online and distance education in Canada.

Despite a small drop in overall enrolments in the USA in 2015, DE enrolments continued to grow, although in the three years from 2012 to 2015 the pace of growth has slowed. The main change was in the for-profit sector, probably affected by federal pressure on the use of student loans and congressional pressure for greater regulation of for-profit institutions under the Obama administration.

Indeed there has been a considerable shake-up in the for-profit sector in the USA, the purchase of Kaplan by Purdue, a state-funded university, being the latest example. It will be interesting to watch what happens to the for-profit DE enrolments under the more liberal regulatory environment being brought in by the Trump administration. Will they rebound? 

However perhaps the most shocking result is the drop in campus-based enrolments of almost one million, no doubt due to the increased cost of attending college in the USA – or is this in fact due to the impact of six million enrolments in distance education courses?

Once again, here in Canada we are peering over the wall at our much larger and richer neighbours, wondering what’s going on, but at least it is now a well lit property thanks to these reports.

 

What counts when you cost online learning?

Poulin, R. and Straut, T. (2017) Distance Education Price and Cost Report Boulder CO: WCET

This highly controversial report has generated considerable discussion in WCET’s own Forum, and has received a good deal of media coverage. When you read the report you will see why.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the finding that respondents to the survey on which this report is based were by and large of the opinion that distance education costs more than classroom teaching. But you need to read the report more carefully to understand why respondents responded in this way. It all comes down to how you cost distance education or online learning. In particular, you need to understand the context of the report. 

As always, you should read the report itself, not my summary, especially if you disagree with what’s in my summary.

The context

The context for this report is very political and very American (by which I mean USAnian, i.e. applying specifically to the USA). The report is more about price – what institutions charge students – than it is about cost.

The cost of tuition (the fees students or their parents pay to the institution) continues to increase in the USA way beyond the rate of inflation, and many institutions not only charge the same tuition rates for online or distance education courses, but also add additional fees. In other words, many American institutions increase the price for an online or distance course compared to its face-to-face equivalent.

However, the political perception, especially in state legislatures, is that distance education is cheaper than on-campus teaching, so some states (e.g. Wisconsin and Florida) have introduced legislation or initiatives to reduce the price of online learning courses below that of face-to-face programs.

As the authors note:

Historically, distance education’s mission has been to overcome the barriers of place or time. The mission was not to control costs. In fact, to reach some locations is costly. Distance education should not be held accountable to a mission it was never given.

distance education professionals are caught in a higher education economics ethos that shuns open examination of price and cost…and are expected to answer to a “controlling cost” mission that was not given them in the first place.

It is within this context that WCET decided to do the study in order to challenge some of the assumptions about the price and cost of distance education.

Methodology

As always, you need to know the methodology in order to interpret the results. The report indeed is very transparent about its methodology, which is not tucked away in an appendix or not discussed at all (which seems to be a practice that is increasing in many so-called ‘studies’ these days), but is front and centre in the report.

Definitions

The authors provide the following definition:

  • Price – This is the amount of money that is charged to a student for instruction. The components are tuition and fees. In the questions, we will be clear as to which “price” component (tuition, fees, or total price) is being queried. 
  • Cost – This is the amount of money that is spent by the institution to create, offer, and support instruction. 
  • Distance Education – When thinking of “distance education,” we favor the Babson Survey Research Group definition of 80% or more of the course being taught at a distance.

Sample

WCET surveyed mainly its own members and members of other distance education consortia. Overall, 197 responded.

We had hoped for more participation in the survey. It is important to note that the responses provided represent only the institutional representatives who answered the survey questions. Even though we provide comparisons between the responding population and the overall higher education population, we do not assert that the results may be generalized to the universe of all institutions of higher education in the U.S. and Canada that offer distance education courses.

What can be said is that the response came mainly from distance education and educational technology professionals, rather than faculty or senior administrators, mainly in public HE institutions.

Main results

I will deal with these very briefly, although the detailed findings are more nuanced.

  1. The price of DE is generally higher than for face-to-face teaching. More than half (54%) of the respondents reported that their institution charged more for distance education courses than for on-campus courses.
  2. A majority of respondents believed that the cost of DE was higher than for face-to-face teaching on certain defined components (e.g. faculty development, technologies, instructional design, assessments, state authorization – a long and complex process of ‘accrediting’ DE courses unique to the USA).
  3. ‘Experts’ in the costs of DE tended to disagree that costs of DE are necessarily higher
  4. The experts also noted that cost discussions are often avoided by higher education leadership and that more could be done to control costs, not just in distance education.

The reports main conclusions

The conclusions were split into recommendations for legislators and institutions:

For legislators

  • focus questions on future costs and in particular the likely impact of investing in buildings vs distance education in terms of the impact of the cost to students
  • provide more incentives for institutions to reduce the price to students
  • don’t be prescriptive but help institutions develop a vision for state higher education that is realistic and shared

For institutions

  • pay as much attention to the cost to students as to the cost to the institution of various delivery methods
  • be more open about costs and track them for all modes of delivery
  • changing the cost structure requires structural changes in how we design and deliver programs; this requires leadership from the senior administration.

My comments on the report

The report is right to draw attention to the creeping costs to students (e.g. price) resulting from institutional policies in the USA. What is also apparent is that there is a large disconnect between institutions and government about the cost of distance education. Many educators believe that DE is more expensive; government thinks it should be cheaper. Somewhere in the middle is a discussion about quality: does cheaper mean worse?

Cherry-picking costs

Unfortunately, though, for methodological reasons, I fear the report has confused rather than clarified the discussion about costs and price. In particular, by focusing on components that are specific to distance education, such as faculty support, the use of technologies, and the cost of state authorization of DE, the report has clearly given the impression that most educators believe that distance education is more expensive. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

It is unfortunate that the report has given this impression because you cannot just look at the costs of specific components of distance education without looking also at specific components of face-to-face teaching that are not represented in the costs of distance education, in particular the very substantial ‘sunk’ costs of buildings, parking, etc. There are better ways of measuring the costs of distance education and online programs – see Chapter 7 in Bates and Sangra (2011).

Making DE cost-effective

While we can develop cost-effective fully online programs, this normally depends on generating new revenues from new students. Offering online courses as an alternative to already existing students on campus, while increasing access and student flexibility, is much more financially risky.

Again, this can be managed cost-effectively, but it depends on having enough students taking both on-campus and online versions of the course, and the use of additional adjunct professors for online courses with more than 30 students. Bringing in new students who you wouldn’t get without the courses being online is the best bet to ensure economic viability. ‘Diluting’ your on-campus students by offering the same course online will add costs unless the numbers can justify it.

What about the costs of blended learning?

One last point. I think we are going to have a period of considerable cost turmoil as we move to blended learning, because this really does add costs unless there are dramatic redesigns, especially of the large first and second year classes. Carol Twigg of the National Centre for Academic Transformation for many years has been able to bring down costs – or more often increase effectiveness for the same cost – for these large lecture classes by using blended learning designs (although there are some criticisms of her costing methodology).

By and large though, while fully online courses can maybe increase enrolments by 10-15% and therefore help pay their way, we will have major cost or academic time problems if we move to nearly all courses being blended, without increased training for faculty, so they can manage without the same level of support provided by instructional designers, etc. that are normally provided for fully online courses (see ‘Are we ready for blended learning?‘).

Moving forward 

I’m glad then that WCET has produced a report that focuses not only on the costs of distance education to institution but also on pricing policies. There is in my view no economic justification for charging more for an online course than a face-to-face course as a matter of principle. You need to do the sums and institutions are very bad at doing this in a way that tracks the cost of activities rather than throwing everything into one bucket then leaking it out at historical rates to different departments.

Institutions need to develop more rigorous methods for tracking the costs of different modes of delivery while also building in a measure of the benefits as well. If the report at least moves institutions towards this, it will have been well worth it.