Where is Higher Education’s Digital Dividend?

April 9, 2014

One doesn’t need to devour political or economic analysis, listen to experts or even chat with one’s friends to realize that the Internet has changed the way we produce and consume information and the myriad ways in which we communicate. Blogs, wikis and Facebook walls have granted to each of us –a multimedia printing press with global delivery capacity – at VERY low cost. Similarly we can engage in audio, video or text conversations with politicians, relatives, co-workers or “followers” at VERY low cost.

Given that education works by nurturing interactions and communication among and between teachers, students and content, it would seem logical that the costs of education, like its component interactions would also have drastically reduced in cost. However, this is not the case. Despite the possibility of a digital dividend students, in every country, are being met with heavy increases in the cost of education.

Talking the familiar text book as an example,  American researcher David Wiley compares the cost of renting 75,000 movies  ($9.00 a month  from NetFlicks) or renting  any of 20 million songs from Spotify  ($9.99/month) with the cost of renting a college text book . A single biology text book rents for $12.99 a month from BookRenter.  This cost imbalance is especially vexing in that consumers choose to rent movies or songs, while professors (often in collusion with publisher representatives) choose the textbooks that others (the students) pay for.

Tuition fees are also high and rising. A 2013 report from  the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives shows that since 1990, average tuition and compulsory fees for undergraduates in Canada have risen by 6.2 per cent annually which is three times the rate of inflation. The result of these increases has been graduating classes of students facing many years of student debt repayment. This is money that could and should be spent on building new vocations, families and homes. Obviously there has been no digital dividend paid to students.

Forbes Magazine notes that the causes of these increases are complex but major drivers include increasing demand, ever expanding costs of college marketing and college administration coupled with decreases in government aid.   The entry of for-profit universities –at least in the United States, has certainly increased opportunity, but has done nothing to reduce costs. Rather, many of these colleges have been accused of predatory exploitation of students willing to incur large student loans with little likelihood of graduation.

Thus, the time is right for a “market correction” that exploits the affordances of the Net to create drastically lower cost of quality higher education experience.  The arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) was heralded by the press and many pundits as a game changer, that would revolutionize education. As usual, such forecasts in education almost never meet inflated expectations, however the MOOC did cause educators and governments to seriously look at their education development and delivery models. Most are searching for ways to embrace MOOCs while retaining exclusivity of brand and the credentials they offer to their graduates.  MOOCs with no apparent revenue model, will likely prove to be no more than lost leaders enticing current students and useful for developing brand and exploring new markets for higher education services.

However, they have set the stage for a serious examination of the way that education is delivered, tested and accredited.  In an era where learning is available in multiple formats, from a myriad of potential sources, it makes sense to credential knowledge attained from any source or activity.  It has been easy and convenient for colleges to measure learning by study hours, seat time or numbers of months of study using proscribed methods provided in-house – but this type of knowledge measurement is now out of date and fails to acknowledge, celebrate and exploit any potential digital dividend. Let’s hope both existing and new education providers will emerge that finally allow us to meet our universal right to education at affordable prices for all citizens of this world.

Does teaching presence matter in a MOOC?

March 13, 2014

A recent study of a Coursera MOOC is really interesting in that it implemented a random assignment of student to 2 conditions – one with no teacher interaction with the students and the other with teacher and teacher assistant interaction in forums. The study is

Tomkin, J. H., & Charlevoix, D. (2014). Do professors matter?: using an a/b test to evaluate the impact of instructor involvement on MOOC student outcomes. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning@ scale conference. Retrieved from http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2566245

The study concluded that teacher presence had no significant relation to course completion, most badges awarded, intent to register in subsequent MOOCs or course satisfaction.  This is of course bad news for teacher’s unions and those convinced that a live teacher must be present in order for significant learning to occur. However, the findings is predicted by my Interaction Equivalency Theory in which I argue that if one of the three forms of student interaction (student-student, student-teacher, student content) is at a high level, the other two can be reduced or even eliminated.  Adding additional forms of interaction may increase satisfaction (though it seems not to have done so in this experiment), but it most certainly also increases costs and thus decreases accessibility.

Tomkin and Charlevoix argue “The results of this study broadly support the connected learning model, at least for these motivated, educated participants. The absence of the professor did not impact the activity of the forums – the participants did generate their own knowledge in this arena. It should be stressed that this MOOC was highly structured, so an alternative explanation is that the enhanced machine interactivity that MOOCs provide relative to textbooks, or older styles of distance learning, may be sufficient to stimulate student engagement. ” p. 75

I see this as one the few tangible outcomes of the “digital dividend” that actually results in cost savings to students.  The student-teacher interaction was morphed into student-content interaction through the digital videos. The study shows there was student-student interaction, however in no teacher interaction MOOC, this interaction was both stimulated and supported by the students themselves.

I’m discouraged by the ever increasing costs of higher education and most notably our incapacity to scale higher education to meet needs (and the capacity) of students in developing countries. I believe we have a moral obligation to help all students become proficient life-long learners who are capable of learning with or without active teacher presence – despite the potential impact on our own employment.


Reflection on world’s first Online 3 Minute Thesis Contest

January 29, 2014

Being a huge fan of succinct communications and plain language, I was drawn to the ideas behind the 3 Minute Thesis contests, developed originally (and trademarked??) at the University of Queensland in Australia and now supported international from http://threeminutethesis.org/.  Since their development in 2008 the idea has spread globally with 3 minute thesis contests happening in many countries including Canada.

However, the origional model doesn’t really fit Athabasca University – or other online institutions, as these contests have all taken place on campus and face-to-face. Our students are located mostly in Canada, but we have students enrolled in many locations around the world as well. Thus, last fall I organized a small Online 3 minute Thesis contest using web conferencing for students in our own Master and Doctorate Program at Athabasca.  With that positive experience, I wanted to expand and take advantage of the international scope of the Net, to invite colleagues and students from other online universities to participate (and of course help organize the event).

I recruited colleagues from Open University of Catalonia, Open University United Kingdom and DaVinci University of Mexico.  We established a web site for the event, where we provided links to the rules, details of participation, a WIKI for organizing contestants names and titles of their presentations and provided links from YouTube recordings of other 3MT contests (not online) to serve as models.

Traditionally 3 Minute Thesis contest run at a single university and benefit from a wide variety of interdisciplinary contestants – the English student up against the Physics student. However, we decided to change the format slightly by focusing only on students researching in Education and given the specialized nature of these institutions, this is primarily focused on online learning, educational technology and other issues related to distance education.  We wanted to create possibilities for collaboration and networking among our students, that likely would not have developed in a fully interdisciplinary contest.

How did it go?  Well you might want to check it out yourself by listening to the recording at https://connect.athabascau.ca/p98796822/

Highlights and recommendations: Read the rest of this entry »

My Solstice Epistle – Personal

December 20, 2013

A break from tradition and sending this annual post publicly this year.

Dec. 2013

Dear Friends, Colleagues and Family

Fast away another year has passed and it is time to recollect and share our lives with those we see too little of!  Thus the Annual Christmas/Solstice Epistle below:

The year 2013 began with reflective time as we mourned the passing of my Mother and Grandmother Ethel. In many ways she was “ready to go” but after she died,  I realized I may not have been ready to let her go. In any case, life goes on, but it was a different Christmas and New Years without her.

My first trip of the year  was to do a keynote at a Thailand E-Learning Conference in Bangkok that turned to be somewhat eventful. The weeks before, Sue and I had attended a study on Buddhism at our Unitarian Congregation and learned that the First Noble Truth was that all life is suffering. Being a relatively healthy, happy, overconfident, middle (barely) aged guy, I had to put my hand up and say that I didn’t really think of my life as all suffering. A week later in Northern Thailand I was struck down with an acute gastritis attack and spent 2.5 days in a hotel room watching Thai television and suffering!!

I survived the winter with a bit of skiing, a few good books, a bit of music (I’m picking away at the hammer dulcimer lately) and the usual teaching, marking and grad student advising. Sue continues to work at her two counseling positions. She is a partner in the Community Counseling Centre and sees a diverse set of clients with a host of concerns and issues. Her initial focus on suicide issues has expanded with her practice to include couples, family and individual counseling. She also travels to Leduc once a week for work with Karuni a variety of clients at a counseling service run by a friend.

Solanna has remained in Vancouver and is now working at The BC Centre of Excellence in HIV/Aides research and is a qualitative research working on assessing a variety of strategies for AIDES control and prevention. Her partner Andres, successfully completed a Web Design program at BCIT and has been developing web sites for a variety of clients.  His latest was a 3 month contract to develop a Spanish web site for the World Bank and he is now in Washington DC fulfilling that contract.  Both Solanna and Andres will be home for the holiday so we look forward to hearing of their adventures in the US capital.

Leif continues to pursue his degree in Philosophy and Psychology at Grant McEwen University.  He spent a good summer tree planting in Central BC and then rented a small apartment in an historic apartment building in Rossdale, not far from our home.

Our long term tenant Dwight has moved out to his own apartment after 12 years with us, and we are relieved to say that he seems to be doing OK on his own. So, the Anderson nest is empty and we are enjoying the freedom associated with that and have a spare bedroom.

Our big event from the past year was to accept an offer to be a visiting professor for two months at the Open University of Catalonia in Barcelona Spain. Barcelona is a truly amazing City and we fell in love with the architecture (especially the Sagrada Familia Basilica), the people, the food and the climate. We had our first taste of high-rise living, on the 20th floor of an apartment overlooking the city and the harbour. My work tasks at UOC included giving 5 talks, consulting with a variety of masters, PhD and project teams and leading an evaluation team for their E-Learn Centre. This was our longest time away from Canada and it was a great change and opportunity for both touristing and getting to know our Catalonian colleagues and their families.  Despite our challenges with the Spanish Internet servers, and with lots of help from our Catalonian friends, Sue was also able to maintain contact with 7 of her clients using telephone and Skype.

The summer found us for 10 great days with Susan’s Father at his cabin near Blind River, Ont.  He is well and we connected with Susan’s brothers.  We had a great drive back home across the prairies. However, WARNING don’t get home with 1 Audio CD left (of 10 in the series) in a such a gripping novel, that you can’t now bother to find out the ending.

My summer continued with a week bare-boating a 30 Catalonia sailboat out of Nanimo and except for the Captain (me) running us aground briefly it was a great trip.  Finally, all four of the Anderson Bros and their partners rendezvoused in Canmore for a week of bicycle riding, hikes, hot tubs, laughs and talks. I was relieved to actually try an extended bike trip (well 30 kms. anyways) and find it was fun, and not too taxing. Of course, I didn’t try to pass my younger brothers!

This Fall found us back at work, busy with Westwood Unitarian Church activities (Sue is on the Board and I edit the newsletter). I was also back on the keynote circuit with visits in Mexico, Costa Rica, China, Germany and Spain.

Which brings us back to preparations for the coming festivities.

We hope this Season is special for you and your families and that you find the peace, the quiet and the rest of many warm winter evenings.

All the best!


The Man who Invented Distance Education

November 25, 2013

Although it is true that “success has many parents, while failure is an orphan”, I didn’t really think I would have a chance to meet the very person who first coined the term “distance education”.  The term “distance education” has been in wide-spread use for over 30 years as made official when the International Council for Correspondence Education changed its name to International council for Distance Education in 1982. And for 10 years, I wore the moniker as the Canada Research Chair in Distance Education.

This afternoon  during my visit with Olaf Zawacki-Richter at Oldenburg University, Germany (and accompanied by old friends and DE gurus Ulrich Bernath and Thomas Hulsmann), we took a drive to visit Otto Peters, the Founding Rector (President) of the Fern University in Hagen.  We zoomed down the autobahn – can’t quite get used to no speed limits and soon arrived at Hagan, a former coal mining city in north central Germany. Otto is now 87 years old and graciously invited us to his home where his wife shared  apple cake and we enjoyed a bottle of wine.

After this, Otto insisted on taking us to his favorite Italian restaurant (where the picture below was taken). After an excellent meal, and yes more wine. Otto recounted memories of the the establishment  of the Fern University- Germany’s distance university.

Otto noted that in the sixties German universities were hesitantly ready to reform higher education by establishing some forms of correspondence education. Plans for this purpose were devised by two Government committees which were assisted and coordinated by the Deutsches Institut für Fernstudienforschung at the University of Tübingen. At that time Otto was a member of this Institute. He was charged to present some of these German plans at a conference initiated by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. When preparing the necessary conference papers it was awkward to him to have to translate the German term “Fernstudium” which applies to higher education only and is funded by the state, into “correspondence education” which invokes an association with commercial correspondence schools which quite often were in bad renown because of commercial misuse or even criminal practices. In no way should the new form of teaching at German universities compared with them. What did he do? He simply translated the German “Fernstudien” literally into English and called the new kind of teaching and learning “distance education”.

At that time Professor Norman MacKenzie, who had been a member of the Open University Planning Board, visited this Tübingen institute. Otto took a chance and asked him what he would think about the newly invented term “distance education”. His answer was definite: “This is not English at all – in any way!”  How can you educate distance??  Otto disregarded his expert objection and used the new term consequently in the conference papers. The Council of Europe had invited experts from twelve countries. All of them heard and understood the new term for the first time. And they carried it home in their conference papers. Thus the term became internationally known and was adopted. More and more people used it and finally it became current and even popular.  At the 1982 conference in about Otto’s efforts recommended that the name of the International Council of Correspondence Education (ICCE) should be changed into International the International Council of Distance Education (ICDE). A majority of the participants agreed and voted for this change. In this way the new term was finally adopted universally and even globally used.

Otto Peters and me

Otto Peters and myself enjoying the moment in Hagan, Germany

Now, you may think that a visit to a 87 year old would be a nice and friendly social occasion, but you may not know Otto Peters.  After the usual pleasantries and reminiscences of the one time we had met previously, he pulled out two large cards on which he had written questions about a paper I had written a few years ago and a few more from the video recording of a keynote speech I had presented in Sweden last year. He was not easily put off by glib answers and soon I was thinking about skyping my colleague  George Siemens for reinforcement when the talk turned to Connectivism.

Otto also penned a very nice inscription in the copy of his latest book, published this year - Against the Tide: Critics of Digitalism, which contains Otto’s interpretations of the writings of 20 “warners, sceptics, scaremongers and apocalypticists” concerned with the current rush to all things digital.  I can’t say I agree with all or even most of these critics, but thier ideas are important and need to be taken critically and seriously.

I only  hope that I will be able to think and digest complex ideas as well as Otto, when I am 85! Right now as the Beatles aptly noted “When I’m 64″ seems daunting enough.

Against the Tide  is available for free download.


All MOOCs don’t work for all students. Are you surprised?

November 19, 2013

Both the commercial and the unpaid online blog pundits have been having an armchair quarterback’s field day over MOOC poster boy Sebastin Thrun’s confession that his Udacity MOOC platform doesn’t work.  None of this outcry from the “I told you so” critics is more biting (nor more witty) then the critique by Slate columnist Rebecca Shuman.

Shuman aptly blames Thrun, for blaming the students – they have personal problems, they don’t have access to multiple tablets and they are not Ivy League rich kids – suggesting that the MOOC depends on students who don’t really need them and who can learn under any conditions – as evidenced by their succeeding in crowded lecture halls their whole post secondary career.

But I don’t equate Udacity’s supposed failure with “ordinary” struggling students is evidence for the failure of online learning and Shuman’s contention  that MOOCs can now be dismissed as “neoliberal wet dreams”.  Shuman goes on to claim that distance education (at least in the form of correspondence courses) tells only a sorry tale of failure and that it has “never worked”. She may have trouble convincing the million plus students at the Open University of ChinaAnadola University in Turkey or Indira Gandhi National Open University in India that their education (largely print based ‘correspondence’) doesn’t and has never worked. Truman seems to argue that it is only elite students who can succeed at MOOCs, – discounting the 50+ years of research showing that distance education (including its latest instantiation in online formats) does work for many students- including the second chance, and poverty stricken.  No form of education works for all students -including the ‘tiny, for-credit, in-person seminar”. Doesn’t everyone know of students from campus based schools that have failed to complete their program? Haven’t you ever dropped a course – I certainly have!

But perhaps most appalling is the staggering debt load, the wasted time and energy of both students and teachers and the coddling and cover up of poor teaching that marks much of campus based education today.  That model is as badly broken and just as expensive as MOOCs driverless car ! Read the rest of this entry »

Accreditation – for Learning Accomplishment or for Presence and Persistence?

November 12, 2013

Offering degrees and certificates is the currency of higher education. Degree and certificates are very highly valued by students, parents, employers and postsecondary institutions. Despite occasional challenges to the authenticity of this form of learning recognition, attaining this final parchment is seen by both institutions and students as the culminating and arguably the only important manifestation of accomplishment, after years of study in higher education.  The problem is that learning itself, much less wisdom, is not measured very well by these large scale certificates of generalized accomplishment.

One concern is that the degree as a unit of accreditation is much too large- does a four year BA in economics reflect the same amount of learning as a three year BA in classics? Does a BA obtained at a distance equate to the same learning as a BA delivered on a campus? These are very challenging questions to answer. Institutions are clear to set the number of courses required, the degree of specialization and the minimal grade scores for a degree, but these are, at best, very rough indicators of learning.

Efforts by the Mozilla Foundation to support institutional awarding of much smaller credentials (known as badges) certainly addresses part of the problem. The creation of a badge-full portfolio that details a student’s individual skills and knowledge accomplishments potentially provides a much more articulate and public record of accomplishment than a degree. However, these have (to date) been only sporadically adopted by higher education institutions despite student interest (see Santos, C., Almeida, S., Pedro, L., Aresta, M., & Koch-Grunberg, T. (2013).

The credential crisis has been exacerbated by the arrival of vast numbers of open educational resources (OERs) and more recently by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which provide a host of opportunities for learning- but to date only very limited opportunity for credentialing and public acknowledgement of that learning.  MOOCs and OERs allow learners to participate in learning, either alone or in groups, from teachers and institutions around the globe.  After watching an excellent Ted Talk, brushing up on your statistics skills by reviewing a Khan Academy video or enrolling in a 10 week MOOC, there is little doubt that learning can occur. But measuring and accrediting that learning is today, all but impossible. A few pioneering institutions are developing “challenge for credit” or credentialing examinations, but for most institutions this alternate (and potentially competitive) form of accreditation strikes too near to the heart of the current business model for comfortable adoption.

The OERu (http://wikieducator.org/OER_university/), a non profit collaboration of over 35 public universities, colleges and networks from around the globe is attempting to develop a better or at least an alternative model for teaching and credentialing.  Each of the collaborating partners commits to providing a small number of courses, for free and independent study on the open net. Students are free to select and study any of these courses and if they choose to do so, they may apply to the delivering institution to write an examination or to do other work demonstrating accomplishment and in return they receive full course credit for that accomplishment. The content is available free of charge and efforts are made to allow for and encourage students to work cooperatively to locate and help each learn.  The credential process requires examiner time and institutional effort to assess and to register this learning- thus the OERu partners can charge whatever fee for this service that they require. To date, the Open University of Catalonia is the only Spanish institution to join the OERu.

It is yet too early to measure how well this free learning opportunity, but paid for accreditation will be accepted- by students and employers and likely the most challenging, by postsecondary institutions themselves. But it is clear that we need credentials that are meaningful, that reflect real learning accomplishments, and that can be obtained at affordable cost by all students and life-long learners on our globe.

My participation in Online Instruction for Open Educators MOOC

October 27, 2013

Jenni Hayman (a friend and grad student here at Athabasca University) called a few months ago to talk about setting up a Canadian MOOC provider/supplier Wide World Ed. She is very enthusiastic, well meaning and anxious to test and develop a sustaining MOOC model (no easy task). She choose for her first MOOC the theme online education and Online Instruction For Open Educators has  attracted a global audience of  around 500 registrants. From the introductions, I see that these are mostly learning designers and teachers with wide levels of experience in online learning.

I wasn’t too surprised to get an email from Jenni, requesting that I join her in teaching this first MOOC along with Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier. We would each be responsible for one week of activities during the 6 week MOOC. I decided to focus this week 2 discussion on online learning theory, and just a bit self consciously, assigned 3 of my own papers for content.  We decided to “book end” the week with an opening and closing web conference, as a way to pace the MOOC.  One of the benefits of this MOOC for myself (and maybe the other participants) was to get a chance to see Desire2Learn’s (D2L) new MOOC development and delivery tool.   D2L offers a cut down version of their popular commercial LMS and it seemed to work quite well.  The system does write and read twitter theme with the  #WWEOpen13 tag, but it many ways the tool set and the way that I used during my week, was more site based, with usual asynch threaded discussions, real time web conferences, that were recorded and made available in the MOOC platform and a place for sharing links and resources. Thus I think one could classify the MOOC as an xMOOC, but the smaller size, meant that I could keep on top of the discussions. At least in my week, there was no assigned activities, beyond the readings and discussions.

So Jenni suggested the final web conference should be at 2:00 PM MDT on Saturday.  Saturday dawned, I prepared a few powerpoint slides to use as prompts and I was ready to go. And then….. My good wife decided the 1995 Volvo we are selling really needed to be cleaned and while I was at it why didn’t I clean up my messy garage. Well, the next thing I new it was 3:15 – completely missed my own session!

I’ve been reflecting on this failure to attend for the last 24 hours.  This is my first missed session in 30 years of teaching in classrooms and online. It isn’t just the synchronous, as I’ve used web conferences in my classes  for a number of years.  It might be related to it being scheduled for on a Saturday afternoon, as it has been years since I have scheduled Saturday classes.  And yes, my garage was a long time unswept and I did have to show off the Volvo to a prospective purchaser (he didn’t buy it :-(.  But, I also wonder if it doesn’t reflect that I was doing this task as a volunteer.  I don’t like to think that I’m driven only or even mostly by money, but….

In any case my apologies to Jenni and the class. I will be participating in the final week of the MOOC and of course new registrants are still welcomed to enrol

Online 3 Minute Thesis Contest at Athabasca

September 30, 2013

I’m intrigued by this “speed dating” approach for disseminating and promoting thesis research. A thesis is a LOT of work, and results are usually buried in 150+ page tomes – thus the need for new scholars to be able to present their work succinctly and efficiently.  The 3 minute thesis (originally developed at University of Queensland Australia) seemed like an ideal format for developing communications skills and confidence and be fun for both contestants and the audience.  Other 3 minute thesis contests have been held F2F, however, Athabasca graduate students are located around the globe (literally) and so we needed to use a distributed platform to host the event. Of course, the organization of the event also had to be easy and inexpensive so as to fit into my busy schedule and budget as well.

In this post I detail how this, to my knowledge, world’s first online 3 minute thesis contest worked, with a hope that it inspires similar contests. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Online Learning Cheaper?

July 31, 2013

My friend Tom Carey and David Trick have complied an excellent summary report on costs and benefits of online education, with context and recommendations for the Ontario public higher education system in mind.

The report was described by Tom as  ” 1/3 research report, 1/3 a teachable moment for faculty and academic leaders, and 1/3 a call to collective action”  I think it strikes near the bull’s eye on all three targets.

The report: Carey, T., & Trick, D. (2013). How Online Learning Affects Productivity, Cost and Quality in Higher Education: An Environmental Scan and Review of the Literature. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.  http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/How_Online_Learning_Affects_Productivity-ENG.pdf 

Covers the recent reviews and meta analysis on both costs and effectiveness of online teaching and online assessment. As expected, it continued the persistent whine for more empirical data.  We really don’t have even a fraction of the research funding enjoyed by medical and drug communities and thus educational studies are too limited, too few and often flawed.  But nonetheless the data continues to show the “no significant difference” results overall. The report  highlights that online learning does not work equally well with all types of content and learners (what mode does?) and notes that it is especially useful for highly motivated students. Those with educational disadvantages and heavy extra time and family commitments may well do better in teacher paced and supported F2F contexts.

The study concludes with wide ranging recommendations. These take aim at the high costs of independent universities each making their own competitive decisions, and no economy of scale beyond the institutions domain. In part this is due to government policy to pay for instruction, thus a disincentive to grant equivalent credit for course credits obtained at other schools. One solution proposed in the report is to gain some centralized economy of scale by producing a number of high quality courses that will be accepted for credit at all Ontario universities. This makes sense, but likely not welcomed initiative by independent minded College presidents nor faculty associations.

Time will tell, if this remains yet another, in the long list of recommendations for using technological innovations as catalyst to necessary system reform in Canada. I hope this one makes the difference