Another research article on audio feedback

I’m a big fan of using audio feedback for marking of papers and proposals with my Education grad students.  I use Adobe Acrobat to embed usually short audio comments (maybe 20-40 per paper) and a summary comment. I do it because it saves me time and generally my students report really liking it. It allows me to project more positive “teaching presence” and I think I am much better able to express complicated as well as short mechanical issues – QUICKLY!  Too may educational technology based innovations or more general educational innovations  actually cost teachers’ time -even after an almost inevitable time lost surmounting a sometimes steep learning curve.

Thus, I was pleased to see:

Cavanaugh, A., & Song, L. (2014). Audio Feedback versus Written Feedback: Instructors’ and Students’ Perspectives Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2).

This small scale study looked at postsecondary English teachers using audio (I think monologues using MP3) and not embedded (and IMHO much better Adobe Connect annotations).  One teacher reported taking MORE time- but only because she wrote the comments by hand and then read them into the recorder (sigh…).  Generally students liked the feedback assessed by interviews and a short survey.

This study helps us uncover the different (likely discipline centric) ways in which essays are marked. Teachers reported using and liking the audio for general, global comments, but text feedback for small mechanical issues that are common in English assessment (noting or correcting grammar issues as example).  There are likely other differences amongst style of teaching, learning and assessment across disciplines and perhaps across different educational level and ages.

The article has no earth shattering surprises, but does confirm my earlier thoughts on audio feedback- so I like it.  It also has one of the most extensive lit reviews (for a short paper) that does a good job of reviewing our last decade of use of audio feedback.

The biggest question though, is if audio is faster, is preferred by students and teachers, is very cheap to implement- why aren’t all teachers using.



Greewich Connect connects with us on a number of levels

I was pleasantly surprised to see a recent conference paper (reference below) by folks at the University of Greenwich who are reporting their first year results from a project (Greenwich Connect) that is designed to induce a variety of open and social programs to the university teaching and learning communities.  The surprise was pleasant because we have been attempting a similar project here at Athabasca University- known as the Athabasca Landing. However, it was unpleasant to read that the challenges they are facing are very similar to our own and some days they seem intractable.

The contrast between contexts is as striking as the similarities in challenges. Greenwich is a 2-campus University in the UK, while Athabasca is a 100% online and distance education institution in Canada. However we both share a passion “to enhance the connectedness of learners at a curricula and teaching and learning level” .

Greenwich Connect is a 2 year, $750,000 initiative funded and championed by their Vice Chancellor (President). (see project description) Continue reading

Where is Higher Education’s Digital Dividend?

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. Continue reading

Does teaching presence matter in a MOOC?

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

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

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  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

Highlights and recommendations: Continue reading

The Man who Invented Distance Education

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?

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 ! Continue reading

Accreditation – for Learning Accomplishment or for Presence and Persistence?

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 (, 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.