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 (, 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 »

How much time does it take to teach online?

July 23, 2013

I’ve long been fascinated by studies on time factors in online learning. The issues of teacher time are especially relevant given the high cost of teachers, the threat to the profession, MOOCs offering much less teacher-intensive education opportunities and my own online equivalency theory.

This study

Mandernach, B., Hudson, S., & Wise, S. (2013). Where has the time gone? Faculty activities and time commitments in the online classroom. Journal of Educators Online, 10(2).

This study was done with 80 FULL TIME online teachers, teaching 4 online courses during the same semester. This is a much less common administrative format for online teaching in that most online teaching is done either by part time adjuncts or by teachers teaching both online and on campus.

Teaching in any context varies a great deal based on personal teaching style, use of synchronous tools, discipline, level and motivation of learners, support and funding for teachers and a host of other contextual factors. Nonetheless aggregate data is very interesting and helps paint the reality as well as vanquish some myths about online teaching. As expected the data confirmed that teachers did spend slightly more time online than literature reports for oncampus. (Averaging 44 hours/week for the 4 courses). But perhaps of greatest interest is the tasks that made up these 44 hours.

Teacher tasks online Read the rest of this entry »

Two Days, three Museums, two Cathedrals and 576 Kms on the Costa Del Azaharhone

May 28, 2013

This is my first blog post from my 2 month position as a visiting professor at the open University of Catalonia (UOC). UOC is a 100% distance University (like Athabasca U.) but founded not as a correspondence university, but as an online university in 1997.  There is a large open university (UNAD) in Madrid but UOC was founded with a mission to teach in Catalonian (think Quebec) – though to reach the Latin American market they teach in Spanish and of course, some graduate programs in the lingua franca – English.

My tasks at the University are to meet with grad students about their thesis, meet with various faculty about “hot” research topics of the day -notably MOOCs and do presentations at 4 conferences.  UOC has an E-Learn Research Centre which undertakes and champions elearning research, teaches a Masters and a PhD program in E-learning and is responsible for faculty development at the University. I chair the E-learn Centre’s International Advisory Committee which meets annually (next week) to provide assessment and other collegial advice to the Centre and to the University.  The rest of the time, I chat informally with staff – who are very helpful whenever Sue and I get into problems and thanks to the Internet, keep up my duties at Athabasca – time shifted by 8 hours.

Susan has had six or so sessions by telephone with her counseling clients, but getting to SKYPE video conferencing has been a problem to date from home. Speaking of which, the University rented us a great apartment (our first experience of high rise living) on the 20th floor.  As I write I get a terrific view of the boats anchored off the Barcelona harbour, the old Gothic quarter, the mind blowing Gaudi Sagrada Familie and the Tibidabo mountain that broods over the City. Hopefully tomorrow, we get Internet at home – and I can post this blog!

The title of this blog comes from our most recent trip to Valencia. We have twice rented cars and driven first North – Costa Blanca and last weekend south to Valencia. We began last weekend’s adventure, by me forgetting we had the car for Friday evening and arriving on Saturday morning  to pick up the car, but they were all out of GPS systems. But we had the faithful Iphone (more later) so we ventured forth with and the car rental map and my faithful navigator Sue (when she remembers to put on her reading glasses on) guiding the adventure. Read the rest of this entry »

A Publishing Primer for Education Grad students

May 24, 2013

Ask any academic, and they will get into a long discourse about the value of publishing scholarly work, the politics of doing it, the challenges and the outlets.  Although you haven’t asked, I’d like to share my own ideas with particular relevance to publishing work related to distance education.

By way of background, I’ve been in the publish or perish business (as a full time academic) for the past 20 years. During that time I’ve published (solely or in collaboration) over 60 articles and have had my share of rejections as well (ouch!). I also have been the editor of IRRODL for the past 10 years, and so have been involved in the review and production of over 500 articles and many more rejections!

Why Publish?  If tenure or a promotion is at stake, the answer to this question is obvious. If not, publishing allows you the opportunity to share your work on an international scale. You’ve worked long and hard on a project and not only does your work likely warrant celebration and dissemination, the publication begins building your global academic career and increases your social capital, that you can cash in for a whole variety of rewards.  Publication also insures that your work preservers. It is a great treat when you get old (like myself) to revisit some of your earlier work – without having to find a machine that reads 5 ¼ floppy disks! Finally,  a quality review process, will show you how to improve the article and thus directly lead to increased capacity to express yourself in this format. A video addition to this post for an OER course.

Read the rest of this entry »

MOOCs as community??

April 8, 2013

Here at Athabasca University we’ve finally begun serious talk about our approach to MOOCs.

We are working through two models, trying to decipher the pros and cons of each or both. These are:

  1. Run one of more of our own MOOCs, based in whole or part on our current online courses. In order to be a MOOC, the courses should be free and that creates some challenges. Obviously a revenue or substantial service model needs to be developed for sustainability.
  2. Cherry-pick a few MOOCs, offered by others, and after asserting that they are equivalent to an AU course allow and promote students to challenge the course for AU Credit.

Both models offer challenges. Giving credit for work outside our traditional online courses is a scary option as it may lay us open to critique for being not a rigorous school and giving our very transferable credits away too easily.  However, rare  amongst most universities, Athabasca already has an approved Challenge Exam Policy for many of our undergrad courses. This means that may students register and schedule an invigilated exam that covers the course materials. They can buy textbooks if they choose. They get no library, tutor, counselling or other academic support. However,  the number of students going this route has dropped substantially – to less than 1,000 year when we upped the fee to $354.   Many are worried that if we reduced the fee to the $30-60 range that Coursera charges for its “signature track” too many of our regular students would opt for the cheaper option which is about 40% or so less than our regular tuition.  I think the market value for challenge accreditation should be closer to $125 which should easily cover our admin costs. This MOOC for credit option is cheaper, easier and initially of lower service value but it may appeal to a whole new class of learners – Sound Familiar?? These are the characteristics of a classic disruptive technology.  Very scary indeed!!

The second debate  at Athabasca revolves around a MOOC platform. There are a number of options available including recent announcements of the availability as open source of the platform used by EdX and Stanford. But here at Athabasca, we are tending to look at ways to re-purpose our existing platforms. Moodle is an obvious choice and in addition we have quite a substantive elgg social networking platform that could be used. New instances of either of these platforms could work.  I think the choice depends on the nature of the MOOC. If the MOOC is of the so called xMooc variety with a tight predefined curriculum and learning outcomes, lots of teach centric videos, quizzes and threaded discussions, then likely MOODLE is best. However for cMOOCs in which students are encouraged to bring and develop their own personalities, web presences and artifacts using an emergent or connectivist pedagogical design, the ELGG based platform with its capacity for student created blogs, bookmarks, tweets, user generated videos, etc. may be best.

I was interested to read the article with Simon Nelson the director of the Uk’s collaborative MOOC consortria FutureLearn  led by the Open University.
Nelson sees FutureLearn as much more than xMOOC delivery platform, and hopes their platform may develop like a Facebook social network for lifelong learning.  We are trying to do this at Athabasca with our Athabasca Landing project – a boutique network, open to all members of our wider Athabasca community. But we are finding that it is hard to win a critical mass of users and to get buy from our administrative services. Academics and students have many options beyond the mega sites of Facebook and LinkedIn and as always, have limited amounts of time and energy. Perhaps with more MOOCs activity would increase, but then we might have to open our “walled garden, with windows” to any who enrolled in a MOOC – regardless of their intent to learn and contribute.

Anyone who has solved all of these issues, please contact us immediately! :-)


Business Models for Online Education

March 18, 2013

The latest issue of the Online Journal of Distance Education Research has an article that tries to define a “3rd” university model.

Rubin, B. (2013). University Business Models and Online Practices: A Third Way. Online Journal of Distance Education Administration, 16(1).

This 3rd model for online university is not quite like the traditional campus based university that runs online programs either through faculties or an extension department, with a whole lot of faculty control and craft development.  Nor is like the non-researching for -profit university with an industrial model using adjuncts to teach and professionals to develop consistent and arguably high quality education.  Rather, this third model really has a full time faculty and it tries to empower the faculty, but course design and testing is a shared responsibility between “experts” and the faculty. In the article (see figure below) you’ll see two really contentious issues:

  • allowing faculty to specialize (and be rewarded) in one of the three roles in the academy - discovery research, teaching and destination, or service. Most faculty are vehemently oppsed to models that differentiate their jobs and many see it as a means only to increase either workload or accountability driven change.
  • increasing sharing of control with professions such as learning designers, editors, media experts

Read the rest of this entry »

Buddhism and Thailand

January 28, 2013

This month, I enrolled in a 4 week course on Buddhism led by a member of our Unitarian Congregation here in Edmonton. I’ve always been interested in Eastern religions and the opportunity of this course coupled with my first opportunity to visit South East Asia, proved to be a great learning opportunity.

On the first evening of the course we were discussing basic Buddhist concepts including, of course, the Four Noble Truths, the first of which is that all life is suffering. These kind of all inclusive statements always make me suspicious -especially when they don’t align with own experience. In a similar way that I reject the Christian idea that I am an inevitable sinner, (though I do make mistakes) I have trouble conceiving of my life as continuous suffering.  With the caveat that I realize that I am a privileged male, with high status job, in a rich country, I mentioned this confusion  to the class and the course instructor. She wondered if my moments of anger weren’t suffering (but I don’t get  angry that often either) and I later reflected that certainly the degeneration of the body through aging causes suffering as most recently experienced with death of my Mother a few months ago. Nonetheless, I wasn’t sure about the veracity of this first Noble Truth.

The evening after the second class of the seminar, I headed off to Bangkok to deliver the keynote at the Asian Regional Association for Open Courseware and Open Education Conference. The trip went well and I was met at the airport by my ever attentive Thai hosts, and driven to a nice hotel in downtown Bangkok. The next few days were spent touring the quite amazing sites, palaces, historic and modern temples in this capital city and attending the conference. It is a wonderful and privileged way to see the sites, with a local faculty member from the Thai Cyber University Project (my hosts for the whole journey) to guide and translate and a private driver

and the company of colleagues from Japan and the US. My talk went pretty well and the food, conversation and “networking” was great.   My hosts heard that I was interested in hammered dulcimer music and found a shop that sold me traditional Thai Khim, for a very reasonable price. Now, if I can only learn to tune and play it!!

Four days after my arrival in Thailand, we took a 70 minute flight to  Sakon Nahkon, capital of a state in North Eastern Thailand not far from the Laos border. This second conference was for an annual meeting of the computer service directors from all Thai Universities, held at Kasetsart University an Agricultural University. We attended the opening ceremony, wore our VIP badges, but the proceedings were in Thai, so we didn’t add much and spent the afternoon touring the rice, cotton and forestry test plots at the University.

That is when suffering struck!  A small discomfort in my stomach soon turned into a now becoming too familiar acute gastritis attack. The next 48 hours were spent retching and moaning about the suffering in my miserable life.  My hosts were very understanding and I was visited by a pharmacist and a physician and was relived from having to give my second lecture of the trip.

The Lord Buddha, had indeed taught me a lesson about suffering!

I recovered, though still a bit sore, for a two final days of touring, notably to the beautiful temple on the banks of the historic Mekong River. On our final day we visited  Ban Chiang World Heritage site, where evidence of brass and iron tool production from as early as 5500 years ago has been discovered – causing historians to rethink the Euro/African/Chinese centric view of early bronze age tool development.

We visited probably over 10 temples, all of which were very ancient, in very active use, or both. Orange robed monks were much in evidence in both towns and in the rural areas. Buddhism is a part of the day to day to lives of nearly everyone, as evidenced by the shrines in the yards of most houses. The monks, whose daily food is acquired each morning from the people and must be consumed by noon, treat this ‘begging’ as a gift to the people that allows them to earn good karma.

As expected the numbers of poor people, crowded cities, traffic jams and heat (for Canadian in January) were a bit much, but what stands out for me about this trip is my lesson on suffering, and the incredible kindness, constant smile and palms together greetings and gifts of the incredibly generous Thai people.

“Connectivying” your course

December 18, 2012

The article that Jon Dron and I published in IRRODL

Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2011). Three generations of distance education pedagogy. International Review of Research on Distance and Open Learning, 12(3), 80-97.

And the follow up at:

Anderson, T., & Dron, J. (2012). Learning technology through three generations of technology enhanced distance education pedagogy. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 2012/2.  Retrieved from

have gotten generally positive, feedback  and download numbers, I think largely becuase these ideas provide a bit  of a meta theory to describe and understand the different pedgaogical models currently practiced on the Net.  We have a very pragmatic focus in life and research and thus  we conclude the chapter by arguing ”that all three current and future generations of DE pedagogy have an important place in a well-rounded educational experience. ”

Most online courses today are based on cognitive behaviourist pedgaogy (think lots of self-paced training and scalable MOOCs) or on social constructivist paradigms (think LMS, paced course), with a focus on group building in student cohorts of  less than 30 students per section. I outline below various learning activities which can be used to augment/enhance either of these generations, in practical ways, using connectivist ideas.

Two of the defining characteristics of connectivism are that the learning occurs through construction, annotation and maintenance of learning artifacts. A key characteristic of these artifacts is they must be persistent and be open, such that they contribute to knowledge, beyond the temporal or geographical boundaries of the learning group or course.  The second critical element is that students be given opportunity, incentive and support to form networks that may (or may not) persist beyond the course, or with others not in the courses. These two qualities, open artifact persistence and networking opportunity, are for me the primary affordances of connectivist pedagogy.

Connectivying a Cognitive Behaviousist Course

Good CB based courses have clear behavioural outcomes and can and do work well for  individual learners or in groups. In practice, a growing number of such courses have LMS support with options for group work, but these are rarely  used effectively. The web can be used to create a very effective publishing, administrative, marking and assessment tool set, as exemplified in modern LMS. However, artifacts created by students are rarely persistent nor open and networking opportunities are often marginalized if in existence at all. Meeting the requirement for an open and persistent archive creation can be fairly easily done, merely by having students work cooperatively or individually on new or existing artifacts. Some that come to mind are editing Wikipedia articles, creation of pod casts or YouTube type videos, building presentations and content into tools such as VocieThread, curating content or recreating course contents (in groups or individually content on set like tools such as Piinterest or Learnist.  Networking opportunities can be afforded through the creation of these artifacts or as simply as creating compelling asynchronous communication opportunities. I focus on asynchronous, because of the flexibility and capacity to run through multiple sections of a course, but of courses real time web conferencing WITH recording available asynchronously and opportunity for students to annotate and comment on the recording can be used as well. These resources should be left open to at least graduates and future iterations of the course, but they can have additional value if opened and welcoming of professionals or others  interested in the domain of study.

There are obvious privacy and exposure issues to be dealt with when “connectivying a course, so student control of openness is critically important. However, it is equally as egregious to constrict the capacity for students to share openly. What is most  important is the emergent learning that can result from increased network presence and resulting increase in social capital.

Connectivying a Social Constructivist Course

Social Constructivist (SC) pedagogy stresses the collaborative construction and validation of knowledge, so in many ways requires a less vigorous re-make to include connectivist learning activities. The SC courses are based on a group model and have a wealth of tools available within modern LMS to support this model. Indeed Moodle claims to be based on SC theory, but frankly, most of the other LMS systems provide very similar tools and educational paradigms. Making open, accessible and persistent artifacts is relatively easily done, but they must not be hidden behind a firewall or password, where even students in other cohorts are not allowed to view and build upon these artifacts. Once again, using the tools and contexts described above for CB tools can be an effective way to add persistence and openness to artifact construction. Most repositories and web 2.0 tools, allow for licensing of artifacts using any one of the Creative Commons licences (CC-BY – attribution only) being the most open and generally most connectivist friendly – though arguments have been made by Stephen Downes and others about the enhanced value and freedom of (CC-BY NC- SA) Non Commercial, & Share Alike  that restricts commercial use and requires similar open licensing)

Adding a networking capacity requires moving beyond the closed group. The commercial social networks such as Facebook or Linked in and Ning are continuously adding network and group features so as to enhance visitor use of their services, but institutionally hosted systems such as WordPress Buddy,  Drupal, open LMS systems or the ELGG based system that we have developed at Athabasca (https://landing.athabascau,ca) can all be effectively used to support emergent networks. Once again inherent challenges with privacy can arise and again, the only effective solution is to allow students to control permissions, not at the level of generic publication (like all blogs) but at the level of individual post or contribution. However, very liberal and open access is the ‘gold standard” using one of the previously note CC licenses. However, some students may have very legitimate reason for limiting their networked presence and these should be respected and accommodated.

Interaction Equivalency

An avid reader might note that the advice above tends to contradict the 1st theorem of my Interaction Equivalency Theory namely:

Deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student–teacher; student-student; student-content) is at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels, or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience.

This implies that one can still learn without enhanced interaction (that grounds connectivist pedagogy). I still believe this to be true. People can and do learn in a very broad array of models, models, contexts and personal inclinations. However the second theorem posits that:

High levels of more than one of these three modes (os student-student; student-teacher, student-content) will likely provide a more satisfying educational experience, though these experiences may not be as cost or time effective as less interactive learning sequences.

The cost issue, I wrote about when I crafted these ideas in 2003, has been reduced exponentially. Students and can do engage in advanced forms of all three types of interaction, with very low to non existent additional cost to any web based course. Further, continuing research shows the importance of time on task and commitment – often related to motivation. For many, social networking provides the essential glue to a course that enhances completion rates and program persistence. Thus, the efforts for “connectivying” a course may well increase the quality of the course, without grossly inflating the costs or time commitments – of teacher or student. If they do increase the time required, students may be the biggest beneficiaries.


The Net continues to evolve and spin off new tools with new affordances and opens adjacent possibilities for both learners and teachers. As perhaps the most important rationale for connectivying is  for life-long learning capacity and capability.  Connectivying a course empowers, exposes and trains students to be more effective and more literate network citizens. Enhancing such capability allows our students to be more resilient and become as Nassim Taleb (2012) .says – antifragile!

“The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better.