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.


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 »

MOOCs and Distance Education Institutions

June 24, 2013

A few months ago I was asked to do a short piece for the Commonwealth of Learning on MOOCs. It is posted on their web site, but I thought I would post it here as well, with some small updates.

Promise and/or Peril:  MOOCs and Open and Distance Education

Terry Anderson

Athabasca University

March 2013

The New York Times declared 2012 to be the year of the MOOC (Pappano, 2012) and certainly 2013 is becoming the year to talk about MOOCs! Questions related to the design and inherent pedagogies, registration numbers, persistence rates, revenue models, neo-liberal agenda, fears and aspirations of all of us in postsecondary education have been ignited by this combination of technology and pedagogy. MOOCs are rapidly becoming the type of disruptive technology described by Christensen (1997) as cheaper, smaller, initially less fully featured and attracting a new set of consumers into an existing market.

Much has been written and much more will by the time you are reading this article, from when I write it in March 2013 – the MOOC terrain is under very rapid development. John Daniel (2012) article, does a good job of defining and describing MOOCs and clearly notes the different models and pedagogy (xMOOCs, cMOOCs) that differentiate pedagogies, practices and profits involved in today’s MOOC offerings. In this article, I attempt to update our map of the terrain and provide a lens through my 2003 Interaction Equivalency Theorem (Anderson, 2003) to help us understand and explain this latest development and/or fad in higher education.

I begin with a short description of the characteristic of the four words included in the MOOC acronym and try to show how each contributes to the complexity of this education phenomena. 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 »

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).  http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring161/rubin.html.

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 »

MOOC pedagogy and accreditation

November 13, 2012

Most of the cacophony of comments and posts about MOOCs and their disruptive potential has focused on their free cost to students, high enrolments, superstar teachers and high prestige Universities.

Relatively little has been published, much less researched, about MOOC pedagogy. A thoughtful article by C. Osvaldo Rodriguez in EURODL mapped the evolution of the so called cMOOCs to connectivist generation of pedagogy that Jon Dron and I wrote about in IRRODL.  Conversely, given the focus on measurable outcomes and dissemination of content, it isn’t too much a leap to suggest (as Rodriguez’s does) that most of the big name xMOOCs are following the mass education model pioneered by open and distance education institution which we referred to as first generation, cognitive behaviourist pedagogy.

But putting labels on delivery models, doesn’t really lead us forward, unless we are also brave enough to venture into issues of effectiveness. However ontological differences between the models make comparisons based on effectiveness challenging. It is easy for traditional and constructivist pedagogues to jump to arguments about educational effectiveness that have at their root, notions of intense interaction with teachers or at least with peers. Of course with 100,000 students one has to change normal definitions of “intense interaction” to even begin to argue about effectiveness from a social-constructivist perspective.  Thus, most social constructivists focus on the opportunities for peer interaction and point to the emergence of meet-ups and online study groups as spontaneous evidence of MOOC effectiveness. I see these as a capacity, but in my experience of adding or even encouraging optional opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction, it doesn’t lead to much take-up  (beyond those exchanging telephone numbers with potential romantic partners).  However, with 100,000 students even a take up of a few percent is not insignificant and may be life-changing for some learners. Read the rest of this entry »

on edited book chapters

September 24, 2012

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had occasion to think about authoring and editing contributions to edited books. In this post, I’ll releate these incidents and then try to draw some conclusions.

1. Olaf Zawkler Richter and I have been working for the past 16 months on an edited book tentatively titled Towards a Research Agenda in Online Education. The chapter topics were chosen through a  systematic examination of the top issues in the distance education literature during the past decade. We then contacted the “grandest guru” in each of these research topics and asked them to write a chapter summarizing the issues and outlining a research agenda in that area. Of course, they weren’t all willing to do so- no coincidence that the most accomplished people are also the busiest!. But we were very pleased with the list of authors who agreed to author a chapter for us. Of course they didn’t all come in on the due date, but we  were pleased with the results. Olaf and I edited each chapter and each was sent back for revisions, and soon the book was ready for a publisher.

Both Olaf and I were committed to publishing in an open access press and  perhaps this choice of publisher influenced the the high participation rate of our ‘gurus. Thus. we choose Athabasca University Press for submission. The manuscript was reviewed internally and then sent for external review. Last week (about three months later) the reviews came back. One of the reviewers was particularly hard on some chapters and his comments were described by one of our authors as “boorish and ad hominem”. Nonetheless they were useful and will result in edits to most of the chapters.

So hopefully in the New Year, I will be announcing the availability of this book through AUPress. Read the rest of this entry »

Interesting network analysis of a c-Mooc

July 25, 2012

Thanks to Stephen Downes for this link on OLDaily to a short 15 second video from CBlissMath  illustrating the connectivity of participants in a c-MOOC. In this case the MOOC was CMC11, which described itself as a connectivist MOOC that focuses on sharing and building knowledge on connectivism and PLE’s. Unlike x-MOOCs such as sponsored by CoursEra, MITx and others, c-MOOCs (origionally designed by Downes, Cormier and Siemens) explicitly focus on the development of networks of participants and objects(see Rodriguez for more on c and x- MOOCs).  The x-MOOCs seem to follow a content centric model that some would call an instructivist pedagogy (or what Jon Dron and I referred to as Cognitive-Behaviourist pedagogy, in an IRRODL article from last year).

However what the video using Gephi network software illustrates is the large number of totally unconnected nodes that seem to make up the majority of the MOOC participants. Now, I realize there is some limited value to the participants of being a 100% lurker (I’ve done it myself on more than one MOOC), but it is especially ironical when the c-MOOCs, focused on connectivty, seem to demonstrate less connectivity (or at least engagement) than the x-MOOCs – especially if one counts as engagement submission of assignments or exercises to be marked by machines. I’ve long argued that such learner-content interaction can (and often is) a critical and if done well, a perfectly satisfactory form of learning  and ca even be considered equivalent to other higher costs forms of learning (see our Interaction Equivalency site)

In a recent post Phil Hill identified four barriers that MOOCs have to overcome – one of which was high drop out rate. Daphe Koller co-founder of CoursEra has argued  in an Inside Higher Ed post that “The [students] who drop out early do not add substantially to the cost of delivering the course,” she says. The most expensive students are the ones who stick around long enough to take the final, and those are the ones most likely to pay for a certificate.” So in both models of MOOC (as evidenced by the ;’massive’ in the acronym) adding a few hundred or a few thousand non participating students is easily done at extremely low cost. This does however demonstrate accomplishment or learning.

But distance educators have for decades struggled with ways to interpret high drop out rates associated with most forms of distance education. We have rationalized that “the student got what they wanted, even if they dropped out”, blamed the students for not being committed or being deficient in a variety of academic or personal skills or aptitudes, and made excuses about the definition of drop out (as compared to campus students). But it does raise the issue of personal as well as financial costs. Do non-engaged participants walk away with a sense of personal failure, a conformation of their not being smart enough to take a course, guilt that they hadn’t “made the time” or expended the necessary effort,  or did they indeed get what they paid for (in the case of MOOCs,  nothing!).

Lots more research needs to be done, but undoubtedly these demonstrations of scalability, unmatched since the impressive efforts of the Open Universities in the 1980′s, are hopeful signs that evidence a potential solution for the greater than inflation cost increases in higher education that we have seen for the last twenty years. However, lets not ignore the decades of research on drop out that these same open universities and distance education scholars have been gathering to insure that we are not just inventing more options for those minority of gifted and privileged students who can and do succeed under any form of higher education.