Online Distance Education – Towards a Research Agenda

Last week my colleague Olaf Zawacki-Richter and I did the closing keynote at the European Distance Education Network Annual meeting in Zagreb Croatia.  The conference was great and it was my first visit to Croatia- but hopefully not my last.

Our keynote celebrated the recent launch of our new open access book from Athabasca University Press (available at http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120233.  Our slide show presented the  methods by which we identified the most published topics in the major distance education journals. Olaf has updated this list covering 5 major journal’s from 2000-2011. I was pleased to see that Canadian researchers were the most prolific!

Once we identified the 17 most researched issues, we contacted the scholar(s) who we believed was the most qualified to write a chapter on that topic. We asked them to highlight the issues, the major unresolved questions and their suggestions for a research agenda that would advance our knowledge and practice related to this issue. I’m pleased to say that we had a very good response and I think the book will be very useful for students and scholars for some years to come.

The Table of Contents is:

Foreword  Otto Peters
Introduction Research Areas in Online Distance Education  Olaf Zawacki-Richter and Terry Anderson

Part I Macro-level Research: Distance Education Systems and Theories

  • 1 Internationalization and Concepts of Social Justice: What Is to Be Done? Alan Tait and Jennifer O’Rourke
  • 2 Globalization, Culture, and Online Distance Learning  Charlotte N. Gunawardena 
  • 3 Distance Education Systems and Institutions in the Online Era: An  Identity Crisis  Sarah Guri-Rosenblit
  • 4 Online Distance Education Models and Research Implications Terry D. Evans and Margaret Haughey
  • 5 Methods of Study in Distance Education: A Critical Review of Selected Recent Literature
  • Farhad Saba

part II Meso-level research: Management, Organization, and Technology

  • 6 Organization and Management of Online and Distance Learning Ross Paul
  • 7 The Costs and Economics of Online Distance Education Greville Rumble
  • 8 The Use of Technology in Distance Education Gráinne Conole
  • 9 Innovation and Change: Changing How we Change Jon Dron
  • 10 Professional Development and Faculty Support Margaret Hicks
  • 11 Learner Support in Online Distance Education: Essential and EvolvingJane E. Brindley
  • 12 Quality Assurance in Online Distance Education Colin Latchem

 

part III Micro-level Research: Learning and Teaching in Distance
Education

  • 13 Major Movements in Instructional Design – Katy Campbell and Richard. A. Schwier
  • 14 Interaction and Communication in Online Learning Communities: Toward an Engaged and Flexible Future – Dianne Conrad
  • 15 Quantitative Analysis of Interaction Patterns in Online Distance Education – Allan Jeong
  • 16 From the Back Door into the Mainstream: The Characteristics of Lifelong Learners – Joachim Stöter, Mark Bullen, Olaf Zawacki-Richter, and Christine von Prümmer
  • 17 Student Dropout: The Elephant in the Room – Alan Woodley and Ormond Simpson
  • Conclusion Towards a Research Agenda – Terry Anderson and Olaf Zawacki-Richter

The complete book and individual chapters are available for free download, but of course we love paper purchasers ($39.95 for a 500 page text!) Thanks to all authors and to EDEN hosts!

African Council for Distance Education 2014

Zambezi Valley
Zambezi Valley

I was honoured to be invited to do a keynote talk at the 4th conference of ACDE in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. After sitting up for 2 nights on a plane (42 hour journey) I was very glad to reach the Elephant Hills hotel and a soft bed. The hotel overlooks the Zambezi River and the constant myst of the Victoria Falls can be seen about 3 km away.

Mist rising from Victoria Falls
Mist rising from Victoria Falls

The next day I took a tour of the Falls, and they did not disappoint. They reminded me a lot of Niagara – maybe not so tall, but wider and the same deafening roar as millions of gallons of water churn over the cliff. Victoria Falls Victoria Falls

I did my talk the next day entitled ” Using Open Scholarship to Leapfrog Traditional Educational Barriers And it went OK, but the elaborate formal greetings and pomp of the opening ceremonies, meant that my time was really constrained- though I did manage to squeeze in a joke and give away a copy of one of our open access, Athabasca University Press, Issues in Dist. Educ. series books. The afternoon was spent at a very interesting workshop present by UNESCO and Fred Muller in which he challenged the Open Universities of Africa to embrace and develop MOOC applications- rather than fear them as we seem to do.  I was very impressed with over 200 MOOCs put together by 13 European OpenUpEd collaborators as a service- not profit see openuped.eu.

Generally the African Open Universities are focussed on quality production of print packages and support (tutorials, testing etc) in local learning Centres. They suffer from the same prejudice from educated elites, and the faculties of traditional universities, but of course their costs are much lower. It is clear to all that sufficient campus universities will never be built to accommodate the large and growing demand for higher education in Africa.  Many of  the presenters presented compelling cases for more support, but also presented evidence of the changes that their programs are making in the lives of disadvantaged students.  All the participants seem to have a sense that they should be using more net based technologies, but judging from the general absence of laptops by all but a few of the conference delegates, I think that net access and literacy is an issue not only for students but for faculty as well. This has been a very short trip, but the kindness of new friends and of the Zimbabwe people I have met here at the hotel is long!

3 Bears Story

I had the pleasure of driving from my home in Edmonton through the Rocky Mountains and back en route to the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education in Kamloops BC.  It was a great trip partly because I got to show this spectaual scenery to two friends – Albert Sangra form the Open University of Catalonia and Stefan Stenbom from  KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

I’ve been going to the Rockies since I was a kid and my parents served as house parents in a number of Canadian Youth Hostels on the road from Banff to Jasper.  Arguably this Ice Fields Parkway is one of, if not the most scienic paved highway in the world. Despite the many trips I’ve made to the mountains, I have never seen a live grizzly bear (though many black bears).  Perhpas just to impress my European friends on this trip we saw not one, but two grizzlies and a black bear thrown in for good measure – a regular mountain safari!

Grizzly #1
Grizzly #1
Grizzly #2

Black Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second grizzly was a bit further away, but showed off his height a couple of times by standing up on his hind paws to scratch his back on a tree.

Of course we had to take the giant snow machine ride up onto Athabasca Glacier (sadly in retreat these years) and ventured out on to the new GlacierSkywalk– a glass floored walkway cantilevered  918 feet above the valley floor.

IMG_9295
On the Athabasca Glacier
Glacier Skywalk
Glacier Skywalk

All in all a great spring trip, with good friends – one of whom, Stefan, is a great photographer!

MOOCs Unfairly Maligned

The Chronicle of Higher Education continues to amaze me how badly they can cover a story. This morning’s edition contains an article with a jarring headline reading “Passive MOOC Students Don’t Retain New Knowledge, Study Finds.  The study by Littlejohn and Milligan and is under review for IRRODL and thus no one – neither the Chronicle authors nor the Scottish news article authors (the second hand information upon which the Chronicle article was based) have had a chance to review the final copy. Nonetheless, the study found that indeed many professionals did not appear to apply their new knowledge to professional practice in substantive ways and showed  little  reflection on learning- despite the overall favourable impression of the content and the MOOC course in general.

There was no mention of students retaining new knowledge – or not as implied by the heading.  But more fundamentally, the students learning experience was not optimal compared to what?   I doubt there is a professional alive who has not attended a professional development event in ANY format to which these same criticism could not be levelled- and for some of the ones I have attended the content itself has been terrible and I’ve paid real money for the privilege of attending.

MOOCs are not a “perfect” way to learn, and only starry eyed proponents or venture capitalists would (or at least have) argued they are.  The popular press and the “experts” at the Chronicle have spent the first 2 years of the MOOC gushing about how terrific they are and now they provide equally bad commentary denigrating them.  I’d likely cancel my subscription to the Chronicle, if like MOOCs, the mini electronic email edition I get each work day wasn’t free!

 

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).  http://jolt.merlot.org/vol10no1/

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.

Terry

 

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 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.