Posted tagged ‘online education’

Thumbs down for educational technology?

October 24, 2016

It is exactly 30 years ago today that I took delivery of my first personal computer. It was an Apple Macintosh, and it had an incredible 1 megabyte of RAM and, er, no hard drive. A week later I produced my first computer-generated presentation for my industrial relations class, which however I had to print out on acetates in order to display the slides on an overhead projector. For me, technology-enabled education had begun. Colleagues looked on in admiration.

We have of course come a long way since then. Nowadays every higher education curriculum in any institution will feature a truckload of technology-enabled learning, the assessment of which is then crunched on various data programs to produce good-looking spreadsheets to please any board of examiners.

But is it adding value to the learning experience? No, according to the results of a recent survey conducted by Inside Higher Education. Or rather, not necessarily. Academics seem to value the opportunities for innovation provided by technology, but are sceptical as to whether the accumulated data gathered by IT systems is being used appropriately; or whether the quality of the learning experience is being much enhanced. They suspect that technology is deployed more to impress those evaluating institutions than to help students.

We must not be Luddites: educational technology is here to stay. But it must be used properly, and for the right reasons. This must mean in particular that the design of technology must be driven by academics rather than administrators, and must target the student experience and pedagogy rather than efficiency of processes. And there must be a clear understanding of how standards are affected – for good or bad – by online methods.


Going entirely online?

June 9, 2014

A major change in higher education over the past decade or two has been the erosion of the belief that there is just only one quality model of higher education. Until very recently everyone who mattered thought that the gold standard was set by universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard, and that institutions were good to the extent that they managed to create a learning experience that resembled the Oxbridge/Harvard model as far as resources would allow: intensive teaching in small groups on a well resourced campus, cutting edge research that prioritised ‘blue skies’ discovery.

The Oxbridge/Harvard model is in many people’s eyes probably still the gold standard, but then again even those universities have changed what they offer, or at least some of what they offer, quite considerably. And this week one of those that was always thought to base itself on the Oxbridge model, Trinity College Dublin (or whatever it is now called), announced that it would later this year offer its first ‘MOOC’ (‘massive open online course’), something it is doing just as a greater degree of scepticism regarding MOOCs is beginning to take hold in the higher education community.

Then again, TCD may be doing what students globally would want it to do. A student survey carried out recently on behalf of the Laureate Group of universities (a global network of institutions that focus on vocational courses, of which the University of Liverpool is a member) produced some interesting results. The students who took part on the whole predict (and, it appears, want) universities of the future to offer their courses online, for free, and in flexible settings without fixed times for classes or other formal engagements.

They may of course be right. But if they are, almost every assumption we have made until now about higher education will need to be revised. In particular, higher education would be individualised, with the removal by and large of the notion of a community of learning based on a campus experience. That has implications for pedagogy, for assessment and for student engagement; but it would also necessarily have a major impact on how academics interact and conduct their scholarship. If moreover the educational experience is to be completely ‘open’ – i.e. free – then that will create a framework in which quality and standards will be very hard to assure, in the absence of any obviously viable business model.

But if the students are right, one casualty would also be diversity in higher education. If everything goes online and high volume, then the capacity to develop institution-specific models with distinct missions becomes much more difficult, as content becomes increasingly driven by method.

I guess that my own perspective on this is that the higher education system should not just slip into some new learning model that has been made possible by technological advances, without engaging in a much greater assessment of what this would mean for the whole concept of a university. Of course we must welcome and harness technological innovation. But that does not mean that a particular use of it should be inevitable, bringing with it a whole sackful of unintended consequences.

A world in which students can expect online access and resources, an openness to lifelong learning at different stages of people’s lives and careers, and inclusiveness must be part of the future mix of higher education. There must be a considerable diversity of mission. But we must also ensure that the engagement of students and faculty with scholarship and inquiry  is not cast aside in a rush to adopt one particular model of educational provision.

MOOCs – some realism emerging

January 15, 2014

As readers of this blog know, I am not one of the many evangelists for the so-called ‘MOOCs’ (Massive Open Online Courses – and what a horrible acronym). It has been my view more or less from the start that this cannot be more than an experimental laboratory for online education – it certainly cannot easily be a longer term sustainable tool for learning. The believe that you could teach hundreds of thousand of students in one single course, do so in a pedagogically sound manner and with proper support, and do it all for free (with some vague notions of this serving as a marketing device for attracting students to ‘regular’ funded courses) was never rational. The surprising thing to me has been how many academic leaders signed up to this; more still, how many started making apocalyptic statements about what would happen to those who didn’t get it.

The hype hasn’t gone away yet, but there are some first signs that there are more serious questions being asked and that, the early enthusiasm is declining. A recent survey and report by Inside Higher Education concluded as follows:

‘Questions about quality and retention have featured prominently in the ongoing debate about massive open online courses, which appears to have polarized the expectations surrounding MOOCs. In 2012, 46 percent of [colleges and universities surveyed] neither agreed or disagreed that MOOCs presented a sustainable method of offering online courses, with the remaining respondents split almost evenly between the positive and negative sides. One year later, the share of respondents who disagree has grown to 39 percent, while those in agreement only make up 23 percent.’

Addressing online education will continue to be a really important topic in the higher education debate. But this will be a better debate if it is not subverted by unrealistic hype.

A MOOC reality check

July 22, 2013

Two weeks ago I asked some questions in this blog about the hype surrounding MOOCs (massive open online courses), and wondered whether these courses really were the game changer that some of their supporters claim they are. Now one of the major private providers of MOOCs, Udacity, has had to pause the development of its university partnership with San Jose State University. The pause has been described by the two organisations as ‘taking a breather’, and representatives of both the company and the university have stressed that the partnership is not being wound down.

However, what appears to have triggered the ‘breather’ are the somewhat low pass rates in the jointly run courses, some of them as low as 12 per cent, and apparently all under or well under 50 per cent.

In fact, the Udacity/San Jose partnership did not just run MOOCs as generally understood, but also credit-bearing courses using the MOOC technology. These were introduced to offer cheaper options to the university’s students.

The two partners are playing their cards somewhat close to their chests and are offering somewhat opaque reasons for the pause in activities. Indeed the vagueness of the explanations suggests that they are not quite sure themselves how to evaluate the experience to date, including the low pass rates. But there may already be a clue in there somewhere, because if any of these courses were being offered to save costs and therefore lower prices, this may suggest that some doubtful assumptions were being employed. There is no doubt that online learning offers huge opportunities, with the possibility of exciting pedagogy and interesting flexibility of provision. However, doing this well is not cheap, and does not offer the kind of major savings that some stakeholders appear to expect; which is another reason why the absence of a business model for MOOCs may be a serious issue.

Udacity and San Jose State University may well get this show back on the road. But I suspect there will be other ‘breathers’ across this whole scene; and that in turn may prompt a more realistic and mature debate about the true potential of online learning.

The Ten Commandments of online teaching

June 27, 2011

I suspect that nobody is yet quite certain on how prevalent online teaching will become, and whether it is always the same thing as elearning. We know that there exists a fair amount of online material now to record or complement classroom teaching. We know that there are materials available online that are, in essence, traditional classroom materials that have been uploaded and made available somewhere, but which were not really designed for online use. And we know that there are programmes that are now delivered fully online without any physical classroom dimension. Of course we also know that there have been some excellent early adopters in the academic community of online education in its various forms, but equally we know that there are some academics who still struggle to switch on a computer, never mind doing absolutely anything online.

In the meantime, Penn State University’s World Campus has produced what they are calling the Ten Principles of Effective Online Teaching, these being:

 • Show Up and Teach
• Practice Proactive Course Management Strategies
• Establish Patterns of Course Activities
• Plan for the Unplanned
• Response Requested and Expected
• Think Before You Write
• Help Maintain Forward Progress
• Safe and Secure
• Quality Counts
• (Double) Click a Mile on My Connection

The key ingredient of these principles is to be much clearer about what online education is about and what it is supposed to deliver:

‘What we know about teaching in the classroom, good or bad, may not translate well online with somewhat complicated technologies, new social orders, and media-rich resources. Without express guidance on what is expected of the online instructor, they are left to “figure it out,” leading to frustrated students and probably a less than desirable teaching experience.’

What is also clear from this document is that the role of the online teacher is, if anything, more demanding and complex than that of the teacher in the traditional classroom. In particular, the management of students and their interaction with the teacher and with each other is vital and not easy.

It is my suspicion that some universities are slipping into aspects of online education that may not be as fully grounded in pedagogy as would be ideal. Too often online courses are just traditional programmes, slightly (but not sufficiently) adapted. It may well be that online learning will become the norm. If this is so, it had better be properly planned and designed, and indeed properly resourced.

Elearning in times of crisis

April 12, 2011

One of the most impressive public university systems in the world, the University of California, is under extreme financial pressure in the light of major funding cuts imposed by the state. There are major fears that the university, whose constituent institutions include such global leaders as UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara, will have to implement further very drastic cuts and job losses.

One initiative currently being contemplated as a possible contribution to alleviating the crisis is a plan to put a number of programmes online and charge students for taking them – including students not registered with the university. However, in order to do this the university needs to invest to cover the start-up and development costs, and these are estimated to come to up to $7 million. Initially the university declared that this would be raised from private donations, but so far it has only been able to raise $750,000 – and so it has now decided to fund the rest by way of a bank loan. But if it does this, then the overall financial and business plan for the initiative will change fundamentally, and the university also will have to work out how to avoid the significant losses that other universities have suffered with similar initiatives.

How all this will play out remains to be seen. But it might be a good idea for every university president across the world to have a poster in their office reminding them that while online learning is a good idea and can make a very substantial pedagogical contribution, it is never an easy source of profits, and should never be planned with that end in view. Setting up a high quality elearning programme costs a lot of money, and needs to. Running something that is not high quality should not be contemplated at all.

This is not to say that the University ofd California should not be planning an elearning initiative. But it should not do this in order to cover a financial shortfall. To do so is very risky indeed.