New look for DE institutes?

Bruce King in a recent article titled, Reshaping distance and online education around a national university in regional Australia, elaborates on a proposal for new kinds of regional distance education institutions within a national framework; however, he declares they should not be modeled on or operated like a traditional dual-mode university. He proposed,

What the new regional university proposal potentially offers is: a targeted clientele, comprised in the first instance of student groups that suffer present educational disadvantage but with the capacity to recruit subsequently well beyond those groups; an ethos of service to that initial – and continuing – clientele; the forging of new administrative and teaching arrangements to provide high-quality distance delivery in fields that have sometimes not been so available; political commitment to the enterprise; an opportunity to create a flagship institution that can model best practice nationally and on a comparable basis with overseas institutional leaders; and the chance to create an approach to online delivery that connects with the distance education ethos, is underpinned by research about student learning, and offers a model of best practice that could provide leadership in online developments nationally. (2010, p. 138)

My research also found that online learners, while generally satisfied with their online program, preferred more services, instructor presence, lower tuition, and quality structured courses and programs with trained instructors. See slides of my recent presentation.

Perhaps Bruce is right in that such a responsive institute to online learners will have to occur outside the traditional institution due to current incompatible structures. He argues,

The argument here is that the problem for distance educators in mixed-mode Australian universities over the past decade has involved a number of compounding factors: (1) the fragmentation of their distinctive clientele; (2) a marginalisation in their commitment to the ethos of distance education because of the force of emerging technologies within universities generally; (3) in some instances, the breaking down of specialist administrative and student support services because of the democratizing nature of online technologies; (4) the removal of political support from distance education enterprises (e.g., the abolition of the distance education centres; King, 1999); (5) a movement away from the intellectual leadership that some Australian academics had provided in relation to the servicing and support of students off-campus, which created institutional flagships for the distance education community; and (6) a sense of personal dislocation in that many necessarily became involved with technological developments and recognised that what many would have seen as their educational commitments were being brushed aside in compromises required by the  rate of change to their practice. (2010, pp. 137-138)

Yet, what are the costs for such new developments and how could we leverage the infrastructures already in place? Creating a few virtual institutions with regional flavor and national commitment and access would be ideal. Yet in the short run, I think it will take strong leadership and fortitude to overcome practices and policies that no longer serve the modern university, while at the same time retain the mission, values, and integrity of post secondary institutions. It’s time for a make-over.

Volunteering at UoPeople

Recently, I became enamoured with the efforts (and concept) of the University of the People, and volunteered my time to help manage, develop, or teach online (I also have a business background). I was impressed with those already involved, but more so I was impressed with the generousity of the founder Shai Reshef. The university greatly supports emerging notions of OER, online learning, and philanthropy.  Business Week provides a good review of the school.

However, I was not the only one who had the urge to pitch in. I received the following kindly worded email when I applied to help. I hope I can get involved in some way at a future time.

 Dear Volunteer,

 Thank you for your interest in contributing your valuable time to the mission of University of the People

We will process your information and attempt to match your interests and experience to our current volunteer opportunities.

While we would like to respond to each of you individually, the amazing outpouring of offers to help with respect to our modest staff currently makes this impossible.

If we have not yet responded to you about volunteering for a specific activity, please do not be discouraged or feel that you have not been heard. We are listening and as we expand, our activities will certainly be able to benefit from all of your potential contributions.

Again – thank you for your amazing support – and please stay with us. Together we can all reach our shared goal to make higher education available to all.

If you have not yet done so, please forward your CV to assist us in matching you to our volunteer activities.

 The Staff of University of the People



A new year, a new look

After having earned my doctorate recently and catching up on some needed sleep (and hopefully replenishing some brain cells), I am returning to my blog to share ideas and comments about my world of online learning. Originally, I used this blog to create an annotated bibliography on the literature I collected for my dissertation. With that completed, I get to have more fun and engage with others in virtual discussions.

I have a new query: where does a new scholar find work regarding innovative uses of technology in education? Over the past 6 months, I have networked and searched the websites of virtual universities or universities with virtual programs. Most positions are sessional instructional work. To work in a more permanent position, I would have to move to the location to work, such as London, England and the OUUK. However, with a family and home in Western Canada this is not feasible – I can move around a bit but not that far. What I find ironic is the students of these institutions are not expected to come to the campus, but faculty are. The only two North America institutions I can find that support staff living at a distance is Athabasca University and University of Maryland. Neither have openings right now.

Am I forced to work for for-profit institutions? Will this mar my reputation within traditional academic venues? If only there were digital learning and open content research and development centres and initiatives as proposed by Tony Bates. That would be an exciting environment!

Or, am I forced to work in the corporate world devising new products? This is not my main choice having left the corporate world as an accountant 17 years ago and its bottom line thinking.

Trained and prepared to work in formal traditional higher education institutions and engage in research and teaching, I find myself at an interesting crossroad. I think I am less likely to find innovative and interesting work about online and digital learning in these environments. Sarah Guri-Rosenblit, in her recent book, Digital Technologies in Higher Education, also commented on the slow evolution of technology use in traditional institutions.

I guess I will need to turn over more stones to find a place that suits my background, knowledge, skills, and ambitions. In the meantime, I will continue to read and blog and sleep. Smile.

Trends in Distance Education in Canada

Rocci Luppincini, in his book Trends in Educational Technology and Distance Education in Canada, explores the history and trends of online learning in Canada’s higher education sector.

The University of Calgary has a support centre for faculty called, the Teaching and Learning Centre. This centre provides faculty development, consulting, and mentoring to those who teach. Also, the University has a centre, called the Information Commons, which provides services for the scholarly use of information and technology use.

One of the institutions in Canada that offers online programs and courses is Athabasca University.  Unique to Athabasca is the Learning Accreditation Centre that assess transfer credits, prior learning assessment and accrediting workplace programs. They also helped gain accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) that recognizes their Master of Distance Education (MDE) program. Also stemming from the university is a faculty and graduate student research centre, named the Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research (CIDER) designed to address a multitude of issues such as teaching and learning applications, finance, access, and other factors affecting DE. To support the research initiative, the CIDER centre also publishes a far reaching e-journal called the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (IRRODL).  

Acadia University is a laptop university with distance programs which is driven by the Acadia Advantage initiative and the Acadia Institute for Teaching and Technology. They ensure all students have a notebook computer and up-to-date technological expertise. Considering their technological enriched environment they needed to invest significantly in faculty development and support. Thus, this centre helps faculty use technology to effectively improve student learning, reaching into the individual academic units. Services include helping with the design of online courses, and by using virtual learning templates. They offer on-site and off-site training.

Memorial University has collaborated with the University College of Cape Brenton (UCCB) to offer joint Master of Education in Information Technology program. They have a cross-university steering committee that oversees program decision making. Also, the Department of Education for Newfoundland and Labrador created the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) to provide access to educational opportunities for distance learners in that province. Memorial University is affiliate with this centre and educational technology faculty members provide expertise.

Royal Roads University extensively uses technology in their operation and delivery of education. They were quoted as saying, “the dynamics of a well-established university were bound to slow things down but at Royal Roads using technology and leveraging through the use of technology was the only way the university would survive” (p.122).  Thus, they need willing staff to use technology in innovative ways. What is more, the have 50 students in a cohort which helps with economies of scale. However, this large size requires them to use technology in create ways to optimize the learning experience. Their students are in their late 40s, in middle of their careers and have family responsibilities. They also bring unique expectations and experiences to the program. As well, they are confident they can work online as they work in virtual environments at work.

The Tele-University of Quebec is a distance education institution inspired by the Open University of the UK. They have a community oriented philosophy where staff, instructors and students connect in a learning community that supports student learning through a network of services and support to help them achieve their objectives and manage their own learning plan . As well, they developed an interdisciplinary research centre, LICEF, that is an administrative branch of the university. This centre focuses on cognitive data processing and teaching environments. This one hundred person centre, supplied by professors from various departments, “develop methods, tools of design, and systems of training” (p.130). A division of this centre (CIRTA) researches elements of tele-learning. LICEF is recognized universally for its research on distance education. The university also exchanges course credits with other institutions such as Athabasca and UQAM (L’Université du Québec à Montréal).

UNESCO Perspective on DE

The Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO publishing (2005), in their paper Perspectives on Distance Education: Lifelong Learning & Distance Higher Education, charts the evolution and success of DE through research. Distance education can “bring increased access, support innovation in teaching and be used to organize higher education more effectively” (p.145).

Research on distance education is mostly by individuals working in the field or doctoral students, thus the reason for many studies that are low quality with a few creating high quality such as within small research groups or academic departments. As well, many research studies are single case, descriptive, qualitative and do not contribute to theory. Also, the effectiveness of distance education has been studied but caution is given on comparing it to classroom teaching due to their different contexts. However, conditions for success in DE is about students, course design and course delivery. More research is needed on the softer issues of distance education such as policy, cost-benefit analysis, instructional design and student support. Research on distance education can support innovation, practice, and inform policy. As well, educational leaders are often unaware of research before they make decisions.

The following is research that might aid DE initiatives.

Demographics: in economically advantaged countries the demographics of DE students have been stable such as they are over most 21 with 40% being 25-34. They are women, socially mobile, work and entered postsecondary with minimal qualifications. However, at UBC in Canada students required high academic qualifications to be admitted. 83% of DE students at UBC lived within one hour of the campus with 6% from outside the province. Thus, for DE students distance was about flexibility and/or open admissions, not geography.

Retention: There seems to be a higher dropout rate distance education students. There is high skepticism among campus-based faculty. Evans (1994) identified a number of reasons: finances, learning difficulties, conditions at home/study, work pressures, family sickness, and misunderstanding the time commitment.  However, at UBC the completion rate is 85%. Attrition in DE programs might be due to good course design and quality personal support.

Student Characteristics: little has been found on the particular or common characteristics associate with distance learners. However, they have found DE students are independent learners and must be supported by the instructor. Those students with experience with using technology, who have higher knowledge of the subject (such as graduate students) and are already have independent learning skills tend to be more interactive and independent in distance education.

Skills needed: Developed countries find they need to create highly productive and knowledge-based industries to compete with low cost labour in developing countries. Creating high skilled workers is now a priority for many governments.  As well, people will need skills in evolving fields such as health, technology and management, and will need to retrain 5 times in their working lifetime. Skills needed today that online learning can develop are findings and using information, independent learners, problem-solving and team work. Government sees online learning as an educational product and service to be marketed and a way to produce tech-savvy graduates.

There are 5 generations of distance education: correspondence, one-way media, two-way media, flexible learning, and a less developed intelligent flexible learning that “adds a high degree of automation and student control to asynchronous online learning and interactive multimedia” (p.138).


Flexible learning, such as online learning, is based on asynchronous learning through the Internet and is influenced by constructivist approaches to learning and teaching. This is the most common mode of delivery in North American. It gives students some control over their learning pace and timing and encourages reflection and collaboration. It is not the same as teaching in a face to face class. As well, to enable online students to construct meaning and increase their depth of understanding, and apply ideas to new context, it is very important to carefully design courses. It is also important to moderate online discussions to ensure students are, in their discussions, meeting academic standards, use conceptual frameworks, and relate to course concepts. Computer conferences lend to critical thinking and reflection and archive the discussions for later evaluation. Students also acquire the skills for learning online and collaborating with an array of people and perspectives, essential for the workplace. However, collaboration needs to be guided by the instructor by ensuring students are clear and have the resources they need including procedures to deal with conflicts.

Technology selection: Institutions use a variety of technology and methods to deliver distance education. However, regardless of the medium well designed teaching is most effective. Bates (1995, 2005) suggests a strategy ACTION to help institutions select the appropriate technology and stands for: Access, Costs, Teaching function, Interactivity, Organizational issues, Novelty and Speed). A student portal is recommended so students can access through one place self enrolment, fee payment, course registration, grades, course materials and the instructor. Tools so students can create communities of learners and their own learning materials is important, such as blogs, wikis, and online discussion forums. However, beware that synchronous technology, like Web-conferencing or Internet telephone services, require high-speed Internet services and costly technology.

An E-Learning Vision for Canada

The CANARIE discussion paper (2002), An E-Learning Vision: Towards a Pan-Canadian Strategy and Action Plan, recognizes human capital is essential in a competitive knowledge-based society, and must be supplied by well-educated and highly skilled people. However, there is a pressure of a retiring population. They state Canada’s educational system cannot meet the labour demands in the coming decades. However, e-learning initiatives might be a solution to people who cannot attend formal education due to location, time or disability. It can also help universities overcome challenges such as increased enrolment and staff shortages without losing their autonomy. They also need to continue research on effective e-learning delivery.

An e-learning society is one that has anytime, anywhere learning through networks that offer share high quality resources. Canada is a leader in the use of information and communications technologies and is one of the most Internet-connected countries with expanding broadband access to rural and remote communities. Also, an “a rapidly, vibrant e-learning industrial sector has started to emerge as entrepreneurial firms develop multimedia content for clientele ranging from large corporations to educational institutions, from local to foreign customers” (p.11).

Postsecondary institutions are collaborating with other institutions to increase accessibility to education and resources such as online courses, credit transfers, common registration and assessing prior learning. Online courses are offered by more than half postsecondary institutions.

Therefore, there is a need for a shared technical framework and standards to help organizations continue the implementation of e-learning, and help citizens connect to the Internet. This also includes digitizing the wealth of content already in existence.  The provincial government can help implement at the operational level and support curriculum and content development, standards and funding. The federal government can support the development of infrastructures and the e-learning private sector. They can also provide research grants, and attend to legal aspects such as copyright and protection of intellectual property.

University students key players

The Association for Universities and Colleges in Canada [AUCC] (2007) addressed the House of Commons Finance Committee about investments they need to take to increase economic strength and global competitiveness. One recommendation included increasing the number of graduate students in Canada as talented and educated key players injecting innovation into all sectors. They estimated, “by 2016, an increase of at least 35 percent in domestic production of master’s and doctoral graduates will be required to meet growing demand for these highly skilled people and replace those who will retire” (p.1).

Also, global competition for graduate students requires attracting both domestic and international students. Therefore, there is a need for financial support in order to attract and maintain top students in Canada. Also important is honing students’ research skills to contribute to research and development in industry, and to contribute to the labour market through co-op placements.