Online Learning: Two Big Distractions

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There are many developments taking place in online learning globally and it is easy to think that these developments signal new opportunities, new challenges and new vibrancy.

To some extent they do.

There has never been more news reporting on online learning than we saw in 2012. This was mainly due to the arrival of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the significant flow of private capital into the K-PhD sector for technology-related development as well as a renewed interest in the future of post-secondary education from journalists at the New York Times, The Atlantic, Forbes and others.

But there has also been a lot of distractions – “noise” in the system that gets in the way of real understanding.

For example, there has been much written about the low completion rates for MOOCs as if this was some kind of flaw. MOOCs are not out to replace universities and colleges.  They are providing learning opportunities for all sorts of people with an interest in a particular topic, or just a passion for learning. While some may want to secure credit – and many now can through challenge examinations – many do not. What one person might perceive as a drop-out may actually be a life-long learner whose curiosity about a particular topic has merely been satisfied.

But what are the major distractions we need to pay attention to?

There are two: first, the talk of online learning being “transformative”; and second, the “hype” cycle about what the technology will permit faculty and learners to do.

Transformative Talk

Information and communication technologies can help post-secondary education evolve and transform itself to better tackle the pedagogical, sociological, economic, and financial challenges of the future. Yet obstacles loom. These require colleges and universities to contemplate difficult, fundamental changes in how they organize, resource, collaborate and educate. The need for such changes has been apparent for some time, progress has been uneven. This may be because some of the necessary changes are "dangerous to discuss." Imagine the conversations that the following statements would invoke:

“Libraries still add miles of books every year that are never used [and] institutions still teach introductory courses in large classrooms where there is very little faculty-student engagement. Students would learn as much by watching a video lecture, or better still, a video lecture from a faculty star at some other university.”


“Soon, I believe, massive amounts of capital will be invested in producing courses and programs in automated teaching factories staffed largely by part-time staff from all over the world, running like a learning TV network with analytics.”

That image of "automated teaching factories" triggers much instinctive resistance to transformational technologies. Its implicit threat to "miles of books every year" does the same in many libraries.

If institutions are to transform, and post-secondary education and students benefit in the process, we must exploit opportunities and address the genuine problems and challenges the system faces. Our goal should be not only to make these important entities more efficient than they are today, which is where evolutionary technologies are likely to play a central role, but also to make them better for students, faculty, the community in which they are placed and the province of Ontario. That is, we need to understand what the problem we are trying to respond to is before we can start to understand how, if at all, technology can help us develop a mindful and effective response.

Achieving both greater efficiency and better outcomes, in part through information and communication technologies, requires a commitment to fundamental, unfettered thinking about the future, both within and outside current institutions.

It is therefore unlikely that Thomas Friedman’s market-driven vision for post-secondary education will come to pass. In January 2013 he wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times which ended:

“I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion.”

…and through these market based mechanisms, colleges and universities will be transformed.

He can dream on.

When we look at the rankings of universities in the world, for example, the top 100 all offer some online courses, but their online catalogue is a fraction of their work – not even 5% of their program offerings - and not at all what their reputation is built on.

There is a systems resilience built into post-secondary education. We should see such systems as eco-systems well able to deal with challenge, threat and opportunity. While many will embrace the opportunities presented by learning technologies and online learning, they are more likely to impact how they teach in classrooms than their presence in a broader fully online market place.

This is why talk of transformation is a distraction. Universities and colleges practice continuous improvement. Occasionally they will respond in significant ways to new developments, but to speak of transformation is misleading. The real transformation that is now occurring is in relation to the pedagogy within institutions rather than the nature of the institutions themselves.

Technology Hype

There is a substantial literature documenting the nature of “hype” with respect to technology products and services. Indeed, as the following diagram illustrates, there are models built of the “hype curve,” known generally as the Gartner Hype Cycle.


Essentially the Gartner Hype Cycle suggests that between launch and the mature use of a product (e.g. a learning management system) or a service (e.g. crowd sourced learning resources) a series of stages of experience are passed through which reduce the hype to reality.

Claims made boldly at the beginning of the cycle (e.g. the paperless office, Power Point will transform the experience of teaching in positive ways, mobile learning will change where we teach and learn) are gradually downgraded until we find a point at which the technology or service has a meaningful and productive place in our experience, usually a different place from what we anticipated.

A simple example of this is the power of free-to-use video conferencing (through Skype or ooVoo or similar services) for online learning. When Apple launched its mini Tablet in 2012 this was a major focus for the launch, together with dedicated applications for online mobile learning. While over 1 billion downloads have occurred from iTunes University since its launch in 2007, the use of interactive video on tablets or other devices for credit-based learning is still nominal.

A particular distraction, at least at this time, is the positioning of learning analytics as a transformative practice for post-secondary education. Some kinds of learning analytics have been known and used since long before the hype began, such as:

Modern learning analytics draws a lot of ideas from industry and its various attempts to deal with information, such as business intelligencequality managemententerprise resource planning (ERP), balanced score cardsmarketing research and web analytics. The common idea is to extract key performance indicators from both structured and unstructured data and to improve decision making. A related and important influence is a political will to articulate and measure quality standards in education leading to a culture of quantitative assessment: evidence-based decision making.

The new technology tools and resources are built, but their use for decision making is weak and, at the faculty member level, almost non-existent.

In part the issue is focus: faculty members, Department Heads and Deans are busy and have little time to master what are in fact overly-complex systems. But also, they see little need to change. So the second issue is the rationale for their use. The organizational leadership generally positions these tools and resources as opportunities to gain efficiencies and effective resource utilization. What those on the front lines of the organization are looking for is something different – something that will help learning to occur while making their life easier. They see the tools as presented as doing neither. For them, they are a distraction.

While technology always has great promise, colleges and universities have learned not to be early adopters. IT budgets are generally in the order of 4-5% of the operating budgets of institutions and they are always under great pressure. Embracing “the next new thing,” given the Gartner Hype Cycle, is rarely a smart thing to do.

In the period since the launch of smartphones and tablet devices, the hype has grown. It is a wise team that turns down the volume on the hype machine.

Focus and alignment are key

The reality of the world in which educators live in Canada is one of challenge. While demand for service grows, and there is a constant pressure to change and innovate, it is also a time of austerity. At such times focus and alignment on some key outcomes should drive the work to be done. Distractions need to be noted and avoided.