I know, I know, I’m silver jubilee obsessed. As this year marks my 25th anniversary at the Open University I had the idea at the start of the year to follow the mediocre hit of 25 Years of ed tech series with a 25 years of OU one. I mentioned at the end of last year that I was having a bit of a blog identity crisis, and was worried it was becoming too self absorbed. I decided to double down on the self absorption with a whole series, but then the pandemic hit and I shelved the idea.
But I’m resurrecting it now for two reasons: the first is that I fancy having a break from writing about the online pivot all the time. Second, it is kind of about the online pivot, in that much of the journey I’ve been on over the past 25 years is representative of the sort of one many educators have to go on over the next 3 months to shift online. Which might make it relevant. Kinda. Sorta.
But mostly it is a feat of self indulgence and of little interest, with perhaps around 10% of each post relevant beyond that. As well as the online pivot resonance there are other possible reasons that might come in to that 10%. I think given the state of employment in higher ed now (and particularly post-Covid), I’m probably the last generation that will have the privilege of this type of long service, so it stands as a form of historical record to what long term employment used to be like, and some of the benefits of it. I also feel there is value in the informal institutional memory long term employees hold for a university. I’m not making it a history of the OU over this period (there’s an excellent blog for this if you are interested) but the types of projects I have been involved with will have relevance for many inside and outside the OU. But yes, it’s still 90% self-indulgence, live with it.
Also, as the image at the top indicates, 1995 seems a loooooooooong time ago – it’s already nostalgic and quaint. So join me on this magical ride down memory lane (screen goes wavy)…
One of the (many) things to surprise and disappoint me over the past couple of months has been the resurrection of so many bad takes on online learning that I had encountered in 1999 and thought we had moved on from.
There was a piece in Wonkhe that argued online worked against widening participation. Online, with assistive technologies, where the student can learn in their own environment and at their own pace was somehow much worse for WP than making people come to one physical location at set times and study in real time. Apparently only f2f can realise WP goals, which was certainly news to all the distance education universities set up over the world specifically to address the needs of people excluded by traditional education.
There have been the usual claims about the mystique of face to face lectures, for example Zimmerman claims remote learning leads to the death of charisma (no, seriously). There are also plain old prejudice takes such as:
I think this crisis is the worst thing that could have happened to Ed tech. People can now see just how impractical and inferior it is to face to face classrooms. It can’t pretend anymore to be the next big thing. The world tried it, for months. Game over. pic.twitter.com/XUEpXppPhB— Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) April 17, 2020
And then there’s this car crash of an article in HEPI, which compares f2f lectures with students getting online streamed lectures and finds, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, that students prefer the f2f version. This operates solely on the assumption that the only way to teach is the lecture and that online must provide a poor replication of that. They also throw in ‘digital natives’ in case you doubted their 1999 credentials.
What most of these takes exhibit is a) privilege of the authors b) bias against any form of non-traditional learning c) ignorance of the past 20 years of online learning and 50 years of distance ed. So let’s look at some of those claims.
The first thing to note is that online learning has traditionally served a different audience. It has different affordances to f2f, particularly in allowing learners to partake asynchronously and structure their learning to their own convenience and preference. It is also worth stressing that f2f lectures aren’t all that, and indeed one of the complaints around the introduction of lecture capture was that it can lead to a decline in attendance of f2f lectures. I mean if they’re so great, why would this happen?
This may seem obvious but students who choose online prefer it, and those who choose f2f prefer that mode. So perceptions of quality are influenced by preference. This will be an issue come next semester when we will have large groups of students who have chosen and prefer f2f, being forced to study online.
Let’s look at concerns around quality and satisfaction. Sometimes distance ed comes out as preferable, and sometimes it’s f2f. The OU has been consistently high scoring in terms of student satisfaction, and our grade inflation is much lower than most conventional universities. Open University students are highly favoured by employers.
In terms of quality then and satisfaction, there is no discernible difference between modes when a reasonable comparison is made. Retention remains an issue however. This is difficult to compare, as I highlighted previously, but I’ll repeat again: Online learning is sometimes equated with MOOCs, where the completion rate is very low – about 10%. But in this case the learner has no investment in the course (they often sign up and never even attempt one element), and no human tutor or teacher support. For more carefully designed distance education courses where there is active human tutor support, the completion rate is much higher, but is still lower than conventional universities. Here there can be a number of other factors also. For instance, we operate open entry at the OU, so no entry requirements. This can mean people are not prepared for study and so completion rates are lower than for courses where there is a formal entry. But that is unrelated to the ‘online’ element.
Online and distance learning does generally require more self-motivation from the learner, away from the physical cues that prompt learning. It also requires more organization of their time and study environment and so retention may always be an issue compared to f2f. But it also offers opportunities for other forms of teaching. The least interesting thing you can do is replicate the not very effective model of the lecture. We had these discussions back in 1999, and people explored problem based learning, constructivism, collaborative learning, and then later connectivism and flipped learning. I’m not proposing any one of these approaches as a magic bullet, and some students will like them and others hate them. But different approaches are achievable and have been realised for a long time. Just because you’ve been dumped off your lectern and feel aggrieved, is no need for another ‘online learning sucks’ hot take.
After having done past and present posts, the real surprise now is that I am doing one on the future of HE. As I pointed out in the last post, one of the real defining characteristics of the current situation is that no-one knows what will happen. So it would be foolish to have a stab at predicting the future, especially when some people are so good at being so spectacularly bad at it. According to Elon Musk human language will be obsolete in 5 years time, so I can’t compete with that level of stupid.
The biggest impact on higher ed is likely to be financial. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of the finances in the sector – over expenditure on campus buildings, reliance on international students, precarious employment, expensive student fees in countries like the UK, and so on. After the economic collapse of 2008 there were many predictions, but the real long term impacts were secondary ones. Trump and Brexit are results of the long tail of the banking crisis, which led to austerity, which caused unemployment and resentment amongst white working class which could be exploited by xenophobes and nationalists.
These kinds of effects are more difficult to predict, but if I’ve learnt anything from 2016 onwards, it’s that given a choice between reasonable & beneficial on one path and dumb and malicious on the other, dumb and malicious wins every time. I’d take this as your guide for the way HE will go when we are faced with choices over the next 5-10 years. Expect then increased use of short-term contracts, outsourcing teaching, expansion into other sectors, aggressive staff monitoring and performance measures. Like the worst elements of now, but much more so.
From an ed tech perspective, Tony Bates’s presentation at the Gasta was a very well reasoned argument I felt. Tony predicts an increase in the adoption of online learning, but I think he’s right to say predictions that every institution will go online permanently are overblown. But some will switch to a predominantly online model, so a levelling out of around 15% of institutions offering online may seem right. But he suggests far more will offer a blended model. Having made investments in ed tech, gained some of the benefits of a distributed model, and keen to build in resilience against further crises, a mixture of online and campus will be the norm. This is already the case of course, but I think it will be more akin to the sort of flipped model we’ve seen (and which arguably works better at HE level than K-12).
One thing we’ve seen recently is renewed snobbishness about online learning which we haven’t witnessed since the late 90s. Prestigious universities are likely to make this a key selling point – once the main pandemic has passed they will promote the idea that face to face is the premium experience, and they will provide the real thing. They will probably also do this while aggressively marketing online versions globally to fill the gap caused by the collapse of smaller colleges.
Investing in ed tech will be a likely outcome of this period. This could definitely be a benefit, as these units have traditionally been under-resourced and under-respected. But it could also an increase in tech-solutionism and all those tech bullshit guys getting strategic jobs. Given my rule above, I don’t hold much hope for which way it’ll go.
The short answer is: prepare for financial decisions to dominate with tech used as a prop to these.
Following on from the look at how the past is important in understanding the online pivot, I’ll now shift to the present. HEIs now have to plan for multiple scenarios in September which include options around fully online, rolling half populations on campus and half online, fully on campus for some, fully offline for others, and all variations in between. They are also having to do this while imagining severe economic impacts arising from loss of international students, research funding and secondary income such as food, accommodation, bar expenditure from students. Oh, and then there’s the physical health of students and staff which is at risk if you get it wrong.
It may have been the case that a single university has had to manage such issues in the past, but never all of the universities with all of the problems all at the same time. In 2008 the financial collapse caused much head scratching, but these outcomes could be imagined and planned for. The consequence of getting that wrong wasn’t the probable collapse of the university or the death of students. I know it’s an over-used term, but heck, this really is unprecedented (in the modern era anyway).
Juggling all these variables is an impossible task. Previously there were people who did know what would happen, you just needed to listen to the right advice. But now, no-one knows. We can plan for possible scenarios, but it’s anyone’s guess. A particular tension at the moment is the balance between what can and should an institution do for September versus what they should be putting in place longer term.
Stephanie Moore, Phil Hill, Simon Horrocks and Rajiv Jhangiani all have excellent posts that aim to bridge this current and future gap. What they all have in common, in my reading, is that the present and the future are intertwined (I know that’s obvious, but bear with me). Decisions we make about how to realise the September offering will shape how future online provision is realised. A quick fix might work for now, but will be expensive to undo and sustain. But it is also the case that a long term staff development plan may not realise what is needed in the short term. Similarly, a desire to recreate the current pedagogic and assessment model may lead to putting in place poor practice (such as proctored exams) and missing the potential of online, but a radical shift in pedagogy and practice may cause issues for support for students who are already studying in an unfamiliar manner in terms of distance ed. There’s a lot of traps to fall into here and no perfect solutions.
What is useful is to have some model for planning these changes, and a framework for discussing the possible options. There are a lot of Technology Acceptance Models out there. I’m going to be lazy though and suggest one I’ve worked on, namely the OOFAT model developed for ICDE. Although it was developed pre-Covid, the OOFAT model was aimed at helping institutions plan to develop online, open and flexible models of educations around the three core elements of content, delivery and assessment. The model allows you to develop a visual representation around these aspects as shown below. You can see some of the different models existing HEIs have deployed here.
The benefit of this model is that in constructing the spider diagrams, it provides a basis for where the institution currently is, what elements can be expanded and to what extent in the next phase, and then further ahead from that. I’ve run sessions based around this model and others have applied it to their institution. The report even has a handy guide on running such an evaluation. What is useful in these is the discussion it surfaces, and provision of a common framework then to base decisions on. Other models do this too, but I’m just bigging up my own one because I’ve used it. The point I would suggest is to choose some model that allows the institution to make the changes required, without there being a solution baked into it already.
I thought I’d do a series of posts on thinking about the past, present and future of our current situation. I don’t want to go the full Downes, and say “what this pandemic is really about is me”, but in terms of thinking about the past, I thought I’d riff off my 25 Years of Ed Tech book.
What the pandemic has revealed is the role of ed tech not as a funky, disruptive side hustle, but as boring, mainstream provision. In physical architecture terms it is less the cool, digital drop-in space with bean bags but more akin to the standard lecture halls and old refectory. It’s been around for ages and just kinda works, but you can’t quite remember why it was designed that way.
There is now a shift to outsourcing to OPMs for content, and senior management in universities have to decide how to negotiate an online shift for September and possibly beyond (and whatever you may think about some senior management, this is an impossibly difficult path to plot with so many unknowns). One aspect that hinders them, and which has been ongoing probably before the current people were in their positions, so it’s not really their fault, is the Year Zero mentality of ed tech. The approach of much of commercial ed tech, is (as a subset of tech generally) to sell the idea that the past is quaint, error ridden and largely irrelevant. When people talk of “future facing” as a virtue, they usually mean _exclusively_ future facing.
The problem this generates is that when the pandemic shit hits the fundamental business plan fan then we are building on foundations of sand. I don’t mean to bemoan “why doesn’t everyone have a detailed knowledge of ed tech?”, I know there are lots of competing interests for people’s time. But when the sector itself actively works against any historical legacy by always declaring the latest thing the very first instantiation then a bit of appreciation of its history goes a long way.
So, if for example, someone had written a book on recent history of ed tech, or someone else a review of the ed tech failures over the past decade, then it at least helps provide a basis for considering what to implement and some of the issues that have arisen before. What has surprised me about the pivot online is the way we have found ourselves revisiting the same sort of questions we thought we answered in 1999. Can you teach effectively online? (yes). Is it good quality? (yes). Is it cheaper? (no). Can we do widening participation this way? (yes). Is it easy? (no), etc, et bloody cetera.
This is partly because large numbers of people have suddenly been forced to engage with distance/online ed who didn’t have to previously, and the same presumptions exist. It’s like a mass emergency migration. But it’s a migration to a neighbouring country and if your current country hadn’t been denying the existence of the neighbour for so long, then it’d be an easier shift.
Even without going off and learning a history of ed tech then there is a benefit of understanding an institutional perspective about what has been tried, why things didn’t work, where the pockets of good practice are, etc. Audrey Watters also makes a convincing argument for thinking about the future as historians: “I think it’s interesting to consider this history because we can see in it what people in the past hoped that the future might be. Their imaginings and predictions were (are) never disinterested”. An understanding of the past helps inform the decisions of the present, even in unprecedented times.
I took part in a very fun session last week, hosted by Tom Farrelly. It was an online version of the successful Gasta he runs at ILTA and ALT-C conferences which consists of a series of 5 minute talks with Tom acting as compere, getting the audience to count to 5 in Gaelic and cutting you off if you dare go over. The tone of all the talks was just right – playful, fun but also very informative and engaging. Congrats to Tom and all the team for a great evening. You can watch all of them here: http://gasta.me/
I built up my post on the robustness of distance ed for my talk. I argued that the pandemic had revealed inherent weaknesses in the higher education system, including:
I argued that the internet was built as a robust system, designed to withstand elements of it being destroyed and still continuing. In order to realise this it had three key design principles:
This is what I argued in the previous post, that distance education replicates many of these characteristics. Post-Covid, when higher education reflects there is likely to be a desire to construct a more robust system, and so some of these aspects will be implemented in future higher ed systems.
I then revisited a paper I wrote a while ago with Terry Anderson, entitled “Digital resilience in higher education“. Before the term ‘resilience’ was co-opted by awful lifestyle gurus and Ayn Rand devotees and associated with even worse terms such as ‘grit’, it had a useful meaning from ecology. Holling described it as “a measure of the persistence of systems and of their ability to absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables.” Other’s then expanded it to apply to climate change in particular.
We then used Walker’s four aspects of resilience:
In our paper we used a scoring approach to examine these four aspects for a higher ed institutions resilience to a digital change:
This analysis can be summarised in a subjective scoring, allocating a score of 1 (weak resilience) to 10 (strong resilience) for each of the four factors. A score of 20 or lower would indicate an overall susceptibility to this particular digital factor,
But it could be an effective model for thinking about an HEI or HE in general’s ability to cope with pandemic. Consider your own institution if you are at one. How would they score in terms of conducting the online pivot:
As a strategic exercise this framework is worth using to consider how ready an institution is to cope with the pandemic and where its weaknesses lie. It is at least useful in a group session to frame the discussion I’ve found.
Here is a video of my gasta talk:
Unless you are very new here you will know that I like a metaphor, and I also like Jaws. So, here it is, the Jaws/Covid19 online pivot analogy you didn’t ask for and don’t want.
Jaws is a movie in two acts, much like our Pandemic response thus far. The first act takes place on the island of Amity, gearing up for its summer boom of the 4th July. Our central character, Chief Brody, wants to close the beaches, because people being eaten by a shark is a bad thing. The sartorially exemplary Mayor Vaughn wants to keep the beaches open because of the economy. People have been having some fun with this with regards to Trump and Johnson. But in higher ed terms there is a more stylistic analogy with this first act (although the second act is where I’ll focus). Amity Island is presented as idyllic by Spielberg, all bright sunshine and picket fences. The shark lurks out there in the deep, the dark, the unknown. This might be how some in higher ed have been operating too – the pandemic (the shark in this analogy, obviously), is bringing into focus many issues that have been downplayed. The reliance on overseas students for income is akin to Amity’s reliance on summer dollars. There are frailties everywhere in Amity that the shark’s presence exposes – minor corruption, class, incompetence, distrust of outsiders and precarious employment. You can map most of these on to higher ed also, as the weaknesses in a fragile system have been exposed.
After the body count rises, the Mayor is forced to face the inevitable consequences. The first act ends with Brody hiring fisherman Quint to kill the shark, accompanied by shark expert Hooper. Despite desires to carry on, higher ed reached a similar switch in the mood and tone of its narrative when the online pivot began. We’ve been through the “the beaches will be open on the 4th July” phase, when higher ed thought we could carry on business as usual, and now we’re into the unknown waters..
The second act focuses solely on the Orca boat and the three protagonists. For this part of the analogy to work, it’s important to accept that Jaws is not really a movie about a shark. It is in my reading, a movie about three aspects of humanity (or at least masculinity). It can also be interpreted as a patriarchal myth (men killing the symbolic female, we’ll come back to this) or an attack on capitalism. In the more straightforward three aspects interpretation, each core aspect of socialised masculinity is represented by one of the main characters: Brody is the family, domesticated man, Hooper, the intellectual and Quint, machismo. If you like Freud in your summer blockbusters, these can be interpreted ego, super-ego, and id. These three are in competition on the boat, and ultimately only two can emerge from their confrontation. They essentially form a triangle, with each element in tension with the other, but just maintaining a stable pact.
Along comes the shark and this fragile balance collapses. As anyone who has balanced cards to make a triangle will know, a collapsed line with two points is more stable and it will revert to this with the slightest disruption.So what has this to do with the online pivot and ed tech? In our analogy Brody represents learners – we want to do right by them. Hooper, the intellectual represents the academy and educators. This leaves foul mouthed man of reality, Quint who here represents ed tech vendors and OPM. Prior to the arrival of the shark they can exist in uncomfortable co-existence, like our three characters, but this is fragile. With the arrival of the shark, only two can survive ultimately. It can be any two from these three but not all of them.
You can have educators and ed tech vendors in a mutually, financially beneficial relationship that treats learners just as customers with a wallet. Post-pandemic there is a rush to vendors to create online courses and universities do this to ensure their income, particularly from overseas students. Alternatively, after the pandemic the lack of agility in universities and their frail finances sees many collapse, and learners turn to commercial providers. Vendors and learners engage in a form of deprofessionalised, unbundled education market. The third scenario (and the one which plays out in the film with Hooper and Brody surviving), is that educators and learners exist in a higher education system which after the pandemic and its reimagining of socialist intervention is based around education as a social and public good. The shark won’t let all three emerge from the crisis, now we get to decide which pair it is
A further perspective is that in all three of these scenarios, women and people of colour are excluded, and given recent thought leader battles this might be telling, but that would require a dedicated interpretation to do it justice.
Of course, none of this actually inevitable, and you can do your own analogy with any film you choose, in which vendors, educators and learners all co-exist for mutual benefit. But in this scenario, only two paddle back to shore. Jaws 2 gives us the perfect tagline for 2021 also – just when you thought it was safe to go back to campus…
Last Wednesday I held the last of (for now) the OU drop-in sessions for the sector. We looked at immediate solutions versus longer term ones, and issues of care and avoiding burnout. The video of the session is below. We looked at questions such as:
What I learnt from these sessions is that I was surprised how much we had to offer from an Open University perspective. That may sound odd, of course we would have a lot to offer, but as I stressed in every session, it’s a very different exercise taking a course online in a matter of weeks without the requisite infrastructure, compared to carefully crafted course developed over a couple of years. But there’s a lot we take for granted in distance ed courses that is novel to anyone accustomed solely to a face to face teaching context. That is no judgement, lecturers are busy enough with so many demands, there’s no reason why they should have developed expertise in delivering courses in a manner which is never required of them.
The types of things I mean include use of asynchronous communications, structuring activity around third party content, explicitly foregrounding social interactions, sensitivity to student’s home arrangements, online forms of assessment, and establishing care and rapport with students at a distance. None of these are rocket science, but they are different in the online context. While I think there are some solutions out there (for example, formalised learning design approaches) a lot of what is needed is ‘just’ helping educators to appreciate these differences and getting them to ask the right questions of their own courses.
Now we’re getting into the online pivot more substantially, higher education institutions are coming to terms it may not be a short-term emergency shift. It looks like the first semester of the 2020-21 year may be online, and if Covid-19 flares up again, who knows how long it may continue. While you could get away with “sticking classes on Zoom” for the immediate emergency, that won’t cut it in the medium term.
More long-term the pandemic will make many HEIs review the overall robustness of their offering, and seek to move portions online as a possible response to any future crisis. In a lot of senior management this induces something akin to panic. They have spent their careers advocating the superiority of the campus experience over distance and online versions. They have a lot of personal capacity invested in this, and a lot of construction projects based upon it. Shifting online, partially or wholly is not a problem they want to have.
In addition, time frames are short and financial pressures are heavy. This leads to something I’ve seen online and in personal communication – the desire for the magic button solution. An overly simplified version is something like “How do we push the Go Online button? Can you push it for us?” I’m sorry to tell you – there is no Go Online button. The good news is that it is entirely possible to create good, online courses in just about any subject, and students will do well in them and their performance and long term understanding of the topics will be as good, if not better, than those taught face to face. So that’s the good news, higher education isn’t going to die.
But I have some bad news too. In order to create the types of courses that achieve this the following is true:
What this means is, once the absence of the Go Online button has been realised, the temptation will be to outsource this headache to companies that offer, nay guarantee, a really fine, but expensive, Go Online button. See Durham’s approach for example. This is Magic-Buttonism – they are right to review their strategy and conclude that some courses will be online. But their failure to invest in this hitherto means they will now rush to an external provider, thus failing to develop the expertise they need. Disappointingly some of the backlash against the Durham proposals has been along the lines of online isn’t as good quality as f2f. That false binary is not helpful – the main issue here is the cut in academic staff and the outsourcing of expertise. Invest in your staff.
These OPM solutions are going to be pitched hard. There may be some use in them in the short term, but a better solution is to invest in staff (and here institutions might want to get expertise in to help), use OER for content, and make strategic decisions that have as their basis the belief that online, distance ed is a useful, valid form of education.
As part of the pandemic response I’ve been running informal weekly drop-in sessions offering Open University experience to the sector as colleagues in other universities seek to shift to an online & distance mode of education. Last week we focused on assessment. This is not really my area of expertise, but I’ve developed enough courses and we had sufficient others in the webinar to make it a useful discussion. Amongst the topics we looked at were:
The video (with me attempting to use the Question Mode setting) is below.
The next (final?) session is Wednesday 15th April 3-4pm BST, and the topic is Emergency vs longer term plans, implementing care & avoiding burnout. Usual link: https://bit.ly/OUonlinepivotTime converter at worldtimebuddy.comTime converter at worldtimebuddy.comwindow[wtb_event_widgets.pop()].init()
I hosted the second of the OU sector drop in sessions on Wednesday. The focus was on student support. You can see a recording of the session below, but here are some thoughts:
Icebreaker activities – sometimes those activities that work well face to face can be intrusive or less welcome online. Nigel Gibson told how he doesn’t use the “here are two truths and one falsehood about me, guess which is the lie” icebreaker. This can make people reveal things about themselves online they are not comfortable with.
Recreating social interaction – there is research that suggests students who form social bonds with others are more likely to continue with their studies. At a distance this social interaction happens less spontaneously than on a physical campus. Like so much of distance ed you have to explicitly design it in, and not just assume it will happen because through architecture.
Motivation – staying motivated when you’re studying on your own, surrounded by much of your conventional setting can be difficult. We discussed ways of helping this, which can include providing early and regular feedback. Structuring courses around discrete and achievable tasks and goals provides some of the gaming psychology on progression and motivation.
Group work – we discussed ways of getting learners to work collaboratively, including very structured activities with specific roles and outputs, to ‘lighter’ methods. These can include use of wikis, shared docs, aggregated blogs, assessed forum contributions, etc.
Being human – when you’re in a room with people, you’re automatically (a bit) human. Online though,§ you can be just disembodied text, and it’s easy to forget this and just dive in with the academic stuff. So making an effort (particularly now) just to check in, ask how everyone is, share something, connect with learners.
Go easy – don’t make learners sit down for 7 hours a day zoom, don’t grind them on assignment submission dates, rethink what plagiarism means – this is not business as normal, so cut them and yourself some slack.
Next week’s session is Wednesday 8th April 3-4pm UK time at https://gognoer.clickmeeting.com/oucovid19help – the topic is AssessmentTime converter at worldtimebuddy.comTime converter at worldtimebuddy.comwindow[wtb_event_widgets.pop()].init()
Here’s the video of last week’s session:
I’m responding to queries from a number of different routes, so I thought I would post responses to them here also.
This one came via Contact North’s Ask an Expert site.
Question: I am worried about completion rates in online learning – I gather that they are really low. What do we know about completion rates?
It depends on what is meant by online learning. That is sometimes equated with MOOCs, ie free, open courses that are unsupported. Here the completion rate is very low – about 10%. But in this case the learner has no investment in the course (they often sign up and never even attempt one element), and no human tutor or teacher support. For more carefully designed distance education courses where there is active human tutor support (such as we have at the Open University or Athabasca), the completion rate is much higher. Here there can be a number of other factors also. For instance, we operate open entry at the OU, so no entry requirements. This can mean people are not prepared for study and so completion rates are lower than for courses where there is a formal entry. But that is unrelated to the ‘online’ element.
But it does generally require more self-motivation from the learner to learn online, away from the physical cues that prompt learning. It also requires more organization of their time and study environment. But there are lots of things you can advise students to do to help here (eg see these tips https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/mar/26/how-to-study-at-home-during-coronavirus-by-online-students-and-tutors)
The level of study can also be important – people in the final year of a degree are more motivated to finish for example.
So, yes there are some added complications for the learner when you switch to online delivery, but these can be alleviated to quite some degree by good design, advice and just providing contact. Being online doesn’t necessarily equate to a low completion rate.
When the current crisis is over in terms of infection, the social and economic impact will be felt for a long time. One such hangover is likely to be the shift to online for so much of work and interaction. As the cartoon goes “these meetings could’ve been emails all along”. So let’s jump forward then a few years when online is the norm. We can imagine the following:
I just want to get in first with the predictions, so I can say “I told you so” later.
Allow me to elaborate. Organisations, particularly higher education ones can be slow to react. Someone commented once that the OU was like the army or the health care system, it took its time but when all those elements aligned it was powerful, robust and effective. The OU, like every other HEI, has been dealing with the very immediate issues of the Covid-19 crisis, and doing it very well. This is where those industrial systems pay off.
However, like many of my fellow academics, I’ve been receiving individual requests to help. This is difficult to manage, but also something we definitely want to do. And this is where having your own platform comes in useful. It is another instance of the principle I outlined with Guerrilla Research, namely that of not needing permission. By having a blog, Twitter and other tools (I have a licence for clickmeeting, but could be Zoom) you can effect some form of Guerrilla Support without needing to seek permission to use official tools, to check server loads, ask for IT set up or removal of existing access limits. You can just do stuff like impromptu drop-in sessions or gather resources, offer advice, etc.
When the OU and other HEIs can focus beyond the immediate pivot and get their responses together it will be better than anything those of us with individual can do. But in the interim, a quick, agile response is facilitated by having your own domain and identity. So, yeah, thanks Jim.
I deliberately didn’t record this one because it was a bit trial and error (mainly error on my part) and also I thought people may want to speak freely. But I think I will record later ones for those who can’t make them. This one was general, so people could ask any question, but we decided to theme later ones. I’ve set up a google doc so you can add suggestions for themes, format and useful links if you want: https://bit.ly/OUdropinideas
The next session will be Wednesday 1st April 3-4pm UK time (I think the clocks go forward in the UK this summer, so check time in the handy widget below. At this stage I’m lucky if I know what day it is).Time converter at worldtimebuddy.comTime converter at worldtimebuddy.comwindow[wtb_event_widgets.pop()].init()
The topic will be Student Support for half an hour and then general questions for half an hour. Same link: https://bit.ly/OUonlinepivot
I’ve got these scheduled every Wednesday at the same time until the end of April. Once again, OU colleagues, associate lecturers and students it would be VERY helpful if you could drop in. Reminder though this is not for supporting OU staff, but rather those in other institutions. Hope to see some of you online on Wednesday!
One thing the crisis has revealed very starkly is that it is the everyday that we value. It is not the expensive truffles you need now, but toilet roll. It is not the innovative silicon valley entrepreneur we value now but the person stacking shelves in supermarkets. There is a lesson in this for education too.
I’ve seen people suggesting radical new ideas, innovative things to do in teaching and research. Now is not the time for your social distance jetpack idea. The best thing we can do for students, staff and researchers is to try and keep things as everyday and calm as possible. And by everyday I don’t mean ‘carry on giving face to face lectures’, but I do mean, no new fancy tech you’ve always wanted to try. Email lists might be all you need right now.
For the Open University, while some of this can be realised, there is a big struggle to get all the support staff set up at home. This may be unsexy, non-innovative work but it is actually the stuff that matters. For researchers, reassuring them that they won’t lose grants or studentships is more important than suggesting they pivot their research to include a COVID-19 angle. Business near to normal would be the greatest achievement we could realise.
To clarify – I don’t mean we should expect staff and students to carry on as if it is business as normal. Working or studying from home (with children or family around), being ill, or just the general psychological stress of living in a dystopian movie are going to mean people are definitely not going to be productive as normal. What I mean is that institutions and individuals who can, should focus on the mundane elements that will help people retain some sense of normalcy. Payroll is an obvious example, make sure that system is working if everything else goes down. Websites, and access to main systems. If your team has a regular Wednesday morning donut gathering, then replicating this online is more of a priority than ensuring the strategic review is still on track. These boring, everyday things we take for granted are the key to the next few months.
When you live in extraordinary times, the ordinary becomes remarkable. It is time to get ordinary, get beige, get vanilla, get boring.
Several people (no, they’re not imaginary) have asked if the OU can make its expertise available to other institutions and educators as they engage in the online pivot. Of course, the immediacy of this shift is very different from designing a purposefully distance ed course with the luxury of time, so some of that expertise may not be appropriate. But some of it will. In addition, I think as the immediate implementation settles down people will start looking more medium to long term. Will the first semester next year be at a distance? Should we build in more distance ed options as part of our contingency planning?
So I’ve press ganged some of my IET colleagues into saying they will join me. I haven’t had time to do a full recruitment, so ALL Open University colleagues please join and share your experience. I’ll see if it gets any traction, if it’s just me and the dog, fair enough, we can play solitaire. If more popular then we may theme later sessions and get in appropriate staff. At the moment they will start general.
I have scheduled them for every Wednesday 3-4pm GMT in clickmeeting, starting Wed 25th March, using the same URL: https://bit.ly/OUonlinepivot
This is unofficial I ought to stress, and if an official version comes along, I shall bow out. But in the interest of moving quickly and all that, I thought I’d start here.
Note, it’s not aimed at supporting Open University staff, or students, there definitely are official things for that, which I wouldn’t want to cut across. This is help for those in other institutions: individual educators, ed tech support teams, student support, admin, library staff etc who are now faced with operating at a distance.
Obvious caveat: we may well not have the answers to queries and anything we do say is not official advice.
Hope to see some of you online – we’re winging this, but let’s wing together.
Amidst the excellent advice and community spirit shown for the online pivot, it has also become apparent that non-specific, non-academic support is going to be valuable. I blogged before that with our GO-GN network we know that emotional support is as valuable as academic support. In a PhD it is as (if not more) important to find people who understand you, and what you are going through as it is to find advice on your chosen methodology.
For students and educators, as we go through this unprecedented global convulsion, this type of emotional support will be more valued. Not because it will help students stay on the course or get good grades, but because we’re people who need to stay rooted in our humanity.
So some things I’ve done, or am in the process of setting up:
I think it’s key for these drop in sessions to just be there. They don’t have to be about an academic topic. But you may want to have some prompts eg: Things you are doing now you’re at home that you have put off; Tips for keeping children occupied; Memes to make for the online pivot, etc.
I have also started listening to DS106Radio again. It’s great music, but also it is very comforting to hear Jim Groom broadcasting from his house in Trento, where they are in lockdown. By responding to twitter he creates a small global community and you feel less isolated. Not that everyone should listen to DS106, but starting your own internet radio may be a nice accompaniment to the apocalypse.
The online pivot is perhaps better considered as a pivot to distance ed, in that it is focused on delivery and support to students remote from campus. Online is how we will mostly realise it, but it is the distance that is the key factor. For many OU students, in terms of their study (although see below), the next few weeks are as near to business as normal as can be managed, when compared with the disruption students on face to face campuses will encounter.
A long time ago (2007) I wrote an article called “The distance from isolation: Why communities are the logical conclusion in e-learning“. It argued that “the internet is built around key technology design features of openness, robustness and decentralisation. These design features have transformed into social features, which are embodied within the cultural values of the internet. By examining applications that have become popular on the net, the importance of these values is demonstrated.” It was a bit techno-determinist, and sort ‘wow, isn’t the internet great!”. But I was thinking about it last night – the key features of the internet which made it robust also apply to much of distance ed. We can now consider some of these:
This is by no means an official OU risk assessment, but here are some thoughts on potential weaknesses or risks in the distance model in times of crisis:
So we could do better to mitigate these risks, but if we think crises such as the current one may come along in different forms (economic, supply chain, brexit, Trump crises etc.) then considering robustness in the higher education system will be an outcome of the coronavirus situation.
As the pivot to online gathers apace, some colleagues have been discussing if we have useful resources at the Open University to help. Lots of other people are doing excellent work online, so I won’t try and collate everything that is out there but rather just focus on OU resources. While we do know a lot about distance & online learning, it’s important to recognise that what is happening now is quite different in nature. This is an emergency, swift response in switching classes to online, which is not the same as a carefully planned 5 year strategy. Our courses take a long time to develop and have the systems in place for production and support. This is not the same as switching your class to Zoom next week.
But having said that, we do have lots of resources that are useful. And most of the OpenLearn content is licensed under a Creative Commons licence (BY-NC-SA), so they can be reused. This isn’t the most liberal licence, but it basically means give attribution, don’t try and sell it and share it under a similar licence. In this situation I don’t think OU lawyers are going to be coming after you if you don’t share it back into OpenLearn. So, it is there to be used and reused. This is different from a lot of the MOOCs I’ve seen and is crucial I think – what this means is that unis and colleges can take the material and adapt it for their staff, which may well be more beneficial. So below are some resources that I hope will be useful. OU colleagues – if you have anything else to add to this list, please drop me a note in the comments.
OpenLearn collection for Online Pivot – the excellent team at OpenLearn kindly pulled together a number of resources that will be useful.
Take your teaching online – a free course, that can be studied any time. About 24 hours total study time, it is badged so you can get a badge or certificate if you want, and available in download formats of Word, PDF, Kindle. It’s included in the above but I wanted to highlight it as it’s probably the key resource.
Being an OU student – your students may need advice on studying full time online also.
OpenLearn YouTube channel – lots of useful educational videos that can be used as resources
OpenLearn iTunes U channel – iTunes U isn’t the thing anymore but there’s still a lot of useful resources on here including podcasts, video, ebooks that can be incorporated into courses.
The Online Educator – FutureLearn MOOC, on things to consider in becoming an online educator. I’ve asked them to keep this open and running rather than fixed date cohorts.
What to do if you suddenly find yourself teaching at a distance – a Wonkhe article from my former colleague Doug Clow. Some very useful tips, and I know it’s Wonkhe, but as Doug worked at the OU for so long, I’m claiming it.
Chris Williams Twitter thread – Chris (an Historian at the OU) has gathered together some excellent advice in this thread
The Digital Scholar – this short course is probably more for the long term, but there may be some useful parts about thinking of online practice