Three ways to save distance universities

TELUQ logoToday brings another bit of bad news for a distance education institution, with TELUQ’s future looking uncertain, though it is good to see that its importance and contribution is also recognized, and it is a long way from dead yet. Though rumours of Athabasca University’s own demise resulting mainly from our acting president’s message that has widely been construed as a suicide note to the world are greatly exaggerated, and repudiated by the acting president himself, similar issues are reflected here and in the Open University, UK, that has lost a quarter of its students over the past five years.  I have heard informal whispers from Europe that the OUNl is in similarly dire straits, though have no references to support that and it might just be hearsay – I’d welcome any news on that.

We are all institutions that were established within a very few years of one another (AU and OU-UK within months of each other) at a time that there were no viable higher education alternatives for students without formal qualifications, who were stuck in a location without a university, who were in full-time employment, or for whatever reason could not or would not attend a physical institution.

Moving on 40-50 years, times have changed dramatically but, fundamentally, we have not. Sure, we have mostly dropped the archaic technologies that we used when we were founded, but paper course packs and associated processes and pedagogies lurk deep within our organizational DNA even if the objects themselves are mostly a memory. Sure, we have, collectively, been leaders and prime movers in establishing the research, the pedagogies and the technologies of distance education that are now widespread in most physical universities, but it is notable that most of our innovative practices have been taken up more widely elsewhere than in our own institutions. And there are lots of alternatives elsewhere nowadays, from MOOCs to the massive growth of distance courses on face-to-face campuses, and much else besides.

Competition is only one of many reasons for the peril distance institutions are now in. It is odd, at first glance, that we have reached this point because we were first past the post for decades and, thanks to our relative independence of physical infrastructure and our research leadership, should have been more agile in adapting to what, from the early 90s, has clearly been a rapidly changing educational and technological landscape to which we should have been perfectly adapted. But there are some critical structural flaws in our design that have held us back. All of the open universities of this era originally adopted an industrial design model, based heavily on the work of people like Otto Peters and Charles Wedermeyer, who talked of independent learning but actually meant anything but when it came to teaching. This was essential in pre-Internet times, because communication was too slow and cumbersome to do anything else, both pedagogically and in business processes. But it had systemic consequences.

We have been and to a large extent remain driven by process in all that we do. We were designed primarily as machines for higher education, not as communities of scholars. Just as we structured our teaching, so we structured our organizations and, as transactional distance theory suggests, the result was less dialogue, especially in places like AU that had a distributed workforce. We have inherited a culture of process and structure, and consequent sluggish change. This has been improving in places thanks to things like the Landing at AU and similar initiatives elsewhere, but not fast enough and, certainly at AU and I gather also in our sister institutions, there have been steps backwards as well as forwards. At AU we have, of late, made some very poor ICT choices and retrograde organizational restructuring that actually increases, rather than reduces the amount of structure and process, and that reduces the potential for the spread of knowledge and dialogue. Meanwhile, thanks to our traditional course model, with its lack of feedback loops, we have till now mainly designed our teaching around quality assurance, not quality control: courses can take years to prepare and tend to be pretty well written but, for the majority, their success is measured by meaningless proxies that tell us little or nothing about their true impact and effectiveness. Though there are plenty of exceptions, too few courses use pedagogies, processes and other technologies that allow us to know our students and gain deep understanding of their concerns and interests.

Three things that could save open and distance universities from irrelevance

Given the imminent peril that open and distance universities appear to be finding themselves in, the solution is not to tweak what we have or to seek even more efficiencies in processes that are no longer relevant. Now is the time for a little bit of reinvention: not much. All of what is needed already exists in pockets. We have learned a lot – far more than our physical counterparts – about the challenges of distance learning and many of us have discovered ways of doing it that work. And, for all the path dependencies that claw at us, we do have innate organizational agility, so change is not impossible. More to the point, it is worth doing: distance education has innate advantages that physically co-present education (there must be a better term!) cannot hope to match.

At least part of the solution lies firstly in capitalizing on and enhancing the natural benefits that distance learning brings, notably in terms of freedom. Secondly, it lies in reducing as many of its disadvantages as we can.

Distance learning is all about freedom, but we have inherited two things from our physical forebears that unnecessarily constrain that: fixed-length courses, and accreditation umbilically linked to teaching. We need to rid ourselves of fixed-length courses, and disaggregate learning from assessment, so that learners can choose to work on things that really matter to them and gain accreditation for what they know rather than what we choose to teach. Right now, a course is like one of those cable TV packages that contains one or two channels you actually want and a whole load that you do not. The tightly bound assessments force students to bow to our needs, not theirs, which is awful for motivation and retention. This means that those with prior knowledge are bored, those who find it difficult are over-pressured, and the point of learning becomes not skill acquisition but credit acquisition. This in turn reinforces an unhealthy power relationship that only ever had any point in the first place because of the constraints of teaching in physical classrooms, and that is ultimately demotivating (extrinsically motivating) for all concerned.

This is ridiculous when we do not have such constraints – lack of need for teacher control (unless students want it, of course – but that’s the point, students can choose) is one of the key ways that distance learning is inherently better than classroom learning. Classroom teachers need control. Indeed, it is almost impossible to do it effectively without it, notwithstanding a lot of tricks and techniques that can somewhat limit the damage for those that hate sticks and carrots. At the very least they need to get people in one place at one time, and organize behaviour once everyone is there. We do not.

We need better tailored learning, and to support many different ways of doing it. Smaller chunks would help a lot – the equivalent of unbundling channels on a cable TV package – but, really, courses should be no bigger or smaller than they need to be for the purpose. Only rarely is that 15 weeks/100 hours, or whatever standard size universities choose to use. We do it for reasons that are solely related to organizational convenience and that emerged only because of the need to schedule students, teachers, and classrooms in physical spaces. Some students may need no tuition at all – all adult learners come with some knowledge, and some bring a lot. Some may need more than we currently give. We need to recognize and accommodate all that diversity. One of the most effective ways to handle our accreditation role under such circumstances is to have separate assessment of learning, unrelated to the course in any direct way. Our challenge and PLAR processes at AU are almost ready for that already, so it’s not an impossible shift. The other effective way to handle accreditation when we no longer control the inputs and outputs is to negotiate learning outcomes with the students through personalized learning contracts. There are plenty of models for such competency-based, andragogic ways of doing things: we would not be the first, by any means, and already run quite a few courses and processes that allow for it.

The second part of the solution lies in reducing or even removing the relative disadvantages of distance education. The largest of these by far is social isolation and its side-effects, notably on motivation. We need to build a richer, more connected community, to employ pedagogies that take advantage of the fact that we actually have about 40,000 students passing through every year at AU (OU-UK has many more, despite its losses), and to better support our teachers and researchers in engaging with one another and/or learning from one another. In too many of our courses and programs, students may never even be aware of others, let alone benefit from learning with them. This does not imply that we should always force our students to collaborate (or force them to do anything) and it certainly doesn’t mean we should do truly stupid things like give marks for discussion contributions, but it does mean creating ubiquitous opportunities to engage, and making others (and their learning) more visible in the process. This matters as much to staff as it does to students. The Landing is a partial technological solution (or support for a solution) to that problem but it does not go nearly far enough and is not deeply embedded as it should be. Such opportunities to engage and to be aware of others should be everywhere in our virtual space, not on a separate site that only about a quarter of staff and students visit. And, of course, it only really makes sense if we adapt the ways we support learning to match, not just in our deliberate teaching but in our attitudes to sharing, engaging and connecting.

There are lots of other things that could be done – whole books can be and have been written about that – but these three simple changes would be sufficient, I think, to bring about profound positive change throughout the entire system:

  1. valorizing and enabling the social,
  2. variable length courses and lessons, and
  3. disaggregating assessment from learning

Physical universities would equally benefit from all of these but, apart from in their social affordances (that are certainly great, if sometimes under-utilized), have far less innate ability to support them. I think that means that distance universities still have a place at the vanguard of change.

It has long annoyed me that distance education is seen by many as a poor cousin to face-to-face learning. In some cases and in some ways, sure, physical co-presence gives an edge. But, in others, especially in terms of freedom – pedagogical and personal freedom, not just in terms of space, pace and place – distance education can be notably superior. To achieve its potential, it just needs to throw off the final shackles it inherited from its ancestor.

On the value of awards

The week before last was a bit of a gold-star week for me. Firstly, I received Athabasca University’s Craig Cunningham Memorial Award for Teaching Excellence.  Secondly, Jisc named me one of the 50 top social media influencers in UK higher education (I was eligible because, though I don’t live in the UK any more, I still maintain strong informal and formal ties). It’s always nice to have one’s ego stroked, and mine was purring like a satisfied kitten for some time:  the accompanying photo of one of my kittens gives a rough rendition of my state of mind. Also, I am very Kittenthankful to those that nominated and supported me: thank you all! None-the-less, I have somewhat mixed feelings about both of these. Partly, it’s just because of embarrassment and a general sense of lack of worthiness. I know from intimate personal experience that I am at the very least as awful as I am great.  Equally, I am acutely aware that there are very many people who do things far better than me in many significant ways in both areas, and who did not receive an award for it. But there’s more to my discomfort than that. In this post I am mostly going to focus on the teaching award, but some of these issues relate to being on the list of UK social media influencers too.

The teaching crowd vs the teaching star

The teaching award bothers me, mainly, because no teacher is or should be a stand-alone prima donna or primo uomo, least of all in a highly distributed teaching environment like that at Athabasca. At AU, and to an only slightly lesser extent elsewhere, teaching is always the work of a team, always the result of a much larger community than just that team, and never, ever, the sole domain of one individual. Students (especially), administrators, technicians, learning designers, editors, graphic artists, fellow academics, tutors, textbook authors, Wikipedia editors, Facebook friends and the collectively generated processes and culture that make the university what it is, are at the very least as significant as any one person. To give one person an award for what we all do together therefore just doesn’t make much sense. It’s particularly ironic that I should get a teaching award in the light of a great deal of my work, which for more than 15 years has been about just that – how crowds and systems teach. The individual we label as a ‘teacher’ is just a part of a much larger teaching gestalt and need not be its star. It is true that the charismatic inspirers and/or visible innovators and/or empathetic carers do tend to be the teachers we most remember and are the ones that we tend to nominate for awards. But they also tend to be, for much the same reasons,  the worst teachers for some people: love ’em or hate ’em, there’s not much in between. Truly great teachers, including all those that make up the gestalt, often disappear into the background. My friend and mentor Richard Mitchell wanted a t-shirt slogan for education conferences that summed it up nicely: ‘shut up and let them learn’ (I don’t know if he ever had it made). The point is that it should never be about teachers teaching: it’s always about learners learning, and there are many ways to support that, most of the best of which are driven by the learners, not the teachers. Teachers that do that well are not always the ones that get the awards.

Competition vs caring

I was a bit disconcerted to learn on the day of the award ceremony that my faculty has been competitively pushing its staff for these awards over a period of years so, for some, this was less about celebrating excellence than winning. I don’t think academia needs to be nor should it be gamified: it has far more than enough of that already. If these contests were simple games with clear rules that made winning and losing unequivocal and fair, I would be fine with it. But, outside such a clearly game-like context, competition is not good for motivation – whether you are a winner or a loser – and it is often destructive to communities. Like performance-related pay and grades (deeply flawed ideas), it can all too easily make the award into the goal, which takes away the love of the activity itself as well as shaping how we perform it. This can very easily turn into a bit of behaviourist nonsense that can drive action in the short term but weaken interest in the long term. It is fundamentally unfair, too, which can cause unnecessary tension and divisions in a community that, by its nature, needs to work together to a common goal that everyone plays an important part in reaching. Giving an award is also an expression of power: a bit of behavioural shaping done to us, not with us, the use of award committees and panels notwithstanding. At the AU awards ceremony our leaders told us how proud they were of us. They meant this very kindly, and were simply following a traditional pattern and doing the right thing for the ritual purposes of the event, but it’s not a good idea. Sure, feel pride to be part of a great learning community, show interest in what we do, care about what we do together. Yes, by all means, celebrate the good things we have done, all of us, but not that we, as individuals, are therefore good. That’s too much like patting a dog on the head for behaving the way we want him to behave.

A better way?

What really made my ego purr was not the award itself but reading the generous things kind colleagues and students wrote about me in support of the nomination. Those brought tears to my eyes, and that’s what I am really grateful for.  So, rather than giving one person an award, which seems a bit arbitrary and divisive, I think it would make far more sense that we should all regularly nominate at least one other person for acclaim, but that we should scrap giving an actual award or, if we must, should give it to everyone or a large group. The really valuable part, from a personal perspective, is not the award as such but the kindness and affirmation from friends, students and colleagues. It’s also really nice to give such acclaim. Everyone’s a winner.

The value of awards

For all my misgivings, I think that awards do have real value, especially to those that are not in the competition themselves. Awards are good ways to make concrete the values that we (or, at least, the givers of the awards) deem to be significant. By giving an award for teaching, AU is signalling the importance of teaching to its employees and to the rest of the world, and that’s a message worth sending. Similarly for Jisc, its influential position means that it got a lot of attention for not just the contest but, more significantly, the criteria for success in that contest.  That is really valuable. Social media activities are seldom given much weight when deciding on promotions or research excellence in academia, but they should be. By far the most significant measure of success in academia is whether our work increases the knowledge in the world, whether through research or teaching or dialogue, and social media are a great means of doing that. The most popular of my papers and books have been read by a few thousand people, and most have been read by far fewer than that. My biggest keynotes have addressed less than a thousand people, and some conference papers have reached no more than a few dozen readers and attendees. Some of my blog posts and shared bookmarks have had tens of thousands of readers, and most are read by thousands. There are different measures of quality for such things, for sure: most of my posts are far more like presentations intended to spark ideas than rigorous papers and books and I doubt that any have ever been cited in academic literature. But, though not rivaling peer-reviewed papers, that is still useful, I think, for exactly the reasons it is useful to attend conference presentations and, in the same way, each one is an opportunity to interact directly. Blog posts themselves may not always have much academic clout compared with peer reviewed papers but, sometimes, the dialogue that develops around them can become an incredibly significant artefact in itself, much like the glosses on mediaeval manuscripts, entering depths that can put most peer review to shame. Perhaps the Jisc list will catalyze further social media activity among those who feel that their time is better spent publishing work in journals with high impact factors and low readership. Perhaps it will encourage those outsiders to investigate what those of us who care about such things are sharing. Perhaps it will act as a pre-filter to help them to find stuff worth reading. Perhaps it will inspire innovative uses of the tools and spread good practices. Perhaps it is a good thing to simply assert that there is a community that we are part of. Awards can be catalysts for change, builders of community, and organizers of values. That’s good.

There is, too, some value in recognizing the value of people and what they do for whatever reason. I find it odd that, as well as awards for specific activities, AU gives long service awards. That rather implies that staying here might have been an achievement in itself, which further implies that it might have been a chore to stick it out for so long. That’s not a good message – I’m here because I want to be here, not because I feel I must – and it is made worse by adding a reward for it. To be fair it is, quite literally, a token reward, of a few dollars to spend in the AU store and a pin. But, as carrots go, that’s likely worse than no carrot at all: it sends both a message that it is an extrinsic reward – akin to a payment – and that we are not worth very much. I reckon a bit of applause and a hand-shake is more than enough acknowledgement without muddying the waters with cold hard cash. As a ritual, though, celebrating the simple fact of our continuing community is very worthwhile. Not only is it an opportunity to meet and eat with colleagues in person – a rare thing at AU – it’s an affirmation of the value of the community itself. We need such rituals and celebrations of togetherness.

And that is, I think, the most profound value of awards in general. They are, arguably, counter-productive as ways to drive good practice or encourage better behaviour in those that compete for them. But the ceremonies associated with them and the shared values that they represent bind all of us. They symbolize what we endeavour to be, they signal the values that we cherish, they exclude those outside the community and thus contribute to the community’s internal cohesion, albeit at a potential cost of competition. On balance, for all the complexities and risks, that’s not a bad thing.

A waste of time

pocket watch 

A while back I wrote a blog post about the apparent waste of time involved in things like reading email, loading web pages, etc. At the end of the post I suggested that the simplistic measure of time as money that I was using should be viewed with great suspicion, though it is precisely the kind of measure that we routinely use. This post is mostly about why we should be suspicious.

But first, my basic initial argument, restated and stripped to its bones, is simple. According to the vacation request form that I have to fill in (and, after taking vacation, repeat the process) an Athabasca University working day is 7 hours, or 25,200 seconds, long. There are about 1,200 employees at Athabasca University so, if each employee could save 21 seconds in a day (25,200/1200 = 21), it would be like getting another employee. Equally, every time we do something that loses everyone 21 seconds a day for no good reason, the overall effect is the same as firing someone. I observed then that we have lately adopted a lot of ICT systems that waste a great deal more than that. Since then, things have been getting worse. We are about to move to an Office 365 system, for instance, that I am guessing will cost us the time of at least 5 people, maybe more, compared with our current aged Zimbra suite. It’s not rocket science: a minute of everyone’s day easily accounted for in loading time alone, which I have  checked seems to be roughly 20 seconds longer than the old system, and most people will load it many times a day. At the start, it will take way more than that, what with training, migration, confusion and all and, if my experience of Microsoft’s Exchange system is anything to go by, it is going to carry on sapping minutes out of everyone’s day for the foreseeable future thanks to poor design and buggy implementation. So far, so depressing.

But what have we actually lost?

The simplistic assumption that time is money has a little merit when tasks are routine and mechanical. If you are producing widgets then time spent not producing widgets equates directly to widgets lost, so money is lost for every second spent doing something else. Even that notion is a bit suspect, though, inasmuch as there are normally diminishing returns on working more. Even if a task requires only the slightest hint of skill or judgement, the correlation between time and money is a long, long way from linear. Far more often than not, productivity is lower if you insist on uninterrupted working or longer hours than it would be if you insisted on regular breaks and shorter hours.  At the other end of the spectrum, it is also true, even in the most creative and open occupations, that it is possible to spend so much time doing something else that you never get round to the thing that you claim to be doing, though it is very hard to pin down the actual break-even point. For instance, a poet might spend 23.5 out of every 24 hours not actually writing poetry and that might be absolutely fine. On the other hand, if a professor spends a similar amount of time not marking student work there will probably be words. For most occupations, there’s a happy balance.

But what about those enforced breaks caused by waiting for computers to do something, or playing a mechanical role in a bureaucratic system, or reading an ‘irrelevant’ all-staff email? These are the ones that relate most directly to my original point, and all are quite different cases, so I will take each in turn, as each is illustrative of some of the different ways time and value are strangely connected.

Waiting for the machine

As I wait for machines to do something I have from time to time tried to calculate the time I ‘lose’ to them. As well as time waiting for them to boot up, open a web page, open an application, convert a video or save a document, this includes various kinds of futzing, such as organizing emails or files, backing up a machine, updating the operating system, fixing things that are broken, installing tools, shuffling widgets, plugging and unplugging peripherals, and so on. On average, given that almost my entire working life is mediated through a computer, I reckon that an hour or more of every day is taken up with such things. Some days are better than others, but some are much worse. I sometimes lose whole days to this. Fixing servers can take much more. Because I work in computing and find the mental exercise valuable, futzing is not exactly ‘lost’ time for me, especially as (done well) it can save time later on. Nor, for that matter, is time spent waiting for things to happen. I don’t stop thinking simply because the machine is busy. In fact, it can often have exactly the opposite effect. I actually make very deliberate point of setting aside time to daydream throughout my working day because that’s a crucial part of the creative, analytic and synthetic process. Enforced moments of inactivity thus do a useful job for me, like little inverted alarm clocks reminding me when to dream. Slow machines (up to a point) do not waste time – they simply create time for other actitivies but, as ever, there is a happy balance.

Bacn

pig, showing cuts of meat

Bacn is a bit like spam except that it consists of emails that you have chosen or are obliged to receive. Like spam, though, it is impersonal, often irrelevant, and usually annoying. Those things from mailing lists you sometimes pay attention to, calls for conference papers that might be interesting, notifications from social media systems (like the Landing) that have the odd gem, offers from stores you have shopped at, or messages to all-staff mailing lists that are occasionally very important but that are mostly not –  I get a big lot of bacn. Those ‘irrelevant’ allstaff emails are particularly interesting examples. They are actually very far from irrelevant even though they may have no direct value to the work that I am doing, because they are part of the structure of the organization. They are signals passing around the synapses of the organizational brain that help give its members a sense of belonging to something bigger, even if the particular signals themselves might rarely fire their particular synapses. Every one is an invitation to being a potential contributor to that bigger thing. They are the cloth that is woven of the interactions of an organization that helps to define the boundaries of that organization and reflect back its patterns and values. The same is true of social media notifications: I only glance at the vast majority but, just now and then, I pick up something very useful and, maybe once every day or two, I may contribute to the flow myself. The flow is part of my extended brain, like an extra sense that keeps me informed about the zeitgeist of my communities and social networks and that makes me a part of them. Time spent dealing with such things is time spent situating myself in the sets, networks and groups that I belong to. Organizations, especially those that are largely online, that are seeking to reduce bacn had better beware that they don’t lose all that salty goodness because bacn is a thin web that binds us. Especially in a distributed organization, if you lose bacn, you lose the limbic system of the organization, or even, in some cases, its nervous system. Organizations are not made of processes; they are made of people, and those people have to connect, have to belong. Bacn supports belonging and connection. But, of course, it can go too far. It is always worth remembering that 21 seconds of bacn is another person’s time gone (for a large company, it might be a second or less) and that person might have been doing something really productive with all of that lost time. But to get rid of bacn makes no more sense than to get rid of brain cells because they don’t address your current needs. An organization, not just its members, has to think and feel, and bacn is part of that thinking and feeling. As ever, though, there is a happy balance.

Being a cog

cogs

I’ve saved this one till last because it is not like the others. Being a cog is about the kind of thing that requires individuals to do the work of a machine. For instance, leave-reporting systems that require you to calculate how much leave you have left, how many hours there are in a day, or which days are public holidays (yes, we have one of those). Or systems for reclaiming expenses that require you to know the accounting codes, tax rates, accounting regulations, and approvers for expenses (yes, we have one of those too). Or customer relationship management systems that bombard you with demands that actually have nothing to do with you or that you have already dealt with (yes – we have one of those as well). Or that demand that you record the number of minutes spent using a machine that is perfectly capable of recording those minutes itself (yup). This is real work that demands concentration and attention, but it does nothing to help with thinking or social cohesion and does nothing to help the organization grow or adapt. In fact, precisely the opposite. It is a highly demotivating drain on time and energy that saps the life out of an organization, a minute or two at a time. No one benefits from having to do work that machines can do faster, more accurately and more reliably (we used to have one of those). It is plain common sense that investing in someone who can build build and maintain better cogs is a lot more efficient and effective than trying (and failing) to train everyone to act exactly like a cog. This is one of those tragedies of hierarchically managed systems. Our ICT department has been set the task of saving money and its managers only control their own staff and systems, so the only place they can make ‘savings’ is in getting rid of the support burden of making and managing cogs. I bet that looks great on paper – they can probably claim to have saved hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars although, actually, they have not only wasted tens of millions of dollars, but they have probably set the organization on a suicide run. But they could as easily have gone the other way and it might have been just as bad. Over-zealous cog-making is harmful, both because ICT departments have a worrisome tendency to over-do it (I cannot have assignments with no marks, for example, if I wish to enter them into our records system, which I have to do because otherwise the cog that pays tutors will not turn) and because systems change, which means many of the cogs inside them have to change too, and it is not just the devil’s work but an accounting nightmare to get them all to change at the right time. Well-designed ICT systems make it easy to take out a cog or some other sub-assembly and replace it, and they use tools that make cog production fast and simple. Poorly designed systems without such flexibility enslave their users, just as much as those that have to submit to cog-retraining are enslaved when their systems change. As ever, there is a happy balance.

Wasting time?

I’m not sure that time is ever lost – it is just spent doing other things. It can certainly be wasted, though, if those other things do not make a positive difference. But it is complicated. Here are just a few of the things I have done today – not a typical day, but few of them are:

  • reading/responding to emails from staff, students and others: roughly 2.5 hours
  • writing a forward for a book: roughly 2 hours
  • writing this post: roughly 1 hour
  • walking: roughly 45 minutes
  • making/consuming food and drink: about 30 minutes
  • reading/ making notes on books and papers: roughly 1 hour
  • replying to interview questions: approximately 45 minutes
  • checking my boat didn’t die in the rainstorm: roughly half an hour
  • cleaning and tidying: maybe half an hour
  • writing a book: about 20-30 minutes
  • replying to student posts: roughly 1 hour
  • marking: roughly 1 hour
  • waiting for computers: perhaps half an hour
  • grooming/washing/etc: maybe half an hour
  • checking/listening to the news and weather: roughly 45 minutes
  • taking an afternoon nap: about half an hour
  • Skyping: roughly 15 minutes
  • Deleting spam from the Elgg community site: about 10 minutes
  • Drying a wet dog: about 5 minutes
  • serious thinking: roughly 12 hours

There are still a couple of hours left of my day before I read a book and eventually go to sleep. Maybe I’ll catch a movie while reading some news after preparing some more food. Maybe I’ll play some guitar or try to get the hang of the sansula one more time. With a bit of luck I might get to chat with my wife (who has been out all day but would normally figure in the list quite a bit). But I hope you get the drift. I don’t think it makes much sense to measure anyone’s life in minutes spent on activities, except for the worst things they do. Time may be worth measuring and accounting for when it is spent doing the things that make us less than human, but it would be better to not do such things in the first place. I have put off responding to the CRM system today and only spent a few minutes checking admin systems in general because, hell, it’s Monday and I have had other things to do. It is all about achieving a happy balance.

The LMS as a paywall

I was writing about openness in education in a chapter I am struggling with today, and had just read Tony Bates’s comments on iQualify, an awful cloud rental service offering a monolithic locked-in throwback that just makes me exclaim, in horror, ‘Oh good grief! Seriously?’ And it got me thinking.

Learning management systems, as implemented in academia, are basically paywalls. You don’t get in unless you pay your fees. So why not pick up on what publishers infamously already do and allow people to pay per use? In a self-paced model like that used at Athabasca it makes perfect sense and most of the infrastructure – role-based time-based access etc – and of course the content already exists. Not every student needs 6 months of access or the trimmings of a whole course but, especially for those taking a challenge route (just the assessment), it would often be useful to have access to a course for a little while in order to get a sense of what the expectations might be, the scope of the content, and the norms and standards employed. On occasion, it might even be a good idea to interact with others. Perhaps we could sell daily, weekly or monthly passes. Or we could maybe do it at a finer level of granularity too/instead: a different pass for different topics, or different components like forums, quizzes or assignment marking. Together, following from the publishers’ lead, such passes might cost 10 or 20 times the total cost of simply subscribing to a whole course if every option were purchased, but students could strategically pick the parts they actually need, so reducing their own overall costs.

This idea is, of course, stupid. This is not because it doesn’t make economic and practical sense: it totally does, notwithstanding the management, technical and administrative complexity it entails. It is stupid because it flips education on its head. It makes chunks of learning into profit centres rather than the stuff of life. It makes education into a product rather than celebrating its role as an agent of personal and societal growth. It reduces the rich, intricately interwoven fabric of the educational experience to a set of instrumentally-driven isolated events and activities. It draws attention to accreditation as the be-all and end-all of the process. It is aggressively antisocial, purpose-built to reduce the chances of forming a vibrant learning community. This is beginning to sound eerily familiar. Is that not exactly what, in too high a percentage of our courses, we are doing already?

If we and other universities are to survive and thrive, the solution is not to treat courses and accreditation as products or services. The ongoing value of a university is to catalyze the production and preservation of knowledge: that is what we are here for, that is what makes us worthwhile having. Courses are just tools that support that process, though they are far from the only ones, while accreditation is not even that: it’s just a byproduct, effluent from the educational process that happens to have some practical societal value (albeit at enormous cost to learning). In physical universities there are vast numbers of alternatives that support the richer purpose of creating and sustaining knowledge: cafes, quads, hallways, common rooms, societies, clubs, open lectures, libraries, smoking areas, student accommodation, sports centres, theatres, workshops, studios, research labs and so on. Everywhere you go you are confronted with learning opportunities and people to learn with and from, and the taught courses are just part of the mix, often only a small part. At least, that is true in a slightly idealized world – sadly, the vast majority of physical universities are as stupidly focused on the tools as we are, so those benefits are an afterthought rather than the main thing to celebrate, and are often the first things to suffer when cuts come along. Online, such beyond-the-course opportunities are few and far between: the Landing is (of course) built with exactly that concern in mind, but there’s precious little sign of it anywhere else at AU, one of the most advanced online universities in the world.  The nearest thing most students get to it is the odd Facebook group or Twitter interaction, which seems an awful waste to me, though a fascinating phenomenon that blurs the lines between the institution and the broader community.

It is already possible to take a high quality course for free in almost any subject that interests you and, more damagingly, any time now there will soon be sources of accreditation that are as prestigious as those awarded by universities but orders of magnitude cheaper, not to mention compellingly cut-price  options from universities that can leverage their size and economies of scale (and, perhaps, cheap labour) to out-price the rest of us. Competing on these grounds makes no sense for a publicly funded institution the role of which is not to be an accreditation mill but to preserve, critique, observe, transform and support society as a whole. We need to celebrate and cultivate the iceberg, not just its visible tip. Our true value is not in our courses but in our people (staff and students) and the learning community that they create.

Niggles about NGDLEs – lessons from ELF

Malcom Brown has responded to Tony Bates and me in an Educause guest post in which he defends the concept of the NGDLE and expands a bit on the purposes behind it. This does help to clarify the intent although, as I mentioned in my earlier post, I am quite firmly in favour of the idea, so I am already converted on the main points. I don’t mind the Lego metaphor if it works, but I do think we should concentrate more on the connections than the pieces. I also see that it is fairly agnostic to pedagogy, at least in principle. And I totally agree that we desperately need to build more flexible, assemblable systems along these lines if we are to enable effective teaching, management of the learning process and, much much more importantly, if we are to support effective learning. Something like the proposed environment (more of an ecosystem, I’d say) is crucial if we want to move on.

But…

It has been done before, over ten years ago in the form of ELF, in much more depth and detail and with large government and standards bodies supporting it, and it is important to learn the lessons of what was ultimately a failed initiative. Well – maybe not failed, but certainly severely stalled. Parts persist and have become absorbed, but the real value of it was as a model for building tools for learning, and that model is still not as widespread as it should be. The fact that the Educause initiative describes itself as ‘next generation’ is perhaps the most damning evidence of its failure.

Elves

Why ELF ‘failed’

I was not a part of nor close to the ELF project but, as an outsider, I suspect that it suffered from four major and interconnected problems:

  1. It was very technically driven and framed in the language of ICTs, not educators or learners. Requirements from educators were gathered in many ways, with workshops, working groups and a highly distributed team of experts in the UK, Australia, the US, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand (it was a very large project). Some of the central players had a very deep understanding of the pedagogical and organizational needs of not just learners but organizations that support them, and several were pioneers in personal learning environments (PLEs) that went way beyond the institution. But the focus was always on building the technical infrastructure – indeed, it had to be, in order to operationalize it. For those outside the field, who had not reflected deeply on the reasons this was necessary, it likely just seemed like a bunch of techies playing with computers. It was hard to get the message across.
  2. It was far too over-ambitious, perhaps bolstered by the large amounts of funding and support from several governments and large professional bodies. The e-learning framework was just one of several strands like e-science, e-libraries and so on, that went to make up the e-framework. After a while, it simply became the e-framework and, though conceptually wonderful, in practical terms it was attempting far too much in one fell swoop. It became so broad, complex and fuzzy that it collapsed under its own weight. It was not helped by commercial interests that were keen to keep things as proprietary and closed as they could get away with. Big players were not really on board with the idea of letting thousands of small players enter their locked-in markets, which was one of the avowed intents behind it. So, when government funding fizzled out, there was no one to take up such a huge banner. A few small flags might have been way more successful.
  3. It was too centralized (oddly, given its aggressively decentralized intent and the care taken to attempt to avoid that). With the best of intent, developers built over-engineered standards relying on web service architectures that the rest of the world was abandoning because they were too clunky, insufficiently agile and much too troublesome to implement. I am reminded, when reading many of the documents that were produced at the time, of the ISO OSI network standards of the late 80s that took decades to reach maturity through ornate webs of committees and working groups, were beautifully and carefully engineered, and that were thoroughly and completely trounced by the lighter, looser, more evolved, more distributed TCP/IP standards that are now pretty much ubiquitous. For large complex systems, evolution beats carefully designed engineering every single time.
  4. The fact that it was created by educators whose framing was entirely within the existing system meant that most of the pieces that claimed to relate to e-learning (as opposed to generic services) had nothing to do with learning at all, but were representative of institutional roles and structures: marking, grading, tracking, course management, resource management, course validation, curriculum, reporting and so on. None of this has anything to do with learning and, as I have argued on many occasions elsewhere, may often be antagonistic to learning. While there were also components that were actually about learning, they tended to be framed in the context of existing educational systems (writing lessons, creating formal portfolios, sequencing of course content, etc). Though very much built to support things like PLEs as well as institutional environments, the focus was the institution far more than the learner.

As far as I can tell, any implementation of the proposed NGDLE is going to run into exactly the same problems. Though the components described are contemporary and the odd bit of vocabulary has evolved a bit, all of them can be found in the original ELF model and the approach to achieving it seems pretty much the same. Moreover, though the proposed architecture is flexible enough to support pretty much anything – as was ELF – there is a tacit assumption that this is about education as we know it, updated to support the processes and methods that have been developed since (and often in response to) the heinous mistakes we made when we designed the LMSs that dominate education today. This is not surprising – if you ask a bunch of experts for ideas you will get their expertise, but you will not get much in the way of invention or new ideas. The methodology is therefore almost guaranteed to miss the next big thing. Those ideas may come up but they will be smoothed out in an averaging process and dissenting models will not become part of the creed. This is what I mean when I criticize it as a view from the inside.

Much better than the LMS

If implemented, a NGDLE will undoubtedly be better than any LMS, with which there are manifold problems. In the first place, LMSs are uniformly patterned on mediaeval educational systems, with all their ecclesiastic origins, power structures and rituals intact. This is crazy, and actually reinforces a lot of things we should not be doing in the first place, like courses, intimately bound assessment and accreditation, and laughably absurd attempts to exert teacher control, without the slightest consideration of the fact that pedagogies determined by the physics of spaces in which we lock doors and keep learners controlled for an hour or two at a time make no sense whatsoever in online learning. In the second place, centralized systems have to maintain an uneasy and seldom great balance between catering to every need and remaining usably simple. This inevitable leads to compromises, from small things (e.g. minor formatting annoyances in discussion forums) to the large (e.g. embedded roles or units of granularity that make everything a course). While customization options can soften this a little, centralized systems are structurally flawed by their very nature. I have discussed such things in some depth elsewhere, including both my published books. Suffice to say, the LMS shapes us in its own image, and its own image is authoritarian, teacher-controlled and archaic. So, a system that componentizes things so that we can disaggregate any or all of it, provide local control (for teachers and other learners as well as institutions and administrators) and allow creative assemblies is devoutly to be wished for. Such a system architecture can support everything from the traditional authoritarian model to the loosest of personal learning environments, and much in between.

Conclusion

NGDLE is a misnomer. We have already seen that generation come and go. But, as a broad blueprint for where we should be going and what we should be doing now, both ELF and NGDLE provide patterns that we should be using and thinking about whenever we implement online learning tools and content and, for that, I welcome it. I am particularly appreciative that NGDLE provides reinvigorated support for approaches that I have been pushing for over a decade but that ICT departments and even faculty resist implacably. It’s great to be able to point to the product of so many experts and say ‘look, I am not a crank: this is a mainstream idea’. We need a sea-change in how we think of learning technologies and such initiatives are an important part of creating the culture and ethos that lets this happen. For that I totally applaud this initiative.

In practical terms, I don’t think much of this will come from the top-down, apart from in the development of lightweight, non-prescriptive standards and the norming of the concepts behind it. Of current standards, I think TinCan is hopeful, though I am a bit concerned that it is becoming over-ornate in its emerging development. LTI is a good idea, sufficiently mature, and light enough to be usable but, again, in its new iteration it is aiming higher than might be wise. Caliper is OK but also showing signs of excessive ambition. Open Badges are great but I gather that is becoming less lightweight in its latest incarnation. We need more of such things, not more elaborate versions of them. Unfortunately, the nature of technology is that it always evolves towards increasing complexity. It would be much better if we stuck with small, working pieces and assembled those together rather than constantly embellishing good working tools. Unix provides a good model for that, with tools that have worked more or less identically for decades but that constantly gain new value in recombination.

Footnote: what became of ELF?

It is quite hard to find information about ELF today. It seems (as an outsider) that the project just ground to a halt rather than being deliberately killed. There were lots of exemplar projects, lots of hooks and plenty of small systems built that applied the idea and the standards, many of which are still in use today, but it never achieved traction. If you want to find out more, here is a small reading list:

http://www.elframework.org/ – the main site (the link to the later e-framework site leads to a broken page)

http://www.elframework.org/projects.html  – some of the relevant projects ELF incorporated.

https://web.archive.org/web/20061112235250/http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/Altilab04-ELF.pd – good, brief overview from 2004 of what it involved and how it fitted together

 https://web.archive.org/web/20110522062036/http://www.jisc.ac.uk/uploaded_documents/AltilabServiceOrientedFrameworks.pdf  – spooky: this is about ‘Next Generation E-Learning Environments’ rather than digital ones. But, though framed in more technical language, the ideas are the same as NGDLE.

http://www.webarchive.org.uk/wayback/archive/20110621221935/http://www.elearning.ac.uk/features/nontechguide2 – a slightly less technical variant (links to part 1, which explains web services for non-technical people)

See also https://web.archive.org/web/20090330220421/http://www.elframework.org/general/requirements/scenarios/Scenario%20Apparatus%20UK%205%20(manchester%20lipsig).doc and https://web.archive.org/web/20090330220553/http://www.elframework.org/general/requirements/use_cases/EcSIGusecases.zip, a set of scenarios and use cases that are eerily similar to those proposed for NGDLE.

If anyone has any information about what became of ELF, or documents that describe its demise, or details of any ongoing work, I’d be delighted to learn more!

 

 

Why so many questions?

Athabasca River Flood

At Athabasca University, our proposed multi-million dollar investment in a student relationship management system, dubbed the ‘Student Success Centre’ (SSC), is causing quite a flood of discussion and debate among faculty and tutors at the moment. Though I do see some opportunities in this if (and only if) it is very intelligently and sensitively designed, there are massive and potentially fatal dangers in creating such a thing.  See a previous post of mine for some of my worries. I have many thoughts on the matter, but one thing strikes me as interesting enough to share more widely and, though it has a lot to do with the SSC, it also has broader implications.

Part of the justification for the SSC is that an alleged 80% of current interactions with students are about administrative rather than academic issues. I say ‘alleged’ because such things are notoriously hard to measure with any accuracy. But let’s assume that it actually is accurate.

How weird is that?

Why is it that our students (apparently) need to contact us for admin support in overwhelming numbers but actually hardly talk at all about the complicated subjects they are taking? Assuming that these 80% of interactions are not mostly to complain about things that have gone wrong (if so, an SSC is not the answer!) then it seems, on the face of it, more than a bit topsy turvy.
 
One reasonable explanation might be that our course materials are so utterly brilliant that they require little further interaction, but I am not convinced that this sufficiently explains the disparity. Students are mostly spending 100+ hours on academic work for each course whereas (I hope) at most a couple of hours are spent on administrivia. No matter how amazing our courses might be, the difference is remarkable. It is doubly remarkable when you consider that a fair number of our courses do involve at least some required level of interaction which, alone, should easily account for most if not more than all of that remaining 20%. In my own courses it is a lot more than that and I am aware of many others with very active Landing groups, Moodle forums, webinar sessions, and even the occasional visit to an immersive world.
 
It is also possible that our administrative processes are extremely opaque and ill-explained. This certainly accords with my own experience of trying to work out something as simple as how much a course would cost or the process needed to submit project work. But, if that is the case, and assuming our distance, human-free teaching works as well as we believe it does, then why can we not a) simplify the processes and b) provide equally high quality learning materials for our admin processes so that students don’t need to bother our admin staff so much? If our course materials are so great then that would seem, on the face of it, very much more cost-effective than spending millions on a system that is at least as likely to have a negative as a positive impact and that actually increases our ongoing costs considerably. It is also quite within the capabilities of our existing skillset.
 
Even so, it seems very odd to me that students can come to terms with inordinately complex subjects from philosophy to biochemistry, but that they are foiled by a simple bit of bureaucracy and need to seek human assistance. It may be hard, but it is not beyond the means of a motivated learner to discover, especially given that we are specialists in producing high quality learning materials that should make such things very clear. And in motivation, I think, lies the key.
 
 

Other people matter

Other people are wonderful things when you need to learn something, pretty much across the board. Above all they matter when there is no obvious reason that you should be interested or care about it for its own merits, and bureaucratic procedures are seldom very interesting. I have known only one person in my whole life that actually likes filling in forms (I think it is a meditative pursuit – my father felt much the same way about dishwashing and log sawing) but, for the most part, this is not a thing that excites most people.  
 
I hypothesize that our students tend to need less academic than bureaucratic help at least partly because, by and large, for the coursework they are very self-motivated people learning things that interest them whereas our bureaucracy is at most a means to an end, at worst a demotivating barrier. It would not help much to provide great teaching materials for bureaucratic procedures because 99% of students would have no intrinsic interest in learning about them, and it would have zero value to them in any future activity. Why would they bother? It is far easier to ask someone.
 
Our students actually like the challenge of facing and solving problems in their chosen subjects – in fact, that’s one of the great joys of learning. They don’t turn to tutors to discuss things because there are plenty of other ways of getting the help they need, both in course materials and elsewhere, and it is fun to overcome obstacles. The more successful ones tend to have supportive friends, families or colleagues, or are otherwise very single-minded. They tend to know why they are doing what they are doing. We don’t get many students that are not like this, at least on our self-paced courses, because either they don’t bother coming in the first place or they are among the scarily large percentage that drop out before starting (we don’t count them in our stats though, in fairness, neither to face-to-face universities).
 
But, of course, that only applies for students that do really like the process of learning and most of what they are learning, that know how to do it and/or that have existing support networks. It does not apply to those that hit very difficult or boring spots, that give up before they start, that hit busy times that mean they cannot devote the energy to the work, that need a helping hand with the process but cannot find it elsewhere, or that don’t bother even looking at a distance option at all because they do not like the isolation it (apparently) entails. For those students, other people can help a lot. Even for our own students, over half (when asked) claim that they would appreciate more human interaction. And those are the ones that have knowingly self-selected a largely isolated process and that have not already dropped out. 
 
Perhaps more worryingly, it raises concerns about the quality of the learning experience. Doing things alone means that you miss out on all the benefits of a supportive learning community. You don’t get to argue, to explain, to question, save in your own head or in formal, largely one-way, assignments. You don’t get multiple perspectives, different ways of seeing, opportunities to challenge and be challenged. You don’t get the motivation of writing for an audience of people that you care about. You don’t get people that care about you and the learning community providing support when times are hard, nor the pleasure of helping when others are in difficulty. You don’t get to compare yourself with others, the chance to reflect on how you differ and whether that is a good or bad thing. You don’t get to model behaviours or see those behaviours being modelled. These are just some of the notable benefits of traditional university systems that are relatively hard to come by in Athabasca’s traditional self-paced model (not in all courses, but in many). It’s not at all about asking questions and getting solutions. It’s about engaging in a knowledge creation process with other people. There are distinct benefits of being alone, notably in the high degree of control it brings, but a bit of interaction goes a long long way. It takes a very special kind of person to get by without that and the vast majority of our successful students (at least in undergraduate self-paced courses) are exactly that special kind of person. 
 
If it is true that only 20% of interactions are currently concerned with academic issues, that is a big reason for concern, because it means our students are missing out on an incredibly rich set of opportunities in which they can help one another as well as interact with tutors. Creating an SSC system that supports what is therefore, for those that are not happy alone (i.e. the ones we lose or never get in the first place), an impoverished experience, seems simply to ossify a process that should at least be questioned. It is not a solution to the problem – it is an exacerbation of it, further entrenching a set of approaches and methods that are inadequate for most students (the ones we don’t get or keep) in the first place.

A sustainable future?

As a university seeking sustainability we could simply continue to concentrate on addressing the needs of self-motivated, solitary students that will succeed almost no matter what we do to them, and just make the processing more cost-efficient with the SSC.  If we have enough of those students, then we will thrive for some time to come, though I can’t say it fits well with our open mission and I worry greatly about those we fail to help. If we want to get more of those self-guided students then there are lots of other things we should probably do too like dropping the whole notion of fixed-length courses (smaller chunks means the chances of hitting the motivation sweet-spot are higher) and disaggregating assessment from learning (because extrinsic motivation kills intrinsic motivation).
 
But, if we are sticking with the idea of traditional courses, the trouble is that we are no longer almost alone in offering such things and there is a finite market of self-motivated, truly independent learners who (if they have any sense) will find cheaper alternatives that offer the same or greater value. If all we are offering is the opportunity to learn independently and a bit of credible certification at the end of it, we will wind up competing on price with institutions and businesses that have deeper coffers, cheaper staff, and less constraints. In a cut-throat price war with better funded peers, we are doomed.
 
If we are to be successful in the future then we need to make more of the human side of our teaching, not less, and that means creating richer, more direct channels to other people in this learning community, not automating methods that are designed for the era of correspondence learning. This is something that, not uncoincidentally, the Landing is supposed to help with, though it is just an exemplar and at most a piece of the puzzle – we ideally want connection to be far more deeply embedded everywhere rather than in a separate site. It is also something that current pilot implementations of the SSC are antagonistic towards, thanks mainly to equating time and effort, focusing on solving specific problems rather than human connection, failing to support technological diversity, and standing as an obstacle between people that just need to talk. It doesn’t have to be built that way. It could almost as easily vanish into the background, be seamlessly hooked into our social environments like email, Moodle and the Landing, could be an admin tool that gives support when needed but disappears when not. And there is no reason whatsoever that it needs to be used to pay tutors by the recorded minute, a bad idea that has been slung on the back of it that has no place in our culture. Though not what the pilot systems do at all, a well-designed system like this could step in or be called upon when needed, could support analytics that would be genuinely helpful, could improve management information, all without getting in the way of interaction at all. In fact, it could easily be used to enhance it, because it could make patterns of dialogue more visible and comprehensible.
 

In conclusion

At Athabasca we have some of the greatest distance educators and researchers on the planet, and that greatness rubs off on those around them. As a learning community, knowledge spreads among us and we are all elevated by it. We talk about such things in person, in meetings, via Skype, in webinars, on mailing lists, on the Landing, in pubs, in cafes, etc. And, as a result, ideas, methods and values get created, transformed and flow through our network. This makes us quite unique – as all learning communities are unique – and creates the distinctive culture and values of our university that no other university can replicate. Even when people leave, they leave traces of their ideas and values in those that remain, that get passed along for long after they have gone, become part of the rich cultural identity that defines us. It’s not mainly about our structures, processes and procedures: except when they support greater interaction, those actually get in the way much of the time. It’s about a culture and community of learning. It’s about the knowledge that flows in and through this shifting but identifiable crowd. This is a large part of what gives us our identity. It’s exactly the same kind of thing that means we can talk about (say) the Vancouver Canucks or Apple Inc as a meaningful persistent entity, even though not one of the people in the organization is the same as when it began and virtually all of its processes, locations, strategies and goals beyond the most basic have changed, likely many times. The thing is, if we hide those people behind machines and processes, separate them through opaque hierarchies, reduce the tools and opportunities for them to connect, we lose almost all of the value. The face of the organization becomes essentially the face of the designer of the machine or the process and the people are simply cogs implementing it. That’s not a good way forward, especially as there are likely quite a few better machine and process designers out there. Our people – staff and students – are the gold we need to mine, and they are also the reason we are worth saving. We need to be a university that takes the distance out of distance learning, that connects, inspires, supports and nurtures both its staff and its students. Only then will we justly be able to claim to have a success centre.