Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: e-learning

December 21

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

I haven’t written about MOOCs in awhile, mostly because I’m finding the whole discussion pretty tedious.  They’re an interesting addition to the spectrum of continuing education offerings, and they’ll exist so long as venture capitalists and large, big-brand universities feel like subsidizing the hell out of them. Period.

The supposed “value” of MOOCs is that they deliver the same old lecture-driven process at a cheaper price.  But what should be our real priority right now: Making education cheaper, or finding ways to deliver greater value?

Imagine you’re in the early 1950s, and someone gives you the task of saving be-bop from the predations of rock and roll.  And suppose that same person hands you some piece of technology from 2012, which can deliver be-bop to the masses, at a cheaper price:  MP3s, live streaming shows, that kind of thing.  With this, you could make be-bop accessible at anytime, anywhere, and maybe even for free!  But Be-bop’s decline had nothing to do with being too expensive;  Buddy Holly was still going to kick its behind, because he had become the more relevant market choice.

In many ways, the same is true of education.  The fact that we can make the existing model of education cheaper doesn’t adress the issue of relevancy – focusing on cost when relevance is the key issue is misguided, and a distraction.

Undergraduate education has always been about preparing people for the labour market.  Back when it was a pursuit for people who either had hereditary wealth or were heading into guaranteed spots in the public service, we could pretend that higher education was about seeking Truth.  But if we’re honest, all those Truth-seekers ended up getting a pretty good financial return on their educational investments because their degree certified them as being significantly brighter than their non-degree-earning peers.

But when 70% of the youth population has some form of post-secondary education, that deal no longer works.  Having a degree no longer proves that you’re among the best and the brightest.  Graduates need something more.  And that “something more” is being a person who is engaged, effective and innovative.  When parents send their kids off to school, that’s really what their hoping their little ones will become.  Now this doesn’t mean that kids can’t study philosophy on the way to being engaged, effective, and innovative; it does, however, mean that PSE institutions need to think a lot harder about how to give students those skills.

It’s not rocket science.  Waterloo does it through its co-op programs.  Ryerson is doing it through its Digital Media Zone.  Polytechnics like NAIT who use applied research projects to drive curriculum are doing it, too.  Mostly, institutions are doing it by acknowledging the pedagogical value of interactions with the world of work, and opening themselves up to collaboration with businesses and government agencies to deliver it.  And its working.

Engaged, effective, and innovative students.  Let’s make it a watchword for 2013.

October 19

More Korean Lessons

Higher education is an inherently conservative industry – it’s extremely rare to come across something genuinely new and unique in the field. Which is precisely why Korea’s so interesting: it has a number of genuine system innovations, particularly in lifelong learning, from which a lot of countries could learn.

Koreans have what some commentators call “education fever”; as in many Confucian countries, the sacrifices families make to ensure their children get an education are almost incomprehensible to North Americans. But until the early 1980s, the opportunities to obtain higher education were quite limited. As the system began to expand, there was an enormous explosion of pent-up demand, and not just among the young: people in mid-career also wanted to get the education that was previously unavailable.

Institutions couldn’t cope with the demand, and even if they could, they were wedded to an elite cohort intake model, and the idea of working people coming in to study part-time sat uneasily with that. So the Korean government came up with two alternatives. One was to create a number of “self-study” degree programs; essentially allowing the individuals to get a degree from the ministry by simply writing a set of challenge exams. The other was to create a “Credit Bank” – essentially a degree-granting organization of last resort, which would allow individuals unable to attend regular university and college programs to obtain Bachelor or associate degrees by piecing together credits from multiple institutions, both physical and online (though, interestingly, the credit bank’s biggest current problem is policing online learning providers, the worry being that inadequate invigilation and the potential for fraud will eventually devalue the credit bank’s degrees if they keep accepting such credits).

I know, what a great idea, right? Such a neat solution to the problem of credit transfer. But though this system bears a lot of resemblance to the fantasies of DIY higher education fanatics in that it breaks the monopoly of traditional education providers, it’s not exactly a majority taste. Despite being able to provide degrees in a manner which is cheaper and/or more convenient than the alternatives, only about 6% of all degrees provided last year in Korea came through the credit bank and the self-study Bachelor’s.

The reason for that is pretty simple, and one that the Great Disruption types need to keep in mind: people prefer the prestige of a regular degree from a regular university. Just because someone invents something new and cool doesn’t mean people’s preferences are necessarily going to change, even if it means lower costs and/or more convenience. Korea just goes to show that in a battle between educational innovation and educational prestige, one should always bet on the latter.

Annyeong hikyeseyo!

September 12

Maybe It Is Time to Pay Attention

As I noted yesterday, the strong likelihood is that to whatever extent higher education does move online, it will be dominated by a few strong players associated with strong brand names. The problem is that institutions with strong brand names are the ones least likely to risk those brands by messing around with alternative degree-granting mechanisms. That’s why, to date, all the institutions participating in either EdX or Coursera have been very firm about keeping everything on a non-credit basis.

If you want to get a sense of how ad hoc everything is in this business, take a look at the leaked copy of the contract that Coursera signed with a dozen-odd institutions (including U of T) this past summer. It’s clear that Coursera itself has no solid idea about how it’s going to make money from streaming courses for free; instead, it lists about eight ways that it might make money. Maybe. One day.

(Doesn’t watching people get excited about a business model where revenue is irrelevant make you all gloriously nostalgic for 1999? Almost makes you want to go listen to ‘N Sync. Almost.)

One of the routes to profitability Coursera posits is making money by through invigilation. That’s smart – one of the main barriers to making online higher education a reality is the problem of verifying identity in online courses. You’d think, therefore, that a move by one of these consortia to fix that problem would get a lot more press than it did. And yet the news that Pearson had signed a deal with EdX to provide physical testing centres and identity verification somehow stayed pretty much under the radar. It’s hard to see this as anything but a really big milestone for the industry.

Udacity – a much more downmarket competitor, with no links to any big research university – is trying to compete by making links with similarly down-market traditional institutions. It has struck a deal with Colorado State University to have the latter recognize Udacity’s credits asequivalent to its own. So, by the back-door, Udacity has essentially managed to wrangle credit-granting status. (It’s not completely clear how CSU’s accreditors feel about this; this story may not be as simple as it sounds.) But if you have the choice between EdX and MIT credit or Udacity and CSU credit – which are you going to take?

I’m still a skeptic about online education as a force in undergraduate education – in developed countries, the prestige of traditional education is going to outstrip online for a long time to come. But enough pieces are now falling into place that it’s time to pay more attention to online.

September 11

Airline Models?

Some of you may have seen Thomas Klassen’s piece in the Ottawa Citizen last wee. It’s a nice short piece which succinctly lays out the “bricks vs. clicks” argument in higher education, and why the former is better than the latter. That said, I think his central premise – that universities are becoming more like airlines – is mostly wrong.

Here’s his exact quote: The emerging business model of many universities is that pioneered by airlines. That is, a group of first-class passengers paying a lot of money for a rich and intense learning experience. A second group of students in economy class pays less for mass-produced learning. Both groups will be granted the same formal credential, but the journey is different. Also different is what they’ve learned about themselves and life.

I grant you that there certainly are some people who seem enthusiastic about things heading in this direction. Margaret Wente, for instance. Some state legislatures in the US seem to making tentative moves in this direction for their systems as a whole, maybe – but no single institution is using the two-tier approach as a model. Not even TCU Minister Glen Murray, whose freakish enthusiasm for all things online is ruffling so many feathers, can be accused of this; at worst, his ambition seems to be to keep rotating the passengers between classes. And although it’s possible he’s being disingenuous, I think he’s doing it because he truly believes that students actually want such a system.

The thing is, the customers – students or their parents – aren’t buying the cheap option. Just look at England: tripling tuition fees hasn’t led the masses online, has it? Regardless of the advantages of online education, and despite whatever cultural tropes exist about lazy professors and crowded classrooms, if you give people a straight-up choice between giving their eighteen-year-old a traditional, in-person education and the very best form of online education, ninety-nine times out of a hundred they’ll pick door number one. Even if someone were to offer a two-tier pricing system, it wouldn’t pan out the way Klassen thinks because everyone would take the more expensive and more prestigious option.

Even if online education were suddenly to become chic, it won’t be because each existing university offers it as an economy option. The economics of the web are such that online higher education is likely to be dominated by a few major players, each with some kind of link to one of a handful of already-prestigious universities. Most universities won’t be able to compete, either on the prestige pull of the name, or the size of the required capital investment. For most, it’s bricks or clicks, not bricks and clicks.

May 03

Chasing a Buck

There are a lot of institutions facing a demographic challenge over the next few years. Outside the GTA and the B.C. lower mainland, the youth population is in decline, and that means institutions in these regions are either going to have to start increasing their yields or find some new markets to exploit.

(Or, I suppose, cut their budgets a bit, but that seems to be a last resort.)

Though I can’t claim to have a lot of granular detail on the issue, I’m getting the sense a) that most institutions have decided to go for new markets, and b) that the ratio of frantic, flailing activity to serious strategy and planning in this area is alarmingly high.

The two obvious candidates for attracting new money are “older students” and “foreign students.” Going after “older students,” interestingly enough, now seems to be entirely a digital affair; it is assumed that this demographic has little interest in hauling itself to campus and should be addressed primarily via online programs. But – and this is the crucial bit – what is it exactly you should put online? The same courses you were offering before? Or totally new courses? It’s a critical question, but it doesn’t seem to be one a lot of people are asking – the automatic assumption seems to be that offering the same courses with a new delivery mechanism will do the trick. I’m not convinced this will end well, especially given the costs of translating old content into a new format.

Another option, of course, is to aggressively court foreign students. You can charge them more, of course, which is a bonus. But they also cost more to educate and they cost a lot more to find and recruit. That sounds simple, but a lot of schools haven’t figured out that second part; I know of at least two in Western Canada that are losing money hand over fist on international students because they don’t systematically stack up costs against revenues.

In both cases, the issue is marginal net revenue: there is no reason to do something for the sake of chasing revenue if the costs are too high. More to the point, it’s comparative marginal net revenue that matters. Why spend any time or energy recruiting foreign students if you can make more per student via the digital option (or vice-versa)?

Ultimately, institutions need to be more strategic about deciding which avenues to exploit in order to chase a buck. The temptation to just “do something” is very real, but needs to be resisted. Deciding on the right balance between different types of revenue-generating activity needs to be done with a lot more deliberation than is often given at present.


October 13

Why the “Great Disruption” is Bogus

So apparently Inigral CEO Michael Staton – who by and large is a sensible guy – has been talking up this idea about higher education being about to undergo a “Great Disruption.” Why he thinks this is the case isn’t clear – he spends most of his Inside Higher Ed article explaining why higher education isn’t, contra some of higher education’s weirder critics, in a bubble, but he does think everyone needs to spend a lot of money adapting to it right now.

This is what’s known as “talking your own book.” We consultants all do it to some degree, but that doesn’t mean we’re always right. And in this case, I happen to think Staton’s dead wrong.
The best analogy I can think of here is the frenzy over the “Death of Distance” in the mid-1990s. You may recall that there was briefly an intellectual fad for thinking that the “information superhighway” (younger readers: yes, some people really called it that) would render place irrelevant, allow people to work and collaborate from wherever they were and render large urban conglomerations ever less relevant.

Some of that occurred, of course, but as it turned out place started to matter more than ever. We like talking to people all over the world on the Internet, but we like physically working with and learning from others in the flesh.

And so it is for higher education. Obviously, technological change is having a very big effect on the way we store, use and relate to information. At the margin, we can improve undergraduate learning outcomes using technology, though as we pointed out in a study a few weeks ago, we need to get a lot better at integrating the technology.

But is this stuff going to replace a traditional undergraduate degree for the 18-24 crowd (which is, after all, still the core business of just about every university in the world)? Absolutely not. Students and their parents think it’s as important as ever to get their education in the flesh. There is no reason at all to think that this is going to change, and every reason to believe that parents will continue to pay top dollar for a developmental experience which is deeply based in intensive human contact.

As I noted last week, one university business line (adult professional education) is vulnerable to new technologies. Everything else, for the foreseeable future, is going to be remarkably insensitive to technological change. Period.

September 08

Blended Learning Has a Long Way to Go

Here’s the key fact you need to know about HESA’s new report on the State of E-learning in Canada: as the intensity of availability of e-learning resources increase, students become less satisfied, and less likely to say they feel they are learning a lot.

Contrary to the rantings of technophiles, students don’t behave much like “digital natives.” They still far prefer to do their readings on paper rather than on a screen, for instance. They really don’t seem to have a lot of time for dynamic e-learning resources like interactive discussion forums, and they don’t think there is any comparison between courses you take in person and those you watch even occasionally on a screen – the former wins hands down.

The fact is, Canadian students aren’t impressed by the e-learning resources on offer in Canadian universities. Now, possibly that’s because they don’t like e-learning, period. Particularly in the humanities, there’s an aura of eros around the teacher-as-guru that e-learning enthusiasts just don’t seem to take into account.

But possibly we just aren’t getting the implementation right. It might just be that the technology, and the way in which we integrate it with the curriculum, just isn’t that good. Just because students aren’t digital natives doesn’t mean universities can’t underwhelm them.

For the moment, students pretty clearly see e-learning resources as a convenience issue. What they seem to want is as much course-related text as possible available online all the time so that missing class is less of a big deal. But that suggests it’s an alternative to in-class learning, not an addition to it.

Work done by the National Center for Academic Transformation has shown how intelligent course redesign can improve learning outcomes and reduce costs, and with budget crises looming across much of the country, this isn’t something any institution can sensibly ignore. But it will require institutions to pay a lot more attention to implementation and to continually measure and monitor results to find out what works and what doesn’t.

That’s a big task, but it’s one HESA will be working on for years to come.

Extra note: those of you in Ontario looking for deeper commentary on the Liberals’ Big Idea regarding tuition grants, visit my Globe and Mail blog.