Paul Stacey

State of Online Address
November 2, 2011, 3:40 pm
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BCcampus is a member of the WICHE Cooperative for Education Technology (WCET). WCET’s mission is to accelerate the adoption of effective practices, advancing excellence in technology-enhanced teaching and learning in higher education. We like WCET as it is one of the few organizations that really brings together consortia based organizations like BCcampus from across North America. Attending their annual gathering and conference gives us a chance to see the latest education technology innovations and to benchmark ourselves agains other consortia.

Thought I’d share a brief summary of what took place at WCET’s 23rd annual conference in Denver. Given that WCET is primarily made up of US organizations I thought I’d playfully riff on the US State of the Union Address by calling this report a State of Online Address.

The opening keynote was customized based on live audience feedback. The speakers, using Poll Everywhere, presented the audience with multiple topics and invited them to express their choice using mobile phones, twitter, and the web. Responses are displayed in real-time on charts in PowerPoint. The speakers then customized their presentation based on the audience choices. Over the course of their presentation the speakers referenced Headmagnet as a means of maintaining something in short term memory, Historypin, supported by Google, as a means of creating a global history by crowdsourcing photos from everyone around the world, Enterzon a multiplayer online learning environment designed to teach Chinese language and culture through gameplay, and the nursing neighbourhood as a means of learning how to diagnose health issues via virtual patients.

The 2011 Horizon Report lists learning analytics on the four-to-five year adoption horizon but the rapid rise of analytics tools combined with the increasing demand for data-driven decision making is pushing this horizon closer. Learning Analytics was a hot topic throughout the entire event. Learning analytics mines data from Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Student Information Systems (SIS) to support real time data driven decision making. Some learning analytics data analysis is oriented to supporting teaching and learning. The University of Maryland Baltimore County showed an analytics tool they use within their LMS that tells students where they are in course compared to other students. It generates a grade report that shows how students are doing against others in class and shows how activities of those who are doing well are different from those not doing well. LMS activity of students with D and F grades are noticeably lower from those getting higher grades. Students who enrol after a course starts, stop attending for five consecutive days, log-in to the LMS fewer than three times per week or have less than three hours of activity per week are considerably at risk of dropping out. Based on these analytics some institutions are taking actions where college advisors are provided with data on students that shows their last login date, activity in minutes, activity submission counts, course points earned and course average to date as a means of triggering interventions and contact with at risk students. Another learning analytics tool called Social Networks Adapting Pedagogical Practice (SNAPP) does an analysis of discussion forums activity and generates networking maps identifying who is leading discussion, volume of posts, volume of responses, and interconnections between those posting to discussions. This has led to research exploring a whole range of questions such as:

  • Do networks between students relate to successful completion?
  • How does professor discussion interaction with at risk or low performing students impact student success?
  • How important is multi node, multi directional interaction to course success?

While some learning analytics are focused on teaching and learning others are focused on supporting administration and policy makers. Analytics coming out of LMS”s can help administration identify students who are not engaged and at risk of drop out. One of the largest examples of Learning Analytics work in this category is the Predictive Analytics and Recording (PAR) framework being funded by the Gates Foundation. This project is aiming at deeper analytics by analysing 3 million unique records from 6 different institutions across 34 common variables to determine what trends there are for retention and progression. It is well known that retention in campus-based face-to-face courses is higher than online courses so the findings coming out of this analysis are highly anticipated. Factors analysed include things such as completion based on the % of students still enrolled at the end of a course, success based on % of students who haven’t withdrawn or received a D or an F, continued semester to semester enrolment and progression to degree completion. However it is interesting to note that definitions for factors like length of a semester, what a course is, course completion and even grades differ across institutions making it challenging to have common measures. Analysis is being done using descriptive statistics, inferential statistics, and predictive modelling. This project is essentially looking at what factors impact loss, progression, momentum. It’s still early days for this project and one thing all the learning analytics projects mentioned is that 90% of the work is getting the data. Extracting data out of the LMS/SIS is challenging. Analysis of the data is 10% of the work. However, early analysis has focused on trying to find what was universally true for those who got a C grade or better in a course vs those who disenroll. Students were categorized as high risk, medium risk or low risk. High risk students have attributes such as being new to online, returning to school after 5 years, having a low high school GPA or failing an online course in the previous two years. Preliminary findings indicate that the biggest factor causing at risk students to disenroll is if they are pushing multiple courses simultaneously. Taking concurrent courses is not a good idea for students who are at risk. However, in many cases receiving student aid is contingent on being enrolled in multiple courses. This is an example of a learning analytics finding that suggests we rethink financial aid policy. This PAR project is large and part of the challenge is simply demonstrating that analytics like this can be done and that the methodology is scaleable. I look forward to hearing more in the coming months after this project has had the time it needs to complete their analysis.

If you are interested in reading more about learning analytics and understanding who is doing what in this field I recommend the Next Generation Learning Challenges paper called Underlying Premises: Learner Analytics.

The majority of WCET members are based in the US. In October 2010 the US Department of Education released a broad package of regulations. These new Program Integrity Rules which became effective July 1, 2011 have a direct impact on all US institutions involved in creation and delivery of online learning. A great deal of attention and effort has been paid to the new rules around the state authorization regulation requiring all institutions teaching students outside of their state to have authorization to do so from the state the student resides in. This has caused online learning providers considerable grief and untold hours and money as colleges and universities scramble to comply. While state authorization has received the greatest attention other regulations have an impact on the way online learning is being provided including provisions dealing with the definition of credit hours, compensation of persons and organizations involved in student recruitment and enrolment, and defining when a student ceases to be considered in attendance. This last one is particularly interesting as last day of attendance for online students used to be based on “last click” within an LMS – last day of attendance for on campus students is based on physical presence in the classroom. However the new regulations for online learning deem last click inadequate and require “evidence of academic engagement”. This appears to be a double standard as we all know that physical presence in a bricks and mortar classroom hardly constitutes academic engagement. All these new regulations have had a chilling effect on online learning in the US. Huge effort is being diverted from online learning innovation to red-tape compliance. While some of the regulations are obviously intended to curb the excesses of private education providers in the US many of them seem based on a fundamental distrust of online and distance education. I’m glad we’re not embroiled in similar regulations here in Canada.

As mentioned WCET brings together online learning consortia and it was sobering to hear news from US consortia in Texas, Ohio and Arizona about either closures or significant reductions in support. In contrast Canada’s consortia including BCcampus, eCampus Alberta and Contact North/e-Learning Network (and soon to include the Ontario Online Institute) are doing well.

While the magnitude of online learning innovation in the US may be diminished it is not extinguished. Each year WCET issues WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) awards (I received one in 2008). This years WOW Award winners are:
1. Century College and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System for GPS LifePlan

2. Kansas State University for University Life Café a site providing counseling on emotional wellness.

3. Regis University for Passport to Course Development a site integrating graphics, audio, multimedia and technology to provide support for faculty new to online environment.
(Note if you visit this site use Password: passport11 and Name: passport11 to login)

Another US initiative that received considerable profile (and one that I’m particularly interested in given my involvement with Open Educational Resources) is the US Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) grant program.

This initiative is providing $500 million a year for four years to expand and improve the ability of eligible institutions to deliver education and career training programs. These programs are targeted to workers adversely affected by trade agreements. The Department of Labor is encouraging online/technology-enabled learning and evidence based strategies and grantees are required to make all the resources developed Open Educational Resources by applying a Creative Commons (CC-BY) license to all content developed with grant funds. This program has four priorities:
1. accelerate progress for low-skilled and other workers
2. improve retention and achievement rates to reduce time to completion
3. build programs that meet industry needs including developing career pathways
4. strengthen online and technology enabled learning

Thirty two awards were announced 26-Sept-2011 for the first year of this program. Twenty three of the awards involve consortia, 9 are individual efforts. Grantees are being offered a complementary set of support services funded by the Gates Foundation including open licensing support from Creative Commons, accessibility support from CAST, technology assistance from Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative and best practices in using OER from the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

The Colorado Online Energy Training Consortium TAACCCT grant was profiled by Rhonda Epper. This project received $17.2 million for a 36 month project. The consortium involves 15 community colleges, 14 energy industry employers, the Colorado Dept of Labor and Employment, 10 regional workforce centres. Together the consortium support Colorado’s fast growing energy industry sector by expanding and redesigning for hybrid delivery the following programs:
- Clean Energy Technology
- Wind Energy Technology
- Utility Line Technology
- Oil & Gas Technology
- Process Technology/Instrumentation
- Mining/Extractive Technology
- Water Quality Management
Many of these will be stackable credentials with options that allow certificates to ladder into associate degrees.

More information on the TAACCCT program and the capacity building grant awards is available at

I recently got an iPad and while I’m in the early stages of using it have already been impressed with it’s unique form factor, rich array of apps, and tactile/gesture modes of interacting with it. Some education institutions are actively piloting iPads on campus and I was particularly taken with how William Hicks at the Community College of Aurora/Colorado Film School incorporated the use of iPads into his film school script writing courses. Traditionally students in his short script analysis course write a script hand it in and think of it as being finished. William wanted to break the notion of scripts being untouchable and devised a unique and powerful workflow supported by iPads linking students across three different courses. Students in his Creative Producing class hire a script writer in his Script Writing course to write short scripts which are reviewed and annotated by students in a third class. iPads loaded with the app iAnnotate are used to support distribution and commenting on scripts. Prior to using the iPad his class had only been able to analyse 15 scripts. With the iPad they analysed 84 scripts, a six fold increase in efficiency. In addition he found that students prefer the iPad over hand written notes and the annotations were seen as more credible, easier to understand, and more thorough. In his view the iPad has revolutionized the outcomes in his courses. He also notes that the form factor of the iPad makes it easy to simply hand it back and forth for viewing and contrasts this with the “huddling around the campfire” way sharing content on a computer has traditionally been done.

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about use of mobile devices for online learning lately. The closing session at WCET focused on innovations of which mobile was one. By 2014 mobile internet consumption will overtake desktop consumption. Android phone popularity was used to exemplify this growth. In 2009 Android had 2.8% market share, in July 2011 over 550,000 Android mobile devices were being activated every day with growth of 4.4% every week, by August 2011 Android had 48% of the smart phone market. Of course mobile devices have significant constraints. The screen is small with low device resolution and pixel density. The touch gesture paradigm of interacting with a mobile device is not as precise as a mouse. There are limitations in cpu processing and battery power. Some devices are locked down platforms with real limitations such as the non-support of Flash on an iPhone or iPad. However, there is a great deal of potential in using mobile devices as a supplement to traditional computing and exploring education possibilities for an untethered learning experience not constrained by space or time.

Finally I should note that the NANSLO online science program I’m involved with was both a formal presentation at this event and celebrated as a significant innovation in the closing session.

So there you have it. A mini snapshop on the state of online in the US.


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