Landing : Athabascau University

Innovation comparisons and NKI

I am attending and keynoting at the Colloque Scientifiqu International here in Montreal and wishing my French was a LOT better.

This morning I had the opportunity to hear Morten Paulsen from the Norway Knowledge Institute (NKI). Morten is an old friend who has visited and spoke at Athabasca a few years ago.

I STRONGLY encourage everyone at Athabasca to view the slides from this presentation. The slides overview the NKI philosophy on self paced learning, the progress and innovation at NKI and their evolution from a tradiitional correspondence school (since 1911) to an online institution. They went completely online in 2001. Unlike most new entrants (and most of our other Open University peers), NKI has always maintained support for continuous enrolment (every day, not every month). Moreover, Morten described his life long academic work has been to develop OPTIONAL networking opportunities, for self-paced students. He coined the phrase “compelling, but not compulsary cooperative learning activities” 

NKI currently has about 16,000 students, but only 60 full time staff and 150 tutors.  They receive this year no government funding and must charge tuition in an environment where students are used to having free university, thus they have a driving force to be innovative, to contain costs and to retain students.  They also do not have full time academics and thus do NOT do discipline based research. Finally two years ago they were bought out by a for -profit company- so their approach to the bottom line is changing, and not i9n way supported by many veteran employees. So some similarities - and some significant differences from AU.

To me, the nmost significantdifference is the way they have been able to roll out significant innovations, across their whole system (not small research pilots). Here is the list of these enhancements from slide#13.

NKI: A pioneer in Online Education

  • 1986: First LMS — specifically developed for distance learning
  • 1987: First online distance education course
  • 1992: Introductory course for all new NKI tutors
  • 1996: First web-based courses
  • 2002: First m-learning courses
  • 2003: Speech synthesis in all courses
  • 2004: Individual planning system and individual  follow up according to the student's plan
  • 2004: Continuous tracking of turn-around time
  • 2006: Learning partner system (study buddy options)
  • 2008: Global student profiles
  • 2010: Peer counselling system for tutors
  • 2011: Quality barometer For tutors and course materials

I'll comment below on a few of these:

2004 development of individual plans means that each student is strongly encourged to set a time line for the current and future courses in a program. If they begin to not meet their own timelines, then a number of interventions, ranging from emails, to phone calls to academic suggestions are triggered by their LMS. The student can change their progress plan as they wish and they can follow their indiviudal progress (through program as well as indiviudal courses) online as marked by assignments and tests completed.

Tracking of "turn around time" by tutors and in 2011 making this available to tutors to compare their average turn around time to that of all other teachers (their response rate was and average of 1.89 days last year).  These baromters also show percentage of students who were satisfied or very satsifed with the feedback (as compared to all other tutors) from that tutor. Students get to see that their evaluations make a difference - but they are anonymous and returned to tutors after a random delay, so as to make return of assignment and feedback less identifiable.

Global student profiles and opportunities for study buddy formation are what we have been pilotting on the Landing for over two years, but we are a long way from systematic roll out - likely most students and tutors at AU have never heard of the Landing, much less completed a profile or made a study buddy or group connection.

All tutors are required to take an online course on using their online system and online pedgaogy as a condition of being hired. They also pay tutors regular per/student payment to do peer reviews (optional to be reviewed, but becoming popular) of other tutors.

Morten credits the capacity to roll out these innovations on an 'inhouse' LMS and management system that they have been building over the last 20 years.

I know that I have terrible propensity for thinking the "grass is greener elsewhere", but if we are going to meet our goal in the SUP of providing the "Best online education' for  our students, we need to significantly increase the speed with which online pedgaogical and technological innovations are adopted. Just putting our study guides into Moodle, is a significant, but very small first step towards this goal.  I also think we need to develop a model or vision of what quality, motivating self-paced online learning actually looks like and what are its component features, so they we can build and test such vision in large numbers of our courses.

I would welcome efforts to create a similar innovation timeline as that above at AU in the comments to this post.





  • Thanks for sharing this Terry. There is much truth in what you've written. I strongly believe that everyone at AU should take a course here and not one they've written or one specifically from their discipline.....we all need to experience what our students experience in order to be able to see the way forward. Intervention and turnaround time tracking are key components as well. Our course schedules are too open, something must be done week one and something else weeek's too random. We need built in reminders and tools to translate the random week 7 deadline into a solid Friday, May 4th deadline. I've personally built excel spreadsheets to offer this translation for a number of classes taken by students of agreements I manage. Tilly Jensen (sorry for throwing you under the bus here) adapted it for ACCT253 with great success.

    We need to do more. And as for the NKI LMS vs. Moodle here's an interseting quote from Jonathan Lecun, UK Teachers Online about his views on Moodle Vs. Ning - “We achieved more with Ning in 3 months than we could achieve in 2 years with Moodle. It has helped us bring about a genuine learning community among our students and has enriched their experience considerably.”


    anyway just $0.02 from a non-academic

    Michael Shouldice May 4, 2012 - 8:19am

  • When I came to AU in 2006, my observation was that AU needed much stronger and more open channels of communication, lots of faculty and staff development in online course design, and a shared vision of what it means to learn and teach in an online learning environment—in a word, leadership. I am starting to feel optimistic about our ability to adapt. Leaders such as you, Terry, Jon Dron, George Siemens, Cindy Ives, Rory McGreal, and many forward-looking faculty members are making a difference. I hope you will increase your efforts and that those of us who are benefitting from your leadership will do our utmost to boost the momentum. 

    Here are a few ideas about quality, motivating self-paced online learning  that I posted in our closed CLDD group blog:

    • students will not waste time and energy as a result of incomplete, overly wordy, vague, inaccurate or unnecessarily complicated logistics (this will increasingly mean a smooth path between Moodle and the Landing)
    • students are offered all the support they may need to successfullly complete the course
    • students experience a clean and attractive learning environment
    • students have a chance to build transferrable metaskills (relating  to, for example,  cognition and literacies)
    • students have choices of media  and devices (i.e., mobile display) that make the course convenient, engaging, and accessible to them

    Mary Pringle May 4, 2012 - 8:35am

  • Thanks Terry.  A very interesting read.

    You know, it strikes me that the single most important thing that AU could do to improve its ability to be innovative is to be more supportive of the innovators. There's lot of things that I'd like to do with my online courses but if I want to do any of them I have to do them OFFSITE on my own bloody servers. I can't even touch my online course without the intervention of a committee. I'm finding ways to innovate and bring life to my courses using the new technologies, but its ridiculous the contortions I'm having to do to accomplish it. Years ago I used to run my own server here. I was programming and coding and developing LMS systems and working to revolutionize scholarly communication (I had the first online journal of Sociology) and the university, instead of supporting that, took that away. We can argue about how we have an authentic looking university press now, and its great that they are innovative and respected, but I just keep thinking how far ahead we might be right now if the institutional response wasn't fearful lockdown and control. And I'm not blowing my horn here. I bet there are lots of coordinators out their just itching to be innovative, but locked down in this fashion.

    One of the first steps in fixing this deplorable situation is to reward the innovators and by reward I mean making innovation an offical part of the academic's promotional strategy. Not that you have to innovate to get promoted, but that any innovations that you do make can be listed and counted as significant. There should be a new line in the online forms under SCHOLARSHIP AND CREATIVE ACTIVITY specifically to list innovations.

    Second step would be to give instructors access to their moodle courses so that innovation could be constant and organic. I've done a lot of innovation in how I present my courses online, but my inability to touch the finished product basically erases all my motivation to continue to work. I mean, why should i have to "go through" somebody to get to content and interfaces that I've created? It doesn't make any sense.

    So maybe that's something we might consider in creating an innovation timeline. Number one, modifications to the academic's assessment process. Number two, giving tutors and coordinators better control over content.

    If this is to be successful, the university has to listen to us, to the innovators, to the people who want to work and change this. Right now I think academics are treated mostly like little children in need of an AUPAIR and that's gotta stop.  While I don't think we should be autocratically setting the course, I think our voices need to be a little louder, and a little stronger, and a little more insistent, and I think others need to be listening and instead of arguing with us about why we can't do what we want to do, they need to be working with us to support us in our bid to revolutionize the educational process.

    And not just us. I'm sure there's lots of good ideas salted everywhere in this university. We need to develop a culture of innovation where these ideas get recognized and encouraged.





    other and speaking of tutors, changing their pay structure to require online interaction with students.





    Mike Sosteric May 4, 2012 - 8:56am

  • Well now I can't help myself: Stop Blabbing About Innovation And Start Actually Doing It granted I never like it when someone is a self proclaimed expert blogger but a lot of this guy says about innovating is right on the mark.

    • set goals
    • give freedom and time
    • seperate management/location
    • mix up the staff
    • freedom to fail

    Michael Shouldice May 4, 2012 - 9:10am

  • Sounds interesting, but some of their realities are not very appealing (for-profit owners; no research, no fulltime academics).

    Question for you: what do you think we can learn, or adopt, from them?

    - Pat

    an unauthenticated user of the Landing May 4, 2012 - 10:21am

  • Thanks for the comments all and especially for the concrete suggestions and  links.

    To answer to Pat, they could learn a lot from us in terms of integrating both DE and discipline research into scholarly life - and we get paid and have a mandate to do that (not commenting on if the public support is sufficient. 

    What we can learn from them is how to take an innovation or a new technology, that has had promising results elsewhere or in pilots and how to institute this across the system. 

    Let me give an example. When I came to Athabasca from University of Alberta, I couldn't believe that I was expected to teach an online course, without either access to an LMS or at least access to a web server. All we had was a conferencing system. Luckily the Nursing Centre had an install of WebCT and let borrow an account. Thus the innovation of LMS (without planning) evolved to four different systems running, and none being centrally supported nor training given. After Brian came we spent a year deciding on Moodle (after a false start) but even now what 10 years later, we are supporting two LMS systems. I am fine with the choice of Moodle to be centrally supported, but we were at least 5 years behind University of Alberta - and we were supposed to be Canada's leading institution.

    At NKI, the realized that their completion rates were not high enough, they researched the issue (see Tinto, Kember and others) and realized that social integration was lacking. So they set up a system where EVERY student was invited to complete a profile and encouraged to make a connection with another student or create a study group. And sure enough those who did this (over 50%) had higher completion rates.

    We now have the Landing that does support this same capacity, but it is an experimental service, with no guarantee of continuation (though I am very hopeful), but we don't have a mechanism to insure that every student is invited to participate (hopefully using multiple channels) and where faculty and tutors model the behaviour and where we gather data to support or refute the intervention.



    Terry Anderson May 4, 2012 - 11:43am

  • Mary, your point concerning provision of learner supports to students ("students are offered all the support they may need to successfullly complete the course") is one that I am pre-occupied with specifically in the context of the self-paced learning environment in which students may have minimal contact with peers. An article that was recently discussed on Stephen Downes' OLDaily explores the topic of learner supports from the perspective of designing learning activities that engage students in productive failure. Ensuring that students are challenged but not frustrated is an essential part of helping students develop the transferrable skills (problem-solving strategies, critical thinking) that you also mentioned. Ill-structured problems offer learners with an opportunity to develop these skills as well as gain content knowledge.

    Kapur, M. & Bielaczyc, K. (2011). Designing for Productive Failure. Journal of Learning Sciences, 21(1), 45-83.

    Sandra Law May 4, 2012 - 11:57am

  • The problem, as I see it, is that AU still hasn't identified online teaching and learning as its core business.

    Sure, we have a centrally-supported LMS, but its failure (no fault of Moodle's) to communicate with other University systems severely limits what it can do in terms of student services and analytics (in sharp contrast to the in-house system NKI built from scratch).

    I understand we're now pouring resources into a new Enterprise Resource Planning system.

    Where's the consultation with faculty as to how this particular system will contribute to our core business--teaching and learning?

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing against building a fully integrated system, but so many of these behomeths are built for business, not for education.

    Sounds like (and I don't know enough about it to make a definitive statement) it's a Banner upgrade with more bells and whistles for Office of the Registrar, Finance, and HR.

    Well we certainly need a better way to handle student records, collect fees, hire within the instituion, and handle business analytics but if these priorities are put ahead of teaching and learning, we're putting the cart ahead of the horse--there won't be any students to manage, fees to collect, or people to hire if the online teaching and learning experience doesn't improve.

    We certainly need better systems, but online teaching and learning have to be at the core--I'm not sure we've learned that lesson yet. 

    Derek Briton May 4, 2012 - 2:30pm

  • Terry, does NKI allow their staff to have anytime, self-serve access to view their peers' courses? 

    I appreciate the planned sharing presentations that have been occurring over the last while from CLDD and others but providing self-serve library access to every AU Moodle course for all those involved in course design and development across all centres might help raise our organizational culture of peer sharing and awareness of collegial innovation.

    We're all in this together, yet each centre is a "black hole" of mystery for all the other centres in terms of what our neighbors are doing until someone decides to offer a formal presentation.

    As far as I'm aware, Moodle can facilitate this "peering over the wall", yet us humans just haven't made the effort to put this in place.  Why?

    Carmen Southgate May 4, 2012 - 2:37pm

  • Mike and Carmen raise interesting points about AU's operations that limit both innovation and anybody seeing much of it when it happens. While I understand the fears re "quality control" that prevent academics from having freedom to just make  changes to their courses at will, I think they result in more harm than good in the long run. And I don't understand why all our courses are not available for the whole world, never mind just AU staff to see.

    - Alvin Finkel

    an unauthenticated user of the Landing May 4, 2012 - 5:18pm

  • Are you upgrading Banner or making a move to a new ERP?

    Heather Clitheroe May 4, 2012 - 7:46pm

  • Thank you to Terry and all who contributed in this interesting discussion. If you would like some more information on the latest developments at NKI, i reccommend this paper that my colleague professor Torstein Rekkedal will present at a conference next week.


    - Morten Flate Paulsen

    an unauthenticated user of the Landing May 5, 2012 - 5:40am

  • @ Morten: the line doesn't work.

    Derek Briton May 8, 2012 - 12:00pm

  • Like many of you, I have talked about all these issues once or twice in my career,Smile then went off and tried to build something. But today it seems very important to be wise about our politics and the next steps.

    Compiling a list of principles and actions we agree upon would be good. Some low hanging ones, some more ambitious.

    Not a list of complaints, rtaher positive changes in practice that may or may not require some changes in our systems or our work culture to accomodate them.

    Developing supportive and compelling discussion papers on each chnage practice will be necessary.

    Identifying the political route, such as identifying the committees of GFC and elsewhere to bring these to,

    and the best strategies for winning votes that force changes seems fundamental.

    Creating linkages amongst ourselves, seeking our GFC representtaives to educate and lobby,

    working on our collective identity, and a campaign slogan might help.

    Michael Gismondi May 8, 2012 - 4:56pm

  • Dear all,

    I'm sorry for providing you with a link that did not work. You may however find links to the paper and presentation Torstein Rekkedal presents this week at the top of his homepage at

    All the best from Morten

    - Morten Flate Paulsen

    an unauthenticated user of the Landing May 9, 2012 - 4:18am

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