Landing : Athabascau University

self-paced learning system model enhancements

After last week's flurry of email in the AUFA list, I thought I would report on recent happenings (and rumours) from two of our sister Canadian institutions who use continuous enrolment systems and their struggles to move from industrial correspondence base to net based pedagogy's and delivery systems.

I confess that these updates are based mostly on second hand stories and my own interpretations, so further comment or updates from this with additional data are most welcomed.

Once upon a time there were three "single mode" (meaning DE only) undergraduate programs that used continuous enrollment. These were The Open Learning Agency or later Open University of BC, Teleuniversite de Quebec and Athabasca. The first two of these institutions amalgamated with dual mode, campus based institutions about 8 years ago, for a variety of reasons that were documented in a report that Dominique Abrioux did for the Commonwealth of learning in 2006. Dominque noted that though the reasons for the mergers were not identical but one common motive was for an economy of scale that could be achieved by integrating systems and sharing resources between campus and distance education systems.

Dominique was not particularly optimistic about the outcomes of the mergers, and recent events have shown how correct he was.  The Teleuniversite and the Universite de Quebec de Montreal are now in the final stages of a divorce. It seems the cultural differences between the two models of educational development and delivery were stronger than the incentives or savings from integration.

A Thompson Rivers it was announced a couple of weeks ago that the VP for Open Learning had been fired and that the organization was to be reorganized so as to bring tighter integration between the Open DE and the campus divisions. They have decided to stop all production of self-paced courses and move towards semester length paced courses. They argue that these will be easier to teach and integrate with campus infrastructure. In essence the deans and academics on the campus side just couldn't understand how or why they should change to work together with the open DE units.

You may argue that there are successful "dual mode" universities all over the world- notably in Australia. But to my knowledge all of these dual mode institutions run paced, online distance education courses. Thus, teaching assignments, exams, registrations and all sorts of administration can happen under a single paced model. Some of these schools run a lot of "classroom at a distance" synchronous models (audio or videoconferencing) while probably the majority use LMS systems like Moodle to allow student and faculty time shifting- but within a semester structure. 

Now to tie this to our conversations last week. Mike(s), Derek,  Martin, myself and others were arguing that we need to develop net based alternatives to supplement or even replace our correspondence based delivery model. Martin in particular was arguing for models that allowed more academic freedom -such as manifested on a traditional classroom (or paced dual mode system) in which faculty build and run their own course with little or no external assistance.

As can seen by these two examples, it is VERY hard to integrate these paced, teacher led models, with the older independent study correspondence models that all three of  these open Canadian universities used (successfully) in the past. The positive thing about the the demise of the self paced model at Thompson Rivers is that it leaves Athabasca as the only accredited university in English Canada that offers self paced learning. There is a niche market for this most flexible of the open learning models, but it is a niche that may never attract or be able to support high completion rates among a majority of potential learners. However, I think it is a strategic advantage that we should retain and build upon at Athabasca.

I think the trick is to allow more interaction by leapfrogging over the constructivist models of the classroom at a distance (that we use in our grad programs and most schools offering distance education use). We should be offering web 2.0 or user generated interaction models that create 'compelling but not compulsory' opportunities for interaction and student-student support. We currently have most of the infrastructure to do this. We have the multiple resources of the Landing, an increasing number of modules that could be plugged into Moddle 2.x and a host of unhosted web 2.0 tools (from Facebook, to twitter, to Voice Threads and many more).  We have been piloting courses including a second year chemistry course using this model with some success.  

The two things missing are a clear revision to our instructional design model that results in meaningful opportunites for interactions and contributions to every course.  Meaningful implies course credit for good work and thus secondly we need a model for  tutor agreements and training support to assess these contributions. Such a revised model would allow our current "professional development team" model to continue to produce (with faculty or subject matter expertise) high quality courses, while allowing individual teachers, tutors and students to add contributions, questions, resources, additional optional activities, and conversations to the course. It would NOT force us to drop our continuous enrollment model, yet still support peer-to peer and peer-ro teacher interactions.

I am not suggesting that this is an easy task, as there are very few models of student engagement that are not paced on compulsory interactions and synchronous activiteis, but it is challenge in response to which we could develop world class expertise  and re create our courses to be much more effective. Importantly, this model could provide a more engaging and compelling model for both students and tutors.

I will be bringing this model to the "new models" discussion that CLDD is holding next Wednesday May 30 at 1:00 and welcome comments here or there.



  • A comment that arose from discussion (with Mike) about the way we offer courses is that "my" model may be more suited for paced courses than continuous enrollment. I tend to agree. While we should shy away from doing other institutions' models (for example we used to do a lot of classroom, and now very little, and that is not our turf so I am glad about that), we can easily offer both models (paced and continuous) online. As examples at the extreme ends of the spectrum (of Science), first year ASTR courses, with large enrollment, relatively straightforward content, testing suitably done by multiple choice, are well suited for continuous intake. Upper level PHYS, with subtle learning needs and some tailoring to each student needed, may be better suited for paced. Not least because the difficult and incremental homework really does need to be done, and properly sequenced to testing. Our work plans would need to build this in and become more like those at campus based institutions ("I will run a paced session of PHYS 4xx in Sep-Dec. so one less paper in that period") but this should be able to be modified. A prototype paced course might even end up suitable for later conversion to continuous enrollment. At the moment there is heavy baggage with development for continuous enrollment, that is holding us back from developing new courses, especially in the "niche" market.


    Martin Connors May 23, 2012 - 3:29pm

  • Maybe we need to think of courses in terms of sandboxes; that is, individual sections that are linked together but can be assigned different levels of access. The sandboxes should not all have to be of the same kind; that is, limited to a particular environment, like Moodle, or AU Landing. The problem is finding a "wrapper" that not only affords the levels of security and privacy our for-credit courses currently require,  but also accommodates the various technologies we want to use. We really need to work this one out, and I don't think the (good) news that Thompson Rivers is dropping continuous enrollment should lead to us treat this with any less urgency.

    Derek Briton May 23, 2012 - 4:02pm

  • We do have some examples of approaches to unpaced courses that offer tutor flexibility and student sociability that are in production right now. I don't think I'm the only one doing this, but I have two unpaced courses running now that put static content and process-oriented things (like assessment management) onto Moodle and which benefit from CLDD input and offer a consistent and hardly-changing base (well - use of FAQs and wikis allows a bit of flexibility here and there). These are actually run primarily on the Landing, however, which is used to share work and communicate, and as a platform for tutors (and other students) to build on and supplement the original materials, which have all the usual omissions and fuzzy bits found in every course I've ever seen anywhere. Both are quite fact/skill-oriented technical courses that take a problem-based approach.

    Optional but compelling reasons for sharing are central: it's about cooperation, not collaboration. Students are strongly encouraged to share all of their work including reflective blogs on the process as well as primary outputs but, because of the way permissions may be set on the Landing, they don't have to do so. The course designs ensure that no one ever does the same thing as anyone else and an evidence-based approach is used to assess the outcomes so there are no risks of copying. Students are required to explcitly provide evidence of how each intended outcome has been met in the work they have done. They can use things that go beyond the traditional assignments as part of the evidence presented, such as help given to others, comments on the work of others, (annotated) bookmarks shared, and even Wikipedia articles edited, support given in public forums, and so on. This means that motivation to contribute is built into the design but is not obligatory - a student could meet the outcomes successfully without ever talking to anyone else. The need to present evidence means there's a double-loop learning bonus that comes from reflecting on what they have done in order to compile it, whether they have shared anything or not.

    I've had a few students who make everything completely public, some that allow logged-in users and a few who limit access to just the tutor, but most share with the rest of the group and no further. All of them really like being able to see what others have done and universally comment on how useful it is to their own learning. Some have commented on the reduced sense of isolation that results from it. Even if they don't engage in discussion, they are aware of and learn from others. Some do comment on the work of others and offer support and there is usually some discussion in the background but by no means everyone does it: this is good, as the whole point is to support as many ways of learning as we can. 

    It has not been completely trouble-free. Amongst other things:

    • The thing that surprised me most in the first course (a 400-level course running for about a year now) has been the burstiness of it. I had assumed, naively, that most students would pace themselves over weeks or months and some do just that. However, quite a few of them upload everything all at once or over less than a week (typically at the end of the contract). This is not great for anyone, though the benefits of sharing still apply and the resulting work is mostly fine. In the second course, a 200-level course running for about 2 months,  I've built in checks to that which require tutor approval before proceeding between stages, which seems so far to increase dialogue and offers more chances to engage. It would still be possible to do it all in a week or two so it's not a big imposition.
    • As a tutor I've found it quite important, but difficult, to remember to chip in the odd comment here and there on blog posts and I've not got it right all the time, especially when busy, and the Landing notification subject lines are not helpful in helping to organise notification messages (we will improve this soon!).
    • Some people get it straight away but, for others, The Landing is not easy to use.  We're working hard on that too, and it will get notably better very soon, but some of the problem is inherent in a multi-purpose tool which doesn't have (and must never have) the neat hierarchical organisation of a system like Moodle: it's hard to get around when you have a particular task-focus. I've found it really important to be very explicit about expectations and to give clear instructions about the process, and plentiful information about how to find things and what to do with them, as well as technical help about how to blog, where to blog, the importance of tagging, and so on. The Landing is a soft and malleable technology so, when we use it in a more formal way, we need to superimpose a bit of structure by other means, telling people how to use it for the purpose at hand and adding strong navigation cues: the new group widgets are very good for that.
    • It took quite a bit of thought to design the process so that it fits the existing tutoring model. The main trick for me was to create zero-weighted formative assessments that mean tutors get paid for formative engagement (though Newton can't cope with that, which has caused some irritating issues!) and of course the interactions are reified on the Landing and offer value to later students too, just as the students' own work benefits others. As the new course has more tutors, I'm expecting some new problems to arise here and there but tutors had lots of opportunities to look at and contribute to the course as it was developing so hopefully none will be insurmountable. 

    Jon Dron May 23, 2012 - 5:02pm

  •  My view is that we should stick to our bread and butter - self-paced courses and improve them online to the point where most  students should be able to master the content and the skill requirements with minimal tiutoring intervention.  That should be our focus. Why would we build in more costly tutor interactions when it is not needed? If, as Martin presumes, this is necessary at the upper levels then we may have to do so, but we should be exploring ways to reduce that if it is possible and I suggest that it is for many students. That way, tutors can focus on those students that need the personsl touch. I am not against Terry's suggestion to build in more compelling multimedia and student-student interactions, but what would be the cost. If we can do it in a cost-effective way then hey! let's go for it.


    Rory McGreal May 23, 2012 - 5:12pm

  • Students are our best teaching resources, with the proviso that the odd nudge and correction by an experienced tutor is sometimes needed, along with processes, technologies and content designed mindfully to support such approaches. Tutoring others is a brilliant way to learn. Everyone wins. It's cheaper and it works better. That's the essence of my lengthy response above.

    Jon Dron May 23, 2012 - 5:26pm

  • Thanks for all the insightful comments.  My only concern with Rory's caution, that it shouldn't cost money, is to bear in mind the full cost of the students who:

    1. Fail to complete their course (both cost to them individually and to us as an unsatisfied customer (bearing in mind the extent to which people enrol in courses through word of mouth endorsement).

    2. Second the cost in them not becoming return customers. We do play an important role as a service industry,  filling in the gaps for other schools, but our course/degree completion ration is probably the worst in the country. We know that students who complete one course successfully are much likely to start and complete a second and third course.

    Now, the research question to address is 'does the higher level of engagement envisioned by these enhancements to the independent study model, really result in increased pass rates and re-enrolment. I suspect it does, but we don't yet have anywhere near enough data on this to calculate ROI or even personal value of course/program success as compared to non completion or failure. But we do know that our non completion rate is way higher than paced courses - online or on campus.


    Terry Anderson May 23, 2012 - 5:47pm

  • In regard to Rory's comment, it is inferred that I think we need paced with more tutor interaction. That might help, but I am thinking that just having a schedule is important. Studies could usefully be done on that aspect I think. My technician is taking the prototype MIT electronics course and is very sensitive to deadlines. You do not get credit for the course but he sure likes getting 100% and would hate to get 0% by turning in something late. Similarly for me, that income tax that is three weeks overdue is really bugging me...

    Martin Connors May 23, 2012 - 7:15pm

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