“The Times they are a-Changing”
Learning and Teaching at the UK Open University
Address to the UNESCO Chair’s International Workshop
November 15th, 2006
Dr Paul M Clark
Pro-Vice Chancellor (Learning and Teaching)
The UK Open University
It is a pleasure to open this session of the UNESCO Chair’s series of international workshops. The topic I wish to address is the experience of the United Kingdom Open University (UKOU) in delivering Open and Distance Learning (ODL) over the past 35 years. This is a particularly challenging time in ODL as I shall try to make clear in the course of my talk. Occasions such as this are for me a time to reflect on our present practice at the United Kingdom Open University (UKOU) and how we are changing in response to a range of intrinsic and external pressures. But beyond those pressures are much more fundamental changes in individual and collective behaviour based upon the development of the World Wide Web and the websites that vast numbers of people are exploiting. How those changes will affect the way people view and interact with higher education, especially ODL, is a topic that is of great importance to the higher education community and one that I look forward to discussing with you.
2 Plan of the Talk
Let me outline the plan of my talk. First I will give a quick overview of the UKOU today and then look backwards to review the model of ODL operated by the UKOU from 1970 to around 1995, which I shall call the UKOU model of ODL: Phase 1. It is important to note the assumptions that underlay that model (which was extremely successful in its time) so as to compare them with the assumptions we make about the attitudes and behaviour of today’s students (and more importantly the students of tomorrow). Next I shall describe the impact of the arrival of the World Wide Web and the initial responses of UKOU systems to the learning opportunities that it provides, what we now call eLearning (the UKOU model of ODL: Phase 2). I want then to step back from the description of systems and processes to consider the reasons for the use of eLearning in higher education and in ODL in particular, where I see the underlying reasons for use to be most compelling. But however compelling the reasons for using eLearning, in the end it has to be evaluated to determine what it can achieve and how successful it is in practice. I shall present some forms of evaluation and data that support its use. I would like then to move from the present to look to the future of eLearning at the UKOU. First I shall describe the VLE redevelopment programme that we are taking forward and its relationships will our information systems more generally (the UKOU model of ODL: Phase3). Then I shall look more widely at the way the Web and its associated applications are being used today by millions of people around the world and pose some questions as to how the world of ODL should respond to them. In this area we are in the realm of speculation, but the changes in the world of the Web are coming at us so quickly and with such impact that we need to be as clear-sighted as possible. I shall then finish with some conclusions.
3 Definition of eLearning
The theory and practice of ODL these days is dominated by the creation and evaluation of eLearning methods and applications. There are, however, different interpretations of the word “eLearning”, some tied to particular pedagogic and epistemological stances. It is important, at the outset, to make clear the definition of eLearning that applies in this paper.
Three definitions that can be differentiated are:
i) On-line collaborative learning; in this view, eLearning involves collaborative activity amongst members of a group of students, who actively construct meanings and understanding through social interaction.
ii) On-line, individual or collaborative learning; this is an enlarged view that still focuses on the primacy of working online but recognises that an individual may be exploiting the information riches of the Web to enhance their learning, as distinct from participating in collaborative activity.
iii) Learning through the use of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), either offline study, on-line individual learning or online collaborative learning. This is the most general definition in which the use of ICT can be offline (e.g., working with a simulation on CD-ROM or DVD) or online as described in point (ii) above.
It is this most general definition that is employed in the UKOU but I shall often focus in this paper on the second definition, that highlights the central role played by the Web in the use of ICT for learning and teaching.
4 Overview of the Present-Day UKOU.
The UKOU today is an institution devoted to the delivery of higher education at a distance to students who study in their homes, their places of work or other non-campus based locations. One of the principal features that qualifies it as “open” is that no entry qualifications are required for students to begin study with the UKOU. This freedom from entry qualifications also places a strong requirement on the University to provide material, services and support of such quality that they can make up for the lack of study experience of many of our beginning students.
The UKOU has been in operation for 35 years and presently has 167,000 students. The minimum age for study is 18 and the distribution of students with age, which is quite different from that of a conventional university, is shown in Table 1 below.
|Male: female ratio||40:60||53:47|
|65 and over||
|Median age of new undergraduate level students 32|
Table 1: Distribution of UKOU students with age (2005/06)
The UKOU has 8 Faculites and Schools that delivery teaching and research in a wide range of major subject and vocational areas, from Physics and Mathematics to Initial Teacher Training. It currently delivers 334 courses at undergraduate level, 179 courses at taught post graduate level and runs a substantial discipline-based research programme with 1500 post graduate research students. Two research units, the Institute for Educational Technology (IET) and the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi) conduct research into the pedagogic and technological aspects of eLearning. . The UKOU ranks 5th out of 140 higher education institutions in the UK with respect to the quality of teaching and ranks 1st in the eyes of its students in relation to their satisfaction with their experience of learning. The UKOU also has 16,700 students residing outside the UK and Eire and it has partnerships with higher education institutions in 31 countries.
5 UKOU Model of ODL: Phase 1 (1970-1995)
Let me look back for a minute to the first form of ODL provided by the UKOU. The fundamental assumption guiding the creation of UKOU courses in the period 1970 to 1995 was that students would be studying by themselves, with very little chance to discuss matters with other students or with tutors and little access, in local libraries, to information relevant to their courses. There were limited opportunities to meet other students and UKOU tutors (called “Associate Lecturers” or ALs for short) at face-to-face tutorials delivered all around the UK, at week-long residential summer schools or in (voluntary) self-help groups, Contact between a student with his or her AL was delivered through the use of ordinary mail services or the telephone. However, the UKOU student was, for the most part, studying in isolation. Therefore, the UKOU had to provide a full range of study materials to replace not only lectures but also library resources to which we could not expect students to have access and, for appropriate subjects, access to experimental equipment usually found in laboratories. Although the UKOU was committed from the outset to use a range of media to create study materials, the primary source for the student was (and in many respects still is) high quality printed materials created by UKOU course teams and published by UKOU. Other materials, for example audio-visual resources or experimental equipment augmented the basic message carried by print. Assessment comprised Computer-Marked Assignments (CMAs) submitted on paper and read by optical character reader, Tutor-Marked Assignments (TMAs) or projects submitted on paper through the mail and invigilated examinations taken under controlled conditions. Essentially the teaching process was a one-way transmission from course team to student, while the media of delivery evolved in response to the provision of the commercial marketplace (for example, broadcast TV was replaced by video cassette which in turn has been replaced by DVD and we now look towards video streaming or downloading to computer, mobile phone, PDA, MP4 or iPod to deliver audio-visual resources in the near future.
6 UKOU Model of ODL: Phase 2 (1995-2005)
Since the arrival of the Internet and the Web applications that it supports, the world of ODL has been changing at an ever more rapid pace. Email, computer conferencing, computer-aided assessment delivered online, secure assignment handling systems, student tracking, online provision of learning resources and many other applications have become standard features of higher education, both at a distance and in campus-based universities. Many of these applications have been integrated into Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) that have become standard equipment at universities around the world.
Over the period 1995-2005, the UKOU has put together a range of ICT tools, in addition to its production and delivery of high quality printed texts, to develop its ability to facilitate eLearning processes across a substantial range of subjects. We have created websites for each of our students that provide a range of academic and administrative links that are relevant to that student’s study, as well as course-specific websites that aid their study of any individual course. We provide email, text-based computer conferencing to deliver online tutorials moderated by our ALs and instant messaging to enhance student-student contact. These services are provided by a commercial conferencing product called FirstClass. We have created our own systems to deal with synchronous audio conferencing (particularly adopted for the practice of conversation in the study of foreign languages), the provision of eBooks as a by-product of our print production, the creation and delivery of computer-assisted assignments delivered online and the secure handling of digital versions of our tutor-marked assignments. We have also expanded enormously our library’s holdings of digital resources that our students can access online. This set of online applications has functioned as our VLE and has been developed to handle the large volumes of online activity created by an institution of our size. While we and our students have had substantial experience of eLearning over the past decade, students have had to deal with a range of systems each with its own sign-on, navigation and other idiosyncrasies. Further, there has been no smooth linkage between the academic and the administrative applications that students would like to use. From the student’s viewpoint we have provided an interesting but far too complicated user experience. It is the quality of the student experience that now sits in the centre of our concerns as we take the next major step forward in eLearning at the UKOU.
7 Rationales for eLearning
It is far too easy to become engrossed in the details of developing technology and lose sight of the underlying reason for investing in it; that is, the improvement of the student learning experience. It is my opinion that campus-based universities are still trying to find a convincing rationale for the inclusion of VLEs in higher education study, rationales that should go beyond administrative convenience, exposure to new technology or faster and easier delivery of materials. But for distance-learning institutions such as the UKOU, the advent of online communication in all its present forms has allowed us to move past the old UKOU model of learning and teaching to enlarge our capacities to deliver essential aspects of higher education activity and outcomes.
We can now provide new dimensions of the student learning experience that were impossible to provide before the advent of the web. Collaborative learning, resource-based learning, group project work, peer assessment, library search, group conversation (in foreign language study and, more informally, in any subject) all become possible for distance learners just as they are for campus-based students. As well as providing new aspects of learning for our students using Web applications, we can also provide new and more effective ways of delivering more traditional distance learning activity. For example, the UKOU invests substantial resource in the provision, for our students, of face-to-face tutorials by our ALs to support learning in our courses. But for many of our students, full time work and family responsibilities preclude the travel required to attend face-to-face tutorials with the result that less than half our student body take advantage of our tutorial provision. However, online tuition led by our ALs and delivered into students’ homes can meet the needs of these students by improving their understanding of the course material and, at the same time reducing the sense of isolation inherent in distance study. In a similar manner interaction with students online can improve the AL’s ability to track students’ progress and therefore be alerted to provide extra support for those students who seem to be having difficulties.
A particularly important contribution that eLearning can make to the UKOU’s educational programme is the manner in which we can improve the learning experience of disabled students. Given that we have 10,200 students who declare to us that they have a disability that impairs their ability to study, it is imperative that we exploit the power of ICT to improve their educational experience. From printed materials read onto DVD to simulations of microscope work and field trips, we are able to cater for the needs of a wide variety of disabled students and deliver on our commitment to widen participation in higher education as much as we can.
8 “Does it Work?”: Impact measures of eLearning
The implementation of eLearning systematically across an HEI is a mammoth undertaking, which requires substantial investment and has many disruptive effects on the institution and its staff, as well as opening up the possibilities of new learning achievements for its students and new efficiencies of operation for staff. The management team of the university therefore, quite rightly, looks for hard, quantifiable measures of improvement in the effectiveness of teaching and student learning that can be attributed to the impact of eLearning methods. I shall present three different types of measure of the value of eLearning.
Impact through capability
As already mentioned, the importance of eLearning and its associated ICT-based technologies to the activity of distance-teaching universities such as the UKOU is of an entirely different order to that described above for conventional universities. It enhances in an essential manner the range of possible learning outcomes that our students can achieve and closes a major gap between the educational provision of these two different forms of higher education institution (HEI). These outcomes can be grouped under the headings of increased interactivity and increased autonomy and particular tools contribute to the achievement of these outcomes. Using eLearning the UKOU and other distance-learning institutions can provide their students with the facilities to undertake forms of learning activity that were difficult or impossible to undertake previously. Providing the means for distance-learning students to achieve these outcomes is a major contribution to the impact of eLearning in higher education.
Impact through measures of volumes of use
The senior manager’s nightmare is to build a sophisticated VLE that is inadequately used by students and staff. One simple measure of impact is, therefore, given by the volumes of usage of the VLE that can be measured on the networks. Here are some examples of UKOU statistics.
Number of email accounts on UKOU system: 463,444 (Oct. 2006)
Number of conference messages posted 300,000 (Sept. 2006)
Students using their personal website 121,000 (05/06)
Course with computer required 335 (65%)
Number of assignments sent online 173,000 (23%)
Percentage of students enrolling online 60% (Jan.06 – Sept.06)
Number of ejournal downloads 1,370,000 (05/06)
Clearly there is a lot of online activity, both academic and administrative,
going on. But there is a crucial distinction between activity and successful
outcome. So let me now turn to quantitative measures that are more directly related to aspects of the outcomes of the learning process.
Impact Measures: Course Completion; Student Satisfaction; Cognitive Gain
Such measures are hard to find and, especially, are hard to isolate from the effects other changes within or outside the university. Set out below are examples of three impact measures for which the UKOU has been able to gather some respectable data. These are not reports of completed projects but more in the nature of work in progress.
The first measure is that of a comparison of the percentage of students completing courses in which the use of ICT is compulsory (e.g., computing, ICT studies, Design) with the related percentage in courses for which eLearning is voluntary and can be avoided if the student so wishes. The results are set out in the table below.
|eLearning Requirements||eLearning Compulsory||eLearning Voluntary||eLearning Compulsory||eLearning Voluntary|
|Experience of Student||Students new to the OU||Students new to the OU||Students continuing with the OU||Students continuing with the OU|
Table 2: Comparison of Completion Rates Between Courses with Compulsory eLearning with Completion Rates on Courses with Voluntary eLearning Activity
While the completion rates are 5% higher for the courses in which eLearning is voluntary, the differences are not all that great considering the extra demands made on the students studying courses for which eLearning is compulsory.
The second impact measure is that of the degree of satisfaction to which students attest in relation to the different study activities that they have to undertake in courses for which some eLearning component is required. The ordinate on the graph below measures the percentage of students stating that they are very or fairly satisfied with that particular mode of study.
Chart 1: Percentage of Students Very or Fairly Satisfied with a Particular Mode of study
The most prominent results are that, at this stage in the development of eLearning, stand-alone components (either traditional print or CD-ROM/DVD) are more favoured than online components and that face-to-face tutorials out-perform online tutorials. But the differences are not that great given the small amount of experience in online activity that we have at the present time. There is reason for optimism that in 5 years’ time online study will compete with, or out-perform, face-to-face and off-line study for many of our students.
The final hard impact measure to be examined is the one most teachers would value highly; the achievement of cognitive gain. The power of new technology to enhance the development of understanding, particularly of difficult or abstract concepts, rests in part in the facility it provides to manipulate and explore concrete examples, to view them from a variety of perspectives or to test conjectures; in general terms to exploit the interactivity provided by ICT-based examples or simulations to come to grips with the essence of the general idea. A particular test of the relationship between the provision of interactive exploration and the achievement of cognitive gain has been carried out on a range of concepts in science: species differentiation in the Galapagos Islands, the structure of particular molecules, the biological processes of meiosis and mitosis, and the properties of seismic waves. A measure of interactivity in the learning activities associated with these concepts was plotted against the measure of cognitive gain (established with pre- and post-tests). The results are shown in Chart 2, below.
Chart 2: The relationship of interactivity of study materials and the related cognitive gain
The correlation shown above is quite significant. The real challenge lies in the creation of learning opportunities, through the use of simulations, interactive assessment with feedback or the structuring of discussion (principally online for distance learners) in which exploration, experimentation or trial and error can enhance the understanding
9 UKOU Model of ODL: Phase 3 (2005-2010)
The UKOU has committed itself to the proposition that, in the future, eLearning and, more generally, the use of ICT to advance its business and educational processes have to sit at the centre of its operations. In particular, the UKOU student must have available to him or her an integrated online environment that supports his or her learning activities, information acquisition and the full range of administrative functions related to being a student of the UKOU. Given the central importance of an eLearning environment to this proposition, the UKOU is undertaking a major project to redevelop its VLE to provide new versions of existing applications (e.g., conferencing, email, instant messaging) as well as new applications that will be built into the learning activities of future students ( e.g., blogs, wikis, eProfolios, eAssessment, mobile learning). The environment must also provide the tools needed for online student support by ALs (student tracking, student-AL communication) and full access to the range of information and advice that students need to organise their lives as UKOU students (online study events calendars, course, programme and awards information). As well as providing the learning and information environments appropriate to the next generation of eLearners, many groups of UKOU staff have to absorb the impact of these systems on their work practices. Academic staff have to learn how to create courses and programmes that deliver the learning outcomes that the new VLE can facilitate. ALs need to master the techniques of online student support and guidance. It is a challenging time for all involved in ODL. But, as I hope to demonstrate now, the challenges are not limited to the impact of electronic environments of universities in isolation.
10 “A Whole New World”.
The title of this talk, “The Times They are a-Changing” comes from one of the famous songs of the 1960s during which new and uncontrollable social forces changed the course of political developments across the western world. There are many analysts and observers who see a similar situation developing in relation to the use of new forms of Web application. The enormous numbers of people using these applications around the world indicate that new relationships and expectations are being formed between individuals and Web content and between individuals and traditional information providers. It also demonstrates the importance of sharing Web resources rather than trying to retain exclusive possession of them. In short, a whole new world is opening up.
In the July 2006 issue of “Wired” magazine, the following three Web-based social forces, which will have enormous impact on the use of media in education, have been analysed and commented upon. The first is called “People Power” and it highlights the changing balance of visibility and influence between individuals and large organisations in the realm of information production and distribution to huge audiences. Using “blogs”, “wikis”, “podcasts”, applications such as MySpace, YouTube, or Flickr, individuals have mounted an enormous amount of content that is clearly of interest to others. This content (text, still and moving images, audio) is also being mined for commercial value, as the large sums that are involved in the sales of such applications demonstrate. In some activities ( e.g., Wikipedia) many individuals contribute to a common enterprise, such as the creation of a free, online encyclopaedia. In others, (e.g., Daily Kos, Oh My News) an individual providing content on the Web can compete with established news providers, such as respected newspapers and television networks, or can mount very powerful campaigns against institutions or companies whose products or services are considered to be deficient. The ease with which a vast range of information can be searched for and accessed and the global visibility that individuals can achieve pose significant questions for educational providers such as the UKOU:
i) How is the traditional intellectual authority of, and respect for, universities to be maintained in the light of such easy comparison of their content provision with freely available material on the Web?
ii) Can a university create and sustain an integrated online learning and information environment that is attractive to students who are exposed to commercial websites that are appearing with increasing rapidity and that attract gigantic levels of interest worldwide with dizzying speed?
Fifteen years ago, most television viewers had a limited range of channels from which to choose and the viewer was a passive recipient of the programme beamed at him or her by the channel of his or her choice. The broadcast TV programme was the total content available to the viewer. These days every network is constantly advertising the range of supplementary content available to the viewer (or radio listener) to download to a computer, an ipod, a portable playstation or a mobile phone, and to be heard or viewed at the customer’s leisure. Back then, no notice was taken by the average bookstore of your desire to buy a particular book or CD. Today Amazon will track your every move around its site and build a profile of your preferences, compare it with the set of preferences of other purchasers of the same book and make suggestions to you as to other books or CDs that they predict you are likely to enjoy. Either through the exercise of consumer choice or by the impact of consumer modelling (Amazon), the impact is to personalise the service. The challenge for higher education institutions is clear;
i) How does an educational institution meet the requirements of students (customers) who are accustomed, in their daily lives, to having information and entertainment delivered through the medium of their choice, at the time of their choosing, to the device of their choosing?
ii) Can a university afford to develop and maintain personalisation technologies to identify the requirements of individual students as companies such as Amazon do? What are the consequences of failing to do so.
The overriding presumption of most people is that all the information on the Web comes for free. Certainly the vast amounts of user-generated content on sites such as personal Blogs or Wikis, MySpace or Flickr are free to interested site visitors. The vast amount of information mounted on websites, is providing increasing competition to sites or institutions that wish to extract a direct financial benefit from web-mounted content. Two particular open access movements are of direct importance to the UKOU; the Open Source movement and the Open Content Initiative.
Open Source is a convention amongst software creators that greater benefit comes from the free sharing of the source code of applications to any interested software producer than the attempt to retain proprietary control over one’s software. The benefit comes principally from the improvements to any given piece of software that members of the community make to which any participant has free access. The code of any given application is improved in evolutionary style over time. The most famous Open Source initiative is the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server software. In education the most prominent Open Source initiative is the Moodle VLE movement, in which the UKOU is now directly involved. The decision to use Moodle as the core of the UKOU’s VLE has placed the UKOU in the forefront of Moodle development.
The Open Content Initiative was thrust into prominence by MIT’s decision 15 years ago to mount all its teaching materials on the Web. The hope at that time was that Open Content would follow the lead of Open Source in that institutions or individuals who took up the MIT materials would, in the course of using them, modify and enhance them and then return them to the MIT site for others to use. This evolutionary development process did not materialise. The UKOU, with the financial support of the Hewlett Foundation, has recently launched its Open Content Initiative, called OpenLearn. For the first launch, 900 hours of study materials, created by the UKOU for its courses, has been put into the public domain on the http://openlearn.open.ac.uk site. Another 4100 hours of materials will be posted in the next 18 months. Provision is also being made for users to modify the materials to suit their needs, with the expectation that the improved materials will be returned to the OU site for any individual or institution to take up and use in turn. The major challenge of the Open Content Initiative is to find a business proposition that allows an institution to maintain a flow of materials to an Open Content site while making a return on investment through a related form of business activity. There are some questions for institutions such as the UKOU that are participating in the Open Content Initiative that are quite clear.
i) What business proposition, built on the foundation of the free dissemination of educational materials and services, can make the continued contribution of high cost – high quality learning materials and services a viable strategy for a University such as the UKOU?
ii) How can the investment in high cost- high quality learning materials be sustained in a market where materials of adequate quality are freely available on the Web from other providers?
iii) Will the lowest common denominator materials be adequately designed to meet the pedagogic needs of an open entry institution such as the UKOU with its student age profile?
The UKOU is now in an extended period of change with respect to its learning and teaching methods. It is clear that even with the large amount of experience in these activities behind it and great success over the years, the University sees great challenges ahead as it engages with the educational uses of new media and with a growing student body that has developed expectations from the use of the Web in their daily lives. The speed of technological change – of both educational technology and commercially based products – makes eLearning delivery and the evaluation of its impact difficult. Impact is also the combined effect of a variety of factors, some of them hard to isolate.
In particular, the movements and groundswells in people’s behaviour and expectation with respect to the use of the Web that I have outlined above can be resumed as follows:
i) users of the Web, either individually or combined in particular initiatives such as Wikipedia, are willing to contribute to the Web an enormous volume of information and argument free of charge;
ii) the global reach and ease of access of the Web gives individuals the capacity to have a global impact in the production and dissemination of information and opinion, that heretofore was the preserve of large institutions such as the major newspaper or radio/TV networks. Universities, as authoritative disseminators of information, will feel the impact of these new information providers.
iii) University students are progressively coming to study with an expectation of personalised service, derived from their experience of using the Web to obtain information and services for the needs of their daily lives
iv) University students are increasingly proficient in the use of a range of communication devices (mobile phones, PDAs, portable games consoles, MP3 and MP4 players) which they will expect to be able to use in their activities as students. The ability of academic staff to use the new media and applications for learning and teaching will be a significant challenge.
v) The trails of activities of individuals on the Web are being mined by companies with the intention of intensifying the personal focus of marketing to the same individuals over the Web.
vi) Universities will have to work in a world in which progressively more educational materials and services are freely available on the Web. The added value of higher education institutions, in particular the teaching activities of academic staff ( faculty), will be challenged by the resources available on the Web.
vii) New forms of Web application or communications device will arrive in the marketplace with increasing frequency and the take-up by the general population will be increasingly rapid. Such new technologies can modify or completely change the viability of business propositions (as Skype has with respect to long distance telephony). Universities will have to be responsive and flexible to maintain their position in such a rapidly changing market.
How Universities should position themselves in this whole new world is a major challenge. I therefore look forward to our discussions to take understanding, both yours and mine, forward in this intriguing area of University operation.