Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Call for Feedback

Dr. Janice Ristock, Vice Provost (Academic Affairs), established the Blended and Online Learning Task Force in late 2012 with Dr. Jeffery Taylor, Dean of Arts, as Chair. The Task Force has produced a draft report which is now available for review and feedback from the University of Manitoba community.

Following is a message from Dr. Jeffery Taylor, Chair of the Blended and Online Learning Task Force:

Welcome to the discussion about the University of Manitoba's Blended and Online Task Force Report!  The Task Force is interested in receiving your comments and feedback on the report.  We are especially interested in your comments on the various recommendations contained in the report.  In addition, if you have any questions about the report, please post them here and we will be happy to respond as best we can.

The Blended and Online Learning at the University of Manitoba report can be found on the Vice-President (Academic) and Provost's website.


  1. I am now retired but have taught several courses that were fully online to distance education students situated across the country (an in other countries including the USA and the Bahamas). As such, it was impossible to incorporate any face-to-face components into these classes; the best we could do was to have live discussions at regular intervals to discuss course content and assignments. I experimented about 2 years ago with a blended course for graduate students after participating in several workshops on this topic. The distance courses that are fully online seem to work well and students learn as much or more than campus students - I find that many of them are more committed to their learning. The blended course was not the greatest success of my career: despite developing assignments that I thought related well to the course and would lend themselves to working independently and as groups, things "fell apart" due to lack of support for me in the programs necessary for this course (e.g. blog); and some of the students lacking the computer skills and knowledge knowledge that they required in order to be most successful in the course. Both of these areas of insufficiency created frustration all round. A great deal of support for students would be required in order for them to successfully engage in a blended course - LET US NOT MAKE THE MISTAKE OF ASSUMING THAT THEY ARE MORE COMPUTER LITERATE THAN THEY REALLY ARE!

  2. Thank you for the feedback, Brenda!
    Kathleen Legris

  3. There is a limit of 4,096 characters permitted for comments on this blog. If you would like to post a longer response, please do so by posting two separate entries as illustrated below.

  4. Comment 1 of 2 from Dr. Philip G. Hultin, Professor of Chemistry, UM:

    The report on online learning is coming a bit late to the party, I think, and the view of online education it presents seems 1) to miss a lot of initiatives that are already in place but which are not operating at the Unit level; and 2) to give too much emphasis to large-scale and resource-intensive modalities like MOOCs.

    Many instructors (myself included) have been using "blended" models for years, without making much fuss about it and without receiving much support for our efforts either. It is heartening to see the BOLTF report recommending that resources should be made available so that instructors don't have to become IT specialists and coders as well as experts in their own discipline. Nevertheless, Recommendation 11 in the report also makes it clear that the committee envisions a highly bureaucratic and top-down model for the future of online and blended courses at U of Manitoba. The instructor seems likely to become little more than a consultant, whose role as a "content expert" could easily be filled by another individual at a moment's notice. This corporate approach is what many academics find alarming about trends in online learning.

    The report only explicitly addresses the use of MOOCs to deliver non-credit courses, but in fact many (if not most) MOOCs are intended to provide course credit to a subset of their students. Typically, a student can "take the course" for free but will be restricted from some of the course's activities (such as grading of assignments for example) and will not receive any credit. Those students who are willing/able to pay may receive course credit at the host institution.

    The BOLTF report rightly points out that MOOCs are not synonymous with distance and online education. This is absolutely true, and I hope we do not lose sight of this fact in jumping onto the MOOC bandwagon. The original MOOCs were bottom-up innovative efforts, and the magnitude of their success came as a surprise to their creators. The fact that hundreds of thousands of people participated in some of these courses rapidly drew the attention of University administrators who could quickly recognize that even if only a small percentage were willing to pay, numbers on this scale could mean a cash windfall for the institution. This appeared to offer a way out of the fiscal pit that many schools were in post 2008.

    In the spring of 2013 I attended a workshop on using online tools to assist in teaching chemistry, held at the University of Alberta. We heard the Dean of Science at Alberta speak on the Dino101 MOOC that they were developing, and the thing that stood out most in his presentation was the commitment of resources to this project. Artists, videographers, computer programmers, webpage designers, a whole host of people working on making a Hollywood production out of introductory paleontology. The audience of chemistry educators was not very impressed, because we could not help but think of resources that were denied to the traditional or blended courses that we all teach as being too expensive.

  5. Comment 1 of 2 from Dr. Philip G. Hultin, Professor of Chemistry, UM:

    Once MOOCs (or any initiatives) receive the endorsement of senior administration, they begin to consume disproportionate amounts of resources. It is vital that the University of Manitoba not lose a sense of proportion in allocating funding and human resources to developing MOOCs. Our face-to-face teaching is already starved for resources - our classrooms are frequently outdated and poorly-equipped, we don't have enough marking assistants, or funding to pay for tutorial sessions. Laboratories are likewise in desperate need of improvement - renovations take years to complete, and new equipment can only be purchased occasionally by competing for limited student-funded endowments. Even the day-to-day costs of consumables make it hard to offer students a "modern" laboratory experience. Can we really justify hiring additional technical staff in order to offer fewer than half-a-dozen MOOCs in "areas in which we are world leaders"? And, just who decides which areas we are world leaders in? How? This is a politically-charged question, given that the lucky few will benefit substantially from being selected to create a MOOC.

    The BOLTF report calls MOOCs "the latest wave or fad in the long history of distance education" but its treatment of the subject is not up-to-date. Since the NY Times wrote in December 2012 about "The Year of the MOOC", dissenting voices have begun to be heard. The bibliography of the BOLTF report cites nothing newer than 2012, which is disturbing. Some notable commentaries on MOOCs that appeared in 2013, and that deserve consideration before embarking on any initiatives in this direction:

    February 2013: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/02/24/the-great-divide-over-moocs/

    July 2013: http://chronicle.com/blogs/worldwise/a-mooc-delusion-why-visions-to-educate-the-world-are-absurd/32599

    July 2013: http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2013/07/moocs_could_be_disastrous_for_students_and_professors.html

    September 2013: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/240193/13-1173-maturing-of-the-mooc.pdf

    December 2013: http://blogs.worldbank.org/edutech/moocs-developing-countries

    December 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-haber/the-mooc-backlash-udacity_b_4339487.html

    Most notably, in November 2013 Sebastian Thrun (founder of Udacity, a company that provides MOOCs) stated that the courses that were coming out of this model were "a lousy product". http://www.fastcompany.com/3021473/udacity-sebastian-thrun-uphill-climb. To be fair, his competitor Andrew Ng (founder of Coursera) takes issue with this, but it is noteworthy that much of the discussion is about "training" rather than "education". http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2013/11/20/courseras-ed-tech-enterprise-play.html?page=all

    The University exists to promote education and the development of new knowledge, for the benefit of its local community and the world. Online tools undoubtedly offer some advantages and new ways to achieve the goals of the University, but there is no evidence that online learning in any format is universally superior to traditional methods of teaching. I am pleased to see recommendations to provide instructors and students with more support for using online methods, but I am also concerned that so much of the report focuses on top-down initiatives that seem likely to consume already-scarce resources in ways that are not necessarily worth such investments. We should not allow our educational policy to be set by media hype or the enthusiasms of individuals.