UUK

Do Standardised Online Classes Have A Place In Higher Education?

Laptop and Books - Standardised Classes

I saw a CCAP piece on Forbes which looked at standardising classes and replacing the need for some teaching staff. The piece asked, “…what is the point of having instructors in the classroom if a computer can teach everything?

Does this computer-based format constitute higher education? By standardising classes, you deliberately restrict what can be gained through the class. Not the best start when we’re talking higher education.

However, there is a place for this type of learning. Some examples:

  • Helps promote some aspects of lifelong learning;
  • Useful for already standardised practices and areas that do not require multiple avenues of thought until further down the line;
  • Allows access to those who do not have access any other way than this.

The CCAP article goes on to say that not all classes can be standardised like this and some will struggle in any online format. But for those classes that can be amended to suit a standardised, online format, the decreased teaching costs could help students through smaller tuition costs and/or better services.

Standardisation could also pave the way for recognised qualifications. A new HEA report on MOOCs in the UK states that online learning could play a bigger part if courses were officially recognised:

“Accreditation of learning that attracts UCAS points is necessary if MOOCs are to become part of the landscape of higher education and provide a route to the full range of higher level learning. HE providers should work at putting this into place.” – p.9

The report, by Julie Wintrup, Kelly Wakefield and Hugh Davis, warns that the current lack of academic recognition does not allow MOOCs to play a part in widening access to higher education. Once you bridge that gap, there may be greater acceptance of this pathway to learning in the beginning stages of higher education. It could also form the basis to introduce qualifications that support higher education but do not form an entire degree programme. Standardised classes may play a part here.

Finding new routes to learning

This is clearly not an ‘all or nothing’ approach. Online learning can work in ways that face-to-face might not. MOOCs can take on both a standardised and an exploratory framework. In order to support diversity and widening participation, there should be multiple ways to keep the learning arena open.

For now, there is no easy way to support this to such a large extent. A report to the European Commission on new modes of learning and teaching in HE laments the many difficulties surrounding new methods of provision, but stresses how important it is to pursue their potential, “…given the opportunities that they offer for lifelong learning, continuing professional development and internationalisation“.

Their plea is for greater support and less derision. Solutions are not yet clear cut, but a dismissive attitude at this stage may stop us from finding out whether or not anything is feasible.

The UUK Student Funding Panel is currently seeking evidence on how they can “ensure the higher education system is sufficiently diverse and flexible to deliver an outstanding learning experience to all students“. The recent decline in part-time students, coupled with the lack of incentive to offer alternative routes to HE, means that some people will be locked out, despite a desire to continue learning. Perhaps there is a place for standardised classes and accredited online learning here.

UUK certainly sees the possibility, even before the funding panel evidence is through. The 2014 Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education, states that the decline in part-time and distance learning enrolments does not paint the full picture:

“Online courses such as MOOCs also represent more informal and accessible forms of distance learning being offered by universities that are not recorded in distance learning statistics.”

So there’s still a long way to come, but potential is there. While the limited reporting on MOOC participation currently suggests that these courses are most likely to be taken by those who are already graduates, the future for widening participation may still have a place.

MOOCs and “exaggerated promises”

Don’t expect things to move too quickly though. Very little in this sense manages to come from overnight change.

The hype and rhetoric around MOOCs that reached national and international press resulted in anti-climax and many an EdTech ‘told-you-so’, but a calmer long-term approach should be more useful for all involved.

On the other hand, shouldn’t we also take into account the fantastic opportunities available online that are deliberately not standardised? Courses that triumph community and collaboration over qualifications and careers? Lee Skallerup Bessette wasn’t keen on her MOOC experiences, yet she has found much to like (and learn) elsewhere online:

“From the Maker Movement to Learning to Code from Scratch, there are communities out there to support learners, rather than just transmit information to them. We can learn from each other, support one another, and share our trials and triumphs. Professional development doesn’t have to be expensive, didactic, and a chore anymore. It can be an opportunity to help your faculty, school, and students open up to the world.” [Source – Educating Modern Learners, “14 posts from 2014”]

There is room for all sorts of initiatives. And if both universities and students can benefit from online learning of whatever appearance, this is cause for celebration.

But, as Martin Weller states in his new book, “The Battle For Open“, most discussion around MOOCs has been within a framework of replacing university altogether. He explains that this “exaggerated promise” has led to resistance, rather than an interest in “the more nuanced reality they may offer”.

Online learning is just one part of higher education. It is growing and it is changing as it grows. If a computer can teach everything in one area, let it do the teaching. If it requires a vast and diverse community, host it online and let people explore.

Just make sure that focus is not lost on the areas that can or should thrive through face-to-face interaction. The idea isn’t simply to replace, since learning constitutes everything around us. Online isn’t the only way, just as face-to-face isn’t either. There are countless possibilities.

We are still working out what can be done and how to facilitate learning for the benefit of students and tutors. I can’t imagine innovations and ideas ever coming to a halt. Martin Weller warns that we must not abdicate responsibility and ownership. It is crucial that we continue to explore new learning opportunities rather than concede them to others.

That, for me, is the most important point. We’re learning how to learn to learn. It may get messy and meta. And that’s marvellous.

opportunities

Contact Hours Should Be About Quality As Well As Quantity

How much importance should contact hours be given? What do these hours mean to each student? Hours vary between subjects and also between institutions. Do we search for a sweet spot, try for as many hours as possible, or look beyond contact time completely?

Nicola Dandrige, CEO of Universities UK, says that contact hours have changed over time and, as a result, represent too narrow a focus in isolation:

“What we are hearing is the importance of teaching and learning and universities are responding to that in more imaginative ways than just contact hours.” [Source]

From this viewpoint, hours will vary considerably as institutions adopt different approaches to their teaching methods.

But students have become accustomed to viewing contact hours as a good way of working out value for money. A QAA report on student expectations found that contact time was considered the most important, if not the only, cost relating to tuition fees.

HEPI found that “those with least contact were least satisfied“, while NUS research found that some students look to contact hours as representing value for money. One student argued:

“If I am only in for three hours a week, why should I pay so much money? You want to tbe at uni and interacting with lecturers.”

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks - CC BY 2.0)

Want to control time? (photo by MattysFlicks – CC BY 2.0)

Comparisons between students is easy. Even when there is good reason for a contrast in contact time between students, an imbalance does not make for a happy reaction. Take one such reply in the 2013 Student Academic Survey by Which? and HEPI:

“I’m a third year history student and only get three hours a week contact time. And yet I pay the same price as someone who has 12 hours per week.”

Nevertheless, the Which? report states that “contact hours have risen by just 20 minutes per week since 2006”. And while student expectations are understandably on the up, needs and expectations are two very different things.

The 2012 Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey found:

“…for those with fewer than 10 hours of lectures a week, 21% felt the debt was too high while the figure was just 10% for those who spent over 21 hours in lectures.”

But is it all about spending longer in lectures?

I have previously argued that not all contact hours are equal and that the term ‘contact hours’ has no context in isolation. It might be easy to break down the number of hours you spend each week into a monetary value, but it counts for nothing if the contact isn’t helpful.

Thankfully, students do appear to seek quality contact far more than lengthier contact. The number of hours may or may not be enough, but the most important factor on the minds of students has little to do with time. Take this year’s HEPI-HEA Student Academic Experience Survey:

“…two thirds of contact experienced by students was in class sizes of 16 students or more. There is a striking decline in the proportion of students perceiving educational benefits as the size of class increases.”

The report goes on to say that while a third of students wished for more contact hours, “…the findings here suggest that increasing the quality of contact (which is more probable in smaller classes) is likely to be more effective in improving the student learning experience than simply increasing contact hours”.

QAA reported similar findings:

“…we found [students] wanted more ‘close support’, through contact time in small seminars and tutorials, and definitely not more lecture hours.”

The Student Room asked students how much 1 to 1 time they expected to have with a tutor each week. More than half of the prospective students surveyed expected between one and five hours. The reality is, on average, more like half an hour.

But it seems that the more personal time given to students, the better. Gibbs reported:

“What seems to matter is the nature of the class contact. ‘Close contact’ that involves at least some interaction between teachers and students on a personal basis is associated with greater educational gains (Pascarella, 1980) independently of the total number of class contact hours (Pascarella and Terenzini, 2005).”

So the number of hours given to contact are important, but only when also assessing the relative value to learning.

And as one HE friend put it to me this week, some students want to be taught via lectures and increased seminar allocation, while others prefer to be left in a room with wi-fi so they can research and learn for themselves. Needs are not all the same. A big increase in contact time for a student who identifies strongly with independent learning could work against them.

Rather than compare hours between institutions and courses, how about comparing the number of hours for the same course at the same institution over different years?

If there is a marked change in contact hours over those years, what other changes have been made as a consequence? Is there more 1 to 1 time given, for instance? If so, the reduced time may still provide equal or greater value. However, if little change has been made, the consequences of shorter contact time may be negative.

An hour of personal engagement with a tutor can be worth many hours of listening to the same lecture as the other hundred people in a room. Don’t just look at how many hours you get each week, but look at what’s happening within those hours. You’ll get much better peace of mind in the process.

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby - CC BY 2.0)

Different Times, Different Uses, Different Meanings (photo by William Warby – CC BY 2.0)

Universities Going Private: Should We Ask ‘If’ or ‘When’?

Will any of the ‘big player’ universities attempt to go private any time soon?

With the news that Pearson is introducing for-profit private HE, “the first time a FTSE 100 company has directly delivered a degree course”, I wondered what other changes might be on the horizon for current universities.

In 2010, the Telegraph reported that an unnamed source from the University of Cambridge had suggested the university may have to go private in order to compete better and raise enough funds.

Which way to go? (photo by Lori Greig)

Which way to go? (photo by Lori Greig)

Labour MP Barry Sheerman was also quoted, saying “I was told by Cambridge they may privatise themselves because they are so aggrieved by the cuts and by Lord Browne’s proposals”.

While the Telegraph piece went on to say that a Cambridge spokesman dismissed the idea of going private, they were also vague enough to explain that “The university has reached no official position on these matters”.

Add the fact that Cambridge also had “a funding gap of some £9,000 for each of its 12,000 undergraduates in 2010/11”, the new level of tuition fees isn’t going to bridge that gap. While fees may be higher for students, those fees are effectively a change to where the funding was already coming from. Some institutions may improve their income slightly depending on the fees they set, but in most cases there won’t be much extra cash flowing in.

Cambridge is one of the few UK universities that is graced with consistently large alumni donations. But that doesn’t mean the university can rely on that to make up for any shortfalls. Cambridge has other income streams too, but I’m sure it doesn’t wish to use these as a backstop either. That wouldn’t make sense. And no matter how strong the future appears, that won’t stop further considerations over the way the university is funded.

Oxford and Cambridge have just come under fire over special funding for their tutorial and interview process. Criticism like this hasn’t stopped the funding yet, but it puts further pressure on policy makers to remove the funding, and further pressure on Oxbridge to find alternatives.

Pearson’s move into degrees is of the for-profit type. Perhaps Cambridge, or another established university, would consider going private under a ‘not-for-profit’ banner.

When Universities UK reported on private provision of HE, it said “The for-profit/not-for-profit distinction is important, but even within the not-for-profit sector there is a wide range of provider”.

UUK go on to explain that many not-for-profit outfits tend to operate very commercially and are businesslike in their dealings, looking to make ‘profits’ of a kind. However:

“…their key motive is to promote public good. This is a key distinction between them and the private for-profit providers which, although they may be working in the same arena and providing a public good, do so in the expectation that they can earn surpluses which flow into the private hands of shareholders. An essential distinction therefore relates to the distribution and uses to which surpluses are put.” (2.8, p.14)

Current universities may not consider making a complete push to become for-profit entities, but what about not-for-profit possibilities? I wouldn’t rule it out.

The government’s HE White Paper goes as far as saying that not-for-profit providers would be able to apply for HEFCE grants in the same way as HE and FE institutions. (6.29, p.73) Is there enough scope for universities to change their outlook and manage a win-win?

My guess is that should any institution find a suitable way to go down this path, they would opt for not-for-profit billing.

However, a HEPI report on private providers questions whether the difference between for-profit and not-for-profit really matters. It first suggests that the distinction isn’t automatically necessary, because “the public interest lies in education of high quality being provided and consumer interests being protected – whatever the status of provider”.

HEPI does goes on to say that careful scrutiny would be required to ensure this quality and that impact can be assessed. It concludes:

“Care will also be needed in shaping a new and comprehensive regulatory framework.  If an equitable and broadly comparable regulatory framework is developed for all institutions in the sector, it may need some mechanisms for monitoring surpluses and alerting a regulator where the amount given to shareholders might be considered excessive.”

Distinctions probably do matter and are likely to do so for now, which is why not-for-profit seems most likely.

How viable is it for universities to smoothly transition into private entities? I’m sure other commentators may have a better view on these matters than I do. Whatever the case is, you can be sure that a lot of consideration has been going on for quite some time now.

While the Telegraph’s suggestion of Cambridge going private was ultimately dismissed by the university, it was clear that the situation was under continued assessment. In addition, Wendy Piatt of the Russell Group (which includes Cambridge in its membership) said that going private may be a necessity in the future. Reported in the same Telegraph piece, Piatt explained, “That would require a lot of consideration and we would hope not to have to go there, but we would certainly have to consider more radical options”.

As things stand now, those radical options may be looking sensible to some institutions. Not just Cambridge. Therefore, of universities going private, which is the most important question to ask: ‘if’ or ‘when’?