Saturday, October 27, 2018

Student retention in distance learning - tip of the ICEBERG

A generalisation that simply won't go away is that online/distance courses have poor retention rates. This has often been used as evidence against online education and in some countries (such as here in Sweden) has lead to a reduction of online courses in favour of campus-based programmes. Basically drop-outs mean reduced income for the university so it's not surprising that they prefer the security of full-time campus studies. The often discussed low retention levels of MOOCs has fuelled this movement even more. However, this issue is much more complex than simply concluding that online education"doesn't work as well" as traditional campus education.

Students drop out of courses for a wide variety of reasons, often in combination. They may have no academic background and lack support and encouragement from friends and relatives. Many combine distance studies with full time work and family life resulting in tensions and stress that are often most easily resolved by dropping out. They may find the academic environment and terminology daunting and this increases their own feeling of inadequacy and feeling out of their depth. Their previous experience of education may be very negative resulting in a feeling or inferiority and lack of confidence. Many have little or no experience of online learning and lack the necessary study skills and digital literacy to adapt to the course requirements. Added to this are factors that concern the course itself. Many online courses are still basically self-study and this leads to feelings of isolation and the lack of support and teacher presence makes it all too easy to feel that nobody will notice if I simply drop out.

A colleague and I carried out a study a few years ago of the retention rates of campus and distance courses and degree programmes at our university and came to the conclusion that delivery form was not the main reason for students dropping out. We found distance courses and degree programmes with higher retention rates than their campus equivalents and also found distance courses with low rates. However what all courses and programmes with high retention rates had in common were course design factors: clear structure and course information, high levels of interaction and variety in the learning environment and good scaffolding.

The importance of course design for raising retention levels is highlighted in an excellent new article by Jitse van Ameijde, Martin Weller and Simon Cross from the Open University entitled Learning Design for Student Retention. They review existing literature in the field and report on a survey of students and staff from the Open University, resulting in the identification of seven key course design principles neatly gathered under the acronym ICEBERG. The definitions of these principles are best read in the article itself but here's a short summary.
  • Integrated. A clear structure where all the activities and material clearly link to the learning outcomes and the student sees a purpose for every element. Constructive alignment in other words.
  • Collaborative. Developing a supportive learning community and fostering meaningful interaction between students and teachers.
  • Engaging. Course material that is relevant and meaningful to the students. A variety of activities and use of different media. Clear teacher presence showing enthusiasm and interest in students' progress.
  • Balanced. Keeping a steady pace and manageable workload.
  • Economical. Avoiding overloading students with too much information and useful material that isn't directly related to the learning outcomes of each course module.
  • Reflective. Helping students to reflect on their learning process and offering frequent formative assessment activities.
  • Gradual. A gradual process moving from simple to increasingly complex tasks as the course progresses including support at each stage.
These principles provide a useful framework for course design and could be developed further into a checklist for self-evaluation. The ICEBERG framework applies equally to all types of course, whether campus, online or blended. However, the article ends by pointing out that retention is not the only factor governing course design.

Similarly, retention is only one aspect that should be considered by course designers, and should not be at the expense of addressing complex topics, or implementing challenging pedagogy. However, it is the authors’ contention that retention is rarely given sufficient attention as a design principle in its own right, and it is a matter of increasing significance to students,educators, institutions and society. The proposed model then is a means of considering any course from the perspective of retention.

Van Ameijde, J., Weller, M., Cross, S. (2018) Learning Design for Student Retention. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice Vol 6 No 2. DOI

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Academic conferences - we can't go on meeting like this

The best part of my job over the last ten years has been the opportunity to visit so many different places and be able to collaborate with colleagues from all over the world. However, in the light of the dire warnings from climate scientists that we need to radically change how we use and abuse the world's limited resources (especially the recent IPCC report), the most obvious way we in education can contribute is to travel less, especially by the forms of transport that cause the highest levels of carbon emissions, namely flying.

The field of education clocks up an enormous amount of air miles per year. It's a multi-million dollar industry. International conferences are important meeting places and offer an arena for all researchers to get recognition and attention for their work. All international projects need physical meetings at the participating institutions to ensure the smooth progress of the work and to disseminate the results through local seminars or conferences. All of this involves a lot of travel for all concerned, nearly always by air. And one trip nearly always generates more contacts and then new invitations to speak at or attend more events or join yet another interesting project. There are thousands of conferences in every conceivable field every week of every year, all battling for attention and registrations.

How can we move to more climate-smart conferences and meetings? The most obvious solution is to arrange more virtual conferences but I'm not sure there is an e-meeting platform that can really create the immersive experience and socialising opportunities of on-site events. There are a few completely online conferences each year but I suspect it's extremely difficult to attract paying delegates since the mindset that online events should be free is so prevalent. The blessing and the curse of online conferences is that you can participate from the comfort of your desk. This is of course convenient and flexible but the curse is that you are also expected to work at the same time. As a result almost noone gets the experience of attending the whole conference, just dropping in now and again as work demands permit. I doubt if many bosses would give permission for you to sit at your desk for two days without doing your normal work. Another important attraction of conferences is that they allow you to switch out of work mode for a couple of days to learn new things and network with others in your field. The advantages of the on-site meeting are many but if the threat of radical climate change is to be met, then we simply can't go on meeting like this. At least not as default.

Virtual conferences, however, could be an opportunity to widen the scope and diversity of academic events. One of the main attractions of academic conferences is to give researchers the chance to present their papers. This is fine if you study at a wealthy university but what about researchers from developing countries? There are plenty of good research projects going on that never come to light because the researchers can't get funding to attend the high profile (and often expensive) conferences in Europe and North America. Tighter visa requirements make it simply impossible for academics from certain countries to travel anywhere. If we take the travel and accommodation out of the equation then we would open up participation to a much more diverse community.

Another opportunity for virtual conferences is offering greater linguistic diversity and giving a voice to everyone who has not mastered spoken English. In an online environment it becomes easier and cheaper to offer simultaneous interpretation of speeches in other languages, either by automatic voice to text translation or by human interpreters who can work from home wherever they may be. I've heard many good research presentations ruined by the speaker's low level of English as they read nervously through a complex manuscript. had we let them present in their native language with an interpreter we would have got a totally different impression of the research and the presenter. In an online environment we can easily add back channels for discussion and questions as well as offering participants the opportunity to discuss in smaller break-out groups.

All this requires a rethink of why we have conferences and new attitudes to how we can exploit online learning spaces. We could cut the number of on-site events if we want to but we need to do some experimentation and dare to innovate. Of course it won't be the same. But it doesn't have to be a poor alternative, it could offer many new opportunities. The main point is we may not have a choice in the near future.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Digital or print course literature - it's complicated

CC0 Public domain on Max Pixel
Do you prefer to read print or digital books and articles? To me this sort of question is largely irrelevant because it all depends on the context and which form is most fit for purpose. I read enormous amounts both in print and online and switch from one medium to the other many times a day. I still love the feeling of reading a print newspaper or having a printed book to read in bed or while travelling. I have many packed bookshelves at home and the collection continues to grow. I even save years of back issues of the magazines I subscribe to and get satisfaction from my groaning bookshelves. At the same time I read a wide variety of online news sites, e-books and journal articles on my computer, tablet and mobile and I see these two forms of reading as complementary and not as an either/or conflict.

I suspect this is the same even for students. The growth of digital course literature, both from commercial publishers as well as free open textbooks from sites such as BC Open Textbooks (University of British Columbia), prompts frequent media interest often promoting the idea of a battle between print and digital. A new article by Andy M Benoit in the Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and LearningTextbook Affordability and Student Acceptance of eTextbooks: An Institutional Case-study, sheds light on this issue and shows that the choice between print and digital is complex and there is no clear "winner" or "loser". The abstract summarises the study as follows:

There is significant interest among institutions of higher education in the potential of digital textbooks to enhance student learning and to address issues arising from textbook affordability. Innovations in digital textbook design and delivery infrastructure and the emergence of exemplary practices from early adopters signal that digital reading may be a practical alternative to print. Less well understood, however, is students’ experience of textbook affordability, their experience of print and digital textbook utilization, and factors that might influence their acceptance of digital textbooks. This paper explores the results of a semester-long eTextbook research project at a Canadian college and shares six suggestions grounded in student feedback.

Several issues are relevant here. Firstly there is the high cost of buying printed course literature and the study shows that many students do not buy all the required reading because of this. Many share books and I'm sure that many pages are copied and scanned to save money. The students in the study are particularly critical of teachers' underutilisation of some "required" reading in the course itself. Required reading must be an integral part of the course, otherwise it should be described as optional or recommended reading. Interestingly, despite the students belonging to the supposed digital generation, 65.8% of them stated that they prefer printed course literature. At the same time the cost savings of lower price or free digital literature are also extremely attractive and this leads to students having an ambivalent attitude to the print-digital dilemma. Even when the digital option is chosen there are issues around format and readability. The reading experience depends so much on which device is used and whether there is sufficiently good resolution, accessibility options, device portability and battery life.

The article makes a number of recommendations urging universities to offer more support to help students chose the best option for their course literature. If they choose digital material they need help to choose the right option for their device, or in some cases choose the right device to read the literature. Vendors of e-books should be able to offer a variety of formats adapted to different devices (as many already do). The author makes the following recommendations to universities and publishers.
  • Strengthen the value proposition for “required” textbooks to inform student purchasing decisions
  • Support students in identifying the medium that meets their needs
  • Provide information to ensure personal devices are conducive for eReading
  • Ensure eReader applications meet performance expectations
  • Develop vendor partnerships and relationships
  • Support students in developing medium appropriate reading strategies and study skills
The important point here is that there is no "right" answer; it all depends on context and ease of use. Sometimes I want the print version because I know I will refer to it for many years to come and I want it on my bookshelf. Other literature can be accessed digitally. Some literature will be read on a mobile device and other works will be read on my laptop or desktop computer. When I read digital material I want optimal resolution and the ability to annotate easily as well as being able to look up terminology and easily create references. Let's make sure that students are able to make informed choices and are able to read the course literature according to their own preferences.

Benoit, A. M. (2018). Textbook Affordability and Student Acceptance of eTextbooks: An Institutional Case-study. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(2). Retrieved from