Product or Public Good?

I was delighted to be invited to speak about our Study of Online Learning our group authored for the HEFCE Task Force at this years ALT-C conference. I  focused on the issues that I felt arose from the long awaited report which is due to be published shortly.

Or view the talk in the ALT-C youTube channel

The vast majority of online distance offerings are postgraduate ‘professional’ courses. eg. Masters in Law, Medicine, Business, Engineering etc.

I made it clear in my presentation at ALT-C that I don’t see this as a problem in of itself. The institutions providing these courses have found that the online distance format works well for those in full-time employment and that these types of courses have a ready market. Setting up successful online distance programmes is challenging enough so it make sense to pick the low hanging fruit in terms of potential customers when developing new products.

Did that last sentence grate a bit? It does for me and not just because of the dubious grammar. As soon as we talk in terms of ‘customers’ and ‘product’ I get nervous. There seems to be something inherently at odds with the philosophy of higher education as I understand it when it is couched in economic terminology. This is then compounded by the apparent keenness of the government to involve private partners in the delivery of higher education programmes online with the possibility of giving some companies the right to award degrees directly.

ALT Proceedings
A fortifying cup of tea with some mini-chedders

I was at an amusing talk recently given by an American company who claimed that their “for-profit university was not preoccupied with money”. It’s very easy to sit in a university and poke fun at commercial educational providers, too easy in fact, especially as I’m quite happy to take my salary home each month. I haven’t done an MBA so I’m not an expert but I find it difficult to distinguish the financial approaches of public and private sector bodies sometimes. Universities are diverse businesses and have many money-making activities some of which are funded by the government and some which are straight commercial ventures. I believe that a simplistic argument around ‘for-profit’ and ‘not for-profit’ masks the real issue which in the case of online distance learning is to do with diversity.

Almost every institution in this field whether a university or a big corporate is providing an extremely narrow curriculum because certain courses have a better Return on Investment than others. The problem is not what we are providing online but what we are neglecting to provide. Where are the humanities and liberal arts? Where are the foundation and undergraduate degrees? There are a few examples of these (I cited The Sheffield College) but certainly not enough to reflect the character of our face-to-face universities.

The reason for this lack of diversity in both curriculum and academic levels is because non-STEM, non-Business, non-Postgrad courses have a less reliable income stream. It’s expensive to kick start an online programme. It’s a lot less expensive than building a lecture theatre or a library but because it’s a ‘new’ mode of delivery it’s assessed outside the economic machinery embedded in our institutions and has to be seen to pay-for-itself. Here is where the financial challenges bite. At ALT-C I made the statement that “Universities should enrich society not make society rich”. I admit that this becomes increasingly difficult when money is scarce but I feel that it’s important that we retain those aspects of our activity which work towards the public good. A public good which is not predicated on wealth and material growth but on wellbeing, one which equips individuals to be more than economic units.

Dave Walks
I got quite animated (Image: Creative Commons "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales" : Mark Gregory of

This challenge is distinct from abstract notions of ‘quality’. I can’t honestly say what the standard of teaching and learning is like on the offerings our study discovered but I see no evidence that a lucrative course is destined to be a less ‘educational’ experience than one that loses money. In many cases I suspect that the quality of online learning is higher than equivalent face-to-face courses because students expect significant amounts of contact when at a distance. In face-to-face teaching scenarios the lecture (a controversial subject this year) provides a very efficient sense of contact and notional cohort cohesion. For online this cohesion has to be built by regular feedback, tutor-student contact and peer-to-peer learning. The risk of a lack of social presence in a predominantly text based medium coupled with the influence of the micro-contact culture of the web means that only the online courses with excellent learning design will survive. The mode of delivery inherently demands good pedagogy and active engagement or students simply drop out.

I think it’s helpful to consider this area in terms of identity because this forces a consideration of values beyond the economic. As it stands the ‘digital identity’ of online higher education provided by the UK largely looks like a highly academic professional development programme. I must reiterate that I’m not criticising this activity in of itself rather I am holding out hope that future funding models will allow programmes outside this area to move online and better represent the varied and excellent teaching and learning this country is rightly known for.

If you are keen to discuss the role of technology within/around higher education in a political context then you might want to consider registering your interest for the proposed ‘Tech, Power, Education’ seminar series.

Slides from the talk:

TALL win national award

It is with great pleasure and a generous slice of pride that I can announce that TALL is the 2010 team winner of the ALT Learning Technologist of the Year award.

TALL Team 2010

It is fitting recognition for our group which has built up a successful portfolio of fully online distance learning courses, in parallel with running innovative and influential R&D projects and providing consultancy services. Over the years the Association for Learning Technology annual conference has been an excellent opportunity for us to keep up to date and to share the many aspects of TALL’s work. This has ranged from running ALT workshops on our course production process through to giving presentations on World of Warcraft and Second Life. It was a real honour to receive the award at the conference gala dinner last night.

The ALT panel of judges had the following to say about us:

“The TALL team has succeeded in developing a flexible model for production of material which is efficient and effective in the Oxford environment. It now delivers in a way that reflects the Oxford tutorial model with emphasis on frequent interaction between learner and academic and on regular updating.”

It is gratifying to see the aims we set out with around five years ago so neatly reflected in the judges’ comments. TALL has been at the forefront of elearning design production and delivery since it’s formation in 1996. Another way of looking at this is that we made most of our mistakes early, learnt from them and moved on.

“The judges were impressed with the speed at which learner numbers had built up along with the range of courses and projects being delivered in a difficult market.”

The unerring support of our Department has helped TALL to create and deliver online courses in highly technical subjects such as Nanotechnology together with a suit of short courses in humanities subjects, the latter being a much neglected area in online education.

The real strength of the unit however is in its breadth of activity. Research informs production and vice-versa.

“The judges were impressed with the balance in the team between production and delivery of online material and an active and strong research and development programme.”

This is very important to me as I feel that it’ s crucial for any unit, no matter how ‘technical’ it may appear to the wider institution, to maintain the university tradition of questioning the status quo and pushing the boundaries of disciplines. The heritage of units such as TALL puts them in a challenging position which should neither be wholly technology focused nor a purely academic. I find it very rewarding bridging these cultures, ensuring that thousands of students each year from all around the globe have an opportunity to engage with Oxford courses, while pushing our thinking and practice forward.

I’m frequently impressed by our team who have worked really hard to ensure that TALL has become an important part of our Department’s activities and has put online distance learning from Oxford University on the map.