The student as customer

I spent most of my time this spring visiting Ontario institutions.

When I visit, I share the idea of growing a community of higher education collaborators that use digital tools to reach across institutions and connect. I share stories of excellence and compassion. I share the values of our organization fixed on access and the empowerment of educators and learners: the people at the core of our collective success.

And, I always make a point of sharing the story of the Student Experience Design Lab (SXD Lab). There is a lot I can say about the Lab and the way it works, but my colleague, Chris Fernlund does a wonderful job of that in his post “We Do Design”. There is something else that interests me about the Lab: its mandate.

Purposeful learning for a meaningful life. This is the mandate that emerged when a group of students considered what might drive their work in problem definition for higher education. What kinds of questions would they explore? Anything that has the potential to contribute to the growth or promotion of purposeful learning for a meaningful life. 

A recent post by Ben Williamson called “Edu-business as usual – market-making in higher education” lays out, in detail, the deliberate commodification of higher education. Williamson uses Pearson as an example of a private company that is actively making, managing and maintaining the concept of higher education as a marketplace: “In these important ways, Pearson is participating in making an increasingly competitive HE market in which it is itself a competitor…”

Pearson is only one example. Williamson’s description fits many private sector companies seeking to stake a claim in higher education.

A commodified higher education system means a purely transactional relationship between student and institution. Money in — job out. But the students we work with don’t see their education as a means to an end. They are looking for an authentic learning experience, in which they are an active partner, which leads to a life of fulfillment, productivity and contribution. An alumni salary survey three years out does not capture that sense of fulfillment.

The idea of purposeful learning for a meaningful life sits in opposition to a higher education system that sees students as customers rather than citizens. I think it is quite possible that, now, more than ever, young people will recognize the feeling of having their futures commodified. And they won’t like it.

Handle with care

Reflections from Festival of Learning, 2018

Photo by: Chris Fernlund

Late May is a good time of year to go West. The rhododendrons are in full bloom and the Pacific is warm enough to swim. We packed it all in to 3 full days at the Festival of Learning conference, hosted by BCcampus.

The conference theme – Handle with Care – explored the many manifestations of care and compassion in educational processes, policies, principles and pedagogies. An opening keynote from digital pedagogue Jesse Stommel set the stage for a vibrant discussion that carried throughout the conference. Jesse challenged the audience to flip the power dynamic between teacher and student through deliberate acts of compassion. This effort to build a trusting relationship between educator and learner can be an uphill battle in a traditional higher education environment, which, as Jesse noted, tends to wield learning outcomes as weapons.

Visual Note by Giulia Forsythe

This opening keynote provided the perfect segue for my colleague Chris Fernlund and I to share our thoughts on the importance of learner and educator empowerment. Through initiatives like the Student Experience Design (SXD) Lab and Ontario Extend, eCampusOntario demonstrates a commitment to build human-centered spaces and communities that nurture the individual skills, attributes and talent of Ontario learners and educators.

The work of the SXD Lab, for example, unpacks the lived experience of learners to better understand the pain points in their educational experience. As a centre of excellence supporting institutions, eCampusOntario is well positioned to find solutions that better serve technology-enabled learning and teaching across all colleges and universities. In this environment, we advocate for reciprocal, compassionate and empathetic relationship between the educators and learners which prioritizes meaningful learner participation.

It is not uncommon to hear frustrated educators say some students are just lazy. It is not uncommon to hear unengaged students say some teachers are just bad. Those perceptions are directly challenged by a ‘handle with care’ philosophy. If empathy and compassion underpin the learner-educator dynamic and institutions proactively support these environments, we might find ourselves having a different kind of conversation.

If the cultivation of user experience becomes standard practice, learners, educators, administrators, and institutions all stand to benefit from a better understanding of the motivations, attitudes and perceptions within our higher education community.

Thank you to BCcampus for the opportunity to share in the conversation at the Festival of Learning conference.

East-ender Extenders

Explore – Engage – Extend – Empower

This is the first thing you see when you get to Fleming College in Peterborough. We arrived early,  but it looked like these carpentry students had been there all night building a house. Besides the fact that this might be the best carpentry training space I have ever seen, it also worked as a metaphor for a day of shared activity, online and in person, with the Extend East cohort. What are we building?

Construction students build a mock house

Since kick off in August 2017, Ontario Extend is maturing into a community of open educators sharing ideas and reflecting on what can sometimes be the sticky points in online and technology-enabled teaching.  Extenders experiment with tools and technology and share openly to build the network as they go. Terry Greene explains all of the moving parts and new features of the Extend community in his post We Go Down East.

And so, we drove East (of Toronto) to work with a group of 30 keen and willing educators from 6 different institutions in the region. I think I saw some sparks. If you’re interested in learning more, watch the Daily Extend, Activity Bank and Domain of One’s Own syndicated list of East Cohort blogs over the next few weeks as we do a deeper dive into each module/area of practice. It’s an open invitation.

Big thanks to Alan Levine and the eCampusOntario team for getting us up and running!

Off to the races.

eCampusOntario – two and a half years out

I went to Québec to talk about the future.  I ended up thinking about the past

A few weeks ago, I got on a plane to Québec without my winter boots. It was January and I was on my way to visit colleagues at TÉLUQ University for a series of conversations and presentations regarding the potential shape of an eCampus initiative in Québec. I received a very warm welcome and a ton of concern about the temperature of my feet (I blamed my BC roots).

My trip consisted of two full days of meetings, conversations and presentations to the community. We were joined by government officials and post-secondary education stakeholders interested in learning more about the Ontario experience and the potential model that could emerge in la belle province. Mostly I was just peppered with questions.

  • How does the Ontario governance model work? What are the benefits?
  • What is your research strategy? To what end?
  • Why open education?

All of these questions had me reflecting on the short history of eCampusOntario – where we have been in the past few years and what has changed most significantly in that time. I am going to work towards answering each question above in a series of blog posts.

But first, a bit of context.

I think it is safe to say that eCampusOntario, as an organization, is just now emerging from what we will soon look back on as the ‘start-up’ years. There are a few key indicators which mark this transition. These are all things that were either non-existent or in a state of flux a few years ago.

A sense of self A few years ago, the concept of eCampusOntario was met with some hesitation. Are we duplicating efforts? Are we competing with institutions? What do we do, anyways? These questions have been replaced by a growing sense of self which crystallizes daily. In a province as large and diverse as Ontario, it was apparent early on that any new initiative needed a clear vision and space in which to operate.

Engaged members Our colleagues are reaching out to talk strategy. They want to know how their institution can get involved, leverage an opportunity or take a measured risk which moves the needle in an area of strategic importance.

 A growing team Slowly but surely, we’re moving closer to a team size which allows us to provide a high level of service to our institutions and our partners in government.

All three of these elements, taken together, represent rapid progression for a new organization. Things are lining up.

Question 1: How does the Ontario governance model work? What are the benefits?

Ontario’s model is representative. We are an incorporated, independent, non-profit entity. We represent 45 member institutions which make up the entire post-secondary education system in Ontario. Our funding comes from government and we are governed by a Board of Directors composed of member representatives. This governance system could have worked against us. It could have restricted activity and decision making to a point which hindered creativity and new ways of thinking.

But it hasn’t. I think this is due, primarily, to two factors:

A diverse, strategically-minded Board of Directors: eCampusOntario has benefited significantly from a diverse of Board of Directors dedicated to strategic, elevated thinking and nothing else.

Engaged and curious government partners: Our colleagues in government always want to learn from us and our members. This is a relationship of mutual benefit and trust.

Given the size of the province of Ontario, a representative, member-driven model may be best. It has held up in the early years and contributed to a collective sense of ownership over the eCampusOntario initiative. It works for us.

Whatever the governance model, Québec has a bright future ahead. They have talent and ambition. But, success requires leadership from government, interest from institutions in action-based research and open practice, and a collective willingness to step outside of the usual academic constraints. The release of the Stratégie numérique du Québec is a great start and an eCampus Québec initiative would the place to invest if the government wants to make waves. Because in the end, no province is immune to the fluctuations of our current education and technology climate. And, every public institution has a responsibility to future-proof.

If you are interested in learning more about my trip to Québec you can:

Read this article from leSoleil about my visit

Flip through my presentation to theTÉLUQ community

Listen to my CBC Quebec Radio interview with colleague Martin Noël, Directeur general at TÉLUQ


Learning with Lynda(.com)

This post was co-authored with Jackie Pichette, Senior Researcher and (Acting) Manager for the Centre for Learning Outcomes Assessment at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO)

NASA Goddard Space Flight “Cultivating Egypt’s Desert” used under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY 2.0)

Educators around the world are being called on to pull up their socks and save the economy: to “bridge,” “plug” or “prevent” the skills gap by equipping students with the technical and transferable skills needed to meet tomorrow’s economic needs.

But which technical and transferable skills, exactly? Well, we know that employers are looking to hire people who can think critically, work in teams and communicate effectively. And, we suspect that in addition to those skills, many employers will soon be scanning the market for digital literacy and creativity. Studies such as the 2015 Economist Intelligence Unit report (sponsored by Google) show that both employers and students doubt whether the education system is adequately developing these skills.

It’s within this context that the Government of Ontario launched the Career Kick Start Strategy, with an investment of $190 million over three years. Part of that investment has been dedicated to providing blanket access to the full suite of online learning material contained in the repository for a three year period. Acquired by LinkedIn in 2015, is an e-learning platform offering a video library of business, technology and creative courses. The goal of this investment is to provide students the opportunity to supplement their learning through an on-demand, self-serve, skills-based platform. Instructors and staff can also access the material to enhance their courses or skill-up in an area of interest.

eCampusOntario has been working with Ontario postsecondary institutions to ensure all students, instructors and staff have access to the full suite of content. Over the next couple of years, HEQCO will be working with eCampusOntario to evaluate how and the extent to which the platform is being used to develop measurable skills and demonstrable competencies.

To get at these questions and more, HEQCO and eCampusOntario will gather data from students and institutions to better understand perceptions about and use of resources. We’ll then work with institutions to expand on this research, potentially by piloting new opportunities for online skills development and assessment.

By 2020, we hope to have a sense of the impact of this investment, as well as greater insight into the role that skills-based online learning can play in preparing students for the careers of tomorrow’s economy.

Our house

Week 5 Open Ed MOOC – Research and impact

“Cyclr” by Skil Fibber

Research questions can be revealing.  Areas of focus provide insight into how we define value. When we choose to invest time and money to pursue a question, we are declaring the outcome important before we even start. I did a command F search on the Open Education Group OER research page to see if Stephen Downes was blowing smoke about the narrow focus of past research. He says it’s skewed towards grades and outcomes. This very unscientific test suggests that he’s not off base:

  • the word “grade” appeared 16 times
  • the word “exam” appeared 27 times
  • the word “test” appeared 10 times
  • the word “drop” appeared 7 times

I’m with Stephen on this. It may be the lingering effects of Jesse Stommel’s recent declaration on why he doesn’t grade. It may be the influence of the Ontario students pursuing the Exponential Learning project in our SXD Lab. Either way, at best, this is an unnecessarily narrow definition of value. And, this is on top of the fact that open education research is being pursued in disparate zones. Martin Weller illustrated this beautifully in his recent post Mapping the Open Education Landscape.

Re-defining value in open education

So how does future open education research define value?

I am curious about the current research David Wiley described: a comparision between experience of an educator involved in the design or curation and one who adopts directly. I will be very surprised if there is no correlation between direct involvement and a deeper experience. Have you ever had a conversation with Robin DeRosa!? But again, history repeats itself. The bottom line of this research is the difference in student outcomes (read: grades) in these two scenarios.

At eCampusOntario, we have something called the Student Experience Design Lab. The lab was developed by a group of Ontario students and the mantra that they chose is so revealing. Their work is to design purposeful learning for a meaningful life.

Education is about so much more than grades. Our students know that. So let’s take their lead and meet them where it matters. This is our challenge as the next generation of open education researchers.

And, this conversation needs to start with a shared understanding of values. The values are not an add-on. Our values are the foundation. The 5 Rs are the tools we use to live those values everyday. Open is a way of doing everything. This is our open education house.

So … roommates?

Elevation gain

Week 4: Open Ed MOOC + signals from the network

I’m writing this post at high elevation. I’m in the mountains of Colorado after spending the week at the WCET conference. In addition to my very important role as sole Canadian representative present, I spent my time listening and trying to translate differences between the American and Canadian education systems.

This post is a mash-up of ideas that have been floating around the network for #OpenAccessWeek and #OpenEdMOOC and have combined with some of the conversations I had at WCET.

There are two undercurrents:

The textbook: I’ve heard it won’t be with us for long.

The end of the textbook narrative has been coming primarily from brilliant educators who believe everyone should put 100% of their creative effort into teaching. These people can make the case for a mash-up of openly licensed materials in their sleep and it sounds so right. I think it is.

But, I’m also hearing from administrators and others who are working hard to get the idea of openly licensed materials into the culture of their institution. For them, the open textbook is the gateway to the larger culture shift. Even if an educator adopts an open textbook it is likely they will still want their students to have a print option. Digital itself is still a bridge too far for some.

As we heard in Week 4 of #OpenEdMOOC, it takes a couple of cycles to fully understand the pedagogical affordances of open. You need to experience the process of iterating and sharing before you have your Bodhi moment. Before you can see the space beyond free.

‘point break rip bodhi’ by Rollan Budi, September 21, 2010

In the meantime, we need to build infrastructure that allows educators to easily find, adapt and retain OER. That infrastructure needs to allow for discovery and adaptation of open textbooks, course materials, modules, streaming video, course outlines – anything that aids teaching.

Commercialization: several zones of the network have expressed concern over commercialization of publicly funded resources.

Jenni Hayman articulated this concern through an analysis of the Cengage announcement.

Geoff Cain chose the otherwise routine commute video as his setting to ask the big question: why is CC-BY the gold standard of open licensing?

It is going to be increasingly important that we support our educators to choose the open license that works best for them. Especially if they are coming to open for the first time. I have been returning to the “How to Destroy Open Ed” live notes from the #OpenEd17 Ethics workshop. There are so many interesting ideas captured here. A few of my favourites to close this post:

How do we ensure that Open Ed is not open?

  • Have commercial publishers who already create open educational resource additives (that have a cost) take over the creation and sale of OER altogether.
  • Not empower teachers/teaching & learning
  • Engage in double-speak where my work is “not really open” because it is not available for a corporation to sell (CC-by-nc)


Week 3 Evangelism

The idea that copyright is automatically assigned to an artifact on creation is bizarre. I had to find out for myself. Sure enough, the one official academic document to my name is marked.

Very weird.

So, I wrote to the good people at Dalhousie University and asked them if I could make a change. I’m going to take a moment to say that the response I received from the Dalhousie English Department was so quick and understanding I found myself scanning Halifax real estate. These might be the nicest people in the world. They got me set-up with a CC-BY license in less than a week.

So I have de-owned this thesis! It is now officially part of the commons.

The big picture

Week 3: Reflections on #OpenEdMOOC and stock space footage

Have you noticed that every video Stephen Downes posts for #OpenEdMOOC has a moving space-theme for a background? I have, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Stephen Downes: Open Course 3

First, I want to know where this stock space footage is coming from so I can  project it, in a loop, on my living room wall. Beyond curiosity and party tricks, I think there is design at work here. I wonder if Stephen is provoking us think bigger – beyond our lives and our context. 

I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity this week to take part in a panel speaking with delegates from the Open University of China. With the help of an extremely talented translator we had a meaningful conversation about learner needs. Delegates from the OUC wanted to know how to better engage and understand their 3 million students. That number alone was enough to give me pause. Our world looks so different from theirs, and yet, we have exactly the same goals.

When I told them that all of the results of our @SXDLab would be openly licensed they were very happy. Class size and culture aside, they wanted to know how 22 Canadian students were rethinking and redesigning their learning experience. Maybe OUC will take that work and adapt it for their context. They can teach us a thing or two about operating at scale.

This is all a reminder that open licensing remains a simple and elegant solution to keep connected in a world (a universe!) as diverse and unique as ours. All of the other alternatives seem unnecessarily complicated and short-sighted. Cultivating the commons is a social process. The more we engage, the better we are.

California love

Reflections on 2017 Open Education Conference and #OpenEdMOOC Week 2

This post is serving two purposes. It happens that #OpenEdMOOC and #OpenEd17 overlapped this week. For one thing, I’m keeping my MOOC completion dreams alive. On the other hand, the overlap of these two open ed events has resulted in a confluence of ideas + an effort to come away with a clear idea of where we are all headed. And, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. I think that is as true for those who have worked in Open Education for decades as it is for those who are just poking our noses in now.

In her closing keynote, Cathy Casserly encouraged us to welcome dissent. To keep the conversation challenging. My colleague, Terry Greene reflected on the echo chamber effect of the Open Ed conference a few days ago. Cathy and Terry were saying the same thing.

The most challenging conversations I had were outside of scheduled programming. These conversations were with people who had seen Open Education grow and flourish. There were many fond references to the old days: there were only 20 of us! We only needed half a room!

This all sounds so great. It must have been liberating and energizing to be on the edge of something impactful. And, maybe the path appeared clear and straight for the most part.

I’m not quite sure how the original Open Ed thinkers see the world now. I thought the Cengage announcement would provide the perfect conversation starter, but it hardly came up. And, when it did, the reaction was something like this: commercial publishers are taking up OER development. Isn’t this what we wanted?

I wasn’t around in the early days, so I can’t answer that question.

No matter what side of the non-commercial licensing debate you fall on (shout out #OpenEdMOOC, that’s me applying Week 2 learning), there is one truth that needs to be restated:

Publishers serve themselves: we serve the public

When I say “we” I’m speaking from a public-sector vantage point. That includes, at the very least, anyone who is paid, in whole or in part, from public sources. There are many more people who do not fall into this definition but maintain this value.

I started to explore some of this thinking in conversations that I had throughout the conference and the reaction was mixed. There were references to ‘the market’ and altruism. The implication was that institutions and educators do not have the ability, or the desire, to mimic commercial publishing processes.

I totally get it. I am a slave to reality in most things.

But, I can’t quite shake this feeling: we need to believe in our public institutions and the people in them.

The wonderful thing about academics it is that they are independent thinkers. This makes them a bit of a nuisance in the publishing process. No two chemists will agree!

Two chemists only need to agree if you are asking them to collaborate as authors in a textbook. Yet, we know that the days of the textbook are limited. I heard this over and over at Open Ed.

If we give our educators the tools to create, adapt and repurpose their own teaching resources this becomes a non-issue. It may be messy. It may be something to celebrate. It might just mean that those two Chemists are fully invested in their thinking and their teaching.

We need to empower our educators. We need to give them opportunities to engage directly in the development of their teaching resources. This is the only way that open pedagogy happens and that the culture of higher education shifts. It is not by outsourcing the open publishing process. The process matters. Doing the process matters. A healthy commons depends on it. Because the commons is not a thing, after all, it’s a process cultivated by the community (David Bollier).

I am lucky enough to have a garden in my house in Toronto. I grew garlic this year and my garlic-pride verges on embarrassing.

This is what I have noticed: I plan exactly when and how I’m going to use my garlic. Really carefully. And, I celebrate the result. It’s just better.

I think this might be true for all things that we put a part ourselves into.