Dr. Keith Christopher Hampson is an award-winning education technology leader. A former faculty member and Director (Digital Education Strategies) at Ryerson University, Keith now advises a range of organizations across North America, including Northeastern University, Contact North, Capella University, and LeapGrad.
Here is TVO TeachOntario In Conversation With Dr. Keith Hampson
1) Colleges and universities are attempting to figure out their next steps in terms of delivering courses. What are your thoughts on this transition?
Colleges and universities scrambled to put courses online, and they shortened course development timelines dramatically. Yet there was no plan on the shelf for moving so many courses online, so quickly. As well, trying to coordinate faculty and departments is never easy, and the experience of instructors teaching online also matters for a learner’s experience.
For students taking courses with instructors experienced in teaching online, it is likely the experience went smoother than when taking courses from instructors with no experience or when taking courses at institutions with a limited background in online education.
Institutions might now be spending a disproportionate amount of time working through course management problems: complaints from students, for example, about a lack of clarity regarding course requirements, and similar concerns. Logistics like this can consume a great deal of energy, and time that is better spent on learning.
Despite these and other challenges, it’s worth noting how much more difficult this situation would be had the pandemic arrived a mere 25 years earlier, when the Internet didn’t present us with a viable option.
2) You have been working in the online space for many years. What are some of the successes that you have seen recently when schools have shifted to an online model of delivery?
Great question. As one might expect, post-secondary education defines “success” in several ways. We need to be overt about these differences because the implications are considerable.
Enrolment is the most common measure of success in online post-secondary education; a successful institution is one that attracts the greatest number of students. This is a criterion more commonly associated with private, for-profit enterprises. But “bums in seats” is increasingly critical as the percentage of total revenue for institutions from tuition grows. And it’s predictable.
Using revenue as a metric for success in online education makes sense in online education more than in other realms of post-secondary education. Institutions invest in online education not to offer new curriculum topics, but to reach more students. Surveys over the last two decades suggest that academic leaders believe online education is a means of reducing institutional operating costs — which have climbed faster than inflation over the last few decades. (The expenditure per-student has risen from 26 000 in the 1980’s to 31 500 in 2015-16.)
Several institutions in Ontario are paying more attention to learning outcomes as a measure of success. But it’s still early days and significant obstacles stand in the way of making a full commitment to learning outcomes; these include: concerns among faculty about publicly reporting student performance on a course-by-course basis; approaches to learning outcomes vary a great deal, weakening our ability to generate meaningful insights from the data, and the cost of integrating instructional models and data collection required to track learning outcomes.
Digital learning presents new opportunities for understanding how well students are engaging with the curriculum. Well-designed courseware can continually assess student progress, well beyond what’s possible in the classroom setting. I expect we’ll see more use of this in three or four years’ time.
Broadly speaking, the most innovative digital learning strategies are found at institutions which focus only on online learning. Two U.S. examples are Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and Western Governors University (WGU). The capacity of these institutions to test and implement new instructional models lies, first, in their relatively narrow focus. Unlike brick and mortar institutions, which offer both online and on-campus programming, these institutions limit their focus to online learning.
Their success stems also from the freedom to discard the traditional institutional model that underpins the vast majority of colleges and universities. WGU, SNHU and a handful of other institutions were designed expressly to leverage instructional technology. In contrast, traditional institutions have tried to apply instructional technology to an institutional model that is not well-suited to making full use of the technology. In this respect, higher education is like any other industry. Established taxi companies have sought to make use of technology to improve services, but they find themselves fighting off challenges from companies that are designed from the ground-up to leverage technology, such as Uber and Lyft.
Making fundamental changes to established institutions like universities is difficult work. There’s great investment in the traditional model. Not surprisingly, established institutions have only been able to use technology as an “add-on” to the classroom-based model — often an awkward one, at that.
3) Online learning has the potential of democratizing higher education. If you could imagine a dream scenario for this process, what would it look like?
Instructional technologies definitely have a role to play in the democratization of education. By weakening the importance of location, we can increase the possibility that more people can continue their education. Using asynchronous instruction can help learners fit education into their lives alongside work, family, and other commitments.
A next step toward democratization could involve providing students with a variety of ways of learning the curriculum, based on their particular preferences. We need to use technology to provide more options for students and to put more power in their hands over how they learn. This is technically possible, but it will require a greater financial investment in the design of each course, a broader set of talent applied to the development, and a longer development period. In turn, this new approach to course design and development will need to “scale” — used not just by one instructor at one institution — but in several courses across institutions to be financially sustainable.
Despite the ease with which institutions can share courses and instructional content through the Internet, the vast majority of colleges and universities continue to operate according to a model with origins in traditional classroom education: one instructor, one course, at one institution, using material produced by that one Instructor. Each course is treated as unique. The exception, of course, is the digital solutions built by major publishers and courseware providers, such as MyLab and NelsonBrain. But institutions use these materials as supplements, rather than the basis of courses — which limits the possibilities for economies of scale. TVO’s ILC offers full online courses available to students in Ontario’s grade 9 to 12, in both English and French. There may be value in applying this model to post-secondary education.
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