‘Making Digital Learning Work’: why faculty and program directors must change their approach

April 15, 2018 Tony Bates

Completion rates for different modes of delivery at Houston Community College

Bailey, A. et al (2018) Making Digital Learning Work Boston MA:The Boston Consulting Group/Arizona State University

Getting blended learning wrong

I’ve been to several universities recently where faculty are beginning to develop blended or ‘hybrid’ courses which reduce but do not eliminate time on campus. I must confess I have mixed feelings about this. While I welcome such moves in principle, I have been alarmed by some of the approaches being taken.

The main strategy appears to be to move some of the face-to-face lectures online, without changing either the face-to-face or the online lecture format. In particular there is often a resistance to asynchronous approaches to online learning.  In one or two cases I have seen, faculty have insisted that students watch the Internet lectures live so that there can be synchronous online discussion, thus severely limiting the flexibility of ‘any time, any place’ for students.

Even more alarming, academic departments seem to be approaching the development of new blended learning programs the same way as their on-campus programs – identify faculty to teach the courses and then let them loose without any significant faculty development or learning design support. Even worse, there is no project management to ensure that courses are ready on time. Why discuss the design of the online lectures when you don’t do that for your classroom lectures? 

Trying to move classroom lectures online without adaptation is bound to fail, as we saw from the early days of fully online learning (and MOOCs). I recognise that blended or hybrid learning is different from fully online learning, but it is also different from face-to-face teaching. The challenge is to identify what the added value is of the face-to-face component, when most teaching can be done as well or better, and much more conveniently for students, online, and how to combine the two modes of delivery to deliver better learning outcomes more cost-effectively.  In particular, faculty are missing the opportunity to change their teaching method in order to get better learning outcomes, such as the development of high-level intellectual skills.

The real danger here is that poorly designed blended courses or programs will ‘fail’ and it is ‘blended learning’ that is blamed, when really it’s ignorance of best teaching practices on the part of faculty, and program directors especially. The problem is that faculty, and particularly senior faculty such as Deans and program directors, don’t know what they don’t know, which is why the report, ‘Making Digital Learning Work’ is so important. The report provides evidence that digital learning needs a complete change in culture and approaches to course and program development and delivery for most academic departments. Here’s why.

The report

The Arizona State University Foundation and Boston Consulting, funded by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, conducted a study of the return on investment (ROI) of digital learning in six different institutions. The methodology focused on six case studies of institutions that have been pioneers in post-secondary digital education:

  • Arizona State University
  • University of Central Florida
  • Georgia State University
  • Houston Community College
  • The Kentucky Community and Technical College System
  • Rio Salado Community College.

These are all large institutions (over 30,000 students each) and relatively early adopters of online learning. 

The study had three aims:

  • define what ROI means in terms of digital education, and identify appropriate metrics for measuring ROI
  • assess the impact of digital learning formats on institutions’ enrolments, student learning outcomes, and cost structures
  • examine how these institutions implemented digital learning, and identify lessons and promising practices for the field.

The study compared results from three different modes of delivery:

  • face-to-face courses
  • mixed-modality courses, offering a mix of online and face-to-face components, with the online component typically replacing some tradition face-to-face teaching (what I would call ‘hybrid learning)
  • fully online courses.

The ROI framework

The study identified three components of ROI for digital learning:

  • impact on student access to higher education
  • impact on learning and completion outcomes
  • impact on economics (the costs of teaching, administration and infrastructure, and the cost to students).

The report is particularly valuable in the way it has addressed the economic issues. Several factors were involved:

  • differences in class size between face-to-face and digital teaching and learning
  • differences in the mix of instructors (tenured and adjunct, full-time and part-time)
  • allocation of additional expenses such as faculty development and learning design support
  • impact of digital learning on classroom and other physical capacity 
  • IT costs specifically associated with digital learning.

The report summarised this framework in the following graphic:

While there are some limitations which I will discuss later, this is a sophisticated approach to looking at the return on investment in digital learning and gives me a great deal of confidence in the findings.

Results

Evidence from the six case studies resulted in the following findings, comparing digital learning with face-to-face teaching.

Digital learning resulted in:

  • equivalent or improved student learning outcomes
  • faster time to degree completion
  • improved access, particularly for disadvantaged students
  • a better return on investment (at four of the institutions): savings for online courses ranged from $12 to $66 per credit hour.

If you have problems believing or accepting these results then I recommend you read the report in full. I think you will find the results justified.

Conditions for success

This is perhaps the most valuable part of the report, because although most faculty may not be aware of this, those of us working in online learning have been aware for some time of the benefits of digital learning identified above. What this report makes clear though are the conditions that are needed for digital learning to succeed:

  • take a strategic portfolio approach to digital learning. This needs a bit of unpacking because of the terminology. The report argues that the greatest potential to improve access and outcomes while reducing costs lies in increasing the integration of digital learning into the undergraduate experience through mixed-modality (i.e. hybrid learning). This involves not just one single approach to course design but a mix, dependent on the demands of the subject and the needs of students. However, there should be somewhat standard course design templates to ensure efficiency in course design and to reduce risk.
  • build the necessary capabilities and expertise to design for quality in the digital realm. The experience of the six institutions emphasises that significant investment needs to be made in instructional design, learning sciences and digital tools and capacity (and – my sidebar – faculty need to listen to what instructional designers tell them)
  • provide adequate student support that takes account of the fact that students will often require that support away from the campus (and 24/7)
  • fully engage faculty and provide adequate faculty development and training by fostering a culture of innovation in teaching
  • tap outside vendors strategically: determine the strategic goals first for digital learning then decide where outside vendors can add value to in-house capacity
  • strengthen analytics and monitoring: the technology provides better ways to track student progress and difficulties

My comments on the report

This report should be essential reading for anyone concerned with teaching and learning in post-secondary education, but it will be particularly important for program directors. 

It emphasises that blended learning is not so much about delivery but about achieving better learning outcomes and increased access through the re-design of teaching that incorporates the best of face-to-face and online teaching. However this requires a major cultural change in the way faculty and instructors approach teaching as indicated by the following:

  • holistic program planning involving all instructors, instructional designers and probably students as well
  • careful advanced planning, and following best practices, including project management and learning design
  • focusing as much on the development of skills as delivering content
  • identifying the unique ‘affordances’ of face-to-face teaching and online learning: there is no general formula for this but it will require discussion and input from both content experts and learning designers on a course by course basis
  • systematic evaluation and monitoring of hybrid learning course designs, so best (and poor) practices can be identified

I have a few reservations about the report:

  • The case study institutions were carefully selected. They are institutions with a long history of and/or considerable experience in online learning. I would like to see more cases built on more traditional universities or colleges that have been able successfully to move into online and especially blended learning
  • the report did not really deal with the unique context of mixed-modularity. Many of the results were swamped by the much more established fully online courses. However, hybrid learning is still new so this presents a challenge in comparing results.

However, these are minor quibbles. Please print out the report and leave it on the desk of your Dean, the Provost, the AVP Teaching and Learning and your program director – after you’ve read it. You could also give them:

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley

But that may be too much reading for the poor souls, who now have a major crisis to deal with.

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