Sloan-C Survey 2009 – 25% of College Students Are Taking Online Classes

Totally Online, by Jim Shimabukuro

Last month, The Sloan Consortium published I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman’s Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009, its seventh annual report on the state of online learning in U.S. higher education. Click here for the full report, which is available as a PDF file. Online courses are defined as “those in which at least 80 percent of the course content is delivered online.” Continue reading

15th Annual Sloan-C Conference – A Review

John SenerBy John Sener

Disclaimer: I am both uniquely qualified and perhaps ill-suited to write a review of this conference. Uniquely qualified as Director of Special Initiatives for Sloan-C and as one of a handful of people who have attended all 15 Sloan-C conferences; ill-suited because of the possibility of “bias” but also because, frankly, I spent most of my time there as usual talking with colleagues rather than attending conference events. So this will be a more impressionistic review of the conference rather than a comprehensive one. In reality, the conference has gotten so big that it’s not possible for a single individual to provide a complete review.


Up front, one new development is worth noting in particular: tweeting. I started tweeting at conferences earlier this year, but this was the first time for me to do so at a Sloan-C conference, and I did so throughout. The evolution of the tweetosphere even over the past few months is remarkable. People were coming up to me afterwards and thanking/complimenting me for my tweets; I found myself scanning session rooms to find fellow tweeters posting on the same presentation; I was able to get tweeted summaries of other presentations without attending them or being burdened to find print handouts; and I even met someone new because I mistook them for a fellow tweeter — so it’s becoming a notable social undercurrent at many conferences. Oh, and tweets make great notes for preparing articles like this one . . .

Frank MayadasThe person primarily responsible for bringing the Sloan-C conference into existence, Dr. Frank Mayadas, was the keynote speaker. Frank offered a three-part view of the current state of online education: retrospective, current, and future. The retrospective piece was of course gratifying for us “old-timers” who always appreciate the opportunity to reflect on just how far we and the field have come. How in the early days (in my case, pre-World Wide Web) we cobbled together makeshift or relatively primitive products (e.g., Lotus Notes, First Class, Web Course in a Box, Allaire Forums) to create online courses, while remembering the first Sloan-C conference where everyone knew everyone else (95 participants) and there were two presentations for each concurrent session.

Fast forward to the current conference with almost 1400 attendees total, including ~170 virtual attendees, and 40-50 presentations per concurrent session. Online higher education has entered the mainstream and continues to grow at a brisk clip thanks to the development of a lively practitioner community capable of rapid response, along with the growth of a healthy vendor community which has provided tools to fuel online education’s growth. But what about its future? Dr. Mayadas called for online education to reach truly full scale (as also reported in this Chronicle of Higher Education article), which would likely involve additional changes to the current landscape, such as more targeted government support and greater attention to making online education attractive to a much larger proportion of faculty.

Unlike many conferences which are struggling with conference attendance due to budget crises and constraints, this conference actually grew in size relative to last year, with a 5% growth for onsite attendance and 20% overall growth for the conference including virtual attendees. On Thursday morning, I “convened” the plenary session for the virtual attendees, which meant I monitored the computer feed (messages and questions), responded to any transmission issues as well as I could, and relayed any questions or comments to the speaker during the Q&A period. Although it was difficult to know from the messages, it appeared that many if not all of the virtual attendees were finding value in this presentation at least; and as one virtual attendee noted, virtual attendance was good not only for his budget but also for his waistline, as he was eating a lot less food than if he were attending the conference in person. ;-)

Andrew KeenThe speaker, Andrew Keen, has attained some fame due to his book The Cult of the Amateur, and his self-professed aim as a “polemicist” was to provoke thought and discussion through expounding his contrarian positions, for instance:

  • The Internet poses a danger precisely because it makes education too inexpensive (cheap/free).
  • Educators’ authority is based on the authority conferred by their hard-won wisdom and must be maintained; kids don’t really know anything of value (i.e., wisdom).
  • The Internet’s real-time speed prevents thoughtfulness, which is another challenge to educators.

Needless to say, Keen’s talk provoked a fairly lively Q&A session (and evoked strongly contrasting reactions from attendees afterwards). It would have been nice if he had understood his audience a little better; at one point, his speech was proceeding under the assumption that most of his audience were tenured faculty, so he seemed a bit surprised when he actually polled his audience to find that very few (<10%) were in fact tenured faculty. All in all, however, Keen succeeded in his goal to provoke thought and discussion about the issue, even if IMO he missed a golden opportunity to have a more nuanced discussion of the issues with an audience that was more sophisticated about the issues than what I suspect he customarily faces. Then again, perhaps his aim was more on target: over the past several years the Sloan-C conference has evolved into a conference which attracts a large proportion of first-timers, and this year was no exception, with perhaps as many as 50% of the attendees being first-timers (based on a show of hands at a plenary session).

I also attended several concurrent sessions which reinforced for me that online education continues to evolve, expand, even backtrack in a myriad of directions. One of them had a “back-to-the-future” feel for me, as the presenter was advocating a return to modularized learning management systems as an alternative to the current crop of LMSs and their relative inflexibility and drive toward being enterprise-level solutions. The discussion at another session on learning objects reminded me that we were well past the days of attendees looking for wisdom from pioneer presenters; instead, the audience is often at least as knowledgeable as the presenter(s). That session generated a side conversation with an attendee about a particular learning object repository solution her institution was using, so I did that in lieu of attending additional sessions that afternoon.


During the panel, I had an epiphany of sorts, realizing the extent to which online education has provided an opening for private sector companies to become more deeply involved in higher education.


The next morning, I served on a panel discussing the issue of relationships between higher education and the corporate sector, specifically vendors serving the online higher education market. During the panel, I had an epiphany of sorts, realizing the extent to which online education has provided an opening for private sector companies to become more deeply involved in higher education. Some may react to this insight with a “duh!”, and to some extent I also wondered why it took me so long to realize this. I’d been more focused on the other unanticipated effects of online education on higher education, such as the creation of higher, more concrete standards and expectations for course quality and instructor involvement.

Later that morning, I attended a session which described research showing how the Quality Matters project has positively impacted its users several years later. After the session, I got involved in yet another extended  “shop talk” discussion. No doubt I missed lots of good conference sessions, and indeed that’s now unavoidable. But for me the great value of this conference has been, and continues to be, the quality of interaction with long-time colleagues and meeting new ones. In other words, for me the conference is a non-stop schmoozefest.

Some would say this is a highly ironic observation to make about an online education conference. I would say that an in-person conference is an excellent form of tribal gathering to touch base with those numerous colleagues with whom the primary relationship is an online one. Virtual conferences are on the rise, they already have some advantages, and they will only get better. In-person conferences may be attended less frequently, but they are not going away anytime soon — at least if they maintain the quality provided by events such as the Sloan-C conference.

An Interview with Terry Anderson: Open Education Resources – Part I

boettcher80By  Judith V. Boettche

This is my first experience with doing a formal blog posting, although it has been on my list for a while. Jim Morrison suggested that this format, the new blog area for Innovate, might be a good way to more quickly share a recent interview on open education resources with Terry Anderson, director, Canadian Institute for Distance Education Research, and one of the keynoters at the 14th Annual Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning in Orlando, Florida, on 4 November 2008. Terry’s keynote title was “Social Software and Open Education Resources: Can the crowd learn to build great educational content?

One of my goals in going to the conference was to interview Terry about his perspectives on open education resources, and I was not disappointed! Terry was very gracious in meeting me over lunch the day of his keynote in the Caribe Royal restaurant. We had a broad-ranging conversation that included his personal experiences with making the book, The Theory and Practice of Online Learning, now in its second edition, freely available on the web. But more on that later.

So here goes. I hope you enjoy it!

terry_andersonJB: Terry, the abstract for your keynote emphasizes the promise of open education resources (OERs) to radically reduce the cost of educational content production and availability. Yet you seem to indicate that educators are not making much use of these resources. Why not?

TA: I don’t think that the availability of OERs has had much impact as yet. Lots of people download content, but how many people use it for serious academic work?

JB: Why do you think that is? What do you think has to happen before the adoption of OERs becomes more widespread and thus more of a force in keeping educational content costs down?

TA: I think there are two issues in the adoption and use of OERs: credentialing and the social support of learning experiences.

People work hard when they are motivated, and most people are motivated by credentialing or earning some kind of a certificate. What is needed for broadening the impact of open educational resources is to provide a pathway for credentialing. For example, with the open courseware from MIT, they provide the courseware resources, but no credentialing. It is up to other institutions to provide the pathway to credentialing. For example, at Athabasca University, a significant number of our Athabasca courses have what we call a “challenge alternative.” This means students can elect to writing an equivalent final exam or completing the final requirements of a course — without actually taking the course.

The second issue is that of social support. Many students find it difficult to learn on their own independent of a social environment. They like to struggle and engage with other learners as they learn. So one of our future tasks is likely to focus on developing educational experiences that include interaction with other students. For example, a learning experience that says, “Go to this site and do this with others who have started at about the same time.”

JB: What about the financial model for OER? How is this going to work? How do we ensure that people with expertise, talent get some compensation for their time and resources?

TA: What we have here, I think, is the same issue that exists with television, music and other creative industries. I think that micropayments are one approach that will work. We see this in the model from Apple with iTunes. Rather than buying a whole album, people select and pay 99 cents for one track of a CD. We need to experiment with additional different models that include reaching out with micropayment models to the long tail of the net —where there are millions of people on line today. We need to begin doing more looking out beyond the 200 or so million people in the U.S.

terry_anderson_sbJB: What about faculty members? Is the micropayments model going to be important for them?

TA: For many faculty it is not an issue. Even today, writing educational materials generally does not mean a lot of money coming back to faculty. And it does not matter as faculty are paid by the state or by the institution! Faculty may dream about writing a textbook that becomes a nationwide top seller, but it doesn’t happen very often.

I think we should move away from a production model where textbooks are written by one or two superstars to a production model with a much larger group of folks. Or move to a co-production model such as we do for research journals.

[Note: Terry’s thoughts on content production models made me think about the Wikipedia model. Maybe we should consider a Chemistry or Physics Resources Wikipedia? -JB]

JB: Terry, what bout the current costs of textbooks and educational materials. Are the costs for educational materials really a big deal?

TA: It really depends a great deal on where you are. When I am working on my campus I have access through our institution’s library database agreements to almost any resource I am interested in using. And this is the same for most of my colleagues in the academic community. So, we start to forget that materials may not be similarly “available” to others. If you go to Africa where the tuition is $45, and the libraries do not have access to content and the textbook is $90 to $100, it’s a very big deal!

JB: Let’s return to the question in the subtitle of your keynote presentation. Terry, do you think the “crowd” can learn to build great educational content?”

TA: Oh, I think “yes!” A colleague and I have been working on a book that is in a long gestation period. The book focuses on the “three aggregations of the many.”

The third “aggregation” is the collective, which is the “crowd.” A lot of people are using the net for many purposes. As they are doing this, they are all leaving traces of their activity, explicitly by voting or buying or doing something; or implicitly by which sites they are visiting and how long they stay on a site. Data mining and data capture techniques include tools that match what some people are doing with what other people are doing with some automatic filtering going on. We are at the early stages of that. Collectives are being used as learning resources without enrolling the class. This means if you use the net fairly frequently, it will reward you.

[Continued in Part II]