Monthly Archives: April 2013













Disruptive innovations aren’t easy for established institutions

Online learning has been around for over two decades now. Yet institutions – secondary and post-secondary – continue to struggle with its integration and applications. I am still hearing lots of questioning and debate about the suitability and effectiveness of online delivery. What does the research say?

Learning outcomes have been shown to be modestly better for online versus classroom-based courses (Means et al. 2010)

Learning activities can be equally effective across online and face-to-face conditions (Neuhauser, 2002)

Online courses across a variety of theoretical and practical topic areas have been offered successfully (Tallent-Runnels et al. 2006).

Course development (whether face-to-face, mixed mode or online) is resource-intensive. Here is a radical rethink of higher education from a systems perspective, from a provocative 2003 article by Carol Twigg (decribed as a Rock Star in higher education technology and innovation) for Educause:

American higher education remains what Bill Massy and Bob Zemsky have called a “handicraft” industry in which the vast majority of courses are developed and delivered as “one-offs” by individual professors… Currently in higher education, both on campus and online, we individualize faculty practice (that is, we allow individual faculty members great latitude in course development and delivery) and standardize the student learning experience (that is, we treat all students in a course as if their learning needs, interests, and abilities were the same). Instead, we need to do just the opposite.

Full disclosure: I have taught a graduate clinical course focused on addiction treatment for over 10 years. Don’t get me wrong, I love classroom teaching. But feedback I get from students has consistently reinforced three things:

1. There are as many ways of teaching online as there are face-to-face. Just like there can be good and bad classroom courses (and instructors), same goes for online.

2. Online courses can be experienced as equally or more rigorous than their in-class counterparts, in that online students report having to critique, reflect and formulate their ideas more deeply in order to contribute to class discussion and dialogue.

3. Online learning is accessible to students in a way that classroom teaching can’t accomplish.

In any case, the debate may well be moot: Instructional videos on YouTube – for everything from how to change a tire or rig a sailboat, to advanced chemistry – constitute what might well be the world’s biggest and most vibrant online apprenticeship training. Khan Academy (“our mission: to provide a world-class education for anyone, anywhere”) materials are used by teachers worldwide in their classrooms. (Because the online version teaches it better?) Students today have grown up in a world where the Internet has always existed. Digital communication, networking and collaboration are like talking (or breathing).

So why, twenty years on, aren’t there more online offerings in colleges and universities (especially among those in the top tier)? I think the hesitation comes from a deep place in our collective psyche as educators. We want to believe that our physical presence at the front of the class is a key contributor to meaning-making and learning for our students. From an instructivist theoretical frame, this makes sense. Thing is, the education field has widely adopted constructivist models of teaching and learning, at odds with a “sage on the stage” approach.

Online learning in higher education represents a paradigm shift and a disruptive innovation. Big time.

Manufactured Landscape











Is blogging the digital equivalent of tree-planting?

In his famous series of large-scale photographs capturing the impacts of industry Edward Burtynsky highlights massive reconstructions of our natural world. I watched the award-winning 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes on a long-haul flight a few years ago, juxtaposing mountains of discarded computer monitors (on the screen in front of me), with pristine polar ice (out the airplane window).

Burtynsky shows us debris fields in real environments. What are some of the by-products and reconfigured terrains of the knowledge construction industry?  Here are three manifestations:

1. Degree inflation: Just like 50 is the new 40, Masters are the new Bachelors. Is this because today’s world is infinitely more complex and new hires need additional time and preparation for job readiness? Or are we seeing the equivalent of monetary inflation? I once served on a selection committee for a prestigious lectureship, where the candidate we chose had the credentials PhD, PhD. Let’s leave it at that.

2. Manufactured authenticity: Knowledge workers tend to spend a lot of time indoors. We all crave the experience of real-world adventure but fear of the attendant risks can be a deterrent. That’s what simulations are for: in teaching, learning and recreation. Google Glass represents the first wave of integrated mobile computing. Will this be the next television?

3. Digital nostalgia: The internet is a social construction and was once (in the words of Howard Rheingold) an electronic frontier. Consider the contrast between the WELL and Facebook with respect to discourse and advertising presence. Burtynsky catalogued the manufactured landscapes of the industrial world – what will 2020’s documentary on the manufactured landscapes of the information economy look like?

The post-industrial wastelands of the digisphere weren’t always there. Maybe blogging is the digital equivalent of tree-planting?


misty shore








The world is opening up, and that’s a good thing. (Don Tapscott) 


In their 2010 book Wikibrands, Sean Moffett and Mike Dover argue that with the advent of the social web, it’s no longer the purview of a company to articulate and define its brand – it’s what people say about the company that defines the brand. The implications for all organizations and sectors, including education, are huge.

Institutions of higher learning expend considerable resources on branding, but for the most part this follows traditional marketing channels. And where social media is integrated into organizational branding, it tends to be used as more a corporate communication tool than a meaningful way to engage with students or prospective students. Reputation management is a big consideration. How do you control your brand if you open up a “comments” or “review” page on your website?

A recent investigative reporting piece focusing on healthcare invited Canadians to rate hospitals, and while popular among the public (see story), was sharply criticized – by hospital administrators (though not by patients, see story).

Whether we like it or not, there are multiple outlets for review and commentary, and these are more likely to be adopted when the “official” website is perceived as promoting versus informing. When I choose a hotel do I trust a corporate website or visit TripAdvisor for candid ratings and reviews? Why should it be any different in selecting a college or university? The stakes are a lot higher, and information = power, or at least the illusion of such.

The drive towards inside-out organizations is premised on the notion that we – organizations – get more from sharing than we do from secrecy. This is a big culture change for education. It’s radical. Although high-level data about high school and post-secondary outcomes are publicly available, specifics (e.g. course evaluations, students’ comments and reviews) are not.

Here’s the thing: In a very short time frame complete institutional transparency is going to be expected. As a matter of course. If we don’t provide it someone else will be happy to step in and do it for us. And they get to keep the ad revenue from the high click-through rate: RateMyProfessors is only the beginning.

As Don Tapscott puts it: “Institutions are becoming naked, and if you’re going to be naked … fitness is no longer optional. If you’re going to be naked, you better get buff.”

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