Is Baltimore County’s Possible Investment in Educational Technology Really a Good Investment?

While perusing the Baltimore Sun, the newspaper of the city where I was born and raised, I came across a blog entry describing the attempts of the school system of my junior and senior high schools to launch a laptop program. 

The reporter cites a number of other laptop and tablet programs, some of which succeeded, others of which failed.

The reporter suggests some problems used to finance the venture: a “rob Peter to pay Paul” approach to budgeting.  Other school systems, like Los Angeles, are paying for their programs through bond referenda.  Years ago, I read a piece in USA Today questioning the wisdom of bond-based financing as the technology will have long been retired from use before the bonds are paid off, and new bonds will be needed to fund future generations of technology.

I was surprised that the reporter cites a general, anti-technology book by an English professor from Emory University in Atlanta, rather interview than one of the educational technology professors at local universities in the Baltimore area, for expertise.  The University of Maryland at Baltimore County and Towson State University both have good programs and internationally recognized experts in the field.  They have more specific expertise related to this initiative.

Check out the article at,0,1034541,full.story



MOOC Reading List

Within the education community, interest in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is high.

But some people are just joining the conversation on the topic now, and need to be brought up to speed. Others might wonder how this fast-moving topic has developed in the year and a half since MOOCs came into wide consciousness. (MOOCs have been around a bit longer, but were only discussed in the educational technology community.)

For you, I have compiled a quick list of readings below that I’ve been “clipping” from the net over the past year or so. This list is not a systematic review of the literature, but does provide an overview of the key themes that have recurred in the popular and trade press for higher education.

I’ve listed readings by topic (basic definitions, big picture, business model, nuts and bolts of producing, personal experiences, and links to more reading). Individual readings listed in chronological order of publication.

1. Basic Definitions

What Campus Leaders Need to Know about MOOCs

by Educause
Viewed at Visited August 26, 2013.

2. MOOCs–the big picture

Elite colleges transform online higher education


Published on, August 5, 2012.

Viewed at Visited August 9, 2012.

The Crisis in Higher Education


Published in The Atlantic, September 27, 2012.

Viewed at Visited November 19, 2012.

The Year of the MOOC


Published in the New York Times, November 2, 2012.

Viewed at Visited November 2, 2012

American Council on Education May Recommend Some Coursera Offerings for College Credit


Published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, November 13, 2012.

Viewed at Visited December 14, 2012.

Education on the computer model: faster, more efficient, customized


Published in the Globe and Mail, June 4, 2013.

Viewed at Visited June 5, 2013.

Where MOOCs are really headed


Published at the website of Higher Education Strategy Associates, June 6, 2013.

Viewed at Visited June 6, 2013.

Master’s Degree Is New Frontier of Study Online


Published in the New York Times, August 17, 2013.

Viewed at Visited August 18, 2013.

3. Business Issues with MOOCS

Online Courses Look for a Business Model


Published in the Wall Street Journal, January 1, 2013.

Viewed at Visited January 3, 2013.

Students Rush to Web Classes, but Profits May Be Much Later


Published in the New York Times, January 6, 2013.

Viewed at Visit January 17, 2013.

4. Nuts and Bolts of Producing MOOCs

Sweating the Details of a MOOC in Progress


Published in the Wired Campus blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 3, 2013.

Viewed at Visited April 30, 2013.

How to Develop a MOOC

by ALISON FARMER, VP, AQUENT Learning & Development

Published in Training magazine, May 16, 2013.

Viewed at Visited June 13, 2012.

5. Experiences with MOOCs

Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach (Duke’s First MOOC)

Published by Duke University, February 5, 2013.

Viewed at Visited August 26, 2013.

My Modern Experience Teaching a MOOC


Published in the The Digital Campus 2013 section of the Chronicle of Higher Education, April 29, 2013.

Viewed at Visited April 30, 2013.

Reflections Of My First MOOC


Published in the Instructional Design & E-Learning Professionals Group on LinkedIn, June 1, 2013.

Viewed at Visited June 5, 2013.

6. What the Pundits Say

Revolution Hits the Universities


Published in the New York Times, January 27, 2013.

Viewed at Visited August 27, 2013.

The Professor’s Big Stage


Published in the New York Times, March 6, 2013.

Viewed at Visited August 26, 2013.

MOOCs of Hazard


Published in The New Republic, March 31, 2013.

Viewed at Visited August 26, 2013.

Students Are Cool with MOOCs, So Why Aren’t Profs?


Published in the Globe and Mail, August 5, 2013

7. And More Reading

Massive Open Online Courses
Viewed at Visited August 26, 2013.

Visuals from My Presentations at the e.Scape Conference

Here are links to copies of the slides from my presentation at the e.Scape conference at Concordia University.

  • Transitioning from In-Class to Online Learning: An Overview for Instructors (Thursday, April 4, 10:00 am) click here.
  • Transitioning from In-Class to Online Learning: An Overview for Instructors (Thursday, April 4, 4:30 pm) click here.
  • What the Evidence Says about Teaching Online (Friday, April 5, 9 am) click here.

Frequently Asked Questions in Higher Education about e-Learning

1. Can e-learning be as effective as classroom learning?

Insights from the research:

Through meta-analysis (studies of studies), educational researchers have concluded that e-learning is as effective as classroom learning. This has occurred in every major learning context: primary/secondary education, higher education, and workplace learning.

For more information, check out:


* Bernard, Abrami, Borokhovski, Wade, Tamim, Surkes, and Bethel (2009). A Meta-Analysis of Three Types of Interaction Treatments in Distance Education. Review of Educational Research 2009 79: 1243.

* Bernard, Abrami, Lou, Borokhovski, Wade, Wozney, Wallet, Fiset, and Huang (2004). How Does Distance Education Compare with Classroom Instruction? A Meta-Analysis of the Empirical Literature. Review of Educational Research, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 379-439.

* Tamim, Bernard, Borokhovski, Abrami, and Schmid. (2011). What Forty Years of Research Says About the Impact of Technology on Learning: A Second-Order Meta-Analysis and Validation Study. Review of Educational Research 2011 81: 4.

US Department of Education (2010). Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies.

Some specific studies of possible interest:

Arbaugh, J. B.  (2000). Virtual Classroom versus Physical Classroom: An Exploratory Study of Class Discussion Patterns and Student Learning in an Asynchronous Internet-Based MBA Course. Journal of Management Education 2000 24: 213.

* Devey, P.L.  (2011.) Survivor: Online Courses:  A Study of Voluntary Student Attrition in Asynchronous Undergraduate Online Courses Using a Multi-Analytic Framework. Montreal, QC. Concordia University. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Rovai, Wighting, Baker, and Grooms (2009). Development of an Instrument to Measure Perceived Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor Learning in Traditional and Virtual Classroom Higher Education Settings.Internet and Higher Education 12 (2009) 7–13.

Smart and Cappel (2006).Students’ Perceptions of Online Learning: A Comparative Study. Journal of Information Technology Education, Volume 5, 2006.

* Concordia researchers

2.  Can students have meaningful interaction with instructors in e-learning courses?

Insights from theory, research, and practice:

On a conceptual level: three types of interaction exist: student-content, student-student, and student-instructor.  We tend to emphasize the latter but all three types of interaction are essential for learning.  For example, cooperative and peer learning are forms of learning between students.  eLearning (including MOOCs) can emphasize this.

The actual extent and nature of interaction is a design issue, not an issue of the medium.  The primary concern among many online instructors is interaction with students—but not the lack of it, but rather the extent of it.  It sometimes overwhelms them and their Teaching Assistants. As one online student observed, “I actuallly had more contact with my online professor than my face-to-face professors.”

Part of this is a design issue Early e-learning efforts suggested that online students feel anonymous, so elearning groups typically build in extensive interaction.  For example, e-Concordia has many course design and administration guidelines in place to require ongoing contact between students and instructors in online courses.  (Instructors not only includes professors but also Teaching Assistants.)

3.  Is the pedagogical quality of the e-learning experience an inferior one?

Insights from practice:

There are many quality controls in place in an elearning course that are not available to classroom courses.

The most significant is that, rather than designing the course by him or herself, instructors usually design the course in collaboration with an instructional design team (this is true for almost any elearning course). All of the instructional designers are formally trained. This allows us to map out a teaching strategy that’s aligned with the nature of the content, and provides the staffing to create the resources and activities that support that teaching strategy.

In terms of the technical and editorial quality of materials, everything gets a second and third look, which does not always happen in other learning contexts.

In addition, we also closely watch the first offering of the course with the expectation that we will need to adjust it in response to real-world issues identified by our students.

So from a strategic and quality control standpoint, checks are in place to ensure it.

Furthermore, in a related—though separate—effort, we are working on a detailed set of guidelines and processes for designing e-learning programs as a means of institutionalizing existing practices.

4.  Is e-learning is better suited to some disciplines or learning goals than others?

Insights from the research and practice:

The evidence does not support this concern.  With carefully thought through teaching strategies, almost every subject has been taught online.

The most significant challenges are those courses involving physical skills—like painting or acting.  But with live, two-way video, even some of those barriers have been broken—and the courses have been effective. (And computers are increasingly used as a drawing and painting tool, and software allows us to share this.)

Note, too, that e-learning encompasses both asynchronous learning (when the instructor and students are not online at the same time) and synchronous learning (when they are online at the same time).  Blended learning encourages instructional designers to choose the format best suited to the teaching objectives.

Note, too, that some organizations have made effective use of simulations, virtual worlds, and other technologies to close this gap between what we want to teach and what we can teach online.

5.  Is e-learning better suited to some students over others?

Insights from the research:

On a most basic level, the research supports this.

From an historical perspective, students who do well in e-learning are typically (Devey, 2011):

  • Mature
  • Goal-oriented
  • Self-motivated

But the situation is more complex.

One of the problems has been that some students, especially traditional ones, have viewed elearning as an easy A (Devey, 2011).  When they realize that, even in elearning courses, they need to work hard to get a B or C, many drop out.  We see the same behavior, however, in face-to-face courses.  It just gets magnified online.

Research is also clear that students who are treated anonymously online are less likely to succeed than those who are contacted and required to engage.  So our practices actually emphasize this level of engagement and interaction with students.  One simple tool (used at another university):  no extensions of deadlines significantly increased completions and the submissions of assignments.

Our own experience at Concordia also shows that such interventions have a positive impact on students: both retention rates and performance—not only among the ones who, by nature, are best suited to e-learning but also for traditional students.

6. Are massive open online classes (MOOCs) are a threat to Concordia’s e-learning efforts?

Insights from industry news:

A concern about MOOCs and an assessment about how they could affect us is definitely in order.

Like most technologies, MOOCs are multi-faceted and, like most newer technologies, the full implications might not be known for a while because this one is still in alpha or beta test, despite the exceptional press coverage they’ve received.

A few things to be aware of with MOOCs:

  • In their current state, they are not economically viable.  (Recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.)
  • The largest company, Coursera, does not offer credits for its courses nor do any of the schools that Coursera contracts with offer credits to outside students; most do not even offer credit to their own students, unless they take the face-to-face version of the course.  Other competitors are trying to fill that gap; but they only offer credits to their own students or charge fees that are 10 to 20 times higher than ours for credits.
  • Nearly all MOOCs are undergraduate courses, though they are available in nearly every discipline now.
  • One possibility is that MOOC companies might license their courses to universities, who would augment them for credit.  We have a workgroup on campus (with some participation from McGill) to explore possibilities.
  • Despite the initial promotion of MOOCs as “the best lecturers” teaching courses, recent criticism directly attacks teaching quality, mostly on a conceptual basis (the design is teacher centred) rather than on an actual basis (the buzz on most Coursera courses is actually positive; the same cannot be said for other MOOC providers, especially Udacity).
  • Completion rates for MOOCs are low—sometimes below 5 percent.  This is the result of that anonymity issue.  Athabasca’s George Siemens has piloted a more social design for these courses, but dropout rates even in those courses is still disappointing.
  • The most likely impact of MOOCs for the time being: professional, continuing education—especially for professional workers.  Other studies have shown that companies have systematically reduced their investment in training in the past 12 years; other studies have suggested that workers are not investing in training, even if they are self-employed.
  • MOOCs and other types of elearning do not need to exist separately; MOOCs can be used to engage prospective students.  When they become serious about their studies, they look for something that offers a recognized credential (like a degree), will be recognized for purposes of licensing and certification (again, a degree or certificate), and that provides access to experts for advice (professors, career services, student services—why the communication aspect of e-learning is essential)

Five Opportunities to Communicate the Value of Training

Data alone, like test results and ROI, does not demonstrate the value of training;  communication does. Following are 5 ways to communicate the results to the internal or external clients we serve. 

1.   Instructional designs.  If you want to communicate the value of your work, you need to begin on Day 1.  Set clients’ expectations of the results you intend to achieve by including observable and measurable objectives for the content and impact on the business.  Educate clients on how to assess effectiveness by including complete evaluation plans, too, in your design plans.  Include drafts of proposed satisfaction surveys and tests, and list business measurements to track.

2.   Project status reports.  Continue to manage expectations during the development process by regularly distributing status reports through the development process. In the report, tell clients how you are managing budgets and schedules, and how you ensure the editorial quality and technical accuracy of the content during development.  Most significantly, alert clients to potential problems before they occur (rather than hide them from clients).

3.   Post-mortems. At the end of projects, teams tend to focus on an what went wrong. A post-mortem (a debriefing of the entire project) that includes members of the internal or external client team can identify not only the “don’t let this happen again” moments, but also those things that went right.  That leaves a more balanced impression with clients.

4.   Publish annual reports.  Publish an annual report that tells internal or external clients and prospects about users’ responses to the training you developed and delivered, and the business results you have helped clients achieve during the previous year.  Not only is this a great means of reminding recent clients how you have helped them, but it helps manage the expectations of new clients.

5.   Informal communications.  Always take advantage of opportunities to politely tell a client how you have helped them or others.  When doing so, be careful about crossing the boundary between informing and bragging.  For those wondering what that boundary is, you can always feel comfortable mentioning the subject when clients introduce it.

Whenever you provide information about the effectiveness and value of training, recognize that each client assesses these issues in their own way.

If sharing or excerpting, please properly attribute the source.

© Copyright 1996, 1999, 2001, 2010, 2012. Saul Carliner. All rights reserved.  If sharing or excerpting, should be properly cited.