Queen’s Journal: Blended learning to draw more revenue (16 March 2012)

By Vincent Matak. As published in Queen’s Journal16 March 2012.

New online components mean increased enrolment for first-year courses

University representatives and local government officials met last Friday to discuss the finances of Queen’s blended-learning system.

MP for Kingston and the Islands Ted Hsu said increasing student enrolment in blended-learning courses will bring in additional revenue without the University having to spend money on accommodating more students.

“You essentially get more money for the same infrastructure,” Hsu said in a question and answer session during the event.

Aimed at large first-year courses, the program emphasizes online readings and assignments in conjunction with decreasing the number of lectures and the number of hired faculty needed to teach courses.

First-year psychology and geography courses were the first to implement blended learning in the fall of 2011.

First-year courses in sociology, gender studies, calculus and a large second-year classics class will follow suit in September.

Jill Atkinson, undergraduate chair for the department of psychology, said that because of increased enrolment, blended-learning classes increase revenue for the Faculty of Arts and Science.

She couldn’t provide a dollar amount.

“Taking more students is a way to make more money and not having to build new buildings,” Atkinson said. “It’s great if we can use our existing smaller spaces better.”

Students are expected to discuss online activities in tutorial style learning labs facilitated by fourth-year undergraduate Teaching Assistants.

Atkinson said that hiring fourth-year TAs to facilitate learning labs will incur costs for the Faculty.

“We’re spending tens of thousands of dollars in terms of paying these undergraduate TAs, plus having to offer the course for the facilitators in education so they develop expertise to facilitate students,” she said.

According to Brenda Ravenscroft, associate dean of Arts and Science, the full-year course PSYC 100 saw enrolment jump from 1,600 to 1,800 because it’s no longer limited by space. Course lecture time has decreased from three times a week to only once per week and four faculty members teach the course, compared to six in the non-blended format.

Ravenscroft said financial benefits weren’t considered when Queen’s first talked about blended learning in 2009.

“We didn’t know the details of the cost or financial benefits when we started out,” she said. “We started by asking how to engage students in large classrooms.”

In an email to the Journal, Ravenscroft said that the results obtained through a student survey will be analyzed and studied to prove the effectiveness of blended learning for students at Queen’s.

“Data is being collected about student engagement, student learning and student satisfaction.

The data will be analyzed and reported on, and will guide further developments in the future,”she wrote.

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1 Response to Queen’s Journal: Blended learning to draw more revenue (16 March 2012)

  1. Mark Jones says:

    As also posted on the Queen’s Journal site:

    Thank you for printing this article emphasizing the financial motivations behind the university’s recent push for “blended” and online learning. Online initiatives have been pushed with a certain amount of rhetoric about “improving quality,” but one has to take such claims with the greatest caution when it is also being assumed that this is “a way to make more money.”

    In one respect, however, the report may be misleading. It is reported that “[Associate Dean Brenda] Ravenscroft said financial benefits weren’t considered when Queen’s first talked about blended learning in 2009.” If this was indeed the associate dean’s claim, her claim is untrue. The exploration of blended learning began earlier, and it was tied from the outset to considerations of reducing costs and generating revenue. In its earliest development at Queen’s, “blended learning” was discussed under the label of “virtualization.” In 2008, Queen’s struck a Virtualization Task Force, which was “charged with examining the potential for use of information technology and electronic media in reducing costs of instruction, alleviating space constraints associated with growing enrolment, and enhancing the quality of the teaching and learning environment at Queen’s” (Virtualization Task Force, Final Report, Aug. 2009, emphasis added). The Task Force promoted trials of video lecture-capture for 2009-10 in BIOL 102, POLS 110, and FILM 240, all large courses, and called for further “pilot projects.” In these pilot projects, online resources were used to supplement (i.e., partially replace) lecture attendance (Faculty of Arts and Science, [FAS] “Response” to Where Next, 15 April 2010, pp. 19-20). That is what FAS now defines as “blended learning.” Moreover, as the FAS “Response” also explains (p. 19), the experiments were supported by the “Principal’s Innovation Fund.” This fund was announced in April 2009 as “a new fund to encourage innovation to help academic and administration units across campus generate revenue and reduce costs,” to “provide seed funding for the best revenue generation or cost reduction ideas” (Principal Announces Innovation Fund, 17 April 2009, emphasis added).

    In fact, by March 2010, and perhaps earlier, the Provost had “granted funding to Arts and Science to develop a business case for the expansion of Continuing and Distance Studies,” to be completed in June 2011 (OnQ, Mar. 2011, p. 8, emphasis added) – i.e., long before Queen’s “Academic Plan” could be completed. Coincidentally, the draft section on blended and online learning that was submitted for inclusion in the Academic Plan (and which documents in detail the financial biases of these activities) was simultaneously excluded from the Plan without explanation. And the “business case,” completed in late summer, still has not been publicly released, and is still being withheld even from members of Senate (see “Queen’s Secret ‘Business Case”).

    In sum, Queen’s has been vigorously pushing blended and online learning in hopes that it “will bring in additional revenue without the University having to spend money on accommodating more students” (as Mr. Hsu has so plainly put it), while simultaneously suppressing critical consideration of the matter from its Academic Planning. If Queen’s cares about its students’ educational experience and its reputation as much as it cares about finding “a way to make more money and not having to build new buildings,” this is all rather serious. It is the more serious in view of the facts (a) that the Province is developing an “Online Institute” for post-secondary education, (b) that Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities is reportedly considering a proposal that three out of five post-secondary credits be earned online, and (c) that Queen’s generally seeks to coordinate its policies with, rather than to shape or criticize, provincial initiatives. As the Principal recently informed the Board of Trustees, “it is important to bear in mind how the university’s decisions may fit with government priorities in order to maximize leverage and support” (“Board of Trustees in brief,” Queen’s News Centre, 12 Mar. 2012).

    I urge faculty and students who are concerned about this matter to read not only the university’s promotional announcements but also my critique of initiatives for blended and online learning, as submitted last July for inclusion in the Academic Plan.

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