Looking forward with three decades of online education experiences: An Interview with Morten Flate Paulsen

Professor of Online Education
Vice Chair, Board of Trustees, ICDE,
Founder of NooA –the Nordic open online Academy,
Former President of EDEN

ICDE caught up with Morten Flate Paulsen, whose career in the field of online, open and technology enhanced education has spanned over 3 decades. A veteran e-learning expert and advocate, he is most well known for his pioneering advances in the 1980s in Norway which helped lay the foundation for what we today recognise as online education.

Morten Flate Paulsen has participated in a dozen EU projects about online education, held more than 100 lectures at national and international conferences and published more than 100 scientific articles, reports and books about online education. More information …

ICDE interviewed Morten on Wednesday 15 November 2017 at ICDE Headquarters in Oslo, Norway. Morten, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, took the time to reflect on his 30 years’ experience, the important role that ICDE has had on building his own global network of contacts and experiences and then looked forward to what we can expect to see in the future.

Q: Looking back 30 years: How did it start and what was your role?

Personal computers, data communication and conferencing systems opened a world of opportunities

There were two main developments that transformed distance education, and my role was in facilitating and promoting the development of online education by combining these two important elements.

First, and most important, computers began to be connected through data communication and modems. Second, some universities started to develop computer conferencing systems. Together, these two developments helped lay the foundations for online education.

Identifying the potentials

At the time I saw the opportunity to combine data communication and conferencing systems to revolutionise correspondence education. Incidentally, I got my first PC modem in 1985 while I was working at the NKI school of computer science. There, I was part of a team that established the first private computer college in Norway. It was initiated and owned by the NKI correspondence school.

Having seen the potential of combining these two elements and in a position where I was working with computer science students, I engaged two students to develop a system which would become known as EKKO. It was many years before I first heard the term Learning Management System.

Building up the EKKO LMS-  from correspondence education to the start of online education

Developed in the spring of 1986, the EKKO LMS was in essence a computer conference system which allowed students to communicate with each other through email as we know it today, offering a bulletin board functionality and a class roster system. The EKKO LMS was running on an HP3000 mini-computer that was connected to approximately 40 on campus terminals hooked up in two separate computer labs.


The original drawing used to illustrate the functionality of EKKO.

Seeing that the EKKO LMS worked with on campus students, we connected it with modems to see if the system would function with students accessing the system from home. It was finally successfully tested exactly 30 years ago in 1987 on four students who were real, paying, distance learning students in the course “Introduction to Computer Science”.

The EKKO LMS offered the students fast communication with each other and their tutors. They did not need to wait for the mail carrier and they had access to other students. This was revolutionary compared to the current correspondence education.

After the successful test, I convinced the management to test the system on a larger scale. So, in the spring of 1987 three computer science subjects were offered free of charge.

Advertised in Norway’s largest printed newspaper broadsheet, Aftenposten, approximately 20 students enrolled in each of the three online programmes provided. From there, we continued to offer more and more courses with an increasing number of online students.

An early player in the market

Since those early days, I have not found any other European institution that developed an LMS for distance education before us. Neither do I know of anyone who taught an online course in Europe before 1986.

If you are interested in finding out more about the early developments of e-learning and the EKKO LMS, you find a number of articles at https://www.slideshare.net/MortenFP/documents and https://issuu.com/mfpaulsen

Q: What are the most significant changes since then?

Technology to scale up education

The World Wide Web has been crucial for online education. Along with the development of learning management systems, open educational resources, mobile devices and social media, the number of online students increased steadily.

Social media, catered to a new way of working and learning together in social networks. Suddenly, one could work with, study and learn from a network of people outside the classroom. The technological development made it easier to cultivate my theory of cooperative freedom and transparency in online education. Open source solutions and inexpensive cloud services made it easier to establish the virtual school I always wanted. So, five years ago I started NooA – the Nordic open online Academy.

Big data and pedagogical developments

Another element that impacts online learning is Learning Analytics and meaningful use of big data. It can improve adaptive learning and individual learning experiences. I would also like to see more focus on teaching analytics and more innovative and transparent use of data analytics.

The rapid development of technology, faster computers and increased bandwidth allowed for richer use of video and other media. In 1987 we communicated with 300 bits per second modems. Today, mobile phones communicate 3 million times faster through 4G technology. While much has been changed by the advancement of technology, the pedagogy, in my view, has not changed so much.

Online teaching = heavier workloads?

My concern for teacher workload is based on my 1998 dissertation “Teaching techniques for computer-mediated communication where I identified 25 useful online teaching techniques and interviewed 150 teachers in 30 countries about their online teaching experiences. The main findings were that the techniques had high learning outcome, high recommendability, and high workload. The perception of workload varied, however, considerably with technique and context.

If such interviews were conducted today, I would expect many similar responses. Although social media aspect has contributed to the online learning environment with more individuals used to communicating in virtual environments, course designer and teachers are not utilising various techniques as much as they could. There are many opportunities available, but the pedagogy is lagging behind the technological developments.

Q: What do you see as the most important challenges for online and flexible learning educators now?

I always thought that online education would cross national boarders much more than it has, but I still expect that this will happen. However, there are still many challenges that impede this.

The challenges of quality and innovation

On the whole educational establishments have introduced more quality assurance schemes and restrictions that often make it more difficult to gain funding and accreditation for online learning courses. Educational authorities around the world want to ensure high quality based on their traditional concept of quality, coming from traditional school and university systems. This makes it harder for online learning providers to be innovate and competitive. It would probably not be easy to get support if you want to substitute Linear Education with Streaming Education as I ponder at http://www.nooa.no/streaming-education/

Cost effectiveness

We should focus more on cost effectiveness and strive to get more learning for the money. This is important for students who pay tuition fees, institutions that offer education and countries that fund public education. Suitable online education has a huge potential to lower costs without reducing quality. Much of the current online education can be more cost effective, but currently there is too much focus on one to one teaching.

Transparency of online education

We need to be better at sharing learning materials and useful information from and about students, teachers and learning analytics. There are many educational related activities that could be shared more widely. Students can learn a lot from each other if they have access to information about what other students do. Teachers can also learn a lot from each other if they share and make their teaching activities transparent.

OER and sustainability

Issues relating to OER can also be problematic. Traditional and commercial providers of learning resources may face unfair competition. It is nice to have free OER resources, but public funds are often required for maintenance and development of these resources. These funds inevitably tend to run out. The challenge is how to make cost effective OER sustainable.

Q: How can we strengthen the global community and work together?

Learning from the global community

Global communities and networks are important in this field as a lot can be learnt and gained from our international peers.

For example, we received a lot of attention for the EKKO LMS at ICDE events that I attended. This helped me get the grants and contacts I needed to study at Penn State. In addition, ICDE gave me numerous opportunities for networking and meeting key figures in the field of distance and online education. This simply would not have been possible without the global networks ICDE provides.

Predicting the future – what can we expect going forward?

Looking back, I think it was possible to predict many of the developments we have experienced. But, I cannot remember anyone who predicted the immense success and impact of the World Wide Web. Neither can I recall good predictions of the many features and applications that we now have on our mobile phones.

I anticipate that one of the important future breakthroughs will be improved translation services. It will make it much easier to communicate across language barriers. In addition, new technologies such as block chain, can make it harder for students to forge certificates and official documents from educational institutions. This will help online educators to address some of the issues relating to language, credibility and trust across national borders.

As online education becomes more mainstream, competition will grow. More traditional institution will offer fully and blended online education. Hopefully this competition will result in better online education.

ICDE would like to thank Morten for his invaluable work and contributions to the field of online learning. If you have any questions you would like to address to Morten please contact him directly at mfp@nooa.no

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