In Conversation With Prof KC Li by Dr David Lim
Kam Cheong Li (KC Li) is the Dean of the School of Open Learning, Director of the Institute for Research in Open and Innovative Education, and Director of Research Affairs and Knowledge Transfer at the Hong Kong Metropolitan University. He also serves as Visiting Professor at Middlesex University in the United Kingdom, Consultant of the institution’s Doctorate of Professional Studies Programme, and Visiting Professor at a number of institutions in China. He has obtained three bachelor’s degrees, four master’s degrees and a doctoral degree from renowned universities, including the University of Hong Kong, Peking University and the University of London. He is Editor of the Asian Association of Open Universities Journal (AAOUJ) and has served as Guest Editor for many journals in the field including Interactive Technology and Smart Education, International Journal of Mobile Learning and Organisation and International Journal of Innovation and Learning.
Dr David Lim (DL): Prof Li, thank you for taking time to chat with us at inspired. Going through your staff profile on the Hong Kong Metropolitan University (HKMU) website, one cannot help but to be awed by the breadth of experience you have acquired and the scholarly publications you have put out over the past three decades of your career. One might even say that you are an overachiever with an enviable ability to productively multitask. What drives you as teacher, thinker, scholar, and leader?
To education professionals in many countries, distance education and online education have become synonymous.
Prof KC Li (KCL): You are welcome, David. Feel free to call me KC. All that I do is just to keep doing my best for open education, which is most meaningful. To me, teaching is a noble profession. Since I was a teenager, I had decided to devote myself to education. What teachers do is to assist others to grow, develop, and contribute. Teaching can be done in a broad variety of ways, and advancements in technology have enhanced those ways. Open education has all along been attempting to use new or innovative approaches in learning and teaching. To carry out our educational duties effectively, we should of course use the best available means. The means should be well-supported by objective facts and research. I believe that educators should be involved in research and should keep identifying innovative ways to do their educational work more successfully. These general beliefs guide me in my work.
DL: Your intellectual interests are wide-ranging and include open and flexible education, technology in education, learning analytics, curriculum design, and language genre analysis, to mention but a few. What can you tell us about the unique internal logic that, for you, connects the diversity of subjects you are interested in?
Analytics serves as a tool to help us obtain useful information from data. Yet, we interpret data based on our assumptions.
KCL: I really appreciate that you have studied my background in detail. To me, the first four areas you just mentioned are closely linked. Open education is basically the provision of learning programmes with as few barriers as possible. Another way of calling the minimization of barriers is flexibility. So, flexibility for learners is actually the key to open education. Open education is to a large extent flexible education. This approach of education provision has all along been closely linked to the use of available technology. Effective use of technology is key to the success of open education. In the last decade, we see growing awareness of the power of analytics. With relevant techniques and tools, especially big data technology, broad types of information can be objectively harnessed and deployed to make predictions for enhancing our teaching and educational administration. The design of curricula is at the heart of open education provision. The curriculum of a subject for a group of students pursuing a conventional face-to-face programme must be suitably modified if the same content is to be learned by another group pursuing an open learning programme. My PhD, which was completed 23 years ago, worked on an interface between curriculum design and language genre analysis (which is an area of applied linguistics). So, conducting studies in these research areas is natural for me.
DL: Your long-standing involvement in research on open education and related development affords you a rounded understanding and special insights into the state of affairs, including those relating to trends in research, knowledge production, teaching and learning, and educational technology. With the benefit of hindsight, what can you say about how the intellectual world in the foregoing context has evolved over the decades, where we are now, and where you think we are heading?
KCL: There have been many changes. Let us talk about just three of them this time. First, over the decades open education has evolved and transformed its operations to a large extent. The ways of delivering courses and what to conduct research on have also evolved at the same time. Decades ago, when institutions started using audio and video materials for teaching, there was growing research on multimedia use. At that time, we used cassette tapes and gradually moved to using CD-ROMs. When we switched to online course delivery, there was growing research on using online material. Now, much of our research is on the use of the latest available technology for teaching, such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR), and various computing tools.
Second, the difference between the delivery of conventional education and that of open education is getting blurred. With increasing adoption of e-learning, the popularity of MOOCs, and the recent pandemic pushing all educational activities online, there has been increasing use of distance learning methods in conventional education. To education professionals in many countries, distance education and online education have become synonymous. As a result, not only are researchers in open education institutions conducting studies in open education, an increasing number of researchers in conventional institutions are doing the same, too.
Third, what I see as most important is quality improvement. Research is now generally regarded as an integral part of the operations of open education institutions. Growing attention has been paid to research. In the past, a very large proportion of studies were descriptive and their discussions were far from critical. A lot of papers had few references, reflecting a lack of support from relevant studies. Now, the situation has very much improved. The methods adopted for research have become more varied and rigorous. In developing countries, the improvement has been more evident in the last decade or so. I am delighted to see that we are moving in the right direction.
However, though we see great value in open education, in various parts of the world, open education is seen as supplementary to the conventional, or face-to-face, mode of education. The resources allocated to open education is inferior to those for conventional education. Lack of resources means a lower capability for development. At the same time, more recently, we see growing attention among open education institutions on research and publication of research papers. This is encouraging. I very much encourage institutions to emphasize and devote resources to research and have their development guided by research.
DL: Learning analytics is an exciting innovation that you have researched and published on. A paper which you co-authored borrows from Siemens and Gašević to define learning analytics as the “measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of data about learners and their contexts, for purposes of understanding and optimizing learning and the environments in which it occurs.”
How extensively has learning analytics been applied in Asia, especially in the context of online and distance learning (ODL)? How much impact has it had on the delivery of ODL in Asia? Would you say that it will be an inevitable and integral part of the future of ODL?
KCL: First of all, when we talk about Asia, it will be good for us to keep in mind that Asia covers a large number of highly diverse countries. Some are more technologically advanced and some are less, and some are stronger in certain areas and some weaker. Regarding analytics, I feel rather strongly that we talk too much about it, instead of actually doing it. Many have yet to incorporate analytics into their operations. Some researchers who have been working with learning analytics publish their research on it. Yet, on the whole, there has not been much on analytics from ODL institutions. A quick look at recent years’ papers in the Asian Association of Open Universities Journal (AAOUJ) will reveal this.
DL: In your view, what are the potential ethical dangers of learning analytics? How would you respond to Prinsloo’s argument that, as a structuring device, learning analytics is “not neutral” but “informed by current beliefs about what counts as knowledge and learning, coloured by assumptions about gender/race/ class/capital/literacy and in service of and perpetuating existing or new power relations”? Prinsloo’s argument appears in his vividly titled paper “Fleeing from Frankenstein’s Monster and Meeting Kafka on the Way: Algorithmic Decision- Making in Higher Education” (2017).
KCL: I really appreciate your preparation for this interview. This reflects the high quality of your work. The argument you just highlighted is in line with what the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, said more than a century ago: “There are no facts, only interpretations”. From a certain perspective, this is true. Analytics serves as a tool to help us obtain useful information from data. Yet, we interpret data based on our assumptions. People from different backgrounds or playing different roles may derive different implications from the same set of data. Within an institution, staff with different roles could gain different insights from the same data. Therefore, being able to consider data from diverse perspectives is very important in our work on data, including analytics.
DL: Drawing on your experience in multiple domains, can you share with us your thoughts on the relationship between the field of research in higher education in Asia, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, research in online and distance higher education in Asia? How much overlap is there between the two in inter-field scholarly engagement and exchange? Or do they exist in relative independence from each other?
KCL: We know well that there are substantially more conventional institutions than open education institutions. There is no surprise that much of, or the majority of, research in higher education is done by researchers in conventional institutions on issues and questions they see as important. In addition, open education institutions are generally teaching-oriented institutions rather than research ones. As a result, there is very much more research on higher education from conventional institutions. It is therefore natural that, in Asia, the field of research in higher education and that in distance higher education exist rather separately. Yet, both cite each other as references. Since the border between conventional, online or distance education is getting blurred, they seem to be getting closer and closer.
DL: I find it intriguing that what began as the Open University of Hong Kong [OUHK] in 1989 has evolved into the Hong Kong Metropolitan University [HKMU] in 2021, the latter now offering both full-time and part-time programmes. This reminds me of what Alan Tait argues in his 2018 paper published in the AAOUJ, “Open Universities: The Next Phase”, that “there is no guaranteed place for Open Universities [OUs] in the landscape of higher education: it will have to be earned once again,” and that marginal innovation will not suffice to provide OUs with “what they need to validate their identity for the next period of say 15 or so years.”
Is there merit in reading the OUHK’s evolution into the HKMU as bearing testament to Tait’s argument about the need for radical reinvention for continued validation? How do you envision OUs in Asia reinventing themselves in the next two decades?
Two decades ago, at the government’s request, OUHK started offering fulltime programmes. The great demand meant our full-time face-to-face programmes grew quickly and several years ago, our students in full-time programmes outnumbered those in distance learning programmes.
KCL: Right, David, it is very true that an institution should understand its role. Also, it is important to note that its role and the expectations on it may change with time. When OUHK was established, there were only two other universities in Hong Kong and only about three percent of high-school leavers could enter university. There was a great need for offering working adults a second chance in higher education, as an overwhelming majority of them did not get their first chance. Higher education in Hong Kong then developed quickly and now the majority of graduates from high schools may receive higher education. The number of adults who need a second chance in higher education has substantially reduced. Two decades ago, at the government’s request, OUHK started offering full-time programmes. The great demand meant our full-time face-to-face programmes grew quickly and several years ago, our students in full-time programmes outnumbered those in distance learning programmes. This is why OUHK thought it had to be renamed to reflect the change, though the institution will keep embracing open education as part of its DNA. It also decided to further develop open education through its new School of Open Learning, and I was appointed the inaugural Dean of this School.
I fully agree that open education institutions should keep working diligently to develop and define their own future. However, while I agree with Professor Tait’s point, I am not entirely sure whether “reinvent” is the best word. To reinvent something often means that we change it so that it appears to be new or different. We will, of course, not only make ourselves look new, but we should also convince others, especially our stakeholders, that we will genuinely keep renewing ourselves and have important educational roles to play to benefit the community.
DL: In the previous issue of inspired, we featured a conversation with Prof Tian Belawati in which she shares that, in the early days of the AAOUJ, it was a challenge to obtain sufficient numbers of quality papers to publish and that the journal had to postpone publication several times because of that. The situation today is different, she says. As she puts it, now, “we have to be really selective as we receive a lot of articles.” As Editor of the AAOUJ since 2014, you are in a privileged position to see how the journal has evolved.
How has the AAOUJ evolved, in your view? In general, would you say that the manuscript submissions which the journal has been receiving and have selectively published caught up with or are running ahead of the practices and concerns on the ground? How would you like to see the AAOUJ evolve in its coverage of open and distance education in Asia and beyond?
KCL: With the support from the President of the AAOU, Prof Ojat Darojat, as well as the former Presidents, especially Prof Tian Belawati, and Prof Melinda Bandalaria, the journal has gradually matured. We now need to handle a very large number of submissions. For each manuscript that the journal asks to be revised, a lot of time and effort is invested to guide the authors in improving their articles. The AAOUJ is now well indexed and has been included in Scopus. The editorial team is working diligently towards further enhancing its quality. Research articles generally run ahead of the practices and concerns on the ground. Like other entities or institutions, as our conversation touched on a while ago, making sure that a proper role is served is important. A journal should also keep identifying its role and allow itself to evolve so that it functions effectively. Besides offering a quality platform for Asian researchers in the field of open education to publish their research, the AAOUJ may play a role in promoting high-quality research and guiding researchers to work on areas that are most needed.
DL: English is the main language of scholarly conversations on online and distance higher education (ODHE). Many Asian scholars are perfectly at home with the language in speech and writing. But for many others, for whom English is a second or foreign language, accessing literature in English and writing in English, while not insurmountable, is a major challenge. To what extent do you see this as an issue for Asian scholars residing in Asia wanting to partake in knowledge production on ODHE? Are you of the opinion that conversations in ODHE in languages other than English ought to be actively incentivised? Will the use of multiple languages likely lead to the balkanisation of ODHE discourse?
KCL: Not having a common language could be a barrier to communication. However, it does not seem likely to me that using different languages for open and distance education will lead to balkanisation. Scholars in Asia may use their first or local language to disseminate their research. Yet, sharing research with as many readers as possible is also important. This is also related to how we work out the impact of a piece of research. Therefore, while platforms like journals and conferences operating in local languages have their unique value, platforms in a language for international communication also serve an important role.
DL: Research on online and distance higher education (ODHE) in Asia encompasses teaching and learning, curriculum, policy, and other matters within its ambit. As a field, it is relatively niche and incipient. This may well be one of the reasons why research output on ODHE is preponderantly positivist. By that I mean it tends to be empirical rather than critical in the reflexive postpositivist sense of tending to deploy critical theory and immanent critique to offer alternative views and to unsettle and provoke critical rethinking of orthodoxy. The postpositivist paradigm is far from niche in the larger scheme of academia and knowledge production. It informs such wide-ranging fields as critical education studies, critical pedagogy, critical psychology, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and queer theory. To be sure, positivist ODHE research is essential and I say this as someone with postpositivist training. But the virtual lack of postpositivist perspectives seems to me like a missed opportunity to diversify scholarly ways of thinking and writing about Asian ODHE.
What are your thoughts on the foregoing scenario – one that positivist-inclined practitioners of ODHE in Asia are, I have found, inclined to not register? How would you account for the under-representation of postpositivist perspectives in Asian ODHE? What do you think of efforts to heterogenize perspectives on Asian ODHE?
KCL: You have given me cause to consider issues from more of a philosopher’s viewpoint. Positivists tend to emphasize quantitative research methods, and postpositivists consider both quantitative and qualitative methods to be valid. I certainly see that both approaches are equally valid. The AAOUJ accepts research papers that adopt any valid methods, including quantitative and qualitative ones.
DL: Scholars like Jisun Jung and Hugo Horta who study higher education in Asia invariably underscore the central role of governments in shaping and driving the growth of higher education in the region which is far from homogeneous. Introducing instability into the equation are internal state politics and geopolitics, among other factors. How do you see higher education in Asia evolving in the coming decades?
KCL: Governments’ allocation of resources often plays a key role in deciding how institutions work. While government resources are important, it is important for educational institutions to broaden their sources for income and other resources. We are aware that many strong institutions, especially in the States, do not rely much on funding from the government and they obtain sufficient income from tuition fees, donations or other sources. As the world is becoming more open and especially so for education, we could also be more open when exploring where to get new resources. Many sources that we have not attempted before could in fact be explored.
DL: KC, thank you for sharing your views with us.
KCL: You are most welcome. You have given me many very interesting questions. I really appreciate your preparation for the interview. Together with my colleagues, I sincerely look forward to a close link with OUM.