Production Value in Online Higher Education

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In 2012, during a rare moment of clarity, I wondered aloud about the possible impact on institutional reputation of academics choosing to post their instructional materials online, including lecture videos, for all the world to see. While the efforts by MIT (starting in 2001) and others in the “Open Movement” served as strong social statements about the importance of access to education, they also put the university on display in new ways and to an unprecedented degree. University brass were not typically aware of the practice, despite its potential significance.

Soon after, MOOCs (a la Coursera and Udacity) arrived and took the potential impact of freely distributed instructional content on reputation to a whole new level, quickly establishing these online courses as a very public platform for inter-institutional competition. As anticipated, the investment in MOOCs by universities climbed quickly, some reaching the $400,000 mark – roughly 2000 percent more than your typical online course. Production value leapt; lighting and sound quality improved, and lectures were no longer freestyle.

Taking Course Design Seriously

We can interpret the rise in production value of MOOCs as a sign of what’s to come for all of online higher education, or as merely an aberration – a by-product of the one-upmanship that characterized the response by elite institutions to the onset of MOOC-mania. I would argue that it’s the former – for two reasons.

First, higher production value and, more generally, a thoughtful, deliberate, and rigorous approach to course design, remains an untapped opportunity in higher education. Most institutions continue to approach online course design as they have classroom education: the responsibility for course design and development falls largely on the shoulders of lone instructors with limited time, insufficient resources and incentives. Budgets are laughably small. Consequently, most institutions have been unable to truly leverage the possibilities of the medium. Too many courses still rely on repurposed static classroom materials and an incoherent pastiche of free content pulled from a variety of sources.

But this won’t last. Enough institutions are beginning to recognize the limitations of what now constitutes the “traditional online course” and are beginning to take course design more seriously – improved production value is part and parcel of this change. Better course designs that incorporate real-time feedback, learning analytics, instructional games and other techniques will generate better outcomes, improve retention and from a purely market-perspective, enable the to create a meaningful difference in increasingly competitive, but homogeneous market of learning opportunities.

From Providing Access to Knowledge to Designing Learning

The inevitability of higher production value also stems from long-term changes in access to instructional materials.

The ability of individuals to learn when and how they want independently of educational institutions continues to grow. Resources for learning outside of universities are increasingly easy to find, curate, and of better quality. In light of this broad trend, the institution of higher education will necessarily need to place greater emphasis on its capacity to design and deliver high quality learning experiences. The historical emphasis on serving as knowledge creators will need to be complemented by an equal commitment toward providing the highest and most productive form of learning, as well.

Changes to access to instructional experiences and materials has been migrating away from single institutions since the first printing press, of course, but the growth of the Internet has sent it into overdrive. The trend is not restricted to education. Family physicians, for instance, have had to become accustomed during the past decade to patients arriving for their appointments with medical information in-hand, detailing possible medical interventions – pulled freely from the Internet. Growing consciousness of these changes is one of the factors behind the now common “is college worth it” debate currently making the rounds in North America.

Son of MOOC. Or Meets People Magazine

Masterclass is a VC-backed start-up in (surprise) San Francisco that offers short online courses on popular topics like acting, photography, and creative writing. (Apparently, there’s a shortage of qualified actors, photographers and creative writers.) Each course costs $90 USD and includes video, interactive assignments and social learning opportunities – both online and face-to-face.

While Masterclass seems far removed from the concerns of higher education, its’ similarities to MOOCs offers us a unique vantage point for thinking through changes in production value as well as how instructional resources are typically evaluated.

Production Value +

The first and most obvious similarity is the emphasis on production value, which Masterclass takes to a whole new level. The current crop of Masterclass courses are directed by professional film-makers: Jay Roach (“Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents”) and two-time Academy Award winning documentarian, Bill Guttentag. The course materials are predictably beautiful.

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Privileging the Source in Lieu of Evidence of Learning

The second and less obvious similarity is the way in which both MOOCs and Masterclass rely on the status of the source of instruction to define the perception of instructional value.

The affiliation with elite institutions is fundamental to the appeal and newsworthiness of MOOCs, as was the choice to present these courses as more or less equivalent to the “real courses” taught within the institution (minus tuition). News services and pundits took notice because MOOCs appeared to offer a desirable, expensive, and scare resource for free – “Elite Education for the Masses“, Washington Post, 2012. Had these MOOCs come from, for example, a consortium of community colleges in South Dakota, or not been understood as consistent with the actual courses taught at these institutions, they would have generated far less attention.

Likewise, Masterclass leverages the brand names of its instructors – in this case, celebrities from the world of film, sports, and the arts. The first crop of Masterclass courses are taught by Dustin Hoffman (actor), Serena Williams (tennis pro), James Patterson (author), and Annie Liebowitz (photographer).  (While it’s highly unlikely that the celebrities had anything to do with the design of the instruction, this is how the courses are marketed.)

In both MOOCs and Masterclass, then, the value of the courses is based to a considerable degree on the source of the instruction. And in presenting themselves in this fashion, these two examples inadvertently underline the unsophisticated way in which instructional quality is commonly evaluated in and outside of higher education. MOOCs were received well because of the status of the institutions with which they were affiliated. But this status is not typically the result of instructional quality, but exclusivity (admissions and tuition levels) and the research productivity of the faculty. These institutions enrol the most academically gifted students and, as Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen has noted, his home institution spends far less on improving instruction each year than does the University of Phoenix. Similarly, the status of celebrities leading the Masterclass courses is not the result of their success as educators or coaches. They are practitioners and each one studies under leading coaches, trainers and educators.

In each of these two examples, consumers are making evaluations of instructional quality on the basis of factors only indirectly related to instructional quality. This isn’t because consumers of education are daft, rather, it’s because in the absence of easy access to relevant information about instructional value, we tend to turn to proxies of quality to guide our decisions, what Lloyd Armstrong, Provost Emeritus at USC described as “surrogates of quality“.

Consumers need to become more adept at identifying instructional value. But this will require institutions to learn how to measure the impact of different instructional strategies on learning outcomes and to use this information to inform to guide the development of better strategies. Yes, educational quality is harder to measure than most, but not impossible – particularly in the online environment. Intelligently designed learning analytics, for example, can now provide us with accurate and relevant information to enable better assessments of true quality in learning.


Keith Hampson is part of the team at Acrobatiq Inc

Notes on Internet Economics and Online Higher Ed (First in Series)

book and pen2
The second piece of the series, “Internet Economics” can be found hereScale, Economies of Scale and Online Higher Education. 
The third piece of the series, “Internet Economics”, can be found here: The Network Effect and Online Higher Education. 
It’s not often you hear a reference to the “economics of the internet” at conferences held on digital teaching and learning, or at one of the workshops offered on campus about “how to teach online”. That’s a shame. Although the effects of internet economics have yet to be fully realized in higher education, there are very few factors that will have greater impact on the institution in the coming years. Figuring out how to best navigate these influences is a core challenge of our time.
In other sectors, the internet’s impact on costs is familiar terrain. Jonathan Levin of Stanford summed up this influence succinctly:
” . . . the internet has lowered a range of economic costs: the cost of creating and distributing certain types of products and services, the cost of acquiring information about these goods, the cost of collecting and using data on consumer preferences and behaviour.” Jonathan Levin
But the influence of economics goes well beyond costs, distribution, and the processes of acquiring information. Economic factors ultimately influence what gets produced, how it’s produced, where, and by whom. Evidence of the huge impact of internet economics are clear in a handful of new, internet-native organizations:
“Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.” Tom Goodwin. 
Few organizations seem more removed from the above examples of location-neutral, born-to-be-flipped, consumer-facing enterprises than the institution of higher education. While there are a few institutions and organizations in higher education that are clearly Internet-enabled – I’m thinking here of Minerva, WGU, and Coursera – the vast majority of institutions have had their organizational structures and practices held in place by several especially resilient forces: regulatory systems (accreditation, student loans), tradition, social conventions, and the effects of decentralized management.
But there are signs that the internet economy is beginning to more broadly infiltrate higher education. New learning providers are taking advantage of the economics of content creation and distribution to offer inexpensive alternatives to higher ed – some of these are being integrated into traditional institutions. MOOCs have provided a concrete example of what a widely distributed, rationalized content model might look like – providing scale on a level not seen since the heydays of textbook publishers. Learners are gaining access to more information about institutions to help them measure the value of different institutions; and more.
It’s important we develop a more in-depth and nuanced understanding of the unique properties of internet economics. This will help us leverage its unique properties to meet our goals and, when needed, avoid its influences for the same reason.
In the next few posts, we’re going to address a series of concepts that are intertwined with the Internet economics, including:
– scale and economies of scale
– network effect
– mass customization
– freemium
– unbundling
– disintermediation
Each of these concepts were in use prior to the Internet; but the economics of the internet have made them more common and/or important. We’ll address each in terms of how they relate to aspects of higher education – starting with scale and scalability in our next post.
The second piece of the series, “Internet Economics” can be found hereScale, Economies of Scale and Online Higher Education. 
The third piece of the series, “Internet Economics”, can be found here: The Network Effect and Online Higher Education. 

Notes: The Network Effect and Online Higher Education

The first piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: Internet Economics and Online Higher Education. 
The second piece from the series, “Internet Economics” can be found hereScale, Economies of Scale and Online Higher Education. 


Most people are familiar with economies of scale, which we discussed in a recent post. The Network Effect, sometimes called “Metcalfe’s Law”, is less well-known, but equally relevant if we want to understand how the unique economics of the Internet are influencing higher education.

Economies of scale is concerned with the impact of increases in volume on cost – specifically, cost per unit. Network Effects, on the other hand, concerns the impact of volume on the perceived value of the good or product. When the Network Effect is present and positive, the value of the good or product increases as more people use it. Social media is the clearest example: the value of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other peer-to-peer technologies increases as more people participate. As participation rises, the volume of interactions, possibilities for new connections, and the range of available content increases – in turn, so does the value to each participant.

The Network Effect and Online Higher Education

At first glance, the Network Effect seems to have little relevance to higher education. Value in higher education is conventionally thought to correspond to low volume: smaller classes and more exclusive institutions, for instance. But the continued migration to Internet-based learning and services in higher education has the potential to change the dynamics between volume and value. Consider, for example, MOOCs. Critics argue that students won’t learn or persist with an educator-to-student ratio of 50,000 to one. But advocates point out that by using peer-to-peer learning in this context, we may be able to actually complement the traditional educator-student model. If properly designed, an increase in the number of students participating in the MOOC will actually increase its value to each student.

Ironically, the application of social media to higher education often fails to leverage the Network Effect, highlighting the importance of context on the value of technologies.  Social media thrives when there are thousands, if not millions, of users within a single, overarching community. The high volume of users provides online communities with enough activity and content to ensure that each user finds what and who they want with sufficient frequency to make participation worthwhile. Twitter and Linked In now have over 300 million active users. Higher education instruction, by design, typically restricts participation to a single class (e.g. 40–100 students per course). As mentioned, exclusivity and small class sizes are equated with quality.

When More is Better

Not surprisingly, the concept of Network Effects is most often often associated with products and services that involve networks in which people or objects are connected in some fashion, such as telephone systems and, as mentioned, social media. But many writers expand the concept to include other types of product or services in which the value for each user increases as the number of users climbs – regardless of whether the people or objects are connected. As the number of people and organizations that use Microsoft Excel increases, for example, the application becomes more valuable for job-seekers.

Learning analytics is an example of this expanded use of the Network Effect. As we define it at Acrobatiq, learning analytics concerns the granular, real-time measurement and estimation of student learning. When guided by a deep understanding of learning theory, this use of technology generates new insights into what leads to better learning outcomes. The data our clients capture concern a single student. And this is the core of its value:  it provides the necessary insights needed for accurate customization and evidence-backed continuous improvement. But new kinds of insights can also be generated by aggregating data across a larger number of learners. By reviewing student performance data across a number of institutions we can identify patterns based, for example, on socio-economic status or high school GPA. This kind of information is an important aid to institutional strategy (e.g. recruiting tactics, financial support, student services), and better government policy and funding.


The first piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: Internet Economics and Online Higher Education. 
The second piece from the series, “Internet Economics” can be found hereScale, Economies of Scale and Online Higher Education. 


Scale, Economies of Scale and Online Higher Education



The first piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: Internet Economics and Online Higher Education. 
The third piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: The Network Effect and Online Higher Education. 


The “iron triangle” of cost, quality and access in higher education has seemed, at times, unbreakable. The sector has frequently operated under the assumption that improving one of the three objectives – access, quality or price  – is necessarily at the expense of one or both of the others. Like health care,  costs in higher education rise faster than in other industries where technology can be more easily deployed to increase productivity.

Breaking the iron triangle has become more pressing issue for higher education’s stakeholders as student debt hits record highs, institutional costs rise faster than inflation, and access to higher education becomes a social and economic imperative for nations struggling with challenges of global competition.

“We can’t allow higher education to be a luxury in this country. It’s an economic imperative that every family in America has to to be able to afford.”

President Barack Obama, February 27, 2012.

In this context, the task of finding smart ways to “scale-up” and improve economies of scale is generating more attention. Historically, institutions of higher education have used a number of tactics to increase scale, including:

  • Large, lower-level courses that enrol hundreds of students at a time. While much maligned, the “lecture” course is very economical;
  • Greater reliance on adjunct/sessional instructors, which allows institutions to adjust supply quickly as demand rises and falls, at a far lower cost that full-time faculty;
  • Mega-universities. While not common in Western nations (save for Open University UK), these institutions, according to an analysis by Sir John Daniel, have a lower per-student cost;
  • By simply creating more universities: many Western nations funded a new crop of all-purpose universities in the mid-twentieth centuries to serve the first of the baby boomers and feed an increasingly post-industrial workforce.
  • Participation in consortia with the hope that sharing resources, rather than going it alone, reduces costs. (My own analysis of online consortia found that this objective often remains elusive.)


The impact of technology-mediated learning in higher education on costs, quality and access has been, to date, moderate. While the online format has added significant value, particularly through convenience for adult and working learners, it has not led to downward pressure on tuition or significantly increased participation rates. And certainly online education’s scalability pales in comparison to the new breed of Internet-born companies we hear about so often these days. (Instagram was sold for 1 billion dollars when it had only 13 employees.)  For our purposes here, let’s set aside the terrifying labour implications of this particular example.

The challenge of scale in higher education is not merely technological – it’s organizational and social, as well. While achieving scale is fundamental to most enterprises, it can be deleterious in higher education. Increasing access and reducing price can actually hamper an institution’s value in the marketplace.  Value is based, in part, on maximizing exclusivity: an institution’s reputation typically increases when it admits fewer applicants than competing institutions. When we tell friends that our daughter “got into a good school” we mean, in effect, a school that is relatively difficult to get in to. The recent statements by Peter Thiel about the unique economics of higher ed, who made his fortune through highly scalable Internet-based businesses, are amusing in this context:

“[Higher education admissions is] a crazy tournament. It’s a zero-sum tournament. If you were the president of Harvard or Stanford and you wanted to get a lynch mob of students, alumni, and faculty to come after you, what you should say is something like this: We live in this much larger, more global world. We offer this great education to everybody. So we’re going to double or triple our enrolment over the next 15 to 20 years. And people would all be furious, because the value of the degree comes from massive exclusion. And what you’re really running is something like a Studio 54 night club that’s got an incredibly long line outside and a very small number of people let inside. It’s branded as positive sum, everybody can learn, but the reality is that it is deeply zero sum.”

The same claim can be made about price: Increasing tuition levels can increase exclusivity, which in turn, increases perceptions of value. New York University and George Washington University have taken this tactic to heart according to Daniel Luzer (see The Prestige Racket).


The good news is that educational technology has matured to the extent that it can now have a major impact on costs, access, and quality.  It scales. Some of the more promising applications of technology include:

  • Software that generates automated, real-time feedback to students on their performance. This instructional technique frequently increases student retention of the curriculum and ensures that the student doesn’t proceed to the next unit of curriculum with misconceptions about the curriculum;
  • Sharing common instructional content across as many courses and programs as is suitable in order to ensure (a) the lowest possible cost per student and (b) access to the highest possible quality (at a given price);
  • Adaptive, personalized learning that identifies and responds to student differences – an instructional tactic that’s not feasible in most mid to large size courses due to the demands it places on instructional staff;
  • Course authoring applications with instructional intelligence embedded within the software. LMS typically don’t seek to guide instructors/authors toward best (better practices). But new, more sophisticated applications have been developed that make it possible to generate learning activities that are beyond the capacity of what most instructors can achieve independently. (In this respect, educational technology will become more similar to other, time and labour saving technologies, such as desktop accounting software that, for example, directs the user toward adhering to accounting standards and rules, or blogging software like WordPress that makes it possible for content creators with stunted design sensibilities to create beautiful, easy-to-navigate sites.)

Most importantly, each of these applications of technology reflect what educators have told us is valuable to students. The technology isn’t dictating the instructional method; rather, it reflects our best thinking and practices while allowing us to scale education, one of most important and precious resources.


The first piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: Internet Economics and Online Higher Education. 
The third piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: The Network Effect and Online Higher Education. 

Online Learning at VSU: An Interview with Art Fridrich


Art Fridrich is the first Director of Distance Education at Virginia State University, where he’s charged with bringing courses and programs from the classroom to the online environment. Art also works with faculty members to change the in-class experience for students. Prior to his role at VSU, he spent over 30 years in higher education as a consultant, administrator and technologist with over 70 colleges and universities in the US and abroad. 


Q. The common perception is that HBCUs have been less aggressive about creating online and hybrid programs. Is this a strategic decision?

This is a common perspective that I’ve heard many times. However, I believe that this thought might be somewhat misplaced. Nationally, there are 106 institutions that have the designation of an HBCU. Of those, a little over 30 percent offer at least one online program. The institutions that comprise this mix includes Tugaloo College, a private institution with less than 1000 students, who offers one online program to North Carolina A&T, a 10,000 student public institution with thirteen certificate and degree programs. The two institutions offering the most programs online are Hampton University, a private institution and Tennessee State University, a public institution, which are offering 20 programs online. In the end, when you consider size and other factors, I believe HBCU’s are delivering a comparable number of online programs to other institutions.

With this being said, there is certainly tremendous room for further growth, not only among HBCU’s but in general. Regarding the HBCU community, there are likely many factors that contribute to what may be perceived as stunted growth that might be encapsulated under the moniker of “strategic decision.”

Q. Should technology play a bigger role at HBCU’s? 

Even as a technocrat, I do not personally see technology in and of itself as a game changer. This is illustrated by the fact that I can’t begin to come up with the amount of technology that has been acquired by institutions during my career and shelved prior to or after implementation due to a lack of audience for the product.

In my mind, it is the role of a university’s administration and faculty to set into motion the evolution or transformation of the academy, embrace this change and then to adopt the appropriate technologies required to facilitate this change. For some institution’s, HBCU’s or otherwise, this already exists and it frankly isn’t difficult to identify them when looking. For others, there may be a need to reexamine their reason for existence, determine whether they need to begin developing a culture of change and then adopt the technology that will facilitate their vision of the future.

Q. Competency-based education has taken off in the last year. How do you see CBE fitting into the larger higher ed landscape? 

For an educational model that is still in its online infancy, I find myself as a big proponent of CBE. Nationwide, over 30 million adults have taken some and 4 million of those have completed at least two years of college. For even a portion of these learners, the ability to reenter the academy and apply a portion of their life experiences towards their completion will not only enhance their growth potential moving forward, but likely contribute to the reduction in the shortage of college graduates the nation now faces. For traditional students, CBE has the potential to address a major dilemma we currently face in education. Specifically, our classes are filled with students of varying readiness for the class they are enrolled. As such, the instructor is left to determine which population to address in the course, which leaves lesser prepared students by the wayside or better prepared students bored and unfulfilled. By focusing in on the level of knowledge acquired we rip down the barriers of time and types of student to provide just in time education.

Q. What areas of instructional technology do you find most promising as of 2015? 

With proliferation of VC infused vendors across a broad range of niches, that’s a difficult one to answer. So here’s my sense at this moment – MOOCs, Adaptive Learning and Competency Based Learning.

With MOOCs, I may see their role somewhat differently than others. I believe they have started to be and will continue to be the incubator for new education technologies. With the sheer numbers of students enrolled, regardless of motive, MOOC outcomes provide the most significant environment for quantitatively assessing the role a technology plays in the outcome of a student.

Although the latter two have a few years behind them, I don’t sense that they’ve come anywhere close to reaching their apex in the market yet. With Adaptive Learning, we have a large number of resource and platform based solutions, which I suspect will take five years or so before the technology settles and the market corrects itself to a supportable number. With CBE, we have seen explosive growth in the institutions adopting it and consultancies supporting it, but we (or at least I) haven’t seen the same explosion in technologies, beyond that of AL and proprietary institutional software.


Dr. Keith Hampson is part of the team at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University Venture.

The Trajectories of the Fourth Estate and Instructional Media

The rise of “free” content may be shaping higher education and news journalism in similar ways. 

Note: The first instalment on this topic can be found here: Music Recording, News Journalism, and Higher Education.


Writers concerned with the future of higher education frequently point to the music recording and news industries as evidence of what’s in store for higher education. Apparently, the change won’t be pleasant.

As described in a previous post, these forecasts for higher education typically draw on the intertwined concepts of “disintermediation” and “unbundling”. It’s argued that learners will increasingly bypass universities to learn directly from other, direct-to-consumer providers (i.e. disintermediation) and they’ll assemble (i.e. unbundle) their own, unique portfolio of learning experiences (e.g. individual courses, nano-degrees).

There’s much to like about this vision from a purely instructional point of view. If well executed, it puts more choices in front of learners and enables a new degree of personalization. Examples of non-collegiate providers that might reflect this vision include General Assembly, Fullbridge, and Codecademy.

But the comparison to the music and news industries tends to understate the degree to which individual learners are restricted from seeking out and assembling educational experiences according to their own criteria. Whereas consumers of music and journalism are free to make up their own minds as to what constitutes good value, what constitutes “educated” is defined by social conventions, regulatory and loan systems, and, of course, employers. Therefore, determinations of what constitutes good value in education can’t be made unilaterally. New and more flexible forms of credentials will continue to become more widely accepted, but the processes of disintermediation and unbundling will unfold far more slowly in education than in other sectors.

Scaling Back High-End Journalism

There is, however, an alternative parallel that exists between higher education and, in particular, the news industry. It springs from the unique economics of the Internet and the ways in which it has expanded the number of content sources, role of free content, and the sustainability of relatively expensive content.

Revenue in the news industry has declined sharply during the last decade. While consumption of news remains high, the Internet has expanded the number of providers, and dispersed advertising revenue more widely. Many major news organizations have been forced to reduce costs.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 12.37.53

Funding of relatively expensive types of reporting has been especially hard-hit. Journalism that takes longer to produce, involves a larger and/or more experienced team of professionals, and requires substantial research is obviously more costly.  The social and political implications of this change are considerable. Nicholas Carr, a longtime analyst of the relationship between society and technology, believes that the Internet has ultimately weakened professional journalism:

“If we can agree that the internet, by altering the underlying economics of the news business, has thinned the ranks of professional journalists, then the next question is straightforward: has the net created other modes of reporting to fill the gap? The answer, alas, is equally straightforward: no.” Nicholas Carr

Provocateur Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur and The Internet is Not Enough, argues that the rise of free content by non-professionals is undermining the quality of journalism and other fields.

“What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune . . .  “The new winners — Google, YouTube, MySpace, Craigslist, and the hundreds of start-ups hungry for a piece of the Web 2.0 pie — are unlikely to fill the shoes of the industries they are helping to undermine, in terms of products produced, jobs created, revenue generated or benefits conferred. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites ‘aggregate.’ Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave.” Andrew Keen.

Free Instructional Content in Higher Education

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Free content has also come to occupy an important role in higher education. Educators regularly capture free content from the web for use in their courses. Most of this material is found through general web searches (i.e. Google), but a small and growing percentage is found on sites dedicated to free curated instructional content (OpenStax, Merlot). In limited instances, educators take steps to share content they’ve created on these sites, as well.

The vast majority of free, publicly available content built expressly for instructional use in higher education is developed in a DIY fashion – by instructors working independently, drawing on a limited range of skills, and supported by minimal investment.

Although the Instructor may intend to share the content with instructors and students at other institutions, the funding model for course development in place at colleges and universities typically is designed according to the assumption that the material will be used only within a single institution for a single course. This limits the investment of talent, time, and money that can be made in each effort, as a limited number of end-users, which subsequently limits the revenue generated from the material (i.e. tuition and grants), which in turn limits the development budget. Despite the social benefits of sharing instructional content, institutions are not designed to underwrite the instructional costs of other institutions, or inclined, I suspect.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 14.52.51
Source: BC Open Campus

As a result, the free instructional content built for use in higher education tends to be limited to simple lecture video, home-made graphics, and text – the types of materials that this particular resource configuration allows. What this resource configuration doesn’t enable is the development of instructional materials that are more capital-intensive, such as games, adaptive learning, extensive feedback mechanisms, and rich media.

Both types of content are valuable. Both are needed. The danger is that free content may limit the sector’s ability to sustainably produce and distribute more expensive forms of instructional media and software that offer different types of instructional value – types of value that are simply not possible through the DIY model.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 12.40.51
Source: Wall Street Journal

One symptom that this may be occurring is the state of the textbook industry – historically, the source of more third-party instructional material in education. Second-hand textbook sales, piracy, as well as the growing volume of freely available materials are all contributing to declining revenue.

Textbook publishing is organized to enable a relatively high-level of investment in instructional materials. Whereas a open-content initiative may offer a faculty member the chance to produce a new open textbook with a $5,000 grant (often from public sources), a textbook publisher can easily spend 100 times that much on the same effort.

It is entirely possible that open content is built with a larger pool of talent, more time, and far more funding. And it’s not unheard of; examples include The Big History Project, produced by Intentional Futures and funded by the BMGF, and RSA Animate Series, a product of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.

But open content as this time seems to be aligned with an interesting mix of culture, politics and occupational standards that eschews larger projects and celebrates individual, “edu-punk”, DIY-style efforts. Indeed, anti-corporatism is part of its identity (c.f. .Never Mind the Edupunks; or, The Great Web 2.0 Swindle). The antagonistic, “us versus them” stance taken by some advocates of open content regularly targets the traditional publishing industry.

Parallels: High-End Journalism and Instructional Media

We have, then, something of a parallel between the news industry and digital higher education. As citizens we need to ensure that we have ready access to the more substantial, in-depth reporting by experienced professionals, As educators, need to ensure that digital learning is not limited to simple, DIY forms; that we find ways to regularly test, develop and distribute more advanced forms of digital instruction.

The ability of individuals to produce and distribute content – both journalism and education – is one of most positive and important developments in the early 21st century. It expands the range of voices and pushes back against entrenched interests and their perspectives. But we need to be certain that our desire to push-aside corporate and other large scale enterprises doesn’t weaken our capacity to provide students with more sophisticated forms of instructional media that are only possible through more extensive investment, wider pools of talent, and the luxury of time. Improving learning outcomes has proven very difficult, and we need to begin to take fuller advantage of the possibilities of new types of instructional media and software.

Keith Hampson, PhD is part of the team at Acrobatiq.

Transparency, Instructional Content, and Competition


We like to believe that we interpret the world around us objectively, accurately, and consistently. But to a great extent we make sense of the people, objects and virtually everything around us on the basis of the circumstances in which we experience them. Context matters. Art is the classic example. If we take a work of art out from behind the red ropes, away from the quiet guards, and out of the art gallery, the meaning and value of the art may change a great deal. So too might its’ monetary value; in fact it may no longer be interpreted as art at all (c.f. Senie, Harriet).

Context is also crucial in commercial markets. Vendors go to great lengths to control the context in which their products and services are positioned. Television advertisers, for example, avoid placing ads in the middle of programs that address unsettling topics; that evoke emotions and sensibilities that are not supportive of the product being promoted. “The Day After” was a bad made-for-TV movie in the 80s about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the U.S. The film’s producers found it so difficult to attract advertisers that they were forced to run all the ads prior to the point in the film when the nuclear attack occurs. Apparently, convincing people that having fresher breath will make them truly, finally happy is more difficult after witnessing the end of the world.

What, if anything, does this have to do with higher education? Until recently, not much. Historically, higher education has limited what people outside of the institution could access to and, generally, held great control over how people interpreted the institution’s value. Compared to other types of organizations, colleges and universities are like remote islands, “all-inclusive” experiences, in which only enrolled students have access.

Educational Content in New Contexts

But the walls around higher education are becoming more porous; sometimes by design, sometimes not. Piece-by-piece, components of the university experience are becoming knowable outside of the university. Students rate professors on commercial sites like “RateMyProfessor”, universities set up Facebook groups in which all-comers can contribute, and ranking systems by the likes of US News and World Report are becoming common destinations, as well as easier to interpret.

But the most dramatic change involves access to instructional content. The Net is making it easier and, possibly inevitable, for instructional materials — normally held behind password-protected sites — to be available to those outside the institution. This puts the core of the institution on display in a way that we’ve not seen before, opening it up to evaluation and comparison.

We saw this first with OER — open educational resources. Individual instructors uploaded elements of their course materials for public consumption on platforms like MITx, Academic Earth, OpenStax and Merlot. Sharing instructional content publicly was a low-key affair; faculty often made the decision to share content on their own accord. Yet, even early on, we began to see how this sharing of content; this new transparency could lead to surprising repercussions. Even the most prestigious institution was now subject to criticism if what they shared publicly wasn’t well-prepared. For instance, Philip Greenspun did a rather biting minute-by-minute evaluation of a lecture by a high-profile, Ivy League professor, suggesting that it was a wasteful, self-indulgent use of class time.

I first wrote about this trend in early 2012. At that time I suggested that if this trend continued — and there was no reason to think that it wouldn’t — then academic leaders would need to pay more attention to what is being shared, as these course materials ultimately represent and reflect the institution from which they come.

And Then MOOCs

Then . . . MOOCs happened. Suddenly, this small-scale sharing of instructional materials became a very big, very public matter. Not merely of interest within academia, MOOCs became a subject of discussion in the broader public through celebratory articles in The Guardian, New York Times, Huffington Post, and elsewhere (“Free Elite University Education!”). Regardless of their level of interest in online learning to-date, university presidents at elite institutions were now paying rapt attention. They knew that participating in this MOOC frenzy was a key means by which their university was going to define its identity in the broader marketplace of brands. The money spent on MOOCs climbed higher with every editorial in the New York Times or Washington Post. Soon, videographers, make-up artists, lighting crews and even actors were receiving invitations to campus to help create a more polished product.

It would be easy to cynically dismiss this as merely a marketing issue. But if we take a step back, I think we can see this as part of a broader trend toward greater transparency and accountability in higher education. As is the case in other fields, the Internet is increasing the amount of information available to the public. If so inclined, a student can gather an extraordinary amount of information about an institution, its faculty, students and, of course, its scandals. And, clearly, they want this information. Institutions would be best to be prepared.

Keith Hampson, PhD is part of the team at Acrobatiq.


Harriet Senie. Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy. Smithsonian Institution, 2014.