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Stuck in the 90s: Online Course Design in Traditional Higher Education

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PC, circa 1997

When I entered the field of online higher education way, way back in the dark ages of 1997, the first 56.6 kbps modems were just starting to appear in homes. Online enrolment was a fraction of what it is today. The push to grow online learning was largely faculty-led; few university Strategic Plans included more than a passing reference to online education.

Today, of course, we’re accustomed to reading breathless editorials in mass-market publications like the New York Times about the disruptive power of online learning. University Presidents tell us that online education is a “game changer”. Public intellectuals like Clay Shirky explain that technology is bringing an end to business as usual for higher ed, just as it has for newspapers and the music industry.

Yet in the midst of all this talk of upheaval, one aspect of online higher education has remained virtually unchanged since the 1990s: the way that traditional colleges and universities go about designing, creating, and financing in-house online course development.

Now, as in 1997, individual instructors assume the bulk of the responsibility for course design and development. Support is now often available from an instructional designer and technical staff, but their impact is limited by workplace conventions that encourage faculty to work alone (and staff to let them). Funds for course development are similarly constrained, due to the conventional notion/practice that course materials should be built for use only within the institution from which they came.

While this model of course development may work for classroom education (where the organizational and financial model originated), it places severe limitations on the kinds of digital learning experiences that committed educators can make available to their online students.

Development of more sophisticated forms of digital learning such as personalized instruction driven by analytics, immersive gaming, or the use of rich media, to name but a few possibilities, require a team of specialists, longer development schedules, and considerably more funding than is available in the current approach. Placing the burden on lone educators with minuscule (or non-existent) funding and who are not hired for their strengths in instructional media development is neither logical, nor fair.  But more to the point, it’s a lost opportunity to leverage high-quality course design to drive improvements in learning outcomes.

As a result, students across North America are frequently presented with online courses consisting of repurposed classroom PowerPoint slides, home-made graphics, and an incoherent pastiche of free content from the Net — each element developed for different purposes and pitched at different levels. Worst of all, these online learning experiences are being developed without deep knowledge of the science of how people actually learn most effectively — knowledge, ironically, that universities themselves have generated.

By simply transferring the existing roles, responsibilities and financial model to the online context allowed institutions to quickly “put courses online”. It made the migration to online education relatively painless for the institution, but maintenance of this approach has ultimately limited our capacity to offer our students a more thoughtfully crafted, rigorously developed online course experience.

The classroom style approach to developing online courses took hold not because we thought it was the best way to create a great online learning experience for students, but for the simple fact that it fit with the institution’s existing structure, processes, and culture — all of which are derived from the deeply engrained logic of the classroom model. Nor is the endurance of the classroom model due to the fact that we tried new approaches and found them wanting. There have been great breakthroughs in using new course design strategies by a handful of innovative organizations. Extensive evaluations of Carnegie Mellon University’s “Open Learning Initiative” – from which my organization springs – regularly found that their approach significantly reduced the amount of time it took students to complete courses, while still maintaining or even improving learning outcomes.

Of course, not all aspects of online course design require a team of specialists, a longer development time, and more funding. Some things can be done quickly, cheaply and by individuals with focused skill sets. But those types of instructional materials are not the problem — we’ve got that well in-hand. The challenge now is to find ways for our colleges and universities to build and access those types of instructional experiences that take fuller advantage of the Net’s unique properties to combine data, interaction, media and rigorous instructional design.

We know, for example, that students benefit from having regular opportunities to apply their knowledge as they are learn and then to receive immediate, meaningful feedback on their efforts. But, of course, it’s not possible for lone instructors to produce hundreds of learning activities for each course using the common approach to course design. And it’s even less feasible for the instructor to provide feedback to each and every student in real-time. Similarly, we know that students come to us with very different cognitive and educational baggage; educators have little opportunity to identify and respond to these differences.

But technology can, when built with a deep understanding of how students learn, meet both of these needs. We can build online courses that provide students with hundreds of opportunities to test their knowledge. Using scientifically-based learning analytics, we can provide each learner with immediate, context-specific feedback. We can build software that constantly responds to each student’s cognitive and educational differences and serves up activities that address these differences.

These kinds of learning tools take time, money and talent to create. They can’t be put together a few weeks before classes start.  If we’re going to take online education seriously, we need to take course design seriously. We need to start imagining new models for building, acquiring and sharing instructional media.

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Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @Acrobatiq

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Consortia as a Driver of Innovation

In the late 90s — during the “early years” of online higher education — many colleges and universities didn’t have the internal resources required to build, support and market online education. Some institutions saw fit to join online consortia; by pooling limited resources, each institution gained access to the resources they needed. Many of these early initiatives are still operating.

Access and/or Innovation

In a recent review we conducted of online higher ed consortia, we found that the majority of consortia, and the vast majority of those that started ten or more years ago, are designed primarily to increase access. That is, these initiatives define success by the number of online courses created and/or supported by the consortia, and the number of students enrolled in these courses. More courses, means more access.

Access is obviously important. However, for a number of reasons, we believe that a recasting of the consortia model would be beneficial. Given the state of online education, the focus needs now to shift from ensuring institutions can launch and support online courses, to stimulating innovation and improving quality.

Time to Focus on Innovation

First, and most obviously, the needs of member institutions have changed and consequently consortia need to change, as well. Over the last decade-and-a-half, most colleges and universities have significantly augmented their internal capacity to develop, support and market online education. The LMS is now near universal. The majority of university leaders see online education as fundamental to institutional strategy, and far more instructors have experience teaching online.

moving beyond the basics

As internal capacity of member institutions increase, the functions that can’t be done well (or at all) within each member institution change too. Although this may seem so obvious as to be not worth mentioning, our review suggests otherwise. Many consortia we reviewed continue to provide only the basic requirements of creating and supporting online courses. One consortium, for example, simply assigned a single instructional designer to work with a lone instructor from the member institution to develop an online course. No meaningful quality standards are employed, the instructor isn’t even paid for the course development. Fewer and fewer institutions need these basic services. It isn’t surprising that our review found that institutions that have set more ambitious goals for online education are less interested in participating in consortia.

focus on innovation

Our review suggested that more consortia should focus less on providing basic, increasingly common, services and more on helping institutions test and scale more ambitious online learning strategies that can improve outcomes and drive down costs. If the fundamental value proposition of consortia is that it enables member institutions to do what they can’t done alone, then the initiative should be deliberately and systematically focusing on those functions that are anything but “basic”. Services that fall into the category of “ambitious” in 2014 might include the development of rich media, the use of learning analytics, and the development of competency-based programs.

why consortia

Consortia align particularly well with three trends in online higher education:

  1. A slow migration to the software model of course development, in which upfront costs for course development are relatively high, but maintenance and distribution costs are marginal. By pooling resources, consortia can accommodate higher upfront costs and then coordinate distribution at scale.
  1. Growing use of analytics to inform and personalize learning. The more data is shared and compared across institutions, the greater its value. Again, consortia are well positioned to facilitate the proper movement of data-generated insights across institutions.
  1. Online education will continue to demand new, increasingly complex skills and knowledge that are not readily available within each institution. Consortia can serve as a central, shared source of talent and technology across individual institutions.
defining ROI

Consortia need to define and then share clearer and more concrete objectives with member institutions. In particular, it would be useful for consortia to provide members with more robust assessments of the initiative’s ROI. If success is defined by the consortium (as noted above) by the number of online courses and students that are supported by the consortia, then members should be able to assess whether the cost of running the consortia is greater than the actual increase in enrolment and number of courses. ROI is always difficult in education, but consortia — given their frequently tenuous financial stability — may be less inclined to produce this kind of information. Member institutions should demand it.

built to change

Lastly, consortia must be built to change. If, as suggested, the basic purpose and value proposition of the consortia is to do what member institutions can’t do separately, then the services offered must change as technology, costs, and objectives change. Again, this may seem obvious. But consortia struggle with change like other organizations. Nevertheless, the value proposition of consortia requires that they continually adjust their services to meet changing conditions.

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Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @Acrobatiq

Services offered by consortia to member institutions include the following:

  • Course registration and course registration systems
  • Help desk (technology and/or administrative) for students
  • Professional development for instructors
  • Learning management systems
  • Video conferencing (hardware, software and support)
  • Webinar hosting and management (hardware, software and support)
  • Sharing of online courses between institutions
  • Instructional quality assessment and rubrics
  • Development of new applications
  • Multimedia development (instructional material)
  • Market research services
  • Instructor training on educational technology
  • Instructional design
  • Tutoring services (student online/phone)
  • Learning object repositories
  • Project management/coordination
  • Marketing / clearinghouse of members courses and programs

Taking Course Design Seriously (Finally)

Shutterstock: Image of 1997 personal computer
PC, circa 1997

When I first entered the field of online education back in 1997, the first 56.6 kps modems were appearing in homes. Most institutions had no more than a handful of online courses. Universities treated educators with an interest in “distance education” with either suspicion or indifference. Online education was largely a faculty-led effort; few university Strategic Plans included more than a passing reference to online education.

Obviously, much has changed. But one aspect of online higher education remains largely intact: the way that traditional colleges and universities go about designing, creating, and financing in-house online course development.

Now, as in 1997, individual instructors assume the bulk of the responsibility for course design and development. Support from an instructional designer and technical staff is available, but their impact is limited by availability and the conventions of academic work. Funds for course development are similarly constrained, due to the limited revenue that can be generated from offering a single course at a single institution.

This “cottage industry” approach took hold not because we thought it was the best way to create a great online learning experience for students, but because it fit with the institution’s existing organization and processes — one based on the classroom model. Mirroring the classroom model made the shift to online relatively painless.

As a consequence, though, the quality of the online courses produced within our traditional colleges and universities falls to professionals who were not hired on the basis of their knowledge of graphic design, information architecture, programming, or the learning sciences — the very qualities required to consistently create great online courses. As has long been the case for classroom education, the overarching, but implicit assumption is that putting course design in the hands of people with deep subject matter knowledge translates into a good learning experience for students. There’s little evidence that this is the case in the classroom, and it’s less true for online education, where a whole new host of skills and knowledge are required.

By simply transferring the existing roles, responsibilities and financial model to the online context, allowed institutions to quickly “put courses online”. But it also all but ensured that these institutions are unable to produce more sophisticated and ambitious online courses that support better learning outcomes or reduce costs. Ironically, it restricts the use of the very instructional techniques, resources, and new business models that research claims can improve the value of higher education — research produced by our universities.

Examples of more ambitious online course design include:

  • Courses that offer students hundreds of opportunities to test and apply their knowledge and skills. And an equal number of moments of feedback that let them know of their progress;
  • High-production value media, including illustrations, animations, audio and video, that explain difficult concepts and process in clear and powerful ways;
  • Software that adapts to student input, enabling the optimal sequence of learning activities;
  • Learning analytics, with instructional activities, that provides the student, educator, and institution with detailed explanations of a student’s relative strengths and weaknesses;
  • Instructional methodologies tied to new business models that have the capacity — unlike the current model — to drive down costs by leveraging economies of scale.

These tactics and others like them accomplish the obvious: they take advantage of the unique economics of the Internet and leverage the medium’s ground-breaking capacity to combine media, interactivity, social interaction, and data; the very things we dreamt of doing back in the 1990s, but have failed to accomplish.

Simply getting courses online is no longer sufficient, and it can no longer serve as evidence of a strong institutional commitment to online learning — as Penn’s Robert Zemsky argued a full decade ago. Institutions need now to turn their attention to finding ways to build or acquire instructional content that truly takes advantage of technology to improve learning. There’s no better place to start than course design.

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Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @Acrobatiq

Consortia typically offer a range of services for member institutions:

  • Course registration and course registration systems
  • Help desk (technology and/or administrative) for students (e.g. BC Campus)
  • Professional development for instructors (e.g. Campus Saskatchewan)
  • Learning management systems (e.g. eCampus Alberta)
  • Video conferencing (hardware, software and support)
  • Webinar hosting and management (hardware, software and support)
  • Sharing of online courses between institutions
  • Instructional quality assessment and rubrics
  • Development of new applications
  • Multimedia development (instructional material)
  • Market research services
  • Instructor training on educational technology
  • Instructional design
  • Tutoring services (student online/phone)
  • Learning object repositories
  • Project management/coordination
  • Marketing / clearinghouse of members courses and programs

Teaching a Child to Ride a Bike via Lecture

Well done. A great (because it’s simple) explanation of active learning techniques.

Hand-Picked Selections> Week of September 08 2014

“Worth Reading” is a hand-picked weekly collection of new, not-so-new articles and downright old ideas, events and other items for higher education professionals.

1

UMUC: The Future of Learning An animated promotional video from UMUC outlines what its vision of the future of online higher education. The vision includes, notably,

  • competency-based assessment
  • use of mentors as the primary contact for the student
  • direct assessment
  • prior learning assessment
  • student portfolios
  • open educational resources mixed with university licensed materials;
  • extensive predictive analytics

2

So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class …

New York Times Magazine cover story (no less) on the “Big History Project”.

“As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth.”

3

Not insignificant news. A major university, Purdue, is interesting a competency-based program.

“The national interest in competency-based education, also called direct assessment, comes on the heels of U.S Department of Education guidelines released last year for institutions wanting to provide federal student aid to enrollees in such programs. In July, the U.S. House of Representatives also passed legislation that further enables institutions offering competency-based degrees to participate in federal student aid programs.”

4

Article in The Atlantic that encourages us to look past the low completion rates of MOOCs, and to focus on the significant volume of learning taking place.
” . . . focusing on the tiny fraction of students who complete a MOOC is misguided. The more important number is the 60 percent engagement rate. Students may not finish a MOOC with a certificate of accomplishment, but the courses nonetheless meet the educational goals of millions.”
5

A Norwegian government policy document that outlines the use of MOOCs for credit. Thin edge of the wedge. (Thanks to Kris Olds for pointing this out.)

6

Economist article that points to research detailing rising grades at elite US institution.
“In 1950, Mr Rojstaczer estimates, Harvard’s average grade was a C-plus. An article from 2013 in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, revealed that the median grade had soared to A-minus: the most commonly awarded grade is an A. The students may be much cleverer than before: the Ivies are no longer gentlemen’s clubs for rich knuckleheads. But most probably, their marks mean less.”
chairAndnewspapers

Online Consortia: Course Sharing (Part of a Series)

chairAndnewspapers

We heard a couple of months back about Unizin launching a consortium of large state universities to share course content, content systems, and analytics. More recently we learnt about Cal State Online’s decision to slow down its already tepid push into a system-wide collaboration to offer online courses. These initiatives join a long list of efforts to expand online education by sharing resources across institutions.

The logic of building collaborations is infallible: joining forces can potentially bring down costs, reduce risk, access to better resources, stimulate innovation, ward off competition, and more. But there are more a few failed efforts to ward off any naive assumptions that academic collaborations — particularly those that concern shared courses — are fool proof. There are more than 50 consortia in North America and almost as many types. There are right ways to do it and wrong.

Having had a chance to review online consortia recently for a client, I want now to share a few observations in a handful of posts, beginning with “known obstacles” of course sharing initiatives. These obstacles are not insurmountable. But like any undertaking, it helps to know where the potholes are before you set on your journey.

one . . .

Most online consortia that include course sharing agreements were created in the 1990s; a time when many institutions had yet to make substantial investments in online learning  (e.g. technology, student support systems, professional development for faculty) and/or had yet to develop a sufficient level of confidence to carry out the functions required. As of 2014, the vast majority of universities have internal resources in place to support online education. The capacity to scale-back these investments is often difficult, owing to labour agreements and established practices. Nor do I suspect many institutions would chose to scale back at this point — given the growing strategic importance of online education to institutions. This, possibly more than any other factor,  could dampen enthusiasm among institutions for participation in shared course delivery models.

two . . .

Many course sharing initiatives target large enrolment, foundational courses because, first, these courses appear to offer the greatest possible savings and, second, because the curriculum is thought to be relatively generic. But of course these high enrolment courses also often generate higher net revenue for universities than other courses and activities. Revenue from these courses is regularly redirected to other university activities and program areas that are less “profitable” (i.e. “cost-shifting”). Consequently, initiatives that facilitate students enrolling in foundational courses at other institutions may appear to administrators as a threat to a strong and stable source of revenue.

three . . .

Owing to concerns about intellectual property, some university faculty and instructors have voiced concern about distributing their instructional content outside of their home institution. While open educational resources is often presented as a solution, in practice this approach continues to face opposition, and seems to have greater traction for the distribution of academic research papers (e.g. open journals) than instructional resources.

four . . .

Course sharing initiatives typically involve moving students between institutions (rather than the courses moving between institutions). In these cases, institutions may question whether courses offered by other institutions are inconsistent with, or inferior to, the instructional practices and academic standards of their own institution.

Education is a positional good; it’s used to define the status of the student (and the faculty and institution). Not surprisingly, my review identified cases in which more prestigious institutions refused to participate in course sharing programs with less prestigious institutions. Initiatives that bring together institutions of similar status may produce higher rates of buy-in.

five . . .

Institutions with more robust and successful online learning operations tend to less interested in participating in consortia. As a result, the consortia will fail to benefit from the participation of institutions with the greatest capacity and interest in online education. 

Next Up: Common Motivations and Objectives of Consortia

Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @Acrobatiq

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It’s About Potential

The recent PBS News Hour series, Rethinking College, posed the question we’ve heard countless times: can “computers” truly provide a quality of education equal to in-person teaching? To create conflict, the broadcasters juxtapose proponents of online education with those that believe that “real” education only occurs when the student can see the whites of the instructor’s eyes.

Rethinking Education, PBS News Hour, 2014. 

What strikes me as peculiar about these debates, other than the tendency to ignore evidence about the effectiveness of online learning, is the tendency of both the critics and advocates to talk about online education as if it is a mature, established style of teaching and learning; that what currently constitutes online learning is the end of the road; that we can expect no more improvements.

This is odd because the most striking difference between in-person teaching and online as of 2014 is their relative potential to improve. Online education, unlike in-person education, is in its infancy. It will improve dramatically. The only questions are how quickly and who will lead the way.

While online education is still in that early, awkward stage, the classroom format long ago reached the plateau. This isn’t to say that in-person teaching isn’t often of great value — that’s not the point. The point is that our capacity to dramatically increase the value of in-person learning is relatively limited.

New technologies and new ways of doing things tend to follow a common (“s-curve”) trajectory: at first they offer little value, but in time — as conditions change and improvements are made — the value escalates rapidly. Eventually the rate of progress subsides, and the value of the once new approach settles into a plateau, at which point improvements are merely incremental, unless you significantly increase costs, which in turn, reduces value. (Value: a balance between quality and cost.)

In-person teaching is a mature format. At the plateau stage, the focus is on trying to extract more value. Examples of this include hiring more adjuncts and creating teaching and learning support offices. These tactics may help, but the improvements in value are predictably incremental.

By comparison, online education still has a tremendous amount of room to improve. As of 2014, most online courses in traditional, brick and mortar institutions in North America are still built and delivered according to a model borrowed from the classroom. Lone instructors without the necessary time, incentives, skill-sets and funds maintain ultimate responsibility for course design and development. Funding for course development is limited to what can be generated by offering the course at a single institution for a few semesters, until such time that it needs a revamp. It’s still built in a cottage-industry fashion, like the classroom. It’s not surprising that online education has not yet led to lower tuition for students. Costs haven’t declined. The value proposition to students is still largely based on convenience, rather than improved educational value.

But in time, new instructional strategies and technologies will join forces in new ways that will drive up quality and reduce costs. There’s already pockets of innovation on the fringes: The Open Learning Initiative and NCAT, albeit in different ways, have shown that new approaches can increase value, whether in reduced costs, improved learning outcomes or both. Innovative program designs from institutions like Western Governors University, Arizona State University, SNHU, and Rio Salado, and Capella University will provide templates for other institutions to follow and — as a result of their fast enrolment growth — stimulate healthy competition.

What the future of online education will look like isn’t actually all that mysterious. We’ve been talking about many of these instructional strategies and features since the late 1990s.

  • Provide students with hundreds of opportunities to practice and test their understanding of the material (rather than, say, a midterm and final);
  • Use high-production value instructional media that explains difficult concepts and processes through sophisticated illustrations, animation, video and audio;
  • Employ adaptive software that personalizes learning to meet students where they are at that moment;
  • Design courseware that is customizable so as to enable economies of scale, thereby driving down costs per student;
  • Draw on the best instructional design strategies that are based on the rich field of learning sciences;
  • Leverage learning analytics to provide learners with constant feedback so that they come to learn how they learn best.

Institutions that recognize the current trajectory of online education — and can find ways to make it part of their operations — will be well positioned for the coming decade. Those that assume that the future state of online learning will be similar to the status quo in 2014 may miss out on one of the few great opportunities to innovate in higher education.

Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @Acrobatiq 

meeteducation

Podcast Interview on “Meet Education”

Nick Di Nardo, host of “Meet Education” interviews Dr. Keith Hampson of Acrobatiq.

Screenshot 2014-07-26 12.04.17

longtail

Scale in Online Higher Education

“Economies of scale are factors that cause the average cost of producing something to fall as the volume of its output increases.”

One of the common and more provocative scenarios for MOOCs involves using these courses at multiple institutions. In other words, build once (e.g. by Harvard), use often (multiple institutions). The benefit of this approach, at least potentially, is that by sharing content across multiple institutions we drive down the cost of offering online courses and, second, the relatively high volume of users makes it possible to increase the level of investment in each course. San Jose State University’s attempt to integrate the Udacity course serves as a high profile example.

This isn’t a new idea. People have been considering how scale might fit into higher education since the 1990s. It wasn’t until MOOCs that we had a concrete and well-known example to serve as focal point for this discussion.

Higher education has not put a great deal of effort into finding ways to reduce costs through scale. While other sectors seized the new economics of digital content storage and distribution, higher education has continued to produce and use digital instructional content locally; a digital cottage industry model, of sorts. For elite institutions or those aspiring to be elite, scale runs counter to one of the trappings of elite status: exclusivity. For others, the highly decentralized organization of the institutions makes institution-wide scale improbable. Another factor is concern amongst decision-makers about the impact of sharing courses on labour market value and autonomy.

“Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

San Jose State University faculty responding to the call to use Michael Sandel’s MOOC as part of their program.

Just How Common Is It?

Scale is directly tied to the degree to which curriculum is common or shared across institutions.  This component of scale hasn’t, to my knowledge, been sufficiently addressed. If a course is to “scale” there must significant commonalities across institutions of higher education of what they teach and how. It is implied in the Coursera/Udacity/edX business model — but surely never stated outright — that undergraduate curriculum in the US (and beyond) is sufficiently common.

Commonality is the premise of the textbook industry, of course. Certain courses, particularly in the first and second year of programs,  can be satisfied by a single textbook across hundreds of institutions. US textbooks are used in other nations, in fact — only modified lightly to refer to local conditions. A highly provocative study by (what was then called) Coopers and Lybrand suggested that 25 individual courses constituted 80% of registrations.

The concept of The Long Tail might provide a structured approach to understanding the degree to which courses are common and how this might impact costs.

Anderson argues that consumers have historically purchased “hits” — not because they are indifferent to less popular fare, but because of a lack of choice. But the Internet is now removing the bottleneck between suppliers and consumers. And as search and distribution technologies improve, and costs continue to decrease, Anderson forecasts that the top sellers in a variety of markets will constitute a smaller share of total sales, and the number of different products available will increase dramatically (i.e. further flattening and lengthening of the distribution of sales). While the top-rated television shows often captured more than 50% of the audience in the 1960s, today they represent  only10% to 15% and declining. New business models like Netflix have only amplified the shift.Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” (2004) contends that the Internet has fundamentally changed the economics of producing and distributing digital products. “Shelf space” on the Internet is virtually infinite and increasingly inexpensive. It’s now financially feasible for vendors to sell a much wider variety of digital products, particularly books, films, and music and other media. Marketing strategy is shifting from a dependence on a relatively limited number of “hits” or “blockbusters”  (e.g. Top 40 radio; New York Times bestseller lists) to serving niches.

The Endurance of “Hits” and Digital Content in Higher Education

Several studies have suggested that Anderson’s original work overstated the degree to which people migrated away from a select number of “hits”. Anita Elberse’s analysis, Should You Invest in the Long Tail?  (Harvard Business Review), suggests that the market for “blockbusters” remains largely safe from the onslaught of multiplying niche markets. Despite the changing economics of content authoring and distribution that Anderson describes, the bulk of sales are still found in the “head” and the “tail” is remarkably flat.  Greater variety is not always matched by demand.

The degree to which Elberse’s argument invalidates the Long Tail theory is somewhat dependent on where we draw the line between the “head” and the “tail”; that is to say, what we think constitutes a “hit”. What’s most useful about her work is that it reminds us that there are important forces at play in each sector that give shape to the distribution of sales (head and tail).

The insights from Anderson, and the questions posed about these insights by Elberse, can help us understand and anticipate the factors that might the demand for a more diverse range of content in higher education? Do we have a preference or need for “hits” in higher education?

As a starting point for addressing these questions, I offer three issues that may effect the length of the “tail” of content in digital higher ed:

  • Quality (Re)assurance. Do we need assurances from others in the field about the quality of content, and from whom, exactly? There are conventions in place: In traditional textbook publishing, it is conventional to employ currently employed academics from well-known (preferably) institutions of higher education as authors. In OER, we find the use of simple rating systems, such as stars (one-to-five), to crowd-source evaluations. To what degree will the need for assurance from others limit the expansion of the “tail”?
  • Consistent and Coherent Curriculum. To what extent must the content be consistent with the curriculum within the institution and other institutions? Although not to the same degree as K12, higher education is a “system” in which students progress, step-by-step. There are levels into which content must fit. When a student moves from first year to second year, or transfers from one school to another, there is an assumption (hope?) that the first year accounting course at University A is roughly equivalent to the same course at University B.  The Bologna Process is relevant here.
  • Production Quality. How important is it to educators and students that the content that they use meet a minimum standard of production quality? That is to say, at what point does “home-made” content become a liability because it is either difficult to integrate into an LMS, “buggy” (in the case of content embedded in applications), or simply difficult to use for students and instructors? How far along the “tail” will content of sufficient quality be found?

As the variety of content increases in the coming years, educators, institutions and publishers may want to pay attention to these and other issues to determine how they go about creating, acquiring and distributing content. Although it’s too early to be certain, my suspicion is that like the markets of music, film, and books, the demand for “hits” in digital edu content will remain surprisingly strong.

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Note: A number of people have written about the relationship between The Long Tail and education. You’ll recognize, though, that some of them use the concept of the Long Tail to analyze the diversification of students. That is, the tail gets longer as more people participate in higher education.  Instead, I use the concept to analyze the diversity of educational content. Although the former approach may be of great value, my focus on educational content is more in line with Anderson’s original use of the concept.  

Note 2: The concept of “mass customization” overlaps with The Long Tail in important ways. For more on more customization, see “How Technology Can Drive the Next Wave of Mass Customization” (McKinsey)

Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @keithhampson & @Acrobatiq

 

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Changing How We Evaluate Online Higher Education: Notes on Quality and Cost

Working with it’s ad agency Leo Burnett, Heinz Ketchup changed the criteria of what constitutes good ketchup and, as a result, increased its market share. They defined the products’ relatively thick quality as the new ideal. The difficulty of getting the ketchup out of the bottle became a marker of quality.

The criteria we use to evaluate different aspects of our world can have an immense impact. Different criteria encourage different behaviours and outcomes, whether we’re talking about something as banal as ketchup or more substantial matters such as how we evaluate political leaders (e.g. great at speeches, but no experience) or what constitutes great higher education.

In most sectors, evaluations strike a balance between the issues of cost and quality. Both concepts can be interpreted in a number of ways, of course: cost can include the price paid, but also the “cost” of accessing the product or service. Quality can focus on the experience of using the product/service, but also the ways in which ownership of the product/service will position the user in social circles.

Higher education is unique in this regard. The tendency in this sector is to focus almost exclusively on issues pertaining to quality and to downplay the relevance of cost.

This is unfortunate. The primary focus on quality sounds ideal, but it serves to dramatically limit the range of options that higher education offers students. Seeking out innovations that offer new combinations of cost and quality will increase the diversity of solutions available. The objective should be to maximize value; to find new ways to improve the balance between quality and cost.  A wider range of options are needed at various price points.

“Free, as in cost-free”

Neglect of price is evident in criticism of MOOCs. This comment followed The Economist recent articles on online higher education (See “Creative Destruction” and “The Digital Degree“):

“I’m a prof at a mid-sized Canadian university. Plenty of my students have told me that they’ve looked at the MOOC recorded lectures from MIT and Harvard, and they weren’t any better than what we offered.”

A direct comparison of traditional online higher education and MOOCs based solely on quality is insufficient for determining the significance of this new format and business model — because, as everyone knows, MOOCs are free (or close to free).  The dramatically greater scale (number of end-users) of the MOOC model provides economies which in turn allow for higher quality relative to cost (i.e. value). Consequently, it should be of no solace to our Canadian academic that his courses are as good. The fact that this isn’t obvious reflects the tendency to downplay the relevance of cost. It’s also naive.

“She got into a good school . . . “

The tendency to only think in terms of quality is also evident in the way in which we compare institutions. Students are told that Yale, Vassar and other selective institutions are “great institutions” that are better than state universities, which  in turn are better than community colleges, and so on. The fact that tuition levels between different institutions can vary by as much as 1500% is downplayed. While everyone understands the importance of relative price on an intellectual level, we continue to reinforce this odd evaluation scheme year after year. In any other sector of the economy, this logic would seem bizarre.

This accepted logic and criteria helps to reinforce the tendency of institutions to move in unison toward a singular notion of excellence. Clayton Christensen, and others, have defined this as the Harvard DNA — the guiding North Star of higher education — that encourages universities to gravitate toward the selective research university model. We see this same logic in play when colleges seek to transform themselves into universities, and when mid-tier schools like George Washington University and NYU use dramatic increases in tuition fees to signal “excellence”. (See Daniel Luzer’s excellent article, The Prestige Racket.)

The narrow definition of value can also suppress innovations in higher education that offer excellent value at far lower prices. Straighterline pioneered a business model that allows students to pay low monthly fees for ACE-accredited courses as they begin their college and university careers. While the company has managed to succeed, their approach challenges orthodoxy in higher education that equates low-prices with bad education. But at these monthly tuition levels, the value is greater than what students would receive from most other education providers.

A broader and more fluid evaluation scheme in higher education that considers value — not merely quality — will open the door to new instructional strategies, business models, and types of programs.

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Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @Acrobatiq

 

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The Lecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Questioning Lectures

The old-school lecture is taking a thumping. In a world where more and more of our experiences are web-based and disconnected from location and time, the idea that we would find it logical to get students to get together in a single location at a specific time to hear a presentation seems increasingly odd.

“Imagine”, Donald Clark writes, “if a movie were shown only once. Or your local newspaper was read out just once a day in the local square. Or novelists read their books out once to an invited audience. That’s face-to-face lectures for you: it’s that stupid.”

Others focus more on the instructional value of lectures — regardless of the role of technology. Graham Gibbs:

“More than 700 studies have confirmed that lectures are less effective than a wide range of methods for achieving almost every educational goal you can think of. Even for the straightforward objective of transmitting factual information, they are no better than a host of alternatives, including private reading. Moreover, lectures inspire students less than other methods, and lead to less study afterwards.”

So why do we hang on to lectures?

Explanations of the persistence of lectures point to the usual suspects: the challenge of introducing new instructional strategies, the dictates of the physical space, class size, the difficulty (and possibly anxiety) about using more interactive instructional experiences, and more.

Privileging the Original and One-of-a-Kind

One factor that we may not have considered is how lectures fit into a broader cultural framework that privileges original and live events (or one-of-a-kind objects) over reproductions and technologically-mediated experiences.

A line was drawn during Modernity between cultural practices and artefacts — such as paintings — that are original and one-of-a-kind — and reproductions of the original, made possible by technology. The original is highly valued; the reproduction, far less so. This basic distinction unfolds in different arenas in roughly the same fashion:

  • One-of-a-kind artisan crafts v mass manufactured “crafts”
  • Live music performances v recordings
  • Paintings v photographic reproductions
  • Haute couture fashion v “pret a porter” (or ready-to-wear)

The increased capacity to make reproductions, according to theorists like Walter Benjamin of The Frankfurt School, served to reconfigure the meaning and value of both the original and the copy. The presence of ubiquitous copies can weaken the value of the original, but it still maintains a privileged status. The original has an “aura”. (See “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“, 1936.)

The shift from lectures to digital higher education is not merely a migration from one instructional model to another, but a shift from a one-time, “original”, live event or object to a recorded and reproducible event or object. As with art and other cultural artefacts and practices, the original is privileged.

The distinctions often reveal themselves through language; the choice of words and the metaphors we use. Defenders of the lecture, like Mark Edmundson tell us that “Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background.” The lecture, Abigail Walthausen explains, “is an art, and like other arts such as painting, musicianship and writing, it takes real dedication and many hours of practice to excel at.”

Clay Shirky rightly notes that defenders of lectures believe that face-to-face education is the only “real” education — everything else is a facsimile, at best. (Shirky proposed The MOOC Criticism Drinking Game: take a swig whenever someone says “real”, “true”, or “genuine” when questioning the value of MOOCs.)

Given that we tend to privilege live/original experiences, it is understandable that academics would celebrate the live educational format — and want to protect their place within it. There are few professions that involve strapping on a microphone and speaking to large groups of people — sometimes hundreds at a time — on a daily basis. Fewer occupations, still, call for the professional to offer their own unique perspective on a topic. (The sacred but often questioned link between teaching and research is key here.) I wouldn’t be the first to identify the link between the identity of the academic and the archetype of the lone artist — an individual working doggedly on a personal project before presenting it to the world.

Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @Acrobatiq

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“I actually don’t know any of the people you just mentioned . . . “

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Colgate University hosted an event last week. “Innovation + Disruption Symposium“. The keynote was none other than Clay Christensen, the Godfather of Disruptive Innovation. Following his talk, seven University Presidents of private universities fielded questions from the moderator.

Normally, these events are dull. Dreadful, in fact. Few things can  more dampen the likelihood that someone will say something provocative or new than their holding the position of university president.

So, at best, these events make for good background noise while you’re working.

But a few moments stood out; here’s my favourite. Clay Christensen – having done his bit on disruptive innovation in higher education – was sitting in the audience listening to the Presidents field questions. He rose and noted, half-jokingly, that everyone on the panel disagreed with everything he had just said about the coming disruption in higher education. Laughs ensued. He then asked the panel to imagine that a second panel was  on stage with them. This second panel included the Founder of the Khan Academy, Paul Leblanc of Southern New Hampshire University, the President of Western Governors University, and others that are commonly believed to be leading the changes that are unfolding in higher education. Christensen asked the panel to consider what this second, imaginary panel might say that is different from what he had been hearing.

The response? David Oxtoby, President of Pomona College fielded the question: “I actually don’t know any of the people you just mentioned, but . . . “

You can’t make this stuff up. I don’t recall ever hearing or reading anything that so succinctly illustrates the existence of different worlds and perspectives within higher education.

To fully appreciate the vastness of the space between these worlds, simply consider the context: In 2014 access to quality, low-cost higher education is considered a national imperative. Improving graduation rates are part of the Obama platform. Student debt recently surpassed credit card debt. Think tanks, research groups, philanthropic foundations, and government initiatives are looking for ways to leverage educational technology. Even the mainstream media – after having  long ignored higher education  – are talking about the need for greater innovation in higher education.

Yet, the President of a university – having accepted an invitation to an event to talk about disruptive innovation in higher education – has not heard of many of the people behind these changes. Wow. Just wow.

I’ve written before about the growing tendency of professionals in higher education to exist blissfully unaware of the goings-on of other parts of the sector. At the time, I was concerned I might have overstated the case.  I’m no longer concerned.

Note: Quotes can be misleading, certainly. But my interpretation of the significance of the exchange was actually based on his full response to the question. The response strongly suggested to me – and a colleague with whom I conferred on the matter — that the respondent was unable to speak to the work that these “imaginary” panel members were doing. His response, by the way, was only somewhat related to the actual question; it concerned notions of what constitutes a liberal arts education. 

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Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @Acrobatiq

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Three Pieces of the Puzzle: Instructional Content in Online Higher Education

We have good reason to be excited about online higher education; it has the potential to reconfigure “how we do” higher education in ways that will improve both the quality and efficiency of learning.

However, talk of online education’s current “transformative”, “revolutionary” and (worst of all) “disruptive” impact on traditional higher education ignores the fact that one of the core components of online higher education has improved only imperceptibly during last two decades. Online instructional content – the instructional media and activities presented to students – remains largely stuck in the 1990s, barely scratching the potential that we once imagined.

The problems with instructional content stem from how courses are created. In most non-profit colleges and universities, the responsibility for the design and development of instructional content continues to fall to under-resourced and typically ill-prepared individual faculty members. The service departments set up in most institutions to support online learning have not substantially changed this fundamental division of labor. Instructional design professionals in these departments – despite their skills – are forced into secondary roles, often pushed toward providing technical training (“How to Set Up Quizzes in Blackboard”), rather than actually working with course instructors to design instruction. The funds available for course development are severely limited to what can be reasonably generated by way of tuition revenue (minus direct expenses) over a few semesters. And incentive systems of traditional colleges and universities make it illogical for faculty to spend excessive time developing instructional content, even if they had the wide range of skills necessary for this kind of work. There are exceptions to this state of affairs, but too few.

As a result, online instructional content is often hastily constructed, relies heavily on exposition, and is largely void of the applications that actually take advantage of the unique properties of digital technology. Most discouraging of all, course design is often not based on research about how students actually learn (i.e. the science of learning). The process is neither rigorous, nor ambitious. You’d be hard-pressed to find another sector or institution in which content is both so obviously important and yet given so little attention. (Ironic, given the primacy of evidence-based practice in all other corners of the academy.)

A number of changes are required if we are to begin to truly take advantage of potential of instructional content in online higher education. Some of the more obvious, such as team-based design and faculty development have been discussed elsewhere. Below, I offer three additional pieces of the puzzle that will help us get to the next stage of instructional content.

One.

(Finally) take course design seriously.

To recruit Dr. Jennifer West, a researcher at Rice University, Duke University had to pay for an entire team of researchers that worked with Dr. West, as well as much of their equipment. Dr. West told NPR, “They actually sent architects to Rice (University) who looked at our lab facilities there, then used that information to go back and design the facility that would work for us at Duke.”

Imagine a university making the same effort to secure the best instructional experience for its online students. Imagine institutions feverishly seeking out the best available digital learning experience; recruiting the best instructional designers and the best instructors; the ones that have been proven to improve learning outcomes. Imagine if the Chief Academic Officer’s career security was dependent on her success in this regard. Given the centrality of teaching and learning to the institution, this shouldn’t sound absurd; the problem, of course, is that it does.

Two.

In the digital world, “design” matters.

“Design” here refers to graphic design, industrial design, user experience, and the like. Design has taken on a bigger role in Western societies as a means of mitigating the jarring effect of rapid change. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of personal technology (e.g. apps, tablets, mobile devices).

However, online higher education has managed to remain untouched by good design. Its absence in online higher education is a significant inhibitor of the quality of learning: when we move the locus of education from the classroom to the digital environment, we necessarily change the factors that determine the quality of the student’s experience. In the digital environment, design plays a far more important role than it does in the classroom. “Screens” (laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc.) are design-dependent. The quality of design in screen-based environments dramatically influences the end-user’s experience.

Well-designed instructional content and interfaces are easier to use and thus, more efficient. But the value of great design goes further: it can, like a great educator, direct the students’ attention to what is most important, increase the amount of time that a user is willing to spend on a particular challenge (i.e. time on task), build on a user’s existing knowledge, provoke a positive emotional response (which can facilitate better learning), and make information memorable and “sticky”.

Three.

We need to know what’s working.

A greater commitment to measuring the effectiveness of learning may be the single greatest driver of innovation in higher education in 2014. Better information about learning outcomes in the hands of educators, regulatory bodies, university leadership, employers, and (especially) students will uncover what’s working and what isn’t. But it will also drive innovation by providing both the impetus for change and the data we need to validate new approaches.

Despite the relative ease with which we can capture student activity in online education, most institutions have only begun to take advantage of this opportunity. As of 2014, most analytics in higher education – to the extent that it is used for instructional purposes at all – tends to be limited to “engagement” analytics, which tells us what pages, assignments, and so forth that the student has visited. It tells us that the student is “there or not” (i.e. engaged). What it doesn’t tell us is how well the student has mastered specific aspects of the curriculum – which is the realm of true learning analytics. With learning analytics, educators, institutions, and students have the information required to build and test new instructional approaches and to know when they’re working.

Great instructional content and learning analytics are natural allies. When tied to instructional content, analytics provides the intelligence that can determine, for example, which content should be served up to students based on their past performance (adaptive), predict the kinds of support that students may need to master specific parts of the curriculum, and help faculty identify the most effective types of instructional content.

If the goal of the institution is to help students learn, and the power we assign to these institutions to act as gatekeepers is justified, it is logical (if not a social imperative) that the institution become extremely good at measuring learning.

It’s been almost two decades since we got started with online learning. Since then, we’ve made some significant progress. But for a variety of reasons, the level of innovation and quality of course design has fallen behind. It’s time we began to take fuller advantage of the opportunities for improved learning that it affords.

Sources

Lisa Chow. Duke: 60,000 a Year for College is Actually a Discount, NPR. February 21, 2014. . http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/02/14/277015271/duke-60-000-a-year-for-college-is-actually-a-discount Retrieved May 12 2014.

Learning analytics has a quietly subversive quality. Increased measurement of learning outcomes will challenge the existing hierarchy of institutions. Those institutions at the top of the pyramid have nowhere to go but down, and the traditional means by which we’ve measured quality in higher education has worked in their favour. See Lloyd Armstrong. Competitive Higher Education, Changing Higher Education. http://www.changinghighereducation.com/2006/03/competitive_hig.html Retrieved May 12 2014

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Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovation at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. @Acrobatiq

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