The Role of DIY in Course Authoring

A growing body of anecdotal evidence suggests that we may be in the early stages of an important trend in digital higher education, in which colleges and universities rethink and rework how they develop online course materials. The common approach, which took hold during the early days of online education in the late 1990s, and has its roots in classroom education, puts development in the hands of lone educators with limited time, expertise in course design, resources and incentives - what Tony Bates long ago coined the “cottage industry" model. The cottage model is giving way to more ambitious models of course development that draws on a team of specialists, software that actually does more than distribute the curriculum, rigorous attention to instructional principles, and, more often than not, longer development schedules. These new tactics have the potential to add significant value to online learning instruction.

A handful of institutions in North America are experimenting with these new approaches in order to more fully leverage technology and its ability, for example, to personalize learning through adaptive software, engage learners through high-quality instructional media, use principles from games to stimulate retention, and automate feedback to increase retention. Institutions that successfully make this transition will surely pull ahead of competitors that remain stuck to the cottage model.


Over the next month we're putting together a set of posts that emphasize the various dimensions of this gradual transition away from the cottage model. In this first post we consider how DIY ("do-it-yourself") technologies and practices intersect with authoring in higher education and influence the possibilities for digital instructional media in higher education. DIY, here, is defined as the practice of putting the responsibility for development in the hands of individuals - in this case digital course materials - rather than teams of specialists, placed within the institution or by external parties.

DIY has technological, organizational, as well as cultural dimensions. Technology has made DIY a key part of several industries, from accounting (Intuit, Quicken) to music recording (Garage Band). In the realm of education, the LMS was designed expressly to allow individual educators to create and deliver their own courses independently of substantial support.

But DIY is also an ethos - a way of thinking -  that stresses the value of individuals having the capacity and freedom to create independently to meet their own needs. This logic is clearly evident in the "maker-movement" that emerged during the past decade.

DIY and Higher Ed

DIY is unusually well-aligned with the traditional organizational structure, processes and culture of universities. The classroom model of higher education, upon which online education based its development processes, is essentially a one-person operation in which the educator assumes responsibility for virtually all aspects of the student's experience.

The significance of DIY to higher education is reinforced by its connection to value of academic freedom. For some, any attempts to rethink the course development process, particularly the academic's role in the process, is perceived as a challenge to academic freedom. For others, though, the concept of academic freedom is best limited to ensuring the academic's freedom to choose what subjects to research and teach, rather than how this work is done. Similarly, the DIY approach fits with the interest of institutions of higher education remain free of unwanted external influence, whether it be governmental or corporate.

Finding the Right Balance

There is a great deal of support for the idea of DIY across North American culture at the moment - often with good reason. In music, we love the idea that creative musical artists can be free of the constraints imposed by a handful of monolithic record companies (e.g. Universal, Sony BMG). Artists don't have to, as Seth Godin puts it, "wait to be picked"; they can simply employ increasingly inexpensive and easy-to-use software, Chinese-manufactured hardware, and hit "record".  International distribution is available through platforms like Youtube that rely on user-generated content.

But the increased diversity in music that comes from DIY is less valuable in higher education and may, in fact, work against ensuring that students have access to a wide-range of well-funded, high-quality instructional materials.

First, the need for diverse content is limited in higher education by the need to ensure that our various institutions and the programs they offer are sufficiently coordinated. This ensures, primarily, that the meaning of, for example, a Bachelors degree has a common value and, second, that our students (and faculty) can move between institutions as needed (high school, university, post-grad, labour market). These needs lead to a strong degree of consistency in curriculum and, in turn, diminish the importance of enabling diversity through DIY technologies and processes.

Moreover, DIY, like the cottage model, operates on the assumption that individuals working in isolation can produce instructional content that, if not as good as what can be produced by a well-funded team of specialists, is "good enough". But good enough has different implications in different contexts: in music production, the risk of lower production value, for example, is socially and economically inconsequential. Indeed, some music fans may prefer the quality of lower-budget, less-polished efforts because they sound more "authentic" - a concept that has historically played a large role in the definition of value in music (see, for example, Frith, Simon). But there are an increasing number of things that simply can't be achieved in digital higher education using the DIY model due to the need for higher levels of investment and specialized labor.  Too great a reliance on DIY models will mean that students don't have access to these promising instructional models.

Keith HampsonComment