Hundreds of universities in North America have corporate training divisions. The purpose of these divisions is to draw on the university’s considerable intellectual and teaching resources,  brand recognition, (and facilities in, often, ideal locations) in order to tap into the corporate education market. For more than a few schools, the strategy has paid off.

Now many of these same schools are rushing to add online training to their corporate market offerings. The transition to the Net, however, may fall short of expectations for both the universities and their clients. Online education – particularly the development of course content – requires certain skills, organizational structures, and operational strategies that are rarely found among traditional universities.  Unlike the corporate sector, and certain parts of the non-profit sector, universities have not adjusted their course development practices to the new demands of online education.

In classroom instruction, the differences between the practices of the commercial sector and higher education are not substantial. In both contexts, the student’s learning experience is largely in the hands of the individual instructor. The instructor plays a central role in defining the curriculum, designs the instructional activities (e.g. group work), develops the instructional materials (e.g. handouts), presents the material, assesses student work, and often manages administrative issues as well.

There are, however, great differences between the process of creating and delivering online education in the commercial and higher education sectors. In the commercial sector, online content is typically developed by a team of specialists that may include a subject-matter expert, instructional designer, project manager, quality assurance experts, learner-support staff, programmers, and the instructor. This is essentially an industrial approach to course development, in so far as it assumes, correctly, that no one individual could possibly have the myriad of skills or time required to single-handedly create high quality online content.

When most traditional universities develop online courses they draw directly from the traditions and logic of their centuries-old classroom model, what has been described as the ‘cottage-industry’ model. In this approach, individual professors are often almost entirely responsible for the quality of the online course, just as they have long been in the classroom. While universities routinely set up service departments that are staffed by e-learning specialists (the same staff used in the commercial sector), these specialists are rarely directly involved in course design. Instead, they have an ‘arms-length’ relationship to the courses; often acting as trainers of the instructors, for example. Notably, these services provided by the university are used by instructors on an ‘as-needed’ basis. It is the instructor, herself, not the institution that decides whether she needs assistance.

Under conditions such as these, it is difficult for universities to compete with other kinds of e-learning providers that utilize more advanced models for course development. The limited resources brought to production in higher education leads to a number of problems, including:
•    Limited volume of content. The time demands placed on individual instructors in the traditional model make it extremely difficult to generate a sufficient volume of course content. Many courses, subsequently, rely heavily on textbooks for content.
•    Inconsistency. Putting control fully in the hands of individual instructors often leads to a lack of consistency between courses. Consistency is very important in the online environment, given the lack of established conventions in this space.
•    Low production quality. By limiting the role of e-learning specialists, decrease the quality and volume of rich media in each course. Many courses are limited to text and simple graphics (i.e. clip art).

The resistance to adopting substantially different models of course development in higher education stems from a number of factors, the most important of which is the desire for autonomy among academics. There are few occupations, if any, that offer greater professional autonomy than university teaching. And not surprisingly, there is a great desire among professors to maintain this arrangement. (During my years in academe, I came to understand that many academics choose the field precisely because of the chance to work independently.) Consequently, the new types of organizational standards and culture required for creating online education are in many respects inconsistent with the traditional orientation of its key employees.

Resistance is also structural. Universities have historically focused on the generation of knowledge, rather than on the strategies for effectively presenting knowledge (the “what” of education, rather than “how”, if you will). Universities encourage their professors to focus on what they know, not on how they present their knowledge to students. Although there have been efforts in universities during the past decade to pay more attention to teaching quality,  professors are still rewarded largely on the basis of research and publishing activities, not on the effectiveness of the classroom experiences they provide. Moreover, unlike K12 teachers, university professors often enter the field of university teaching with no teacher training whatsoever. Most professors remain, primarily, subject matter experts.

Of course, a focus on what is taught is also a strength of universities, in one respect. Universities can offer their clients access to leading thinkers. However, ‘cutting-edge’ knowledge from leading thinkers constitutes only a small percentage of the material that is actually taught in the classroom or online (this is true of university education and corporate training). The knowledge disseminated in most corporate training programs tends to be quite widely known. Corporate clients rarely turn to e-Learning to provide their employees with state-of-the-art research findings in nanotechnology. Most courses focus on well-traveled topics such as management leadership skills. In a marketplace like this, where competitors offer similar bodies of knowledge, the competitive difference between providers are the quality of the presentation; the very aspects of e-learning for which universities lag behind.

Universities face many challenges in 2008, including reduced public funding and increased costs.  As a result of communication technologies, new sources of knowledge are becoming increasingly easy to access, challenging the dominant role in education held by universities. The capacity of universities to compete in new markets is dependent on their ability to move past traditional, inferior practices, and adopt new strategies that fully leverage their strengths.

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