The following is the first in a three-part set of notes on how current organziational and business models in higher education limit the value and productivity of online education.

Part 1: What’s Holding Online Higher Education Back?

Part 2: Common Content Development Models in Online Higher Education (Coming: May 24/09)

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Taken with my iPhone in the backyard as a storm arrives

What’s Holding Online Higher Education Back?

People working in online higher education are an aspirational lot. Through new and better technology, practitioners hope to improve higher education on a number of fronts, including:

  • Personalization/customization of learning
  • Development and access to rich educational media
  • Serve a broader range of learners
  • Enable data-driven decision-making
  • Enhance the degree to which we measure learning
  • Improve the cost/value of higher education

I share their aspirations. But, frankly, it’s difficult to be thrilled with the progress that’s been made on these and other fronts over the last 10-15 years. Except for the occasional ambitious project, online learning at traditional colleges and universities in North America has had limited success breaking from the organizational (and yes, educational) conventions of classroom education. As one higher education executive put it to me this week, “we are still fighting the same battles we were fighting ten years ago”, including cajoling faculty into doing something other than uploading their PowerPoint slides and calling it online learning.

One means of understanding the obstacles that stymie progress in online higher ed is to consider where most of our attention is directed. A review of journals, trade magazines, research initiatives, and conference presentations makes it clear that most attention is on educational and pedagogical issues. At the most recent conference at which I spoke the other presentations addressed matters such as how to design assessments, strategies for increasing student-to-student interaction, techniques for making use of mobile technology for workplace learning. This educational/pedagogical focus is perfectly logical, of course. And the knowledge being created by practitioners, academics, and instructional designers is often of excellent quality.

However . . . very little of this sophisticated educational knowledge about how to ‘do’ online higher education is actually applied in courses. Indeed, I’d be thrilled if 1/8 of this knowledge was finding its way into the average online course offered by traditional colleges and universities. It appears, then, that the problem is not a lack of knowledge about what we “ought to be doing”, but implementation.

In my experience the solution lies in the area of higher education that typically receives the least amount of attention: the organizational and business models that underlie higher education institutions. The ability to substantially improve educational value lies in rethinking and reforming the common business and organizational properties of traditional higher education. It is through different managerial and organizational strategies that the application of new and better educational strategies becomes possible.  (Organizational and business models simply refer to the basic ways in which we the university operates: how money is allocated, how employees are rewarded, reporting relationships within the organization, supply chains, efficiencies through economies of scale, and more.)

The mere mention of business models in the context of universities can set off hostile attacks by some within academia that see universities as not only different from business, but a counter-force to it. But these responses are terrible over-simplifications and, at times, are motivated less by hostility to business than attempts to maintain the status quo. Every organization operates according to a business model, even universities (See Milton Greenberg). The concept refers merely to how the organization goes about providing value to its stakeholders – whether the stakeholders are citizens in a democratic society or consumers.

Increasing the attention paid to managerial issues in higher education is no small task. Some see “higher education management” as an oxymoron. The relationship between the academic and management side of the house is at times adversarial. Compared to other sectors, managers in higher education have remarkably little influence. And because the field of management is often seen as less important in higher education, the decision-making process doesn’t always bring the most qualified people to the table .

One area of online higher education that illustrates the importance of organizational and business models is content development – the process of creating instructional media used in online courses. I have prepared some notes on this aspect of online higher ed in “Part 2”.

Part 2: Management Innovation and Online Higher Education.

2 thoughts on “Part 1: Management Innovation and Online Higher Education

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