The model used for the development of instructional media by the majority of traditional colleges places great restrictions on its quality and economic efficiency. And these limitations are largely a result of the organizational and financial models used.
The traditional course development model has its roots in classroom higher education. Three aspects are of particular relevance: the particular division of labour, the limited economies of scale, and a lack of incentives.
Division of Labour
The responsibilities for the design and development of online course materials in traditional colleges are placed chiefly in the hands of the lone academic teaching the course. Although this one-person approach is appropriate for classroom education in which instructional media plays a relatively small role, it imposes considerable limitations on the development of high quality instructional media for online education. This “cottage model” of content development, as Tony Bates termed it, weakens the capacity of the institution to deliver high quality instructional media to its students because it limits the range of skills and volume of resources that are brought to content development. The development of a full course of content is a major undertaking, and as Diane Oblinger, President of Educause notes, “Developing and delivering an online course requires numerous and varied skills—skills that are unlikely to be found in a single individual.” (http://tinyurl.com/oubgd6). Individual academics obviously cannot have all of the necessary skill sets for developing high-end educational media.
The majority of colleges introduced service departments during the 1990s to help faculty with certain aspects of online course development and delivery. These departments typically consist of tech support staff (often students), intermediate-level web application developers, instructional designers and administrative staff. Training of faculty on educational technology is often the core function. Service departments have not, however, changed the fundamental roles and responsibilities of faculty in the course development process – nor were they designed for this purpose. Lone academics remain ultimately responsible for the design and development of online courses. Assistance to the faculty is provided if requested, rather than according to institution-wide standards. The technology that serves as the centerpiece of the service departments – learning management systems (e.g. BlackBoard) – reflects and reinforces traditional roles and responsibilities. Learning management systems are designed to enable academics with limited time and rudimentary technology skills to build and deliver simple online courses without significant professional assistance.
Limited Economies of Scale
Instructional media produced for online courses at traditional colleges is commonly used for a single course only. Despite the ease with which digital content can be distributed, sharing of instructional media across courses and institutions remains rare in higher education. Consequently, the financial investment that can be made in the development of a course is – on average – limited to the revenue that is generated from a single course offered over a 2 to 3 year period (at which point the content is likely to be substantially revised for purposes of maintaining currency).
There are, then, very limited economies of scale for content development in online higher education. This, in turn, ensures that the cost of course development for the sector as a whole remains high and the level of investment in each individual course, low.
That the content in online higher education has not dramatically improved over the last decade either in terms of quality or cost puts higher education in sharp contrast to other digital products and services. The cost-to-quality relationship of other information –heavy, digital products, such as encyclopedias, has improved dramatically. Print versions of encyclopedias were once a major investment for families. Today, digital versions of encyclopedias – with increasingly sophisticated media resources (e.g. animations, videos) – cost very little, if anything at all for users to access.
Although storage and distribution costs of digital information are continuing to transform the economics of multiple industries that deal in digital information, online higher education has yet to benefit from the changing economics of digital information. Leaders in online higher education report that online education is as expensive as classroom education to deliver, if not more. Although content development is only one component of delivering online higher education, it is a significant one. Given the increasing pressures on colleges to “do more with less”, leaders in online education are now slowly exploring better ways to build and acquire digital instructional media.
Lack of Incentives
Every university leader makes statements about the importance of teaching, and each faculty member feels that they do a good job in the classroom, but the rewards for research-related activities far outweigh those for teaching. The research emphasis has a direct impact on online course development because this activity falls within the realm of teaching. Online education is not about creating new knowledge, but about how that knowledge is taught. Consequently, online education is subject to many of the same pressures and issues experienced by university teaching.
Universities are rewarded for excellence in research. It is these activities that generate research grants, access to brand-name academics, interest from donors, industry-support, and high-rankings in the popular press. Faculty, for their part, are asked first and foremost to excel in research; to draw research funding, to publish, and serve as “popular intellectuals” in the media. Despite the efforts to raise the importance of teaching over the past two decades, studies show that teaching excellence counts less for tenure and promotion than it has in the past (James S. Fairweather. Journal of Higher Education 76.4 (July-August 2005): p401(22). David G. Evans, “How Not to Reward Outstanding Teachers.(Column). The Chronicle of Higher Education 51.37, May 20, 2005). As universities are further pressured to demonstrate ROI by governments, taxpayers, think-tanks and other stakeholders, the emphasis on research will likely increase.
A Management Issue
These three factors make it difficult, if not impossible, for universities to consistently produce high quality content. As the people that manage online learning will tell you (after a couple of drinks), online courses tend to have little content, imaginative instructional activities are limited, writing quality is uneven, and the use of intelligently designed rich media is very rare.
The limitations are not the result of the lack of educational and pedagogical knowledge; how students learn or what instructional strategies would be most effective. Rather, the limitations are the predictable by-product of the organizational and financial models used in traditional colleges and universities. The limitations are the result of management issues, and cannot be solved through more research on “what we ought to be doing” in online learning. To get to the next level in online learning, new management models must be explored.
Why, then, did universities employ these organizational and financial models?
- Faculty autonomy and online course development. Many scholars are accustomed to working independently. Indeed, it’s not a stretch to suggest that some academics choose this line of work so as to have this high level of professional autonomy. Producing high quality digital content is necessarily a team effort and would require academics giving up their long-held autonomy.
- Organizational conventions. Universities have long divided work along these traditional lines – course development is traditionally the responsibility of the academic. Shifting from a one-person model to a very different, somewhat industrial model for such a major component of university operations would be highly disruptive.
- Quick Entry into Online Learning. By simply shifting so many aspects of the classroom model for course development to the online context allowed schools to quickly move into online learning without having to first reconfigure its well ingrained organizational and financial models – a process that could take decades. In other words, it was quick.
- Inexpensive. Placing the burden of responsibility on individual faculty members is inexpensive for the institution. Creating and maintaining a team of designers, tech specialists, and others is obviously expensive. In fact in some institutions, faculty do not receive direct and additional compensation for course development.
Why Change Our Approach to Content?
We need to rethink our approach to developing and acquiring instructional media. We can no longer naively assume that because the content is produced within the institution by academics with the proper academic credentials that it is of high quality.
Until recently, universities could claim to offer knowledge that was otherwise unavailable. This, along with accreditation, has long been the basis of the institution’s “business model”. This protection is fading, however. The knowledge imparted in the vast majority of classrooms is now available elsewhere. To add value in this new context, universities need to now focus on the quality of the instruction. Information is no longer enough.
The expansion of access to information presents a second, less obvious challenge: it increases transparency. It is increasingly difficult for organizations to control the distribution of information about their products and services. In traditional consumer industries, for example, consumers can now easily compare prices and features between different vendors. And increasingly, consumers use feedback from other consumers to make purchase decisions. These same pressures are encroaching on universities. New services are emerging that allow prospective students and their parents to hear from existing and former university students. As more information becomes available, online programs will need to be ready to demonstrate superiority. Those that produce content according to the ‘cottage model’ (described above) will appear amateurish. (Greater transparency will not benefit the more prestigious schools – the value of their brands have only one way to go: down.)
In the third installment of this series, I will outline a number of content development and acquisition models being used in online higher education (coming soon).
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