Business has regularly sought to rationalize aspects of higher education. To many business professionals, higher education is illogical, inefficient and in dire need of transformation. In 1997 (the former) Coopers and Lybrand suggested that a limited set of online courses could be used across most institutions, saving the system tens of millions (more?) and, notably, allowing for sufficient investment in each of the courses (as a result of the economies of scale).

The much-discussed community college initiative of the Obama administration appears to be following this line of thought. For more information.

The government initiative is preceded by the work of entrepreneurs. For example, Straighterline (a division of SmartThinking), also provides a general set of online courses to a variety of institutional partners. In fact, the description of the government initiative found on the CMU web site sounds like the Straighterline business model.

From CM’s web site:

Carnegie Mellon University, in collaboration with state agencies and national affinity groups, will establish a consortium of community colleges that will enact a large scale, systems-change process that increases efficiency in the way instruction is developed, delivered, evaluated, and continuously improved. The overarching goal is to demonstrate a 25% higher rate of course completion for students from vulnerable populations, with a focus on gatekeeper courses critical to graduation success. Within three years, the Community College Opening Learning Initiative (CC-OLI) will scale to 40 community college partners and will reach an additional 50-100 classrooms.

It will be very interesting to see how the government initiative is received. Straighterline, and other similar ventures, have faced considerable resistance from pockets of the academic community.


  1. I have been teaching online at a community college for the past three years. During that time, I have developed online courses (e.g., General Psychology, Behavioral Statistics) and hybrid courses (e.g., Research Methods, Human Development).

    When creating a class to fit the (every changing) needs of my students, I look around for learning objects to use in the course. A learning object could be a lesson, demonstration, video (e.g., interviews with experts in the field), simulation, discussion, assignment, etc. Merlot ( serves as a clearing house for learning objects – where faculty can upload, peer review, search, and use learning objects in the construction of their course.

    Using learning objects keeps the construction time of the online course down, can increase the overall quality of the course (remember that faculty review the learning objects, and recommend those of higher quality), and provide flexibility in meeting the needs of the students (i.e., learning objects that are not effective with the local students can be replaced).

    Learning objects can be small (e.g., a lecturette). They can also be more comprehensive, such as an entire learning unit covering a particular topic – that includes the presentation of ideas, opportunity for discussion, application, reflection, etc.

    Learning objects can also be found online using a search engine or discovered through being a member of a community of practice. Algebra2go is an example where an instructor teaching mathematics has made several wonderful online materials available to anyone… his own students, faculty, other students, and everyone in general. Instructors teaching an online math course could use (with permission) several of the video lessons in their own course – benefitting both themselves and their students by using high quality online instruction that is already been developed.

    Thus, it is my hope that if Carnegie Mellon working with Community Colleges develops entire online courses, that not only will the online course be available for others to use… but all of the components will likewise be available.

    This would allow instructors to select from the options of:
    [1] Go with the entire course (i.e., use all learning objects organized and embedded within the course ‘as is’),
    [2] Create their own course, and be able to select among the learning objects developed by CM and CC’s… to meet the needs of their own students (e.g., the entire web contains many learning objects, so pick amoung the best available)
    [3] Use the entire Carnegie Mellon developed course and switch out some of the existing learning units with other ones more effective – either found on the web, created by the instructor, etc. (e.g., in response to new technology opportunity, a lesson that works better, an assignment that does a better job of getting involvement).

    Quality and flexibility are benefits from using learning objects – big and small; whether it is an entire course, or its components. I would hope that Carnegie Mellon and the participating community colleges will not only share an entire course ‘as is’ but also all the learning objects that were used in creating the course. Many more faculty and students are then likely to benefit.


  2. Thanks, Robert, for this very interesting post.
    I agree that there is great value in using common content. And I imagine that the government initiative will help to mainstream this practice – something that you have obviously mastered.
    My only concern with the Merlot (type) model is that the vast majority of the content is produced by individual academics without the time, skills, or resources to consistently produce high-quality educational media. (Some of the content at Merlot comes from organizations, such as museums, science centers, and private companies – but most is created by lone academics.) While some great educational resources can be created by individuals using only their strong instinct for teaching, many other, more resource-dependent types of educational media are also potentially valuable – and these are few and far between.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s