Some Context for the Government’s 500 Million: Digital Media in Online Higher Ed

Frederick M. Hess wrote an interesting piece for Inside Higher Ed in which he questioned the logic and fairness of the U.S. government’s initiative to “provide $500 million to develop free, and ‘freely available,’ online college courses.” He suggests that the initiative is short-sighted and serves to undercut existing commercial providers:

“It’s one thing to encourage providers to develop ”open source” wares and to promote measures that encourage publishers, colleges and universities to reduce costs and save students money. But it’s another thing entirely for the federal government to use taxpayer dollars to provide services that will undercut those offered by self-sustaining private enterprises.” . . . “More than half a dozen major textbook publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, W.W. Norton & Co., and John Wiley & Sons, as well as hundreds of smaller providers, develop and distribute online educational content.”

Questions about the sustainability of the initiative and the role of government in higher education are obviously important; Dr. Hess provides a valuable service by addressing these issues. But, as they say, “context is everything”. If we take a closer look at the specific state of content development in online higher education, we can see that the government initiative may ultimately serve the interests of the commercial sector.

Digital Content Development in Online Higher Education

At its core, the government initiative involves sponsoring the development of digital content that will be used for free by colleges and universities. The more educational institutions that use the content, the more successful the initiative will have been deemed to be. This approach to content development is very different from how the vast majority of our traditional colleges and universities produce and finance digital content for online education.

Traditional colleges and universities build online course content according to the organizational and financial logic of what Tony Bates once called the “cottage model”. The cottage model of content development is derived from classroom higher education. It has two essential features. One, individual instructors assume primary responsibility for the design and development of course content. While virtually every educational institution in North America now includes a service department charged with assisting instructors with course development, in all but exceptional cases, these departments have not disrupted the traditional breakdown of roles and responsibilities for course design and development.  As any number of instructional designers will tell you (behind closed doors), they have relatively little control over the final product. These are service units, fundamentally; designed to respond to decisions that reside in the hands of faculty. Success is measured as much by the level of satisfaction of faculty, as by the quality of the course.

Two, the content created through the cottage model is typically used for only a single course at a single university. It is not shared or sold to other educational institutions that offer similar courses. The effect of this practice is to severely limit the financial investment that can be made in the development of course content. Without economies from scale (i.e. volume), investment must be restricted to the revenue generated by a single course. (In some universities, there can be two versions of a single course because more than one instructor teaches it.) While this approach has little impact on the quality of classroom education, it places great restrictions on what is possible for digital education. Educational media, like other forms of media, is highly dependent on the level of investment and the skills brought to its’ development. Without the involvement of a team of specialists and a significant financial investment, higher education will not be able to explore and ultimately exploit the tremendous potential of digital media for educational purposes. Today’s text-based courses, using simple graphics and group discussions, can be effective if well designed. But they are just one piece of a broader set of opportunities that digital educational media offers. As of 2009, simulations, games, dramatizations, and other possibilities remain rare in higher education.

It likely won’t surprise anyone to learn that it is the larger online proprietary schools that were first to recognize that the cottage model is inappropriate. Many of these schools – such as the U of Phoenix, ITT Technical Institute, The Art Institute – have put in place large and sophisticated teams to develop course content. Some have chosen to outsource parts of course development to companies like Learning Mate Solutions and Tata Interactive, both of India. Others have turned to the most familiar source of instructional media in higher education: textbook publishers, who continue to migrate, albeit slowly and awkwardly, to digital. (Pearson Education, for example, is working with Walden University, part of Laureate Education Inc.) (It’s interesting to note that the textbook industry is founded on the premise that a great deal of higher education curriculum is common, something traditional colleges and universities have yet to come to terms with.)

Frederick Hess may be correct, then, when he argues that the Obama initiative is anti-competitive, and that there are companies already providing these services to our schools. However, the vast majority of our colleges and universities do not take advantage of this model. It is this aspect of the online higher education market that changes the broader significance of the government initiative.

The government initiative actually mimics the production model of the private sector. And, as such, it serves as a very large and well-publicized demonstration of a different approach to content development – one that opens the door to course development being done outside of university walls. Consequently, the initiative may actually serve to encourage traditional colleges and universities to adopt this new industrial approach (new to higher ed) for online learning. Once traditional schools recognize the advantages of the new model, more will be open to working with private companies to acquire content. Ultimately, the government initiative may increase the total size of the commercial market for digital content providers. It is the private sector – those that Dr. Hess sees as victims of the initiative – that will benefit from the government’s intervention.

So, the government’s initiative may be, technically speaking, anti-competitive, and unfair to the companies that operate in this market. But in the longer term we may find that is these same vendors that are reaping the rewards.

If I were in the business of building and selling educational media, I wouldn’t complain too loudly.

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1 thought on “Some Context for the Government’s 500 Million: Digital Media in Online Higher Ed Leave a comment

  1. Hi Keith,

    Great post, there is indeed a tussle between government initiatives for e-learning, and private education providers (universities/schools and subsequently e-learning companies and publishers).

    Another angle to this (that I’ve blogged about earlier: is the state-led initiatives for ‘online universities/networks’ that have failed in the past, and the impact it may have for private universities.

    It remains to be seen how the industry reacts to these grand schemes!


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