When it comes to creating, funding and distributing instructional resources in digital higher education, there are two fundamental approaches being used today, each with its own set of practices and business models.

The DIY (Do-It-Yourself) approach involves small-scale, low-cost development of online courseware, primarily by lone instructors, who are working with limited support and funds. The instructional materials are typically used only in a single course. This is essentially a cottage-industry approach; its origins based on the deeply ingrained traditional classroom model.

In the ISS model (Investment, Specialists and Scale) approach, instructional materials are created by teams of professionals, with a wide range of skills, and draws on a far greater level of investment. Scalability of the materials is key: the expectation is that the materials will be used in dozens, if not hundreds, of courses. The ISS model assumes that individual instructors don’t typically have the time, resources or skill sets required to consistency produce high-quality online learning experiences for students.

In the next two or three years, we will see a more intense debate over finding a balance between these two approaches, and the best path forward. The way this debate unfolds will determine how successfully we manage costs, how we view academic roles and responsibilities, and how institutions compete with one another.

The DIY model: its appeal and limitations

Advances in technology has enabled individuals to do things that were once the purview of large, heavily-resourced organizations. The advent of desktop publishing in the 1980s, for example, allowed individuals to produce their own print materials. Blogging has radically expanded the diversity of commentary and information. YouTube channels operated by individuals are cutting into market share of major TV networks.

In some respects, the DIY model fits nicely into how traditional higher education is organized. Instructors are accustomed to high levels of autonomy. Classroom education is essentially a one-person operation; the individual instructor is responsible for the majority of the student’s learning experience.

When online learning emerged, the majority of traditional institutions simply transplanted the classroom model to the online context. We selected technologies that didn’t disrupt the one-person, classroom-based model. The learning management system (LMS) was an immediate success precisely because it maintained the traditional organizational model; it allowed instructors to create and manage their own online courses with little external support.

The appeal of the DIY model to higher education is obvious: it enables a quick transition to online without fundamentally reworking the organizational structure. And it doesn’t challenge the instructor autonomy – an ingrained and politically-charged aspect of the traditional institution model.

However, the limitations of the DIY model have been largely downplayed. Placing the responsibility for the design and development of courseware in the hands of lone instructors dramatically limits what kind of content and software can be made available to students. Sole instructors, 9 times out of 10, don’t have the range of skills, the time available, or the incentives to devote to high-quality course design and development. Many courses are often hastily put together, using repurposed classroom and print materials.

Very few online courses can claim to be based on rigorously-tested, thoughtfully-designed courseware that offer students hundreds of opportunities for formative assessment, or personalized learning, to measurably improve learning outcomes.

And without economies of scale (volume), investment is restricted to the revenue generated by a single course. In some universities, it is not uncommon to offer two versions of a single course because more than one instructor teaches it.

Moreover, the growth of DIY capabilities and tools does not mean that everyone will or should create instructional materials for the online environment. While anyone can set up a blog, a very small number choose to do it; even fewer keep their blog up-to-date.

It requires a serious investment of time to learn how to use DIY tools well enough to consistently produce high quality, effective materials. And even then, a quality gap exists between DIY efforts and what large scale organizations can achieve. Compare home-made YouTube videos to what Hollywood creates using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and other techniques.

The ISS model

The Internet introduced new opportunities to develop and distribute large scale, high quality products and services. The cost of reaching thousands of users became only marginally greater than reaching one. This, in turn, meant that we could invest more and reduce costs per user.

The possibilities weren’t lost on education entrepreneurs. As early as the 1990s, several companies and non-profit organizations used the Internet to set up large, open access courses, pre-dating MOOCs.

While originally based on a DIY production and financial model, MOOCs quickly transformed into an example of ISS. As enrollments and public attention grew, university leadership recognized that these initiatives could serve as extraordinary vehicles for expanding the brand and reach of the institution.

But what really drove the shift to ISS in MOOCs was the very public nature of the instructional materials. Unlike instructional materials in traditional higher education, materials offered in MOOCs are available to people outside of the institution.

As a result, universities and individual faculty found one of their core activities – course content – on display in ways not seen previously. This unprecedented level of transparency put the spotlight on quality and competition. Not surprisingly, investment made in the instructional quality of high-profile MOOCs (e.g., Coursera, edX) has increased significantly during the past 18 months.

While the vast majority of online courses in North American universities are made for 20K–25K, investment in MOOCs has reached 10 times that amount. The bigger budgets are producing better written video lectures and presentations, with professional lighting and sound. We are seeing less traditional lectures and more “performances.”

In a Udacity course, the instructor begins by interviewing passersby in a style lifted straight out of late night, comedy television. An edX course, “Fundamentals of Neuroscience,” features 5- to 10-minute NOVA-like episodes. The CEO of edX was quoted in an article saying, ”From what I hear, really good actors can actually teach really well,” and floated the idea that using actors in the future was a possibility.

I know of at least one digital higher education publisher that has turned to actors, rather than academics, to “star” in the company’s video lectures.

The lecture-based approach of many high-profile MOOCs is not instructionally innovative. But the business model of MOOCs has nevertheless stimulated conversation about the possibilities of sharing relatively expensive instructional materials. Governments and edtech pundits are now talking about the potential savings and logic in sharing the best available digital instructional content. Faculty, on the other hand, have raised concerns about possible “academic colonialism” and the displacement of labor that such a trend could bring.

Two factors determine the savings potential of the ISS model: first, the cost of the development of courseware as a percentage of total costs. Second, the frequency with which instructional materials are common across institutions.

Course design and development is approximately 15–20 percent of the total cost of offering an online course at a traditional institution. While not a significant percentage, this figure can be misleading. The costs incurred are tied to the type of course development, and, more broadly, the business model that underpins it.

Different types of course development impact the quality of the materials available, and by extension:

  • The quality of learning
  • Completion rates
  • Investment levels
  • Number of end-users/learners
  • Reuse by instructors at different institutions
  • Demands placed on instructors and student support.

Greater level of investment could reduce the total cost to the institution and reduce demands on instructor’s time, freeing them up for other, high-priority activities.

The degree to which curriculum is common is the second key factor. The more diverse the curriculum across a state system, for example, the less potential savings from sharing. While the DIY and cottage industry model assumes that content is extremely diverse – indeed, unique – evidence suggests otherwise. Just look at the higher education textbook publishing industry. Even the major publishers release titles with remarkably few differences.

And all institutions must be organized to serve incoming high school students, who are taught according to common curriculum standards. Educators are, themselves, products of the same systems, and this is reflected in their curriculum decisions.

Shifting the balance

The shift to digital learning presents higher education with new opportunities to increase value to students, faculty and institutions. Our task is to find the right approach to maximize that value, given existing resources.

Here are four reasons why we are likely to see the balance shift from DIY to ISS:

  • Growing recognition among educators that the quality of online instructional materials is highly dependent on the range of talent and level of investment to a far greater degree than the traditional classroom model.

-Growing recognition among educators that instructional resources are common across certain types of courses, and sharing is the smart thing to do.

  • Demand for quality. Students, university leaders and government are more concerned than ever about the return on investment. ISS provides a relatively quick and direct path to improving the quality of instructional materials.
  • Demand for learning analytics. Spurred on by accountability pressures, instructors and institutions need sophisticated, evidence-based courseware that helps them measure and improve learning outcomes.

DIY should continue to be part of how higher education creates content and pockets of innovation and diversity, where needed. The DIY model is best suited for those courses in which the curriculum is unique. But for those courses that have a significant percentage of shared curriculum, we need to find ways to leverage the extraordinary potential of the ISS model.


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value.