We have good reason to be excited about online higher education; it has the potential to reconfigure “how we do” higher education in ways that will improve both the quality and efficiency of learning.

However, talk of online education’s current “transformative”, “revolutionary” and (worst of all) “disruptive” impact on traditional higher education ignores the fact that one of the core components of online higher education has improved only imperceptibly during last two decades. Online instructional content – the instructional media and activities presented to students – remains largely stuck in the 1990s, barely scratching the potential that we once imagined.

The problems with instructional content stem from how courses are created. In most non-profit colleges and universities, the responsibility for the design and development of instructional content continues to fall to under-resourced and typically ill-prepared individual faculty members. The service departments set up in most institutions to support online learning have not substantially changed this fundamental division of labor. Instructional design professionals in these departments – despite their skills – are forced into secondary roles, often pushed toward providing technical training (“How to Set Up Quizzes in Blackboard”), rather than actually working with course instructors to design instruction. The funds available for course development are severely limited to what can be reasonably generated by way of tuition revenue (minus direct expenses) over a few semesters. And incentive systems of traditional colleges and universities make it illogical for faculty to spend excessive time developing instructional content, even if they had the wide range of skills necessary for this kind of work. There are exceptions to this state of affairs, but too few.

As a result, online instructional content is often hastily constructed, relies heavily on exposition, and is largely void of the applications that actually take advantage of the unique properties of digital technology. Most discouraging of all, course design is often not based on research about how students actually learn (i.e. the science of learning). The process is neither rigorous, nor ambitious. You’d be hard-pressed to find another sector or institution in which content is both so obviously important and yet given so little attention. (Ironic, given the primacy of evidence-based practice in all other corners of the academy.)

A number of changes are required if we are to begin to truly take advantage of potential of instructional content in online higher education. Some of the more obvious, such as team-based design and faculty development have been discussed elsewhere. Below, I offer three additional pieces of the puzzle that will help us get to the next stage of instructional content.


(Finally) take course design seriously.

To recruit Dr. Jennifer West, a researcher at Rice University, Duke University had to pay for an entire team of researchers that worked with Dr. West, as well as much of their equipment. Dr. West told NPR, “They actually sent architects to Rice (University) who looked at our lab facilities there, then used that information to go back and design the facility that would work for us at Duke.”

Imagine a university making the same effort to secure the best instructional experience for its online students. Imagine institutions feverishly seeking out the best available digital learning experience; recruiting the best instructional designers and the best instructors; the ones that have been proven to improve learning outcomes. Imagine if the Chief Academic Officer’s career security was dependent on her success in this regard. Given the centrality of teaching and learning to the institution, this shouldn’t sound absurd; the problem, of course, is that it does.


In the digital world, “design” matters.

“Design” here refers to graphic design, industrial design, user experience, and the like. Design has taken on a bigger role in Western societies as a means of mitigating the jarring effect of rapid change. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of personal technology (e.g. apps, tablets, mobile devices).

However, online higher education has managed to remain untouched by good design. Its absence in online higher education is a significant inhibitor of the quality of learning: when we move the locus of education from the classroom to the digital environment, we necessarily change the factors that determine the quality of the student’s experience. In the digital environment, design plays a far more important role than it does in the classroom. “Screens” (laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc.) are design-dependent. The quality of design in screen-based environments dramatically influences the end-user’s experience.

Well-designed instructional content and interfaces are easier to use and thus, more efficient. But the value of great design goes further: it can, like a great educator, direct the students’ attention to what is most important, increase the amount of time that a user is willing to spend on a particular challenge (i.e. time on task), build on a user’s existing knowledge, provoke a positive emotional response (which can facilitate better learning), and make information memorable and “sticky”.


We need to know what’s working.

A greater commitment to measuring the effectiveness of learning may be the single greatest driver of innovation in higher education in 2014. Better information about learning outcomes in the hands of educators, regulatory bodies, university leadership, employers, and (especially) students will uncover what’s working and what isn’t. But it will also drive innovation by providing both the impetus for change and the data we need to validate new approaches.

Despite the relative ease with which we can capture student activity in online education, most institutions have only begun to take advantage of this opportunity. As of 2014, most analytics in higher education – to the extent that it is used for instructional purposes at all – tends to be limited to “engagement” analytics, which tells us what pages, assignments, and so forth that the student has visited. It tells us that the student is “there or not” (i.e. engaged). What it doesn’t tell us is how well the student has mastered specific aspects of the curriculum – which is the realm of true learning analytics. With learning analytics, educators, institutions, and students have the information required to build and test new instructional approaches and to know when they’re working.

Great instructional content and learning analytics are natural allies. When tied to instructional content, analytics provides the intelligence that can determine, for example, which content should be served up to students based on their past performance (adaptive), predict the kinds of support that students may need to master specific parts of the curriculum, and help faculty identify the most effective types of instructional content.

If the goal of the institution is to help students learn, and the power we assign to these institutions to act as gatekeepers is justified, it is logical (if not a social imperative) that the institution become extremely good at measuring learning.

It’s been almost two decades since we got started with online learning. Since then, we’ve made some significant progress. But for a variety of reasons, the level of innovation and quality of course design has fallen behind. It’s time we began to take fuller advantage of the opportunities for improved learning that it affords.


Lisa Chow. Duke: 60,000 a Year for College is Actually a Discount, NPR. February 21, 2014. . http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2014/02/14/277015271/duke-60-000-a-year-for-college-is-actually-a-discount Retrieved May 12 2014.

Learning analytics has a quietly subversive quality. Increased measurement of learning outcomes will challenge the existing hierarchy of institutions. Those institutions at the top of the pyramid have nowhere to go but down, and the traditional means by which we’ve measured quality in higher education has worked in their favour. See Lloyd Armstrong. Competitive Higher Education, Changing Higher Education. http://www.changinghighereducation.com/2006/03/competitive_hig.html Retrieved May 12 2014


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. 

2 thoughts on “Three Pieces of the Puzzle: Instructional Content in Online Higher Education

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