When I first entered the field of online education back in 1997, the first 56.6 kps modems were appearing in homes. Most institutions had no more than a handful of online courses. Universities treated educators with an interest in “distance education” with either suspicion or indifference. Online education was largely a faculty-led effort; few university Strategic Plans included more than a passing reference to online education.

Obviously, much has changed. But one aspect of online higher education remains largely intact: the way that traditional colleges and universities go about designing, creating, and financing in-house online course development.

Now, as in 1997, individual instructors assume the bulk of the responsibility for course design and development. Support from an instructional designer and technical staff is available, but their impact is limited by availability and the conventions of academic work. Funds for course development are similarly constrained, due to the limited revenue that can be generated from offering a single course at a single institution.

This “cottage industry” approach took hold not because we thought it was the best way to create a great online learning experience for students, but because it fit with the institution’s existing organisation and processes — one based on the classroom model. Mirroring the classroom model made the shift to online relatively painless.

As a consequence, though, the quality of the online courses produced within our traditional colleges and universities falls to professionals who were not hired on the basis of their knowledge of graphic design, information architecture, programming, or the learning sciences — the very qualities required to consistently create great online courses. As has long been the case for classroom education, the overarching, but implicit assumption is that putting course design in the hands of people with deep subject matter knowledge translates into a good learning experience for students. There’s little evidence that this is the case in the classroom, and it’s less true for online education, where a whole new host of skills and knowledge are required.

By simply transferring the existing roles, responsibilities and financial model to the online context, allowed institutions to quickly “put courses online”. But it also all but ensured that these institutions are unable to produce more sophisticated and ambitious online courses that support better learning outcomes or reduce costs. Ironically, it restricts the use of the very instructional techniques, resources, and new business models that research claims can improve the value of higher education — research produced by our universities.

Examples of more ambitious online course design include:

  • Courses that offer students hundreds of opportunities to test and apply their knowledge and skills. And an equal number of moments of feedback that let them know of their progress;
  • High-production value media, including illustrations, animations, audio and video, that explain difficult concepts and process in clear and powerful ways;
  • Software that adapts to student input, enabling the optimal sequence of learning activities;
  • Learning analytics, with instructional activities, that provides the student, educator, and institution with detailed explanations of a student’s relative strengths and weaknesses;
  • Instructional methodologies tied to new business models that have the capacity — unlike the current model — to drive down costs by leveraging economies of scale.

These tactics and others like them accomplish the obvious: they take advantage of the unique economics of the Internet and leverage the medium’s ground-breaking capacity to combine media, interactivity, social interaction, and data; the very things we dreamt of doing back in the 1990s but have failed to accomplish.

Simply getting courses online is no longer sufficient, and it can no longer serve as evidence of a strong institutional commitment to online learning — as Penn’s Robert Zemsky argued a full decade ago. Institutions need now to turn their attention to finding ways to build or acquire instructional content that truly takes advantage of technology to improve learning. There’s no better place to start than course design.


Consortia typically offer a range of services for member institutions:

  • Course registration and course registration systems
  • Helpdesk (technology and/or administrative) for students (e.g. BC Campus)
  • Professional development for instructors (e.g. Campus Saskatchewan)
  • Learning management systems (e.g. eCampus Alberta)
  • Video conferencing (hardware, software and support)
  • Webinar hosting and management (hardware, software and support)
  • Sharing of online courses between institutions
  • Instructional quality assessment and rubrics
  • Development of new applications
  • Multimedia development (instructional material)
  • Market research services
  • Instructor training on educational technology
  • Instructional design
  • Tutoring services (student online/phone)
  • Learning object repositories
  • Project management/coordination
  • Marketing / clearinghouse of members courses and programs

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 maximising value. 

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