When I entered the field of online higher education back in the Dark Ages of 1997, the first 56.6 kbps modems were just starting to appear in homes. Online enrolment was a fraction of what it is today. The push to grow online learning was largely faculty-led; few university Strategic Plans included more than a passing reference to online education.

Today, of course, we’re accustomed to reading breathless editorials in mass-market publications like the New York Times about the disruptive power of online learning. University Presidents proclaim that online education is a “game changer”. Clay Shirky explains that technology is bringing an end to business-as-usual for higher ed, just as it has for newspapers and the music industry.

Yet, in the midst of all this talk of revolution, one aspect of online higher education has remained virtually unchanged since the 1990s: the way that the majority of 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 is now often available from an instructional designer and technical staff, but their impact is limited by workplace conventions that encourage faculty to work alone (and staff to let them). Funds for course development are similarly constrained, due to the conventional notion/practice that course materials should be built for use only within the institution from which they came.

While this model of course development may work for classroom education (where the organizational and financial model originated), it places severe limitations on the kinds of digital learning experiences that committed educators can make available to their online students.

Development of more sophisticated forms of digital learning such as personalized instruction driven by analytics, immersive gaming, or the use of rich media, to name but a few possibilities, require a team of specialists, longer development schedules, and considerably more funding than is available in the current approach. Placing the burden on lone educators with minuscule (or non-existent) funding — who are not hired for their strengths in instructional media development — is both illogical and unfair.  But more to the point, it’s a lost opportunity to leverage high-quality course design to drive improvements in learning outcomes.

As a result, students across North America are frequently presented with online courses consisting of repurposed classroom PowerPoint slides, home-made graphics, and an incoherent pastiche of free content from the Net — each element developed for different purposes and pitched at different levels. Worst of all, these online learning experiences are being developed without deep knowledge of the science of how people actually learn most effectively — knowledge, ironically, that universities themselves have generated.

By simply transferring the existing roles, responsibilities and financial model to the online context allowed institutions to quickly “put courses online”. It made the migration to online education relatively painless for the institution, but adherence to this approach has ultimately limited our capacity to offer our students a more thoughtfully crafted, rigorously developed online course experience.

The current approach to developing online courses took hold not because we thought it was the best way to create a great online learning experience for students, but for the simple fact that it fit with the institution’s existing structure, processes, and culture — all of which are derived from the deeply engrained logic of the classroom model. Nor is the endurance of the classroom model due to the fact that we tried new approaches and found them wanting. There have been great breakthroughs in using new course design strategies by a handful of innovative organizations. Extensive evaluations of Carnegie Mellon University’s “Open Learning Initiative” – from which my organization springs – regularly found that their approach significantly reduced the amount of time it took students to complete courses, while still maintaining or even improving learning outcomes.

Of course, not all aspects of online course design require a team of specialists, a longer development time, and more funding. Some things can be done quickly, cheaply and by individuals with focused skill sets. But those types of instructional materials are not the problem — we’ve got that well in-hand. The challenge now is to find ways for our colleges and universities to build and access those types of instructional experiences that take fuller advantage of the Net’s unique properties to combine data, interaction, media and rigorous instructional design.

We know, for example, that students benefit from having regular opportunities to apply their knowledge as they are learn and then to receive immediate, meaningful feedback on their efforts. But, of course, the current approach makes it all but impossible for lone instructors to produce hundreds of learning activities for each course. And it’s even less feasible for the instructor to provide feedback to each and every student in real-time. Similarly, we know that students come to us with very different cognitive and educational baggage; educators have little opportunity to identify and respond to these differences.

When built with a deep understanding of how students learn, technology can meet both of these needs. We can build online courses that provide students with hundreds of opportunities to test their knowledge. Using scientifically-based learning analytics, we can provide each learner with immediate, context-specific feedback. We can build software that constantly responds to each student’s cognitive and educational differences and serves up activities that address these differences.

But these kinds of learning tools take time, money and talent to create. They can’t be put together a few weeks before classes start.  If we’re going to take online education seriously, we need to take course design seriously. We need to start imagining new models for building, acquiring and sharing instructional media.


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. 


  1. I couldn’t agree with you more Keith. Online education in my country too is being pushed at the national policy and institutional levels as a major cost effective strategy to increase higher education access. Whilts the goal has merits, the institutions have precious little expertise and funding to scale up the traditional delivery model to the online space. Many of my colleagues resort to uploading PowerPoints and weblinks.

    Thank you for your thoughts.


  2. Thank you for the note, Ludmilla. And thank you for gently reminding me of my overly-narrow North American perspective. While the goals between different regions are similar, I suspect the strategies we need to take to reach them are very different.


  3. Yes I think we are still at a fairly basic stage with respect to fully using the capabilities of online courses. Some key investments must be made to really enlarge our understanding of the right way to measure learner improvement and
    how to design learning modules to fully engage students. We need well supported learning communities to work through these questions and share best practices.


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