A chasm is beginning to appear between institutions of higher education that offer online programmes. The divide is the result of the different strategies taken for designing, sourcing and managing online education programmes.

A small number of institutions in the U.S. have adopted methods for producing and supporting online courses that have the potential, if not the likelihood, to improve learning outcomes, increase the speed with the institution improves the quality of teaching and learning, increase value (quality/cost). If present trends continue, these institutions could reconfigure the deeply embedded hierarchy that organises higher education.

A couple of scenarios

An acquaintance of mine, currently an Assistant Professor at a mid-size university, was asked in mid-July by her institution to create and deliver a new online course for the Fall (September) semester. In the time available, she had to define the new curriculum, determine the instructional tactics to be used, collect existing resources, and create new materials, including assessments.

Throughout the process, she worked alone. Although an instructional designer was on-hand, the staff member had little time and offered not much more than a checklist of best practices. The Instructor’s budget for the course development? Nil.

Her experience contrasts sharply with practices at a handful US universities. These institutions typically focus, sometimes exclusively, on online education, offer open-admissions, and have centralised management of teaching and learning. Consider this depiction; a composite of a few institutions I’ve had a chance to investigate:

An academic department – after conducting a thorough, regularly scheduled review of learning outcomes – determines that a full rework of a key programme is required. Starting what will be a twelve-month process, the department conducts a deeper analysis of the current programme, consulting with student support staff, faculty, academic leadership, and industry advisors – to define the overarching set of objectives and instructional strategies for the revamped programme.

A team is assigned to the project, including specialists in learning analytics, subject matter experts, managers of assessment systems, faculty, teaching assistants, student support staff, and technology managers.

The institution’s team identifies a number of things they want to offer their students that can be done more efficiently by forming partnerships other universities, consortia, and vendors, so as to complement internal strengths. The course development process ultimately involves more than a dozen people, three external organisations, and costs more than 100k per course, when including internal labour costs. Following the first year of the new programmes’ delivery, a review is conducted to identify where refinements are needed.

Not an inconsequential impact

There are a number of issues of note:

All things being equal, this handful of institutions will offer students higher quality education. By bringing the right mix of talent, resources, funds, and processes together, the institution has a much better chance of providing students with a well-conceived, thoughtfully-executed, and well-resourced learning experience.

These institutions have considerably greater ability to scale-up learning to meet demand. They can build new courses anprogrammesms more quickly, and with greater assurance that each will meet institutional standards for quality.

These institutions pay considerably more attention to the results of their instructional strategies. Internal reviews are common, and many are now turning to analytics to generate even more detailed and extensive insights into what’s working and what isn’t. This knowledge provides the basis for better decision-making, which in-turn can provide progressively better learning experiences for students.

This last quality needs to be underlined.

Knowledge about how to design and support learning in higher education held by individual faculty – whether online or not – is rarely systematically shared with the institution. Teaching is approached as individual pursuit. Indeed, faculty members can work in the same department as other academics for several years without ever seeing each other teach. Each Instructor operates individually. Strictly speaking, this isn’t by design: it’s a by-product of the traditional organizational structure of the institution and conventions of the academic occupation. But the effect of this characteristic is that it limits the flow of knowledge across the institution about effective teaching.  It fits nicely the centuries-old conventions of the occupation, it may ultimately limit the breadth and depth of the knowledge that is brought to bear on each course within the institution.

These upstart universities see knowledge about teaching and learning as the domain of the institution. The institution, not the individual educator, captures, interprets and applies knowledge about how best to serve students.  Knowledge is applied on an institutional level, not on a course-by-course, instructor-by-instructor level.

Of course, the downside of this approach is the potential to suppress the kinds of innovations that can arise from radical decentralization – letting a “hundred flowers bloom”, if you will.

But supporters of this more centralized approach contend that the benefits of a collective, institutional approach to knowledge building and sharing may be greater at this point in the evolution of online education. Higher quality learning, they argue, requires a more deliberate and disciplined approach. At times, I can appreciate this perspective: conference presentations about “how to teach online” offered in 2014 have striking resemblance to those we heard in 2001. We don’t seem to be making significant headway by placing the burden of course design and delivery primarily on the backs of under-resourced individual Instructors.


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 want to agree, I really do, but I have an almost visceral reaction to hemming in the innovator. This is a fundamental debate that extends far beyond this excellent post.


  2. Well put, David and thank you for the note.
    I suspect those institutions that are taking the more institutional, centralized approach to teaching and learning would contend that teams of individuals, not just individuals, can be innovative. Moreover, innovations have a better chance of seeing the light of day (that is, being implemented and sustained) if they are supported by entire organizations.
    They might also point out that creativity and innovation are frequently the work of complex organizations. Great films, to use an example from outside of education, are creative endeavours and incorporate the talents of a wide range of people and organizations.
    Personally, I don’t think we really have a good handle on how innovation “happens”. The more I study it, the less faith I have in the multitude of theories and “surefire tactics” about how to stimulate innovation. What I am quite certain of, though, is that the current organizational model within higher education is not producing the kinds of results for students that I would like for my children. Despite the hyperbole about edtech, we’ve fallen far behind other sectors in finding new ways to use technology productively. I’m open to any and all ideas that get us moving forward. :)


  3. Enjoying your post (as always) Keith. From my perspective, I have not come across any traditional university that has developed the capability of scaling up wholly online or blended learning courses rapidly and at large scale across the institution. I’m sure some exist and you describe that there a handful but they are very much the exception. So what does that mean for the rest? And is it really a schism if there are so few that can do it?

    From my perspective, the endeavour of higher education is now so complex that it is almost impossible to develop any new course or program without the input of a team of subject matter experts, designers and developers.

    This is quite expensive although it could be argued that the fees currently being levied should be able to cover complex, team-based course development.

    Nevertheless universities still need to organise for such development. In my opinion they can do one of two things; firstly they can set up a much more extensive semi-autonomous organisational unit that can be charged with the large scale delivery of technology enhanced courses without the traditional barriers of existing organisational relationships and working practices. This might be done in partnership with a commercial partner (I have previously worked for such an organisational unit that is a partnership between a traditional university and an online recruitment company). Such units are quite different from different from traditional central learning teaching units that are often under resourced and dis-empowered to drive change.

    Interestingly Clayton Christensen describes the establishment of such semi-autonomous organisational units as being one approach for large organisations to adopt innovations on a wide scale.

    The other thing they can do is outsource complexities of modern course design and development to a commercial partner. My current company provides such a service and we are finding that our services are in demand. I certainly don’t think it means taking anything away from the university. In fact we add to it. One project we are currently working on involves the development of re-usable patterns of innovative learning and teaching are being designed for a small number or programs but that can be replicated my academic staff in other areas. Another project involves the creation of what will be a highly innovative open course. The School we are working with will come away from this with a much better, deeper understanding of the possibilities than they had before and they’ll have something that is working and enhances their reputation immediately.

    I don’t think either approach need be to the detriment of the innovative faculty member as long as the faculty member is recognised as being innovative and encouraged to be so. Neither attribute has been particularly prevalent in universities in recent years where the tendency is often for the innovator/early adopter to be marginalised. It’s not unique to highered and Everett Rogers has written about the way innovators are marginalized in many organisations.

    I’ll finish by observing that in both in my old and company and my current company we still innovated because we were/are expected to do so. This is quite a different mindset to the one that occurs in most university teaching areas where any risk is not worth taking because there is simply nothing to gain for the faculty member.

    I think I should have written this a blog post.


  4. Reblogged this on Techno Happenings and commented:
    Great read


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