One of the skills I’ve come to appreciate in leaders of online and hybrid education is the ability to evaluate not just the value of the ever-increasing range of new technologies, instructional methods, and business models on offer, but also how well these different opportunities will align with the unique organizational design, processes and culture of our colleges and universities. They recognize that “fit” is all-important.

As more opportunities and solutions get thrust in front of academic leaders, they need to combine an understanding of instructional value with a sensitivity towards how these different opportunities will or won’t succeed within the institutional setting.

For the purpose of illustration, consider the difference between the LMS and the version of MOOCs originally presented by Udacity and Coursera.

MOOCs a la Udacity and Coursera

Despite the excitement created by these courses and the fact that they came from elite institutions, getting institutions to grant academic credit proved difficult. The problem wasn’t so much a lack of a clear revenue model, as was often argued, but that the value of these courses, despite their pedigree, was largely dependent on their being accepted for credit. With acceptance for credit, their value would leap and the revenue would follow.

Asking institutions to adopt these courses for credit ran headlong into a number of entrenched interests and practices. Here are a few:

1 . . . Elite institutions benefit when they maximize exclusivity; this is an enduring marker of quality in the higher education marketplace. They accomplish this through high tuition levels (pre-discounts), but primarily through tougher admission standards. Providing open admission to MOOCs that, not incidentally base their value on their similarity to the “real” courses offered at elite institution, works against the imperative of exclusivity.

2 . . . If MOOCs were accepted for credit, a sizeable percentage of the higher education market would be compelled to establish themselves as suppliers in this new marketplace. (A new version of “publish or perish”?) But if the market for MOOCs operated like other markets, and I don’t know why it wouldn’t, the vast majority of institutions would be in the role of consumers; they would adopt courses built elsewhere.

The adopted courses would bear the marks of the institution and academics from which they originated. However, higher education is organized such that each institution and each faculty member is hired and rewarded on the basis of subject matter expertise; they are expected to be the source of knowledge for the students that attend. For institutions, this is reflected in the way research productivity serves as the basis for rankings. (QS University rankings, for example, calculate the number of awards granted faculty to compile its list.) With respect to individual faculty, demonstration of subject-matter expertise isn’t merely a requirement for employment and the means of promotion, but part of their professional (and I would suggest, personal) identity. It’s what makes them different from mere “teachers”.

The misalignment of this version of MOOCs and higher education was evident in the concerns raised by some of San Jose State University faculty who were asked to use a MOOC from Harvard; they wrote: “Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.” Similarly, in his refusal to serve as faculty for another MOOC, Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD described the venture as a form of academic “colonialism”.

3 . . . Institutions may also have seen the early version of MOOCs as a threat to a key source of revenue — high-enrolment courses. Accepting credits from students who enrolled in MOOCs at other institutions, or offering free or low cost MOOCs at their own institution, may cut into the revenue that goes a long-way toward funding other parts of the institution (i.e. cost-shifting).

Because of these and other obstacles, the MOOC model defined by Udacity and Coursera was perceived as often as a threat as an opportunity. In lieu of acceptance of these courses for academic credit, or the emergence of alternative forms of credentials from outside higher education proper, this particular approach to MOOCs reduced the effort to a promotional vehicles for elite universities that didn’t really need promotion, and examples of innovation from institutions with the least to gain from change in higher education.

The LMS: A Perfect Fit

On the other hand, learning management systems were quickly and widely adopted when they first landed fifteen-plus years ago. Their success was predicated on the fact that they fit easily into the existing organizational model of higher education. The technology was expressly designed to allow individual educators to create and deliver their own courses — without significant assistance or mediation by the institution. Which is, of course, how classroom higher education has long been organized. This kept the cost of putting courses online down (by minimizing the need for additional labour), adhered to conventional notions of academic autonomy, and didn’t require a significant modification to institutional practices.

By mirroring the existing organizational design the LMS may have inadvertently reinforced an approach to online course design and development — the “lone-wolf” model — that is actually quite ill-suited to the demands and possibilities of online education. Nevertheless, it fit the institution well.

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. 

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