Could We Please, Finally, Move Forward? Reinventing the Wheel in Digital Higher Ed Research

I keep hearing that the pace of change is picking up in digital higher education in 2017; that higher education is in a period of “transformation”.  And yet . . . as if to splash cold water on such happy thoughts, this morning I read a short article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (source) which suggests otherwise.

The National Tertiary Education Union in Australia just released a report that, according to one of the authors, “explodes the myth” that it takes less time to prepare and teach an online course than on-campus courses. (Report: study)


As the report suggests, it is important that we have a sense of how much time is devoted to different roles and responsibilities within the institution. But it has been long known that online courses take longer to prepare than classroom versions. Did the authors not do any secondary research? Frankly, they could have simply walked down the hall and asked one of the staff that specialize in online education. We’ve known this for at least fifteen years. How could a major survey like this be funded, involve the participation of multiple academics from different institutions, and yet fail to know that there is little debate about the question they seek to answer.

More troubling, though, is that there are still people working in this field that doesn’t recognize that a well designed and resource-rich online course should take much longer to build if we take our jobs as educators seriously. Much longer. Moreover, most courses shouldn’t be built by a single faculty member – which this report and many others assume. Individual faculty don’t have the range of skills required, the time to devote to the process, ample professional incentives, or funds. As a result, most courses that rely on in-house content development rely on repurposed classroom materials. This approach ensures that the course falls short of realizing the full potential of the online environment.

The Australian study isn’t an isolated incident. Have you attended a conference focused on digital higher education in the last year? I am consistently stunned by presentations by well-intentioned professionals who, one after another, ask and answer questions that were raised fifteen years ago by other professionals – sometimes at the very same conference. By and large, I’ve stopped attending conferences. Sure, they can be useful for setting up multiple meetings, but I’m not hearing much of anything new. Are you?


Is That All There Is? Higher Education’s Struggle to Leverage Digital Teaching and Learning

“What would become of such a child of the 17th and 18th centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the 20th century?”
Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, what we might now call “the early days” of online higher education, advocates of technology-mediated learning imagined themselves as outsiders, rebels working on the margins of higher education. Their goal, broadly, was to bring the transformative power of Internet technology to a change-adverse, centuries-old institution. Keenly aware of the presence of naysayers among them in the institution who believed that technology was an anathema to “real education”, our rebels adopted an us-against-them stance, the technology evangelists against the Luddites; the cutting edge against those that simply “didn’t get it.”


It would be difficult for these rebels to maintain the posture of an outsider in 2017. During the last two decades, and particularly the last few years, instructional technology has become thoroughly mainstream across much of education, a major influence on corporate, K12, and higher education. In higher education, online learning has become synonymous with all that is thought to be forward-thinking and innovative in the sector, fairly or not. Digital learning has shifted from a little understood, and marginal activity carried out by a handful of restless academics and dishevelled tech staff working out of the university’s basement, to the single greatest hope for an institution facing unsustainable increases in operating costs, shifting student demographics, and increasingly strident calls for improved and demonstrable learning outcomes.

Even major news sources began to pay attention. The Atlantic, New York Times, Huffington Post and others have helped promote the idea that higher education is being transformed by technology. One after another, university Presidents, not typically revolutionaries, proudly proclaimed that their universities and colleges were part of this transformation. Others in and outside of the academy were less enthusiastic – envisioning Internet technology and its demands would serve as the trojan horse to upset all that was good and holy about this centuries-old institution. Public intellectuals argued that technology would disrupt higher education, just as it did the music recording industry, newspapers, and bookstores. We’re next, they warned.

The Potential . . .

I’ve been working in the digital higher education space since the late-1990s, first as a member of a university faculty, followed by an eight-year stint as the Director of a large online learning unit. I now serve as an analyst and consultant. Over the years, my views on digital higher education have evolved. But through it all, I count myself among the growing number of the allegiant. I’m convinced that thoughtfully designed instructional technology and media can play an important, even transformative role, in teaching and learning in higher education. I’ve seen enough evidence to state confidently that it has the potential to dramatically reduce the cost of learning, meet the needs of a wider range of people, and improve the overall quality of learning. In short, I’m a believer.

The potential is truly extraordinary. Given the unique economics of the Internet, it’s possible to produce and share instructional media with production value that rivals the best of Madison Avenue advertising. Storytelling and other creative arts can engage students in new ways. The rapidly expanding field of data analytics can help us understand how well students are learning and, when done properly, be used to modify curriculum in real-time to meet the unique needs of each learner. Dashboards can help students understand how they learn most effectively and where and when they need help. Simulations can be built that allow students to “learn-by-doing” in a realistic, risk-free environment. Games can increase the time students spend on tasks, thereby increasing their chances at mastery.

. . . And the Reality

I’m confident then about the potential of technology-enabled learning. However, I’ve grown increasingly less confident that the institution of higher education can play a major role in realising this potential. Evidence is mounting that the institution of higher education, as it is currently designed, is largely ill-suited to developing and leveraging more advanced uses of technology for teaching and learning. And given the institution’s near monopoly on widely recognised adult education in much of the West – higher education is likely inhibiting the development of more advanced forms of instructional technology and media, as well as new ways to bring these new forms to people at lower costs.

Since the spread of Internet access in the latter half of the 1990s, colleges and universities have demonstrated a remarkable inability to leverage these networks and related technologies to improve the quality and cost-efficiency of learning. This is the state of affairs despite the fact that universities were quick to turn to the Internet – and before that, various other technologies (e.g. CDs) – for teaching purposes. The situation exists despite the level of attention and investment directed at online learning during the past two decades, and despite the extraordinary advancements in technology that we have witnessed in other sectors over the same period of time.

In the late 90s and early 00’s, a handful of pundits concluded that higher education would have no choice but to be reconfigured by the extraordinary capacity of the Internet. They put two and two together and predicted that students all over the world – once connected – would have access to the very best educators, practitioners, intellectuals. Economies of scale would drive down costs dramatically, ensuring access to high-quality learning opportunities for even under-represented student populations. A new crop of talented professionals from education, design, and software would quickly start building digital-born instructional models that would stimulate learning in ways simply not possible in classrooms, lecture halls, and labs. Education is too important, demand growing too quickly, and costs declining too rapidly for us not to take full advantage of the opportunities the technology could obviously enable.

But for the past two decades, the institution of higher education has made few substantive changes to how it operates. While virtually every institution across the OECD has invested in digital learning, and university presidents now routinely pepper their speeches with the appropriate keywords signalling their commitment to digital education, the actual steps made to leverage the dramatic changes in technology in higher education have remained tentative, unimaginative, marred by self-interest, and ultimately lacking in ambition. Despite endless talk of “transformation”, “revolution”, and, of course, “disruption”, initiatives with the potential to improve learning and reduce costs through technology have either failed to gain sufficient traction, or were rejected out-of-hand because they challenged the culture, interests, and processes of the institution and its’ deeply ingrained conventions.

Tuition for online students has not dropped; indeed, online programs frequently have higher fees than on-campus versions. Students are regularly presented with digital course materials that are nothing more than repurposed classroom materials, reflecting the fact that the bulk of the responsibility for the design and development of course content falls largely on the shoulders of individual academics without the incentives, time, or skills required to do more ambitious work. The dominant technology in online education – the learning management system – serves primarily as a course management tool; an expensive and over-complicated filing cabinet for repurposed classroom materials. The LMS was quickly adopted across higher education not because of its capacity to transform learning, but because the technology fit so easily into the traditional practices, roles, and responsibilities of classroom education.

More troubling still is the mounting evidence that a common understanding has already begun to solidify in higher education about “how we do online learning”. For a surprisingly large number of professionals in higher education, simply “putting courses online” – shorthand for uploading static classroom instructional content into an LMS – is taken as evidence that an institution is a bonafide member of the digital age. After twenty years of online learning, the use of high-quality educational media, simulations, adaptivity, game-based learning, and other experiences made possible by advances in technology and the economics of the Internet constitute a mere fraction of the total higher education experience in North America. Can it be that the value higher education is able to extract from the Internet already reaching its peak? Has the proverbial S-curve of innovation already flat-lined? Is that all there is? (In the immortal words of Peggy Lee. Here’s a much darker version of the song from the post-punk era: Christina: Is That All There Is?)

By no means am I tech evangelist. I don’t believe that digital learning is the silver bullet for all that ails higher education. Despite the great attention it currently receives, digital learning is just one piece of the very large and very complex puzzle of how we improve student learning outcomes. And learning takes many forms. Conversation, reading, writing, travel; all are important. I certainly don’t want my daughters to learn online exclusively. But if we’re going to make digital learning part of the education mix, and I think we should, we need to take it seriously; we need to actually to begin to leverage the possibilities it affords us, which we are currently failing to do.

In a series of upcoming posts, I set out to decipher what stands in the way of significant improvements for the use of instructional technologies and digital media to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of learning in traditional colleges and universities. This effort takes the form of a series of essays (see “Notes” below); each a vehicle for the author – and hopefully the reader – to understand why higher education has yet to take substantial steps toward leveraging the new possibilities and why, in certain cases, it may not.


I like the logic of the “essay”. Wikipedia provides a good definition: From late 15th century (as a verb in the sense ‘test the quality of’): alteration of assay, by association with Old French essayer, based on late Latin exagium ‘weighing,’ from the base of exigere ‘ascertain, weigh’; the noun (late 16th century) is from Old French essai ‘trial.’ Source: Wikipedia.

Unbundling, Design Thinking, Et Cetera: Leaders’ Collection 10.18.2016

A hand-picked (lovingly) collection of news, reports,  and essays of interest to leaders in higher education by Keith Hampson, PhD. 


Unbundling is ‘Separating Gold from Gravel’

Georgetown U’s Carnevale on labour and higher ed shares insights on future of intertwined industries.

Full Interview

An Introduction to Design Thinking: Process Guide

From Stanford’s

Access the document (pdf)

How to Conduct Strategic Planning

A high-quality description of the strategic planning process – well-suited to higher education. From the World Economic Forum.

Access the document (pdf)

What Makes a College President?

Experts weigh in on critical higher ed leadership traits needed for surely one of the world’s least desirable jobs (IMO). From EducationDive.

Read the full interview.

The Impact of Ambiguous “Student Outcomes” on Technology. By James Wiley, Eduventures.

Read the full article.

The Academic Job Market Is Tottering, But Nobody’s Telling Graduate Students

A reminder of the dismal prospects for graduate students hoping to land a full-time gig – from the Pope Center – one of the few conservative-leaning (US-style) voices in higher education.

Read the full article. 

Universities Are Churning Out the Next Generation of Higher Ed Bureaucrats

Read the full article.

Learnings from colleges that have gone through mergers and transformation from the good people at JISC.

Access the podcast.

Original blog. 

Diversion of the Week

Manners Maketh . . . A 19th Century Guide to Etiquette

In an age when Donald Trump, Kanye West, and “the Kardashians” serve as role models, we may need to revisit what kinds of behaviour deserve our attention and respect. It all starts with values, of course, but good etiquette – and its proper daily application – can take us a remarkably long way. Paying attention to etiquette seems to encourage – if not outright require – us to act according to our values.
In this spirit, I offer this excerpt from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette”, written by Cecil B. Hartley in 1875. I think you’ll find that the recommendations and the values that underpin them, can make life more pleasant and productive for you and those with whom you work. I’d add, too, that it can serve as a component of a manager’s guide to leadership.
Note: Given the historical context in which it was written, the excerpt assumes a male readership. I hope (and believe), though, it will resonate with everyone. 


~ Even if convinced that your opponent is utterly wrong, yield gracefully, decline further discussion, or dexterously turn the conversation, but do not obstinately defend your own opinion until you become angry…Many there are who, giving their opinion, not as an opinion but as a law, will defend their position by such phrases, as: “Well, if I were president or governor, I would,” — and while by the warmth of their argument they prove that they are utterly unable to govern their own temper, they will endeavor to persuade you that they are perfectly competent to take charge of the government of the nation.

~ Retain, if you will, a fixed political opinion, yet do not parade it upon all occasions, and, above all, do not endeavor to force others to agree with you. Listen calmly to their ideas upon the same subjects, and if you cannot agree, differ politely, and while your opponent may set you down as a bad politician, let him be obliged to admit that you are a gentleman.

~ Never interrupt anyone who is speaking; it is quite rude to officiously supply a name or date about which another hesitates, unless you are asked to do so. Another gross breach of etiquette is to anticipate the point of a story which another person is reciting, or to take it from his lips to finish it in your own language. Some persons plead as an excuse for this breach of etiquette, that the reciter was spoiling a good story by a bad manner, but this does not mend the matter. It is surely rude to give a man to understand that you do not consider him capable of finishing an anecdote that he has commenced.

~ It is ill-bred to put on an air of weariness during a long speech from another person, and quite as rude to look at a watch, read a letter, flirt the leaves of a book, or in any other action show that you are tired of the speaker or his subject.

~ In a general conversation, never speak when another person is speaking, and never try by raising your own voice to drown that of another. Never assume an air of haughtiness, or speak in a dictatorial manner; let your conversation be always amiable and frank, free from every affectation.

~ Never, unless you are requested to do so, speak of your own business or profession in society; to confine your conversation entirely to the subject or pursuit which is your own speciality is low-bred and vulgar. Make the subject for conversation suit the company in which you are placed. Joyous, light conversation will be at times as much out of place as a sermon would be at a dancing party. Let your conversation be grave or gay as suits the time or place.

~ In a dispute, if you cannot reconcile the parties, withdraw from them. You will surely make one enemy, perhaps two, by taking either side, in an argument when the speakers have lost their temper.

~ Never, during a general conversation, endeavour to concentrate the attention wholly upon yourself. It is quite as rude to enter into conversation with one of a group, and endeavor to draw him out of the circle of general conversation to talk with you alone.

~ A man of real intelligence and cultivated mind is generally modest. He may feel when in everyday society, that in intellectual acquirements he is above those around him; but he will not seek to make his companions feel their inferiority, nor try to display this advantage over them. He will discuss with frank simplicity the topics started by others, and endeavour to avoid starting such as they will not feel inclined to discuss. All that he says will be marked by politeness and deference to the feelings and opinions of others.

~ It is as great an accomplishment to listen with an air of interest and attention, as it is to speak well. To be a good listener is as indispensable as to be a good talker, and it is in the character of listener that you can most readily detect the man who is accustomed to good society. Nothing is more embarrassing to any one who is speaking, than to perceive signs of weariness or inattention in the person whom he addresses.

~ Never listen to the conversation of two persons who have thus withdrawn from a group. If they are so near you that you cannot avoid hearing them, you may, with perfect propriety, change your seat.

~ Make your own share in conversation as modest and brief as is consistent with the subject under consideration, and avoid long speeches and tedious stories. If, however, another, particularly an old man, tells a long story, or one that is not new to you, listen respectfully until he has finished, before you speak again.

~ Speak of yourself but little. Your friends will find out your virtues without forcing you to tell them, and you may feel confident that it is equally unnecessary to expose your faults yourself.

~ If you submit to flattery, you must also submit to the imputation of folly and self-conceit.

~ In speaking of your friends, do not compare them, one with another. Speak of the merits of each one, but do not try to heighten the virtues of one by contrasting them with the vices of another.

~ Avoid, in conversation all subjects which can injure the absent. A gentleman will never calumniate or listen to calumny.

~ The wittiest man becomes tedious and ill-bred when he endeavours to engross entirely the attention of the company in which he should take a more modest part.

~ Avoid set phrases, and use quotations but rarely. They sometimes make a very piquant addition to conversation, but when they become a constant habit, they are exceedingly tedious, and in bad taste.

~ Avoid pedantry; it is a mark, not of intelligence, but stupidity.

~ Speak your own language correctly; at the same time do not be too great a stickler for formal correctness of phrases.

~ Never notice it if others make mistakes in language. To notice by word or look such errors in those around you is excessively ill-bred.

~ If you are a professional or scientific man, avoid the use of technical terms. They are in bad taste, because many will not understand them. If, however, you unconsciously use such a term or phrase, do not then commit the still greater error of explaining its meaning. No one will thank you for thus implying their ignorance.

~ In conversing with a foreigner who speaks imperfect English, listen with strict attention, yet do not supply a word, or phrase, if he hesitates. Above all, do not by a word or gesture show impatience if he makes pauses or blunders. If you understand his language, say so when you first speak to him; this is not making a display of your own knowledge, but is a kindness, as a foreigner will be pleased to hear and speak his own language when in a strange country.

~ Be careful in society never to play the part of buffoon, for you will soon become known as the “funny” man of the party, and no character is so perilous to your dignity as a gentleman. You lay yourself open to both censure and bad ridicule, and you may feel sure that, for every person who laughs with you, two are laughing at you, and for one who admires you, two will watch your antics with secret contempt.

~ Avoid boasting. To speak of your money, connections, or the luxuries at your command is in very bad taste. It is quite as ill-bred to boast of your intimacy with distinguished people. If their names occur naturally in the course of conversation, it is very well; but to be constantly quoting, “my friend, Gov. C ,” or, “my intimate friend, the president,” is pompous and in bad taste.

~ While refusing the part of jester yourself, do not, by stiff manners, or cold, contemptuous looks, endeavour to check the innocent mirth of others. It is in excessively bad taste to drag in a grave subject of conversation when pleasant, bantering talk is going on around you. Join in pleasantly and forget your graver thoughts for the time, and you will win more popularity than if you chill the merry circle or turn their innocent gayety to grave discussions.

~ When thrown into the society of literary people, do not question them about their works. To speak in terms of admiration of any work to the author is in bad taste; but you may give pleasure, if, by a quotation from their writings, or a happy reference to them, you prove that you have read and appreciated them.

~ It is extremely rude and pedantic, when engaged in general conversation, to make quotations in a foreign language.

~ To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly.

~ If you find you are becoming angry in a conversation, either turn to another subject or keep silence. You may utter, in the heat of passion, words which you would never use in a calmer moment, and which you would bitterly repent when they were once said.

~ “Never talk of ropes to a man whose father was hanged” is a vulgar but popular proverb. Avoid carefully subjects which may be construed into personalities, and keep a strict reserve upon family matters. Avoid, if you can, seeing the skeleton in your friend’s closet, but if it is paraded for your special benefit, regard it as a sacred confidence, and never betray your knowledge to a third party.

~ If you have travelled, although you will endeavor to improve your mind in such travel, do not be constantly speaking of your journeyings. Nothing is more tiresome than a man who commences every phrase with, “When I was in Paris,” or, “In Italy I saw…”

~ When asking questions about persons who are not known to you, in a drawing-room, avoid using adjectives; or you may enquire of a mother, “Who is that awkward, ugly girl?” and be answered, “Sir, that is my daughter.”

~ Avoid gossip; in a woman it is detestable, but in a man, it is utterly despicable.

~ Do not officiously offer assistance or advice in general society. Nobody will thank you for it.

~ Avoid flattery. A delicate compliment is permissible in conversation, but flattery is broad, coarse, and to sensible people, disgusting. If you flatter your superiors, they will distrust you, thinking you have some selfish end; if you flatter ladies, they will despise you, thinking you have no other conversation.

~ A lady of sense will feel more complimented if you converse with her upon instructive, high subjects, than if you address to her only the language of compliment. In the latter case she will conclude that you consider her incapable of discussing higher subjects, and you cannot expect her to be pleased at being considered merely a silly, vain person, who must be flattered into good humour.

Instructional Leadership and Faculty

A university president once confided in me that while he loved to see innovative work being done within his institution, he believed that its’ impact was of little value if no one outside of the university hears about it.
His larger point was that reputation is the fuel on which universities run; it’s the means by which we attract new students, impress potential donors, attract high-profile academics that bring in research dollars, and other tangible benefits.
This may strike some as more than a little cynical. But it’s a useful reminder of just how differently innovation operates in higher education than in other sectors.
Outside of higher education, notably, innovation falls largely to the organisation’s leadership. The vast literature on innovation in the world of business tells leaders, for instance, how to establish a sense of urgency, embody the changes they want to see in others, “align the troops” around a common vision, and the like. The focus on leadership reflects the top-down, centralised structure that characterises most organisations.

Leading Instructional Innovation in Higher Education

Power and authority are distributed somewhat differently in higher education. University leadership — Provosts, Presidents and others — obviously control budgets and hold considerable power, but they also struggle to drive institution-wide innovations without faculty buy-in, given shared governance and the decentralised structure of the institution.
With respect to teaching and learning, in particular, college and university leaders often off-load some of the responsibility for driving innovation to service departments within the institution. Though these departments rarely have the authority needed to impose new instructional practices on the faculty. Faculty own instructional responsibility, even in online education, where a broader range of skills is called for. Not surprisingly, these service departments are often led and populated by professionals with especially strong people skills required to lead people (i.e. faculty) to change, without the authority to impose it. (Conferences designed for teaching and learning professionals spend a good deal of time on the best ways to drive change among faculty.)
Faculty, on the other hand, have considerable capacity to initiate and develop new instructional strategies. Despite the growing authority of university management, often defined as “managerialism” by critics, faculty maintain a considerable capacity to introduce and develop important ideas and, as many before me have pointed out, an equally impressive capacity not to adopt changes imposed from above.
Faculty are not fully leveraging their political authority and talents to drive innovation in teaching and learning beyond their own courses. Faculty tend to see their own courses as their sole responsibility. As members of this occupation and its culture, they typically support the notion that no one but the faculty member should have an influence on how his or her courses are designed and delivered. If you accept this premise, you stick to your “own knitting”. However, this logic may be inadvertently and ironically contributing to the lack of leadership from faculty in instructional innovation. Too often, innovations are designed with one course in mind, and with little attention paid to whether they are reproducible in other courses and disciplines. Even if the innovation could be rightfully applied to other courses and contexts (i.e. effectively scaled), the unique logic of the profession discourages us from fully realising the broader possibilities.

Six Tips

So, faculty can and should play a more fundamental role leading instructional innovation within their institutions. But there’s no simple formula or algorithm to follow. Below, we’ve compiled our own list of “quick and dirty tips” to help you get started on the right path.

Start Small, But Think Long-Term

Dramatic, large-scale, “disruptive” innovations get most of the attention. We’re told that we’re in a time of great change; we need to think big.
But when we look closely at most big changes in organisations over the years it becomes clear that the vast majority of them had humble origins. And this is where you should start. Begin locally and don’t try to change everything at once. Slice off a piece of your larger vision and start by focusing on that, alone. Successful implementation of your first effort will make your second step easier, and more likely to succeed.

They Need You. No, Really!

It may seem to you that you don’t have the capacity or authority to get your idea implemented. You don’t have the right job title. You’ve not spent much time cultivating a network within your institution outside of your academic department. And you’re only an Assistant Professor, to boot (so far).
But what you might be forgetting is that your institution is hungry for your story of innovation. University Presidents need stories to tell about people like you doing interesting work. The public relations department needs content to promote the institution. Fund-raising staff (yeah, those people with the outrageous salaries) need stories of innovation like yours to convince prospective donors that this is an institution worth investing in. And, of course, your bosses— Chairs of Departments, Faculty Deans — want to add concrete examples to the reports they need to produce each year. The bottom line is that there are many, many people that want to see you succeed.

The Message Matters

Academics are hired and rewarded for providing in-depth, detailed and comprehensive analyses — this is what distinguishes academics from other fields of work. But you’re going to have to fight this instinct if you are going to lead innovation that is quickly understood, appreciated for its benefits, and adopted within your institution. Your project needs to be captured in a simple, compelling description. The time you invest in crafting a good message will pay significant dividends.
Start with a simple, evocative title and develop a 2–3 sentence that explains its benefits. Think less like an academic, more like a Madison Avenue advertising copywriter.

Don’t Fall in Love with Your Idea (Yet)

Academics work in relative isolation when compared to other professions. But if you want to launch a successful project that truly resonates with a diverse group of people, you need to start by getting feedback on your core idea. While committees and other group efforts can easily slip into group-think and stifle creativity, there are few good ideas that can’t be improved with input. Get input early; before you go public and try to solicit support and resources. This process inevitably improves the clarity of your message, the support you’ll be able to cultivate, and ultimately the value of your work.

What’s In It For Me?

People that are particularly good at leading change in large organisations spend a lot of time thinking about how the project will impact different people in the organisation. They use this information, first, to modify the project in small ways that increase the value of the project to other stakeholders. Second, they use it to identify ways in which the work of other people within the organisation might be incorporated into the project. For example, if you are proposing using e-portfolios to facilitate self-reflective learning strategies in a course or program, there may be people in the institution that would benefit from the opportunity to conduct research on the project. This could serve as another source of funds, improve overall awareness, or, at the very least, generate publishable research for the institution. Third, leaders use this information to modify the project’s message in order to attract the support of a wider group of stakeholders.

Do it Anyway

You’ll probably need to cut a few corners. Not everything will go as planned. It may seem at times that the project is not worth the effort; that it’s pulling you away from other, worthy pursuits. But do it anyway.
The benefits of your efforts will inevitably transcend the success or failure of your particular instructional innovation. You’ll learn a great deal in the process. You’ll find yourself connecting with other people who share your interests. Action, if morally sound, almost always leads to other good works. People will follow your lead, connecting with you and your work in ways that you can’t anticipate in advance.
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.

The Trajectories of the Fourth Estate and Instructional Media

The rise of “free” content may be shaping higher education and news journalism in similar ways. 


Writers concerned with the future of higher education frequently point to the music recording and news industries as evidence of what’s in store for higher education. Apparently, the change won’t be pleasant.

As described in a previous post, these forecasts for higher education typically draw on the intertwined concepts of “disintermediation” and “unbundling”. It’s argued that learners will increasingly bypass universities to learn directly from other, direct-to-consumer providers (i.e. disintermediation) and they’ll assemble (i.e. unbundle) their own, unique portfolio of learning experiences (e.g. individual courses, nano-degrees).

There’s much to like about this vision from a purely instructional point of view. If well executed, it puts more choices in front of learners and enables a new degree of personalization. Examples of non-collegiate providers that might reflect this vision include General Assembly, Fullbridge, and Codecademy.

But the comparison to the music and news industries tends to understate the degree to which individual learners are restricted from seeking out and assembling educational experiences according to their own criteria. Whereas consumers of music and journalism are free to make up their own minds as to what constitutes good value, what constitutes “educated” is defined by social conventions, regulatory and loan systems, and, of course, employers. Therefore, determinations of what constitutes good value in education can’t be made unilaterally. New and more flexible forms of credentials will continue to become more widely accepted, but the processes of disintermediation and unbundling will unfold far more slowly in education than in other sectors.

Scaling Back High-End Journalism

There is, however, an alternative parallel that exists between higher education and, in particular, the news industry. It springs from the unique economics of the Internet and the ways in which it has expanded the number of content sources, role of free content, and the sustainability of relatively expensive content.

Revenue in the news industry has declined sharply during the last decade. While consumption of news remains high, the Internet has expanded the number of providers, and dispersed advertising revenue more widely. Many major news organizations have been forced to reduce costs.

Funding of relatively expensive types of reporting has been especially hard-hit. Journalism that takes longer to produce, involves a larger and/or more experienced team of professionals, and requires substantial research is obviously more costly.  The social and political implications of this change are considerable. Nicholas Carr, a longtime analyst of the relationship between society and technology, believes that the Internet has ultimately weakened professional journalism:

“If we can agree that the internet, by altering the underlying economics of the news business, has thinned the ranks of professional journalists, then the next question is straightforward: has the net created other modes of reporting to fill the gap? The answer, alas, is equally straightforward: no.” Nicholas Carr

Provocateur Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur and The Internet is Not Enough, argues that the rise of free content by non-professionals is undermining the quality of journalism and other fields.

“What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune . . .  “The new winners — Google, YouTube, MySpace, Craigslist, and the hundreds of start-ups hungry for a piece of the Web 2.0 pie — are unlikely to fill the shoes of the industries they are helping to undermine, in terms of products produced, jobs created, revenue generated or benefits conferred. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites ‘aggregate.’ Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave.” Andrew Keen.

Free Instructional Content in Higher Education

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Free content has also come to occupy an important role in higher education. Educators regularly capture free content from the web for use in their courses. Most of this material is found through general web searches (i.e. Google), but a small and growing percentage is found on sites dedicated to free curated instructional content (OpenStax, Merlot). In limited instances, educators take steps to share content they’ve created on these sites, as well.

The vast majority of free, publicly available content built expressly for instructional use in higher education is developed in a DIY fashion – by instructors working independently, drawing on a limited range of skills, and supported by minimal investment.

Although the Instructor may intend to share the content with instructors and students at other institutions, the funding model for course development in place at colleges and universities typically is designed according to the assumption that the material will be used only within a single institution for a single course. This limits the investment of talent, time, and money that can be made in each effort, as a limited number of end-users, which subsequently limits the revenue generated from the material (i.e. tuition and grants), which in turn limits the development budget. Despite the social benefits of sharing instructional content, institutions are not designed to underwrite the instructional costs of other institutions, or inclined, I suspect.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 14.52.51
Source: BC Open Campus

As a result, the free instructional content built for use in higher education tends to be limited to simple lecture video, home-made graphics, and text – the types of materials that this particular resource configuration allows. What this resource configuration doesn’t enable is the development of instructional materials that are more capital-intensive, such as games, adaptive learning, extensive feedback mechanisms, and rich media.

Both types of content are valuable. Both are needed. The danger is that free content may limit the sector’s ability to sustainably produce and distribute more expensive forms of instructional media and software that offer different types of instructional value – types of value that are simply not possible through the DIY model.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 12.40.51
Source: Wall Street Journal

One symptom that this may be occurring is the state of the textbook industry – historically, the source of more third-party instructional material in education. Second-hand textbook sales, piracy, as well as the growing volume of freely available materials are all contributing to declining revenue.

Textbook publishing is organized to enable a relatively high-level of investment in instructional materials. Whereas a open-content initiative may offer a faculty member the chance to produce a new open textbook with a $5,000 grant (often from public sources), a textbook publisher can easily spend 100 times that much on the same effort.

It is entirely possible that open content is built with a larger pool of talent, more time, and far more funding. And it’s not unheard of; examples include The Big History Project, produced by Intentional Futures and funded by the BMGF, and RSA Animate Series, a product of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.

But open content as this time seems to be aligned with an interesting mix of culture, politics and occupational standards that eschews larger projects and celebrates individual, “edu-punk”, DIY-style efforts. Indeed, anti-corporatism is part of its identity (c.f. .Never Mind the Edupunks; or, The Great Web 2.0 Swindle). The antagonistic, “us versus them” stance taken by some advocates of open content regularly targets the traditional publishing industry.

Parallels: High-End Journalism and Instructional Media

We have, then, something of a parallel between the news industry and digital higher education. As citizens we need to ensure that we have ready access to the more substantial, in-depth reporting by experienced professionals, As educators, need to ensure that digital learning is not limited to simple, DIY forms; that we find ways to regularly test, develop and distribute more advanced forms of digital instruction.

The ability of individuals to produce and distribute content – both journalism and education – is one of most positive and important developments in the early 21st century. It expands the range of voices and pushes back against entrenched interests and their perspectives. But we need to be certain that our desire to push-aside corporate and other large scale enterprises doesn’t weaken our capacity to provide students with more sophisticated forms of instructional media that are only possible through more extensive investment, wider pools of talent, and the luxury of time. Improving learning outcomes has proven very difficult, and we need to begin to take fuller advantage of the possibilities of new types of instructional media and software.

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. 

Transparency, Instructional Content, and Competition

We like to believe that we interpret the world around us objectively, accurately, and consistently. But to a great extent, we make sense of the people, objects and virtually everything around us on the basis of the circumstances in which we experience them. Context matters. Art is the classic example. If we take a work of art out from behind the red ropes, away from the quiet guards, and out of the art gallery, the meaning and value of the art may change a great deal. So too might its’ monetary value; in fact, it may no longer be interpreted as art at all (c.f. Senie, Harriet).

Context is also crucial in commercial markets. Vendors go to great lengths to control the context in which their products and services are positioned. Television advertisers, for example, avoid placing ads in the middle of programmes that address unsettling topics; that evoke emotions and sensibilities that are not supportive of the product being promoted. “The Day After” was a bad made-for-TV movie in the 80s about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the U.S. The film’s producers found it so difficult to attract advertisers that they were forced to run all the ads prior to the point in the film when the nuclear attack occurs. Apparently, convincing people that having fresher breath will make them truly, finally happy is more difficult after witnessing the end of the world.

What, if anything, does this have to do with higher education? Until recently, not much. Historically, higher education has limited what people outside of the institution could access to and, generally, held great control over how people interpreted the institution’s value. Compared to other types of organisations, colleges and universities are like remote islands, “all-inclusive” experiences, in which only enrolled students have access.

Educational Content in New Contexts

But the walls around higher education are becoming more porous; sometimes by design, sometimes not. Piece-by-piece, components of the university experience are becoming knowable outside of the university. Students rate professors on commercial sites like “RateMyProfessor”, universities set up Facebook groups in which all-comers can contribute, and ranking systems by the likes of US News and World Report are becoming common destinations, as well as easier to interpret.

But the most dramatic change involves access to instructional content. The Net is making it easier and, possibly inevitable, for instructional materials — normally held behind password-protected sites — to be available to those outside the institution. This puts the core of the institution on display in a way that we’ve not seen before, opening it up to evaluation and comparison.

We saw this first with OER — open educational resources. Individual instructors uploaded elements of their course materials for public consumption on platforms like MITx, Academic Earth, OpenStax and Merlot. Sharing instructional content publicly was a low-key affair; faculty often made the decision to share content on their own accord. Yet, even early on, we began to see how this sharing of content; this new transparency could lead to surprising repercussions. Even the most prestigious institution was now subject to criticism if what they shared publicly wasn’t well-prepared. For instance, Philip Greenspun did a rather biting minute-by-minute evaluation of a lecture by a high-profile, Ivy League professor, suggesting that it was a wasteful, self-indulgent use of class time.

I first wrote about this trend in early 2012. At that time, I suggested that if this trend continued — and there was no reason to think that it wouldn’t — then academic leaders would need to pay more attention to what is being shared, as these course materials ultimately represent and reflect the institution from which they come.

And Then MOOCs

Then . . . MOOCs happened. Suddenly, this small-scale sharing of instructional materials became a very big, very public matter. Not merely of interest within academia, MOOCs became a subject of discussion in the broader public through celebratory articles in The Guardian, New York Times, Huffington Post, and elsewhere (“Free Elite University Education!”). Regardless of their level of interest in online learning to-date, university presidents at elite institutions were now paying rapt attention. They knew that participating in this MOOC frenzy was a key means by which their university was going to define its identity in the broader marketplace of brands. The money spent on MOOCs climbed higher with every editorial in the New York Times or Washington Post. Soon, videographers, make-up artists, lighting crews and even actors were receiving invitations to campus to help create a more polished product.

It would be easy to cynically dismiss this as merely a marketing issue. But if we take a step back, I think we can see this as part of a broader trend toward greater transparency and accountability in higher education. As is the case in other fields, the Internet is increasing the amount of information available to the public. If so inclined, a student can gather an extraordinary amount of information about an institution, its faculty, students and, of course, its scandals. And, clearly, they want this information. Institutions would be best to be prepared. 


Harriet Senie. Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy. Smithsonian Institution, 2014.

Keith Hampson, Ph.D. 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.