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

Grade Inflation, Frugal Librarians, and More: Useful News for 09.19.2016

The Typical Undergraduate Takes More Than 5 Years to Graduate

The average undergraduate takes between five and six years to complete a degree, according to a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The average bachelor’s-degree candidate takes just over five years to graduate.

The findings of the report, which pulled data from 3,600 postsecondary institutions across the country, fly in the face of much of the popular perception of college-enrollment patterns, Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, said in a news release.

“These nontraditional behaviors have a dramatic effect on time to degree,” he said. “Each additional term or semester has the potential to increase the cost to the student, both through forgone earnings and additional tuition expenses.”

A photo by Thanun Buranapong. the full article at The Chronicle of Higher Ed

Chinese university allows students to pick age of lecturers

A university in China is letting students choose the age and personality of their lecturers, according to local reports.
Students at the metallurgy and chemical engineering department of Jiangxi University of Science and Technology said that they preferred academics aged between 25 and 40 years old, and those who have a “funny” and “positive” attitude, according to the China Daily.
As a result, the university, which is based in the city of Ganzhou in south-eastern China, has assigned a group of young lecturers to teach the cohort.

Grade expectations: An “A” is not what it used to be

“WE DO not release statistics on grade-point averages so we can’t speak to the accuracy of the information you have.” That was a flack for Yale, but other Ivy League colleges—with the partial exception of Princeton—were equally reluctant to discuss their grading practices with the Economist.

Are they trying to hide something? Perhaps. Stuart Rojstaczer, a critic of grade inflation, has estimated average grades over time by combining dozens of unofficial and official sources. The results are startling (see chart). In 1950, Mr Rojstaczer estimates, Harvard’s average grade was a C-plus. An article from 2013 in the Harvard Crimson, a student newspaper, revealed that the median grade had soared to A-minus: the most commonly awarded grade is an A. The students may be much cleverer than before: the Ivies are no longer gentlemen’s clubs for rich knuckleheads. But most probably, their marks mean less.

Universities pump up grades because many students like it. Administrators claim that tough grading leads to rivalry and stress for students. But if that is true, why have grades at all? Brilliant students complain that, thanks to grade inflation, little distinguishes them from their so-so classmates. Employers agree. When so many students get As, it is hard to figure out who is clever and who is not.

Read the full article at The Economist (US)

$1 Million Of Frugal Librarian’s Bequest To N.H. School Goes To Football Scoreboard

News that late librarian Robert Morin left the University of New Hampshire $4 million has been hailed as a symbol of Morin’s dedication and generosity. But the school’s decision to spend $1 million of that money on a new video scoreboard for the football stadium is being criticized.

A life lived in frugality, spent frivolously” on a million-dollar scoreboard, one commenter wrote on a local newspaper site, calling the decision “an assault” on Morin’s life. Others say it’s simply a shame that more of the money didn’t go to the university’s Dimond Library, where Morin spent much of his life.

Read the full article at

Why It’s Time to Disrupt Higher Education by Separating Learning From Credentialing

Across modern economies, innovators and entrepreneurs are marshaling the power of information technology to reorganize business processes and reimagine entire industries, thereby improving quality and lowering the costs of goods and services. But higher education has largely escaped such disruption, even as IT and the Internet have created new ways to research, learn, and impart knowledge. The reason is that colleges and universities hold a unique franchise: They are responsible for educating students and for granting them degrees. Schools thus lack incentive to help students learn outside the classroom, even if it would lower costs or be more effective, since it would cut into their revenue, and they lack incentive to raise standards for their degrees because it would drive away customers. Students meanwhile have little incentive to push themselves harder than necessary to earn their degrees, since degrees are opaque, deriving their value from institutional brands rather than clear measures of academic achievement. This paper argues that the federal government should spur reform by promoting alternatives to traditional college diplomas that allow individuals to more effectively demonstrate educational mastery to prospective employers. This would give students the freedom to pursue their own best options for learning, incentivize students to study harder and schools to teach better, and apply competitive pressure on colleges and universities to reduce the costs of education.

Read the full article at ITIF



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.
Betty Crocker cake mixes.

Edtech’s Betty Crocker Moment

Betty Crocker introduced its cake mixes in the 1950s. The mixes made the process of baking cakes less prone to failure. Faster too. For many, especially over-burdened women working at home, this was a huge leap forward.

But the cake mixes didn’t sell especially well. So, using market research and input from psychologists, the decision was made to design the baking process so that the customer would be required to add an egg or two to the recipe. Sales took off. Today, few people bake a cake “from scratch.”

At its core, this anecdote speaks to the need to design technologies with a deep understanding of the context in which it will be used. Big increases in value depend on it.

More Ambitious Educational Software

Edtech is going through its’ own Betty Crocker moment. For us, it’s a shift from instructionally agnostic software to instructionally intelligent software, and from incremental to substantial gains in efficiency.

Consider the LMS our starting point; it’s the environment in which the vast majority of online courses are built. The LMS is a relatively straightforward product. It is designed for use by lone instructors with little to no knowledge of programming, graphic design and, too often, instructional principles. It places (again, by design) no restrictions on what the end-user does with it. It’s an empty vessel to be filled. This aligns the product with traditions of faculty autonomy while also maximising the size of the market for the vendors.

Now, though, things are getting more interesting – but also more complex. There’s a growing recognition that LMS-based courses are inherently limited. There’s only so much a lone instructor can accomplish, given their limited skills, time, and funds. And, we want to start to take fuller advantage of software. We want to use software for what it does best – extend our human capacities; so we can do more given our available resources. Adaptive software, for example, personalises learning to serve each student’s unique needs. Applications that enable automated feedback ensure that students get immediate feedback on their efforts – not once they have moved on to other topics and challenges. In each case, the software captures and embodies our best understanding of what constitutes an effective learning experience, and puts this knowledge to use in a cost-effective way.

A New Mix

Like the LMS, these relatively new, more ambitious educational technologies need to be built so as to fit neatly into higher education. They need to align with the talent mix, budgets, timelines, and other organisational factors.

This was relatively easy with the LMS. We knew “who would be doing what, when and how” because it was (and remains at most schools) based on the classroom model of education: one course, one instructor, limited resources.

But these new types of applications don’t have a ready-made organisational scenario with which to work. We don’t know, for example, how many people will be working on these courses; one, two, ten?. Will they be using all of their own content, or are they planning to lean heavily on publisher content, as some of the faster growing online institutions do now? What level of skills should we assume for the course developers in the client institutions? Do we need to train them? How much time are they willing to put into the course development process?

Whatever scenario we concoct, it’s likely to change quickly. And the division of roles and responsibilities are dynamic: as one changes, so will the others. As faculty roles change, so must the technology. As instructional staff take on larger roles, new instructional strategies become possible, and so on.

This is an important moment in digital higher education. We’re seeking to add far more value; to increase what institutions can achieve in the online environment. We hope to finally bend that iron triangle of cost, quality and access. But moving beyond relatively simple, agnostic software can’t be achieved in isolation; we can’t simply toss the software “over the wall” to our client institutions and hope that it works. Like the good people at Betty Crocker, we need to craft these software applications with a good understanding of the people and the organisations that will ultimately put them to use.


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. 

Teaching a Child to Ride a Bike via Lecture

Well done. A great (because it’s simple) explanation of active learning techniques.