Production Value in Online Higher Education

In 2012, during a rare moment of clarity, I wondered aloud about the possible impact on the institutional reputation of academics choosing to post their instructional materials online, including lecture videos, for all the world to see. While the efforts by MIT (starting in 2001) and others in the “Open Movement” served as strong social statements about the importance of access to education – if not education, then educational content –  they also put the university on display to an unprecedented degree. University brass was not typically aware of these OER practices, despite its potential significance.

Soon after, MOOCs (a la Coursera and Udacity) arrived and took the potential impact of freely distributed instructional content on reputation to a whole new level, quickly establishing these online courses as a very public platform for inter-institutional competition. As anticipated, the investment in MOOCs by universities climbed quickly, some reaching the $400,000 mark – roughly 2000 percent more than your typical online course. Production value leapt; lighting and sound quality improved, and lectures were no longer freestyle.

Taking Course Design Seriously

We can interpret the rise in production value of MOOCs as a sign of what’s to come for all of online higher education, or as merely an aberration – a by-product of the one-upmanship that characterised the response by elite institutions to the onset of MOOC-mania. I would argue that it’s the former – for two reasons.

First, higher production value and, more generally, a thoughtful, deliberate, and rigorous approach to course design, remains an untapped opportunity in higher education. Most institutions continue to approach online course design as they have classroom education: the responsibility for course design and development falls largely on the shoulders of lone instructors with limited time, insufficient resources and incentives. Budgets are painfully small. Consequently, most institutions have been unable to truly leverage the possibilities of the medium. Too many courses still rely on repurposed static classroom materials and an incoherent pastiche of free content pulled from a variety of sources.

But this won’t last. Enough institutions are beginning to recognise the limitations of what now constitutes the “traditional online course” and are beginning to take course design more seriously – improved production value is part and parcel of this change. Better course designs that incorporate real-time feedback, learning analytics, instructional games and other techniques will generate better outcomes, improve retention and from a purely market perspective, enable the to create a meaningful difference in increasingly competitive, but homogeneous market of learning opportunities.

From Providing Access to Knowledge to Designing Learning

The inevitability of higher production value also stems from long-term changes in access to instructional materials.

The ability of individuals to learn when and how they want independently of educational institutions continues to grow. Resources for learning outside of universities are increasingly easy to find, curate, and of better quality. In light of this broad trend, the institution of higher education will necessarily need to place greater emphasis on its capacity to design and deliver high-quality learning experiences. The historical emphasis on serving as knowledge creators will need to be complemented by an equal commitment toward providing the highest and most productive form of learning, as well.

Changes to access to instructional experiences and materials have been migrating away from single institutions since the first printing press, of course, but the growth of the Internet has sent it into overdrive. The trend is not restricted to education. Family physicians, for instance, have had to become accustomed during the past decade to patients arriving for their appointments with medical information in-hand, detailing possible medical interventions – pulled free from the Internet. Growing consciousness of these changes is one of the factors behind the now common “is college worth it” debate currently making the rounds in North America.

Son of MOOC. Or Meets People Magazine

Masterclass is a VC-backed start-up in (surprise) San Francisco that offers short online courses on popular topics like acting, photography, and creative writing. (Apparently, there’s a shortage of qualified actors, photographers and creative writers.) Each course costs $90 USD and includes video, interactive assignments and social learning opportunities – both online and face-to-face.

While Masterclass seems far removed from the concerns of higher education, its’ similarities to MOOCs offers us a unique vantage point for thinking through changes in production value as well as how instructional resources are typically evaluated.

Production Value +

The first and most obvious similarity is the emphasis on production value, which Masterclass takes to a whole new level. The current crop of Masterclass courses are directed by professional film-makers: Jay Roach (“Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents”) and two-time Academy Award-winning documentarian, Bill Guttentag. The course materials are predictably beautiful.

Screenshot 2015-07-29 18.11.18

Privileging the Source in Lieu of Evidence of Learning

The second and less obvious similarity is the way in which both MOOCs and Masterclass rely on the status of the source of instruction to define the perception of instructional value.

The affiliation with elite institutions is fundamental to the appeal and newsworthiness of MOOCs, as was the choice to present these courses as more or less equivalent to the “real courses” taught within the institution (minus tuition). News services and pundits took notice because MOOCs appeared to offer a desirable, expensive, and scarce resource for free – “Elite Education for the Masses“, Washington Post, 2012. Had these MOOCs come from, for example, a consortium of community colleges in South Dakota, or not been understood as consistent with the actual courses taught at these institutions, they would have generated far less attention.

Likewise, Masterclass leverages the brand names of its instructors – in this case, celebrities from the world of film, sports, and the arts. The first crop of Masterclass courses is taught by Dustin Hoffman (actor), Serena Williams (tennis pro), James Patterson (author), and Annie Liebowitz (photographer).  (While it’s highly unlikely that the celebrities had anything to do with the design of the instruction, this is how the courses are marketed.)

In both MOOCs and Masterclass, then, the value of the courses is based to a considerable degree on the source of the instruction. And in presenting themselves in this fashion, these two examples inadvertently underline the unsophisticated way in which instructional quality is commonly evaluated in and outside of higher education. MOOCs were received well because of the status of the institutions with which they were affiliated. But this status is not typically the result of instructional quality, but exclusivity (admissions and tuition levels) and the research productivity of the faculty. These institutions enrol the most academically gifted students and, as Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen has noted, his home institution spends far less on improving instruction each year than does the University of Phoenix. Similarly, the status of celebrities leading the Masterclass courses is not the result of their success as educators or coaches. They are practitioners and each one studies under leading coaches, trainers and educators.

In each of these two examples, consumers are making evaluations of instructional quality on the basis of factors only indirectly related to instructional quality. This isn’t because consumers of education are daft, rather, it’s because, in the absence of easy access to relevant information about instructional value, we tend to turn to proxies of quality to guide our decisions, what Lloyd Armstrong, Provost Emeritus at USC described as “surrogates of quality“.

Consumers need to become more adept at identifying instructional value. But this will require institutions to learn how to measure the impact of different instructional strategies on learning outcomes and to use this information to guide the development of better strategies. Yes, educational quality is harder to measure than most, but not impossible, particularly in the online environment. Intelligently designed learning analytics, for example, can now provide us with accurate and relevant information to enable better assessments of true quality in learning.


Coherent, Coordinated, and Consistent Design of Online Courses

It’s not uncommon for online courses in higher education to include instructional resources from a wide range of sources. Resources may include digital content from textbooks (e.g. flashcards), images used in campus-based courses, freely available content from the Internet, print or ebooks from publishers, activities pulled from open education resource repositories, and others.  Some of the material is placed within the course environment, some sits outside.

The “cut-n-paste” functionality of the Internet has made this “bricolage” approach to course design easy and, therefore, inevitable. However, the bricolage approach has also increased the prevalence of online courses with weak instructional coherence, coordination and consistency. By relying on materials from a wide range of sources – each built by different organizations, to serve different users, and to fit into different contexts – we, inevitably, decrease the degree to which each unit of instructional material aligns with the other materials. In the end, it’s learning outcomes that are compromised.

Symptoms of Incoherent Course Design

Instructional materials and activities drawn from a variety of sources can differ in a variety of ways that impact instructional quality. Differences include:

  • Level of difficulty. Instructional materials gathered from different sources are designed for students at very different levels of subject mastery and comprehension.
  • Terminology. Different sources often employ different terminology to describe similar information.  While these differences are often small, and may seem inconsequential to subject matter experts, they can easily confuse learners that are new to the curriculum.
  • Pace of instruction. Each instructional element implicitly assumes a certain pace of instruction through which the student will progress through the material.
  • Level of detail/depth. Instructional elements include different amounts of detail. Asking students to move between instructional materials that include different levels of detail may make it more difficult for them to identify what information is essential, and what is not.
  • Organizational principles. Every instructional element is designed to operate in a particular structure and design environments. Pulling items out of one context and dropping them in another adds unintended (and instructionally useless) complexity.
  • Design features. Visual design features, such as use of color and icons, can be used effectively to improve comprehension and ease of use, but they must be applied consistently.

Barriers to Coherent Course Design

In the classroom setting, the bulk of the instruction is created by and funneled through a single source: the instructor. As a result, instructional coherency tends to occur naturally. In online education a number of factors work against coherency:

  • The ease with which we can find related instructional content on the Internet;
  • Confusing regulations concerning use of copyrighted material on the Internet;
  • The inability of institution staff to produce a wide range of instructional materials at a low cost (due, largely, to the lack of economies of scale in the dominant business model of online education);
  • Insufficient incentives for faculty to dedicate additional time to course design and development, given prevailing compensation and incentive models.
  • The lack of professional development resources for instructors responsible for course design.

These inconsistencies make it more difficult for the educator to provide students with coherent and effective learning. The quality of learning can suffer and the need for student support – from the instructor, staff and others – is heightened. Students should be able to focus all of their limited energies on learning, not on trying to understand the different levels, styles, pace, and sequencing in a grab-bag of instructional element. This coherency, in turn, allows the instructor to focus her time on teaching and supporting students, rather than compensating for inconsistent and instructionally incoherent course design.

In a well-designed course, the instructional materials are fully integrated and coordinated, pitched at the appropriate level of difficulty, presented to the learner with the ideal amount of detail, and have consistent design features (color, navigation). Each element in a course should be built according to a single, overarching design – coherent, coordinated, and consistent.


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. 

Why design matters in digital higher education

534676_thumbnailDesign is having its moment.  Apple’s  Jonathan Ive, Philippe Starck and Michael Graves are among a growing number of designers enjoying rock-star status. Businessweek, Fast Company and other pubs now dedicate entire issues to design. Enrollment in college design programs has spiked.

But what role does – or should – design play in education, specifically digital higher education? A lot, it turns out. As we move from the classroom to the screen, design matters more than ever.

The qualities that create great design are also the qualities needed to create great online learning experiences. 

The relationship of design and higher education is the theme of a series of posts we’re kicking off.  This first post highlights what great design and great educational experiences have in common. The parallels are many.

Next, I’ll explore the forces of competition and change driving the need for design in higher ed. The third installment will review the state of design in higher ed.  I’ll wrap up the series by exploring the parallels between design and learner data.

So, exactly what is design?  There isn’t a single definition; the field is broad and expanding. In the context of this series, think of design more as user experience (UX), than instructional design.

Design in digital higher ed is about how people interact with screens, software, interfaces and information in a holistic, multidisciplinary way.

Similarities between design and education:

  • Great design and great education is user/student-centric.
  • A great designer, like a great educator, takes what is complicated and makes it easy to understand.
  • Well-designed services and systems are elegantly integrated and easy to use; so are the best educational web sites, services and systems.
  • Great design leverages the user’s existing knowledge, just as great education builds upon the learner’s prior knowledge.
  • Great design connects users with information and experiences in ways that makes it memorable and “sticky.” So does great education.
  • Great design attracts the user by making the experience as compelling as possible. Great education strives to engage learners and increase interaction – a key determinant of learning success.
  • Great design evokes an emotional response, which can alter the user’s cognitive state. Great education can evoke positive emotions that make students more creative and open to new approaches when learning.
  • Great design saves time by focusing the user’s attention on the most important information. Great online learning experiences maximize students’ time by focusing their attention on the key learning objectives and outcomes of the course.
  • Great design seeks to transcend passive, one-way communication towards active engagement with the user. Isn’t this the goal of all great educators and institutions?

We know from retention and completion rates that just providing knowledge is not enough. Other sectors and industries have recognized this. Design is a differentiator in the market because it adds real value. It’s a lesson that higher ed is just beginning to learn.

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. 

Resource: Glossary of Design Terms

Minding the Gap: Instructional Technology and Pedagogy

A college in my neck of the woods is looking to build its capacity in digital learning. Like many other institutions, they see the brick n’ mortar campus as the core of the institution, but they also realize that the time has come to make a bigger investment in digital.

The leadership at the college asked me “what the relationship between instructional technology and pedagogy ought to be.” This is a brutal question; one that can’t really be answered in under 5000 words. At the same time, the question forces you to get to the heart of matter: how do we create great educational experiences using technology?

Instructionally Agnostic Instructional Technology

The most striking aspect of the relationship between technology and instruction is how little the two are actually, well . . . related. The most commonly used instructional technologies in higher education rarely prescribe any particular pedagogical approach. They are open-ended; they don’t dictate or enforce a specific pedagogy.

Yes, I know: all technology “prescribes” certain practices or behaviours to some extent. Technology, instructional or otherwise, is never entirely neutral. But in relative terms, the tools that are commonly used today – those that are embedded in, or linked to the current LMS model such as blogs, discussion boards, chat, webcasting and others – are closer to the traditional blackboard – a blank slate. Instructionally agnostic.

Now Serving “Everyone” v Apps

This is no accident. To build and sell instructional technology to a college means you need to accommodate a very diverse set of users. Platforms like D2L or Blackboard are used by beginners and advanced alike, for online learning and as mere complement to classroom education, in both K12 and higher education. And most of these systems were designed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when there was little sense of how the technology would or should be used.

An educational app (from 3D 4Medical; available on iTunes)

Consider the differences between the commonly used instructional technologies to the more recent App model. Apps are typically built to offer a defined set of experiences. Learners move through the application in ways that were first imagined by designers. Pathways of learning are engineered by designers, rather than created by end-users. The pedagogy is embedded in the software. It’s not left to chance; to be determined by the academic or student. The quality of the learning experience is dependent on the sophistication and talent of the designers.

But this pre-packaged type of instructional material runs counter to the current organizational model in higher education. It is conventional that instructional strategies remain in the hands of the lone academic responsible for the course, despite the fact that many – particularly in research universities – are rarely trained in instruction or receive sufficient reward for doing it effectively.

And in my experience, most academics find the experience of creating high quality digital learning experiences difficult. But this shouldn’t surprise us. Even the oldest and most stable of all forms of instruction, the lecture, is challenging. Before an academic delivers the first lecture of their careers, they have witnessed hundreds of lectures by other academics. They know the various properties that constitute a lecture: the role of the audience, the setting, uses of images, and so forth. And they’ve seen both the good and the bad. Despite the familiarity with the format, and its stability, you and I know that at this very moment hundreds awful lectures are being delivered in colleges and universities around the world.  Even at our “best” schools. Good instruction is not easy. The same applies to digital instruction where, I contend, the potential to mess up is considerably greater.

Minding the Gap Between Instructional Technology and Pedagogy

The college tries to fill this gap by hiring instructional designers that are charged with helping the classroom instructor create effective online experiences for students. The instructional designers help, but they are limited by the short amount of time that that they have to work on each course, by the limited control they can have over instruction – given the conventions of academic responsibility, and the difficulty of working with a very wide range of subject matter (art history to accounting). Too many instructional designers in our colleges and universities are reduced to serving as slightly better paid LMS support staff.

College management, then, needs to go beyond merely providing training on technology and the basics of instructional theory. We need to offer workable, repeatable instructional templates that our instructors can select, adopt, implement and modify for their own needs. Relying on the technology to somehow generate thoughtful instructional strategies won’t work. Nor will relying on individuals to figure it out on their own.

Creating instructional templates is difficult work, though. Only the most skilled instructional designers can create models of instruction that (a) can be used in many types of courses without being substantially modified, (b) are easy enough to use that instructors can work with them independently and that (c) enforce good instructional practice. Put simply, we need to move closer toward the app model, in which the pedagogy is embedded in the software.

By Keith Hampson, Phd

Frances Rowe: Leading Online Learning at Quinnipiac U

In my opinion, one of the toughest jobs in higher education today is leading an online unit within a traditional, non-profit, brick-and-mortar institution. To do your job well, you need to be a diplomat, present a compelling vision of the future, and have the patience of Job. Not only do you need to execute a plan effectively, you need to define the plan at the same time, because the “right way” to do online education is yet to be defined. When successful, these people tend to change not just the online unit, but the broader university.

Frances Rowe is a great example. She is the Director of Instructional Design and Technology Support (IDT) at Quinnipiac University Online in Hamden, Connecticut. She’s also a doctoral student at Nova Southeastern University.

KCH: Colleges have positioned their online units within the broader institutional structure in a number of different ways – a mix of centralized and decentralized. These decisions can influence the unit’s capacity to drive change within the broader institution and to scale up effectively. What approach has Quinnipiac University taken to this fundamental issue?

The Online unit is positioned under Academic Affairs and headed up by Cynthia Gallatin, Associate Vice President of Online Programs. Each functional area in the Online unit consists of a team of specialists whose procedures are designed for “reaching out” to our audience and “minimizing response time”.

The primary functions of the Online unit are:

• Marketing and Admissions

• Instructional design and technology (IDT) support and

• Administrative coordination with other University offices such as Billing, Financial Aid, Information Systems, Learning Center, Library, and Registrar.

Online programs and courses at Quinnipiac reside within each of the seven schools. For online offerings, the University has nine graduate degree programs and eight others that have incorporated online courses into their programs, an undergraduate summer program with about 1,900 enrollments, three certificate programs and a winter intersession.

Online and traditional courses share the same University supported educational technologies such as the learning management, lecture capture and content management systems where appropriate. Having some common technologies helps us control costs and maximize the effectiveness of the training and support resources we provide. Additionally, students and faculty can flex from one course delivery mode to another “smart” classroom to “virtual” classroom without having to learn a completely different platform.

27% of full-time faculty members have taught online. 60% of online faculty are full-time and 40% are adjuncts.

KCH: Introducing new instructional strategies, particularly within a traditional institution, is one of the more challenging aspects of your line of work. How have you managed this important process?

Research and experience has taught me that adoption of new instructional strategies requires new forms of professional development with the goal of improving student learning and engagement at the heart of every endeavor. Furthermore, professional development needs to be faculty driven, collaborative, and founded in principles of adult learning theory. An effective professional development approach for introducing new instructional strategies might consist of an explanation of the theory behind the practice, demonstration, hands-on experiences, feedback and ongoing support for the new practice. A very simple and effective professional development activity is to get together on a regular basis to engage in reflective discussions about pedagogy and learning. Another effective practice is to use praise. For example, we use our blog Digital Pedagog to highlight faculty innovation and we’ve received recognition from outside organizations such as Quality Matters and the Sloan Consortium.

KCH: Where do you think educational technology is heading, and how will these changes impact online higher education?

The expanding collections of educational technology services will positively influence the kind of pedagogy and learning that will take place online (VoiceThread, Google Docs, TechSmith). Appropriately used, educational technology can draw out collaborative, inquisitive, and sense-making abilities of students. Instructional designers, librarians and technologists will collaborate with faculty and students to make this important shift to learning in technology mediated worlds.

Grading procedures such as peer and self-assessment will gain traction in the assessment mix as they are considered valuable life skills and because technology will make these types of reflective assessments more viable.

Flexible, free and/or low cost options for course content will be paramount to making a college education affordable. Content that is downloadable to a range of devices such as eReaders, laptops, or phones is already highly popular amongst students. Furthermore, content that does not expire, is adaptable, offers interactivity and has straightforward pagination for those who prefer paper will appeal to a broader audience. Librarians will play a major role in finding content. A stellar example of what to look for in freely available online content is Inside the Cell.

KCH: What’s the best part of your job? Worst?

While I enjoy helping people and making suggestions, the worst part of my profession is probably coping with a situation where the outcome is not what I wanted. The best part of my profession is the diversity; my job is never dull. I also like working in a team environment and being part of positive changes.