The Growing Chasm in the Online Higher Education Market (2014)

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

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

A Couple of Scenarios

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consequential Impact

There are a number of issues of note:

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

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

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

This last quality needs to be emphasised.

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

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

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

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