Alston Road


Category: Educational Media

Technology, Transparency and MOOCs


MOOCs have introduced a greater level of transparency in online higher education. They offer students a chance to evaluate and compare institutions to a degree previously unheard of in higher ed. The focus of the evaluations is, primarily, instructional content and related activities. This focus may create new opportunities for less prestigious institutions to compete.


Technology’s Unintended Consequences (Strike Again)

Before the concept of the MOOCs was adopted by elite universities and became “a thing” in 2012, it had  a decidedly anti-establishment posture.  These courses had a DIY quality. They were created and run by people excited by the possibilities of forming ad hoc online communities of learners that could use the Net to learn what and how they wanted. By design, MOOCs operated outside of the constraints of traditional higher education. Today, of course, MOOCs are associated with institutions like Stanford, HarvardMcGill and other institutions which see an opportunity to combine their international brand recognition with open courseware in order to stake out a large slice of the future of digital higher education.

This may not be exactly what the people who started experimenting with MOOCs had in mind, but innovations have a history of leading to unintended, even contradictory consequences. MOOCs are no different. Indeed, the trajectory from DIY to “upmarket” may not be the most interesting unintended consequence; MOOCs may have also inadvertently ushered in a new degree of transparency in higher education.

By providing free and public access to courses and faculty – MOOCs and other “open” initiatives, such as OER – enable learners and other stakeholders to review, evaluate and compare an institution’s core “product” without ever being admitted to the institution. Comments by students are beginning to appear across the Web on the relative merits of different MOOC courses and platforms. And new portals have been created that allow students to select and rate courses from different institutions, much as they would a Hollywood film (see here and here).  The change can’t be overstated. A MOOC can be witnessed by 100,000+ people and discussed in the New York Times. On the other hand, faculty have often been hesitant to have a colleague sit in on their lectures. Night and day.

Transparency & Evaluation of Quality

This is new territory for higher education. We’ve not been subject to the transparency and “perfect information” that many sectors of the economy have faced. For example, customers seeking to purchase appliances at the local mega-appliance store now come armed with more information on-hand than the salespeople. Vacation resorts can’t stop tourists from sharing their bad experiences in online forums. By and large, though, students still make decisions about which institution to attend with virtually no direct exposure to the quality of teaching they will face over the next few years.

If the MOOC phenomenon continues to pick up steam, and more institutions see value in making one or more of their courses available through these public platforms, then MOOCs may become a key platform by which the value and differences of institutions of higher education are evaluated and, as a result, the terrain for competition between institutions.

But on what basis are institutions competing?  To answer this we need, first, to recognise that MOOCs expose certain parts of the  participating universities and not others. MOOCs place certain qualities and features of the universities on display, while other features are hidden. As it has throughout history, technology changes what we pay attention; what “matters” and doesn’t. (For example, the advent of television changed what kinds of people were “electable” in our political systems.)

Greater Focus on Instructional Content

The feature that is privileged in MOOCs is instructional content – the material that is presented to the students in the course.

Instructional content is privileged for a couple of reasons. First, because MOOCs are stripped of many of the other common elements and experiences that usually come packaged with being a university student: loans, registration processes, socialising, and concern about grades. (Because of how students are currently using MOOCs, the vast majority of MOOC students are less concerned with grades than in their college or university courses.). Consequently, instructional content is proportionally a larger part of the overall experience. Second, instructional content is a relatively tangible part of the learning experience. While learning is as much a “process” than artefact, evaluating a process is relatively difficult. Instructional content, on the other hand, is tangible and can be compared with relative ease to content in other courses.

On some level, participating institutions already recognise that these courses are being used to showcase the institution and its faculty. Universities are putting more effort into their MOOCs than is typical of online courses. Duke University recently provided a recap of the process they went through creating and launching a MOOC. They reported a total of 620 hours of labour for the development stage – well above sector norms. That included over 11 hours of video (12 individual videos per week) and more than 1000 files for an eight hour course.

But the effort at Duke will likely pale in comparison to the type we will see in future course developments. Once it becomes obvious to university leadership that these courses are serving as a calling card/front door/flagship for the institution we may see what amounts to another variety of the university “arms race” – this time focussed on instructional content in publicly available courses. I think it’s safe to assume that the President of one Ivy League school won’t be thrilled if the courses offered by their institution look shoddy and home-made in comparison to what’s coming out of another Ivy League school.

The significant impact that MOOCs can have on a university’s reputation was nicely illustrated earlier this month when Georgia Tech decided to pull the plug on its Coursera MOOC after only a few weeks, due to challenges with its design and execution. Those that work daily with online courses in traditional colleges and universities can vouch for the fact that many, many bad courses are designed and offered each semester, many of them incomplete at the start of term – no different from campus-based courses, in this respect. But these courses are not pulled from the shelves mid-stream. The difference, of course, is that the Georgia Tech course was part a high-profile initiative. An institution’s reputation was on the line.

Content: “It’s a Good Thing”

Instructional content has received very little attention in digital higher ed, to date. Some equate concern with the quality of instructional content with passive, one-way learning. They see interaction as the primary basis of learning.

While interaction is fundamental, so is content; the importance of one feature does not mean that the other is irrelevant. No matter what the subject matter, high quality, thoughtfully presented instructional content – whether it is illustrations, videos or well designed activities – is an absolutely powerful component of learning.  In fact, I expect the role of content to grow more important as the two currently distinct spheres of content and software merge (e.g. adaptive software, simulations), and as higher education moves beyond the current “cottage model” of content development in which much of the burden for content development falls to lone instructors without the time, incentives or necessary skill sets. I find dismissals of content’s importance quite simplistic, frankly, and when these arguments are put in the form of high quality content, humorous.

The changing status of instructional content can be seen in the trajectory of open educational resources (OER). When individual academics began in the late 90s to make components of their courses available on repositories like Merlot, it was of little significance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that academic leadership were rarely aware of the faculty’s involvement in these initiatives. They reasoned that the intellectual property resided with the faculty member, and if they wanted to dedicate the time to participating in these initiatives, this was the faculty’s concern. Today, decisions about participating in Coursera and other open content/course platforms involves the University Board, investigations by General Counsel, and planning from the VP of Marketing.

The extent to which an institution will seek to use MOOCs as a showcase for their online courses will be influenced by the degree to which the course is affiliated with the institution. Some MOOCs are presented clearly as output of the institution. The most direct path to communicating this direct affiliation is to (a) give the MOOC course the same title as the course within the university, (b) have it taught by an academic of the university, (c ) have the academic identified as a member of the faculty at the university. For illustrative purposes, consider the particular way that Udacity defines the origins of its courses (Figure A).

Compare Udacity’s approach approach to labelling the origins of the courses to Coursera’s, which links the MOOC directly and fully to the institution. Both models rely on the credentials of the instructors (s) behind the course, but Coursera aims to define the course more closely with the partnering institution (Figure B).

The difference stance in relation to universities taken by these two platforms is significant as the closeness of the affiliation to prestigious institutions was the basis of the original excitement about MOOCs in 2012. Private vendors had been doing MOOCs since the 1990s, after all, but to little excitement. Nor would we have read about MOOCs in the New York Times or The Guardian had they come to us via Pocatello Junior College.

The excitement about MOOCs was a by-product and reinforcement of the logic long used to evaluate and rank higher education institutions: the more exclusive, the better. The assumption is that the instructional content made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions. That exclusivity and research productivity doesn’t necessarily correlate with instructional quality is well . . . interesting. And herein lies an opportunity (read on).

A Different Basis for Competition

There is very little stopping less prestigious institutions from producing higher quality courses than the elite institutions. Because the basis of competition has changed, and instructional content is now a key driver of value for learners, other colleges and universities that have made a significant investment in online education could produce high quality courses – as good or better than today’s MOOCs. In fact, as I suggested in a post last spring, the elite institutions may be less well suited to producing high-end instructional media. These institutions established their strong brands through research. Less prestigious institutions have generally focussed more on teaching and dedicated more of their resources to online learning, on average, than the elite institutions that currently dominate the MOOC space.

Technology has the power to change the basis upon which institutions compete. The oil crisis of the 1970s changed what mattered to car buyers; they wanted fuel efficiency. Honda and other then marginal players in the auto industry seized the opportunity and offered fuel efficient cars. Honda and Nissan (then Datsun) likely couldn’t compete head to head with the major US auto manufacturers, but when the way in which cars were evaluated changed, they took full advantage.

Similarly, technology is starting to change how value is defined in higher education. By deciding to take advantage of the technology’s capacity to distribute their courses, elite institutions have provided a previously unheard level of exposure to their core “product” – courses. But in doing this, the participating institutions also provide the means for learners and other stakeholders to determine quality for themselves. In turn, this creates opportunities for ambitious institutions of higher education, just as it has in other sectors, to compete in new ways.

By Keith Hampson, PhD. Analyst and Consultant to the Digital Higher Education Industry

B.F. Skinner explains the value of “teaching machines”

The word you are looking for that describes this is . . . “creepy”.

Digital Higher Education, Business Models, and Horizons

“Hotels for Hyphochondriacs” From More Intelligent Life, March/April 2012

These are heady days for digital higher education. For advocates of all-things-digital, myself included, it appears we’ve earned our permanent place at the table. Whether fully online, blended or a supplementing classroom education, digital higher ed is now a strategic issue for colleges and universities. Online enrolment continues to experience double-digit growth. Investors are once again lining up to fund new companies in educational technology and media. Not a week goes by without a breathless article being written about “revolution” or “disruption” in higher education brought on by the onslaught of technology. If David Noble were still with us, he’d be one unhappy camper.

But there are very significant obstacles standing in the way of higher education fully leveraging technology for purposes of instruction. We’ve yet to address these head-on.

My pessimism, if that’s what it is, stems not from our lack of knowledge about how students learn; we already know far more than we apply. And it’s not because of the limits of technology; higher ed trails other sectors in its use of available technology. The obstacle is organizational or, in the language of the moment, our “business model”.

Le Modèle D’Entreprise: An Ill-Fit

The opportunities made possible by technology for improving learning and productivity in higher education are in many respects at odds with the established business model of higher education. They don’t fit together well.

Our business model includes such matters as how we fund our institutions (tuition, public funds, endowments, etc), the kinds of resources we acquire and from whom, how we reward talent and the kinds of talent we seek out, our notions of what constitutes a “great university”, what we choose to outsource and what we do in-house, and how we compete for funds, prestige and students. Although the business model of higher education is one of the more complex in existence, the majority of colleges and universities in North America, other than proprietary colleges, are remarkably consistent in these and other respects.

Please: To note that the institution of higher education has a business model does not suggest that it is a business, or that it should be more business-like. This is a common misunderstanding (example of the misunderstanding). Every organization has a business model, whether it’s IBM or Greenpeace. Even Mother Teresa’s charity, Missionaries of Charity, had a business model.

Consider, for example, social media. There is a great deal of excitement about the use of social media in higher education. But outside of marketing and community engagement, it proves an awkward fit in higher ed – particularly when we attempt to integrate it into our instructional model. While social media is particularly well suited to facilitating open-ended exchanges between people – with no clear or prescribed beginning and end – higher education has clear boundaries (e.g. course duration) and largely predetermined objectives (e.g. a fixed and standard set of assessments). Social media is user-generated and leaderless; that’s what makes it so compelling. On the other hand, higher education is top-down and instructor-directed. Social media thrives when there are thousands, if not millions, of users within a single, overarching community. A high volume of users provides online communities with enough activity and content to ensure that each user finds what and who they want with sufficient frequency. Twitter and Linked In have well over 100 million users. Higher education instruction typically restricts participation to a single class (e.g. average of 40 students per course).

Consider rich media. Since the dawn of digital education, pundits have dreamt about the potential to provide every student with access to brilliant digital content that thoughtfully merges the best software, subject-matter knowledge, and pedagogy. Unfortunately, this vision crashes headfirst with conventional notions about the role of academics in teaching (which would be radically reduced when rich media takes centre stage), how we finance course development and to what level, and how reputation for both academics and institutions relies so heavily on subject-matter knowledge. It’s not accidental that rich media is largely limited to K12 and corporate learning contexts; they have different business models that better enable the use of this kind of content.

Matching Technology with the Right Business Model

This is not to suggest that social media and rich media can’t be used in higher education. They can, and they are. But the business model used by the vast majority of institutions will, on average, make their use less effective, more complicated, take longer to achieve, and cost more. No amount of talk at conferences or online communities about what we in higher education “ought” or “should” do will change this. Business models are the structures in which we work; they frame the possibilities.

There’s a theoretical basis to this view. Christensen’s study of disruptive innovation contends that organizations need to match new technologies with the right business model in order to fully leverage its potential. By simply dropping a new technology into the structure and constraints of the existing, traditional business model, we dramatically weaken its capacity to increase value. We need to align the technology with an enabling business model.

Much of what constitutes technology in higher education has, to date, been successful precisely because it doesn’t challenge the existing business model. The core value proposition of the LMS, for example, is that it allows instructors with minimal technical skills to create and manage web-based courses with limited assistance. In this respect, the design of the technology mirrors and ultimately reinforces the organizational model of classroom education in which the Instructor serves as a one-person operation. For the institution, this ensures that the LMS does not disrupt the existing and deeply embedded organization of roles and responsibilities within the institution, which in turn reduces costly reorganizational changes, as well as blow back from academics that are accustomed to working with high levels of autonomy.

To significantly improve the value of instructional technology and media for instruction in higher education we need start looking more closely at how our institutions operate. It’s not the technology that will limit us. And it’s certainly not a lack of research into how college students learn best. It’s something much more difficult – our business model.

The LMS: It’s Not All About You

Minding the Gap: Instructional Technology and Pedagogy

OESP’s and (Non) Disruptive Innovation

Content Strategy for Digital Higher Education

Instructional content in higher education used to be a simple matter: the Instructor selected textbooks, maybe put together a set of badly photocopied readings, and added his or her own course notes.

But as “digital” washes over higher education, the issue of instructional content has become increasingly complex. Options now include ebooks, OER, self-publishing, LMS-based content, digital textbook supplements, freemium textbooks, digital course packs, print-on-demand, library subscription services, custom-publishing, and the still complex nature of Internet copyright laws.

The choices we make for instructional content can have a significant impact on the cost and quality of learning, but also on the institution’s administrative costs and service quality. How quickly and at what price, for example, can we get instructional content into the hands of our students and at what costs to the institution?

Decisions about instructional content for courses have traditionally been handled by Instructors. But it’s not always feasible for the Instructor to know all of the possible options available. Nor do they often have the capacity to determine if there are benefits to coordinating their content needs with colleagues in other parts of the institution.

“Content Strategy”

It is time for a more coordinated, institutional approach to managing instructional content. The field of “Content Strategy” – while currently focussed on marketing – offers a good starting point. Content Strategy, according to one its evangelists, Kristina Halvorson, is “the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.” The field tries to bring order to a under-appreciated, often uncoordinated set of practices, including editorial, search-engine optimization, content management, metadata strategy, financial management, content distribution channels strategies, and more. Content Strategy can be retrofit to instructional content and provide a framework that will lower costs, improve services and increase quality.

As a first step, I recommend taking an inventory of current practices and resources: how are we currently producing, acquiring, managing and distributing instructional content within our institution?

  • What units within your university deal with instructional content? (e.g. Libraries distance education, bookstores, individual instructors, academic departments, marketing.)
  • What software applications are currently being used to produce and manage content? (e.g. Content management systems, learning management systems, publisher websites, faculty blogs, wikis.)
  • From whom is the university sourcing content, and what are the processes used to source content? (e.g. Library subscriptions, textbook publishers, instructors, simulation companies.)
  • Who within the institution is producing content? (e.g. Instructors, academic departments, marketing.)
  • How do the various units within the institution communicate with each other about their content practices? Do they?

With a better grasp of the big picture, you’ll start to see opportunities to share resources, identify leading practices that should be emulated, and recognize potential risks.


For more information about the field of Content Strategy, check out the following sites:

The Discipline of Content Strategy by Kristina Halvorson

The Content Strategist

Books on Content Strategy and Content Management

Digital Higher Ed Content & The Long Tail

Maybe my patience has finally been rewarded.

The focus of digital higher education during the previous decade was overwhelmingly on the technology itself – learning management systems, bandwidth, faculty literacy with technology, student technology support, and so forth. But I entered the world of higher education through an interest in interaction of culture and markets, and for me digital content (or media) is key. The rest? Mere plumbing. Okay, I admit that’s overstating it. But digital content is where people, culture, technology, organizations and markets meet. It’s messy, human and creative. And the potential of rich media, integrated with analytics and social platforms, to radically improve the quality and economics of higher education is extraordinary.

Now, in 2012, it appears that digital education content is finally getting some attention. 2012 is offering us OER (as well as OER with credentials), new authoring platforms, content-friendly devices (e.g. Tablets) and aggressive innovation in the textbook publishing industry.

In order to make sense of these developments, I recently reread Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail” (2004). Anderson posited that the Internet has fundamentally changed the economics of producing and distributing digital products. “Shelf space” on the Internet is virtually infinite and increasingly inexpensive. It’s now financially feasible for vendors to sell a much wider variety of digital products, particularly books, films, and music and other media. Marketing strategy is shifting from a dependence on a relatively limited number of “hits” or “blockbusters”  (e.g. Top 40 radio; New York Times bestseller lists) to serving niches.

Interestingly, Anderson contends that consumers have tended to purchase “hits”, not because they are indifferent to less popular fare, but because of a lack of choice. But the Internet is now removing the bottleneck between suppliers and consumers. And as search and distribution technologies improve, and costs continue to decrease, Anderson forecasts that the top sellers in a variety of markets will constitute a smaller share of total sales, and the number of different products available will increase dramatically (i.e. further flattening and lengthening of the distribution of sales).

Of particular relevance to higher education, Anderson also predicts that more products will come to us by way of “amateurs”. These products created and sold by individuals (often on a part-time basis) are often presented alongside those from large commercial enterprises. Youtube is an example; blogs are another.

We are seeing a similar trend in higher education. Content development is being pushed down to the most local-level: the individual instructor. The role of the instructor is unusually well-suited to this trend because, firstly, academics are subject-matter experts, and are expected to be able to create their own instructional materials. They create course notes, slides (powerpoint), and research papers. The difference is that now they have the capacity to build this content on better platforms and distribute it widely.

Second, the idea that “everyone is an author now”, which is made possible by the changes Anderson identifies, fits perfectly with the pursuit of originality among academics. An academic’s value is largely based on their subject matter knowledge. And subject matter knowledge must be in some respect original if it is to be considered of value. Consequently, they have a vested interest in maintaining the notion that their work is original. And publishing is the means by which this originality is publicly demonstrated.

Third and finally, there is a cultural and political component to self-publishing. For many, to self-publish is to work outside of and beyond the control of larger organizations, typically commercial ones. This is a very appealing notion to many people in education. It’s consistent with the political leanings of many academics and commonly held attitudes with respect to the limited role of commerce in education.

Of course, in some respects, content has always been local in higher ed. But the interest of individuals in self-publishing is now matched by the emergence of a near-complete eco-system that enables them to create, manage and distribute educational content. Authoring can be done on ScholarPress; Creative Commons can serve as the legal framework for copyright and reuse; repositories such as Connexions and Merlot provide the technical infrastructure to house and distribute the content.

But while there is potential to produce an ever-increasing range of digital educational content in higher ed, this supply needs to be matched with demand. Is there, as Anderson argued with respect to other markets, demand for a far greater variety of content?

The Surprising Endurance of “Hits”

Before trying to answer this question, it may be useful to consider the work of Anita Elberse, a marketing professor. Elberse took a second look at The Long Tail’s argument. Her analysis, Should You Invest in the Long Tail?  (Harvard Business Review) suggests that the market for “blockbusters” remains largely safe from the onslaught of multiplying niche markets. Despite the changing economics of content authoring and distribution that Anderson describes, the bulk of sales are still found in the “head” and the “tail” is remarkably flat. For example,  24 percent of the nearly 4 million digital songs available for sale through stores like iTunes sold only one copy each in 2007. Apparently, we aren’t quite as adventuresome in our tastes as we’d like to believe. We are attracted to products and services that are validated by other consumers. We rely on each other as guides. So, it appears that there are limits to The Long Tail.Greater variety is not always matched by demand.

The degree to which Elberse’s argument invalidates the Long Tail theory is somewhat dependent on where we draw the line between the “head” and the “tail”; that is to say, what we think constitutes a “hit”. What’s most useful about her work for me is that it reminds us that there are important forces at play that give shape to the distribution of sales (head and tail). The increased variety of products sold is not merely the result of increased choice, as one might believe from reading Anderson’s work.

The insights from Anderson, and the questions posed about these insights by Elberse, can help us understand and anticipate the changes in the market for digital higher ed content. What, for example, is the necessary variety of digital educational content?  What are the factors that might the demand for a more diverse range of content in higher education? Do we have a preference for “hits” in higher education?

The implications are considerable. It will determine who produces the educational content, what gets produced, who pays for it, and what it ultimately costs.

As a starting point for addressing these questions, I offer three issues that may effect the length of the “tail” of content in digital higher ed:

Quality (Re)assurance. Do we need assurances from others in the field about the quality of content, and from whom, exactly? There are conventions in place: In traditional textbook publishing, it is conventional to employ currently employed academics from well-known (preferably) institutions of higher education as authors. In OER, we find the use of simple rating systems, such as stars (one-to-five), to crowd-source evaluations. To what degree will the need for assurance from others limit the expansion of the “tail”?

Consistent and Coherent Curriculum. To what extent must the content be consistent with the curriculum within the institution and other institutions? Although not to the same degree as K12, higher education is a “system” in which students progress, step-by-step. There are levels into which content must fit. When a student moves from first year to second year, or transfers from one school to another, there is an assumption (hope?) that the first year accounting course at University A is roughly equivalent to the same course at University B.  The Bologna Process is relevant here.

Production Quality. How important is it to educators and students that the content that they use meet a minimum standard of production quality? That is to say, at what point does “home-made” content become a liability because it is either difficult to integrate into an LMS, “buggy” (in the case of content embedded in applications), or simply difficult to use for students and instructors? How far along the “tail” will content of sufficient quality be found?

As the variety of content increases in the coming years, educators, institutions and publishers may want to pay attention to these and other issues to determine how they go about creating, acquiring and distributing content. Although it’s too early to be certain, my suspicion is that like the markets of music, film, and books, the demand for “hits” in digital edu content will remain surprisingly strong.

Related Articles

Note: A number of people have written about the relationship between The Long Tail and education – I’ve included a list below. You’ll recognize, though, that some of them use the concept of the Long Tail to analyze the diversification of students. That is, the tail gets longer as more people participate in higher education.  Instead, I use the concept to analyze the diversity of educational content. Although the former approach may be of great value, my focus on educational content is more in line with Anderson’s original use of the concept.

8 Questions

During the last 18 months or so we’ve seen a remarkable increase in the amount of attention paid to higher education. There’s no longer a shortage of interesting commentary. I’m very grateful for this.

But sometimes I feel I need to stop and (re)define my questions. This helps my research and it helps me get to the heart of the issues for my clients more quickly. These are some of the questions floating around in my head this week. What are yours?

1. What will a profitable education content company look like ten years from now? Pearson? McGraw-Hill?

2. Five years now, will the bulk of high end innovation in educational media and technology be found in courses in our educational institutions or will it be direct-to-consumer?

3. What has to change for higher education to match the passionate pursuit of new instructional strategies found in K12?

4. If prestigious universities figure out how to lower the cost of tuition, will they? Or will fear of damaging the brand – which traditionally has been tied to sticker price (tuition) – make them hesitate?

5. How long will it take for otherwise intelligent people to recognize that access to video-taped lectures of educators with limited presentation skills and average levels of knowledge of the subject-matter does not constitute a revolution in education?

6. What will it take to get our best and brightest design and technology professionals to dedicate their careers to digital education rather than digital games, marketing, etc? (The education sector, I should point out, dwarfs all but health care.)

7. Can high quality educational media (i.e. content) be built collaboratively across multiple institutions?  Is the cost of producing it in this fashion actually less than commercially produced content even when we factor in open licensing?

8. How quickly would the wide-scale adoption of learning outcome measurement erode the prestige of selective universities? Okay, would the wide-scale adoption of learning outcome measurement erode the prestige of selective universities?

The Changing Contexts of Educational Content

Value is shaped by context.

That is to say  . . . we attribute value and meaning to people, objects and other things on the basis of the circumstances in which we experience them. Art may be best example of the power of context. If we take a work of art out from behind the red ropes, away from the quiet guards and out of the gallery, the meaning and value of the art shifts considerably. It may not, in the case of some modern art, be interpreted as art at all by some people. (See figure to right.)

Context is crucial in commercial markets, too. Vendors go to great lengths to control the context in which their products and services are positioned. Television advertisers avoid placing ads in the middle of programs on unsettling topics; those that evoke emotions and sensibilities that are not supportive of the product being promoted. “The Day After” was a fictional “made for TV movie” about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on US soil. The film’s producers found it so difficult to attract advertisers that they choose to run all ads prior to the point in the film when the nuclear attack occurs.  Apparently, convincing people that having fresher breath will make them one of the “beautiful people” is more difficult after witnessing death and destruction.

What, if anything, does this have to do with higher education? Well, until now, not much. Historically, higher education has been able to control the context in which student’s experience the institution. Compared to other types of organizations, colleges and universities are like islands, “all-in-one” organizations, in which the student – if they chose – could spend their entire educational career without ever leaving the campus.

The walls around higher education are becoming less substantial, though – only partly by design. Institutions deliberately reach beyond their walls to the community through, for example, the creation of their own Facebook pages (while still trying to regulate the message). But most of the outreach thus far has been driven by students. Whether creating work groups on Google applications, or adding their opinion to RateMyProfessor, students are taking elements of their experience outside of their schools to the broader public, piece by piece.

Even instructional materials are finding their way to the broader public. Open educational resources are placed in common platforms like Connexions and Merlot and Academic Earth for public use.

The fact that these materials are publicly available is, alone, significant. Traditionally, these instructional materials were carefully hidden behind secure university course management systems, available only to students registered in the course. But it’s also significant that the materials are placed alongside other materials from competing institutions. Users are encouraged to evaluate and compare the different materials. By placing the institution’s content in a public forum we expose the institution to a type of evaluation beyond anything experienced previously.

The Net is doing to higher education what it did in so many other sectors: exposing organizations to side by side comparisons. As these shared platforms for educational content become more user-friendly visitors will soon be able to compare lectures like we compare fridges on the BestBuy site. And what the users experience is not always pretty. Philip Greenspun did a minute by minute evaluation of a well known finance professor’s lecture performance on Academic Earth, suggesting that the professor’s lecture was wasteful and self-indulgent.

Overall, the shift to greater transparency is positive. But I’m not sure that the majority of academic managers are yet fully conscious of the implications. Indeed, the decision to put educational content online is, at most institutions, left to the individual academic. As these platforms become more popular and the ability to compare educational content/institutions becomes that much easier, we may see leaders paying closer attention to what is published publicly.

Credentials, GoodWill Hunting & MITx

It’s no secret that the authority to bestow credentials is a core source of value for higher education institutions; it’s also a key means by which the institution protects itself from unwanted competition from non-sanctioned education providers.

The importance of credentials to traditional higher education is what makes the recent announcement from MIT particularly interesting.

MIT has received a great deal of positive attention in response to the MITx announcement – a “game changer”, argued Forbes. It may well turn out to be just that, but I think it’s useful to see this initiative as part of a broader trend that began in earnest six or seven years ago: the creation and (slow) legitimization of new types of learning providers, ways of learning, and credentials.

As soon as access to the Net became commonplace, innovators saw the potential to offer learners educational opportunities outside of established educational institutions. (You might recall oft-repeated quote from John Chambers, CEO of Cisco: “the next killer app is education over the internet” (New York Times, Nov 17, 1999). These innovations took a number of forms, but for those of us in higher education, possibly the most interesting of the bunch were those that were presented as direct challenges to higher education.

Here are a few of the more interesting examples:

“UnCollege” was started by college dropout, Dale Stephens, who declared there are better ways to learn than what is being offered by US colleges and universities.

– The “Personal MBA” argued that spending 80k (plus lost wages) on an MBA was for suckers, and set up a community to work collectively to learn outside of institutions.

– Peter Thiel offered 100,000 per year to 20 students that would drop out of college to launch a business.

– And possibly most significant was the launch of “badges” that allows people to demonstrate mastery of subjects in a variety of ways.

These initiatives have a fascinating anti-institutional quality. They tap into our attraction to the “outsider”; the resourceful pioneers who have no need for help from established institutions. I’m reminded of the scene in the film “Goodwill Hunting” in which the lead character, Will Hunting, tells a pretentious Harvard grad student: “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.”

The MITx initiative involves a reconfiguration of credentials within the officially sanctioned higher ed institutions themselves. The impact? Hard to know for sure, but I imagine that the MIT initiative (as well as the more narrowly defined effort at Stanford U, AI course) will serve to spur on creation of new types of credentials from new types of education providers. Then again, the move by MIT may be a case of the “centre” incorporating elements of the “margins”. Conventional medicine, for example, fought hard to discredit alternative medical treatments, before eventually incorporating it into the mainstream. Maybe this is part of the dynamic in higher ed, as well.

In either case, an expansion of the types of credentials and education providers will create a more competitive, market-like environment for education. I anticipate that this scenario, to the degree it occurs, will be initially limited to continuing education divisions and other segments of higher education that focus on adult students who already have a college degree and are less concerned with the source of their credentials. We shall see.

Searching for Sustainable OER

OER or open educational resources is one of the good news stories of 2011. OER takes many forms, but what binds initiatives like The Khan Academy, MIT OCW (Open Course Ware) and Stanford’s AI course is that they are all freely available to learners and other educators. It’s this “free” characteristic that has caught the attention of the press. In the context of higher education news stories about rising costs, tuition and student debt, this must be our “man bites dog” news story.

Despite the importance of “free” to OER, there’s been little written about the economics of OER. How, specifically, can we make it sustainable? Even Taylor Walsh’s book on OER, Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Universities are Opening Up Access to their Courses, resisted challenging the logic of multimillion-dollar OER projects without revenue streams.

My interest in this aspect of the OER model was peaked last week while reading a report about The Open Education Initiative at UMass-Amherst. The initiative provides UMass instructors with stipends in exchange for producing instructional materials that are free to UMass students. (Print copies can be ordered for $13, which, I assume, covers printing costs).  According to the news story  “ . . . universities are finally getting serious about student complaints over the cost of course materials. UMass estimates that its $10,000 investment will save students $72,000 over the next school year. Provost James V. Staros says the savings “directly benefit [students’] very real and very tight budgets.”

The UMass instructors, then, are producing instructional materials that replace commercial textbooks. This initiative fits neatly into the broader narrative about textbook prices over the last few years.  According to one U.S. study, the price of textbooks rose 186% between 1986 and 2004.

Questioning the price of textbooks make perfect sense. In all sorts of industries, new business models – enabled by technology – are making the production and distribution of high quality information material possible at lower and lower prices. CD Baby did it for music. WordPress is doing it for bloggers. The new economics of reference materials has all but killed the encyclopedia business. And innovative business models are emerging that suggest that lower prices are indeed possible in the realm of textbooks, as well (See Flat World Knowledge).

The professionals behind the initiative at UMass-Amherst should be congratulated for their efforts. This is clearly an effort to make education more affordable. However, the initiative raises two important questions about the sustainability of OER that, to my knowledge, have yet to be adequately answered.

Equal value?

Can OER initiatives produce instructional materials of EQUAL value?

The investments made in the materials at UMass are far lower than is made in the investment of the commercial materials that the OER materials are designed to replace. Traditional textbooks cost anywhere from 150,00 to 1 million (USD) to produce. UMass is offering its Instructors 1000-dollar stipends. Even if the Instructors at UMass are only producing part of the required materials, the investment is a mere fraction of the total invested in the commercial model.

The costs of producing commercial textbooks goes toward designers, programmers, artists, copy editors, marketing, and to third-party content (e.g. illustrations). And of course, there’s the author.

Will these very low budget initiatives such as the one at UMass-Amherst be able to match the quality of what is produced under the commercial model? I’m not sure how they could.

Is it the case, then, that what textbook publishers have been creating for higher education is more than what the market actually requires? This may be true for certain kinds of content, and it may be that a more staggered set of solutions emerges over time. However, the more common response from academia to commercial textbooks is not that they are too good, but that they are not good enough.

Is it the case, then, that commercial publishers are not as efficient as higher education institutions at producing instructional content; that publishers are increasing costs unnecessarily? It’s true that there are a few costs that institutions producing instructional materials won’t need to incur – marketing and profit, notably. But I think the more relevant issue in terms of cost efficiency is that higher education institutions are not publishers. They do not have the systems, incentives, processes, and skill sets and so forth of publishers. Simply put, it’s not what they do. Consequently, it’s unlikely that will be able to produce instructional material of equal value at costs lower than organizations that are designed specifically for this purpose.

Is it sustainable? Or, “where’s the money?”

The bulk of resources for OER initiatives appear to be coming from three sources: philanthropists, the colleges themselves and the efforts of faculty.

Faculty, for their part, is owed our appreciation for participating in these events. However, I’m not confident that we can expect faculty to do extra work for little to no pay on an on-going basis. And as the financial pressure on higher education continues to develop, more pressure will be placed on faculty to take on greater workloads.

If the college itself assumes financial responsibility for these ventures, the funds used to support the OER initiative will presumably be drawn, at least in part, from the bucket that is filled by tuition. Therefore, more tuition (or fees) will be needed to compensate for the cost of the OER initiative. (I’m also curious how individual institutions that are funded in part by taxpayers in jurisdiction will respond to requests to fund initiatives that help students in other tax jurisdictions. Let’s leave that for another time.)

If we rely on philanthropists (e.g. Gates Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation), we are subject to the ups and downs that characterize all university advancement initiatives. The institution’s ability to produce curriculum becomes dependent on the ability of the institution to solicit donors. In addition to placing academic work under the umbrella of “advancement”, we might also want to consider how this might affect schools that are less able to solicit donor funds.

The US government has also flirted with the idea of directly funding the development of instructional material. In 2009, the Obama administration announced plans to provide 500 million dollars for the creation of freely available instructional materials aimed at the community college sector (later dropped in a funding cut). I’m curious as to how academics feel about having instructional content directly funded by a government.

OER is a very complicated issue. But it is one worth trying to solve. Lowering costs for students is fundamental to providing fair access to higher education for those who seek it. We need smart, sustainable business models for OER that don’t simply shift costs from one place to another, or reduce the overall quality of the materials we offer students. We need the highest quality instructional material at the lowest possible price.

Let me finish by sharing the response of one faculty member to an article in the Chronicle about an open textbook initiative:

“I don’t understand … tell me again how the people who work on open source materials are feeding themselves and their families? Tell me how they take the money they’ve earned through hard work and reinvested it in coffee, automobiles, riding the bus, buying medical care, consuming food, etc … People who support open source need to provide all of their services for free too, so the people earning nothing making free materials can meet their own needs. And then we can all go to heaven and have lollipops and pet goats. Utopia. Yay. Economic children of the world…please grow the hell up.” (Chronicle of Higher Education)

What’s Behind the Rise of Design in Digital Higher Ed?

We’ve yet to “pick up the other end of the stick.”

When we move the locus of education from the classroom environment to the digital environment, we move the student experience to one in which design matters a great deal. Design, here, refers to the field of graphic design and industrial design – where aesthetics and function merge.

In a previous post, “Design Matters”, I made a number of assertions about design:

There is a growing recognition in other industries that the “look and feel” of industrial products is fundamental to their value; design is not merely about “surface” aesthetics, but involves aligning the needs, sensibilities, behaviours of people with “things”.

The value of screen-based experiences (e.g. laptops, tablets) is highly dependent on the quality of design;

For a variety of reasons (that I will address in another post), the software and content created for digital higher education has completely ignored the role of design – and it shows. However, there are a number of forces in play that may give the field of design a more central role in digital higher education.

A Salve for Change

“. . . design has spread like gas to all facets of human activity from science and education, to politics and policy making. For a simple reason: one of design’s most fundamental tasks is to help people deal with change” (Economist, 2011).

As Ray Kurzweil and others have argued, the rate of change in our lives is increasing. Design is a powerful tool for making these changes less difficult, less jarring and ultimately more useful. Possibly no where is this role needed more than in education. After centuries of classroom education, we may lean on design to make the transition to digital.


We are starting to see a new generation of leaders emerge in digital higher education. And as is always the case, the new generation see things differently than the previous generation. You can see this in the quality of the Instructure Canvas LMS, for example. It’s evident, too, in the little-known LMS, SmartlyEdu, led by teenager, Alain Mayer.

Merger of Consumer and Educational Applications

Consumer applications tend to place greater emphasis on design than education. Slowly but surely these tools are finding their way into digital higher education. More platforms now support Google docs, and offer Facebook and Twitter integration, for example. This may raise the overall standards for design in digital higher ed.

Traditional Media

There is growing interest in digital higher education among traditional media companies. Companies that invested in education include News Corp, New York Times, The Washington Post, Bertelsmann AG, and Conde Nast. These corporations will bring with them, a concern for and broad experience in, packaging and delivering high quality design.

Design as a Competitive Differentiator

Although pundits have been talking about the highly competitive landscape of online higher education for almost 15 years, it is only recently that the supply of online programs is such that colleges find themselves offering very similar programs to their competitors, at similar prices. (In fact, at this time, this state of affairs is only acute in certain disciplines, such as business and nursing.) Real choice leads to real competition and competition requires differentiation. Design is one of the few tangible ways – beyond price – that colleges can demonstrate the differences of their online programs to prospective students.

Apps, Apps, Apps

Chris Anderson notes that the way we access the internet is shifting from the web (browser) to applications. Browser-based traffic is declining. Traffic is increasingly managed by applications like NetFlix, Facebook, and XBox. And as more internet traffic is accessed via mobile devices, the trend will continue.

Applications offer a superior user experience. Applications compete on the basis of design – possibly more so than any other consumer product category.  Consider Twitter apps, for example. Tweetdeck and HootSuite compete largely on the quality of the experience they offer; the way that manage and display information. The actual data is most consistent across these and other Twitter applications, but the user-experience is not. The success of these applications is heavily dependent on design. The  consumer can quickly and easily switch from one app to another in seconds, without disruption. Under such conditions, design is of tremendous importance.

In future posts, I’ll look at the research being done on the educational value of design, present a few examples of great design in education, and identify some of the obstacles that have kept design at bay until now.

Keith Hampson, PhD

Notes on Sharing, Competition and Innovation

University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni Sch...

Image via Wikipedia

Originally posted in Today’s Campus

A panel discussion entitled “What Nonprofits and For-Profits Can Learn from Each Other About Teaching and Learning” was held at the most recent Educause conference. The panelists were from proprietary schools, a non-profit university, Inside Higher Ed, and a think-tank. It was at this talk that an audience member repeated the claim that proprietary colleges, unlike non-profit colleges, are unwilling to “share”. Proprietary colleges won’t, for example, provide people outside of their organizations with access to their courses, materials and other related information because these institutions are, well, proprietary. The comment put the representatives on the panel from the proprietary sector on the defensive. I think that was the intention.

The criticism of proprietary colleges has a moral and political quality. It suggests that non-profit colleges share because the practice is consistent with the institution’s mandate of social responsibility. The more we share, the better off we all are. And, of course, this is true; indisputable, in fact. The exchange of information between individuals, communities, and nations is an important ingredient of innovation and our collective progress.

While claims to moral superiority are often legitimate; sometimes they serve to mask complexity, even mislead. Indulge my cynicism for a moment while I take a second look at the seemingly simple issue of sharing in digital higher ed.

First, the distinction between non-profit and proprietary in terms of sharing is often overstated. Non-profits do not have a stellar track record of sharing. For example, academics can work in the same department for years without actually witnessing each other teach. It’s  considered intrusive. Professional autonomy and sharing are not always aligned. Similarly, academic researchers are unlikely to share their unfinished work with researchers at other institutions with whom they are competing (for attention, grants, journal acceptance, etc); not until the research is published and credit is formally attributed. And on an institutional level, recent research by AEI and Education Sector suggests that the majority of publicly sponsored colleges and universities don’t provide students with all of the information they need to make sound academic and career decisions – even when the disclosure of this information has been mandated by regulators.

Second, we need to ask why organizations choose to share or not. Is it strictly for social and moral reasons? I’m generalizing, but I don’t think most organizations will share information if it is fundamental to their success, no matter what their social mandate. Consider, for example, college courseware. Proprietary schools tend to put relatively more resources toward the design and development of their courses. It makes sense that they do. Unlike non-profit colleges, they can’t rely on tradition or reputation in order to compete. They don’t offer residential experiences, research, or climbing walls. Their focus is teaching and learning. As Richard Vedder of Ohio University argued recently in the Chronicle ,”the for-profits are incentivized to focus on student outcomes and learning—paying laser-like attention to this most critical mission of higher education.”

For-profits focus on those parts of their operation that can be controlled and which are central to their value, such as courses. They do it through top-down, management driven processes, which is unpalatable to many in traditional higher education, but they do it to survive.  So, the question we might ask is this: would non-profit colleges provide outsiders with access to their courses (which, again, they do in very limited ways) if access to this information could potentially weaken their status, revenue or both, and directly bolster a competitor?

What makes this issue particularly slippery is, first, the fact that quality in education is difficult to define and, second, because most traditional, non-profit colleges don’t compete on the basis of the quality of their digital courses. Consequently, we can only speculate as to how willing they would be to share access to their courses under more competitive circumstances. But the fact that researchers in competition with each tend to approach “sharing” in a far less generous manner suggests that the standard rules of competition apply.

Finally, the value of sharing is that it supports innovation that, in turn, supports the common good. And the claim made against for-profit colleges is that they are not inclined to share because they are competing, not collaborating. Again, there’s a great deal of truth to this view, but it ignores an especially large elephant in the room: for all of modern history, market economies have relied on competition to generate innovation. And now, after two centuries of unprecedented innovation, I think we can now safely say that it works. We’re not always pleased with the results, but there’s no question – at least in my mind – of the power of competition to generate high levels of innovation. So, the argument that competitive practices are counter to innovation is, regardless of the context, is – as my dear Mom often put it – “a bit rich”. Rather than contrast innovation and competition, can we agree that competition – like sharing – is a means of generating innovation?

Sharing is a positive force in higher education. But let’s not use the term indiscriminately. We need a more thoughtful, less politically charged dialogue to identify what should be shared and how.

Digital Higher Ed: Design Matters

Brands like Target and Apple have successfully used design to set themselves apart. Mainstream magazines like BusinessWeek and Fast Company now devote complete issues to design. College design programs are experiencing unprecedented demand. Highly ranked institutions like Stanford now teach MBA students about the role of design and design thinking.

There’s a growing recognition that design is not simply about making products attractive. A well-designed product, (or space, image, service) is easier to use, fits better into the flow of people’s lives, suit the needs of a broader range of end-users, increases productivity, and even influences emotions (which in turn can influence cognition). Sectors as hard-nosed and utilitarian as healthcare and manufacturing are now taking the “soft” subject of design very seriously.

Somehow, though, digital higher education – both its software and content – has managed to remain untouched by good design. Design is not even on the agenda.

The importance of design to digital education starts with this simple fact: by moving the locus of education from the classroom to the digital environment, we necessarily change the factors that determine the quality of the student’s experience. In the digital environment, design plays a far more important role as a determinant of quality than it does in the classroom.  “Screens” (laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc) are heavily design-dependent. The quality of design in screen-based environments dramatically influences the end-user’s experience.

Higher education has a history of suppressing design; the reasons for this are complex and varied (and the subject of a future post). Yet, design and education have remarkably similar objectives. Design – whether applied to advertising, instructions, signage, or user-interfaces – seeks to make the complex simple, just like educators. Both design and education attempt to leverage the user’s existing knowledge. Each attempts to engage its users. Each aims to maximize the audience’s retention of relevant information.  Each wants to move beyond a one-way, passive form of communication, and to help the end-user become an active participant in the process. Each wants to be as efficient as possible – by selecting methods that lead to understanding and engagement as quickly as possible. And each succeeds by organizing the user’s attention; encouraging them to focus on what the designer/educator feels is most important.

Design might also, though, serve as a means of establishing a competitive difference for institutions. Increasingly, students approach education like consumers – seeking out meaningful differences among competing institutions. And as the supply of online courses and programs grows, students now have true choice. True competition will follow. Thoughtfully designed software and content can serve as a competitive differentiator; a difference that – unlike most in higher education – is actually tangible; students can see (and experience) the difference. It’s also a nice coincidence that this marketing tactic actually supports the educational mandate of the institution – unlike, say, a new set of climbing walls for students.

The bad news is that few institutions have the talent and resources in place to leverage design. But, of course, that’s also the good news. Nimble and intelligent institutions can use design to stake out a significant difference from other institutions.

In future posts, I’ll look at the research being done on the educational value of design, present a few examples of great design in education, and predict (fearlessly!) why design may become a staple of digital higher ed, whether traditional institutions act on it or not (hint: media companies). Until then, keep in touch.

Keith Hampson, PhD

Unlocking the Gates. An Interview with Taylor Walsh

Taylor Walsh writes on behalf of Ithaka S+R, the strategic consulting and research service of the New York-based not-for-profit organization ITHAKA. She is the author of Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses,now available from Princeton University Press.

KCH: To date, most of the work done in open content has been supported by philanthropists. Yet, you note that leaders in Open Content “have still not developed comprehensive strategies to address sustainability.” How do you see the challenge of sustainability unfolding in the near future?

These initiatives were often launched during better economic times and, as you point out, benefitted from external funding from foundations or governments (outside the U.S.)—so the reckoning with sustainability was allowed to be somewhat delayed. But a decade after this movement began, it is clear that many open courseware projects are no longer fledgling efforts, and they may flounder—if not perish—should they fail to concretely address the question of sustainability.

Some of the most established programs have begun to explore revenue-generating options on top of their free content, but with limited success so far; in the short run, the parent universities that have launched and incubated these initiatives seem their most promising source of ongoing support. But during these lean times, courseware initiatives risk being seen as unaffordable luxuries, and will have to make the case for why they deserve a share of their host institution’s tightening operations budget.

Many think of open courseware as an externally-facing concept: a university digitizes its course materials and puts them online, “unlocking its gates” to the world. But if the most likely path to sustainability is through obtaining ongoing support from their own parent universities, it will be important to tether what began as externally-oriented efforts to internal priorities. This can be achieved in a number of ways:  by casting open courseware projects as tools to support enrolled students’ learning, or to connect with alumni or prospective students, or marketing the institution to new audiences. Many host universities are certainly capable of supporting these initiatives’ relatively modest operating budgets—if their practical value can be recognized.

KCH: Of the open content initiatives you studied, the Open Course Ware (OCW) project at MIT received by far the greatest amount of attention from the press and visitor traffic to its site. Yet, as noted in your book, the MIT-OCW model has its limitations. Can you elaborate?

Among the case studies I examine in the book, I found that courseware initiatives could be roughly divided into two camps: those based on a publishing model, and those that pursue a more interactive model.

When MIT OCW launched 10 years ago, it was guided by a vision that was quite daring at the time: to create open access, digital versions of course materials from every single course in the Institute’s curriculum. A major benefit of this publishing model is that it achieves a new level of transparency around selective university teaching; but at the same time, it leaves much of the actual learning up to the user (though the recent OCW Scholar effort may be a step toward providing further support).

A program like the Open Learning Initiative out of Carnegie Mellon had a very different goal in mind; its leaders’ idea was to fully redesign some introductory courses to optimize them for web-based delivery and to ensure that an unsupported user could actually learn the concepts being taught. The highly interactive environments that the OLI has created represent a distinct set of priorities—and a distinct model of executing courseware—from MIT OCW. And it also has its drawbacks: for instance, creating an OLI course is so labor-intensive that it would be impossible to achieve the kind of scale that MIT OCW represents. But within the disciplines the OLI has tackled—introductory courses in subjects like statistics and calculus—it has generated very impressive results. Any approach will have benefits and limitations; the important thing is for a courseware program to clearly articulate its goals, and to select the approach most capable of achieving them.

KCH: I would argue that for many professionals familiar with the challenges facing higher education in 2011, that the Carnegie Mellon model offers the greatest promise of disrupting the sector. Yet, until the U.S. federal government drew attention to it during budget planning in 2009, it received little attention. Is this simply a matter of marketing or are there other factors limiting the wider dissemination of their courseware?

It’s true that the federal government’s recognition of the Open Learning Initiative was responsible for directing further attention to what had been a relatively little-known project; but other factors may also help to explain this heightened interest. The wave of budget cuts at public universities and the influx of students going back to school in a downturned job market also have prompted institutions and policy makers to take a more careful look at these types of sophisticated online learning models. There is a real profound change in how many sectors of the higher education community are looking at new opportunities today to increase university capacity or to curb the growth of instructional costs per student.

But many of the features that have brought this attention to the OLI also help to explain why it has historically been less visible to the general public than some of its peers. The Open Learning Initiative’s goal is to actually teach a subject like statistics to a user who wants to learn it – module by module, one concept at a time, encouraging the learner to keep trying practice problems until they get them right. This model, which requires a fairly intensive commitment on the part of the user, has proven quite effective for learning (at least for certain courses).

But while this emphasis on effectively teaching at a distance has attracted increasing attention from policy-makers, it does not actively appeal to more casual users. Compare that to, for example, a project like Open Yale Courses (OYC), which has created a series of highly polished lecture videos from star professors teaching general interest courses. It makes sense that far more people would be interested in browsing iTunes U to listen to a lecture or two on “death” or modern poetry than are interested in truly mastering statistics.

KCH: The post-secondary sector is occasionally criticized for paying little attention to learning outcomes. (See, for example this very recent research in Academically Adrift). Will future open content initiatives need to make assessment part of their offerings?

If the goal of an open courseware effort is to truly encourage student learning at a distance, assessment is crucial. The Open Learning Initiative builds assessment into the same immersive online environment that delivers the instruction—assessment is embedded into all aspects of the courseware itself.

But not all projects are so oriented. For initiatives like MIT OCW or Open Yale Courses, which are designed to offer windows into these institutions that expose their teaching to the outside world, assessment of users’ learning outcomes may not have been as directly relevant.

But each of these projects would certainly benefit from clearer definition of goals, whatever they may be, and assessment of their progress in achieving them. Since OLI is geared toward achieving genuine, demonstrable knowledge acquisition on the part of the user, the efficacy of its assessment mechanisms is absolutely key. But if, for example, an important goal of a courseware program is to connect with the university’s alumni, project leaders should also consider how that can be measured in order to evaluate and improve the initiative’s efficacy.

In other words, student learning is not the only valid benchmark—but there should be more benchmarks to measure success in this field, however it’s defined.

KCH: You spent two years examining these initiatives, as well as the people and organizations behind them. Now that the experience is behind you, what struck you as the most interesting part of the effort?

I was delighted to encounter the extreme variety among the courseware projects I studied. Online courseware is far from a monolithic concept; there are as many ways to design and operate an online courseware project as there are universities doing so.

It was also fascinating to uncover the extent to which these efforts are truly shaped by the distinct character of the parent universities that house them. In a variety of ways, online courseware projects respond to and fuel specific institutional goals; one premise ofUnlocking the Gates is that these initiatives can only be fully understood in the specific contexts in which they developed.