Alston Road


Tag: Higher education

Week’s Most Interesting :: 12.27.2012

Hand-picked selections of articles, reports, blog posts and events from the last seven days (or so).


Learning New Lessons

I’ve been in the digital higher education arena long enough to still be shocked when major, mainstream news outlets pay attention to what we’re up to. It seems only yesterday that we were eating at the kids’ table. Last week’s article in the Economist offers the now oft-repeated claim that MOOCs will put some institutions out of business.

Excerpt: Top-quality teaching, stringent admissions criteria and impressive qualifications allow the world’s best universities to charge mega-fees: over $50,000 for a year of undergraduate study at Harvard. Less exalted providers have boomed too, with a similar model that sells seminars, lectures, exams and a “salad days” social life in a single bundle. Now online provision is transforming higher education, giving the best universities a chance to widen their catch, opening new opportunities for the agile, and threatening doom for the laggard and mediocre. Read the full article.


Online Education Whitepaper

University Ventures is a 2 year old private equity concern that invests in promising businesses that serve the needs of colleges and universities that wish to go online. Below, they offer an interesting whitepaper on digital higher education. Worth a read.

Excerpt: Since establishing University Ventures nearly two years ago, we have written and spoken on many aspects of higher education and online education in particular. With nearly 15% of U.S. students enrolled in higher education studying entirely online and earning degrees without ever setting foot on campus, and with online education in the headlines and popular consciousness like never before, this holiday season we thought it would be a nice gift (to ourselves, primarily) to organize our views on the evolution of online education and its impact on higher education more broadly in a handy whitepaper format. Read the full article.


The Best Ideas of 2012 from the New Economy

Higher education, despite its best efforts, has never been independent of the broader forces sweeping society. Not surprisingly, then, I find I learn at least as much from articles that appear irrelevant to higher ed. This post on Quartz by Glen Kelman is a good example. (Actually, one of his ideas addresses education directly; see below.)

Excerpt: In 2012, Silicon Valley stopped complaining about the shortage of educated talent and started doing something about it. Microsoft is sending software engineers into high school classrooms. A spin-out of Amazon engineers, Vittana, just raised money to support a wildly successful micro-finance site for funding education in developing countries. Universities launched the first large-scale massive open online courses on everything from math and cyptography to finance or a crash course in creativity. Read the full article.


Pearson & Rutgers Partnership

I’m in the last stages of writing a book. One aspect of the book’s thesis is that traditional colleges and universities are ill-prepared and, in certain respects, incapable of fully leveraging technology to improve the value of online education (cost and quality). When I first started writing the book in earnest, symptoms of the structural limitations of traditional higher ed were hard to come by. Today, I can barely keep up. Here’s one to consider: the growth of public-private partnerships.

Excerpt: For more than a decade, thousands of Rutgers University students have been able to broaden their educations by taking a wide range of online courses offered by the university. Now Rutgers is preparing to significantly expand the reach of the university’s online curriculum to even more students across New Jersey and beyond.

The university today announced a new public/private partnership with Pearson, provider of educational technology, content and services, which positions the university to significantly expand lifelong learning opportunities — including undergraduate and graduate degrees available entirely online — while maintaining access to the same level of academic quality that is offered in the traditional Rutgers classroom. Read the full article.

Change in Higher Education: An Educator’s Perspective (Interview with Dr. Jesse Martin)

Dr. Jesse Martin is a thought-provoking educator. A Senior Lecturer at Bangor University in Wales, Dr. Martin focusses on the role of evidence-based in university education. Below, Jesse and I exchanged notes about the nature of change in higher education. 

* *

KCH: You wrote earlier this fall that many of the academics with whom you speak tend to be defensive when discussing the anticipated transformation of higher education; and that they “think that the world will change at their pace.” If this is the case, will learners – and those that fund higher education – wait for them?

JM: There is a great deal of unease in the sector because we can all see that things are changing. There is nothing new in change – that has always been with us. What is causing the unease is both the scale and speed of the change.

The first part of your question – will the learners wait – depends on what you mean by a learner. Most of us in higher education are painfully aware of the disconnect between learning and education today. A great many of the students don’t come to HE for learning, but come for a qualification. They want the points at the end of the game, and what they want from us is a clear set of rules and guidelines that will allow them to maximise their points and minimise their efforts. For these stakeholders, learning is one of the necessary challenges that occasionally gets thrown up as one of the obstacles in the game.

On the other hand, there are still some – I would guess the same relative proportion of the population – who have always wanted to learn, and that’s all they come to university for. Those who want to learn are satisfied with things as they are, and can’t really see the need for any massive overhauling of the system. They will succeed at the game, regardless of what we do to or for them. They will wait.

What massification of HE has done is increase (by a lot) the numbers who only want a qualification. I would say that the split is about 80/20, with the smaller number wanting to learn.

However, the larger group, the group that is in HE for a qualification, want to maximise their return with a minimal investment. For them they want as much prestige as they can afford, and as high a qualification as they can earn with as little effort as they can get away with. This is the group that I think will drive the greatest changes in HE. They will opt for non-traditional offerings if it works to their advantage. They know what they want, and will adapt to get it. They have no intention of waiting for anything (3 second wait for a website and they’re gone). If something that they think will suitably meet their needs comes along, they will opt for that.

The funders are another story. Private, for-profit providers are quickly moving into the non-traditional market, and as long as the sector is in a sellers market, the for-profits will charge a fortune and deliver a minimal experience – they are profit-oriented, and so will maximise their profits. As the number of available student places grow, and the availability begins to meet the demand, these for profit institutions will have to become more competitive, and the cost of a decent qualification from a for profit will drop dramatically. This will create high growth in this sub-sector as more and more students opt for private providers with better value for money (as far as qualifications go)

Governments are already withdrawing from the HE teaching sector, and are driving much of the change that we are experiencing. Although political expediency means that they pay lip service to teaching and learning, I think we will see a concentration of public monies in the big research-intensive institutions where the primary purpose is not teaching, but bringing prestige to the funder.

I think that the only significant stakeholders who will be willing to wait for lecturers to adapt are the students who really want to learn. The rest will (or are) simply react to the changing environment.

KCH. What are one or two of the more promising instructional approaches you are currently employing for your learners at Bangor University?

JM: The traditional approach to instruction involves a teacher reading, organising, and presenting information in bite sized chunks to the students for them to regurgitate back to me (with a little bit more) at some later date. My approach is to not do that.

In one of my classes (statistics in psychology) we’ve moved to a largely practical and problem based approach to teaching. The students produce data sets, and then I ask them what they want to find out from the data and how they think they might get it. I get some interesting approaches to data analyses (did you know that doing a find and replace in Excel returns the number of occurrences – an interesting way to count responses). The classes tend to be split on the approach with about half the students loving the freedom and half hating it that I’m not telling them what I want them to do. Regardless of what they feel about the approach, they learn how to manipulate numbers, and they understand the questions that they are asking of the data. I use a problem based, practical approach to learning a skill that they need in order to carry out research in psychology.

My most exciting class is about applying the principles of psychology to education. I provide loose guidelines about what I expect the students to bring back, and then I send them off to find out what they can. They give bi-weekly presentations (non-assessed) to each other (and to me), and write weekly blogs (assessed) about what they find. All I do is evaluate what they find.

As one of my students wrote last year: To put this bluntly, Jesse did nothing in this module; yet in doing nothing he did absolutely EVERYTHING… (The) end goal is learning. It’s the teacher allowing the students the freedom to make the classroom their own and to be there for them whenever they need a push in the right direction. This is proper teaching… (

KCH: One of the aspects of the response to MOOCs that I have found most interesting is the implicit assumption that great research institutions necessarily produce great learning experiences. As an academic, how do you see the relationship between subject matter expertise among academics and educational value?

JM: I wrote about this earlier this year (see: and I still feel the same. I think that the two skills (teaching and research) are orthogonal. They have no relationship whatsoever. Great research is a mix of personality traits (inquisitiveness, attention to detail, methodological approach, etc.) and good training. Great teaching is a mix of personality traits (enthusiasm, empathy, positive outlook, creativity, etc.) and good training. There may appear to be a great deal of overlap, however the personality traits are different, and the training is different. Many will be good researchers, and many can be good teachers, with a few who end being great at both.

I would go so far as to suggest that being a hyper-expert can be (and often is) detrimental to good teaching. Often, the detail gets in the way of the story. Keeping in mind that the researcher is the one who knows about the detail, it is only natural that their interest gets in the way of good teaching.

I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that a topic area that could be covered in five minutes during a lecture in 1955 could be expanded to a full hours lecture by 1976. That same topic area can now be expanded to cover a full 15 week module. Hyper-experts end up so far out in the tendrils of their fields that the bigger picture gets lost along the way.

The second factor that this question alludes to is the ability to teach (my definition of teaching is to foster learning). Too often academics think that anyone can teach. Someone with years and years of experience in the field of education (first as a child, then as an undergraduate, and finally as a postgraduate) who eventually gains a PhD (or even a BA or BSc) knows what good teaching is (teacher cognition). They know what good teaching is because they have experienced it (as well as bad teaching). These pre-conceived ideas of good teaching by academics are highly resistant to change. However, just because you have experienced a lot of teaching doesn’t mean you are a good teacher.

Because institutions are made up of individual faculty or staff members who teach, the institutional reputation for research in no way reflects the quality of the teaching. Teaching is done by individuals, and although some researchers end up being good teachers, if the institutional focus is on research, good teaching is something usually happens by accident. Usually, leading research institutions put enough resources into teaching to achieve mediocrity and keep the student complaints to a minimum.

KCH: You’ve written a good deal about Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation as it applies to higher education. Are there early symptoms of this disruption to which you think we ought to be paying more attention?

JM: The innovation that I think is the disruptive innovation or paradigm shift is the ubiquity of information. Digitisation has moved the world from information scarcity to information abundance. The symptoms of this change occur at both a micro and a macro level. The micro level symptoms include the general unease among lecturers (what is my value added), the rise in plagiarism, the demands of students for a better packaged product – these are things we are facing every day and should indicate (using John Naughton’s metaphor) that water is getting into the ship.

The macro symptoms that are easier to follow and notice as a community would include the encroachment of for profit institutions, the rise in open educational resources and open content, and the increase in teaching methods that take advantage of iniquitous content (e.g. MOOCs, blended learning, or flipped classrooms).

Christensen’s research demonstrates that the macro symptoms will be resisted by the established institutions to the point that so much resource has been put into defending themselves from the symptoms that we begin to see exhausted institutions collapsing in on themselves with no energy left to adopt.

The box has been opened, and the genie is out. We either figure out how to survive in this brave new world or we don’t.

Follow Jesse Martin’s blog HE Thoughts

Josh Keller: Interactive Graphics for Higher Education

KCH: Josh, I’ve long been a fan of your information graphics that you’ve produced for the Chronicle. What do you see as the value and purpose for creating these kinds of materials for its readers?

Our interactive graphics are a natural continuation of the Chronicle’s journalistic mission: to help our readers understand higher education, get better at their jobs, and make more informed decisions. For some subjects, the traditional article – a long block of text with a photo or two – isn’t the most effective way to do that.

To give one example: all of us in higher ed are increasingly expected to make sense of difficult datasets: graduation rates, admissions trends, compensation, and so on. Is my college or department doing well? How can we do better? Where will our freshmen, our donors, and our employees come from in 10 years? Interactives can suggest specific answers to these questions, while stories can synthesize trends and provide context. The two forms often work best in tandem.

Being able to play around with information – making it personal, turning it around, taking it apart – helps you understand it, in the same way that you learn something different building with Legos than you do reading a book about architecture.

KCH: Why do we see so little of this kind of content in higher education curriculum?

Well, it’s expensive to produce. The costs are declining as the tools to make custom digital presentations become more advanced – and there are many ways colleges could do much more with less.

But cost isn’t really the problem. Building great educational software requires a high level of collaboration between instructors, designers, programmers, and marketers that’s rare in traditional higher education. It requires a commitment to building effective teams in two areas, design and programming, that many traditional colleges have ignored and continue to ignore. By contrast, in Silicon Valley, that kind of collaboration and investment is the foundation on which startups are built.

Even Stanford – one of the most tech-savvy places on earth – struggles to integrate interactive tools. Stanford’s medical school gave iPads to all incoming students in 2010, and instructional-technology staff worked with professors to create custom digital materials, including an interactive three-dimensional map of the the brain for anatomy students. But students told me last year that most professors didn’t take advantage of the iPads. And the custom map of the brain was no longer used after a supportive professor stopped teaching the course.

KCH: What kind of educational and professional background is best for people that want to do this kind of work? How did you find yourself doing this kind of work?

I’ve always had two career tracks, designing websites and writing newspaper stories. I ran a web design studio, Keller & Faber, and wrote as a freelance journalist on the side. Later I became the West Coast Correspondent for The Chronicle and did web projects on the side. The fact that these were separate jobs never made sense to me. Interactive news graphics is a compelling way to combine the two fields, to use the conceptual framework of journalism and the techniques of the web.

No particular formal education is needed to do this work. My background was very helpful to me, but I learned many of the day-to-day skills by coming up with a project, searching the internet, and slapping some code together. The exact tool used almost doesn’t matter. The essential skill is to be able to communicate ideas to other people (through words, design, or other means) and at the same time understand moderately technical concepts (such as data analysis or programming). There aren’t enough journalists comfortable in both of these areas.

KCH: What do you see as the next stage for interactive graphics?

I’d hate to make much of a prediction because the field is moving so quickly. But I’m guessing that at some point journalists will have to stop thinking of interactive graphics and news applications as niche categories distinct from articles, photos, and other more traditional forms of storytelling. Well-presented interactive data already forms a basic part of the identity of companies as diverse as Bloomberg, Simple, Nest, eTrade, and Square. It will become a basic part of our identity as news organizations too, and we’ll need to figure out how to support that.

Barbarians at the Gate: “Welcome!”

Earlier this spring, 800 or so people converged on the Skysong campus of Arizona State University to discuss education. However, reports from the event note that the majority of participants, and almost all of the speakers were not educators, but entrepreneurs, technology company executives and investors. The Education Innovation Summit, now in its third year, has quickly become a key event for vendors to network, generate interest, and raise funds.

Demand for higher education is at record levels, public funds are tight, operating costs are rising, and the move to digital education offers the potential to scale-up services economically.  Not surprisingly, private investment is at levels not seen since the dot-com era.

Also not surprising is that the reception within higher education to private investment ranges from indifference to outright hostility. Higher ed has a long history of managing its needs internally, and is especially resistant to commercial interventions – due to the ideal of free inquiry and the political sensibilities of faculty, among other factors. This tone tends to flavour all discussions of commerce’s role in higher education.

The tension between commerce and higher education isn’t likely to get less provocative over the next few years. While campuses have become accustomed to having vendors assume responsibility for functions like bookstore management, catering and building maintenance, the current focus of education investors is on creating technologies that serve instructional functions – matters that were once seen as the exclusive territory of academics.

But higher education may need to get over its discomfort with vendors if it wishes to continue its migration toward technology-enabled education. There are very real limits to how effectively higher ed can meet it own needs for technology. Like end users in other sectors, universities are very good at the early stage work of identifying needs and crafting initial product designs. Many of the LMS in use today started in universities. But universities are less equipped to take these products to market, scale-up production/service, and drive down costs. It simply isn’t what the institutions were designed to do.

If we are going to have educational technology available that is as good as those in the consumer markets, we will need considerable involvement of the private sector. It’s not logical to put up with a clunky LMS in our schools, but expect to have the latest iPhone at home.

Educators have started voting with their feet. More and more are integrating tools like Youtube, Facebook, WordPress and Twitter into their teaching and course management practices.  Vendors, too, have moved away from building their own applications to using popular ones from the consumer market. See, for example, Inigral and Facebook, Google and Pearson, Instructure/Canvas and Twitter.

Educational technologies need to be just as good and just as inexpensive as technology in the consumer market. We are moving in this direction – not because we are being forced by evil vendors – but because these tools are familiar, simple to use, and inexpensive.

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

The LMS: It’s Not All About You

If you teach in higher ed, you’ve probably complained about your school’s LMS. While these systems are increasingly user-friendly, there’s always someone that’s unhappy.

“Iceland” by Michael Schlegel

It’s often forgotten, though, that the university, not the faculty, is the actual client. The university, of course, signs the cheque.

The significance of this simple distinction is that university interests don’t necessarily mirror those of the faculty (shocking, I know). In fact, the interests of the university differ in a number ways from the academic. And it is these interests of the university that will keep the LMS  as we know it as a regular feature on campus for the foreseeable future.

The value of the LMS that are specific to the university include:

1. The core value proposition of the LMS is that it allows instructors with limited 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 that would accompany organizational changes.

2. The LMS is designed to integrate with other school systems – student data, registration, finance, and so forth. This, in turn, places much of the responsibility for certain administrative tasks in the hands of the individual academic – thus reducing the need for additional administrative staff to manage and distribute data across the institution; for example, from the academic to registration.  In this respect, the LMS is no different than online banking; it serves to reduce operational costs for the host institution by placing the control of certain processes in the hands of end-users.

3. The LMS places a number of important institutional activities under a single, consistent system – one managed by the institution itself, and according to its’ own logic and requirements. There are a number of benefits to the institution of a single, unifying system:

– It ensures that critical information, such as student personal information and the faculty’s intellectual property can be captured and managed according the university’s standards.

– The university can be confident that it is adhering to regulatory policies and procedures.

– A single system allows the university to control the look and feel of course design.

– It provides the university with a vehicle for managing the university brand.

– It can reduce the cost of student and instructor support by minimizing the number of systems and configurations that it must be prepared to support.

4. Learning management systems also provide institutions with the opportunity to capture and report on its activities. While information about course activities is important to instructors, it can be used by the university to capture data that can be used to manage student appeals and misconduct or demands for data from regulators.

The different needs and interests of the university and faculty (not to mention, students) are becoming increasingly relevant as more LMS vendors market directly to individual instructors, rather than the institution, and as professionals in this space consider the future of the LMS.

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?

KnowU & MyEdu: Two Approaches to Social Media in Higher Education

Higher education is working hard to find the best ways to integrate social media into its practices. They’ve approached it from a number of angles: marketing, community building, student support, and instruction. Instigators behind the efforts include software vendors looking to build the next edu social platform, colleges, individual educators, and on a less formal basis, the students themselves.

As of late 2011, there are very few scalable, institution-wide initiatives – but a great deal of isolated experimentation by innovators. The opportunities seem endless, but higher education management professionals are on the lookout for the right approach to make social media work for them today.

Not all areas of higher ed will be equally well-suited to the opportunities that social media presents. Of all of the possibilities, integrating social media and instruction may be the most difficult, for example – due to the conflicting properties of social media and higher ed. 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. syllabi). Social media is user-generated and leaderless. Higher education is top-down and instructor-directed. Social media thrives when there are thousands, if not millions, of users. High volume provides online communities with enough activity and content to ensure that each user finds what and who they want with sufficient frequency. (Although Twitter and Linked In have over 100 million users, only a fraction of the users are of significance to any one user.) On the other hand, higher education instruction typically restricts participation to a single class (e.g. 100 students).

This is not to say that higher education won’t find ways to use social media for instructional purposes. Innovative educators are experimenting with new approaches and some of these strategies will stick, be shared, and ultimately picked up by other educators in time. But at this relatively early stage in its development, the low-hanging fruit of social media for higher education will likely be found in the areas of marketing, building communities and student support.


Two initiatives – MyEdu and KnowU from Harrison College – offer a glimpse of the possibilities.

MyEdu is a Texas-based company that has built a student-facing platform that combines a number of applications designed to help students manage their education careers. The platform includes course scheduling, textbook ordering, facebook-style interaction with other students, reviews of instructors and courses by other students. Soon to be added is information about graduate and professional schools, tools to manage transfer credits, and mobile applications.

Frank Lyman, SVP at MyEdu suggests that the core value of the platform is that it helps students make more informed decisions about their educational careers. In this respect, MyEdu is part of a larger drive to improve the volume and quality of information available to higher education’s stakeholders. Students, parents, government (e.g. Spellings Commission), and policy professionals (e.g. Education Sector) argue that we need better information about higher education in order to track student success, reward better schools, minimize student debt, and increase the speed with which students complete their programs.

Most of the information available to students within MyEdu is user-generated or “scraped” from public sites. Presumably, MyEdu will eventually need to gain access to college-based applications, such as student information systems, to further improve the currency and value of the information that the platform provides. But this will require the participation of the institutions, not all of which will want to make this kind of information available. MyEdu’s alliance with the University of Texas, announced in the Fall, will prove an interesting test case.

Harrison College and KnowU

Harrison College of Indiana takes a different approach. Their new social platform, KnowU, is designed by Harrison College specifically for Harrison students. This allows the institution to integrate as much of the student and institutional information into the platform as they wish. But, of course, by limiting the application to one institution, unlike MyEdu, they limit the potential benefits that can be found in capturing data across multiple institutions.

KnowU is an ambitious project. Though still in its early stage of development, the platform will ultimately serve a range of purposes – marketing, community-building, instructional support. Of particular concern to Harrison is their growing number of online students (73% increase in the past two years). Harrison wants to provide these students with all of the tools necessary to succeed. And it is rolling out the initiative on a university-wide basis, the way only proprietary colleges with strong management seem capable of doing. (Official launch: January 2012.)

It’s interesting to remember that the original value proposition of online education within proprietary colleges was to provide adult, working students with only those parts of the college experience that they needed (or for which they had time). Proprietary schools recognized that many students didn’t need residential life, sports facilities, and the like. Traditional colleges essentially over-served them (see Clayton Christensen).

To a significant degree, these “extras” of the traditional college experience were social in nature. But over the past five or so years social media has become a key means by which people execute their social lives. Consequently, these colleges can now revisit their value proposition; they can now offer a more social experience to online students. In effect, they are putting back the social part of the college experience that their original business model removed. It will be worth watching to see how this grand effort unfolds.

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.

Textbook Publishers and Rich Media

I recently had coffee with a dear man that has spent his entire career in textbook publishing. He told me that his industry was essentially “broken”. Of course,  this is now a common view of textbook publishing. The industry is dealing with a number of challenges: regulatory changes, reimportation of their products at lower price points, a more efficient second-hand book market, greater costs that come with product customization, piracy and more. The greatest threat to the industry, though, is the rise of substitute products – to use the parlance of economists. Increasingly, college Instructors are turning to freely available content from the Net to supplement, sometimes outright replace their textbooks. The competitive landscape of textbook publishing has changed and it’s not going to get easier for the traditional parties.

However, I think it’s possible for the industry to regain the advantage that made them such a strong presence for decades in education. To do this, publishers will need to determine how – given the new market conditions – their competencies, brand and infrastructure can produce a competitive advantage – and to ensure that this new market position meets the needs of the new higher education market. Easier said than done, right? I think, though, the same logic and value proposition that gave rise to the industry will ultimately be the means by which publishers once again establish their place in higher education. Let me attempt to unpack this before I get anymore abstract.

Let’s start with the twin foundations of the industry: the rise of common curriculum that came with public mass education, and the capacity of the industrial model to produce content for this common curriculum at prices below what is available by other means. It is the latter condition, the industrial model of production and distribution, that can form as the basis for publishing’s future competitive advantage.

Other than textbook publishing, content in higher ed is produced in a “cottage industry” manner. The bulk of the responsibilities for course design and development falls to the individual academic. And the content created in this manner is then used in a single course in the host institution (exception: large proprietary colleges). The content is not typically sold to other educational institutions that offer similar courses.

There is, then, a sharp limit on the investment that can be made in the development of course content in the “cottage” model. Without economies from scale (i.e., volume), investment must be restricted to the revenue generated by a single course. (Indeed, in some universities, it is not uncommon for there to be two versions of a single course because more than one instructor teaches it.)

The cottage model actually lends itself very well to the creation of articles. This form of instructional media is traditionally created in relative isolation by a single academic; it doesn’t require the involvement of a wide range of experts. The tasks involved in writing articles aligns perfectly with the skills and expertise traditionally required (and rewarded) of academics. Unlike other types of instructional media, the production of articles is supported by the university (i.e., writing is part of the academic job description). It is not accidental that the overwhelming majority of content shared between academics takes the form of articles, despite the multi-media properties of the Net.

The development of shared repositories of content (e.g., Merlot, Connexions, MIT-OCW) does not solve the limits of the cottage model. The majority of the instructional content on these sites is produced in this same cottage fashion. The repository model only addresses the access problem (distribution), not the quality problem (production and finance).

The kind of educational media that the cottage model cannot provide – rich media – will increasingly be in demand. My use of the phrase “rich media”, here, refers to high-production value audio, video, animations, edu-games and the like; used for both social interaction with other learners and for independent learning. Rich media has two requirements: (1) significant investment with a sustainable business model (return on investment) and (2) the talents of a wide range of professionals. In other words, the industrial model.

It’s theoretically possible for colleges to develop rich media and sell it to other schools. And there is some work being done in this area. However, the inability of our colleges to create rich educational media reflects the realities of higher education. Bringing university content to the market means addressing faculty IP issues, the traditions of faculty control over academic processes, developing a “go-to-market” capacity where little exists, and more. Nor is it likely, given the employment practices of most colleges and universities, that the institutions could compete on price with private sector providers.

Publishers need to recognize that the water level is rising; that basic text content is going to be increasingly available from other sources. The tools for creating, distributing, locating and managing basic text is improving rapidly. More and more content from academia is being made freely available to the public as “open content” becomes an expectation. Despite these conditions, the majority of investments in traditional publishing remain focussed on text-based content (whether print or digital) – exactly where its competitors offer a meaningful alternative.

By focussing on rich media, publishers return to the essence of the strategy that made them such a grand presence in the first place: offering products that are otherwise not available to their clients. And in doing this, they will move toward where the market is growing. In the next 3 to 4 years, the demand for rich media will grow quickly, particularly among online schools (and within that group, most intensely among proprietary schools). This growth in demand will be driven by a number of factors:

  • Growing competition for students, particularly among online programs
  • Content represents one of the few ways in which a college can offer a tangible (and thus marketable) difference (See Lloyd Armstrong’s piece on quality surrogates in higher education).
  • Discriminating students that switch institutions at increasing rate
  • The drive for productivity in higher education brought on by funding deficits will lead to increased interest in courseware that lessens the institution’s dependence on faculty labour (which incidentally, has served as the value-proposition of publishing for decades)

Change in publishing won’t come easily. They are being pulled in two directions at once. On the one hand, their investors expect them to “go digital” as soon as possible (no one wants to own stock in a print company these days). On the other hand, the demand for strong quarterly results encourages them to stick to their core business of print textbooks, which still constitute the bulk of their earnings. (One of the major publishers boasts having 95% of their inventory in ebook format, although the industry-wide market for ebooks still resides south of 5% of sales.)

Nevertheless, I don’t think that traditional publishing can afford to rely on its current product mix. In order to maintain their relevance they will need to return to the fundamental value-proposition that made the industry viable in the first place: by providing their clients with what they can’t or won’t provide for themselves. In the past, this need was limited to clearly written, well-researched, peer-reviewed content. Today, content of this type is being increasingly satisfied by other, cheaper means. Publishers need to respond to this challenge by moving up the digital content “food chain” and to focus on the development of sophisticated educational media that takes full advantage of the properties of technology. Fortunately, for publishers, this kind of media can only be produced consistently and at a desirable price point through the industrial approach – the very model that they introduced to education.


Notes on “Collaborate to Compete”

A few thoughts on “Collaborate to Compete: Seizing the opportunity of online learning for UK higher education.” Report to HEFCE by the Online Learning Task Force, January 20112011/01

“While UK higher education institutions are extremely successful in attracting international students to study in the UK there are also opportunities for growth in online and more flexible patterns of provision which combine UK and home country study; online, blended and on-campus UK experience. However, universities in many countries are strong competitors to the UK for these markets, and private sector providers are moving in quickly and aggressively.” (4)

In the latest publication from JISC (UK), “Collaborate to Compete”, they offer six recommendations to help UK universities, and the organizations that support them, to successfully navigate the opportunities of online higher education. The recommendations include, specifically:

1: Technology needs to enhance student choice and meet or exceed learners’ expectations

2: Investment is needed to facilitate the development and building of consortia to achieve scale and brand in online learning

3: More and better market intelligence about international demand and competition is required

4: Institutions need to take a strategic approach to realign structures and processes in order to embed online learning

5: Training and development should be realigned to enable the academic community to play a leading role in online learning

6: Investment is needed for the development and exploitation of open educational resources to enhance efficiency and quality

Each recommendation is useful and well-considered. But as the authors note, much of what they propose is familiar. Most professionals in online higher education understand the threats and opportunities online higher ed offers. Implementation is the greater challenge.

There are three elements of the report that I found particularly interesting.


The authors suggest that we need to pay more attention to economies of scale in order to better manage costs. I agree. (Economies of scale is a principle that holds that the cost per unit typically declines as the number of units produced increases.) Applied to higher education, “scale” can be used to explain why the cost per full-time student can be lower at the very largest universities (see Daniel). In the JISC report the concept is used – albeit loosely – to refer to the practice of sharing costs for the development and management of online courses. Bottom line: economies of scale can raise quality and reduce costs.

Benefiting from scale is a fundamental practice in most if not all of the industries with which we interact daily – but is often overlooked in education, particularly with respect to the creation of digital content.

Back in the late 1990s, when the possibilities of digital learning first dawned on me, I undertook a small commercial venture that tested the role of scale in digital higher ed (as well as my wife’s patience). I made the assumption that the rise of web-based learning would lead to a growing interest in the possibilities of educational media – what is often now called “rich media”. Looking forward, I believed that educational media would eventually become another form of media like radio, television, and film. And like these other forms of media, educational media will be built by highly skilled specialists, employ a unique production process, and seek to serve as large a market as possible in order to allow for significant upfront investment. End-users would benefit from the high quality that such an approach can offer, and lower per-user costs due to scale.

At the time there was no channel for selling this kind of content directly to students or educators in higher ed. I turned, then, to the textbook industry which has long had in place a business model that accommodates the “education as media” model I envisioned. I subsequently sold the product to two of the major publishers to package along with their books. (It was designed to work for several titles per publisher.) In a sense, I “borrowed” scale from publishing.

We haven’t come a great deal further in our use of scale in the past ten (plus) years. But there are signs that scale is finally emerging as a strategy for digital higher education. Scale is evident in some of the open content initiatives. It can be found in the “partnership” model offered by companies like Embanet and Colloquy. And the publishers themselves have begun selling courseware in significant volume to colleges.

Private Sector Participation

The report also suggests that private enterprises have a role in helping UK universities move forward with digital education. This is interesting on a couple of levels. Public-private alliances are common in certain areas of higher education such as applied research, but less so in those areas that concern the creation of educational materials used in teaching and learning. Moreover, it’s quite rare for a publicly sponsored organizations to produce a report that portrays private sector involvement in such a positive light.

The decision to partner with private sector organisations that have experience in distance learning operations was vital to the success of implementing distance learning provision at the University of East London (UEL). The establishment of UEL’s partnership with International Correspondence Schools (ICS) was crucial to achieve a rapid and viable entry to the distance learning market (15)


In a previous post I wrote briefly about the way in which people in higher education tend to overstate the intensity of competition between institutions. Closely related to this trend is the tendency to make claims about the intensity of competition without direct reference to evidence to support the claim.

Although this is a high quality report, it repeated the practice of making claims about heightened competition without any solid evidence to back it up. “Collaborate to Compete” doesn’t explain (or cite other works that explain) who is competing with whom or how this alleged competition has impact different schools. It’s inevitable that the online format will introduce new and eventually heightened competition, but most students continue to “shop locally” and those segments of the market in which students act more like classic consumers remains quite small. I recognize that sometimes we need to forgo deep, empirical research and simply go with our instincts  – based on our experience, anecdotes and the views of people that we trust. We are now at the point that we need to do some research to back up these assumptions. Demand for spaces in many universities, particularly in the current year, is at record levels. How do we reconcile turning away students and this heightened competition?