April 20, 2014

Contact North on Online Learning, Innovation, Flexibility and Open Educational Resources

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Contact North's humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North’s humble office in Sudbury, Ontario

Contact North continues to produce a range of interesting short pieces on different aspects of online learning. (Disclaimer: I am a Contact North research associate, and have contributed a few times.)

The April 9 edition of Contact North’s Online Learning News contains three such contributions (all these pieces are generally anonymously written):

The What, Why, Where, and How of Open Educational Resources (OER)

Dr. Rory McGreal, Contact North | Contact Nord Research Associate and the UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chair in Open Educational Resources answers these fundamental questions in a series of 10 short, informative videos, Open Educational Resources (OER) – A Video Primer.

There are two available at the moment, with others coming:

  1. What are open educational resources?
  2. Comparing commercial and open educational resources.

How to Design an Innovative Course

This piece suggests some steps that can help faculty and instructors approach the issue of innovative teaching in a systematic way, including

  • being clear on the problem you are trying to solve
  • working in a team
  • applying technology appropriately to address the problem to be solved
  • evaluating and disseminating your innovation

Greater Flexibility as the New Mantra

I have recently visited a Canadian university developing a major strategy around flexible learning, and this short piece (by someone else) suggests a wide range of ways in which institutions can increase their flexibility, including:

  • course design and delivery options
  • learning recognition and credit granting
  • program completion
  • assessment
  • transition from apprenticeship through diploma to degrees to graduate work .

These and many more items can be found on Contact North’s ‘Ontario Online Learning Portal for Faculty and Instructors’, available both in English and French.

Click here if you wish to subscribe to Contact North’s newsletter.

Look back in anger? A review of online learning in 2013

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Toronto's mayor was the story of 2013 in Canada

Toronto’s mayor was the story of 2013 in Canada

Well, where did 2013 go? It seems like only last week I was writing the 2012 review!This year, I did better with my predictions for 2013 in my Outlook for Online Learning in 2013, as we shall see

Another year of the MOOC

Audrey Watters provides a comprehensive overview of developments around MOOCs in 2013. She concluded:

 If 2012 was, as The New York Times decreed, the year of the MOOC, 2013 might be described as the year of the anti-MOOC as we slid down that Gartner Hype Cycle from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and into the “Trough of Disillusionment.” 

Certainly, MOOCs dominated the online learning agenda during 2003. However, it is in my view too early to decide that MOOCs are now on the slope of disillusionment, despite Sebastian Thrun’s throwing his hands in the air at Udacity. According to the European Commission, at the end of 2013 there are more than 1,100 MOOCs worldwide, and the shock wave continues to ripple well beyond North America into other parts of the world.

I will write more about where I see MOOCs going in my Outlook for 2014 in the new year, but looking back, I wouldn’t change anything that I wrote about MOOCs at the end of 2012:

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

© The Greening of Gavin, 2012

Indeed, developments during 2013, with one exception, have merely reinforced my 2012 position. The exception came from listening to Stephen Downes in Lyon talking about his vision of cMOOCs, which, if or when fully implemented, would be much more interesting than anything we have seen to date from the major MOOC providers. Indeed, I was struck by a recent comment from someone with 15 years of experience in designing face-to-face, blended and online credit programs: I am trying to understand what MOOCs can offer that my understanding of educational design, learning design and online and distance education does not include. I’m afraid that the answer continues to be: ‘Nothing,‘ at least for the moment.

Indeed, in many ways, MOOCs have become a major distraction from developing more innovative and more relevant applications of online learning for credit. MOOCs may be free to learners, but they are not free for institutions. With the average cost of just developing an xMOOC being between $50,000 – $100,000, this means that with over 1,000 MOOCs, more than $50 million to $100 million has been spent on non-credit courses that could have been spent on producing online courses for credit, leading to recognized credentials. In itself, this focus on non-formal learning might be OK, if it was tied to some clear policy objective, but we certainly haven’t seen the return on investment from MOOCs to date.

Of course, this money is unlikely to have been spent on online credit courses if MOOCs hadn’t come along. It has to be recognized that MOOCs have grabbed the attention of elite universities who until the advent of MOOCs had paid no attention to online learning. More importantly MOOCs have also gotten the attention of university boards of governors, politicians, policy-makers and even government ministers, which credit-based online learning has never done. This has forced many universities for the first time to think strategically about online learning, and where MOOCs fit within such a strategy, which has been really good for my consultancy business – and probably for credit-based online learning as well.

The problem though is that outside those with experience or knowledge of online learning, MOOCs are being seen (and deliberately portrayed by elite universities) as the only form of online learning worth considering. The danger is that if or when the MOOC bubble bursts, all forms of online learning could be tarred with the same brush at the same time. However, this is looking forward, and early in the new year I will discuss more about where I think MOOCs are going in my Outlook for 2014.

The key point here is that while MOOCs may have been getting the media attention, for most professionals working in online learning in post-secondary education, what was happening within the institutions was rather different. Let’s look at some of these other developments in 2013.

Institutional strategies for online learning

Partly as a result of MOOCs, but also because of moves toward integrating online learning with classroom teaching, a number of institutions have either developed or started to develop a more strategic approach to online learning. For instance, I was personally involved in discussions around strategic planning for online learning in 2013 with the University of British Columbia, the University of Ottawa, York University, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Thompson Rivers University, and Western University, in Canada, and Deakin University, in Australia. I can’t think of another year where there has been so much interest at an institutional level in thinking strategically about online learning.

These plans meant setting priorities and goals for online and hybrid learning and in some cases targets for online course development. In Ontario this was partly driven by government intervention, requiring universities and colleges to come forward with their plans for online learning as part of a broader exercise in defining clear institutional mandates. Tied to these strategies were considerations of resources, organization and methods of working, some of which will be described more fully below.

From the periphery to the centre

The focus on strategies for online learning resulted in some cases in thinking about appropriate types of organization to support online learning. In many Canadian universities, online learning had been seen as an extension of distance education, and hence the responsibility mainly of Continuing Studies or Extension Departments, but with the move to hybrid learning and the move to online professional masters programs, mainline academic departments are needing access to the skills of instructional designers and web designers that until recently had been located elsewhere.

No single solution to this issue seems to have been found, but many Canadian institutions now have established central units that report to the Provost and serve the faculties directly. As well as including support for online learning, these units now also cover general faculty development as well as distance learning.This has the advantage of facilitating the transfer of teaching innovations from one academic department throughout the institution. In some institutions these centres for teaching, learning and technology have grown rapidly, with some numbering more than 60 staff.

Hybrid learning

I saw in 2013 many Canadian universities and some colleges introducing flipped classrooms, where students view a taped lecture then come to class to discuss, solve problems, or do project work around the topic of the lecture. This is particularly popular for breaking up large lecture classes and making them more interactive.

While I did come across some interesting discussions about the implications of this for classroom furniture and the design and layout of classrooms, I didn’t come across more radical designs that moved away from taping lectures to really thinking about the affordances of online learning and the campus from a design perspective. Maybe next year.

Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

An increased push from government to use online learning for greater academic productivity

In Ontario, the Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities starkly presented the situation facing universities and colleges in Ontario over the next few years: take more students, produce better quality outcomes, but receive no more money, because there isn’t any. He challenged the institutions to look to technology to increase productivity. The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario commissioned a report on online learning, productivity and quality.

Ontario is not alone. Severe funding cuts in the USA has led governments, particularly state governors, to press the case for online learning to provide a lower cost alternative to campus-based education. At a Federal level, the Obama government has poured millions of dollars into fostering open educational resources. In British Columbia, the government is bringing in an open textbook program to reduce students’ textbook costs. MOOCs, rightly or wrongly, have led politicians and policy-makers to believe that online learning can dramatically reduce costs.

This is an interesting development, because until recently, most online learning professionals have been more than happy if their online students performed as well as the on-campus counterparts, and could do this at no more cost. Partly because of the fear of push-back from academics, (‘Online learning will take our jobs away’), the argument has rarely been made that online learning could lead to better results at less cost. Increased productivity up to now has not been a key goal for online learning (access and flexibility have been the key rationales). This is changing, and as professionals we need to be better prepared for this push, which is why I tried this year to start a debate about online learning and productivity through a series of posts.

Open educational resources

There were three significant developments in OERs (apart from MOOC) in 2013 for me:

  • the BC open textbook project, which is now under way, which aims to save students $800-$1,000 a year on textbooks
  • the formation of the OERu, which aims to enable students to acquire full degree credentials from recognized universities through free, open courses
  • OER4Adults, an overview and analysis of practices with Open Educational Resources in adult education in Europe, which sets out the ‘tensions’ that inhibit greater use of OERs

What interested you?

Below are the top 10 posts in terms of ‘hits’ during 2013. (All posted in 2013, except where the first year posted is given. Number of hits refers though only to 2013, not all-time total hits for earlier posts):

Top 10 posts for 2013

Recommended graduate programs in e-learning (2008) 13,190
What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs (2012) 8,814
Can you teach ‘real’ engineering at a distance? (2009) 5,800
What Is Distance Education? (2008) 5,652
The world’s largest supplier of free online learning? (2012) 5,146
Outlook for online learning in 2013:  5,138
Online learning in California generates controversy 4,992
What’s going on at Athabasca University?
MOOCs, MIT and Magic 3,226
E-learning quality assurance standards,… and research (2010) 2,977

Four of the top five are of particular interest to graduate students, and are mainly the result of ‘trawling’ for information about graduate programs available online. (Incidentally, the post on the world’s largest supplier of free online learning wasn’t about MOOCs, but about Alison, an online provider of training materials.)

I was interested to note that the top five posts were all posted before 2013. One reason for this of course is that many posts in 2013 are of less than 12 months duration, so have had less time to build interest. If we look at the top 10 posted in 2013, we would add to the four above the following:

How online learning is going to affect classroom design 2,370
Harvard’s current thinking on MOOCs 1,490
MOOCs, Norway, and the ecology of digital learning 1,333
Discussing design models for hybrid/blended learning and the impact on the campus 1,283
North Korea launches two MOOCs 1,200
MIT, learning technologies, and developing countries: lessons in technology transfer 1,077
My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology 1,069

So four of the top 10 posts in 2013 were about MOOCs, and two were about hybrid learning.

Although only one of my eight posts on ‘aha’ moments in educational technology got into the top 10, the series as a whole did quite well, with a total of 5,200 hits, or an average of 650 hits per post. Also, the Nine Steps to Quality Online Learning, started in 2012, continued to do well during 2013, with 6,470 hits for an average of 808 per post. Similarly, the series Models for Selecting and Using Technology, started in 2011, also did well during 2013, with 2,341 hits for an average of 585 per post. I’m getting a better rate of persistence on these series than many MOOCs, by the way.

On the other hand, my series on productivity and online learning has generally been a bust, with hits averaging around 200 per post. However, this is, I hope, a series that will, like some of my other series, build over time, as more and more people come to realise its importance. It is still early days yet.

I’d be really interested to hear from readers where I should be focusing my posts in 2014.


Another interesting year, but also a frustrating one, mainly due to the MOOC phenomenon. There are far more important developments going on in online learning than MOOCs, and the continuous hype, arrogance, and ignorance particularly of the MOOC computer scientists in elite universities has made me more angry than I have been since the dot com bust in 2000, when the media and elite universities were bragging about turning online learning into a huge money-making machine – and we know how that ended.

Nevertheless, MOOCs have been important in getting online learning noticed, even if for the wrong reasons. Let’s hope 2014 will see a more focused approach on improving productivity while maintaining or increasing the quality of post-secondary education. It is clear that the system cannot go on in the way it has been going, and online learning can play an important role, as much in improving quality as in reducing costs.

However, it is important to set realistic expectations. There is no single, simple solution to improving a vast complex, higher education system. There is no silver bullet.

WCET’s WOW awards for innovative uses of educational technologies

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 WCET Advance

The WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET) has announced the recipients of the 2013 WCET Outstanding Work (WOW) award, a competition that recognizes innovative uses of educational technologies in higher education.

1. The Open Educational Resource (OER) Faculty Fellowship at Lane Community College (Eugene, Oregon).

This program was born out of a student need for textbook affordability.  The College has made a minor annual investment over the past few years that – as of today – saves students $326,400 per year in textbook costs. Additionally, the program has a plan to recruit more faculty each year, extending the benefit to the college and the students. This is an excellent example of a college developing a strategy for OERs that has led to valuable, pragmatic and measurable outcomes.

2. Obojobo, University of Central Florida

Obojobo  is a Learning Object system designed, crafted, and maintained by The University of Central Florida. It provides a platform for the collaborative design, sharing, and distribution of instructional components in a variety of academic areas. Obojobo has allowed key departments such as the Library and Student Development and Enrollment Services to create and share learning resources that faculty can incorporate into their courses. The system also collects valuable data related to student performance for  feedback on their learning. Obojobo has also allowed UCF to provide different self-paced faculty development programs. This is another example of why the University of Central Florida is a world leader in blended and distributed learning.

3. University of North Carolina: The Online Proctoring Network

The University of North Carolina’s Exam Proctoring Network promotes academic integrity by providing a standardized and streamlined proctoring process for students, faculty and proctors.   The UNC network is the only “one-stop” proctoring solution across a state-wide system.  The secure system allows students, faculty and proctors to schedule appointments, securely transfer documents and receive automated reminders when an action is required. The system is in use at six campuses, and three of the remaining campuses will go live fall 2013. The focus is on ensuring academic integrity in online student assessment.

Videos about each of these projects can be viewed from WCET’s media release

The WOW awardees will be recognized by WCET’s national community of higher education innovators during the  WCET 25th Annual Meeting in Denver, CO, November 13-15, 2013.

Education across space and time: Distance Education, Vol. 34, No.2

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Distance education in Australia

Distance education in Australia

This special edition of the Australian-based Distance Education journal presents a selection of papers originally submitted to the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’s 2013 summit meeting. The themes that the issue attempts to address are as follows:

  • How can we foster engaging and interactive learning with a dispersed and diverse population of students? 
  • How can we shift towards a learner-centred paradigm when institutional practices and physical infrastructures are geared towards teacher-centred delivery modes?
  • How can we enable the social and connected features of technology, when LMSs can be restrictive and clumsy…?

Sims, R. and Kigotho, M. (2013) Education across space and time: meeting the diverse needs of the distance learner:

This editorial sets the context and provides a brief description of each of the papers in the edition.

Hockridge, D. (2013) Challenges for educators using distance and online education to prepare students for relational professions

Relational professions are those which require ‘personal skills and a level of maturity.‘ This paper describes research that investigated educators’ concerns about distance and online education in Australian theological institutions. The paper in particular looks at ‘formation’, or character development, so the findings are more widely relevant than just theology. Her conclusion is well worth summarizing:

…it is overly simplistic to conclude that formational learning cannot occur in distance and online modes. Formational learning is complex and not easy to achieve regardless of the mode of study….a more productive way forward…is to be more intentional about the ways in which formation is addressed whether on campus, distance or online.

Earl, K. (2013) Student views on short-text assignment formats in fully online courses.

Short-text assignments restrict the word counts to 800 words or less. (Bit like a blog.) The study addressed two questions: how do students rate short-text assignments? How do students rate feedback provided by short text assignments? Conclusions:

assessment is more than a summative check of student knowledge and skills; it is an experience and part of the communication, and therefore relationship, between teachers and students. Short-text assignments are rated highly by students not because of a shorter word count but because students appreciated the variety and creativity aspects to these assignments. 

Note that the study was on one class of 21 students taught by the researcher.

Watson, S. (2013) Tentatively exploring the learning potentialities of postgraduate distance learners’ interactions with other people in their life contexts

Little consideration seems to have been given to the possibility that distance learners may be interacting with other people in their life contexts about their studies in a way that is making a positive contribution to their studies. The study involved semi-structured interviews of 15 Australian post-graduate students studying at a distance. Although the findings suggest that students vary widely in the extent to which they interact with others outside their course for study purposes, when they do interact, they produce identifiable learning benefits. Watson identified five types of life context interactions:

  • gathering information for assignments
  • getting help with difficult content
  • discussing the application of content to real-world contexts
  • sharing knowledge with others
  • getting feedback on assignment drafts

Watson suggests two course design implications from her studies so far:

  • encourage learners to talk to appropriate colleagues, friends or family about the application of particular theories in practice
  • encourage the establishment of mentoring relationships between learners and appropriate industry personnel

Higgins, K. and Harreveld, R. (2013) Professional development and the university casual academic: integration and support strategies for distance education

Casual academics are university instructors who are not entitled to either paid holiday leave or sick leave (such as, presumably, adjuncts and contract instructors in North America). In this study, twelve casual academics who taught distance education courses discussed their work through an in-depth semi-structured interview. The interviews revealed that these instructors managed their own professional development informally, and were sometimes unaware of the formal professional development activities available to them from the university.

Murphy, A. (2103) Open educational practices in higher education: institutional adoption and challenges

In this study, 110 individuals from higher education institutions in 29 countries participated in a survey aimed at identifying the extent to which HE institutions are currently implementing OERs and practices. The sample was focused on people with an interest in OERs; half the participants were from UK.

Main findings:

  • 23% were in organizations actively involved in the OERu network - 
  • 88% ‘knowledgeable’ about OERs
  • 29% were in institutions that were actively publishing OERs
  • the adoption of OERs and practices is still in its infancy
  • additional support such as funding and dedicated human resources are needed

Yasmin (2013) Application of the classification tree model in predicting learner dropout behaviour in open and distance learning

This study compares pre-enrollment student data with student attrition/drop-out for 12,000 post-graduate distance education students admitted to the University of North Bengal, India. The study indicated that married, employed, older, or remotely located students were more likely to drop out.

Note that the study used mainly demographic data, rather than data based on previous academic performance or the influence of factors during courses.

The paper’s main value is that it provides an analysis of drop-out factors for distance education students in a developing country, complementing the vast array of similar studies in developed countries.

Todhunter, B. (2013) LOL – limitations of online learning – are we selling the open and distance education message short?

This article questions the terminology being used to promote an institution’s programs. The author is particularly concerned that focusing on the term ‘online learning’ does a disservice to the special aspects of open and distance education. He argues it is necessary to pay close attention to the different needs of off-campus or distance learners, which can be lost in a discussion of the merits of online versus campus education. But above all, Todhunter is concerned that a focus on ‘online learning’ will put off many who are potential learners, whereas the terms ‘open’ and ‘distance’ will not only be be more appealing to some students, but may require different policies and strategies than a focus on ‘online’ learning.

Students embarking on graduate theses involving online learning, e-learning, distance education or open learning will benefit from reading this article when it comes to clearly defining what they are researching.


First, an explanation of why I have taken the time to ‘abstract’ these papers. This is not an ‘open access’ journal; you require a subscription from Taylor and Francis Group publications at nearly $40 an article. So pray that you have access to a good library, or you need to be sure that the article will be worth it to you. I have complained several times to Distance Education about a journal on open and distance education not being open access, but this is the policy of ODLAA (the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia).

Second, some of the individual articles are well worth reading, depending on your interest. From reading the journal I picked up the following points (these are my interpretations, not necessarily the author’s):

  • good pedagogy is more important than mode of delivery (Hockridge) – further evidence for my law of equal substitution (i.e. most of what applies to good teaching in classrooms also applies to online education, and vice versa. Most things that can be taught in class can also be taught online, so we need to focus on the exceptions, not the rule.)
  • we need to do far more research and development on online assessment methods (Earl)
  • we are underusing learners’ life experiences in the design of distance courses (especially important for adult learners) (Watson)
  • institutions need better policies for casual/adjunct/contract instructors, and need to pay particular attention to professional development for this increasingly important human resource in higher education (Higgins and Harreveld)
  • even amongst the supporters of OERs, actual use, and especially secondary use, of OERs is still minimal (Murphy) – how long does maturation have to take?
  • studies of drop-out that focus on the demographics of incoming students are pretty useless. These are your students: find ways to help them succeed – don’t screen them out just because they are a higher risk, especially if you are an open institution (Yasmin)
  • open and distance learning are not necessarily the same as online learning; institutions need to be clear about markets and values as well as about mode of delivery. (Todhunter)

However, I do feel for journal editors who have to try to pick the best papers and at the same time try to find a common theme. The theme and the questions set out for this edition are only partly addressed in these papers, but nevertheless the articles are well worth reading. It’s just a pity they are so inaccessible.

How online content development and delivery could improve the productivity of post-secondary education

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Content development at Laval University

Content development at Laval University

This is a continuation of the exploration of the potential for online learning to increase educational ‘productivity.’ Previous posts in this series include:

In the last post, I made the following observations:

  • there are specific types of learning outcomes expected from higher education. These outcomes should drive teaching and technology decisions, not the other way round, although there is a symbiosis between outcomes and technology that needs to be considered
  • these outcomes require certain kinds of teaching methods or approaches to learning, and online learning needs to be able to accommodate or support such approaches. This will mean exposing the ‘magic’ of on-campus learning and seeing if this can be defined and recreated in an online environment.
  • I argue that much of this has already been achieved in online learning through good course design, which in itself is a key factor in improving productivity in higher education
  • to get increases in productivity we need to examine which online learning activities can be re-designed to move from variable to fixed costs, while still maintaining or improving on the core learning outcomes expected of higher education.

In this post, I disaggregate the activities encompassed in online teaching, to identify those that are easily scaled (and hence can lead to reductions in unit costs), and those that are either currently difficult to scale, or indeed should NOT be scaled.

Not all productivity gains though can be related to scaling up activities. Some can be achieved by redesign of operational processes to make them more efficient. This aspect will be discussed in further posts.

Disaggregating online teaching

Online teaching encompasses a range of activities, each with different cost structures. Some are one time or fixed costs, independent of the number of learners. Others are ongoing or variable costs, that are directly related to the number of learners.

For the purpose of this discussion, I will break online teaching down into the following activities:

  1. Content development and delivery
  2. Student activities
  3. Learner support
  4. Assessment
  5. Planning, administration and overheads

For each of these activities, I will look at possible ways to improve productivity, depending on their potential for scaling up. I will focus in this post on the potential for productivity gains through online content development and delivery, and will deal with the other three set of activities in later posts.

Content development and delivery

Nowhere in online learning is there such potential for increases in educational productivity as in content development and delivery. Once learning materials are created, they can be stored, accessed, delivered and used by an unlimited number of learners, thus potentially achieving large economies of scale and thereby reducing costs per learner.

MOOCs are a classic example of economies of scale. Once lectures are ‘captured’ they can be stored and accessed by anyone with high speed Internet access. xMOOCs in particular have another ‘productivity’ advantage, in that they can also achieve economies of scope, in that the lectures would have been prepared and video-captured in any case for on-campus students, and thus once produced they can also made available to the rest of the world at technically little or no extra cost. Thus the cost of conversion from on-campus to online is less than it would have been if there was no on-campus version. (However, we shall see below that there are additional costs in creating xMOOCs compared to online credit courses).

Even for online courses for credit, there are considerable economies of scale in course development and delivery. Once course materials have been created, costs are usually less for subsequent offerings of the same course, as some content remains unchanged. However, there will be some ongoing costs (course maintenance) as content changes over time. Nevertheless compared to offering a new version of the same course each year on campus, there are more economies of scale for online content delivery.

Another important factor contributing to economies of scale in online learning is the increasing availability of open educational resources. Particularly in foundational courses and many ‘standard’ undergraduate courses, material is already available and does not have to be created. This may even be available increasingly through open online textbooks. The main cost is selecting and organizing existing open source materials, and even some of these costs can be passed on to students at more advanced levels.

Limitations to economies of scale in online content

As always, there are trade-offs to be made between lowering unit costs and reducing quality. Several factors constrain the bounds of economies of scale or economies of scope in online learning:

  • rapidly developing new knowledge: the need to keep courses up to date means that courses cannot or should not be created then left untouched for several years. In many areas of learning these days, regular course maintenance is essential, thus reducing (but not eliminating) the economies of scale
  • in order to achieve high quality, and because economies of scale enable costs to be spread over a larger number of students, development costs for online content tend to be higher than for classroom teaching
  • thus there is always a minimum number of students required to justify the higher initial fixed cost of creating online content. Put another way, economies of scale require a large enough market to justify the initial investment. For credit courses, experience suggests that at least 25 students per course offering are required. Thus for many specialist online courses for credit at third or fourth levels, there may not be the market to benefit from large economies of scale, although for MOOCs, this is not usually a limitation
  • on the other hand, there is evidence that content development for MOOCs is at least two to three times the cost as for credit courses. For instance the University of Ottawa has costed Coursera-type MOOC course development at $100,000 per course; UBC has set aside $500,000 for the development of 5 MOOCs. On the other hand, course development for LMS-based credit courses has been costed at around $35,000-$50,000 per three credit course (see Bates and Sangrà, 2011). xMOOCs of course could be produced at much lower cost than at present, but there is always some cost involved, at least in terms of instructor time and technology
  • institutions may not have the resources to achieve economies of scale. If most of an institution’s budget is tied up in salaries linked to contractual agreements, there may not be sufficient resources to make the investment that will lead to economies of scale in course development. Sometimes it is necessary to speculate in order to accumulate.
  • economies of scale need to be related also to output. Achieving economies of scale is pointless if output goes down. In education, economies of scale need to be matched by learner performance. In other words students should perform just as well at lower unit costs, or better for the same unit cost. xMOOCs in particular have yet to achieve this, at least on a large scale (it should be noted that while xMOOCs are free for learners, they are a substantial cost to the institution developing and delivering them.)
  • perhaps more surprising, content development and delivery has to date been a relatively small component of the costs of at least credit-based online learning. Bates and Sangrà (2011) calculated that course development and maintenance costs were less than one-fifth of the total cost over seven years of a fully online master program. Learner support and assessment was over one third of the cost and program administration and university overheads constituted just under one third of the cost. Probably the biggest difference economically between cMOOCs and xMOOCs is the difference in costs of course development and delivery, although as with all open resources there are major hidden costs in cMOOCs (i.e. the time of those contributing to the courses).

Improving productivity in online course development and delivery

Basically there are two ways to increase productivity: reducing unit costs (i.e. cost per student) or improving output. There is evidence that for markets/courses/programs where there is a large number of potential students, online content development and delivery has potential for greater economies of scale than campus-based teaching, more so for MOOCs than for credit-based online courses/programs (mainly because MOOCs can reach a much larger market).

What is more challenging is to think of ways we could further improve the productivity of online learning through content development and delivery, especially for credit-based learning. Here are some of my suggestions:

  • greater use of open educational resources, especially ‘core’ foundation content. This may take the form of ready-made content that can be adapted for local use, such as the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative, or open textbooks. Perhaps in addition to open educational resources in the form of small packages of content, we should also be developing some open curriculum design frameworks into which OERs could be dropped. This would help speed up and lower the cost of online course development, and also enable rapid developments in content to be more easily handled
  • increase the market for a particular online course or program. This could be done in several ways. One is to open up admission requirements to a larger number of students, while maintaining or increasing the standards of performance. Thus easy to get in, but demanding to qualify. Another is through collaboration or consortia. Online learning is accessible anywhere in a state, province, country or internationally. The Ontario government is already questioning why several institutions in the same area should offer the same programs on different campuses. With online learning, the question becomes even more pertinent. Why not offer one, two or three foundation psychology courses online throughout the province, with different institutions providing the ‘local’ online support and student assessment? In all these cases, more money could be spent on developing really high quality content and courses, but with major lowering of unit costs for production and delivery (we shall see that learner support costs are another matter)
  • look at ways to reduce the costs (or achieve economies of scale or scope) in other areas, such as learner support, assessment and program administration/university overheads, since they constitute a higher proportion of overall cost than course development and delivery. This is essentially what MOOCs have done. The problem is that they have done it without ensuring that students can still handle the courses. In later posts, we shall see that getting productivity gains in these other other components of online teaching is much more difficult than in content development and delivery
  • focus in online courses on ’21st century skills’ development, such as knowledge management and independent learning. This would have two benefits. It would improve outputs (turning out graduates with the skills needed). Second, content development and delivery becomes subsidiary to helping students find, analyze, organize and apply content themselves. Thus less time would be spent by instructors on course development and delivery.

I am sure you can think of other ways in which we could make online content development and delivery more productive. If so, let’s hear it!


Some of these will be contentious (I hope) so let’s hear from you on this, but here are my thoughts as a result of going through this exercise:

  • understanding the basic cost structures of online learning, compared to classroom teaching, is an essential first step to increasing productivity in post-secondary education. It is risky to assume that online learning is always more cost-effective or productive; the circumstances need to be right
  • already, in certain circumstances (i.e. where there is a large market), online content development and delivery is already resulting in increased productivity in post-secondary education, although it has yet to be well documented and publicised (except for MOOCs)
  • at the same time, there is still room for even greater increases in productivity through online course development and delivery, especially through the use of open educational resources and sharing of content across different institutions
  • online content development and delivery is only one component of online teaching; other components such as learner support and assessment are even more important
  • care is needed then because changes in methods of online content development and delivery could have knock-on cost and productivity consequences in other areas of course delivery, such as learner support and assessment. In looking at productivity issues, all these factors need to be examined together
  • any attempts at scaling or increasing economies of scope in content development and delivery need to be balanced by ensuring quality does not suffer. However, online course development has the potential, through good instructional design, to improve quality rather than reduce it

Lastly, so far for me this has been a journey of exploration. I don’t claim to be an expert on productivity, and, as in this post, I’m not always sure where I will end up when I start. I am beginning to think though that it is a productive exercise (sorry for the pun), but I’m not sure if this view is shared by you, the readers. So any comments, feedback or criticism will be welcome, as always.


Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco, Jossey Bass, 2011