September 19, 2018

Some thoughts on scaling online and digital learning

Image: Fortune.com

Chatlani, S. (2018) How to effectively scale a digital learning model, Education Dive, accessed February 13

Bates, A. and Sangra, A. (2011) Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Chapter 7

The sources

The Chatlani article is interesting if a little frustrating, as it is a report on a presentation at a conference of unpublished research (or at least unreferenced in the article) that looks at several case studies of successful scaling of digital learning. (If this research has been published, I would really appreciate access to the report or at least a reference.)

Nevertheless the results reported by two of the researchers, Lou Pugliese, director for the Technology Innovation Action Lab at Arizona State University, and Kate Smith, vice president of academic affairs at Rio Salado College, are really interesting and worth examining.

I have referenced also the research published in Managing Technology in Higher Education on the scaling of the University of British Columbia’s very successful Master of Educational Technology, which is still running today, although originally designed in 2001. The program has undergone a number of major changes over those 16 years but the scaling model has remained largely intact.

It is interesting then to compare the results of the two studies.

The institutional cases

The research reported by Chatlani, funded by the Boston Group and the Gates Foundation, examined the characteristics of digital learning programs from six diverse institutions:

  • Kentucky Community & Technical College System,
  • the University of Central Florida,
  • Georgia State University,
  • Houston Community College,
  • Rio Salado College and
  • Arizona State University. 

These institutions include some of the largest public post-secondary online providers in the USA. UCF was also one of the cases examined in Bates and Sangra.

Results

Pugliese and Smith reported the following four key findings from the study:

  • take a strategic portfolio approach to digital learning. This reflects the UBC MET program, which was developed as part of an institutional strategy to move towards program-based online learning. In fact several other graduate programs using the same model were developed at UBC around the same time;
  • build capabilities and expertise to design for quality in the digital realm. This also reflects the UBC strategy. The MET program was originally developed as a partnership between the Faculty of Education and the Distance Education Unit of UBC’s Continuing Studies department, which provided project management, instructional design, and media production support. Several years later, UBC moved the technical and educational support from Continuing Studies into a central Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology, which also incorporated faculty development, to serve the whole university. The Faculty of Education also developed its own learning technology support team.
  • provide the differential student support to succeed in fully online learning. This was a critical component of the MET model. The key here is the difference between fixed and variable costs. Course development costs are mainly fixed; course delivery costs are mainly variable, as they are driven primarily by student numbers. The key savings in scaling comes from the distribution of fixed costs across increasing numbers of students and the lower costs of using adjunct faculty. In the MET model, tenured faculty were responsible for the content and design of the courses and in some cases for online teaching of at least one section. However, most of the delivery was supported by a team of adjunct faculty supervised by tenured faculty members. Student fees (at the same rate as for on-campus courses) more than covered both the costs of development – including the hiring of the necessary extra tenured research faculty – and delivery. Scaling was possible because of the lower cost of adjunct faculty but working to a quality model of delivery that kept student-instructor ratios at 30 or less.
  • engage faculty as true partners, equipping them for success. This was also an essential element of the UBC MET model which engaged faculty from Education from the start. Everything went through normal faculty quality assurance processes, involving a total of 27 faculty consultation meetings over a period of two years before the program even started. Perhaps more importantly, the business model ensured that the bulk of the revenues went directly to the Faculty of Education, which then paid overheads for the program to the central administration. Any profits from the program were ploughed back into faculty hirings. Thus the academic department was rewarded for innovation as well as for its efforts.

Discussion

As the article points out, online learning has been around now for 20 years or more and it is timely to look at what models have been successful in scaling quality online learning – and those that have not. 

The research suggests that scaling with quality requires a delicate balance between:

  • team work involving tenured faculty, specialist online experts such as instructional designers and media producers, and adjunct instructors, with full involvement of faculty in all aspects of the design and development of the programs,
  • using adjunct faculty as instructors to support program delivery as the enrolments grow,
  • managing student-instructor ratios so that adjuncts are not overloaded,
  • ensuring the adjunct instructors are adequately trained or experienced in teaching online.

Other important factors in scaling with quality are:

  • being sure there is an adequate market demand to justify the scale of online/digital programs you are proposing: good market research is essential,
  • being confident that new entrants into the market will not have the scale or quality to capture your market,
  • being sure that there is a sufficient pool of available qualified adjunct instructors,
  • developing a multi-year business plan that will accommodate losses in the first two years in return for later economies of scale and scope,
  • a sympathetic and creative administration that will consider and encourage new funding models.

I look forward to the publication of the report and hope it will be widely disseminated.

Comments

  1. I’m also really interested in seeing the published report — it’s supposed to be released in early April 2018! You might be interested to attend the Future Trends Forum (https://bryanalexander.org/the-future-trends-forum/) on April 5, 2018, because Pugliese will be presenting…!

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