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Online Learning Markets: Institutional Challenges

In late July I posted on the different markets that exist for technology enhanced teaching and learning in higher education. To summarize the assertion from that post: there are substantial differences between the activities and impact of courses delivered by online learning platforms directly to individuals and those delivered through institutions to students. The latter represents a “business-to-business” case that must overcome different obstacles for success than “direct-to-consumer” offerings like MOOCs.

I promised in that post to highlight a few of the challenges that must be addressed in the institutional context if these technologies are going to have maximum impact on the way registered students at existing institutions learn and on the costs associated with that instruction. These challenges can be grouped into those that are within an institution, what I would call intra-institutional, and those that are across institutions or are system-wide, what I would call inter-institutional. In this post I will highlight some of the intra-institutional barriers to be overcome, which include faculty concerns, addressing teaching specialization, governance, and cost management. I will address the inter-institutional challenges in a future post. Both the inter- and intra-institutional obstacles will need to be addressed if new teaching and learning technologies are going to deliver maximum benefits to higher education.

Faculty concerns

Faculty have concerns that online technologies could be used to reduce the number of jobs available—for example, that reliance on lecture videos produced elsewhere but available online could “replace” the need for local faculty. This is a perfectly reasonable cause for concern and of course might be the basis for resistance among some faculty at some institutions to adopt new teaching technologies. But in general this does not strike me as a significant reason that these technologies are slow to be implemented in the institutional context. In my experience, most faculty do not resist change for its own sake; they are concerned about student learning and genuinely fear that these technologies will not be good for students, or more precisely, that they will not be good for all students, leaving many students to struggle. Moreover, faculty want to customize the content and how it is presented to their students, but that is proving to be much more challenging for them to do in the online context than it was when they assembled paper-based content. In general, I do not believe that the most significant barrier to creative use of innovative tools is faculty resistance caused by fear, it is a result of true challenges associated with implementing these systems in an institutional context.

Teaching Specialization

At research universities and many colleges, research and teaching are considered to be an important symbiotic package, both at the institutional level and at the individual level. An active research environment is regarded as critically important to an excellent teaching and learning environment, and tenure decisions tend to focus on research output over teaching skill. It appears that sustaining that approach at all but a relatively small number of institutions is becoming extremely difficult. Putting aside the challenges for the individual faculty member of achieving excellence in both areas, the costs of maintaining this approach have proven to be extremely high, and institutions increasingly rely on part-time and adjunct faculty to teach many classes. Keeping up with changing technologies and the ever-expanding range of tools and content available to support teaching requires increasingly specialized knowledge and expertise. Developing new lines of employment and advancement that recognize teaching skills and rewards excellent teachers is an important area of development if innovative teaching technologies are to reach their full potential at existing colleges and universities.


This is an extremely important topic and much has already been written about it, including a book by my colleagues William Bowen and Eugene Tobin, so I will not address it in any detail here. Suffice it to say that as technology grows in importance to teaching, natural economies of scale that exist in technology drive some decisions up from the individual faculty level to the departmental level to the college/university level and even to the inter-institutional level. For example, the decision to license a course management system or adaptive learning platform does not fall within the domain of the individual faculty member. Faculty and administrators will need to have governance structures in place that enable them to work effectively together on such decisions, and such structures do not currently exist in many institutions. More often than not the structures are set up to delegate areas of exclusive responsibility rather than to encourage shared responsibility.

Cost Management

One reason that conversations about governance can be so challenging is that there is no shared ownership, agreement, and even common understanding of key problems facing higher education institutions. Perhaps there is no place where this is more true than in cost management. Faculty are generally not concerned about costs; in fact, many processes have been put in place to shelter or protect them from cost concerns. Faculty are expected and required to focus on their areas of specialty. When they do think about innovation in teaching and learning, their efforts are more focused on improving outcomes rather than lowering costs. I know of almost no faculty member who would set out to make his or her course both more effective and less costly (either for the institution or the student). Costs are simply not on the radar. Again, this is not a criticism of faculty, and is not intended to say that they are willfully ignoring costs, it is that the nature of the institutional relationship is that these issues are not part of faculty’s responsibility. It seems that developing shared ownership of the cost management problem is an important factor if learning technologies are to have an impact in institutional contexts.

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People like to focus on faculty resistance as a principle reason that more institutions are not teaching online courses using course content and modules created by faculty at other institutions. While that is surely one of the hurdles to be overcome, there are other important intra-institutional barriers, and a different infrastructure needs to be in place if a “business-to-business” market of courses and course modules is going to develop. In a future post I will describe some of the inter-institutional obstacles.


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