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Online Learning Markets: Inter-Institutional Challenges

In my last blog post, I described some of the challenges that must be addressed in the institutional context if online learning technologies are going to have maximum impact on the way registered students at existing institutions learn and on the costs associated with that instruction. The barriers described in that post are intra-institutional in nature: faculty concerns, addressing teaching specialization, governance, and cost management.

In this post, I want to address important inter-institutional challenges to a robust “business-to-business” market for online learning.  These inter-institutional barriers include building better pathways to manage credits and other evidence of competence across colleges and universities, managing data while maintaining privacy, and establishing a reliable intellectual property and licensing infrastructure.  To overcome them will require cooperation and even collaboration across institutions.

Credits, Competence, and Learning Assessment

As more and more students pursue non-linear pathways to learning, they increasingly want to be able to transfer credits and other evidence of competencies from institution to institution. This is creating a mismatch between what students need and the existing mechanisms used to assess evidence of learning. To put it most succinctly, students want portable evidence of what they have learned at the course or even sub-course level, while our processes for assessing quality of outcomes is done at the institutional departmental level. That means that it is very difficult to ascertain whether what a student learns from a course at one university is better or worse than what they would learn at another. Nearly all of our assessment mechanisms, whether it be rankings or accreditation or qualification for federal funding, happen at the institutional level. A question, then, is whether new technologies make it possible to increase the granularity of these assessments. And if so, what impact might that have on institutions’ willingness to take “credits” earned from other institutions as a trusted input in the calculus of whether a student is qualified to earn a degree?

Managing Data and Privacy

Closely connected to the question of assessment is the importance of student learning data to the future of education. If the development of new web-enabled companies dealing with information is any indication, future success in developing effective technologically-enabled learning environments will depend upon the effective use of student behavioral data to improve systems. If an online learning platform were to gain substantial market share with high amounts of use, the data generated on that platform could conceivably offer that firm a competitive advantage through continuous iteration and adaption of the platform in line with those data. Large-scale commercial platforms would be in a better position to develop these systems, especially if colleges and universities are unable to see aggregated data across institutions.  The value of these data will create pressure on universities to agree about ways to share data, devise ways for data to interoperate, or create a common platform that would give their faculty (and learning/education researchers more generally) the opportunity to evaluate outcomes and improve their systems. Such development will be complicated by real and justifiable concerns about student privacy. A key question is whether colleges and universities can find a suitable compromise set of terms and conditions that will make it possible for student privacy to be protected even as systems for teaching and learning can extract the data needed to be effective. Collaboration on this point will be important, because without it colleges are unlikely to be able to keep pace with commercial providers.

Intellectual Property and Licensing

If institutions are going to rely on content, tools, and courses created elsewhere to help teach students locally, there is going to need to be a more robust infrastructure to support the persistence of that marketplace if it is to succeed.  Any time a faculty member creates a new course, whether that course is a traditional face-to-face one or an online one, the costs of developing the course initially are far greater than teaching the course a second, third or fourth time. In this way faculty “recover their costs” associated with new course development.

For online courses these initial costs can be quite significant, so persistent access to those courses is important. There are a number of key factors that are relevant to this persistence. First, ownership of the intellectual property that has been created needs to be clear, and authority for decisions related to it need to be well-defined. For example, in one case with which I’m familiar, faculty invested enormous time to create a course incorporating significant content from a MOOC instance of that course.  A couple weeks before the semester was to start, the MOOC professor withdrew permission for the faculty to use the course in this way. It is important to have clarity in such situations about whether the faculty “author,” that faculty member’s institution, or the platform provider has the right to make that decision.

There also needs to be a trusted licensing infrastructure in place.  Allow me to use the example of the transition of journal literature from paper to digital formats to illustrate the point. In the paper environment, the purchase of a book or journal is a free-standing exchange. Once you own the book or journal issue, you have ownership, authority, and control to do what you want with it (subject to copyright law and restrictions).  But once books and journals are digitized and available over the network, the content is likely to be delivered from a remote server. An online resource provider can “turn off” access to a journal article in a way that a paper journal publisher cannot. This requires the creation of a set of acceptable behaviors to govern the exchange. The situation is similar in the case of online learning modules and courses. In the analog, face-to-face world, faculty could do what they wanted and use what resources they wanted. In an environment where they might use content or tools developed and delivered from elsewhere, a licensing and intellectual property infrastructure needs to be in place to support the use of these materials on an ongoing basis.


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I am not one who believes that widespread disruption is coming soon to higher education, but I do believe that there are important opportunities for higher education to take advantage of digital capabilities and the network to enhance student learning, and potentially at lower per-student costs. Taking advantage of those opportunities will require the development of new methods for evaluating and validating what students learn, storing and protecting student learning data, and new infrastructure for supporting persistent access to valuable course content and curricula.

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