Digital Course Materials in Professional and Executive Programs

An alternative digital narrative?

March 1, 2016

"In sum, the question about going digital is not one of if, or even when, but rather of how.”

Casey Green, Going Digital: Not If, But How

When it comes to curricular materials, very few of our campuses have made the total switch from print to digital.

Does the narrative change, however, if we shift our gaze from undergraduate to professional and executive education?

Casey Green’s study, GOING DIGITAL Faculty Perspectives on Digital and OER Course Materials,  helps us understand why the transition to digital curricular materials across higher ed has been slower than many of us expected.  As of fall 2015, only 16 percent of faculty reported that their course materials are primarily digital.  A third of surveyed faculty (34 percent) project that their course materials will be primarily digital by 2018, but a quarter (24 percent) think that they will never make the digital switch.

Challenges around quality and access are clearly slowing the shift from print to digital.  Less than three in ten surveyed faculty think that digital curricular materials “have a beneficial impact on student learning compared to print.”  And only 19 percent of surveyed faculty have concluded that digital materials “are higher quality than similar print materials.”   

How does this story change, however, if we only look at graduate professional and executive programs?

Could it be that the transition from print to digital will be led by specialized masters programs?  It may be that small professional residential, low-residency, and online programs are better suited to digital curricular materials than is undergraduate education.

Reasons that the transition from print to digital may come first in professional, graduate and executive programs include:

Scale:  So many things can go wrong in the curricular transition from print to digital.  We are better off limiting the scope of our efforts.  We should first go small and get it right, and only then think about diffusing innovations to the rest of the campus.  The small size of graduate, professional and executive programs are a huge benefit in digital learning innovation.  It is possible to get our minds around all the requirements of the faculty and the students, and to design a digital curriculum program that truly adds value over print.

Content: I’ll admit that I’m skeptical about the benefits of moving the traditional textbook from print to digital.  Many educators hate the traditional introductory textbook.  Not me.  There is something glorious about having an introduction to a discipline embodied on physical pages - pages that can be turned, scanned, and scrawled on.   Graduate, professional, and executive programs, however, do not use many textbooks.  Students read articles, case studies, reports, and chapters.  This sort of short form reading lends itself to digital.  Moreover, digital delivery allows faculty to rapidly substitute new readings (often on the fly) - an ability that is incredibly important in a professional or executive setting.

Devices:  Graduate, professional, and executive programs are often better positioned to provide (or mandate) a device (usually an iPad) to all the students in the program.  Ensuring that every student is working with the same device for accessing digital course materials alleviates one of the major challenges with digital - that of consistency and access.  Digital curricular programs tend not to fail gracefully, as the inability of only a few students to access the materials will destroy the cohesion and quality of a course and a program.  Even if a professional program does not go the one-to-one device route, the faculty can be confident that the students have the tech necessary to access the content.  Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is improving at a rapid clip, offering alternatives to one-to-one programs for schools that wish to accommodate whatever device that students wish to bring.

Inputs and Support:  Anyone who has ever worked on a digital learning project understands that digital equals more work and greater expense.  It is simply a myth that digital learning (at least today) is cheaper.  What digital does is shift the costs from the student to the institution.  Any quality digital curricular initiative will require big investments in the content, platform, and delivery mechanisms.  It is essential that the student experience is friction free.  Graduate, professional, and executive programs are well-positioned to invest the time and expertise of instructional design and technology staff in digital curricular projects.  Even with really well designed digital material initiatives, things will still go wrong.  There will be problems in the creation of the course materials, the delivery of the materials to students, and the use of the materials for learning.  The small scale (and often greater resources) of small professional and executive programs allows for a robust support structure to be build into the program.

Is there a way to test my hypothesis that graduate professional and executive programs are leading the transition from print to digital?

Do we have good data on the digital curricular practices of professional and executive programs?

Do you think that we can learn about the future of undergraduate education by looking at the current practices of professional and executive programs?

Where have you witnessed the curricular transition from print to digital go well?

What did you make of Casey's report -  GOING DIGITAL Faculty Perspectives on Digital and OER Course Materials?



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