Putting Standardization Second (or Lower) in Online Learning

Campus leaders should prioritize excellence, differentiation and institutional fidelity as they build new academic programs, Scott Moore writes.

November 7, 2018
 

I’m amazed. And concerned. Over the past six months, I’ve been to several conferences and workshops, where I participated in discussions with leaders of online learning, and the same few themes kept coming up: standardization, adoption rates, faculty impediments and limited budget.

What I really wanted to hear from someone, anyone, is how excited they are about their online learning initiatives. How they are delivering excellence in online learning. How they’re differentiating themselves while staying true to their pedagogy. After all, these are the leaders in online learning, and many of them are in a great position to enact change and deliver excellence. Instead, all they’re talking about is standardization.

Let me say that, as a former educator, I have the deepest empathy for the challenges and complexities related to academia. Standardization -- basically, genericizing the overall educational technology stack -- has an important role when you’re talking about many aspects of your operating environment. And I don’t dispute the many benefits of systemized development.

However, it’s crucial that you first understand how standardization supports your goals, your pedagogy and the unique aspects that set you apart, and then prioritize accordingly.

We do know that standardization and centralization in the way online programs are developed, delivered, monitored and improved over time is an undeniable trend. The real question is, does it always have to lead to suboptimal learning?

The primary goal should be to deliver an excellent learning experience. The definition of “excellent” will vary by program, by institution, by faculty member and by student. You have one set of needs in a liberal arts undergraduate program and a different set in a master’s engineering program.

However, the common goal should be the same: to deliver an excellent learning experience. It’s not that budget and standardization aren’t important, but there is such a thing as focusing on them too early and placing too high a priority on them.

Think about the development of cars in the early 1900s. We didn’t just stop there and proclaim, “We’ve got a car! We’re all set.” There was much more innovation and development to come before we were able to standardize the automobile design and production process on a large scale.

In 2018, with online learning, we’re at the same place -- very early in the process. We’ve been evolving our best in-classroom teaching practices for more than 500 years, and I think we can all agree we still have a long way to go. The same goes for online learning -- we’re nowhere near what I’d call optimal online learning.

What does excellence mean at your institution? Why are you considering going online? What do you hope to accomplish -- increased enrollment? Increased profit? Alumni engagement?

What differentiates you and drives your success? Is it your unique pedagogy? Or is it the active alumni support network that you bring into your curriculum? Who are the stakeholders? What are the metrics to gauge success? Answer these questions first. And, by all means, maintain institutional fidelity.

HBX, for example, brings the hallmark case-based learning pedagogy of the Harvard Business School classroom, in which every concept is embedded in a series of real-world, living case studies, to online learners. ArtCenter College is another example of an institution taking its own critique-based pedagogy online with a goal of exposing more students outside the school's traditional demographic to art and design education. And the University of Notre Dame, which launched its first online master’s degree program, in data science, earlier this year, fully embraced and took the ethics-focused and community-based Notre Dame educational experience online without watering it down. (These are all clients of ExtensionEngine, chosen because of my familiarity with them, not because I'm biased toward them.)

Unfortunately, many decisions regarding online learning are being made by staff members who are disconnected from market forces and the strategic goals of the institution. Team members with relevant technical or operational expertise should be included in the process. However, when university presidents and provosts leave the decisions in the hands of those more interested in standardization and simplification than in meeting customer demands and delivering a differentiated, brand-enhancing experience, the result leads to a suboptimal, generic experience for all.

I’ve talked with institutional leaders who, in the interest of maintaining the status quo, resist exploration in online learning. I am all for protecting the reputation of an institution, but online learning has moved far beyond its roots and can now be an effective and engaging way of teaching and learning. The only way for faculty to learn this point is to allow some of this exploration, starting with noncredit programs. And, importantly, this experimentation should involve those faculty, via invitation, who lead the resistance.

There are also administrators I’ve met with who, in the interest of maintaining control and doing "what is right" for the institution, don't work with their campus leaders (deans, etc.) to solve their problems but, instead, solve their own problems (e.g., a perceived proliferation of software) in their own way and then wonder why the campus leaders don't greet them with praise.

I’ve seen other roadblocks come from CIOs who, in the interest of having an easier-to-maintain IT system, "lock down" the university's learning management system so effectively that it’s simply not worth it for a school or an instructor to try to do something innovative within it. I’ve seen one case where the university's LMS (and the courses and programs within) was essentially indistinguishable from those of its competitors.

Like other initiatives, institutions need healthy, open lines of communication to be able to execute against their goals. Take baby steps. Lower the stakes initially. Involve all key stakeholders in the strategic planning -- this is a difficult, but crucial, aspect of the process. It’s a process of collaboration. And of compromise. As a former faculty member, I fully understand and appreciate this fact.

My vote is for excellence first.

Bio

Scott Moore is principal learning strategist at ExtensionEngine.

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