It’s taken decades, but educational technology is finally beginning to change the way we think about education itself -- not just the way we deliver it.
Twenty-four years ago, I taught my first writing course in a classroom kitted out with 25 computers. A few years later, I team taught my first online and hybrid courses via threaded discussion boards and asynchronous email-based class discussions, respectively. Of course by that time, the pioneers in the field had already been at the online learning game for years.
In those days, online learning was about experimentation -- seeing what the new technology could do. Soon, though, online learning became a means to an end, in the form of rapid market expansion and tuition growth, aided by 100 percent year-over-year growth rates in the mid-1990s and driven by the early entrants in the market -- for-profit universities and continuing and professional education divisions at nonprofit universities.
A couple decades on now, we see millions of students pursuing degrees wholly online and millions more taking the odd online course for credit, while still millions more are signing up for non-credit-bearing MOOCs. That goes some way to underscoring the fact that online learning is an established and maturing field. But it’s also flattening out. Today the growth has slowed, almost to a standstill, and thus the high-octane revenue growth phase may be behind us.
This may explain, in part, why the field is starting to be talked about in new ways, particularly as new sorts of institutions get involved, as the motivations for deploying an ever-growing number of learning technologies gradually begin to shift, as learning scientists leverage the growing quantities of data captured by these technologies and as the organizational structures online learning operates under begin to take new shape.
If the era of online learning over the past two decades was in large measure about revenue growth, the present moment is about something else.
Evidence of this change can been seen in a subtle shift in how we talk about this work. Where once we spoke consistently about “online learning,” now, more and more often, I hear higher education leaders talking about “digital strategy” -- a shift in terminology that signals, I believe, a significant change in how we are thinking about the utility of learning technologies.
The phrase “online learning,” for example, might be said to be associated with other terms, like growth, tuition streams, content development and professional master’s degrees. By contrast, the phrase “digital strategy” is associated with a more diverse and inclusive set of terms, like pedagogy, market relevance, undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as online and residential learning experiences. If online learning was, more often than not, about money, then digital strategy is about how we think about, define and structure learning.
As Claudia Urrea, a lecturer at MIT’s recently established Office of Digital Learning, put it to me, “It’s no longer just about putting content online but an opportunity to rethink learning.”
Kevin Bell, who serves as executive director for online curriculum development and deployment at Northeastern University, put it somewhat more forcefully: “There needs to be a digital strategy for face-to-face courses, as well.”
Interestingly, both MIT and Northeastern have been busily realigning their organizational structures in the digital realm to assist them in yielding a broader kind of payoff. The Office of Digital Learning at MIT, headed up by Dean Sanjay Sarma, is a relatively new organization into which established initiatives now report -- such as OpenCourseWare, founded more than 15 years ago, and MITx, launched in 2012 and the precursor to MIT’s collaboration with Harvard, called edX.
Last fall, Northeastern brought on Chris Mallet from Western Governors University to serve in a new role as vice president of online programs, and while the job title underscores the familiar and still persistent use of “online” as a term of art, the new role was conceived as a way of integrating and expanding a diverse set of teaching and technology-related initiatives. Other institutions are similarly reorganizing, adding new layers of management and governance to oversee and harmonize their increasingly diverse digital holdings.
In 2014, James DeVaney joined the University of Michigan as its associate vice provost for digital education and innovation, with the explicit aim, he told me, of making his office’s services “obsolete -- in a good way -- so that academic units are thinking about the innovative use of technology in all their learning environments.” Within a few years, DeVaney added, “I would like to see the word ‘digital’ removed from our unit name.”
One way to account for this shift in thinking is the growing awareness of the potential for educational technologies to enhance teaching and learning broadly and to strengthen the value that colleges and universities are delivering at their very core.
“I see the shift not as one from online to digital,” said Eddie Maloney, the executive director of the center for new designs in learning and scholarship at Georgetown University, “but as a shift from a content-driven or faculty-driven curriculum to an intentional design and assessed curriculum. It’s really about a growing focus on learning design.”
Indeed, where the online era was characterized by efforts to make technology-enabled courses just as good a classroom courses, digital strategy and learning design are about making education better -- regardless of the medium.
Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t still institutions out there looking to grow revenue by delivering programs online. And even institutions like Harvard are seeking to generate income from initiatives like HBX, an initiative at Harvard Business School, with its online courses in business fundamentals targeting alumni, corporate and other audiences. Likewise, of course, there are certainly countervailing examples to the structural integration underway at places like MIT, Northeastern and Michigan. Southern New Hampshire University and Champlain College, to name just two examples, have intentionally set out to create organizational separation between their on-campus and online learning activities, and with strong enrollment growth to show for their efforts.
For others, though, the ambitions are different. According to Josh Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College, and author of Inside Higher Ed’s “Technology and Learning” blog, “Places that really want to protect their brand -- like Brown, Yale, Georgetown, Dartmouth -- are experimenting with low-residency online programs in professional schools and they are having real success, which is driving some rethinking about what we need to be doing to improve our core product. At Dartmouth, it’s a quality play. We want to bring new techniques into residential teaching but also create sustainable programs.”
To the extent that this shift in emphasis from online learning to digital strategy can produce sustainable programs of enhanced quality, we can undoubtedly expect to see more institutions pursuing the path of learning design informed by digital experimentation.
While it may yet be too early to say for sure whether this shift will be long lasting, if it is, we should expect to see evidence of it in some very prominent places. As DeVaney put it, “I think we’ll know if this shift is real when we see more institutions differentiating around this. Hopefully we’ll see mission statements that look different, too.”
Kathleen Ives, chief executive officer of the Online Learning Consortium, agrees, noting, “Digital is becoming mainstream. But for an institution to succeed it has to be part of their vision and mission and has to permeate across their organization.”
Bell at Northeastern argues that truly effective digital strategy will have to go a step farther even than connecting diverse institutional activities. “Digital leadership should not just be about harmonizing initiatives,” he said. “It should also be about harmonizing our messaging and conveying our unique philosophy to the communities we serve -- and at Northeastern, the emphasis is on online experiential learning.”
In other words, the shift to digital strategy will only be significant if it enables institutions to not only think and teach differently, but also to talk more effectively about who they are and what makes them different at the very core.
Peter Stokes is a managing director in the higher education practice at Huron Consulting Group.
This month's edition of "The Pulse" podcast features an interview with Mark Strassman, senior vice president for industry and product management at Blackboard Inc., about Ultra, the company's new user experience.
The mudslinging in the debate over the use of digital courseware has reached Hatfield-and-McCoy levels of feuding. I have heard at least one higher education leader say, “The only faculty that are afraid of being replaced by digital courseware are those who deserve to be replaced by digital courseware.” Also heard are descriptors such as: rigid, skeptical, curmudgeon, Luddite, etc. On the other side, there are the “reformers” and “disruptive innovators” who are criticized for seeing technology as a panacea.
The enthusiastic debate about digital courseware’s adoption and its impact on student outcomes is caused in part by mounting pressure on faculty to change and, especially, to use more technology in their teaching. Too often, though, faculty are considered as a monolithic group, facing the same challenges across many different types of institutions and student populations. Our research shows that this oversimplifies the perspectives of faculty and the challenges that institutions and instructors face as they grapple with elevated outcome expectations and capacity constraints.
There is more texture to the debate than the view that it’s about brash proponents of using digital courseware squaring off with change-resistant opponents. And this oversimplification sprouts problems beyond mischaracterizations of faculty. The common belief that faculty members are blockers to digital curriculum adoption pushes those who are attempting to advance technology use on campus to adopt strategies that circumvent faculty members instead of directly engaging them. This creates a harmful cycle in which the concerns of faculty members are not addressed, new platforms are created or adopted with incomplete information, and administrators and faculty members on both sides of the technology-adoption debate remain frustrated.
So, what’s really behind faculty members’ resistance? Fundamentally, most faculty are open to using digital courseware, but are so dissatisfied with the prevailing user experience that they are unlikely to recommend their current digital curriculum to a colleague. In surveying 2,700 faculty and administrators in the summer of 2014, our research identified four unique faculty groups on campuses across the United States. Common attributes, behaviors and mind-sets among faculty in these groups help to uncover the layers underneath faculty members’ perspectives on digital curricula. Below is a chart that will help you identify which group you or your faculty fit into, and a snapshot of our findings on each group.
Off-the-Shelfers: This group is moderately open to the use of courseware. They represent 21 percent of faculty. Off-the-Shelfers are more heavily concentrated in public two-year institutions and career-focused disciplines. These individuals value ease of use and implementation and are less inclined to develop their own curricula than their peers. Additionally, analysis links their cost sensitivity to this institutional and discipline concentration.
Unconvinced Do-It-Yourselfers: This group is open to the use of courseware but is still looking for proven improved outcomes. They represent 25 percent of faculty. Unconvinced DIYers want control over curriculum decisions and are open to how courseware might enable this, however, they are not yet convinced that the cost of using courseware is worth the potential benefits.
Enthusiastic Do-It-Yourselfers: At 13 percent of the population, Enthusiastic DIYers look very similar to Unconvinced DIYers in their perceptions and preferences, but they report higher satisfaction with digital courseware than their peers. Generally, Enthusiastic DIYers have not earned tenure or are not on a tenure track and have been teaching for fewer than 10 years.
Lecturing Skeptics: Representing 31 percent of all faculty, Lecturing Skeptics are the faculty most likely to deliver instruction through a lecture format, the least likely to instruct online. They are most likely to prefer proven teaching methods. These are the more traditional drivers of the teaching and learning process, to whom digital courseware has yet to prove itself. Lecturing Skeptics are more likely to teach in arts and social science disciplines than members of other segments.
When faculty survey respondents were asked whether they would recommend their courseware product to a friend or colleague at their own or another institution, only one of the four segments, Enthusiastic DIYers, exhibited a positive net promoter score (NPS), meaning that a greater portion of the group would be promoters of courseware than would be detractors. The negative NPS from three of the four groups of faculty reflects the overall level of dissatisfaction with courseware that faculty members feel.
What does this all mean? Ultimately, we found that each faculty group reveals insights that can be used to engage with those who are unconvinced and skeptical. For courseware developers, these findings are a loud call to rethink their approach to user input in their design process. The truth is that faculty are decision makers and key stakeholders. They have influence to redefine the courseware category and to improve the experience for students and faculty. More than anything, internal and external stakeholders and decision makers need to understand these faculty groups and what is driving their behavior. Ongoing failure to listen and respond to faculty needs will only reinforce resistance.
Digital curricula in the hands of supported and equipped instructors have significant potential to personalize learning and to lead to the delivery of high-quality education that meets the needs of today’s postsecondary students. But that impact will only be realized if technology solutions are able to successfully scale. New offerings with greater capacity to adapt to faculty needs are unlikely to transition from pilot to scale unless more than just the early adopters or “tech-savvy” faculty are engaged from the beginning.
The legendary 1870s feud between West Virginia families the Hatfields and the McCoys -- from disputes over land, prized pigs, interfamily romances and no fewer than 10 revenge killings -- wasn’t a simple one, either. (But the families did reunite in 1979 for a more palatable version on the game show Family Feud -- no joke!) Only by moving the conversation from oversimplified mischaracterizations to engagement of all faculty in the process to address needs and the barriers to adoption will we be able to redefine the digital courseware experience and achieve personalized learning for all students.
Gates Bryant is a partner with Tyton Partners, the former Education Growth Advisors, which provides investment banking and strategy consulting services to companies, organizations and investors.