Online Learning Trends: Risks and Opportunities

Introduction:

Our web journal focuses on specific instructional design strategies for online learning.  But in this post, I step back and address something much more fundamental – and at risk.

Online learning has tremendous potential.  I am encouraged by faculty who really want to do a great job in their online courses and continuously strive to do better.  Chances are very good that you are in that group.  You are taking the time to read this blog and explore new ways of engaging students.

Next month I’m retiring from my position as Director of the Center for Online Learning from a state university. This gives me occasion to reflect on the eight years I’ve served in this role and on current trends.  As trends would indicate, the immediate future presents faculty with both risks and opportunities.  Faculty who are invested in quality online learning should think about the immediate future very carefully and help direct policy and best practices at their institutions that advance the state of teaching and learning in this relatively new medium.

Online learning can be an instrument of good.  But because of its technological nature, it is susceptible to scale, mechanization and bad practice. At risk, at the very least,  is the autonomy and self-determination of faculty.

In our university, faculty make the critical decisions related to their courses.  They are free to make choices related to activities, assessments, instructional materials, teaching methods and course support.  When faculty are free to decide and exercise that freedom, individually and collectively, they exercise self-determination.  With self-determination comes leveraging of faculty strengths and recognizing their own limitations;  responsibility for decisions; and substantial personal reward for success.  Self determination means faculty can apply their competency, and effect positive change in their students.

Risks to self-determination may appear in many forms.  Today, a few of the potential sources of risk include:

  • Highly competitive and large-scale online programs that discourage or eliminate fledgling entrants
  • A billion dollar Online Program Management industry that can dictate the design of courses from entrance requirements to curriculum and course design.
  • Turn-key publisher platforms that demote the decision-making of instructors

Competition, Online Program Management (OPM), and publisher resources are not inherently bad things.  I view them as risks only when they subvert faculty control. OPMs, for example,  have successfully ramped up online programs and built university enrollment.  Publisher platforms have provided course content and resources where, perhaps,  none existed.  Each of these trends, however, does impact faculty self-determination and needs to be carefully considered.

 

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Photo Credit: Christina Morillo,  Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain

 

The Nature of Change

The nature of change in online learning can be misleading.

Many changes in this space get hyped and then disregarded when they don’t achieve immediate, high impact.  But, then, over time they have profound, long-lasting impact.  The MOOC is a good example.  2012 was the hype year.  2013 was the year of disillusionment.   Today, MOOCS are a vital enrollment strategy for many universities.

(See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hype_cycle for a definition of this phenomenon.)

In a somewhat related manner, many of the changes in the last decade happened incrementally without cataclysmic impact and disruption.  And yet eLearning is in a very different place today because of them.

The Recent Past

It is eye opening to consider just a few things that the past decade has brought to us.  I’ve intentionally omitted a deeper discussion on many things such as Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, eBooks, artificial intelligence, and so much more.  I’m sticking to a few basic things that have had profound impact on just about everyone.

Online enrollments have steadily increased

The Babson Survey Research Group showed us year after year that distance education enrollments continued to grow, even as overall higher education enrollments declined. Today, nationally, nearly a third of all higher education enrollments are online. (Seaman, Allen & Seaman, 2018).

(For more on the Babson reports see: https://www.onlinelearningsurvey.com/highered.html)

At our state university, nearly a third of our credits are earned by students in fully online classes.  More than forty percent of the credits are earned in either online or hybrid classes.  Most of our students take at least one online class each year.

Over the past eight years, online enrollments kept climbing as did the perception of faculty that online courses were qualitatively on par with face-to-face courses.  As more faculty became engaged in online learning, perceptions changed in favor of online learning.

Today, imagine the negative impact on your university if online enrollments were removed overnight.

Tools have become cloud-based

In addition to online enrollment increases, most of our tools today have become cloud-based.  Our IT department, in a metaphoric sense, is spread across many for-profit companies who host our learning management system, media system, collaboration tools, office applications, remote proctoring, and more.  Where you won’t easily find a cloud-based service is in how to improve teaching and learning experiences for your own students.  Universities will need to keep online pedagogy/andragogy  in their wheelhouse of expertise.

(See article that recognizes shift away from technology-focused professional development to pedagogical-focused:  https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/02/28/centers-teaching-and-learning-serve-hub-improving-teaching)

Accessibility, Mobility and Interoperability have become critical

In the past decade, legislation and compassion have demanded that we pay greater attention to accessibility for all students, including those who are visually and hearing impaired.  Our courses play on mobile devices and are adaptable to smart phones, tablets, and desktop computers.  Cloud-based services talk to one another.  The learning management system survived obsolescence by partnering with other service providers.   Our university learning management system, because of integrations with other providers, can display media from a library, check originality of student papers, remotely proctor, engage students in a discussion over a PowerPoint, and perform other services that are not innate to the platform.

It is a different world – and yet it didn’t seem to change overnight or particularly startle anyone with its abruptness.  It didn’t feel like an eruption or disruption.

The Near Future

Current trends suggest that the future won’t be any different.  It will change incrementally, but one day instructors will wonder what happened!  Related to faculty autonomy and self-determination, specifically, here are some of the critical market forces faculty should observe:

Market dominance

The annual Babson report tells us that nearly half of online students are served by five percent of higher education institutions.   Only 47 universities enroll almost one-quarter of fully online students.  Those universities will presumably have the resources to reinvest in curriculum development, instructional design, enrollment management and aggressive digital marketing.  Smaller institutions and new entrants to the marketplace may be forced out or forced to partner with each other and with external organizations in order to compete.  The challenge to faculty comes with a perceived gap between well-resourced and under-resourced programs, unnatural alliances and forced partnerships.

On a side note, the encouraging news for smaller public universities is that the majority of online students take at least one course on campus.  Most online students come from within 50 miles of campus.  Distant education is local, which means that the university can cultivate relationships with partnering two-year colleges, local employers, and community groups and market through both traditional and digital methods.

In short there is hope for smaller institutions – but only if the following are diligently and vigorously supported:

  • Strong faculty support for online development, both pedagogically and technically (instructional designers, instructional technologists, learning management specialists)
  • Strong student support (orientations, mentoring, advising, tutoring, high impact practices like first year seminar and electronic portfolio)
  • Integrated, team-based approaches to enrollment management, marketing, advising, online program development and professional development.
  • Communities of practice that encourage faculty to share best practices with one another and especially with other members of their discipline

In my opinion, the days of working in silos are numbered.  If programs are developed without market analysis and attention to enrollment/communication strategies from the start, they will not compete and will not be available to faculty and students in the future.

Instructional Design Support

In the past, the tide of instructional design has ebbed and flowed.  Today and toward the future, it is cresting.  A quick scan of Indeed.com will convince you of that. The best programs now have a phalanx of instructional designers.  My chats with educational leaders has underscored the fact that instructional designers provide university programs with a competitive advantage.

The Online Learning Consortium (OLC) reports that as online learning has grown there has been an equivalent increase in demand for instructional designers in higher education institutions (Barrett, 2016).

(To learn more about OLC and the evolving field of instructional design, visit https://olc-wordpress-assets.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2018/07/Instructional-Design-in-Higher-Education-Defining-an-Evolving-Field.pdf)

Fulfilling that demand has not been consistent across universities.   In a recent survey, fewer than half of those who taught online said they had worked with an instructional designer.  The following article provides one interesting approach to sizing the number of designers to the institution.

https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/technology-and-learning/many-instructional-designers-librarians

In my opinion, we typically don’t have enough instructional designers. Designers play a critical role in helping faculty match instructional strategies to the level and type of learning and can draw from a tool chest of techniques, applications, methods and evidence-based practices.  A recent survey of instructional designers, cited by OLC, showed that 87% of respondents have masters’ degrees, and 32% have doctoral degrees.  Most higher education instructional designers provide faculty with direct support in design and professional development (Intentional Futures, 2016).  The result is increased student performance and satisfaction as evidenced by research studies on specific practices.

At our university, through extensive professional development we saw a growing body of faculty adopt the skill set of instructional designers.  We saw faculty who could critically evaluate online courses and discuss issues of course alignment, integrated course design, accessibility, student engagement and many of the issues that concern instructional designers and make a difference to students.

In the past, in instructional design and other areas of online learning, higher ed institutions failed to build their core competence.  Several sources identify the number of instructional designers employed by colleges and universities as 13,000. But, as the report from the Online Learning Consortium states, “There is still a certain mystery surrounding who instructional designers are.”

In short, instructional designers in a good relationship with faculty will strengthen the faculty’s ability to make good decisions and produce a good, impactful course.  Over time, faculty who design and develop online courses should acquire many of the skills of an instructional designer.  That can happen through seminars and workshops and communities of practice, learning circles, brown bag lunch sessions – all of it sponsored by faculty groups and the centers focused on faculty development and online learning.

Online Program Management

Wherever we have failed to build our core competence, external providers are ready to flood in and assist us at great cost to the university.

One category of external provider is the online program management company.  Online Program Management companies (OPMs) provide expertise and services in instructional design, enrollment management, digital marketing and other areas in support of online learning.  They provide the support through a number of revenue-sharing mechanisms.  An online program manager, for example, might help plan a program, design courses, produce courses and manage enrollment and marketing.  In exchange for these services, the Online Program Management company might receive revenue equivalent to 40 to 60 percent of the tuition dollars earned from the program for a contracted number of years.  A typical number is 10 years.

The following Eliterate article estimates that 27 companies currently provide Online Program Management.

https://eliterate.us/online-program-management-market-landscape-s2018/

The alternative is that there are external providers who will provide a needed service for a fee.  For example, if the university is weak in digital marketing, an external fee-for-service organization can help. In this arrangement, the university pays the fee up front but keeps the tuition revenue.  A growing number of companies provide services and then recover the fees through tuition revenue sharing – but only until the initial costs are covered.

Faculty need to be aware of all of these flavors of services because faculty are invested in the future of the university and its their autonomy that is at stake.

One of the founders of the original Online Program Management companies (but who now has a vested interest in a different business model) describes a growing dissatisfaction with the OPM revenue-sharing model:

“He compared revenue-share OPMs to the businesses in the early 2000s that built websites for millions of dollars. At the time, they were the only people who knew how to do it, but as more workers learned HTML, these companies went from ‘very valuable to pretty much out of business’ in a very short span, he said.”

Inside Higher Education, 2018

 

According to Inside Higher Ed, the bottom line is one that all faculty should recognize:

“To launch a successful online degree, institutions need expertise in instructional design, must be skilled in identifying areas where there is student demand, and must have enough funds to develop and market the program, which several sources said could cost upward of $1 million each.”

 

https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2018/06/04/shakeout-coming-online-program-management-companies

 Publisher Platforms

Business analysts predict that the US digital education publishing market will register a compound annual growth rate of close to 12% by 2023. (Research And Markets, 2019) The digital education business is a huge and growing market.

Online faculty can choose to use digital publisher resources for part or all of their courses.  Textbooks often come with a publisher-based online learning platform where students can engage with course material.  In many cases the publisher platform is integrated with the university learning management system.  Students log in to their university online course and seamlessly connect to the publisher resources without a second log in and in many cases with no awareness that they are accessing the publisher platform. In some cases, the reverse is true.

Key players in the U.S. digital education publishing market are Cengage Learning, Inc., Houghton Mifflin, McGraw-Hill Education, and Pearson.

The upside to publisher platforms is that they save instructors time and that publishers are continuously improving their offerings, which, in some cases, include adaptive learning.  (McGraw Hill’s LearnSmart, for example.)  The downside is that, for some platforms, answers to quizzes and solutions to problems are discoverable on sites that students use in order to cheat on their assignments and exams.

The more insidious downside to publisher platforms is that they can lead to an instructor acquiescence to all of the critical design decisions of a course.  In some, hopefully rare, cases instructors substitute publisher PowerPoints for their own advance organizers, explanations, guiding questions, graphical illustrations, and materials that are contextualized for the specific circumstances of the students, program and environment.

As one online program manager cautions:  “Never allow publisher-made materials to be the meat of your course!“

Learning House

Adaptive Learning

Adaptive Learning has huge potential and should be continuously monitored and repeatedly evaluated – but again, the role of the faculty member should be carefully considered.

Contrasted with traditional Learning Management System content, adaptive is not a ‘one size fits all’ learning product.  Typically,  we structure topics within a learning management system in a sequence.  All students, regardless of knowledge, experience or ability move through the same sequence.  Adaptive Learning, in contrast, assesses students on what they know and what they need to learn.  Students then view or engage in the content that they need.  If students miss items or lack confidence, then the adaptive system connects them to the appropriate prerequisite skills.

Adaptive Learning solutions are available in a variety of forms.  For one, they are available as turnkey systems.  McGraw Hill’s ALEKS is a popular product that assesses and teaches math subjects that range from pre-algebra to calculus.  They are also available as open platforms in which an instructor or department can build content and sequence learning pathways that capture the prerequisite relationships between topics.  Examples of open adaptive learning systems include Acrobatiq, CogBooks, and BrightSpace LeaP™  .  Many of these platforms can be integrated with learning management systems through an interoperability standard called LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability).

(For a glimpse into adaptive learning, visit: https://campustechnology.com/articles/2019/04/24/new-frontiers-of-adaptive-learning.aspx)

Once the adaptive system has been designed/adopted and deployed, faculty need training on how to facilitate a group of students who are progressing at their own pace but still need the academic and social support of their peers and instructor.  There are many design decisions related to how an adaptive system dovetails into a course – and faculty need to be at the center of that decision-making.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources are already impacting us in so many ways.  You might be surprised to hear faculty denounce open textbooks, for example, and yet find them in your book store.  Faculty can engage with OER on so many levels.  They can find open resources cataloged in dozens of repositories such as OER Commons (https://www.oercommons.org/ ) and Merlot (https://www.merlot.org/merlot/).  They can purchase completely assembled OER-based courses from, ironically, publishers who earn more from their digital platforms than from underwriting and maintaining original content.  They can use repositories like OpenStax (https://openstax.org/ ) to find complete textbooks or sign up for a free account in OpenStax CNX (https://cnx.org/), which gives granular access to open material at the page and module level.  Finally, faculty can participate in the creation of OER by creating content, assessments, learning objects and supplementary material and posting them to a repository.  In our state, we’ve just launched Opendora (http://www.opendora.com/ ) that houses materials created by MinnState faculty.  Faculty can also participate in textbook reviews.   In other words, faculty can engage in the use of OER in many ways before even considering authoring a book and making their intellectual property freely available.

Conclusion

Current trends and practices offer support to faculty, but also have the potential of rendering instructors passive bystanders in their own courses.  The online learning space is becoming more competitive and expensive.  To many, this seems counter-intuitive. After all, online learning should be opening up new markets and it should be cheaper.  Universities can decrease their physical footprint!

The reality is that universities will either invest internally in multifaceted teams in support of strategic program development or pay outsiders to design, build and market online programs.  Potentially, instructors could be supported or sidelined.   We will either invest in instructors populating adaptive systems or purchase off-the-shelf solutions that may not, in the end, be well adapted to our learners.  We will either support rich curriculum development or populate online courses with publisher materials and, in the end, pass on the cost to students.   We will either use OER in new ways of engaging students or purchase turn-key solutions built entirely on OER.

Faculty have the greatest stake in the future direction of the university and the impact of these key trends.  Their own autonomy and academic freedom is at stake.  Faculty need to be aware of the issues and be present wherever decisions that impact curriculum development are made.

References:

Michael Feldstein’s Blog (industry observer) eLiterate
https://eliterate.us/

Phil Hill’s Blog (industry observer)
https://philonedtech.com

Wil Thalheimer’s Debunker Club (research to practice)
https://debunker.club/debunking-resources/

Online Learning Consortium
https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/

Inside Higher Ed
https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/views/2018/04/04/are-we-giving-online-students-education-all-nuance-and-complexity

Publishing Market Research
https://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/4764929/digital-education-publishing-market-in-the-us?utm_source=CI&utm_medium=PressRelease&utm_code=4lszwc&utm_campaign=1237781+-+US+Digital+Education+Publishing+Market+Report+2019+-+Increasing+Number+of+E-Learning+Enrolments+in+the+Higher+Education+Sector&utm_exec=joca220prd

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