Do faculty members enjoy creating course content?

Over the next few years, I believe that four forces are going to significantly change the nature and delivery of course content in ways that will significantly impact how it gets created in the first place.

Open Education Resources

The emergence and quickening adoption of OERs as a way to improve quality and decrease cost offers an alternate approach to using expensive textbooks. It also allows for easier remixing of course materials to better suit specific subject topics, desired sequencing of lessons, and more-modern pedagogies. More content will become accessible in ways that aren’t pre-packaged or locked into specific vendor systems.

Learning analytics

The technical capabilities are emerging to begin to store and correlate learning activity data among learners and learner demographics. While the vision seems promising, only a very small percentage of existing course content is designed to take advantage of learning analytics. Existing “static” course content will need to be retrofitted with this technology, or new content will need to be created with a specific design focus on which analytics should be captured based on how they could be used.

Adaptive and personalized content delivery

Students will soon have the ability to navigate through course content via increasingly differentiated paths. In some cases, students will be cycled back through a given topic for reinforcement necessitating the need for additional remedial course content that delivers the material in various different ways in an attempt to find a way that works for the given student.

Competency-based and other similar flexible forms of instructional delivery

Flexible delivery of course content will break down the current approach of delivering a course in a “whole semester” package. Instead, existing content will need to be broken apart into lessons or modules that support specific learning topics or objectives. Or new content will need to be created in support of this goal.

…Or really any combination of any or all of the above. But how are we going to make it happen?

I’ve met many faculty who enjoy teaching. I’ve met some who are passionate about mentoring and outreach. Some prefer research, and that’s great, too. But rarely have I met a faculty member who actually enjoys building the lessons and materials for his or her classes. Some really get into it, but it still seems surprisingly rare. Though they may enjoy delivering the materials and reviewing or curating existing materials, actually creating materials seems to be something different. I wonder what the reason for this is. Could it be some combination of:

  • Creating something new always takes effort
    • In many cases, is creating something new even the best approach?
  • Using someone else’s materials is easy
    • And the costs of using the content are borne by someone else (ie: students)
  • Faculty members may not have the skill sets or software systems required to produce video, develop advanced web and mobile interactions, or capture and store analytics
  • The right employer incentives are not in place to spur or recognize the value of content creation efforts
  • Especially in LMSs, creating course content can be laborious (ie: clicktastic) – and LMSs tend to have a nasty habit of breaking links to other course content especially when copied between semesters – maybe faculty have been burned during previous efforts
  • Even if one built their own content outside of an LMS, how/where could/should it be stored?
  • Something else that I’m missing?

This leads me to think – should instructors even bear the primary or sole burden of building (ie: not designing of creating) course content? Or could their talent be better used instead to guide its creation through the effort of other teams who do the “hands-on-keyboard” work (eg: video creation, HTML, clicking through screens to build test question banks, etc)? Should we instead put more effort into working on new models to support collaborative course material creation among faculty members, instructional teams, maybe even among institutions? Or put more resources into teams that help faculty to build (and share, and disseminate) content? Or am I thinking about this all wrong?

I’ll add that (in my opinion) instructor interaction matters more than the content. But there must be many thoughts and opinions out there on this one. Comments and responses welcome.


Understanding Small College Struggles

There have been many stories of doom and gloom for educational institutions over the past several years. I can’t quite place it, but I expect it probably coincides with the intersection of the mainstreaming of MOOCs, the depths of the financial recession, and the heights of our collective student loan indebtedness.  I never quite believed the magnitude of the hype surrounding the negativity, but nevertheless speculation has run wild about the demise of higher education as we know it. The interesting thing to me is that the feelings of defeatism voiced for a period of time by higher educators appear to have more recently shifted to Silicon Valley, home the very disruptors themselves who were supposed to be saving education. I’m encouraged, too, by recent articles (eg: Pushing Back on the Dismantling of Higher Ed Narrative, Why Universities aren’t Dead….and Won’t BeWhy Is The University Still Here?Disrupting the Disruption in Higher EducationWhy Education Does Not Need Marc Andreessen) that push back on this narrative and provide good arguments in the defense of why colleges and universities will continue to exist long into the future despite the increasing pace of change and unforeseen influences of disruption. Nevertheless, there are, in my opinion, some hard realities to consider, particularly for small colleges and universities who are struggling with financial sustainability and continuity challenges.  While college isn’t going anywhere, it is likely that some colleges will disappear (and indeed some already are.)

There are a lot of schools

The first reality to consider is one that I’ve surprisingly not seen mentioned until recently.  The US has, by-far, the highest number of higher education institutions per capita of any other developed country. Doing some back-of-the-napkin analysis, at best we have roughly triple the number of institutions compared to the next nearest country (which by my count is Canada). At worst (depending on who’s counting and how “university” is defined) we have 5 times as many. The US however, arguably, also has the highest demand (including international demand) for higher education services of any country in the world, but is this enough to justify the existence of so many institutions?

Country Population # Universities Ratio: university TO person
India 1,290,000,000 298 1 : 4,328,859
China 1,360,000,000 574 1 : 2,369,338
Australia 24,000,000 87 1 : 275,862
Germany 81,600,000 330 1 : 247,273
UK 64,000,000 262 1 : 244,275
Canada 35,000,000 176 1 : 198,864
US 322,000,000 4599 *WA count
7540 *IPEDS count
1 : 70,015
1 : 42,706

Data Sources: Wolfram Alpha, IPEDS

There are a lot of really small schools

A second consideration is that a significant number of these institutions are very small institutions with 500 or fewer students (by 12 month unduplicated headcount). In fact, a disproportionately large number of colleges and universities have fewer than 250 students! That’s a lot of small higher education institutions whose total size is smaller than a fair number of high school graduating classes. As the owner of any small business knows – competition is constant and fierce. As the head of any small non-profit knows – it’s hard to do much without the resources.


Data source: IPEDS 12-month FTE enrollment: 2012-13 (Source: IPEDS, select “Use final release data,” then “By Groups->EZ Group,” then “U.S. Only”, n = 7540 accounting for records indicating 0 enrollments)

Making finances work is challenging for small organizations

Another major reality is that a lot of smaller colleges don’t have endowment funds to support and invest in themselves during difficult times.  Well-endowed schools also have the good fortune (no pun intended) to do good things with their funds during good times like guarantee scholarships for brilliant students who otherwise may not be able to afford tuition costs. If you add up the endowment funds of all US institutions with under 500 students – that is, all 3272 institutions of this small size combined – the total would only be 1/4 the size of Harvard’s endowment alone ($8,218,582,555 to $32,012,729,000). While endowments have probably gone too far at some schools, small schools instead rely heavily on tuition as a primary and often only source of funding.  They don’t often have research grants or technology transfer agreements or sports trademark licensing profits that diversify their revenues.

Many smaller colleges are actually being monitored by the Department of Education specifically because of the potential for looming financial troubles thereby placing additional regulatory burden on them. Cash flow is more important than many realize (unless employees are willing to work at times for free and supplies can be acquired on loan). The hard reality is that salaries and bills need to be paid, and a one-time campaign for donations is not likely to stabilize a university’s core finances in a sustainable way (unless you happen to get really, really lucky). (By the way, at only a 5% interest rate, $400 million generates $20 million in returns every year ad infinitum. $20 million in free money, every year!)

Not doom & gloom, but change is necessary

While the realities may seem insurmountable, I believe that they are for many reasons. While the percentage of college-aged students is trending down, the overall number of potential students looks to be expected to increase. Higher learning is becoming more popular in later life. Nanodegrees and bootcamps may offer spurts of learner engagement throughout life instead of only once or twice. (It’s bizarre to me that while most companies attempt to cultivate lifelong relationships with customers, higher education lets theirs literally walk across the stage and out the door.) Employers are beginning to fund education as a benefit. Technology is not only a threat but can provide tremendous opportunity to reach audiences like never before. And despite all of the craziness in the news, people still love learning. Education is one of those rare possessions that once acquired can’t be stolen or repossessed or taken away. It is not a commodity. And universities provide a level of authority and trust earned over many years. There is a reason the word credential stems from the Latin root word meaning “to believe in” or “to trust.” This is a differentiator that no software startup can match.  (In fact, many new edtech organizations attempt to build on the pre-existing reputations of schools, eg: MIT and Harvard for the non-profit EdX, the “elite schools” initial roll-out strategy of Coursera, Udacity and Stanford, etc.) But in order to keep this trust, universities must become more willing to change and adapt. There is some truth to the saying that it isn’t the smartest or largest creature who survives but the quickest to adapt.

I tend to agree with George Siemens when he says to “expect a future of universities being more things to more people.” Though universities have been argued as quick to innovate but slow to change, smaller universities in my opinion are actually in the best position to change and adapt.

As much as I am encouraged to see so much talk about learning model innovations (eg: Competency Based Education and other flexible, personalized, and adaptive options), I am equally excited to see some universities experimenting with business model innovation. Improved learning models promise to improve educational outcomes over time, but business model innovation may very well keep small schools in business today. Some schools like Hodges University (as are some giants like Kaplan) are experimenting with subscription models that offer “unlimited course access” for a period of time. Others are diversifying revenues by more fully utilizing university space and services during summers and other periods of downtime. Small universities are also exploring partnerships, networks, and alliances with each other or through partners such as StraighterLine and ed2go that begin to offer a way to address some of the business partnership challenges and lower transaction costs between universities. There is plenty of opportunity out there and a lot of great ideas. They just need to be explored and executed.

Some small schools though, in my opinion, will have no choice but to explore mergers and consolidation in the future.  There are plenty of reasons to consider doing so and plenty of reasons not to. While success is not guaranteed, there are also many success stories to consider.

There is no one root cause and no one way to solve the problems faced by higher education institutions today. Instead there are many ways to overcome our challenges that may be appropriate for different types of schools with different strengths and goals. By better understanding some of these challenges, thinking through options, and proactively pursuing new opportunities, my personal hope is that colleges and universities craft our own futures rather than having change dictated to us. But we have to do it in a way that makes sense to the needs of modern learners.