Digital + Strategy: The Rise of Externally-Sourced Instructional Media

D+S_FinalEarlier this week the President of the University of Texas distributed a memo that included the following: “Where appropriate,” (the university and its faculty members) “should learn from, leverage, and grant credit for high-quality online content and technology created by other leading universities.”

To those that work in digital higher education, the notion that we ought to be looking beyond our own institutions for instructional media is certainly not new. The fact that this simple idea has reached the upper echelon of a traditional research university suggests, however, that more people may becoming comfortable with the idea.

Certainly, instructional media and tools now come in more forms and from a greater number of sources. We’re no longer limited to academic journal articles, textbooks and the instructor’s own notes. OESPs like 2U build content with their clients, publishers offer digital “homework solutions”, OER initiatives collect freely available material and, of course, MOOCs come from dozens of different institutions.

The  motivation to use resources from other sources is primarily financial. As with sharing the cost of an LMS across a number of institutions, shared course development costs may help make-ends-meet as the pressure mounts to slow cost increases in the face of budget reductions[i]. But progress on this front has been slow. The use of external instructional resources in higher education has trailed other information-dependent sectors – such as healthcare or journalism – which long ago began to seek out the best available resources – regardless of their source. The hesitancy with academia stems from the related issues of academic freedom, ownership (of courses and IP), and, I believe, labour market value.

Academic Concerns

For some academics, the act of using instructional materials that they themselves did not create runs headlong into some of the more contentious concerns in this occupation. To understand how this is the case,  it might be useful to unpack the occupational model:

  • Academics are expected to be both subject matter experts and to assume teaching responsibilities.
  • The courses they teach flow (ideally) out of their research efforts (i.e. subject matter expertise).
  • Maintaining the link between research and teaching is a long-debated political imperative for faculty.
  • For an academic’s research to be valuable, it must be original – it should contribute something new to the field of study.
  • The content the academic delivers in his or her courses should be, by extension, original.

Consequently, teaching a course using someone else’s instructional media is out of alignment with the occupational model. Taken to its extreme, it  reduces the academic to the status of a “mere teacher”; no longer an “expert”, and nothing grander than a K12 teacher. This is not a status or identity to which most traditional academics aspire.

The relationship of instructional media to the traditional role of the academic became front and centre when I was asked by one of the big textbook publishing companies to provide feedback on a new kind of textbook they had produced. The publication’s difference was that it included videos of the textbook author performing short lectures on key topics from the text. The videos were solid: great production value, entertaining, and academically sound. I suspect students would have found the textbook very useful. However, I told the publisher that I thought the book had little hope of strong sales. The problem was not the quality of the material. It was the fact that very few academics would want to offer a book to their students that included lectures by another academic. It turned out my instincts were right. The textbook – which cost more to produce than most – flopped.

Fortunately, more instructors are discovering that the use of instructional materials from a variety of sources doesn’t lead to a decline of their value or, actually, their control over the courses they deliver. Despite early fears of being replaced by “courseware (see early discussions about “distance learning” from the late 1990s), instructors remain fundamental to higher education course quality; they are the gatekeepers of quality and there appears to be little debate about the appropriateness of this arrangement.

The Next Generation of Instructional Media

The need to turn to external sources for certain kinds of instructional materials will increase in the near term, and not solely due to financial concerns. Institutions will turn to external providers of instructional media because it will be from these sources, rather than their own institution, that they will be able to access new and increasingly sophisticated forms of instructional media at affordable prices.

Digital Instructional media in higher education has operated largely as a cottage industry. Content is produced in-house by people with very limited skills, time, resources and compensation. This model for producing instructional materials – long used for classroom-based higher education – is suitable for developing only certain kinds of instructional media. Highly sophisticated instructional media that is field-tested, integrates software and content, employs rich media (animation, video, simulations), and includes analytics that truly measures learning, requires major financial investments, specialized labour, and an administrative infrastructure for selling the content (or securing a continual stream of grants) in order to make it sustainable and drive down per unit costs. Our institutions are simply not set up for these purposes. The more ambitious we become about leveraging this kind of technology to support learning, the less well-suited our institutions are to fulfilling this role.

The knee-jerk reaction to a vision of the future that includes high-end instructional media and software suggests that it leads inevitably to an invasion of the private sector into our colleges and universities. This isn’t the case, nor is it one I hope to see. High-end instructional media and software should (and will) come to be used as only one part of a larger set of learning opportunities. As we pay more attention to learning outcomes, I suspect we will begin to see how different types of tools should be packaged as part of the total learning experience for students. We will use each type of learning strategy and tool – such as group learning, classroom spaces, and gaming – in the ways that best leverages their unique value. Courses that only take advantage of one or two modes of instruction (e.g. lecture-based) will become harder and harder to justify.

[i]Two other factors are worth mentioning. Adjuncts – which constitute a growing percentage of the academic workforce – don’t always have sufficient time or access to resources to produce their own instructional media. And if we ask them to teach an ever-changing roster of courses, the need for quick “off-the-shelf” solutions will become increasingly popular. A third factor is cultural. Technology has a way of asserting itself in our lives before we’re ready to change the way we do things AKA cultural lag). While technology made access to instructional media from external sources dramatically easier than in the pre-network days, and savings from this approach could be expected…the notion that we ought to take advantage of this fact, came sometime later.

Keith Hampson

Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovations at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU's long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. In addition to adaptive "intelligent" courseware and learning analytics, we offer a range of consulting and professional development services for colleges and universities that increase the quality of their digital programs.