Recent e-learning developments may have a sudden dramatic effect on the economics of higher education distance learning program development, resulting in alternative strategies for the design of such programs.
Comparing campus with distance education
University teaching has not changed much over the years. While some individuals or institutions are innovative in the application of pedagogical techniques, most faculty members are too busy with their research and correction of student assignments to have the time to produce sophisticated learning strategies and materials. In most institutions, faculty are paid to deliver courses and not to develop them, so they find a good textbook and put together some slides and handout materials (often the night before).
This approach contrasts sharply with the development of distance learning. Most distance learning operators need to be cost-effective, competitive businesses. Such issues as quality of learning, economies of scale, and return-on-investment are central to design and delivery. The resulting cost model generally consists of a significant up-front investment in high quality course materials and relatively low spending on delivery of courses. Many believe that this might be a better cost model for campus-based education, but the old model has largely survived. Why? There still are a number of real advantages to the traditional approach, particularly in the low investment required and in the flexibility of being able to change rapidly.
Enter online distance learning, which has developed much the same cost model as traditional distance learning. On the simplest level, similar course materials are produced and value is added by web-based materials, activities, and support. More sophisticated courses may add online interactive materials. You can see why many traditional distance learning organizations have been slow to move online, as it seems to require higher investment in materials in addition to higher costs in delivery due to the ease of access of students to the faculty. While it might be argued that this extra cost is acceptable as it can be recouped by the higher fees that may be charged for such extra service, in truth, these cost increases are mostly justified by increasing the number of students taking courses.
Does it have to be this way?
At first glance, it seems that the move to online distance learning is suitable only for those with deep pockets. Institutions that do not have access to capital need another solution with a cost model similar to traditional campus-based teaching. However, some places have been doing it differently. Courses based on asynchronous discussion have been around for quite a while and have certainly proved to be effective and cheap to develop. Robin Mason of the Open University has defined the Wrap Around Model, in which online activity, such as asynchronous discussion is based on existing offline resources like textbooks. Unfortunately, this model seems to have developed only in topics that are suitable for discussion—and among those who seem to enjoy such discussions.
So the question is: Is it possible to cheaply develop a wider range of online distance learning courses? Two relatively recent developments in e-learning suggest that the answer is Yes. These are synchronous teaching systems and rapid content development systems.
Distance learning has been successful because many people could not attend classes, either because of distance or because of timing. However, the success of traditional distance learning has been limited because of the limitations of the learning experience. Synchronous systems solve the distance problem by allowing teachers to deliver classes over a distance to a standard very similar to face-to-face classes.
Likewise, rapid development systems enable practitioners to quickly and cheaply develop multimedia content. In this case, rapid development systems include the generation of extremely simple materials, such as archived synchronous classes, digital videos of lectures or demonstrations given to live audiences, and audio added to PowerPoint presentations. These rapidly developed, simple materials, which are essentially recorded lectures, to a large extent, solve the problem of timing.
So, if we accept that these systems can be used to produce acceptable online materials and thus solve the problem of the significantly increased costs of converting from traditional distance to online learning, we are still left with the problem of the development of traditional printed distance learning materials. But are these materials really necessary? Although the lack of appropriate text books for particular courses may be a motivation for developing customised materials, it is not a major reason. In fact many distance learning courses develop these materials in spite of the fact that required text books are specified. These printed materials are really produced as a substitute for lectures. They not only convey the course designers’ particular views of the course topics, but they also guide students in their use of other materials and their approach to examinations. Because of the lack of opportunities for interaction between tutors and students in traditional distance learning, it has been extremely important that these materials are clear and comprehensive. The availability of e-learning tools that can replicate almost all the features of campus-based teaching techniques, implies that such high quality printed teaching materials are not necessarily required.
‘New’ cost model
To be sure, the model described above for distance learning is not new at all. It is effectively the standard model of campus-based teaching, transferred to the Internet. In fact, it may be described as an improved form of campus-based education, as in addition to the standard techniques of campus-based learning, it also enables the use of other e-learning and pedagogical techniques besides classroom teaching. Nor is it a new cost model, as this is the cost model that has always existed in campus based education. However, it is a new, or at least rarely used, cost model in distance learning. Distance learning does not now require a high level of investment. Courses can be developed quickly and cheaply, particularly if these courses are already being delivered in a traditional mode.
Implications? The effects on the distance learning industry will not be unlike the effects of the Internet on many other industries. Demand for distance learning is already increasing due to increased Internet penetration, the increased attractiveness of online features and the general increase in demand for lifelong learning. This increased market size is bringing many more suppliers into this arena and the lower barriers to entry will accelerate this further.
In addition, the new ‘long tail’ analysis is applicable: Education can be characterized as having a small number of heavily populated courses, and a long tail consisting of a very large number of niche courses of interest to a relatively small number of people. In the past, as in other industries, such as book publishing, the demand for specialized products has been suppressed due to the problem of marketing and distributing these to few geographically dispersed potential customers. With the Internet solving the marketing and distribution problems, and the above model solving the supply problem, the availability of, and demand for niche courses will grow hugely, thus increasing further the total market size. It really looks like the only way is up.
Published: September 2005