Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

Business Models for Online Education

The latest issue of the Online Journal of Distance Education Research has an article that tries to define a “3rd” university model.

Rubin, B. (2013). University Business Models and Online Practices: A Third Way. Online Journal of Distance Education Administration, 16(1).  http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring161/rubin.html.

This 3rd model for online university is not quite like the traditional campus based university that runs online programs either through faculties or an extension department, with a whole lot of faculty control and craft development.  Nor is like the non-researching for -profit university with an industrial model using adjuncts to teach and professionals to develop consistent and arguably high quality education.  Rather, this third model really has a full time faculty and it tries to empower the faculty, but course design and testing is a shared responsibility between “experts” and the faculty. In the article (see figure below) you’ll see two really contentious issues:

  • allowing faculty to specialize (and be rewarded) in one of the three roles in the academy – discovery research, teaching and destination, or service. Most faculty are vehemently oppsed to models that differentiate their jobs and many see it as a means only to increase either workload or accountability driven change.
  • increasing sharing of control with professions such as learning designers, editors, media experts

Table 2
Three Models of Universities (Rubin, 2013)

Non-profit (Craft)
Third Way
Required activity Conducted by all faculty Conducted by all faculty Conducted by some (pedagogic) faculty
Division of teaching tasks (separation or integration of design and instruction) Design and instruction integrated Design and instruction separated Design and instruction separated
Training Course design and teaching learned via apprenticeship, not required Teaching learned formally, required for all faculty Course design and teaching learned formally; required for some (pedagogic) faculty
Proposal and design process Idiosyncratic Standardized and formalized Standardized and formalized
Work with Instructional Designer Not required; sometimes available Required Required
Control over course design, pedagogy Held by faculty, minimal standards Held by instructional designer, tight standards for design Held jointly by instructional designer and faculty; guidelines for design
Control over formatting, “look and feel,” structure, etc. Determined by faculty Standardized across courses by instructional design team Standardized across courses within departments by instructional design team and pedagogic faculty
Intellectual property rights Held by faculty Held by university Jointly held, or held by university
Course delivery policies (e.g., response times) Determined by faculty Standardized across courses Standardized across courses
Course review and revision procedures Ad hoc Ad hoc or standardized Standardized
Course offering dates 2-3 semesters or terms, excluding summer Frequent starts, including summer 3-4 semesters or terms, including summer
Creation of new courses and majors Held by faculty Held by administration Held by faculty and administration
Assessment of learning Generally indirect assessment Generally indirect assessment Direct and indirect assessment
Student advising Low-intensity, provided by advisors or faculty High-intensity, provided by advisors High-intensity, provided by advisors
Required activity Conducted by all faculty Not conducted Conducted by some (discovery) faculty; collaboration with pedagogic faculty on scholarship of teaching
Training Learned formally and via apprenticeship by all Not required Learned formally by all, and via apprenticeship for some (discovery) faculty
Required activity Conducted by some faculty, idiosyncratic Conducted by some (full-time) faculty Conducted by some (application) faculty
Training Not required Not required Learned formally by application faculty

What struck me first about the “3rd model  is how much it describes the current “industrial model” of education developed at the (mostly public) Open Universities from the 1970’s.  These models explicitly attempt to improve quality and gain some standardization and economy of scale, by developing industrial (high efficiency???) systems to produce and deliver  quality courses.  The issue of who does and how much “research of discovery” (as Boyer would refer to it), is, and has been contentious at all of these Open Universities . Married to industrial or post-industrial (to be kinder) production models at these open universities, are various models for discipline related discovery research.  Some, notably the British Open University, do considerable amount of discipline research and fund full time PhD students. Others employ faculty with research mandates, but various levels of support for that research. Often the total institutional and individual discipline research output as discovery researchers is lessened, in ways not  much different than that at the primarily undergraduate “teaching universities”.  Finally, some of the open public universities are much closer to the for-profit model employing almost exclusively adjunct faculty and for-hire subject matter experts. These universities neither  fund nor support discipline “discovery’  research in any sense.

Although the article is useful and contains a gold mine of references, it seems to be promoting a model that has been tried for over 30 years- with only mixed success. One criteria for this model to succeed is size- so scalability, substitution of student-teacher interaction by mediated and peer interaction is required. Failure to achieve scalability (or lack of a market to feed into) results in very high costs for course development and maintenance, that tends to not do much better economically than the craft work of individual professors.  A second challenge is that Universities that adopted this 3rd model years ago, have all had trouble adapting to the fast paced changes in technology and communications of the Net. It seems that hunger for improvement is not a defining characteristic of the 3rd model and some of the most interesting models are being produced by 2nd model for-profits and partnerships with traditional not for profit universities  (for example MOOCs, analytics, adaptive models).

All of which reinforces my view that higher education is being forced to do a better (or at least more accountable) job of teaching and learning. Different models that afford through comparison and transparency,  provide spaces for necessary innovation and rationale for innovation in all three models, .



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