Five questions to ask about online learning

By now I’m sure we’ve all heard about the apparently inherent power of technology to ‘disrupt’ or ‘transform’ education. Technology, learning and teaching, and organisational culture are intertwined in complex and sometimes unexpected ways, but if business schools focus only on technology are they missing other important considerations? Here are five questions to ask whenever your school is embarking on a new digital project, or looking to expand its existing online offering.

1. What does success look like in our context?

New online initiatives are often framed by vice-chancellors in terms of revenue generation or student recruitment targets, but arguably such narratives elide significant tensions. If our goal is to raise the institution’s profile, then a short non-credit-bearing course (e.g. a MOOC) could fit the bill – but the benefit here is largely intangible, and don’t expect a huge pull-through to formal courses. If our goal is to enrol 10,000 new online students onto credit-bearing courses, then do we have the technical and administrative infrastructure in place to make our courses self-paced and open-access? And are we prepared to live with completion rates that might be lower than 50%? On the other hand if our goal is a completion rate of say over 80%, then perhaps we need to think about smaller cohorts, a more structured timetable and more individualised feedback from academics. How success is defined at the outset will to a large extent determine the pedagogy, practices and technological options that are available further down the line.

2. Who are our online students?

It’s worth spending some time getting to know the circumstances and expectations of your current or potential online students. At Edinburgh Business School our online students are typically in their mid-30s, usually time-pressed due to career and family commitments, and have varying levels of internet access. When we asked our students what they were looking for from their online MBA, their response was clear: they loved the existing flexible, self-paced study options but they wanted to feel more connected to a vibrant and diverse student community, and expected rich, varied and globally relevant course materials. Again, the insights we gathered here have to a large extent driven the approach we have adopted over the last two years.

3. How will we build a team?

Well-designed, high-quality online courses don’t develop themselves, and institutions often see the appointment of one or two ‘learning technologists’ (I prefer the term ‘learning designer’), often on fixed-term contracts, as a one-stop-solution. While these are undoubtedly important appointments, complementing learning designers with a multidisciplinary team of specialists – for example in digital media production, online assessment and content editing/development – may lead to better results. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to combine externally sourced expertise with a ‘grow your own’ approach – so identifying existing staff who had the potential to move into a digital team, and giving them opportunities to develop through training or education. As well as potentially benefiting the individuals concerned, developing from within can build trust and rapport with academics and help external hires get to grips with the culture of the organisation quickly.

4. How will we free up academics’ time?

Having engaged, enthusiastic academics who have the time to develop and run online programmes is absolutely vital, but all too often it is assumed that this work can be absorbed into existing workload models. Unlike on-campus teaching, in fully online programmes the effort required to design and develop a new module is almost entirely front-loaded: every activity, every image, every video must be designed and developed before the first student signs up. For our (20-credit, 200-hour) online modules, we find that every 1 hour of study material requires roughly 6 hours of development − around 40% of which is academics’ time. This is a significant commitment, and needs to be resourced appropriately: in an ideal world, I’d like to see academics who are developing an online module given a 4–6-month sabbatical to do so.

5. How will we change hearts and minds?

This last question is a whole other article in of itself, so I’ll stick to a few key sub-questions for you to consider:

  • Has anyone taken the time to ask academics what their aspirations are for their online modules? How will we nurture the early adopters, and how will we reassure those who are sceptical or resistant?
  • How does the institution value innovation in digital education – for example through remuneration, appraisals, awards or promotion?
  • How are we reflecting on, capturing and celebrating good practice?
  • Are people engaging with contemporary research in digital education − or (even better) conducting their own research?

Clearly there are many other technological, academic and financial issues that I haven’t explored here. But if human and cultural considerations are addressed appropriately, and if you are able to bring your colleagues and faculty decision-makers onboard, business schools have a better chance of developing distinctive online programmes and sustainable capabilities for the long term.

Stuart Allan is Director of Online Learning at Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University.