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The Myth about Online Course Development


© 2006 Diana G. Oblinger and Brian L. Hawkins

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 41, no. 1 (January/February 2006): 14–15.

Diana G. Oblinger is Vice President of EDUCAUSE, where she is responsible for the association’s teaching and learning activities and for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI). Brian L. Hawkins is President of EDUCAUSE. Comments on this article can be sent to the authors at doblinger@educause.edu and bhawkins@educause.edu.

In the early days of online courses, a widespread production model was to provide faculty members with release time and/or stipends in return for developing and delivering their own courses. These early online courses were developed by a cadre of faculty “zealots” who believed that information technology could transform learning. Such faculty were willing—and able—to master the required skills, whether that meant learning Java, HTML, or a graphics package. Often re-creating the lecture, the resulting courses frequently had an idiosyncratic structure and might—or might not—use good instructional design. Being a “Lone Ranger”1 often meant figuring things out alone, so solutions were stitched together with whatever resources were available to the faculty member. Today, the legacy of these early courses is a boutique of different applications, approaches, and instructional designs scattered across a campus.

Developing and delivering effective online courses requires pedagogy and technology expertise possessed by few faculty. Consider pedagogy, for example. Good pedagogy implies that the instructor can develop targeted learning objectives. Online instruction is more than a series of readings posted to a Web site; it requires deliberate instructional design that hinges on linking learning objectives to specific learning activities and measurable outcomes. Few faculty have had formal education or training in instructional design or learning theory. To expect them to master the instructional design needed to put a well-designed course online is probably unrealistic. A more effective model is to pair a faculty member with an instructional designer so that each brings unique skills to the course-creation process.

But what is a course? And how should a course be put online? Instructors are being challenged to move beyond the notion of a course as covering content to the idea of a course as constructing a series of learning environments and activities. Effective learning motivates learners, develops their skills, and enables learners to transfer their new skills to other settings. Interaction is a critical part of the learning experience. How will that be facilitated online?

A first step is to rethink the roles of both the faculty member and the learner. Beyond lecturing, the faculty member might serve as architect, consultant, resource, reviewer, or role model. Students may assume multiple roles as well. Besides being a listener, the student might be an apprentice, builder, mentor, peer teacher, team member, or writer. With these alternative roles for faculty and students, the range of possible learning activities expands to include options such as authentic projects, peer exchange, case studies, debate, brainstorming, coaching, journaling, and so on. Can—and should—a faculty member who is a subject-matter expert be expected to think through these nuances of instructional design on his or her own?

Technology is another significant responsibility when developing and delivering an online course. One of the first issues to address is the application that should undergird the course. Should the course be built using a course management system? What other tools should be used to enhance the course? Is a chat room appropriate, or is using blogs or wikis better? Once the platform is chosen, who is the developer? Is learning HTML a good use of the faculty member’s time?

The technology questions don’t end when the course is developed. The support implications of any online course are significant. If the course includes links to readings or other Web sites, who is responsible for keeping those links updated? If a new version of software is released, who updates the course? And who worries about the security of the system, ensuring that students’ assignments and grades are not tampered with? Who provides help-desk support for the course? If a student has trouble with the Web browser, should the student go to the faculty member, or is there an IT support desk that can handle technical questions? Is there a different place where students can get academic assistance?

Beyond the technical mechanics are IT policy issues such as copyright and intellectual property. Initial questions deal with ownership. If a course is developed as a part of a faculty member’s regular responsibilities, does it belong to the faculty member (analogous to how textbooks are often handled), or does the institution own the work? If the author receives compensation for the course, such as a special stipend, is the course considered a work for hire? Who has the right to modify the content? If the work is commercialized and revenue is generated, is a royalty due to the developer? The level of complexity increases when the “developer” is not just the individual faculty member. What ownership rights are vested in the technical staff, graphics designers, and instructional designers who supported the faculty member? And what about the use of material provided by others? Although it is tempting to assume that fair use will allow faculty to use any material for educational purposes, few institutions can take the risk of such an assumption. If students’ material becomes part of the course (e.g., discussion boards), does the institution have the necessary approval to keep the students’ intellectual property for future classes?

Developing and delivering an online course requires numerous and varied skills—skills that are unlikely to be found in a single individual. Teams will probably be more effective. For many faculty, working as a member of a course-development team is a unique experience, one in which autonomy yields to collaboration.

For any institution that wants to develop and deliver online courses, the members of the executive team should ask themselves the following strategic questions:

  1. What is the best use of the faculty member, an expensive institutional resource? Online courses involve many components: technical architecture, instructional design, graphic design, intellectual property and copyright clearance, and subject-matter expertise. Faculty make up an institution’s most highly trained, valuable resource. Is making them responsible for activities for which they are not trained (e.g., instructional design) and in which they may not be interested (e.g., technical architecture) the best use of their time? Or would a team approach work better?
  2. Do we have a process for strategically investing in course development? What brings more value to an institution from online courses: having random courses available online, or having an entire program available online? In the early phase of online course development, faculty pioneers proved that putting courses online was possible. But to sustain the required investment—in faculty time and in support —online learning must be visible and viable. Are the advantages of online learning undercut because only one course per department is offered? Visibility becomes important once the pioneering phase has passed, as does also critical mass: programs must have enough online courses available to attract students to the offerings. In addition, the more courses that are developed within an individual unit, the deeper will be that unit’s expertise, making success increasingly likely. Pursuing the “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach to online course development may not result in maximum impact for the investment.
  3. Do we confuse providing content with creating a learning environment or delivering a course? When putting a course online, an institution may be tempted to focus on the content. But institutions should be clear about what defines a course. If a course is simply the equivalent of its content, why are courses not defined by books rather than classrooms and faculty? A course involves content, to be sure, but it also involves interaction, dialogue, mentoring, and coaching. Clearly, content can be hosted on the Web, but how will interaction be handled? What technical infrastructure will facilitate communication and collaboration? And what pedagogical approaches will draw students in, motivating them to learn more? How an institution defines a course may well determine its success with online learning.
  4. What is the return we hope to see from our investment in course development? In the early days of online learning, many institutions believed they would “strike it rich” by enrolling tens of thousands of students. Today’s expectations are more realistic. Online learning offers needed flexibility to time-constrained students. Investing in online course development may help the institution graduate students on time while avoiding opportunity costs for the student and capacity constraints for the institution. But online course development typically catalyzes a fundamental rethinking of the course, the content, the learning activities, and the desired learning outcomes. This reexamination exists at the program level as well. With information changing rapidly, with new disciplines arising constantly, and with the understanding of how people learn growing progressively more sophisticated, the reexamination catalyzed by online learning may be one of the best investments an institution can make.

Although the “Lone Ranger” approach to online learning has worked in the past, it does not scale well. Institutions that are sincere about providing high-quality, flexible educational experiences are finding that teams—not individuals—develop and deliver the most effective online courses.


1. Tony Bates, of the University of British Columbia, first used the term “Lone Ranger” to describe this approach to online course development. See A. W. Bates, “Restructuring the University for Technological Change,” June 1997, http://bates.cstudies.ubc.ca/carnegie/carnegie.html.

Diana Oblinger

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger President and CEO of EDUCAUSE

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. The current membership comprises over 2,300 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the associate dean of academic programs at the University of Missouri.

Since becoming president of EDUCAUSE, Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, Oblinger created the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), known for its leadership in teaching, learning and technology innovation as well as several signature products, such as the 7 Things You Should Know About series. She also initiated EDUCAUSE's first fully online events and its e-book series, including Educating the Net Generation and Learning Spaces.

In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she led the creation of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a $30M program focused on improving college readiness and completion through information technologies. Partners include the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Oblinger has served on a variety of boards such as the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee on Cyberinfrastructure, and the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project. She currently serves on the American Council on Education (ACE) board and works with other higher education associations as chair of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Dr. Oblinger has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Employment, Safety and Training and the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology.

Oblinger is a frequent keynote speaker as well as the co-author of the award-winning book What Business Wants from Higher Education. She is the editor or co-editor of seven books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, and Learning Spaces. She also is the author or co-author of numerous monographs and articles on higher education and technology.

Dr. Oblinger has received outstanding teaching and research awards, was named Young Alumnus of the Year by Iowa State University and holds two honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.


Brian L. Hawkins

Brian L. Hawkins was president of EDUCAUSE from 1998-2007. Prior to joining EDUCAUSE, Hawkins was senior vice president for Academic Planning and Administrative Affairs at Brown University. In this capacity, he oversaw academic planning, instructional budget management, campus computing, enrollment management, institutional research, summer programs, admission, financial aid, and student registration. Hawkins went to Brown in 1986 as vice president for Computing and Information Services. In 1989, he filled in as senior vice president for Finance and Administration, and then was appointed special assistant to the president for Academic Planning while he spearheaded Brown’s strategic planning processes. In 1997, he served as part of a three-person team standing in for the president of Brown University.

Before going to Brown, Hawkins was associate vice president for Academic Affairs at Drexel University. At Drexel, he was responsible for general academic planning and the first academic program in the nation to require access to a microcomputer, as well as integrating the use of technology throughout the curriculum.

Hawkins is a management professor by training and the author of one book and many articles on organizational behavior. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University and his doctorate from Purdue University. He taught at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and served there as department chairman and assistant dean of the College of Business. His organizational work focused on organizational structure, conflict management, communication, and performance appraisal. He earned tenure as faculty member at both UTSA and Drexel.

Hawkins has combined his academic and business experience to serve as a consultant to more than 350 organizations. In 1983, the governor of Pennsylvania asked him to initiate a corporate, industrial, public, and educational partnership in Southeastern Pennsylvania to create start-up companies and develop new jobs. Nearly two decades later, this program is still thriving.

Throughout his career, Hawkins has served on a variety of boards and committees. He is currently a member of the board of directors of the Forum for the Future of Higher Education and the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Hawkins served as a member of the board of trustees of the University of Richmond and the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE) General Assembly and as chair and member of the boards of Educom and CAUSE. He also served on the boards of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and the International Consortium for Educational Computing. Additionally, Hawkins has been a member of higher education advisory boards for Apple, IBM, NeXT, Sun, and Microsoft and has served on more than 60 advisory panels for various colleges and universities.

He has written extensively, including four books, numerous articles, book chapters, and monographs on information resources, academic planning, and the use of technology in higher education. Hawkins has received two honorary doctorates of science. In 1991, he received the CAUSE ELITE Award, a lifetime achievement award for Exemplary Leadership and Information Technology Excellence. He has served actively on accreditation teams as a chair and member, as well as the standards committee for North East Association of Schools and Colleges. Hawkins has been an invited speaker at professional meetings including the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), Educom, CAUSE, the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), the American Association of Publishers (AAP), the Association for College Research Libraries (ACRL), the National Association of College Stores (NACS), the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC).


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