The design of effective learning is not a secret. There are five simple questions that should be asked and answered. When this is done, the learning experiences tends to be effective. These same questions apply in virtually all forms of formal education, but they are especially important in online learning programs. With that in mind, good online graduate programs constitute courses and/or learning experiences that are designed in view of the following five questions:

1) Who are the learners?

Answering this question is key to all good teaching and learning. What is the background of the learners? What prior knowledge or experience do they bring to the table? What are the pre-requisite skills needed to be successful in the program and how do these match with the intended learners? What is a typical day in the life of the intended learners? What technical skills and attitudes characterize the intended learners? What cultural factors of the learners need to be considered? What expectations, beliefs, values, and convictions do the learners bring to the experience? There are certainly many similar questions that must inform the design of courses and the entire program. In instructional design, we call this the audience analysis.

Skipping this step can result in a wonderful but highly ineffective experience.

2) What do we want them to learn?

This question applies to the development of overall program outcomes, course-level outcomes and/or objectives, as well as objectives for individual lessons/modules/units. It can be answered without the entire program looking like a rigid form of training or mastery learning, and I am not suggesting that a specific format is necessary. Traditional behavioral objectives, essential questions, or substantive targeted goals can all be effective ways to answer this question.

Skip this step and the program or course lacks direction.

3) What is the very best evidence that students have learned what we want them to learn?

I usually suggest that one start with the ideal, and then slowly back down to what is realistic in a given environment. Whatever the case, answering this question requires us to clearly articulate what it will look like when a student has reached the stated goals.

Skip this step and question 2 tends to disappear also. When this happens, we see courses with stated objectives, but then the assignments, quizzes, and other assessments have little or no connection to these objectives. Any of us who have experienced this as learners can attest to how such an experience is frustrating and unhelpful. It leaves learners struggling to figure out how they are supposed to devote their precious time and energy.

By the way, if we take this question seriously, then the main course assessments rarely end up being multiple choice, matching, or other traditional forms of tests. These tests or quizzes may be present, but they simply serve as a source of feedback, a way to help students discover how they are or are not progressing (more about that when I get to question five). Serious answers to question number three usually lead us to the wonderful world of authentic assessments.

4) What resources and/or learning experiences can help students provide this evidence?

This may be in the form of recorded lectures, case studies, role plays, examples, illustrations, group discussions, scavenger hunts, webquests, digital stories, multimedia projects, labs, interviews, observations, reflective writing, tutorials, research projects, readings, virtual tours, or a wealth of other powerful and potentially effective learning experiences. However, all of them should help the learners work toward providing the evidence that we noted in question three. If it doesn’t help students progress to a point where they can eventually provide the evidence mentioned in question two, then get rid of it or move it to the margins of the course or program. Otherwise, it is likely to be a distraction or even a hindrance to student learning.

Skip this question and you have a course or program rich with busy work that may have limited value for the learner.

5) How can I ensure that students get frequent and meaningful feedback throughout the learning experience?

Without feedback, how are students going to know if they are progressing toward the goal? Too many poorly designed learning experiences don’t give students feedback until it is too late. Students work for weeks on a paper or project, submit it, get a poor grade, and then are instructed to “move on” with no chance to redo or refine their first attempt. How does that help students meet the stated goals? How does that help them progress? Why not give them feedback throughout the learning experience so that learners get a sense of how they are doing, what requires further attention and practice, as well as where they are excelling?

Skip this question and we get five common results: student frustration increases, student anxiety increases, student satisfaction decreases, student learning decreases, and student retention plummets.

Online learning is not simply online…learning. In fact, all good online learning is blended learning. Conduct a quick Google search for “online learning” AND “definition”. You will find statements suggesting that online learning is where content is delivered via the web or some other electronic means. These types of definitions are not adequate. They usually imply that online learning is about one-way delivery of content, possibly also including electronic communication and collaboration among learners. While it is true that these are common aspects of online courses, there is no reason that it needs to be limited to the electronic world. In fact, virtually all good online courses are actually blended learning, a combination of electronic and non-electronic learning experiences. Most definitions of blended learning don’t simply focus on the blending of electronic and non-electronic experiences, but that is one aspect of a potential blended learning experience, and one that is the focus of my reflections.

It is the rare online graduate program that is simply equipping a person for life in the electronic world. Rather, it is about equipping one with knowledge, skills, and abilities that may be used both online and in the physical world. The quality online experience itself must help promote transfer into the physical world. Imagine an online graduate nursing program that did nothing to equip nurses to actually work with patients in the physical world. Or how about an online MBA program that only applied to conducting business online? Or, what if one got an online graduate degree in special education, but it did nothing to equip the teacher to work more effectively with a student in a one-on-one physical environment? None of these would be examples of good online learning. As with all learning, transfer is key. It is of limited use to learn a skill than can’t transfer to a variety of situations. The best graduate programs equip one with skills, knowledge, and abilities that transfer to a wide variety of circumstances and environments.

What do I mean when I state that all good online learning is blended learning? I’ll admit that I’m playing with words a bit, but consider the following potential aspects of an online course experience:

  • Read books,
  • Interview people,
  • Engage in observations,
  • Have informal conversations with colleagues and family about what you are learning,
  • Create class projects that you then use or try out at work or other physical environments,
  • Take e-learning courses with colleagues and have study groups or collaborate at the local coffee shop,
  • Attend professional conferences during one’s program and present with classmates or professors,
  • Go on fields trips or capture audio/images/video to share as part of one’s online classroom (I’ve seen great examples of this in an online environmental education course. Participants around the country took pictures and used them to discuss the various ecosystems.).
  • Participate in summer or weekend residencies that afford students the chance to engage in labs, face-to-face collaboration and discussion, team-building, networking, etc.
  • Attend optional (or required) face-to-face class sessions in some courses or as part of an introductory/culminating experience.
  • Student are required to present work or research at a conference, to a group of colleagues, or another similar environment.

This is a short list of physical elements that are present in many great online graduate programs. There are plenty of other examples, but I will conclude with one that we often overlook. I’m likely to get a few eye rolls over this one, indicating annoyance at my far too liberal toying with terms and phrases like physical, electronic, hybrid, and learning; but I’ll continue nonetheless. Learning occurs as a result of our interaction with things outside of ourselves, but there there still quite a bit that takes place inside of us. In fact, the actual learning is taking place in our brains. That is physical. If changes are not taking place in the brain as a result of the e-learning experience, then it is not quality learning. It isn’t even learning.

At its best, online learning is an educational conspiracy, challenging the monopoly of traditional face-to-face graduate study. Online learning often gets the scrutiny that is deserved of all learning. Is a one hour lecture to a group of 30+ students truly the most effective way to help students master the stated course objectives? Is it superior or more effective than other methods? Or, is it simply an unquestioned higher education tradition? Online learning, in some cases, serves as a challenge to such traditions. For that reason, it may well be a mechanism to not only increase accessibility to higher education, but to challenge, improve, and transform what takes place in traditional face-to-face graduate programs.

While certainly not an exhaustive list, here are five other ways that online graduate programs challenge the superiority of traditional face-to-face graduate study:

1. They challenge the notion that one must move or travel large distances in order to obtain a high quality graduate education.

2. They challenge the notion that one must submit to often inflexible schedules of courses and offerings in order to obtain a quality graduate education.

3. In some cases, they challenge the notion of a one-size fits all graduate education (although many of the best face-to-face programs join in this challenge).

4. In other cases, they challenge the premise that graduate courses are best designed and taught by a single person. In many cases, online learning promotes a team-based approach to course design that may include a combination of subject-matter experts, instructional designers, graphic designers, computer programmers, and a variety of other specialists. In fact, the role of instructor is just one of many factors in some good online learning course designs. While not devaluing the role of a good teacher, what makes the role of instructor so sacred? The only essential role in effective learning is the role of learner.

5. They challenge the idea of the closed-door, no questions asked approach to courses. In place of that, many online courses and programs receive ongoing careful scrutiny. Furthermore, all course activities are perfectly recorded and available for post-course review and evaluation. Imagine if every classroom interaction, every instructor comment, every student comment, and every student artifact of learning in a traditional face-to-face course were available for careful review as part of a course improvement process. That is already the case with many online courses. This is not to suggest that all online programs use this data, but when the data is available, there is an option to use it.

I am a University administrator and professor of education who has been involved with online learning in one way or another for over twenty years. As part of my ongoing professional development in this area, I review online programs around the world. I am constantly looking for new ways to structure programs so that they provide effective and engaging learning experiences for students. Much of my time is spent working with graduate online programs, so please keep that in context as you read the rest of this post.

Each day my convictions are growing and my vision is becoming clearer. It may come off as cliche or pie-in-the-sky, but I believe in the power of blended and online learning to transform education. However, I am under no delusion that this transformation is always good. In fact, I join others who express concern about some trends:

  • diploma mills,
  • students run through programs like they are a product going through a factory production line,
  • programs with no sense of social presence or student-student / student-instructor relationships,
  • schools building online programs without adequate intellectual capitol or real-work expertise,
  • schools letting dollar signs or student numbers impair their vision and blur their ability to focus on their historic mission,
  • and schools providing online learning experiences that are void to true intellectual mentoring.

Out of all of the the items in this list of concerns, the last is my focus right now.

I believe that excellent and intentional mentoring is near the center of a great graduate educational experience. This is true whether it is a hybrid program, fully online, or a full-time residential experience. This explains why graduate students in some of the “top” graduate schools in the world come out of programs with mediocre teachers, but they have still learned a ton, and they often go on to have a huge impact on society. Teaching has never been the only or even the central attribute of the best graduate programs. The community, the culture of that community, and the mentoring relationships in that community (often in the form of assistantships, research projects, etc.) also help make(s) these programs great.. That is the first step toward my manifesto of online learning.. Excellent graduate online programs must be more than a series of courses (no matter how well they are designed).

They entail an immersive learning community that extends the span of the program. They have a culture that drips of the core values and mission of the University. They have faculty/mentors who are passionately and continually investing in the lives of the students. And they engage students in individual and community scholarship. These are the attributes of an excellent online graduate program.

They’re struggling. The Department of Education, state-level oversight departments, regional accrediting agencies and program-specific accrediting agencies continue to have difficulty responding to current and emerging innovations in education. Add the complex bureaucracies and centuries-old academic cultures within higher education institutions and we have a perfect storm that stifles progress and new possibilities for formal learning in a digital age. The recent conversations about direct assessment and new approaches to competency-based education highlights such a challenge. Many of these groups are slowing and hindering innovation in higher education, while often not realizing that this is the logical result of their efforts.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” While some attribute that quote to Henry Ford, others point out that the true source is unknown. Regardless, it represents the role of these agencies and organizations in higher education. They are sometimes closed to the possibility of the automobile equivalent of higher education innovation. Their comfort zone is with evaluating schools on the speed of their horses. They reward and accredit better industrial universities, while remaining clumsy when it comes to imagining or supporting visions of post-industrial, non-hierarchical higher education.

At the 2013 Educational Innovation Summit, Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, explained that there are three types of universities: élite, industrial age universities, and innovative universities. Crow suggested that the élite schools are the most insulated from the impact of innovation. They have extremely positive brand equity. They have a financial model that does not rely on tuition. And they a have a long waiting line of people wanting to join their community (whether it is students, staff, or faculty).

Then there are the industrial age universities. These schools are less insulated from the changes and innovations in higher education. They function with a traditional model established amid the industrial revolution. Some of their practices clash with the emerging nature of an information and digital age, but they tend to persist with past practices. Some make grand and convincing arguments about why they should not change. Others have trouble taking many of the innovations seriously because they believe so strongly in what has been done and what they continue to do. According to Crow, these industrial universities need exemplars that can point them in promising directions.

Finally, there are the innovative universities. These are the ones exploring, experimenting and even setting aside some of the industrial practices, replacing them with new models. They are bold, imaginative, informed about current trends and innovations, and they are re-imagining higher education. They are often criticized because they challenge longstanding traditions and defined roles in academia. They are not simply replicating what the university next door is doing, nor are they trying to model themselves after the élite schools.

All three university types, but especially the industrial and innovative, continue to be largely shaped and influenced by external bodies and government oversight agencies. These outside groups set up rules and standards based upon past practice in higher education. They use measures that people understand from past generations. They have a bias toward the traditional and the familiar, and while some practices like online learning have been assimilated, they continue to set up criteria for “quality” or “excellence” based upon past models. Even so, the élite universities remain insulated. They are far more comfortable ignoring some of the regional accrediting agency standards. As one person explained to me. The difference between élite universities and the rest is this. At the average university, people dress up and put their best foot forward for visitors from the accrediting agencies. At élite universities, the accreditors dress up and put their best foot forward.

What are the possible outcomes from all this?

Shifting “Market Share”

We are in an age of democratized knowledge, information and learning opportunities. Education startups are on the rise, and more of them are offering alternate routes to learning that do not depend upon formal learning organizations. They don’t deal in credits, degrees or federal aid; so they don’t have to worry about external accrediting bodies or as much government oversight. They are free to innovative in a way that focuses upon customer satisfaction and benefit to the end user.

One possible future for higher education is that it will shrink, unable to provide what the education companies offer. These companies are more innovative, agile, often driven by end user data, and they are not complicated by hundreds of years of traditions. They listen to what people want and need, and they are less likely to condescendingly declare that, “We know what is best for you.” As such, one possible future is that a percentage of learners and organizations will no longer turn to universities for help. They will go to for-profit and non-profit learning organizations that function apart from government oversight and accrediting standards, but they will demand that we judge all according to the learning that results from their products and services.

If the outside agencies keep it up, a third to half of what colleges and universities do may be lost to companies that are not bound by such groups or rules. Is that a bad thing? That depends upon your perspective. It might mean more options for learners. Some in higher education embrace such a claim, arguing that it lets universities focus upon what is most important to them anyway. Others are troubled by it, especially those with missions and values associated with increasing access and opportunity.  It as if universities are playing a board game and someone gleefully change the rules every few turns. Yet, some playing the game don’t have to follow any of the rules. As such, I expect a branch of “higher education” to emerge within the next decade that will largely bypass many regional accreditors, and I anticipate more models like Patten University that opt out of the financial aid program so that they have more freedom and flexibility in their offerings.

The Rise of the Innovative University

We might just see the decline of the industrial university and the persistence of the élite and innovative universities. The innovative universities may well explore educational offerings that go far beyond courses, credits, degrees and programs. This has been going on for decades with some of the most robust continuing education units at schools. We see it happening with some competency-based education and direct assessment programs. Perhaps more will come from such efforts, providing a larger variety of educational formats and offerings, some of which do not require financial aid or outside accreditors. The career track programs that are already highly regulated (like many healthcare professions) may well remain tied to outside oversight, but many other offerings can flourish by finding ways to be free from time-consuming outside rules and expectations.

A Re-imagination of Oversight

Another possible future is that more accrediting agencies will adjust what they measure, looking less at minutia and trappings, and more at results. Right now there are many expectations from various accrediting bodies about the appropriate percentage of adjunct versus full-time faculty, what formal degrees faculty must hold, library resources, and any number of items. In other words, they are directing what the University should look like instead of focusing upon outcomes. As this changes, perhaps we will see universities freed to embrace the best of their past while also venturing into new models like competency-based education, learning environments that unbundle the traditional role of professor, and tracks that are tied directly to employer needs.

 The more regulated the sector, the more difficult it is to make predictions about the future. As such, any musings about the future of formal education organizations are tentative at best. Yet, we are witnessing the rise of less regulated educational offerings through innovative startups. As these unchained offerings expand, they are bound to have an impact on higher education as a whole. Either they will disruptive, decrease, or re-define the direction of colleges and universities.

Ford_assembly_line_-_1913What would Thomas Edison do if he worked on an assembly line? That is the strange question that popped into my head on Tuesday morning. My first thought was that he would do the same thing as everyone else, because an assembly line does not celebrate expressions of genius, innovation, or individual preference. As far as I know, it doesn’t recognize or reward extraordinary thoughts or actions. It depends upon compliance, conformity, and predictably ordinary actions. There is a narrow scope of what a person can or can’t do on an assembly line. Either you get the work done, or they find another person to do it.

Is there a lesson here for how we think about school, the design of learning experiences and workforce development? Some argue that not everyone can or will be a Thomas Edison, so we need to prepare them for reality. Prepare the masses for jobs with repetitive tasks and a narrow scope of actions. Teach them to listen, follow instructions, and have a strong work ethic. This is a good list of qualities. Followership, listening and hard work are commendable traits. Plus, I don’t want to disrespect the noble work of people of the past and present in factories. Martin Luther King’s famous words about work apply in the factory as much as the board room.

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Why not “Here lived a great assembly line worker?” Yet, factory jobs in the United States are on the decline. While 1 in 4 worked in factories back in the 1970s, that number has dwindled to less than 1 in 10 today. This is a worldwide trend as more factory jobs are automated. When it comes to workforce development, many workforce training companies focus on the fish distribution approach. Give them specific skills for a specific job. That makes for good return customers, because when they need new skills for a new job, how will they get them?

I’m reminded of John Taylor Gatto’s list important abilities for people in today’s world (in Weapons of Mass Instruction). He argued that people need to be able to frame problems without a guide, ask hard questions, challenge assumptions, work alone, and work in teams with little or no direction. They need to be able to create and use heuristics, extract meaning from large collections of data, and discuss important issues and work toward decisions that benefit society. They need to be able to categories and imagine new ways to categories or make sense of information, and to think in complex ways with the goal of solving problems. In other words, people need to be have abilities like Thomas Edison.

The web and education conferences are full of declarations that it is time to leave behind the factory model of education if we want to prepare people for a largely post-industrial world. In fact, we’ve been having such a conversation for 40-50 years in education. Many K-12 schools have changed curricula in response to the challenge, but the processes and environment lags further behind, continuing to reflect the attributes of the factory: bells, scripted schedules; segmented tasks and topics; rating and evaluation of student performance using a system not unlike how we rate milk, meat and bonds; heavy emphasis upon rules, structure and protocol.

Menlo_Park_Laboratory_of_Thomas_Edison_site_of_the_Invention_of_the_light_bulb_in_Dearborn,_Michigan_at_Greenfield_Village_The_Henry_Ford_Museum_from_Menlo_Park,_New_JerseyThere is room for order, system, and rules; but perhaps we are better suited to take a few notes from Edison’s real workplace instead of the assembly line approach to education. As we think about the design of learning communities and spaces, and as we think about workforce development, what if we instead looked to Edison’s labs? His Menlo Park research laboratory no doubt had rules, and there were certainly technicians at work. Yet, it was a place of experimentation and exploration. It was a place with almost every imaginable type of material of the day, everything from screws to sharks teeth, chemicals to silk. It was a place that expected, celebrated and nurtured disciplined, curious minds.

Ever since President Obama made a public challenge to pursue a plan for two free years of community college, the most frequent critique has been that it is not free. Someone has to pay for it. I appreciate healthy debate, but I’m not sure any informed citizen thought it was free in the sense that there would be no cost associated with it. We all know that public P-12 education is not free. Current community college tuition certainly does not reflect the full cost of operating such schools. The same is true for four-year state schools. Government funding is the dominant strategy for keeping these the teaching and learning arm of these schools operating.

What President Obama meant by two free years is that it would be no or extremely low-cost to the students, removing one potential barrier to young people pursuing higher education. Once we move beyond straw man arguments, then we can have candid conversations about whether we can afford such a proposal, the potential return on investment, how it would impact 4-year institutions, and other important considerations.

As I see it, the most important critiques of the proposed plan relate to questions about whether this is the best solution to a social need that requires more clarification. As such, it is time for us to have public, deep, and substantive conversation and exploration of other questions. Here are ten to get us started.

  1. If the primary objective is to increase access to more education for more people, to what extent is cost the largest barrier to increasing access and opportunity to formal education?
  2. What other barriers exist that would not be solved by reducing cost?
  3. What plan(s) must be considered to address all the top barriers, implementing them together with the goal of increasing the likelihood of success?
  4. Is this mostly about decreasing the debt burden of those who would already go to college? If so, what if we start with a long, creative list of possible solutions? The idea of two free years of community college is bold and intriguing, but we want to move forward after being well-informed and having a plan that is likely to give us the best chance of accomplishing our goal. Let’s start by lengthening our list of possibilities far beyond one.
  5. While starting the national conversation with a specific proposal is a great way to prompt discussion, is it time to step back, clarify, and list our primary objectives? If we don’t do that, how do we measure our progress and success? Let’s start with the end in mind, and build our list of the possibilities means from there.
  6. How are current students performing in community colleges? If we drop the cost and send more people to under-performing institutions, what good would that accomplish? Or, are there exemplary models of high-performing community colleges that might need to be modeled and replicated for something like this to work?
  7. What are more of the possibilities for increasing access, opportunity, and gainful employment? There are hundreds of options. Let’s get them on the public table and explore them together.
  8. Who are the people and what are the organizations that are already doing amazing work this area? What insights can we glean from them?
  9. To what extent can informal, “outside-of-school” and other options help us make significant progress with such goals? The US is a wonderfully entrepreneurial country. It only make sense to tap into that mindset to address some of our most pressing challenges and pursuing our most valued goals in education. Education companies and startups might play a valuable role in some of the most promising solutions. How can we nurture an entrepreneurial ecosystem around addressing more access, opportunity and gainful employment needs?
  10. If the two free years of community college turns out to be the most promising way of accomplishing the measurable goals (that we still need to establish), what are the possibilities for various funding models?

There are dozens of other questions, but this list will help us deepen the conversation while embracing the spirit of President Obama’s challenge.