E-Learning in Higher Ed

Online learning in higher education poses different challenges due to unique characteristics of the market.

Although most major employers in North America have offered some online learning for several decades and given it an increasingly significant role in training and development efforts since the early 2000s, the transition from classroom to online learning is just starting to happen in major universities.

The catalyst? MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses. They catapulted into the popular consciousness in 2012 with the threat of disruptive change. In response, leading research universities rushed to join consortia of companies providing MOOCs. Other universities rushed to establish their online presence.

While MOOCs are not proving to be as disruptive as once predicted, the new focus on the technology they spawned has spurred most universities and colleges to hasten the move online using more conventional approaches to online learning and the support of learning.

Although in some ways, the shift to online learning in universities and colleges shares similarities with the earlier transition among employers, in other ways, unique characteristics of the higher education market will shape the way these institutions adopt online learning.

Hybrid Courses
Several unique issues face institutions of higher education. Like employers, the right choice for many higher education courses is neither an all-online or an all classroom course but rather a blended course. What’s different in higher education, however, is the emergence of a particular design for blended courses called flipped or hybrid courses, with instructors designing the online portions in a particular way to impart knowledge so they can use classroom time for problem-solving and similar activities.

As trainees have managers and performance support tools to assist them in mastering what they have learned and transferring it to the job, students in higher education have similar needs for assistance with learning, though the specific needs usually differ from those in the workplace. Technology is emerging to provide tutoring and academic advising, and to link students to sophisticated libraries and provide some career counseling, among other types of support.

Research suggests that the most commonly performed type of evaluation is learner satisfaction (Kirkpatrick’s Level 1) and the highest level of interest is in Return on Investment (ROI, one measure of Kirkpatrick’s Level 4, impact). Fewer than half of training programs are assessed for learning. In contrast, 100 percent of all higher education courses must be assessed for learning because the assessment forms the centerpiece of the grade. Concerns over the integrity of exams administered online pose one major roadblock to the adoption of online learning in higher education. Developments in technology are addressing these concerns.

IP Clashes
But perhaps the most significant challenge in adopting online learning in higher education is intellectual property. Unlike most workplace learning programs, for which the employer “owns” the content or licenses it, most universities do not own their own courses. Professors retain full rights to their courses and the materials produced for those courses, except in a few rare instances. A clash over intellectual property has stopped efforts to launch online learning on some campuses.

But this copyright ownership issue also has an impact on the role of instructional designers, who produce online learning programs in higher education. They play a more consultative role—similar to that of a development editor of a book—than instructional designers who create workplace learning programs.

To learn more, join me as I host the Higher Education Symposium preconference event for Training’s 2014 Online Learning Conference, which explores the unique challenges of designing and administering online learning programs in higher education.

Saul Carliner, Ph.D., CTDP, is the Research director for Lakewood Media, and an associate professor and Provost Fellow for e-learning at Concordia University in Montreal.