Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ 'Professional' Web Course Design

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 10, 1997

Posted to WWWDEV 11 Mar 1997

I'm going to weigh in here with some comments, despite Rik's admonition (sorry Rik), because this is a continuation of a discussion from DEOS-L which has now unfortunately shifted to this arena.

The question of whether to use 'professionally' designed packages is one which we are all facing to a greater and greater degree. Not so long ago, if we wanted a threaded bulletin board we used hypermail, and if we wanted live chat we used WebChat or a MUD.

But today what seems to be happening is that these packages are being refined and marketed to institutions. Not that they're bad products. Packages such as WEST (I still can't wrap my mind around the name change), WebCT, WebCrossing, and the like are exceptional pieces of software. But - and this is to me a pretty significant but - they all cost money. Moreover (and I speak from experience) they *still* require a great deal of time and effort on the part of educational staff. More on that below.

Let me turn more specifically to Real Education.

At the risk of self promotion, I strongly urge schools that are thinking about going online to consider if it makes sense to try and figure out how to connect to the internet, purchase hardware, purchase software, write code, rewrite code, translate courses, write administrative services software, write student services software, maintain the systems, stay abreast of software and hardware changes, updates and revisions, teach your students how to learn online, do the need instructional design work and try to teach courses online, all at the same time.

This is an impressive list of tasks. All of which need to be done one way or another whether or not you consult a professional. Because even if you hire a professional to do the grunt work, you *still* need to be aware of these options ahead of time when determining which professional to hire.

A case in point: at Assiniboine we recently started implementation of an MIS system called Colleague, from DataTel (some of you may be familiar with that package). It was a major investment. Prior to that decision, however, we had to research MIS systems, go through a needs analysis, test and compare different systems, and so on.

Not that we'd want to design the software ourselves. The decision to go with Colleague was reasonable in light of our need for expertise and support. But launching colleague has completely occupied our computer services staff for the last six months, and has also involved thousands of hours of staff time in training and policy decisions.

Why not just hire a company that is an expert at designing, building and maintaining online campuses? Let the experts show you how to get your school online, teach your content online and provide full online services to your students. Wouldn't you do that if there were no up front costs?

Now this is simply pure marketing hype, no more. From what I've seen, Real Education is no more expert at designing web-based courses and other support systems than the rest of us. What they have is one large contract (Colorado University) and a lot of public relations.

Go to Real Education's website: > > and learn how we are willing to partner with quality schools by investing $200,000 worth of work to each school in order to create complete online campuses.

But here's the rub: if they are going to invest $200,000 then you can be sure that at some point in time they expect to collect $200,000 whether or not any of these charges are up front. If, for example, you are paying a per-user fee, then that seriously limits the number of students you can reach. For smaller institutions like Assiniboine, a figure like that is out of the question (heck, for us, $2,000 for conferencing software is out of the question).

Schools should do what they do best. Teach. If they want to clean buildings they contract it out. If they want to build a new building they don't use their engineering school to build it, they contract it out to professionals. Most food service, many bookstores and even internal operating systems are contracted out. Most schools concentrate on their core business, teaching. I suggest that designing, building and maintaining an online campus is no different. Of course you work with the architects and builders to build it the way you want it, but you don't do it yourself. You hire experts to build your buildings for you.

It's open to debate as to whether contracting out internal services is the best way to go. Often, it appears to be cheaper and more efficient at first glance. However, experience with contract services is that their bottom line - profits for themselves - is different from the institution's bottom line - quality education. This can often result in lapses in service (at leats, from the institution's point of view). It also often results in the service being more expensive to operate. If it costs $10,000 to run a cleaning service, then if a private company takes over it costs $10,000 profit. Private companies are not *automatically* more efficient.

But as I said, this is still open to debate. More to the point of the matter is this: all these anciallary services listed above are not directly related to the delivery of educational materials. However, designing an on-line presence *is* directly related. The design of an institution's website has pedagogical objectives in addition to satisfying infastructure requirements. So if Real Education (or anyone else) is saying they are more qualified than you are to build an on-line educational presence, they are saying at least in part that they understand pedagogical principles better than you do.

Whether this is true is very much open to debate. But as they point out, your expertise is in teaching. Putting web-based materials on-line is a form of teaching. It stands to reason then that you are at least as qualified as they are.

Indeed: the very approach taken by the post I'm quoting is that all this web stuff is just nuts and bolts, like a building or a bookstore. This shows that they do not see how *educational* objectives inform the design of web-based material. This to me suggests that they are missing some important knowledge and expertise.

If you are going to build a full service online campus and maintain it to the highest standards of the ever changing hardware and software environment, why not just contract it out? We can do it cheaper, faster and frankly better than most in house computer departments. Nothing scares me more than to think some professor is going to create his or her own html pages with an off the shelf editor and consider that a quality online course. It won't be quality when it is created and it will not be state of the art in three months.

Anybody who does anything in a couple of evenings with a word-processing package will not produce quality. Experience shows, however, that this is not what is happening in education. Teams of designers burn a lot of midnight oil thinking about how best to design and deliver on-line materials. A *lot* of discussion on this list and others has revolved around that very subject.

Again: the question of what counts as quality education is probably best determined by professional editors. It is unreasonable then to suggest that professional educators will produce shoddy material if they try to do it without the help of Real Education.

Hire a professional online education company to do the job for you rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Even if it is not Real Education, Inc. at least get some professional help. Anything less is cheating your online students.

As other wirters on this list have suggested, the conferencing and dialogue that takes place here *is* professional help, obtained by people who are qualified, experienced, and who were involved in the field long before Real Education (or any of the others) was a twinkle in a marketer's eye.

OK, Rik, sorry about wading into this discussion. But all this leads to a very important point:

It's the content.

In the end, educational professionals have to design the content of any web-based educational materials. There is no way around that; as expert as Real Audio may be in course-ware design, they are probably neophytes when it comes to quantuum physics, molecular biology or modern German epistemology.

That said: the really truely *hard* part to web-based course design is in content design. Any reasonably competent computer professional can provide chat facilities, threaded discussion lists, web pages, on-line registration, etc. But the *core* of on-line course materials will have to be determined by experts in the field working with experts in distance education delivery. No way around that.

Now we need to pose the question: which process drives the other? By that, I mean:

- does the technology drive the design of the course materials? or - do the course materials drive the design of the technology.

Educators, quite naturally, assert the latter. A piece of technology is useful only if it advances pedagogical objectives. However, if you *start* with an on-line solution like Real Education, the process is reversed. For then you are first given a piece of technology, and from that platform you design your course materials.

In the early stages of web-course design, at least, I think that content has to come first. This means a lot of in house solutions, software written on the fly to support specific course objectives. As the field matures, then there will be applications which respond to specific and common needs. But we are far far away from a state of the art in this discipline which permits the design and distribution of a single software solution.

If you read this far, thank you for your time; your participation in what I have to say is always appreciated.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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