Mar 01, 1998
The recent discussion regarding whether a team approach is needed for online course delivery is representative of the major debates occuring in the field today. The two polarities - course design team versus individual - may be found in issues ranging from such matters as copyright, academic freedom, and choice of delivery mode.
To a large degree, this dispute also reflects the differing origin of online course development. There are two major approaches: one, which emphasises the individual, originates in the desire of a traditional on-campus instructor to employ the web as a delivery tool. The other, which emphasises the team, originates in distance education institutions or departments.
The central question, in my mind, is the following: is online education an extension of traditional course delivery? Or is it another mode of distance education?
This is not a question of technology, or indeed, even of there being a team involved in course delivery. For both on-campus and distance delivery, it is manifestly clear that the same technologies may be adopted, and that a team is to at least some fair extent involved in course delivery.
This is less obvious in the case of on-campus delivery, where the emphasis has been on the individual instructor. The 'team', in a traditional course delivery, functions in the background; it consists of registration staff, custodians, A/V technologists, librarians, student support staff, textbook authors, and so on. Traditional courses which employ the web extend that team to include webmasters, network technicians, and in some cases, HTML authors, graphic designers, or digital media technicians.
So to approach this question, we need to ask: why is the design model different in distance delivery? Why, in distance delivery, was there a perceived need to move from the focus on the individual and to the focus on the team? A number of reasons suggest themselves.
One obvious reason is the need for standardized course packages. Distance delivery involves the production of materials before course delivery actually takes place. This means that there must be significant similarity in delivery no matter who is instructing. Therefore, the primary role of the instructor is subsumed by the primary role of the course package. And since the course package is designed by a team, typically, so therefore is course delivery considered to be the result of a team effort.
Another obvious reason is economics. In distance delivery, since a significant portion of the course content and delivery mode is contained in the course package, it is not necessary to hire instructors with as great a degree of expertise in the subject matter. This, for example, is the approach adopted by Athabasca University, where course delivery is coordinated by a fully qualified instructor, supplemented by a number of lesser qualified tutors. Since the course tutor cannot assume full responsibility for course delivery, course delivery is therefore considered to be implemented by a team.
A third reason which suggests itself is more political: control over copyright and content. In distance education, to a large degree, the content *is* the course. So, if content can come and go with instructors, the institution's stock-in-trade is very ephemeral. In order to protect its assets, the distance education institution must maintain ownership over the course content. However, if there is a primary instructor, who maintains control over that content, then ownership is difficult to maintain. Thus, the material is deemed to have been developed by a team, wherein the ownership lies with the institution.
Now from the point of view of a traditional instructor, none of these reasons may seem to be very palatable. Ceding control of academic material to an institution rubs against the concept of academic freedom and independence. It conflicts with the idea of presenting many points of view, many, and sometimes new, arguments, theories or explanations. It institutionalizes not only learning, but also research, since as academics know, much learning about a topic takes place in the course of teaching it.
But from the point of view of a person working in a traditional support role, the move toward course teams constitutes long overdue recognition of their contribution toward learning. A web technician, say, is as intimately involved in course delivery as an instructor; it is unreasonable, then, to say that all credit for successful delivery of the course is due to the instructor. Librarians, in particular, have long argued that their academic standing should be seen as equal to that of course instructors, and it is only as learning materials have become integral to course delivery that this standing has been recognized to any significant degree.
Viewed in this way, I think that the dispute regarding course teams resolves itself into an ownership issue. It has been cast in discussions on this list as an either-or dispute: either the instructor owns the course, or the institution does. The nature of the technology - *someone* must produce the web pages - makes it appear to be an intractable dilemma. But I think it is not; I think that the needs of both sides can be recognized and respected.
How this may be the case may be seen when we consider the dispute in the light of current web course delivery technologies. Once again, we find the two points of view - individual versus team - reflected in approaches to online design and delivery.
On-line courses break down roughly into two major categories, which I'll call 'conference-based' and 'display-based'. A conference-based course is one in which the primary tool employed is a conferencing tool; courses delivered using such technologies as FirstClass, Virtual U, or NetMeeting would count as conference-based. A display-based course is one in which the primary tool employed is a display tool; courses delivered using such technologies as web pages, Shockwave, Acrobat Reader, RealMedia, etc., would count as display-based.
Conference-based courses have as their inspiration traditional in-class instruction. The mode of delivery is one in which an instructor leads students through a series of discussions, assigning from time to time readings either from texts or web pages. They are almost always delivered according to a set schedule; although delivery may be technically asynchronous, nonetheless there is a specified start and end date, and discussions occur according to a schedule.
Display-based courses have as their inspiration one of two sources: either (a) textbooks, or (b) distance education course packages. In either case, the mode of delivery is one in which students lead themselves through the material, reading at their own pace, and participating in discussions when and as directed by the reading material. Such courses are more thoroughly asynchronous; there is not usually a fixed start and end date, and no time-based schedule of events or activities.
Each of these depictions is, of course, an extreme. In the main, providers of conference-based courses have seen the need for display-based course materials; hence, these courses often refer to texts or websites. And display-based course authors have often seen the need for interaction and conferencing; hence, these courses are often supplemented with a chat group or discussion list.
Indeed, it should be clear from this depiction that neither conference-based nor display-based course delivery is an attractive option. What is wanted is an integrated delivery, one in which conferencing and display work closely together. This would emulate more accurately both traditional in-class delivery as well as traditional distance delivery. For in both modes of delivery, reading and discussion work hand-in-hand as a unified whole.
When adopting a combined conference-display mode of delivery, a multi-faceted picture of an online course emerges. We see a course not as a single entity, but rather, as an entity composed of constituent parts. In particular, we see a course as consisting of three components (and here we move into a model and terminology I have described previously): - static content (corresponding roughly to textual materials) - dynamic content (corresponding roughly to an instructor's in-class instruction), and - conferencing tools (corresponding roughly to in-class discussions).
When viewed this way, it is clear that ownership of a course breaks down into ownership of constituent parts of a course. Specifically:
Static content is owned by whomever produced the static content. This may be a single instructor, much in the way an instructor might author a text, but it may be an institution employing a team, much in the way a movie, video or video game would be produced by a team.
Dynamic content is owned by the instructor. This is the day to day course management, and could for all practical purposes be owned by, and controlled by, no other person. For dynamic content would typically be produced on an as-needed basis from day to day, week to week.
Discussion content is owned by the discussion participants. Just as no instructor may claim credit for, or ownership of, comments made in class by a student, so also a student's contribution to a discussion list or chat group is similarly outside the instructor's domain.
Viewed in this way, I think that the issue of team versus individual dissolves. We see that there are two components to online course delivery, one which essentially involves the instructor, the other which essentially involves a designer or design team. A combined approach allows us to preserve such values as academic freedom and personal style, yet it preserves stability and ownership of course content by an institution or author.
In a similar manner, the distinction between traditional in-class delivery and distance delivery is also dissolving. I remember, in 1987, being taught a philosophy of mind course using both in-class and online discussions. Similarly, traditional classes are today employing more and more of both web-based displays and internet conferencing tools. And distance delivery has shifted from the days of self-contained correspondance packages to delievery by means of packages plus teleconferencing, videoconferencing, or today, internet conferencing. As time goes by, I think that we will see traditional in-class delivery and distance delivery merge into a single entity.
Indeed, to take this discussion a step further, I would venture to say that advocating the individual over the team is in essence advocating one delivery mode over the other. But since each delivery mode is in itself incomplete, so also the advocacy of one over the other is in essence advocacy of an incomplete course delivery. And while, indeed, each mode of delivery can be successful to a degree, it is arguable - and argued - that the success of course delivery in general is proportional to the degree of employment and integration of each of the two delivery modes.