Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lessons from the Old Media: The Value of Sharing

My career in media-based education began well before the arrival of online learning on the scene in the mid-1990s.  When I started in this field in the late 1960s, the media of choice were print and video.  Correspondence study had long been established as a way to deliver credit and noncredit courses.   Public broadcasting was the new kid on the block in terms of distance education, but both media promoted collaboration and sharing in ways that might be instructive as online learning moves into the mainstream.

Correspondence study shared some of the qualities of online learning.  Like online learning, it eliminated geography as a factor in the relationship between the student and instructor.  As a result, one might have thought that institutions offering “independent study by correspondence” would shy away from collaboration.  Quite the opposite happened.  It was not unusual for institutions to license a correspondence course package from another institution and teach it with local faculty.  Most of the correspondence providers were land grant universities.  They formed a community through what is now the University Professional and Continuing Education Association and together contracted with a commercial publisher to create an integrated national catalog of correspondence courses.

Sharing was even more evident in video courses.  Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, video-based distance education was nominated by “telecourses.”  A typical telecourse might include 30 half-hour television programs, usually lectures, accompanied by a printed study guide and a commercial textbook.  The delivery system was the institution’s local public television station and, increasingly in the 1980s, an educational channel on the local cable television system.  At best, institutions could deliver on a statewide public TV network.  In this environment, sharing course packages was a distinct financial advantage to the producing institution, since delivery was geographically limited.  Several community colleges formed the Telecourse People to cooperatively market their course material to other institutions.  Other, similar collaborations followed. As a result, many institutions were able to offer a regular schedule of telecourses without the need to produce their own video locally for every course.  The decision to adopt a telecourse was similar to the decision to adopt a textbook for a course.

Early in the satellite era, the University of Kentucky, with funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, created the Appalachian Educational Satellite Program.  AESP used an experimental satellite to deliver teacher education, nursing education, and other professional programs throughout the Appalachian region, working through universities in the region and regional K-12 educational support offices to coordinate with local schools and hospitals.  AEASP demonstrated the power of satellite—and, later, cable television—to reach and serve professionals in rural communities.
In 1978, the Public Broadcasting System shifted its national program service—which delivered programs to local stations for broadcast—from land lines to satellite.  The result was not only a new way to deliver programming to local stations, but a new national public satellite network that could be used for other, related services.  The impact on course sharing was significant:
·      PBS created the PBS Adult Learning Service as a centralized national distribution center for telecourses produced by local PBS stations and higher education institutions around the country.  A collection of courses was fed by satellite to local stations every semester.  Local stations worked with the colleges and universities in their viewing area and broadcast those courses that the local institutions licensed.  PBS collected a fee (typically a standard $300 per course, plus $15 per enrollment) which it shared with the telecourse producer.
·      The Annenberg Foundation gave the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (a federal corporation that distributed federal funding for public media) $150 Million to support the development of new telecourses for national delivery.  The result was a collection of telecourses built around major public television documentary series.
·      The University of Maryland University College established the National (later International) University Consortium, which worked with the Open University of the United Kingdom to adapt their materials to the North American curriculum.  The resulting course packages were licensed to institutions throughout North America, as well as Australia Asia, and Latin America.  IUC also produced new courses, working with its member institutions and the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting.
·      The PBS satellite system also opened the door to other, nonbroadcast innovations.  One was the National University Teleconference Network (now the National University Telecommunications Network), a network of colleges and universities that used the PBS satellite uplink and downlink network to deliver live teleconferences nationally.  An institution that wished to originate a teleconference would schedule the event with NUTN, which would announce it to its members.  Members that licensed an event would arrange for a downlink and schedule a live viewing in the local community.  
·      AG*SAT used the satellite system to create a network of Agriculture schools at land grant universities, historically black land grants, and Hispanic serving institutions, with the goal of sharing local expertise nationally.  AG*SAT later became ADEC—the American Distance Education Consortium.

Collaboration in the Digital Learning Era

Thus far, resource-sharing and collaboration have taken a somewhat different path in the online era. 

Some new models for sharing have emerged that focus on sharing students and faculty rather than materials.  One example is the Great Plains Inter-Institutional Distance Education Alliance (IDEA)  in which participating state universities work together to offer graduate degrees that include online courses from multiple participating institutions.  This kind of collaboration ensures that students have access to the best content in a specialized discipline, while opening new doors to collaboration among faculty.  Another example is the CIC CourseShareinitiative in which participating institutions aggregate students in highly specialized courses to ensure a financially viable course offering that serves small groups of students at multiple campuses.  Both of these initiatives allow partner institutions to give their students better access to courses that might not otherwise be taught locally on a reasonable schedule.

Other partnerships have focused on sharing online content.   The Open Educational Resources movement is a longstanding international commitment by institutions in developed countries to make their online content available to colleges and universities in developing nations.  OER Commons is one example of the Creative Commons, an effort to allow institutions to make online content more widely available for noncommercial use while maintaining copyright control.

These are important initiatives that set the stage for future partnering initiatives as online learning moves into the mainstream.  Still, given that more institutions today are involved in online learning than were ever involved in video-based distance education, it seems reasonable to ask:  Should we not begin to share organized curriculum packages more widely, reducing the cost of course development at each institution?   Especially as institutions adopt the “flipped classroom” philosophy—in which content resides on the web and class meetings (physical or virtual) are focused on interpretation of content rather than simply transfer of content—it seems reasonable that idea of licensing content at the course level might be a good thing.  Just recently, Tidewater Community College in Virginia demonstrated the potential for this kind of sharing.  It developed a complete associate degree in business administration using OERs.  As Creative Commons reports:

Tidewater identified 21 courses and signed up faculty members to design the curriculum.  They started with the desired outcomes for each of the courses, and then built the curriculum with OER materials that would meet those outcomes. Developing the curriculum took about 12 months. One year into the program, the early results are highly positive.

The OER degree program had two goals – to eliminate cost as a barrier, and to improve teaching impacts. The textbooks for an associate’s degree in business administration normally cost $3679, which is about a third of the cost of the degree from Tidewater.  Adoption of OER reduces these costs to zero. Students and instructors alike are happy with the quality of the OER materials used in the classes. 96% of the students enrolled in the courses have rated the quality of the OER content as equal to or better in quality to the textbooks used in other classes.

This may signal a new level of institutional commitment to the OER concept that will reduce the cost of course development for individual institutions and greatly increase faculty access to content in order to serve students. 
Sharing at this level might best be done within families of institutions—community colleges, private liberal arts colleges, etc.—or within academic discipline communities.  ADEC has demonstrated the power of sharing content within agriculture disciplines, for instance. 

Ultimately, I can see at least three benefits to sharing at this level:  (1) to ensure that high-quality content is widely used, especially in specialized areas,  (2) to reduce the cost of new course development, thus increasing the number of institutions that adopt online learning for their students, and (3) to increase access to higher education.

I would be interested in knowing about other examples of sharing at the course level. 

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