01 March 2006


College content management

If you thought online education was a growing industry, you underestimated. It's about to explode. That's because Congress is now allowing federal financial aid to students of colleges that teach more than half of their courses off-campus, including over the World Wide Web. (See "Online Colleges Receive a Boost From Congress," The New York Times, March 1 2006.)

Let me rephrase that. Colleges are going to explode. Like scambling an egg.

There are two types of courses that are likely to appear online at exponential speeds. First, you have the low-end requirement courses, like Calculus I and English 101, which are courses everyone has to take to earn a bachelor's degree. These courses are regularly populated with large numbers of students, and yet they are introductory-level, tried-and-true courses that are relatively simple to teach and grade. (In fact, graduate students usually teach these courses.) Instead of wasting valuable classroom space and valuable instructor time, these courses will appear online. For large universities, there's an even greater advantage: hundreds of students can be taught at once without that "giant lecture hall" atmosphere, and without having to create numerous sections (class segments) for advising lessons or grading purposes.

The other type of course that is going to end up online are the courses that professors are just climbing all over themselves to teach, either because it's a cutting-idea, the product of a personal info-lust or -peeve, or simply because it's so esoteric that their departments have never granted them the opportunity to teach something that almost no one will attend. These kinds of courses will prosper online because students from all over the world can attend. That sociology elective called "What License Plates Tell Us About Our Culture" won't get just one student any more, but tens of students, and that makes professors and universities happy. I'm an online instructor of a rather esoteric subject -- indexing -- and so being able to offer my indexing course over the Internet has enabled me to reach dozens of indexing professionals and enthusiasts from around the globe every year. Had I continued to teach only in person, the course might have been cancelled for lack of interest.

So suppose every college in the United States retools that Calculus I class into an online course. It's not easy building an online course, but talk about unnecessary redundancy! No, if department heads are smart, they'll team with the department heads from other colleges and share a course. For example, I can imagine a single English 101 course offered to every college student in Massachusetts. I'm not saying this is a perfect idea, but then again, neither is having 14538 of them.

This is a content management problem (which is why I'm blogging about this). Content management is about many things, including (a) avoiding redundancy in communication; (b) avoiding the communication of inaccurate, outdated, or contradictory things; and (c) providing the correct information for each audience subset, whether it's a single person (like "Welcome, Seth!") or a large group (like English speakers); and (d) communicating everything that needs to be said. Content management is a huge issue in the distribution of information, one that got even more obvious with database use and the Internet.

The magic question here is this: How many different Calculus I courses do we need? From a production standpoint, our goal is to have only one. In reality, however, there are many reason a student might prefer one version of this course over another: the instructor (charisma, ability to teach, ability to communicate, educational background, current interests, track record in past courses, reputation in the industry, etc.); the course materials (ability to relate to examples, quantity of independent and groups exercises, immediate relevance of exercises to students [e.g., local interest], ethical choices, strictness of prerequisite management, etc.); the course delivery (tools requirements, number of lectures, number of students, grading methods, student-to-teacher and student-to-student interactions, what percentage of the course is different from that in previous semesters); and the course environment (reputation of university, opportunity for real-time meetings [chat, voice, face-to-face], textbook requirements); and so on. As you can see, there are a lot of reasons one course might be "better" than another, for a particular student.

And so you have a battle: competition for students vs. need to teach the basic materials. Colleges and universities are already doing this at a macro level -- compare MIT to Bunker Hill Community College, as in the film Good Will Hunting -- but the competition at the lower level is going to be very interesting.

Further, if course development follows the path of computing, parts of courses are going to be delivered as if by subscription. Imagine some guy in his attic churning out math problems for fun. (Believe me, it's real.) Professors can subscribe to this guy in the same way you find those Sudoku puzzles. In computer parlance this is called distributed computing: where a bunch of computers are working together, but each is working on a separate problem. (It's sort of like wearing a wristwatch to tell the time, carrying an iPod to listen to music, and attaching a bottle opener to your keychain, instead of investing in a WatchPod Opener.)

Distributed education means the end of campus life as we know it! Professors moderate courses written by dozens of international specialists, students take courses moderated in other countries, and grades are applied to the diploma of your choice. Campuses become less about learning and more about community events, just as public libraries and shopping malls have been forced to evolve.

Congress has made the right choice, but is this country truly ready for college management?


RE: International indexing conference in Toronto, Ontario (15-17 June 2006).

Call me before you come so we can make plans to rendez-vous.
Cousin Steven

Cuz, Can you explain to me how to insert an html and/or picture in a blog and can you do it in a comment too?
All the best to the family.
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