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The Learning MarketSpace, August 1, 2001

Written monthly by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg, The Learning MarketSpace provides leading-edge assessment of and future-oriented thinking about issues and developments concerning the nexus of higher education and information technology.


In the October 2000 issue of The Learning MarketSpace, we discussed the phenomenon of "technique lagging behind technology." We observed that most of today’s Web-based courses represent simple transferences of techniques designed for the on-campus classroom to the on-line environment. Rather than replicating what we’ve done in the past, we said, let’s think about how to create new learning environments that take advantage of the capabilities of communications technologies and the Internet.

Our colleagues at Ohio State University are doing just that. Under the auspices of the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign, OSU plans to redesign Introductory Statistical Concepts, a five-credit course enrolling 3,250 students each year. And in the process, they have come up with a new metaphor that captures how we ought to be thinking about online learning environments.

Ohio State’s redesign will implement a "buffet" strategy, offering students an assortment of interchangeable paths that match their individual learning styles, abilities, and tastes to approach each stage of the course and learn each course objective. Like the emporium metaphor employed by Virginia Tech, a "buffet" suggests a large variety of offerings that can be customized to fit the needs of the individual learner.

OSU develops the metaphor as follows. Research in learning theory tells us that students are more likely to comprehend and retain the concepts under study when they have 1) a real, vivid, and familiar example to anchor the concept, 2) a second less familiar example to demonstrate wide applicability to alternate contexts, 3) a means to discover the general principle, and 4) practice working with the concept. These four stages are the appetizer, salad, entree, and dessert of a full meal. Since students learn in different ways, even the best "fixed-menu" of teaching strategies will fail for some students, even if those strategies offer the "full meal" of these four learning stages for every course goal.

In contrast, OSU’s "buffet" of learning opportunities will include lectures, individual discovery laboratories (in-class and Web-based), team/group discovery laboratories, individual and group review (both live and remote), small group study sessions, videos, remedial/pre- requisite/procedure training modules, contacts for study groups, oral and written presentations, active large-group problem-solving, homework assignments (TA graded or self-graded), and individual and group projects. Thus, for a specific objective, students may choose to hear and discuss a familiar vivid example in lecture, view and read about a real example in an annotated video presentation, encounter an example in a group problem-solving session, or generate an example through a group project. Students may elect to practice working with a concept in a data analysis laboratory, in an individual Web-based activity, in a facilitated study session, or by explaining it to others in a jigsaw-formatted review.

The buffet strategy can also accommodate choice in the sequence in which these four stages are presented. For example, it will match the learning style of students who learn better by starting with the big picture and moving to specific examples as well as students who learn by starting with specifics and moving to the general principle.

To promote commitment to follow-through and to enable efficient tracking of their progress, students will enter into an online "contract" that captures their choice of learning modes at the beginning of each of four units of study. Students will receive an initial in-class orientation that provides information about the buffet structure, the course content, the learning contract, the purpose of the learning styles and study skills assessments, and the various ways that they might choose to learn the material. Out of class, they will complete online learning styles and study skills instruments and receive a report of their results as well as directions on how to use this information to build the online course contract.

Students will initially be given a set of default study options generated by software to match their learning styles and study skills, which can be changed according to student preferences. The finished contract will give each student a detailed listing of what needs to be accomplished, how it relates to the learning objectives of the unit and when each part of the assignment must be completed, leading up to the unit test three weeks later. Based on their own experiences in the initial unit and on reading student testimonials from earlier quarters, students may decide to make changes in their contracts for subsequent units.

The course software will monitor student progress on an individualized basis throughout each unit, providing a variety of learning activities and suggesting alternate learning strategies. For example, if a student shows a deficiency in a low-stakes quiz, the software will suggest an alternate approach to learning the objective involved. In one case, she may be directed to a study session covering the topic involved. In a second case, she may be directed to an applet activity that was not included in her original assignment.

Teaching styles and capabilities also vary, and the buffet approach allows Ohio State to better match the TAs who support the course with the delivery options for which they have a talent. TAs who do well in one-on-one help but have not yet mastered the management of whole class discussions can facilitate study sessions or provide individual help during problem-solving sessions. TAs who have a talent for facilitating small group discussions and managing the dynamics of a hands-on laboratory experiment should utilize these skills and not be overburdened with grading duties. This supply side match, coupled with the student demand side match, will greatly individualize the instructional process even though the course has a very large enrollment.

Using technology to manage course administration and monitor weekly progress reports and diagnostics will also allow OSU to move to a modular course format. Students will be able to earn from one to five credits based on successful module completion. By requiring students to demonstrate a passing level proficiency in one unit before proceeding to the next, severe deficiencies will be identified and addressed early, resulting in a lower failure/withdrawal rate. Thus, the several hundred students who now fall behind and feel compelled to withdraw will have the option of demonstrating proficiency without having to drop all five credits. Analysis of previous data on drops shows that OSU will be able to eliminate one-fourth of the course repetitions, thereby opening slots for an additional 150 students per year.

Two factors in Ohio State’s strategy are key: the collective commitment of the statistics faculty to work on the course as a whole and the capabilities provided by information technology. Would it be possible for a single professor offering an online class to develop such a creative, comprehensive, learner-centered design? Perhaps, if he spent most of his career working on it. Would it be possible for Ohio State to offer this buffet of learning opportunities to more than 3,000 students annually without the aid of information technology? Most certainly not.

Many believe that mass customization is emerging as the organizing business principle of the 21st century. Internet-based e-commerce now makes it possible, for example, for customers to order computers designed to their exact needs and specifications, obtain customized home mortgages and compile music CDs containing any combination of songs. By offering students a buffet of learning opportunities that may be customized to their learning needs, Ohio State is pointing the way to a 21st century approach to online learning, one that, we believe, will soon make today’s online fixed meals a distant memory.

[For more information about Ohio State’s redesign project, please see Ohio State University.]



Economists, famous for sayings like "the only way to make ends meet is to stand back-to-back," like to remind us that "there is no such thing as a free lunch." Because of my engineering background, I already knew that. I first heard it as the First Law of Thermodynamics" there is no such thing as a perpetual motion machine." The retail trade has its own version, "you get what you pay for." I suspect Moses had a version that was inscribed on the third tablet that he was too tired to bring down from the mountain.

At any rate, according to anyone’s aphorism or law, recent activity on the Internet seems to bear out these shopworn shibboleths. In addition to the bursting of the "dot-com bubble," which has removed a lot of acronyms from the NASDQ, many more companies are scrambling to find an economic rationale for business on the net. As many predicted long ago, very few Internet sites can support themselves on the strength of advertising alone. Absent the infusion of advertiser dollars, it is difficult to maintain the appearance of "free" service.

Were all those geeks, on a Jolt-cola-caffeine-induced high, right after all? Does the Internet "demand to be free?" Certainly, with a few notable exceptions, the surfing public has shown a distinct disinterest in sites whose services are offered for a fee. With those few exceptions, subscription-based services have generally been a failure. Successful sites, like eBay, that support themselves with transaction surcharges abound. There are an increasing number of services, such as JSTOR, that appear free to the surfer but are, in fact, paid for by consortia who operate behind the scenes. Similarly, there are many useful and heavily used sites such as realty listings that support themselves from a transaction fee that is only loosely coupled to the Internet site itself.

What then should we expect of the intentions of educational institutions to place learning opportunities on the net? Will they be "free?" Will they institute transaction charges? Will they be supported by loosely coupled fees such as tuition? And, will it make a difference whether they are organized as not-for-profit or commercial ventures?

Commercial educational ventures have been around for a long time. It is, however, a relatively recent phenomena to find them competing directly with established institutions of higher education. Of late, we see some not-for-profit educational institutions establishing commercial spin-offs. Is education on the net headed toward a commercial future? Some of the reasons advanced for creating commercial spin-offs have included the potential for making a "profit;" the need to by-pass the historically slow decision-making processes of the historic university; the need to develop compensation packages that differ from those of the historic university; and, the need for flexibility in admissions, purchasing or the like that is unavailable in the historic university structure.

What should we make of the assertions that the structure of higher education that has served so well for hundreds of years is not suited to delivering educational opportunities with the new information technologies?

The prospect that we will witness any significant number of historic institutions entering the for-profit sector absent the blessing and a strong push from their Trustees and legislatures is minimal. We are likely ten or more years from the time when most Trustees or legislatures will even consider such prospects. Even given that some, or all, of the reasons suggested for creating commercial-like models are valid, the prospect of many institutions dividing themselves into subsidized and unsubsidized parts are small.

In the coming decade, what seems more likely is state legislatures will begin to revisit the rationales for their subsidy of higher education. That process has begun at the federal level, so far yielding only an attempt to finesse the underlying financing issues as they appear in the 12-hour rule. As they begin to contemplate the underlying rationale for subsidy, state legislatures are likely to come to some conclusion based more on economic development criteria than commitment to a historic view of a liberal education for everyone.

Over the next decade we may witness the promulgation of new, arcane, and frequently unworkable (always with unintended consequences) rules intended to bring the subsidy more in line with the subsidizers’ intentions. In the long run, we will likely see a shift from funding the provider to funding the learner. When that happens, the question of recouping costs of net-provided learning sites will loom very large indeed.

If not the commercial model, then what? A new, loosely-coupled model is likely to emerge. Perhaps the closest analogy on today’s net is something like the major genealogy sites where a large amount of useful, although frequently not peer-reviewed, information is available for free, supported by a number of tested and certified information sources that are available for a fee. The equivalent is putting the calculus book on line with unlimited free access, but charging a fee for the deeper structure of coaching, expert commentary, progress monitoring, certification of accomplishment, creation of curricula of study, and so on. Call it tuition, call it consulting, call it mentoring—it will represent the unique value-add of our historic university structure.

The folks in the entertainment industry have come to believe that, for them, content is king. There are those in the education industry who subscribe to that same notion. But, unlike the creative originality of a television show, a movie, or the latest best-seller, the content of a first calculus course is pretty well established and has remained relatively constant for the past 100 years. In essence, the content is free.

In the long run, most of our high-enrollment, lower-division college and university courses will find their way onto the net as a free service. Tools, from rudimentary to sophisticated, will emerge that permit the interested learner to master the material on their own navigational impetus. We will initially witness the partial disaggregation and disintermediation of the curriculum. For some highly motivated and skillful learners, this will be enough.

Just as some students will study for the SAT exam on their own, others will decide that the value-add of one of the commercial SAT preparatory courses is worth the cost. For many net-based learners, the value-add of certification, or consultation, or . . . will be found to be worth the cost. Over time, the initial disaggregating and disintermediating role of net-based learning will be augmented with a new set of aggregators and mediators.




December 3, 2001, Orlando, Florida
February 25, 2002, Dallas, Texas

Co-sponsored by the Executive Forum in Information Technology at
Virginia Tech

This seminar will present results from the second of three rounds of the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign. Learn from faculty project leaders how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology. Faculty from four institutions will talk about their models of course redesign, including their decisions regarding student learning objectives, course content, learning resources, course staffing and task analysis, and student and project evaluation. These models provide varied approaches that demonstrate multiple routes to success, tailored
to the needs and context of each institution.

These seminars provide a unique opportunity for you to:

  • Learn firsthand how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology from successful faculty project leaders.
  • Find out how to design learning environments for the future by tapping the expertise of those who have done it.
  • Talk with experienced faculty from multiple institutions about how and why they made their redesign decisions.
  • Move beyond "today" and learn where on-line learning is going . . . find a model that will work for your institution.


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Archives of The Learning MarketSpace, written by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg and published from July 1999 – February 2003, are available here.

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Copyright 2001 by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.