“Grow on your own terms and remember why you did”

Grow on your own terms” was a nice turn of phrase I picked up recently from a Wiley marketing email. It led to an explanation about their online programmes work with the University of Wyoming and Winthrop University which you can read in full here.

Partnering with a fee-for-service online education partner like Wiley is a good way to expand an institution’s online learning expertise and personnel resources. But you shouldn’t expect it to allow you and your staff to avoid learning in detail what is needed and why, as a permanent advance of your own knowledge and independent operating capability.

Understanding and implementing online programmes management is now strategic to an institution. Why? Because it’s a capability you will need to work well from now on, for all your programmes across all your departments. You will need these skills, assets and efficient capabilities in order to operate and compete five years from now.  If you don’t think so, take a look at what Tesla is doing to the automotive sector or, closer to home, how academic publishers are struggling to re-position their products.

There is one problem with learning to do it yourself in-house though, and that is “semantic erosion”  loss of institutional knowledge. This is something CAPDM has unfortunately seen many times, when senior administrators in an institution or department, who haven’t embedded such critical new knowledge and process reasoning well, carelessly allow it to be lost and eroded.  As one Vice-Principal we worked with once said, the temptation is simply to revert to ‘going native’, resorting to old practices and avoiding any discomfort that change might bring.

I can’t remember how many times we’ve had to re-explain why a 3-minute course enrolment process is essential to new student enrolment procedures, or why all assessments need to have proven links to learning objectives, or why a ticket-based email support function is essential for online programme scalability.

Usually such semantic erosion happens because the initial reasons for its adoption, the why and how to do it, weren’t valued enough by the right senior people in the first place. Often those that did value it have left and moved on. In other words, the new knowledge and capability gained was not sufficiently embedded at the core of the departmental or institutional processes that should want to maintain and cherish it permanently.

If senior administrators don’t value such things at least as much as the bricks and mortar surrounding them, they will never be properly invested in, designed and developed to become part of the institution’s unique asset repository.

What this means is that such new capabilities in online programme management need to become core to the operating culture of a university, as do the skilled staff and reusable course assets expensively developed by it. Staff need to be retrained with online distance learning techniques and given continuous technology support. Specialist central service teams with skills in video production and editing, animation and semantic markup need to be motivated, trained and managed – not shackled to specific VLE systems. The role of the library needs to be expanded to include semantic information architectures, digital didactic publishing, ongoing course component maintenance, content and repository management and efficient single-sourcing. 

The same Wiley article contained another really good phrase – “starting a partnership with a single project” – which described how the sudden transition to virtual learning taxed the University of Wyoming’s resources and left them little time to design high-quality online courses. 

Having helped universities start with a single project for some 25 years now, it was comforting to see another fee-for-service vendor describe the values of this same approach. We have produced four different online MBA programmes for four different institutions – Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh Napier University, the University of the West of Scotland and most recently Queen Mary University of London.  All these programmes have so far proven to be sustainable and highly profitable. All four led to other programmes and further diversification and, crucially, a culture change within these institutions.  The hope is that ‘semantic erosion’ will be avoided in the longer term.

We would welcome the opportunity to ‘start a partnership with a single project’, using the 25 years of experience to set you on the right track.  Through that we can explain the ways you can use to avoid semantic erosion and accrue the long term benefits that “growing on your own terms” can bring.

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