The development of Education or Learning Media Systems is an increasingly vibrant and important area of Internet use.

Although there has been a long history of distance education, the creation of online education occurred just over two decades ago—a relatively short time in academic terms. Early course delivery via the web had started around 1994, soon followed by a more structured approach using the new category of learning management systems (LMS). Since that time, online education has slowly but steadily grown in popularity, to the point that in 2014, over one-third of U.S. postsecondary students were taking at least one course online. Most significantly Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have opened up strategic discussions in higher education cabinets and boardrooms about online education.

All too often however, the public discussion has become stuck in a false dichotomy of traditional vs. online—a dichotomy that treats all online models as similar and that ignores blended or hybrid approaches. A whole new educational technology methodology is interacting with innovative educational courses and programs to create not only new education language but also multiple models for delivering education effectively across a range of new markets.

Whether it is delivering supporting materials direct to classroom students, providing educational and training materials to home-based students, or providing effective remote location delivery, it is increasingly important that the latest web App, web-based and mobile device delivery methods are used.

These methods provide many advantages for wider information delivery:

  1. a great variety of educational materials can be delivered effectively
  2. remote delivery is possible wherever technical services are available
  3. information can replace or support conventional education materials
  4. all media types, including video, text, images and documents can be provided
  5. mobile device delivery can significantly extend delivery geographically
  6. the overall cost of delivery can be reduced and effectively maintained
  7. single information resources can more easily be maintained, kept up to date, and kept consistant
  8. management systems can be employed to ensure adequate monitoring of education delivery

Ad-Hoc Online Resources

Faculty members teaching ad hoc online courses are one of the most important yet overlooked sources of knowledge and experience regarding online education. Although ad hoc online courses and programs blazed the trail in what is possible, they are not the primary source for the large growth in online education and are typically not intended to scale in terms of numbers of sections or students.

Many of the ad hoc courses are based on individual faculty members’ belief that they are getting better results and learning outcomes using online tools. This is despite most faculty members’ skeptical view of the quality of online education in general.

Fully Online Programs

The biggest drivers of growth in online courses and enrollment to date have been fully online programs from the for-profit sector and from online-only organizations created by nonprofit institutions. In both cases, these online programs are organized around a concept called the master course. This concept of the master course, which changes the educational delivery methods of an institution, is perhaps the biggest differentiator between traditional, for-profit, and even nonprofit fully online organizations.

A master course gets replicated into multiple, relatively consistent sections in a repeatable manner. In this approach, instructional design teams—typically including multimedia experts, quality-assurance people, and instructional designers—work with faculty members and/or subject-matter experts to design a master course. Once designed, the master course sections can be taught or facilitated by multiple instructors, typically adjunct faculty. The faculty members who are part of the design can also be instructors for a couple of sections, but generally the sections are taught by instructors who were not part of the design team.

The master course concept changes the assumptions of who owns the course, and it leads to different processes for designing, delivering, and updating courses–processes that just don’t exist in traditional education. The implications of this approach are significant. These differences can create a barrier so, how do institutions that want to provide scale and access deal with this barrier? The most common method over the past decade or two has been to create separate organizations that will implement the master course concept. The majority of for-profit organizations—at least the medium and large for-profits that operate at scale—are based on this concept, whether using online courses or blended/hybrid courses.  These online organizations typically fit within the overall system of governance, but the operations, budgets, and academic oversight are provided individually. Many of the failures of traditional institutions or statewide systems to successfully create, grow, and sustain online programs can be traced to organizational resistance from the rest of the system to the separate online organization.


Another approach to overcoming the barrier between traditional education and scalable online education is outsourcing to, or partnering with, an external company for online content, curriculum, and/or student services. These companies bring experience and capabilities to help schools implement a master course concept and the associated operations while providing these courses through the traditional institution.

There is also a burgeoning industry built around outsourced, for-profit service providers—companies that provide the curriculum and course development, as well as the operations, of an online program. This new category is called School-as-a-Service, and some market estimates indicate future compound annual growth rates of 30 percent for this sector.

Educational Partnerships

An additional promising approach is not well known but has already shown real results. In this model, external organizations provide portions of the online courses and communities of practice, including a network of peer instructors worldwide working in similar programs. In this model, the educational institution offers the courses within its curriculum, allowing students to pursue industry-relevant certifications and even to use the courses as part of their degree programs.

Competency-Based Education

One of the keys to potential innovation within higher education is to move from credit hours to competency assessment as the definition of whether a course has been completed. It is based on the broader concept of outcomes-based education (OBE), which starts with the desired outcomes and moves to the learning experiences that should lead students to those outcomes. OBE can be implemented in face-to-face, online, and hybrid models. In the narrower concept of CBE, the outcomes are more closely tied to job skills or employment needs, and the methods are typically self-paced. Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and concomitant proficiency (standards for assessment)

  1. Explicit learning outcomes with respect to the required skills and concomitant proficiency (standards for assessment)
  2. The desire to provide lower-cost education options through flexible programs
  3. A flexible time frame to master these skills
  4. A variety of instructional activities to facilitate learning
  5. Criterion-referenced testing of the required outcomes
  6. Certification based on demonstrated learning outcomes
  7. Adaptable programmes to ensure optimum learner guidance

Blended/Hybrid Courses and the Flipped Classroom

Blended or hybrid courses combine online and face-to-face class time in a structured manner. Although there are varying mixtures of content delivery and interactive activities in this approach, the logical extension is something called the “flipped classroom.” The flipped classroom model involves courses that move the traditional lecture, or content dissemination, away from face-to-face hours and into online delivery outside of class time. The face-to-face class time is used for practice and actual application rather than for introducing the content being studied. The instructor then has time to help students face-to-face with specific problems. Flipped classrooms have been in existence since around 2000, but they have recently been gaining popularity in both higher education and K-12 institutions. There are many other examples of blended and hybrid approaches. The common theme is to make face-to-face class time more effective, using it to provide much of the instructor feedback and interactive skills portion of a class while pushing content delivery into more-efficient online tools.


In most of the online educational delivery models of the past decade or so in higher education, the solution to the problems of scale and access has been the duplication of course sections. But as noted earlier, things started to change with the new concept of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In a MOOC, the course itself is scaled to enable an essentially unlimited number of students to take the course from the faculty members, who both design and lead the course. This design process replaces the master course concept and leverages the natural scaling power of online tools.

The current generation of courses has proven the feasibility of massive online enrollments with the result based on a form of adult continuing education and be focused on the following results:

  1. Develop revenue models that will make the concept self-sustaining
  2. Deliver valuable signifiers of completion such as credentials, badges, or acceptance into accredited programs
  3. Provide an experience and perceived value that enables higher course-completion rates (in most MOOCs today, less than 10 percent of registered students actually complete the course)
  4. Authenticate students so that accrediting institutions or hiring companies are satisfied that a student’s identity is known

Perhaps the relevant issue to higher education leaders is not the existence of MOOCs or other forms of online education. Perhaps the relevant issue, undeserved or not, is the legitimacy of online delivery among elite institutions by the very public and financial support of MOOCs and open education in general. Prior to six months ago, the biggest and easiest argument against the power of online education was that it would never provide the quality of face-to-face education. This line of argument, self-reinforced by traditional institutions, kept many collegiate presidents and boards from even considering whether major changes were necessary or feasible in higher education. Yet now that elite institutions are publicly extolling the value and quality potential of online education.

The coming five to ten years will be a bumpy ride for traditional institutions. The investment community, particularly venture capital and corporate mergers and acquisitions, have a built-in trial-and-error approach. There will be successes, and there will be failures. Failures are to be expected, and one attribute of investment-based new models is quick failure and quick adaptation.

As a system, higher education is not structured for rapid change, and there will be a battle of cultures as investment-backed educational technology intersects with slow-paced, conservative educational structures. Traditional institutions will likely see more turmoil, failure, and even successes than they are used to in a short period of time.

Into The Future

Is online education the answer to change in higher education? No. There is no single answer, and online education is not appropriate for all situations. But now that MOOCs have changed the assumptions and the discussions at the executive and board level, complacency or even gradual change is no longer acceptable. That is the real transformative power of the current generation of online educational delivery models.