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Scalability and Distance Ed: What Main Campus Leaders Can Learn From Their Colleagues in the Cloud

Scalability and Distance Ed: What Main Campus Leaders Can Learn From Their Colleagues in the Cloud
Campus leaders who want to balance operational efficiency and access scalability with educational effectiveness should look to their distance education units for best practices
The idea of operational efficiency in higher education is interesting. One could argue that higher education institutions were never set up to be efficient, but were set up to be educationally effective. This, of course, is setting aside the facilities aspects of higher education and strictly looking at the educational endeavor.

From a facilities or administrative perspective, it’s much easier to look at efficiencies. Over the past three decades, institutions have been moving toward operational efficiencies in their administrative areas (i.e. outsourcing food services, copy services, looking at energy efficiencies and even outsourcing student information systems). However, this can only go so far in terms of monetary efficiency for an institution. What, then, about educational efficiencies? Is this even possible in an area where the focus is on effectiveness of the learning process?

Efficiency and Effectiveness in the Academic Context

Marchello stated, “It has been suggested that the only significant boost to instructional productivity since Socrates has been the introduction of large lecture halls and lecture-recitation courses.”[1] While this statement may be debatable, an examination of the large lecture hall format demonstrates it may have led to some efficiencies in terms of scale around physical infrastructure and faculty numbers (one faculty and a handful of TAs for more than 500 students).

Though operationally efficient, one must question if this was educationally effective.

How many of us can remember attending these large lectures and experiencing them as information dumps and then trying to seek out the TAs or fellow students to try to obtain understanding?

Thus, the idea of creating educational efficiency, while maintaining effectiveness, is a difficult endeavor. Today there are several conversations afoot related to mastery-based, competency-based and Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) as a way to look for educational efficiencies, but we must also look at the educational effectiveness side. How do we implement these solutions so they scale economically, but remain effective? Further, how do we implement them without undermining the core financial models of higher education institutions?

While mastery-based approaches can be efficient in terms of handling a large number of students, to make them effective takes a systems approach around design, support and tutoring for one-to-one guidance when the various means of representing a concept virtually doesn’t work for a learner. Thus, to be effective, this approach requires other costs and services. Further, if we move to a true mastery-based model that tends to be a personalized path through the content, what is the impact on our traditional student information systems and financial aid models?

Like most things in our world, education is not a simple cause-and-effect model; it’s a systems environment where a change in one area will have effects in many others.

What Main Campus Can Learn From Distance Education

As we look at operational effectiveness in higher education, it would be good for us to look at what we can learn from distance education (DE) operations, both past and present. DE institutions have worked hard over the years to understand the operational cost structure of offering an effective learning experience to the learner, and the modes of delivery have varied with different economies of scale. For example, broadcast forms of DE had great scale as a one-size-fits-all model of delivering content, but it took a highly motivated autonomous learner to be successful, so the effectiveness was always in question. Further, many of the open universities spent significant funds to design and develop their courses that would be offered to hundreds of students, which provided scale and distribution of investment across many students. However, to be more effective, they established local learning centers with tutors/instructors to provide one-to-one or small group guidance. Thus, some of the cost efficiency was eroded by the need to still establish the supporting service model.

In today’s online DE models, we have different factors playing out. In general, it’s recognized that once we move beyond 30 students in an online course, the rich dialogic exchanges start to diminish as the sheer volume of posts starts to become overwhelming. Thus, while we have replicated the traditional face-to-face seminar experience online, we need to constrain ourselves in terms of scale to make the learning experience effective in a constructivist model. Also, if we look at Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), what we have witnessed is that it once again takes a highly motivated, autonomous learner to be successful in these environments with limited interaction with the instructor. As a result, the operational efficiency and scale gained in this delivery mode is not one that’s effective with all learners.

Finding the balance between educational operational efficiency and educational effectiveness is difficult. However, we must keep pushing on this challenge as external education vendors, like publishers, continue to innovate in this area. For example, Gabriel Kahn’s “College in a Box” article for looks at the effort to produce common courses at the lower division to be used by all institutions.[2] While not new nor vastly different from the open university models, the article implies the courses are starting to gain acceptance as a means of controlling tuition costs for students. We must continue to explore and push on this very interesting challenge of balancing cost efficiencies with educational effectiveness.

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[1] Marchello, J.M. (1987) Education for a technological age, Futures, 19 (5), 555-565.

[2] Kahn, G. (2014). College in a Box: Textbook giants are now teaching classes. Retrieved

September 8, 2014 from