Content strategists or e-learning developers?

As we exit this Covid panic period, when many of our institutions have had to all-too-rapidly respond to the need for online learning, I hope that they are now sitting back and thinking about their long-term strategies for pedagogies, learning materials and the cherishing of that all-important – and valuable – institutional intellectual property (IP).

Thirty years ago, when I was charged with the development of the Heriot-Watt distance (now online distance) MBA programme, those were the three key considerations I had to attend to. That institutional IP earned the university £150 million in my time there alone, but only because we were able to deliver a quality product that suited the needs of an online distance market. The pedagogy was right – simple, but effective and backed up by very fit-for-purpose learning materials.

That same trick was repeated at Heriot-Watt with the undergraduate Management Programme which, along with the success of the MBA, laid the foundation for the internationalisation of that institution.

We didn’t have a great need for e-learning development as it is now understood, but we did need educational insight to develop a pedagogy, trained authors able to produce great learning materials to a clear design, and the ability to capture and convert semantically rich IP into a high-quality product. I would imagine that in most institutions this has to be the focus again today?

The key for the Heriot-Watt MBA was a version-controlled, standards-based digital repository managing the institutional IP which was held in a semantically rich form (SGML when we started, and later XML). That is to say, the focus was on producing and exploiting semantic learning materials. This phrase may sound a bit jargonistic but I suggest you reflect on why it is appropriate within an online strategy.

Why did we not need or use e-learning developers or the equivalent? With semantically rich, fit-for-purpose learning materials, captured in a consistent, complete institutional repository, we were able to semantically interpret them to effect an optimally integrated and functional delivery into the formats and learning platforms being used.

With the institutional IP managed in standards, then this interpretation and delivery cycle was oft repeated as the delivery options changed (e.g. to include PDF, ePub 3, Kobo, etc) and the underlying technologies of the platforms came and went. I wrote the code for the first online platform which was then discarded in favour of a popular commercial offering (a mistake?), followed by another custom offering and finally – for now – another commercial one.

There is an important lesson to be learned there, namely that technologies are transient. Learning materials and their capture in rich standards have a much longer lifetime. They are also where the value is, both educationally and financially. There is a great choice of learning platform today, but most are basically equivalent. Institutions should be differentiating themselves by the quality of their pedagogy, their learning materials and their delivery & support offered to students.

For centuries we have relied on libraries to collate and dispense knowledge so why, in the 21st century, are we often content to ‘hack’ valuable learning materials into some transient technology?

Don’t be fooled by thinking of the technology and platform first. Did the experience of the UK eUniversity not teach us anything? It’s more important to have an institutional strategy for the learning materials and the institutional IP than for transient technology.

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