Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Course Development vs Deployment

With one week to go before classes start on the UT Austin campus, the inevitable end of semester panic looms.  One thinks of all the good intentions, the long to-do lists, that marked those halcyon days of late May and early June, when time seemed to be an infinite resource.  Now, in the dog days of August, it is time for the reckoning.

My primary goal this summer was to have an online version of my large-enrollment Introduction to Ancient Rome class ready to go live via the UT Austin Extension School (the current home for all online courses).  This version of the course would be priced at $350 and was aimed primarily at students who were not paying flat-rate tuition as full-time UT Austin students.  I had also hoped that I would be able to work through the cumbersome bureaucracy to get a section of the online course opened to UT Austin students, i.e., students who were paying flat-rate tuition and who would be able to opt for the online version at no extra cost.

One of the biggest lessons of the summer was coming to grips with the distinction between course development and course deployment, that is, making the course available to students.  While the development work was largely in my power, the deployment process relies almost entirely on the decisions of others.  In particular, it relies on the policies and infrastructure of the residential campus.  When I began the development process back in the early Spring, I knew that the policies and infrastructure were not in place.  I spent many months having conversations with the relevant actors about the need for such policies.  I was assured that everything would be in place by the early summer.  As so often happens, however, this hasn't been the case.  So we find ourselves in a somewhat interesting position: a course that has been developed but still largely not available to the students it is intended to serve.

I'm reasonably optimistic that, over the next few weeks, the wrinkles will get ironed out.  At the same time, the immense amount of time and energy that I've spent navigating "back end" issues related to the deployment of the course (e.g. getting it open to registration) has been an important lesson.  We faculty generally don't deal with much of the back end aspects of the university (staffing appointments, marketing, opening courses for registration, managing registration) and tend to think of our job as complete at the point of course development and classroom delivery.  At institutions that are not well-situated to support team-teaching or interdisciplinary course offerings, we might have some sense of how infrastructure can get in the way; yet, on the whole, we are able to ignore issues of policy and infrastructure.

As more campuses are investing serious resources in the creation and management of digital assets, including online courses (but also hybrid or blended courses), it is going to be crucial that they first create at least some basic guiding policies and supporting infrastructure to support the deployment of developed courses.  Yes, it is expensive and difficult to develop digital assets; but, without solid infrastructure and clear institutional policy in place, the work of course development will ultimately be for naught.

In my own case, a lot of the hiccups can be attributed to being on the front lines.  I expect that, even a year from now, my institution will have more clear processes and policies in place.  I expect that getting courses open to registration will happen in a far more timely and effective manner.  I would certainly hope that we would be doing a better job of working with other campuses in our system to allow for a more seamless enrollment process.  In the 18 months or so that I have been involved in conversations about online education on my campus, it seems that we all know what the main obstacles are; but, even a year later, very little progress has been made on finding solutions to those obstacles.  I hope that, as we offer more for-credit online courses, this situation will change.

Most importantly, it will require a serious investment of time and careful thinking to develop clear policies as well as a fully scoped out and adequately staffed infrastructure.  Finally, it will take a clear recognition of the difference between course development and course deployment.  There are faculty who are willing to be "early adopters", the experimenters out on the front lines, but it will be difficult to sustain this energy and interest unless the institution puts in place all the "back-end" support that is so crucial in bringing courses to students.

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