Strategies for scaling up quality online courses in higher education

Submitted by miranda.prynne on Mon, 23/11/2020 - 12:21
As remote and blended learning models look set to remain in place, universities need to consider how to scale online courses while maintaining quality. Michael Fried and Jenna Joo outline three effective scaling strategies
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The disruption of the spring 2020 academic term because of the Covid-19 pandemic forced many higher education institutions to think deeply about online learning. As the reliance on online or hybrid learning continues through the fall 2020 term - and beyond - there are additional opportunities for institutions to strategically approach online course development and delivery.   

In a recently published research paper, we demonstrated how three strategies, individually or in tandem, could be used to scale up online learning offerings to serve more students while maintaining or even improving the quality of those offerings. While the guide was focused on expanding the delivery of introductory online mathematics courses, the strategies for doing so effectively and efficiently are applicable to other academic areas as well. 

We describe the strategies below with helpful considerations for those looking to implement each and examples of US-based institutions whose experiences may prove instructive. 

Master course shell 

This approach involves a central team of subject matter experts, instructional design and support staff developing a course shell, or framework, with all the materials for the course aligned with the institution’s learning objectives and quality standards. This is then sent out to multiple instructors all teaching different sections of the same course with some flexibility to introduce customised content.  

Providing this academic structure can mitigate instructors’ variable experience with online teaching and mean greater coherence in the course. It frees up faculty time, enabling them to focus more on high-impact student interactions and personalised instruction. Institutions may also see a financial saving that results from coordinating course development costs and timelines.  

This approach does require more centralised control of the curriculum at the course level than academic administrators usually exercise, so cultivating the support of the faculty is essential. Successful implementation rests on the ability to cultivate and sustain a high degree of coordination and collaboration among faculty, administrators and instructional support staff. It is important to bring the relevant stakeholders together in the early stages to devise a plan, decide on roles and responsibilities, and determine the workflow.  

One institution that has integrated this approach throughout its online curriculum is Arizona State University (ASU). Subject matter experts and instructional designers work together to prepare, or review, each course, which the learning management system (LMS) ensures will be delivered consistently to all students in all sections, in alignment with the institution’s standards for accessibility and branding. 

Jointly designed courses 

This approach relies on collaboration among multiple instructors within a single institution or across a network of institutions to jointly design and deliver courses. Each contributing faculty member can draw on their expertise and skill set to collectively expose students to diverse applications of concepts in a variety of contexts, thereby enhancing the quality of learning. By working together to identify learning outcomes, produce content and design appropriate assessments, faculty can consider different perspectives, learn new ways of thinking, reflect on their own teaching philosophies, and discover new teaching methods and technologies. The collaborative approach can foster a sense of community and reduce the overall burden on each participant. Jointly developed courses can then be shared with other instructors and institutions to achieve economies of scale and can be delivered by an individual or a team. 

Collaboration almost always requires more effort and time to plan and execute than going it alone, so there must be clear reasons and incentive for taking a collaborative approach to course design and delivery. Such an approach requires a central team to provide leadership, project management and coordination throughout the development processes; thus it is reliant on widespread endorsement and ongoing institutional support in order to thrive.  

Liberal Arts Collaborative Digital Innovation (LACOL) is a consortium of 10 selective, private liberal arts colleges that leverages consortial relationships to promote excellent and innovative teaching and learning in the liberal arts, with a special emphasis on using and adopting emerging technologies. Teams of faculty, librarians, technologists and academic support specialists engage across the consortium to develop, share and assess the most effective modes of digital teaching and learning.  

Outsourcing instruction 

In this approach, institutions outsource instruction of individual courses to other credible institutions or third-party providers to help meet internal capacity issues, while helping students progress more efficiently by tapping into a broad set of vetted courses. The third-party providers administer the entire instructional package on an online platform. The ability to cater to student needs effectively and efficiently enables institutions with limited resources to retain students and support their academic progress while also maintaining the institution’s financial viability.  

This practice is ubiquitous among consortial relationships in higher education, although historically, it tended to be limited to small groups of neighbouring colleges and focused primarily on sharing in-person courses. Newer initiatives take advantage of technology to allow students to take online courses from schools all over the country. Institutions need to carefully consider concerns over quality control of such courses, equity in student outcomes and diminished faculty roles when making decisions about outsourcing. 

Acadeum is a third-party organisation that partners with a network of more than 200 institutions to enable them to share courses across over a dozen existing higher education consortia. Its digital platform enables vetting and approval of shared courses for individual institutions, makes it easy for students to explore course offerings and electronically request registration, and provides an automated inter-college payments system.  

Each of these strategies can each be effective on its own but could also be implemented alongside the others for potentially greater impact. For instance, jointly creating and offering a course with another institution using a master course shell would split the development cost while expanding the number of sections available. 

The pandemic has thrust online learning to the forefront of many conversations about the future of higher education. As more students, instructors and administrators become familiar with this learning modality, there will be ever more opportunities to expand offerings. It will be essential to do so in a way that improves both quality and efficiency for all participants in the process. 


Michael Fried is a researcher and Jenna Joo is a senior analyst both at Ithaka S+R.

As remote and blended learning models look set to remain in place, universities need to consider how to scale up online courses while maintaining or enhancing the quality. In their recent research, Michael Fried and Jenna Joo outline three effective scaling strategies