UX Design

How should traditional universities deliver wholly online learning?

I’ve worked with several traditional higher education institutions over the last few years that have been in the process of building a capability for wholly online course delivery. I think it’s worth exploring the ways in which this can be accomplished and some of the pitfalls that I’ve observed.

Firstly let’s look at organisational models. I see three broad approaches to design, development and delivery of wholly online courses. These are:

  1. Set up an internal, central organisation
  2. Create a semi autonomous, associated organisation
  3. Partner with an external service provider

Let’s look at each in turn.

Internal, central organisation

This involves creating a distinct grouping within the HEI that is normally tied to the teaching and learning governance function. This group will comprise of learning designers, online learning developers and project managers as well as the usual organizational management functions. These staff will be employed under normal university conditions and existing university work practices. The organisational unit is physically located close to faculty members. Courses are designed and developed in continual discussion with the faculty member who ‘owns’ the course; also known as the subject matter expert (SME). In practice it is often the SME that dictates the way that the course is designed and delivered.

This group will work with targeted courses and programs to design and develop the course. The actual course delivery will be done by the faculty member who ‘owns’ the course along with specialist tutors depending on the number of enrolments.

Courses and programs are generally delivered through a traditional learning management system although they are often set up as separate organisational instances of the LMS rather than being part of the main university LMS.

Semi-autonomous, associated organisation

In this case a semi-autonomous organisations are created by the HEI that operate by their own distinct work practices with the aim of developing a distinct culture. Sometimes this is done with an external partner organisation who may provide business services capabilities such as HR, finance and technical support.

Such organisations are often deliberately located at some distance from faculty members. They consist of learning designers, online learning developers, project managers and associated organisational services as described above. Importantly, they will also consist of academics who have broad experience the course and programs being  delivered and understand how online delivery works. Their role is not primarily as subject matter experts (SMEs) for particular courses or programs; rather they are expected to provide an academic overview to provide a level of credibility to the courses and to liaise at the academic level with SMEs.

Courses are designed and developed by the learning designer. There is formalised, and limited, liaison with the SME and this essentially consists of a transfer of existing course content and time spent allowing the learning designer to understand the aims and objectives of the course.

Theoretically all of the courses designed and developed in this model are based on an overarching pedagogical model. This is the model that the learning designer will work to rather than any preference of the SME.

Courses are delivered in the same way as central organisations i.e they use separate instances of the HEI LMS. They use specialist tutors to support learners from an academic perspective a specialist support staff to provide non academic support.

External service providers

There are several commercial services that provide a design, develop, operate model in which they work with SMEs from a HEI to develop wholly online courses. They then receive a share of the income from student fees for the course. These can be as high as 50%.

The model is that learning designers from the commercial service will take the existing course content and translate this into a wholly online version of the existing course. Companies that provide this service often make a point of saying how closely and carefully they work with faculty SMEs.

Courses are delivered either via the institution LMS or via the vendors LMS. Delivery may done by the partner or by the HEI with the partner generally providing technical support if their infrastructure is being used.


The delivery of courses wholly online is a much more complex endeavour than most people think. It requires a team of people to create a successful learner experience. The faculty SME is just one member of a team. This can be difficult for some SMEs to come to terms with. In this case it helps to have a formalised relationship between the learning designer and the SME with determined touchpoints and expected outcomes. The power relationship between faculty SME and learning designer can be problematic. For this reason it helps to develop as team with the members present at all meetings. Similarly, it can help for the organisation to be physically remote from the faculty to avoid the ‘pop in and change things’ interactions between SME and learning designer.

In a similar vein I think it’s important that the organisational unit responsible for delivery of wholly online be a distinct, semi autonomous organisation in its own right. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly there is a strong tendency in traditional HEIs for non academic organisational units to be seen purely as service organisations. This sets up a power arrangement that is not conducive to the team approach necessary for design, delivering and developing wholly online learning. The second reason is that I agree with Christensen and Overdorf (2000) who argue that one of the best ways for established organisations to cope with disruptive change is to set up semi-autonomous organisational units. These units are free from the existing organisational culture and work practices. They are smaller, more nimble, they are unrestrained by unrealistic HR policy that prevent the best practitioners from being employed.

There is actually a long history of such organisational units going back over 600 years. I’m talking about University Presses. They were established to cope with the disruption caused by the arrival of print. There is surely a parallel here.

So what about using external vendors? I have to admit that I have the least experience of working with such service providers. Many years ago I thought this model would be a logical development. I now have concerns having seen the development of such service providers. Firstly I am unconvinced that the intellectual property developed by public universities should be the basis of profits generated by a private company. I know that many will disagree. I do think there is a role for specialist private companies to provide educational development services to HEIs as contractors/consultants. It’s the notion of ongoing fee income sharing that doesn’t sit well with me. Maybe if the fee split between the HEI and the service provider wasn’t so eye wateringly large in favour of the service provider I’d feel different.

Finally, there is surely an inevitable tendency for such providers to maximise their profits through designing to a basic pattern that is most economic to develop rather than representing the best pedagogy or learner experience.

What would I do?

So playing fantasy Vice Chancellor/President I would:

  1. Create a semi-autonomous organisational unit to manage the design, development and delivery of wholly online courses. No surprise there.
  2. Ensure that there was a very clear process for each stage, that it is clearly a team enterprise and that the subject matter expert (whilst a crucial member of the team) is just that an SME.
  3. Ensure all members of the team are given credit for the production including the delivery team.
  4. Ensure that the learner experience1 is considered at every stage and this inevitably leads to…
  5. Deliver the courses using a beautiful and highly usable interface for learners using all types of devices. Definitely not your HEI LMS which represents the lowest common denominator of learning environments.
  6. Make sure that my learners have transformational experiences not just functional ones

What would you do?

Christensen, Clayton M., and Michael Overdorf. ‘Meeting the Challenge of Disruptive Change’. Harvard Business Review, 1 March 2000. https://hbr.org/2000/03/meeting-the-challenge-of-disruptive-change.

  1. To find out more about learner experience in tertiary education visit lxdesign.co

Feature image licensed CC BY 2.o by Luca Mascaro https://flic.kr/p/ekFR7y

Addendum 8th May, 2016

As a follow up, I should note that the point about transformative and functional experiences are made Joyce Seitzinger in her keynote presentation to the DEANZ conference. The slideshare is available here.

4 Comments On “How should traditional universities deliver wholly online learning?”

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  4. Hi Mark,

    I’m interested in your comment:

    Deliver the courses using a beautiful and highly usable interface for learners using all types of devices. Definitely not your HEI LMS which represents the lowest common denominator of learning environments.

    Are there any beautiful and highly usable interfaces that you can recommend?



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