This may be the golden age for “do-it-yourself”. We are all creating and distributing objects, images, sounds and text in ways that not long ago required the direct, hands-on involvement of experts. “DIY” is behind the growth of blogs (e.g. Wordpress), self-publishing (e.g. Lulu), music-recording (e.g. Garage Band), podcasts (e.g. iTunes), and the emergence of a whole new category of celebrity - YouTube stars. 3D printing, in which successive layers are built up into objects under the control of a computer, appears to be next.
DIY has increased the variety of outlets for creative work, broadened the range of voices on political and social issues, and allowed individuals to promote and sell their wares on a global scale.
DIY has also played a key role in the growth of digital higher education. Individual academics, by and large, work independently to design and develop online course materials. While most institutions now have service departments in place to assist faculty, it’s still essentially a one-person effort, an approach based on classroom traditions. Not surprisingly, the key technology in digital learning - the learning management system - was designed expressly to enable individual instructors to create, manage and deliver online course content without the direct involvement of specialists.
The DIY approach to course design and development allows colleges and universities to quickly jump into online learning. But the impact of DIY on digital higher education has not been altogether positive. While it enables a quick start, the wide-scale adoption of the DIY model may be standing in the way of more instructionally effective and productivity-enhancing approaches to online teaching and learning.
The problem lies in the fact that lone instructors rarely have the time, incentives, budgets, or skill sets required to fully realize the potential of the digital format. Budgets are small to non-existent, and production schedules are notoriously short. Consequently, students are regularly presented with online courses that feature re-purposed classroom materials, such as PowerPoint slides and lecture videos. The sourcing, selection, and integration of other materials from the Internet, whether visuals, tools, assessments, texts, or case studies, takes considerable time and expertise; the pedagogically sound use of discussion boards and online group work requires new skills for instructors and students alike; and the individual creation of learning supports is often beyond the abilities and capacities of faculty. The DIY approach may not produce the quality products desired by faculty, students, and administrators.
Potential of Adaptive and Experiential Learning
Despite the best efforts of lone instructors, a whole host of instructional models and technologies simply can’t be achieved using the DIY model. New instructional models, educational technology, and media are waiting in the wings, though, that take fuller advantage of the Internet and its ability to offer an engaging mix of media, automate functions, tap into databases, and more. These tools - when built on sound principles of learning - have the potential to improve the speed with which students learn, drive down costs through economies of scale, and customize curriculum to meet the unique needs of each student. But these more advanced instructional techniques and technologies require a team of specialists, longer development schedules, and larger budgets.
Consider the three following examples:
University research concludes that providing students with frequent opportunities to apply their knowledge and receive immediate feedback is a powerful instructional technique, far better than, for example, passive absorption and infrequent feedback offered long after the student has moved on to their next effort. But of course, individual instructors are not able to create 1,000+ assessments in each course or to assess each effort. This is only possible through substantial course development, drawing on a team of specialists, significantly larger budgets, and automation.
Students come to higher education with vast differences in knowledge, learning experiences, study habits, interests, and more. And it’s long been recognized that educational experiences that cater to these differences can improve student engagement and learning outcomes. Technologies exist now to track student performance and generate meaningful estimates about what they need most. But the process of creating adaptive, customized learning is complicated, time-consuming, and demands a variety of special skills and knowledge.
Simulations allow students to learn through experience in a risk-free context. Rather than try to explain to students, for example, how interest rate changes from the Bank of Canada influence the economy, simulations allow students to experience and test these relationships - providing a much deeper, often more memorable type of learning. Creating simulations, however, requires expert-level skills in interaction design, graphics, database functionality, and programming - not to mention instructional design, content expertise, and imagination.
These more ambitious uses of instructional technology don’t fit easily into higher education’s traditional organizational structure, processes, or culture. DIY, on the other hand, reproduces the classroom model of higher education, in which the educator assumes responsibility for virtually all aspects of the student's experience.
A shift away from DIY to enable other approaches leads, inevitably, to academics working as part of a team for course development and/or relying more heavily on external providers - whether they be vendors, consortia or other entities. Each of these scenarios take us into the provocative territory of faculty autonomy, which is so fundamental to the occupation. Shifting from the one-person, DIY model to one in which faculty play a more narrow, specific role, is not necessarily a threat to faculty, but it has often been perceived that way.
If, as feared, the shift away from DIY leads to instructional content coming not from the lone instructor but from a team of professionals, either on campus or elsewhere, then the academic may be perceived as being “deskilled”; that is, one of the core functions of the occupation is taken away from the academic and done elsewhere, at least in part. Faculty are hired and rewarded primarily on the basis of subject matter knowledge. If this subject matter knowledge is produced or co-produced by others, the faculty member’s role as expert still remains as core. In addition, the faculty member assumes the role of a “facilitator of learning”.