Scaling Online Learning

The three key ingredients.


It’s said, Henry Ford got his inspiration for the assembly line watching workers in a Chicago meatpacking plant. Each worker had a specialized role and task disassembling a particular animal into cuts for sale. Ford reversed the idea and gave workers on his car manufacturing floor a specialized piece to build to create a brand new whole, the Model T. In 1913, when Ford set in motion the first moving assembly line, it changed how we make things forever. Now production could be scaled up — more product could be made faster to get more cars to more people at lower costs.

Drive Down Costs + Improve Access

It’s a goal many in the education space would love to see happen with learning. From a philosophical perspective, “ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all”, is number four of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals and a case for creating education that can reach learners on a wider scale. On a more immediate level, scaling online offerings can help universities and schools operate more cost-effectively while expanding their reach.

“Collectively education across different sectors is really trying to bridge the access and opportunity gap. With that in mind scaling is a natural consideration.” — Margaret Dempsy

But while an assembly line works well for cars and computers, when it comes to building online learning products — this factory floor approach is not going to get learners the courses and educational experiences they deserve. Online learning needs to meet unique learner types where they are, it needs to be responsive to changing market trends and disruptive innovation. The challenge is to make this unique product without it turning into a costly bespoke item or a generic mass-produced widget.

The challenge is to make custom and effective learning experiences and programs at scale.

Scaling Education

In common business parlance, scaling is often considered synonymous with growth. But scaling is not just growth, it’s creating efficiencies with growth or “creating economies of scale.” This is defined as “a proportionate saving in costs gained by an increased level of production.” In the assembly line example, having multiple specialists repeating the same task more frequently on the line, sped up the process of making cars, which allowed Ford to build more cars for less cost. When it comes to scaling online learning, the approach has typically been a little different, most programs try to scale by taking the same product and offering it to more people.

More Than One Lever to Pull

Margaret Dempsey — “I think a lot of times when people think of scaling, they immediately kind of assume scaling is really about trying to accommodate a larger population of learners.”

But that’s not the only way to scale the production of learning products. There are actually several approaches to the design, development, deployment, and support of online learning that can create efficiencies and economies of scale.

Margaret Dempsey is Manager of Online Learning at EdPlus, Arizona State University and she has spent much of her time in higher education on exactly this problem.

Margaret Dempsey— “To me, if I were to define or demystify scaling, I would actually define it as a process with a series of considerations that all impact the course design and outcome.”

For James Genone, the Associate Dean of Academic Programs at Minerva, scaling starts long before process comes into play and begins with foundational principles.

James Genone— “When I think about what scaling means, for us, it doesn’t necessarily mean scaling exactly the same curriculum everywhere. But I think it does mean scaling those practices that underlie our curriculum.”

For both professionals, scaling has come to mean more than simply more students in seats. It’s a combination of best practice, foundational pedagogy in the design and development of learning and leveraging specialized expertise across the process.

Let’s take a look in more detail.

Scaling Pedagogy

The Minerva Project started with a desire to do higher education differently by striping learning down to its fundamentals and delivering it to students more efficiently and effectively using technology. They describe what they do as “Combining an innovative teaching methodology, an advanced educational technology called Forum™, and a structured, modular curriculum.”

James Genone — “We looked at the findings from the science of learning and asked what would it mean to build an entire curriculum, meaning 100% of every single lesson plan, based on these principles? When we started we had around 30 students and they were taking four courses.”

As Minerva’s offerings grew they streamlined their platform to leverage technological efficiencies, but their core foundational approach to curriculum design has turned out to be a key component in their ability to scale.

James Genone — “Minerva has focused on building in our students transferable general skills and knowledge in our foundational general education program. So all of our students take the same 8 courses, four per semester their freshman year. And the learning outcomes in those courses are meant to be applicable regardless of their major and across majors.”

Focusing on these transferable skills has turned out to be a transferable approach to curriculum design that can be scaled regardless of discipline to reach more students outside of the single educational or programmatic setting.

James Genone— “There are a lot of different models that education needs because they serve different audiences particularly well. That said, the core of what Minerva is doing is around effective pedagogy, effective curriculum design, and effective assessment for students and I think those are kind of universal.”

For Minerva, scaling this approach in practice means partnerships with Universities around the world to bring this methodology to a global student body, and using this fundamental approach to teach skills in new contexts.

James Genone — “To give you an example, a lot of our students are in internships through partnerships we’ve developed in private industry and non-profit and so on and employers will say we love your interns and our employees need the skills your students are getting. And we’ll say oh that’s really nice but we’re not in that business, we’re a college. But finally, we said we could do something along these lines.”

“We had this great process for developing new curriculum, so we churned out a really nice leadership curriculum for high performers and emerging leaders and we piloted it last fall. And now we’re starting to scale it up. It was really nice to see what we had done in undergraduate and masters programs transferred to a totally different context of professional learning.”

“And that’s the focus of it, the way in which we’ve brought together the best practices in a coherent way, we don’t feel like we need to serve only this one niche. We’re excited to work with partners with different backgrounds.”

This focus on fundamentals in pedagogy and universal skills supported by technology has allowed Minerva to scale way past their initial classroom offering of 4 classes for 30 students. It has allowed them to offer skills-focused classes to up to 400 students at a time to educational partners.

Scaling Processes

But this is only one way to think about scaling. In her role as Manager of Online Learning at EdPlus, Arizona State University, Margaret Dempsey has implemented an approach to program design and development that has enabled more efficient work as well as a higher volume of work to be done.

Margaret began her career in learning design, then became more involved in managing learning development teams. It was here that she began to create new ways scale through processes.

Margaret Dempsey — “We had a multi-year, multi-program project with a corporate education partner, that is a partner for the university. Originally I started out with a few multimedia developers and we had a number of modules that we needed to produce within an allocated period of time. We started with such a small team that we had to find a way to deliver a large volume of quality work with the resources that we had available.”

This was the scenario that led Margaret to create a system that has been the template for how she delivers all her learning assets and programs at scale.

Margaret Dempsey — “I created a system where essentially, everyone on the team, including instructional designers who are allocated to the specific courses can actually see at a glance, what types of core support requests were submitted to the individual team members, what the status is, and the date that they need it by. This was a way for us to all see what was submitted for the team to collectively engage. So if everybody was submitting a certain volume of requests within a given time, obviously, we have to kind of triage and prioritize.”

This team-wide transparency allows her to maximize each team members efficiency and capacity by knowing exactly what needs to be built and when. Not unlike an assembly line model, but one where each specialist on the production line can see what’s being built at any given point and adjust their work accordingly. By actively managing the production queue, she is able to maximize her team’s time, intervene sooner to alleviate bottlenecks, and even control quality and standards better.

Margaret Dempsey — “This initially started because we had the one particular partner and we had the large volume. But as we’ve had more partnerships established and more programs, the team has grown and now there’s also a lot of like studying and building prototypes, and basically deciding which are the most viable products for student learning.”

“So I think there’s the actual scaling of the creation of the content with standards and also scaling your content development team to Agile workflows. So it’s really a multi-faceted process.”

A Key Ingredient: Flexible and Specialized Teams

In both Margaret and James’ scenarios, there has been another lever they have used to scale of their efforts — and that is bringing in the right experts to contribute, create, and iterate in response to the needs of the product, at the right time in the process.

Margaret Dempsey— “I think what works best is a collaborative team-based approach.”

“And within that team, you’re probably going to have instructional designers, instructional design leads, your faculty, and subject matter experts and that’s kind of like your content team. And then you also have your staff that helps support that content team with the actual development. So that could be multimedia developers and graphic designers. We also have some instructional design assistants that may actually help build out the quizzes and projects.”

“Once the content is designed and ready to implement, the teams from the learning management system platform come in. Lastly, it’s also important to make sure that you have people who can either act as a focus group and/or provide feedback, to improve the course before it’s delivered. There’s a variety of people, that when you think about it, are really behind the actual design and delivery of the course.”

The Goldilocks Approach

Structuring the input from these specialists, to have it at the right time in the design and development process, is critical to finding efficiencies at scale. Bring media, content creators, or technologists in too early, before you’ve decided on strategy or learning approach and they aren’t able to meaningfully contribute — you waste their time and your money. Likewise, bring SME faculty, curriculum designers on too late and you miss the opportunity to establish clear guiding pedagogical principles and get time and cost-saving ideas and insight.

Keep everyone on all the time and too long and you eat up their capacity and burn up your budget by not staggering their involvement allowing them to contribute to other projects.

The goal then is to find an agile approach to utilizing your teams’ expertise that is, as Goldie Locks might say, “just right.”

James Genone — “We looked to the kind of development strategies that our software team was using and thought much more like a business than most academics do because we had such a big team. We needed to manage that team effectively.”

Bringing in the right expertise at the right time with an agile approach is an essential step you can take to ensure it’s not just a case of workers building their part of a widget on the assembly line in isolation.

Margaret Dempsey — “As educators, I think our main objectives are to provide access to education, but also to ensure that it’s a quality experience. So I wouldn’t say the main objective is scaling, but being able to adapt lesson content and course design to serve a growing number of global learners and make sure that we are creating something that’s going to have a meaningful impact for the audience.”

A Note From Teamed

If you have been following this series on talent in online learning development, you know by now that we believe a key ingredient to launching successful online programs and products is the right people, at the right time. Whether it’s to strategize, design, develop or scale, Teamed was founded on the idea that professionals with deep expertise and passion are the latest and most important tool in online learning. That without the right experts on your team to leverage breakthroughs in learning science, content creation and technology, the online learning provided will be left behind. Our mission is to connect creators to that talent, make it easy to build your team with top new employees and flex your workforce up when needed with contractors. The future of learning is changing, we’ve got the team you need.

About the Authors

Sarah Hutt is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and author. Her writing has made the NY Times Best Seller list and she is a Publisher’s Weekly Starred Reviewed author of nonfiction works for children and young adults. She has brought storytelling to the online courseroom and classroom for educational clients like Girls Who Code, McGraw-Hill, Focus Curriculum, and is a founding team member of SEI Studios, Strategic Education Inc’s in-house production studio and story lab. Sarah is the owner of Cave Productions, offering design thinking workshops, content strategy, creation, and story consulting services.

Ashley Lonie is the Founder of Teamed, a staffing agency and talent marketplace for the online learning and development industry. She is an experienced educator, learning designer, and leader in online learning design and development.


Teamed Editorial

August 18, 2019

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