Scalability in Distance Ed from a 2003 Lens

For a little trip down memory lane, I thought I’d pull up an article examining online scalability from about a decade ago. Laws, Howell, and Lindsay, 2003 describe the challenges of scaling distance learning models within the traditional university in Scalability and Distance Education, can we have our cake and eat it too?  Their graphic from this paper illustrates in detail how the type of learning (particularly if we look at the Bloom’s taxonomy strand in the graph) aligns with faculty effort in terms of both design and providing feedback, and how that presents challenges in terms of scalability.

(From Laws et al, 2003,  Scalability in Distance Education: “Can We Have Our Cake and Eat it Too?”)

The graphic is compelling, but conflates a series of issues that may not need to be inter-related. Scalability does not need to equate to profitability, and perhaps should not be the most salient factor for non-profit institutions of higher education, whose missions may range from wanting to provide access to undergraduate or graduate educational opportunities to diverse populations.  While it may be compelling to see the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy as the educational experiences in the earlier years of an undergraduate learning experience, it is widely understood that all educational experiences should layer contextualized and applied uses of knowledge with deep content knowledge to enhance transfer. Of course, the area where MOOCs have been identified is for subject areas where the learning is perceived to be more technical in nature, ie, computer science). Additionally, other factors identified as “not scalable” such as offering programs in a cohort model can certainly be scalable and possibly easier to manage than individual choice of courses. What rings true, however, is that the more complex the learning objectives, the more intensive the feedback and mentoring of students will be.

Since the time of this article, technology has advanced and the questions have shifted from “why incorporate technology into education” to “what are the most efficient ways to maximize the learning experience with the wide array of technologies available.”

Some of the strategies mentioned in this article, such as direct faculty-student support suggest that this article was written in the context of online courses as web-mediated content, rather than orchestrated learning experiences. Other strategies included maximizing use of TA for both course content creation or providing feedback to students and a peer support model, ie, students providing tutoring in a service learning model.

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