A Chicken-Egg Dilemma

By Carol A. Twigg
Educom Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, May/June 1995

High quality, interactive learning materials exemplify potentially new, exciting ways to think about delivering higher education. Many colleges anduniversities have tried to realize this potential by encouraging individual
faculty members to develop instructional software. In many cases, these efforts have been generously supported by granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education, and by various corporate entities. But despite the potential offered by such materials, many in our community have noted the failure of most institutions--even those who have worked hard to create them--to integrate their use into their academic programs.

Several explanations have been offered for this state of affairs. Citing the literature of diffusion, some believe the problem has as its source misguided strategies that focus on "early adopters" to the detriment of
so-called mainstream faculty. (See, for example, William Geoghegan's "Stuck at the Barricades: Can Information Technology Really Enter the Mainstream of Teaching and Learning?") A more obvious explanation, also drawn from the diffusion literature, is that mainstream faculty (read, most people) want
"proven applications of compelling value" in order to change the way they go about their work, and these applications simply do not exist at the college level. The ad hoc creation of learning materials by individual faculty and institutions has not resulted in the sustainable production of such
compelling applications.

Commercial publishers and technology companies have created materials as well. Publishers have also tended to work with individual faculty members to develop and evaluate their materials, mimicking textbook development and marketing strategies where faculty members both write textbooks and make
purchasing decisions. Because of relatively high upfront development costs for interactive materials, however, this strategy cannot be easily transferred to their development.

The absence of a critical mass of technology-mediated higher education learning materials may be attributed to a sense on the part of commercial entities that, unlike K-12, there is no viable market among colleges and universities. Critical to the creation of a robust market for interactive learning materials is the involvement of publishing and digital industries whose business is the development, production, distribution, and marketing of educational products. Without their involvement, the ad hoc production of interactive materials by individual faculty and institutions will remain the

This state of affairs has a chicken-egg-like quality. Higher education institutions want and need high quality solutions to the instructional problems they face; publishers have an interest in providing those
solutions. Why are we not able to resolve this dilemma and create a viable market for interactive learning materials?

I suggest that we need to approach this dilemma strategically. Rather than working on this problem individually, colleges and universities could join together to issue an RFP to the commercial sector requesting the development of interactive learning materials according to a predefined set of specifications. We might begin by targeting those academic areas where change is most needed-- whether driven by educational ineffectiveness, by economic necessity, or both. Courses or subject areas enrolling a large
number of post-secondary students or serving as a pre-requisite for further study in many areas should be the focus of our effort.

Let's use remedial or developmental studies as an example. National estimates indicate that between one- and two-thirds of all college freshmen need some kind of remedial work in subjects such as pre- calculus
mathematics, expository writing, reading, study skills and English as a second language. Furthermore, many of these subjects are taught in a variety of non-collegiate environments including corporate training programs, workforce development programs, adult literacy programs, and, of course, in high school. Repeated failures are costly to both providers and consumers. Since current teaching methodologies are highly labor intensive, institutions spend millions of dollars collectively addressing this problem.
Clearly, successfully integrating technology into remedial efforts would reap huge benefits for all educational sectors. For these reasons, commercial publishers already see the remedial area as a viable market for
commercial development.

A coalition of significant colleges and universities could issue an RFP for the development of interactive remedial learning materials. The initiating partners would be drawn from those institutions with the interest,
commitment, experience and size to guarantee a substantial market--e.g., large systems like SUNY, CSU, CUNY; state-level governing bodies; large community college districts; and large universities. Unlike individual faculty members who are interested in improving "my course" or helping "my students" or solving "my problem," institutions or systems are responsible for serving all students and concurrently managing costs; consequently, they are interested in solving the remedial problem on the scale necessary to
create a viable market.

The RFP would be issued to publishers, assessment experts, and digital industries, specifying what the institutions want, and would include a commitment from them to purchase and use the materials once developed and approved.

Here are some suggested design specifications. The materials should:

* produce learning outcomes equivalent to or better than what can be achieved by traditional methods;

* be modularized to allow for flexible use on the part of diverse institutions;

* incorporate examples appropriate for student audiences ranging from teen-agers to mature working adults;

* be available in a variety of formats corresponding to different learning styles;

* be constructed so that learners weak in a particular topic have to complete only the material that addresses their particular deficiency (e.g., open-entry, open-exit);include pre-assessment of student learning to ascertain learning style and point of entry and post-
assessment upon completion to certify that learning has occurred;

* be network-accessible; and,

* be based on non-proprietary, system-independent technological standards.

By emphasizing modularity and pre-defined outcomes, such specifications would allow multiple companies to respond to the RFP and to develop pieces of materials according to their interest and expertise. Establishing technological requirements would ensure that the pieces will work together.

A key part of the process is to create the circumstances where faculty can say, "As long as it has X, I will use it." In preparing the RFP, institutional leaders need to be sure that faculty are involved in delineating the required content--the learning outcomes--of the materials as well as their form. Publishers would be required to work with participating faculty at each stage of development. The involvement of appropriate faculty from the beginning as well as a clear commitment by institutional leaders to change the way remedial education is offered is critical to guaranteeing institutional purchase and use. Without this commitment--that is, viewing the integration of interactive learning materials as part of a long-term plan for changing the way institutions do business--adoption will be unlikely.

Resolving chicken-egg dilemmas often depends on deciding who goes first. I say, it's higher education's move.

Return to Top of Article