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Strategic Directions | Feature

Why You Now Need a Team to Create and Deliver Learning

A Q&A with Daniel Christian

"Higher education institutions that intentionally move towards using a team-based approach to creating and delivering the majority of their education content and learning experiences will stand out and be successful over the long run."
— Daniel Christian

Institutions employing a team-based approach to the creation and delivery of education content and experiences will differentiate themselves and succeed, even as the pace of change — both in technology and in the disciplines — accelerates, says Daniel Christian, a senior instructional designer at Calvin College. Teams, comprised of a range of technology and subject content specialists, will be structured and function differently at each institution, but they all share a prime advantage: the ability to guide their institutions to thrive in higher education's increasingly competitive environment. CT explored the idea with Christian.

Mary Grush: Faculty who have worked in higher education for many years may, understandably, think of their teaching mostly as their own, "solo" effort. But now, there's a growing need — in fact, you say, a critical need — for institutions to take a team-based approach to creating and delivering learning experiences. Can you tell me what you mean by that?

Daniel Christian: Sure. Let me start, though, by clarifying the scope of most of my following comments. I'm focusing my reflections here on the academic portion of the collegiate experience — that is, what learners see/read/do/experience within the context of a "class" — whether their classroom space is online, blended, or face-to-face. For this conversation I won't be able to address the wide range of other important benefits and arenas of a collegiate experience such as networking, maturing into an adult, being within a community of peers, attending activities on campus, co-curricular work, and so forth.

Grush: You are also not really talking about the particular model or structure of the course — such as collaborative or team learning: What you are talking about, then, is course production, is that correct?

Christian: Yes, that's true. But it's really more than that. It's the production and delivery of the whole learning experience. In this sense, the production is focused on the learner's needs; it's not just using technology to produce content.

That said, let's take a high-level look at what is really a multi-faceted argument for taking this team-based approach. I fully realize that the concept is not new; many institutions — especially those heavily into online learning — are already using a team-based approach, and of course, some have for many years.

But what patterns emerge for the majority of institutions? If we were to poll 1,000 faculty members from a variety of institutions, and ask them who creates the content that they use in their classrooms, what would the data say? My guess is we'd find that some content comes from faculty members themselves, some from the teams at various publishing companies, some is developed through faculty collaborations internally, and some is gleaned from open source avenues. So course content is already, almost by definition, coming from multiple sources.

The question — elephant-in-the-room style — then becomes: What production levels does the resulting course content fall into? Low? Medium? High? How well done and polished is the content? This is where institutions need to take control and build teams charged with the creation and delivery of top-notch course content.

Grush: So a major facet of your argument for a team-based approach relates to production values?

Christian: Yes. It may sound simple, but as one who's been on the front lines of content production and delivery, I can tell you it's actually a complex area that increasingly requires an entire team of specialists.

Grush: Who would be on this team?

Christian: You might find — along with subject matter experts like faculty — specialists in digital video, digital audio, graphic design, instructional design, user experience design, Web design, programming and software engineering, accessibility and Section 508 compliance, animation, script writing/narrative, rights management, content management, project management, and more…

Teams will look and function differently at different institutions, but one thing is clear: It's becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for one person to "do it all". Does any single faculty member, even one who chooses to immerse him or herself in technology, have all the skill sets, hardware, software, and facilities or technical resources to produce consistent, high-quality content? I don't think so… at least that would be a rare person indeed.

Various, specialized contributing roles are now necessary, so we build teams.

Grush: Getting back for a moment to the teaching faculty, what's the advantage for them?

Christian: We should keep in mind that for the most important member of the team, the teaching faculty member, it takes tremendous time and effort just to remain current and effective in one's own field, much less keep up with education technology change. As a savvy faculty team member you will leverage the team process in a way that will allow you to spend more time extending the reach of your content and professional work — rather than struggling to get personally up to date on the latest Photoshop tool enhancement.

Grush: Does there need to be a lead content producer?

Christian: We know that teams are going to be structured and function differently at different institutions. The main idea though, is that institutions would do best to recognize the need for a team approach, and proceed to create their own teams for course content production and delivery.

Grush: What about the notion of self-publishing and the argument that now anyone can be a content producer?

Christian: Low-budget productions can work — we've all seen examples of highly successful ones — and perhaps a "Mom and Pop" learning experience is actually fine and may even be preferred by some people in certain instances. However, I'm thinking as education technologies evolve, and new possibilities unfold before us, one-off personal faculty productions just won't be a good option for institutions to entertain going forward.

Grush: How does this all fit in with student needs and expectations?

Christian: We're constantly reminded of the growing expectations of students, and the core technologies institutions need to have in place just to keep up with ever more sophisticated demands from constituents. Yes, those core technologies may include some social software, but the overall production and delivery of course content will still benefit from higher production values when it comes to satisfying constituents.

For example, given the following choices, which online or blended course would you choose to take?

Option #1: This online or blended course has content that is mainly composed of black-and-white text, with an occasional graphic or photo. There are links out to other articles and occasional links to videos on external sites.

Option #2: This course features interactive, highly sophisticated, polished, professionally done content, including:

 - Educational games and interactive activities complete with incentive and scoring systems for additional motivation

 - The use of digital storytelling

 - Interactive videos and eLearning modules

 - A choice for how you want to learn/review each major piece of content (text/graphics, digital audio, digital video, animations)

Option #3: This course uses sophisticated technology to offer you a personalized approach through the content. Feedback on how you are progressing is sent to the faculty member for their review. Audio/video feedback is available 24/7 from the faculty member to the students, from students-to-students, and from students to the faculty member. Tools are available for you to collaborate with the faculty member and with other students at any time. Virtual reality and augmented reality-based exercises are provided.

Grush: Aren't you stacking the deck a bit here?

Christian: Okay, maybe… Still, although they are fictional scenarios, these three examples are based on real technologies and do serve to make a point. My guess is you would choose either Option #2 or Option #3. These more engaging courses are built with options that require the use of teams of specialists to execute. The institution, in order to provide these choices for you, will have to step up to the bar and build the team that will create these options for you.

Grush: Could you cite some additional rationale for taking a team-based approach?

Christian: There are ample issues to consider, for example a team-based approach could raise the possibility of more affordable business models: Core content could be repurposed or remixed. The use of teams and pooled resources (even with other institutions or consortia) could help deliver the basic content and do much of the heavy lifting of teaching a given course.

Another big advantage to the team strategy is that having multiple team members fosters diverse perspectives. Decision making power shifts to a team of people, not just one person; this brings in additional and potentially fresh ideas. Teams may delegate the responsibility of tracking certain trends to member X or member Y; they might even add a new "hat" to the collective team membership if they want to employ a new technology that's been on their radar screen.

Better use of faculty and instructional time may be hard to measure, but there are huge advantages when faculty are freed up to teach, address particular questions, or to orchestrate hands-on activities. The "flipping the classroom" model helps to illustrate these types of affordances.

Your team is more than instructional design on steroids. It's the strategic use of human resources to bring students a substantially better education experience and raise the bar for the quality of education offered by your institution.

Still, to offer you perhaps the most compelling reason institutions may want to consider a team-based approach, I think I'll circle back to what I was talking about at the beginning of this interview, relevant to the opportunity to create institutional advantage: Higher education institutions that intentionally move towards using a team-based approach to creating and delivering the majority of their education content and learning experiences will stand out and be successful over the long run.

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