Online Learning

A Low-Cost, DIY System for Distributing Course Materials

A parallel learning object distribution system can give programs at small regional institutions a competitive edge — and offer students anywhere, any time access to the course materials they need to succeed.

Having spent decades in Fortune 500 corporations and almost as long in universities, I have noticed that they are a lot more the same than different. One aspect is identical: You better make a good bit more money for your organization than its cost to keep you employed, or your job will disappear faster than the babysitter's boyfriend when the car pulls up. Sports programs and the Music/Theatre/Dance folks can stay afloat in spite of red ink because their products (games, concerts, performances) are rightly considered cultural necessities on every campus. All other programs need to plan on showing a healthy profit. If you are running a graduate Instructional Technology program at a modestly sized state-funded regional institution, like mine at West Texas A&M University, that can require considerable ingenuity.

Balancing the books will only get more difficult in the future. It used to be that regional institutions could rely on a natural constituency of nearby students, who were only comfortable with their local culture and wanted Mom's home cooking every weekend. But with the advent of online course delivery, nationwide advertising by many institutions, aggressive recruiting by for-profit colleges, and an ever-increasing interest on the part of major research universities in enrolling students from across the country, that default market is much slimmer now. Today's state regionals compete against institutions that have far more resources, name recognition, advertising dollars, and academic specialists in tightly-defined niche markets (like biocomputation and artificial intelligence).

The only way to flourish under these market conditions is to add value in ways that the more glamorous 800-pound gorillas can't duplicate. Regionals like mine need to be warmer, gentler, more understanding and more accommodating than their better endowed competitors every step of the way — but that is not enough. We also need to look for ways to turn our limitations into advantages.

One way we do this in my Master's of Education in Instructional Design and Technology (IDT) program is with our Parallel Learning Object Distribution system (PLOD). PLOD is not the world's loveliest acronym, but having helped us to grow our program from near-extinction to more than 120 graduate students in just a few years, I think it is as pretty as can be. PLOD is something our modest tugboat of a school can implement successfully and the huge, high-prestige cruise ships cannot. That is because PLOD is only feasible when an entire program is controlled by just a few professors, who are all willing to put their professional egos aside and work together hand-in-glove.

How It Works

The concept of PLOD is simple. Almost every institution distributes learning objects for its online courses through a learning management system, such as Blackboard, Desire2Learn or eCollege. There are solid institutional reasons for using these systems to distribute standard course elements such as syllabi, study guides, instructor-created movies, project instructions and exemplary sample projects from previous students. PLOD supplements these systems with parallel, inexpensive cloud-storage databases containing the exact same learning objects.

PLOD systems are controlled not by the institution but by each individual program. And now for the secret sauce: The entire PLOD system for a given program is made available to every student in the program, on a 24/7/365 basis, from the day they first inquire about the program until after they graduate, and regardless of what courses they take. The biggest hurdle is the paradigm shift the professors must make from giving students just what they pay for when they pay for it to giving students everything you've got that will help them succeed.

PLOD systems are quick and easy to build. They are also laughably inexpensive. I currently maintain a PLOD database for 14 technically oriented courses. My total storage footprint on Google Drive is 23 GB. This includes roughly 15 hours of instructor-created movies for each course. To ensure plenty of expansion room, I pay Google for 100 GB of Cloud storage. The bill is $2.12 a month!

If my program was taught by six or eight faculty who needed to continually negotiate with each other about program structure and function, if certain courses were constantly being shifted from one instructor to another, or if multiple professors each had their own inflexible concepts about how a given course must be organized, having a PLOD system would be completely unmanageable. After all, the need to manage changes in multiple places is exactly what Blackboard and other institution-wide learning management systems were created to avoid, right? But for a modestly sized program with a well-established set of goals and few hands stirring the pot, a PLOD system can have remarkable advantages that are well worth the modest effort.

Benefits During Recruitment

Since WTAMU does no advertising for its M.Ed. in IDT program, my students are my sales force. Very few of my graduate students were WTAMU undergraduates. Virtually all my current students came to the program either through contact with other students, or through positive internet buzz.

The best way to assure that the highest possible percentage of my students are happy, they graduate with marketable new skills, and they get a new or better job after graduation is to have prospects know exactly what they are getting into before they sign up. Our PLOD system makes that a trivial task. If a student seems like a good fit during the half-hour pre-admission interview, I give them access to the PLOD and ask them to spend a weekend sampling my instructional movies and student project descriptions from the various technical courses. They also get access to former students' exemplary projects for each of these courses. Only after they confirm that they have engaged with all that, liked what they saw, and know exactly what they can expect to achieve do we finalize admission to the program. Prospects get enthusiastic about what they are going to learn because they can readily see how practical and helpful to their careers the new skills will be. The very fact that I am willing to show all my cards face up at the start of the game makes it clear that I have confidence in our product, which helps them to have confidence in the product, too.

This only works if you have all your materials in place and you really feel good about showing them off. While students understand that courses will sometimes be revised before they get a chance to enroll, you don't want to be guilty of systematic bait-and-switch. What they see must be what they get. In practice, this means that each course must be completed and posted before the first day that it is offered. This is something that large departments in huge institutions that are constantly introducing new faculty cannot do. PLOD systems require you to think at the program level, rather than conceiving of each section of each course as one professor's personal turf surrounded by intellectual razor wire. This is all to the good.

Benefits During a Student's Program

The most obvious benefit of a PLOD system is simple redundancy. A few years ago, our entire university's learning management system was down for two or three days at the beginning of the fall semester. My IDT students were the only online students on campus who were not totally dead in the water. I simply used e-mail to remind them all to go out to the PLOD system and that the due date of their first assignments would not change.

As all regional colleges know, dropped courses can be a big problem. Some years ago, WTAMU instituted a tuition penalty for students who drop too many courses and extend their college careers for too many years. A prime reason for dropping courses is that students do not truly understand "what they are getting into" in a particular course. They may be unclear about the subject matter, expectations or anticipated learning outcomes. A standard syllabus is of only limited help, particularly when it is loaded up with all the institutionally required boilerplate nonsense that is now the norm.

A PLOD system helps cut drops by making advisement a snap. If a student is unclear whether they should take Course A or Course B in the upcoming semester, I simply ask them to consult the PLOD system and sample the instructor-created movies, syllabus and project instructions for each course under consideration.

My students often want to take more technical courses than fit into their programs because they want the additional skills or just for fun. I see no reason to make them pay more for these courses. PLOD systems offer a simple way to get the materials for some extra courses into their hands. Our 36-credit program is just like the Donut Shoppe down the street. Buy 12 courses, get one (or more) free!

Another much-adored benefit of our PLOD system is the ability to work ahead. This would be unmanageable in a program with a highly dynamic organization but it works just fine in my environment. Let's say a student wants to take a particularly demanding course that is only offered in the fall. She knows she won't be able to get it done during her son's high school football season, but she does have time for it during the previous summer. So she goes out to the PLOD, gets the materials and does the work on her laptop at the beach cabana. When fall comes around, she registers for the course, hands in the already completed work and is done. (I am always willing to provide support for any of my courses at any time. I will also take a "sneak peek" at students' advance work, if they request it, to make sure they are on track.)

This works particularly well for our December/January and May short intersession courses. The Christmas holiday courses are always very popular because virtually no one actually does the work during the holidays. They all do it in advance.

Also, there is no need to make special arrangements to give students access to materials to finish medical incompletes after the last formal day of class. They just go to the PLOD system for what they need.

Many students also want access to course materials after a course is over. They want to continue to work on their technical skills or revisit the instructional movies to review some half-forgotten technical procedure. A PLOD system is ideal for this.

Benefits After a Student's Program Is Complete

As previously mentioned, my current students and graduates are my informal recruiters. In my most recent Annual Student Census, I asked respondents if they would warmly recommend the IDT program to a friend or relative. Fifty-two percent said they would if the opportunity presented itself, and 46 percent more said they already had. (I would like to think the remaining 2 percent checked the wrong box by accident!)

One of the reasons my graduates are willing to say lovely things about the program is that, unlike their institutional learning management system, their access to our PLOD system does not end on graduation day. As long as they stay in touch to get the current entry code each year, they will not only have access to everything that was available when they were a student, but also to any updates or new courses that were created since their graduation.

For example, we have a course on Designing Instructional Websites Using Adobe Dreamweaver. When Adobe does a major revision of their software, I do a complete rewrite of the course including a new set of instructor-created movies. Any graduate accessing the PLOD system will be able to run through the new course to update his or her skills.

Just to bring this full circle, I always tell prospects during our pre-admission interviews about the PLOD system that they will still have after they graduate. I can hear their jaws dropping to the ground on the other side of the phone. They never conceived of a graduate program as a subscription service to support perpetually improving career skills.

Benefit to the Professor

I'm getting pretty long in the tooth and expect that my current position will be my last academic rodeo. This will not be true for most of the readers of this publication who are still moving onward and upward. Having a PLOD system assures that, on the day you decide to make a career change, all the course materials you created will be available to you in a form that is easy to distribute to potential future employers. Playwrights Kaufman and Hart were wrong: You can take it with you.

Drawbacks and Cautions

While PLOD systems are a huge net plus for institutions that can accommodate them, they are clearly not for all professors, teaching styles or situations. Here are some things to watch out for when considering a PLOD system:

Fear of flying. It should come as no surprise that Google does not supply an overwhelming amount of tech support for your $2.12 a month. Since you are, by definition, off the radar, neither will your IT help desk. Whatever cloud storage system you use, you are going to have to install it, learn it and troubleshoot it if something goes wrong — both for yourself and for your students.

Fortunately, these systems have a very low technical bar. If you can find your way around the Windows system of folders and files, you will find very few quirks and stumbling blocks in Google Drive. When all else fails, you can always read the online manual. Just remember that you are in the cloud and not everything happens instantaneously. You will occasionally have to use the F5 key to refresh.

Putting aside intellectual property issues. Every business knows that selling a product involves giving some stuff away. That is why YouTube is full of free sample lessons on just about anything. University courses should be no different, and the MOOC movement is clearly showing us the way on this point.

When you put all your learning assets on a PLOD system and then give access to prospects, graduates and current students, you can be reasonably sure that your materials will slip their leash and end up in the hands of an audience that never intends to pay for them. These might be prospects that use the materials but never enroll, or second-cousins of former graduates who are still on the system. I don't just accept this reality — I delight in it. In fact, the only reason I ask my students not to redistribute content from my PLOD system is allow them the delicious pleasure of breaking a rule with impunity.

This is because I figured out a long time ago what I have to sell: I give away skill knowledge but sell master's degrees to those who demonstrate they have mastered the skills. The more people know of, use and appreciate my course materials, the more will head my way if they decide to turn their newly acquired skills into a sheepskin.

Some don't want or need a diploma, but do enjoy and will benefit from new technical skills. I take great satisfaction in helping them too. I like to think that at this very moment, there is somebody a thousand miles from where I sit whose name I will never know, who is learning to create a multimedia animation from the sound of my voice, and who will be using that animation in their own classroom or boardroom on Monday. We are here on earth to serve.

Take great care with copyright. Because of the virtual certainty of losing some control of my PLOD materials, it is extremely important to protect the rights of others. Of course, common sense in relation to copyrighted material applies to anything that you post on your institutional learning management system, as well. When in doubt, throw it out.

Not for collaboration. Although professors work hard to incorporate collaborative techniques into their online courses, an asynchronous online environment is inherently optimized for any time, anywhere independent learning. PLOD systems take individual learning even a step further because of possibilities like "work-ahead," where students may not be engaging with the learning materials at the same time as any of their peers. This suits my full-time employed adult students down to the ground. They generally despise collaboration. They frequently ask during our pre-admission interviews if we have high-stakes group-work projects, and are ecstatic when they learn that we do not.

PLOD works best when everything on the formal institutional learning management system is also on the PLOD system. You don't want to create a confusing situation where students will be unclear what they will find on one system and what they will find on the other. But PLOD systems can never contain anything that is personally identifiable for a given student, such as student project work, unless each student has given specific permission to post their stuff.

Will you miss me when I'm gone? The biggest benefit and the biggest liability of PLOD systems is that they are personal to either an individual instructor or small group of instructors teaching a program. While there has been no staff turnover in my program since 2008, my students have no guarantee that future instructors will choose to pay the $2.12 a month out of pocket to continue to offer a PLOD system. Someday, this may affect students who joined the program when I was at the helm but will be graduating from it after my retirement.

I handle this in the most straightforward way possible. This is easy to do because each of my students is a real person to me and I am a real person to each of them. We share what the philosopher Martin Buber calls an "I-Thou relationship." They know that I am a 64-year-old guy. Any promises that I make to them about our PLOD system, either during their time in the program or after they graduate, are contingent upon my continuing to serve in my current role. After that, all bets are off unless my replacements like the PLOD idea, which I cannot guarantee. For the past nine years, my students have not had a problem with that level of uncertainty. They are simply grateful for the benefits they get from the PLOD system in the here and now.

The Game Is Worth the Candle

It has undoubtedly occurred to you that, from a technical point of view, there is nothing that can be done with a PLOD system that cannot be done with an institutional learning management system. But there is one distinction that makes all the difference in the world. Your institution controls your LMS. You control your PLOD system. You, and only you, decide how to organize it, populate it, release it and secure it.

The current organization of our nation's universities is a vestige of an earlier day when going to class meant sitting in an uncomfortable seat with a funny arm-desk and watching someone write on a chalkboard with their back turned to you. Similarly, we still live with systems that divide the year into semesters or quarters for the convenience of registrars' offices that have to place you in something called "courses" and business offices that have to bill you for the same. Semesters and quarters are senseless in the modern world of "just-in-time" knowledge.

Actually the whole idea of some people being "in" college and others being "out" of it is yesterday's news. Everyone will have the need to learn new skills constantly to be productive and employable citizens throughout their lives. Our growing senior citizen population will need to keep learning to keep their minds active and healthy.

State-funded institutions should be prepared to meet the educational needs of everyone, not just the handful who are matriculated in designated degree programs. Every individual should be able to start a new learning adventure at any time, and end whenever he considers himself to be done with that particular adventure. One should be able to choose exactly what one wishes to learn, whether it is a lesson, a group of lessons or a collection of groups that resemble what we now call a "course."

Until higher education gets in sync with the needs of the modern world, individual professors and small groups of professors within programs will do well to provide their students with PLOD systems that respond to the way these students actually live and learn better than most institutional learning management systems do. It's a little extra work, but the return in both gratitude and new enrollments is more than worth it. Now if I could just get my boss to pay that $2.12 a month.

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