Extension Engine

Online Learning Insights from the University of Chicago

It’s always gratifying to read an article that validates your position and provides evidence that you have, indeed, been making the right decisions and are providing a valuable and much-needed service.

For us, one such publication is a recent white paper, Report on Coursera online course for University of Chicago and Booth School of Business written by John H. Cochrane. The white paper enumerates various “lessons learned” from Cochrane’s venture into online course development as he adapted a Ph.D. level course, Asset Pricing, for the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) environment.

As an organization specializing in the design and implementation of leading edge online learning, we at ExtensionEngine were especially interested in seeing what Cochrane had to say. Some of his insights precisely illustrate why we do what we do.

Insight #1: Online learning is substantially different from classroom learning

Cochrane’s initial plan for his course was to videotape lectures, put them online, and have a test. He also intended to use these taped lectures as part of a mixed class where Ph.D. students would watch the lectures, then use class time to discuss them.

It’s not quite that simple, he discovered. Cochrane quickly learned that his plan was probably the least effective way to present content online. As he quoted this paragraph from the Financial Times review of Wharton’s MOOC effort

“Wharton’s Introduction to Corporate Finance, filmed in front of a live class. This is the Death March of Moocs (sic). If you make it to section 5b.4, The Capital Asset Pricing Model Part 1, without blood pouring out of your eyes, you deserve more than a Statement of Accomplishment. You deserve a $300,000‐a‐year post‐MBA job with the Blackstone Group.”

What Cochrane discovered in his research as well as during the development of his own course was that effective online learning demands an entirely different approach from classroom teaching.

For one, students process video differently than they do an in-person presentation; it’s just the way human brains are wired. In addition, they are conditioned to expect that video content will be visually interesting and presented in small chunks. Anything else comes across as dull and uninspiring, requiring more focus to digest than many students are willing to provide.

In addition, students interact differently in an online forum than they do in the classroom. Learning assessment is different for online courses (or at least it was in 2013 when this was written; more choices are available now), as quizzes had to be numeric or multiple choice to be graded by the software. Plus, the technology associated with online learning allows for vibrant simulations that simply cannot be done in the classroom.

These differences drive our work at ExtensionEngine. Our team includes over 200 professionals with expertise in instructional design, video production, software, and user experience. Together, we create Custom Learning Experiences that tailor the subject matter and how it’s taught to the technology in ways that promote effective and lasting learning.

Insight #2: You need an Emily!

Cochrane quickly discovered that it helps to have expert help to navigate through best practices that have been evolving in online learning over the past ten years or so. In Cochrane’s words:

“You need an Emily!... I was all set to record standard hour and a half lectures during my fall classes. No, said Emily – the videos need to be 5‐7 minutes long, and do it ahead of time. Divide the lecture into such segments if needed. This alone was a crucial insight...

... Emily also insisted on the forums and Google hangouts. Again, her knowledge of the pedagogy and best practices was vital to the success of this class.

Finally, Emily served as project manager and scheduler. I’m an academic, always late for everything. That simply will not do for an online class. Emily’s role was vital.”

This kind of “Emily” support is exactly what ExtensionEngine teams provide for our clients. Most instructors have little or no experience in online learning, much less in higher end approaches like adaptive learning. Even when faculty does have experience, it is likely to be far more limited than the range of experiences we can draw from. Our team joins forces with clients to design and implement courses using current best practices while keeping an eye on future developments.

Cochrane also found that he needed technical assistance, even with a simple and straightforward platform like Coursera. It was a challenge to conform his class to the capabilities of the platform, especially given the complexity of the content, including math, at the Ph.D. level.

At ExtensionEngine, we accomplish this in reverse: we conform the platform to the material. We frequently work with Open edX, a platform with much greater flexibility. In fact, ExtensionEngine is the largest and most experienced Open edX solutions provider. We are constantly experimenting with what Open edX will do.

Insight #3: The course is never done.

Per Cochrane:

Beware the illusion that when you do it once, you’re all done and can just push a button. As is always the case in teaching a new class – and porting a well‐established class online should be regarded as the same effort as a new preparation – the first effort just teaches you how to do things better next time. Developing a new class will be a multi‐year effort. And even if you’re perfect, the software is clearly going to evolve, requiring constant upgrades of any class. “

It’s important to remember that we are still in the early days of online learning. Both the pedagogy and the technology are continually and rapidly evolving, so today’s leading edge course is tomorrow’s dinosaur.

ExtensionEngine stays on top of these developments (in many case, we are the ones making the breakthroughs), and we choose our clients for the long-term, both scaling up our team as necessary to keep courses vibrant and up to date as well as scaling down that team when those courses are not being worked on. When we partner with an institution, we expect to lend our expertise for many years to come.


Insight #4: It typically takes substantially more resources than first anticipated to design, develop and implement an online course, but it’s worth it.

In Cochrane’s words:

“One big “lesson learned” is that the support needed to put together an online class is much larger than I had thought... the costs of development are much higher than I imagined.”

But at the same time...

“The bottom line: My hopes and goals were far exceeded. I think online, Chicago‐distinctive, high‐level classes have the potential to spread the “brand name” far and wide, and to reach and intellectually engage a clientele of important and influential people who will not come to campus for our degree programs.”

This parallels the experiences of many of our own clients. ExtensionEngine currently works with elite institutions that are using online courses to:

  • Support their branding
  • Conduct outreach to new students
  • Foster incoming students
  • Nurture connections with alumni

The return on investment is not only made through student tuitions, but also by enrolling more diverse, more prepared freshman classes,encouraging alumni donations, and providing better and more enduring online educational experiences. Each of these is highly desirable and positively impacts an organization’s bottom line in the long run.

In short, Cochrane concluded that the time, effort and money required to design and develop an effective online course may exceed expectations — but so do the returns.

We heartily concur.


Interested in learning more about the type of results we help our clients achieve in online learning?  Download our 16 page report, IncreasingU, which highlights 4 examples of engaging online learning that drive key metrics at elite higher ed institutions.4 examples of engaging online learning that drive key metrics at elite higher ed institutions.