Managing Education in the Digital Age

My rather long absence from posting anything on my blog is hopefully justified by my news that Andy Hockley and myself have finally published our ebook: Managing Education in the Digital Age – Choosing, Setting up and Running Successful Online Courses with the-round


It’s now available on Amazon:

Here’s some information about it. We hope you like it and find it useful. Please let us know what you think.

Increasingly, education is moving into the online world, and a growing body of literature reflects this from the teaching perspective. Online teaching and learning is now being written about and researched at great length, and this existing work provides valuable support for the educational community that is practising teaching and learning online.

However, very little has been written on the subject of managing this new online educational world.

This book attempts to address this gap from the perspective of academic (or other) managers in education institutions. It follows the process from the first decision to go online, and pursues that through planning, building, marketing, dealing with teachers, and finally, monitoring the whole.

In the first part of the book, we focus on the initial decision to go online; we consider what might be involved, note possible pitfalls to watch out for, and look at various other issues that need to be borne in mind.

We then take you through the process of laying the foundations for your online presence, including:

• choosing the type of course that is right for your, and your students’, needs

• defining the role of the online teacher

• setting up the administrative infrastructure including, but not limited to, technical support

• looking at the finances of online course delivery

• marketing your courses

• setting up quality control mechanisms.


Next, we look at the practicalities: keeping everything running, and monitoring the courses to ensure that they are progressing as planned. We also look at the best ways of obtaining teacher and student feedback, and, if necessary, how to act on it.

Each chapter includes a lively mixture of suggestions, advice, lessons from experience and quotes from participants of such courses.

We hope you find this book useful and engaging, and that it helps you make informed decisions about taking this step in your institution.

Project Manager – Online courses

6268544037_8aab1dc1fd_n[1]I deal with a few conventional language schools which sell and run online courses very effectively but unfortunately, they are among the minority. So recently I have spent a lot of time thinking about why so few conventional language schools offer online courses as part of their range of products and why many of those that do don’t seem to sell very many of them or be very comfortable about doing so. In my experience the most successful organisations that sell and run online language materials tend to be training organisations specialising in online learning rather than conventional language schools. Which begs the question, are the skills required to manage online courses so different from those required to manage face-to-face classes that most organisations can only do one or the other?

I think there are many reasons why conventional language schools feel uncomfortable about including online courses in their product catalogue and why they struggle to make them work. None of these issues though are impossible to overcome or justify language schools not taking part in what is a rapidly expanding market.

One important factor is the importance of the presence of a project manager in running online courses. Setting up and running an online language course is, to all intents and purposes, project management and requires the associated skills. And although language schools characteristically have directors, academic managers, directors of studies and administration managers, it seems to me that the position of project manager does not slot comfortably into any of these positions.  While there is obviously a certain amount of project management in the setting up and running of face-to-face classes especially ESP classes, these skills don’t seem to be easily transferred to the online world. Indeed at a recent DoS conference, many DoSes commented on how the idea of setting up and running online language courses took them way out of their comfort zone.

As each school is different and the role and scope of managers will vary depending on the institution, it seems most practical to briefly outline what the role of a project manager would be in managing online courses so that organisations that are contemplating broadening their offer to include online courses can reflect on how to best fill this role.

The project manager, in broad terms, will be the person who oversees the setting up and running of the course from start to finish. She will be the one person who has a vision of everything that is involved in the process. She will decide the support the client will need both before and during the course in order for the course to be a success. She will understand the structure and content of the course material. She will timetable and monitor tracking and reporting services. She will ensure that administrative and technical support is provided.  She will make sure that suitable teachers are contracted, trained and supported. She will implement quality control measures and ensure that effective feedback procedures are in place to evaluate the success of the course. And, most importantly, she will manage client expectations to bring them in line with the course they will be doing.

A successful project manager will have great people skills.  She will be organised, enthusiastic and capable of transmitting the belief in the project to clients, tutors and support staff alike. She needs to be prepared to deal with a certain amount of resistance from both within the school and possibly amongst the clients. Moving from face-to-face classes into the online world involves significant changes and inevitably change generates resistance. As a result, it is important she is flexible and is prepared to adapt and learn as the project progresses.

To a greater or lesser extent a lot the tasks a project manager needs to carry out already happen in a face-to-face environment. However, in many cases these tasks are carried out by and are the responsibility of different management figures rather than one person. In the case of online courses, it is initially very important to have one figure overseeing and managing all these components and bringing them all together. In many ways managing online courses is analogous to performing a symphony, it requires a conductor who can bring everything together, somebody who both understands and is sensitive to the music to be played, the musicians who will play it and the audience who will partake in the experience.

Managing successful online courses: 3. The tutor

A lot of online language courses are tutored in one way or another and in most of these courses the tutor plays a significant role in the success or failure of the course. The tutor will mitigate the impersonal nature of online courses and provide that personal touch which can make all the difference in our clients’  appreciation of the course. So, if you are setting up an online tutored course, what tutor issues do you need to consider?

The choice of course materials inevitably affects the role of the tutor. At one end of the spectrum some courses merely require tutors to track the students’ progress, follow up on student inactivity and encourage the students to keep up with deadlines and get through the course. In this type of online course, an administrative person who is familiar with the course and who can communicate with the students in their L1 (in the case of mono-lingual groups) could more than satisfactorily carry out this role. In fact it would be neither relevant nor necessarily effective to use a teacher to tutor these students.

In the middle of the spectrum there are a lot of online courses in which language and content is delivered and practised by the course material itself. The tutor’s role in these courses is limited to helping the student to produce language outside the constraints of the programmed exercises (in tutorials, for example). The role of the tutor here is not to present language but to give the student feedback, support and encouragement in developing their speaking and writing skills. A tutor in this type of course will probably also deal with any questions the student might have about the online content. There is therefore a strong emphasis on remedial support and this role, in my opinion, requires the knowledge of a relatively experienced teacher.

At the other end of the spectrum the tutor can be required to actually put together the course by selecting the contents of the course from a bank of content and exercises, structuring its delivery, and holding online group or one-to-one classes which can involve presenting language as well as skills practice. This role would require a highly experienced and skilled teacher.

Another issue is the rate of pay. Typically tutoring rates are lower than teaching rates (with the exception of when the tutor has to create the course). While teaching rates typically include preparation and the marking of homework, the hourly rate of a tutor often doesn’t need to include these elements i.e. the hour paid corresponds to an hour worked. In addition, most tutoring work can be done from home so no travelling is expected and the tutor can log on to the platform to deal with student questions and written work when convenient and not necessarily at set times.

However, the lower rate of pay can be an issue for a school’s regular face-to-face teachers and cause a certain amount of resentment and negativism towards tutoring. In these cases it is often more successful to contract tutors from outside the school for whom the attractions of tutoring outweigh the disadvantages of the lower hourly rate of pay.

The role and skills of a tutor can be quite different from the role of a teacher in a face-to-face context. Traditional language schools putting together online courses should not expect that great face-to-face teachers will automatically make great online tutors.

Bearing all this in mind, it is important to define very carefully the role of the tutor in the online course you are putting together by producing a comprehensive job description. And once you have defined the role of the tutor, you should give careful thought to the sort of person who will effectively fulfil this role and elaborate a detailed person specification.  If you do this successfully and then provide a thorough training course for the tutors selected before the start of the course and support during the course, your tutors should play a decisive part in the success of your online course.

Managing successful online courses: 2. Materials

In the last 10 years there has been an exponential growth in the number and type of online courses and materials available for use by language organisations wanting to set up their own online courses. Offers range from highly prescribed, ready-to-go courses which involve relatively little set-up time, to loosely structured courses, banks of material or platforms where material can be created from scratch and consequently take longer to set up.

There are a number of considerations to take into account when selecting which online materials to use as part of an online course.  So, how do you decide what material to use? What criteria should you use to select the material or course which will best work for you?

Post 1 in this section covers your clients’ needs and expectations and how they should play an important part in your decision of what material to use.

Other important considerations are budget restraints, time restraints and issues of continuity. Budget restraints will inevitably restrict your choice of online materials, some materials are relatively cheap to license while others are expensive (usually there is a correlation between cost and quality). However, when costing the price of online courses and materials available on the market, it is important to remember that a more expensive, ready-to-use, quality online course could save you a lot of money when compared with of the cost of paying somebody to create materials and or put together a more tailored online course out of banks of online materials.

In terms of time, off-the-peg courses have the advantage that they are ready to go immediately. So, if you have a client who wants to start in a short time scale, these types of courses will allow you to do this.

It is also important to have a mid and even long-term perspective when selecting material. Ideally, your client will be so satisfied with your online course that they will want more after the course has finished. It is therefore interesting to consider how much continuity can be provided by the materials provider you select. Many course providers which supply ready to go courses will offer a series of consecutive levels e.g. from A1 to C2 which will allow a satisfied client to continue up through the levels with the same guarantee of satisfaction.

The offset of ready-to-go courses is the lack of or limited customisation. If a client is looking for a course which will satisfy specific requirements beyond those catered for by general courses, it might be difficult to find ready-to-go courses which fit these needs and therefore be necessary to go with a course provider which provides banks of materials which can be used to build customised courses and additionally allows you to create your own materials. The advantage of this option is a more flexible and tailor-made course. The downside is that in order for this option to be successful it requires a high level of expertise on the part of the language institution or course designer to construct a coherent and effective course which will satisfy the client (see post 3 for the relevance of the teacher/tutor in the choice of course material).

Although now rather dated, Robin Mason’s (1998) observations are still pertinent if we apply them loosely to current practices. She grouped online courses into three categories: content + support model (prescribed course content and tutorial support), wrap around model (more tutor flexibility to adapt and support content), and integrated model (student and tutor negotiated content). She argues that the content + support model can be more cost-effective with large numbers of students. However, “for small courses in niche subjects the [wrap around model] can be a very cost-effective model”.

The third option of student and tutor negotiated content, while fascinating, is the least adopted option and is beyond the logistical constraints of most commercial language organisations and therefore is not discussed here.

While focusing on the content of the materials or course to be selected is of prime importance, other more peripheral issues related to the choice of material should not be ignored.  When selecting material, language organisations should also ask themselves the following questions: Is the learner management system easy to use? Is it intuitive and clear for learners, tutors and course administrators? Does the information recorded on the platform satisfy the needs of the client? Is it easy to track student progress and if the course is subsidised by a government body, does it fulfil the funding body’s requirements?

The choice of what materials to use is not an easy one. However, if course organisers analyse the client’s expectations (post 1),  budget restrictions, possibilities of continuity, time restrictions, practical considerations related to the platform use and teacher expertise (see post 3), the chances are that the material selected will be successful.


Mason, R 1998 Open University

Managing successful online courses: 1. The Client

When setting up an online course, it is obviously important to try to cater to the clients’ needs and expectations if the course is to be successful (clients being both the students and the training manager in the case of corporate and institutional clients). But in addition to carrying out a classic needs analysis, it is useful to consider how different cultural elements can influence clients’ expectations and how these, in turn, can affect the success of an online course.

There are potentially three main cultural considerations to take into account: each participant’s individual personality and preferences; national or regional cultural implications; and corporate / institutional cultures.

1. Individual personalities

We are all different. Some people are more sociable than others, some people are insecure and need reassurance while others are fear-free and will not be afraid of making mistakes. Some people are linear whereas others are chaotic. Some people will have already done an online course while for others it will be their first time.  However, all participants will have some preconceived idea about what an online course should be and how it will work and this will rarely reflect the reality of the course they are about to take.

This is why it is important to influence as much as possible student expectations prior to the start of the course. We want our clients’ expectations to be in tune with what they will experience. Ways of doing this include pre-course presentations and orientation sessions using webinars as well as providing students with comprehensive support documents in their L1 (in the case of monolingual groups).

2. National / Regional cultural factors

If a group of students is from the same region or country, there will probably be the same national or regional cultural influences which will bring a bearing on their expectations and perceptions. By understanding these common cultural influences, it is easier to select course material which should work well with students with a similar national or regional cultural background and it will also help us to provide culturally appropriate support during the course.

To illustrate what I mean, I recommend thinking about how your client’s national or regional values fit into an adapted version of Geert Hofstede’s five categories. Hofstede used these categories when he researched how IBM employees’ values differed in over sixty countries (Hofstede 2010). Consider the importance of power distance (the accessibility and power of superiors); individualism versus collectivism (importance of the individual or the group); influence of age (the importance of age in positions of power); influence of gender (the importance of gender in positions in the organisation); and attitude to time (the importance of punctuality and deadlines). Hofstede’s categories are illustrated below:

If we come to the conclusion that a culture stresses the importance of hierarchy and respect for age, it prizes the individual over the collective group, that gender issues are important and punctuality is expected, we can also assume that this culture will be more receptive to a highly prescribed course with little group interaction compared with a less rigidly structured course which stresses group interaction and a more organic approach to content.

3. Corporate or institutional culture

When dealing with corporate groups or institutional groups, attention needs to also be paid to the predominating corporate or institutional culture. Understanding the corporate or institutional culture will be relevant in terms of understanding the training manager’s expectations of the students’ performance, it will affect how seriously the students take the course, how well they work together and how well they will respond to certain course material and, as a result, should influence our choice of material to be used in the online course.

By understanding the corporate or institutional culture, we will be better able to make decisions relating to the choice of course material in terms of the importance of issues such as quality and reach. For some training managers with limited budgets the importance of being seen to provide training for a lot of people is more important than the quality of the online course and how much is learned. This should affect our choice of material.

Charles Handy (1993) is recommended reading for anybody who wishes to read more on corporate culture.

So, by analysing these three cultural areas, we will have information which will help us to select appropriate course material and develop strategies to influence our clients’ expectations and bring them in line with the course they will experience. We will also have valuable information which will help us to provide appropriate support while the course is in progress.


Hofstede, G. and Minkov, M. 2010 Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. USA, McGraw-Hill, 3rd Edition. See also

Handy, C 1993 Understanding Organizations. New York, Oxford University Press