December 1997 // Vision
Applying Taylor's Efficiencies in Cyberspace
by Dees Stallings
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Dees Stallings "Applying Taylor's Efficiencies in Cyberspace" The Technology Source, December 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.
"[The Internet] makes it possible for all students—not just those at the fanciest colleges—to have access to the best lecturers and the best teachers... It is conceivable that in the future we will have celebrity professors with incomes and audiences comparable to those of some entertainers." —Forbes, 16 June 1997 (Gubernick & Ebeling, 1997, p. 85)

The Emerging Environment

Consider the emerging educational and training environment. Current statistics emphatically support Peter Drucker's pronouncement in Managing in a Time of Great Change: "I think the growth industry in this country and the world will soon be the continuing education of adults" (Drucker, 1995, p. 343). However, when we focus on the activity of educational and training organizations in this environment of change and growth, we also see impending disaster for some. Many traditional institutions will not survive as the Information Age evolves into a global network. Among those are both large universities and small private colleges that are unable, like the dinosaur and dodo, to evolve to meet the needs of students and instructors in a technology-oriented society. At the other extreme, educators and trainers may take their cue from the commercial success of "twitch-and-shoot" games (for example, the game Doom was featured as a positive model in a recent Training magazine cover story) and promote a vending-machine approach to dispensing learning. These two tendencies—under- or over-commitment to technology—will be responsible for more harm than any other trend in education over the next decade.

In view of the rapid growth of distance education and training in this environment, how can the needs of the student and of the instructor be met?

How do we test the feasibility of various [instructional] models, and how do we define success? It is interesting that so few studies combine cost and instructional effectiveness. The cost-recovery potential of running online pilots seems to justify fully more activity of this sort by institutions. When they work, you simply continue and expand them, an ideal activity for automated operations (Stallings, 1997a).

The new online educational environment has unlimited, untapped potential for academic quality, rigor, interactivity, and cost-effectiveness. If we can, through pilots, prototypes, or other means of process improvement, harness this environment, instructors will be able to simultaneously provide a more effective learning environment while improving their working conditions. A key is to use the technology for the three things it does best: standardization, speed, and streamlining.

Potential and Challenge

On the one hand, communications and information technology offer a clear potential to exploit online capabilities to deliver education anyplace, anytime. Courses delivered over the Internet are daily proving their capability to provide a rich learning environment, and to allow assessment and feedback of learning to be faster, more direct, and more comprehensive than ever before. There is also a clear audit trail for evaluating courses and curricula, because almost all online communication, whether conferencing or e-mail, is in writing. The results can be significant, especially when built upon proven techniques of distance education's strong instructional design tradition, such as those of the Open University.

However, the effort required to achieve these results is also significant. Computer-based instruction will soon reach new highs in effectiveness in teaching basic and repetitive skills, and simulation software is becoming increasingly more useful. Both are still costly, though, and time-consuming in production. And both have notably failed, and will continue to fail, to reach the level of learning attained by instructor-mediated courses in both classroom and online settings. However, the limits of a good instructor's effectiveness in teaching and assessing learning are always fatigue and frustration; the new environment offers plenty of both. For an instructor or researcher to be effective in the environment alone usually requires technical training, but without an understanding of proven distance education techniques, learning doesn't happen.

Enter Frederick Taylor, the first great measurer of productivity. Taylor's approach, defined as "the application of scientific methods to the problem of obtaining maximum efficiency in industrial work or the like," was applied ruthlessly early in this century to increase factory production, often at the expense of the worker and sometimes at the expense of the boss. Taylor used a stopwatch and calculations to conduct time-and-motion studies to find the "one best way" to produce steel and other manufactured goods whose production required a large physical plant and many individuals performing separate steps in a process. Taylor's approach (praised by leaders of various types, from Henry Ford to Lenin to Drucker) breaks work down into components and requires one to "time each of the elements of a job" (Kanigel, 1997), thereby improving efficiency from the smallest component up. More recently, Stan Davis's discussion of new management concepts in Future Perfect, covers similar territory. His mandate that businesses must deliver goods and services at "any place, any time" also drives his strategy of "mass customizing," in which uniformly high-quality materials are tailored to meet the needs of each individual customer. Davis's strategy is now widely used in industries as different as hospitality and automotive manufacturing (Davis, 1987, p. 138).

Computer labor, progressively cheaper thanks to Moore's Law, now makes it possible to apply Taylor's and Davis's concepts in education and training. Now we can streamline and control educational processes, especially those needing standardization and repetitive application, to improve conditions of working, learning, and cost-effectiveness, all without sacrificing any one part of this notorious triad to the others. In the distance education environment, the factory and the worker are combined in the computer; the loading dock is the modem. Through consistent streamlining of processes, it is now possible for the instructor to use the absolute minimum time for mindless administrative processes, and to maximize his/her time to meet individual students' needs at higher levels of cognitive and creative development.

Capability and Demand Drive the Need for a Practical Strategy

The intent of this article is to sketch out and promote a practical, proven strategy for improving instructional effectiveness in online delivery of college-level courses. This strategy combines two areas of experience: (1) online instructional delivery and (2) the integration of writing tasks into all disciplines. In the first, the basis of experience, although recent, involves thousands of students. The second, more comprehensive in scope, deals with tens of thousands of students.

The first and more recent area of experience is high-volume online delivery of instructor-led college courses using asynchronous computer conferencing and Web page technology. Maturing delivery capabilities and high demand for "anytime, anywhere" courses have in turn created a demand for top-quality instructors who can develop and deliver courses on the virtual campus. This new environment has recently carried some distance education-oriented institutions far beyond the experimental stage in online instruction. Internet enrollments for Park College, for example, grew almost exponentially, from 28 students in October 1996 to 640 a year later. One problem of rapid growth in this environment is satisfying students' demands for interaction with good instructors. A major concern for me at UOL Publishing in working with our partner institutions is to help experienced and popular "performers" adapt and maximize their existing skills in an online environment.

The second area of experience is integrating writing tasks into various disciplines. Over the past half-century, as employers and professional associations have become more vocal in demanding graduates who can communicate well in writing, higher education has seen a significant increase in writing tasks in many college courses. Because evaluating writing is time-consuming and complex, evaluation techniques and faculty training in these techniques have also had to develop. Some of these techniques are well-suited to distance education, and some also have the advantage of being applied using PC technology. Two significant trends that are well suited to process-improvement in online instruction are: (1) the use of a checklist (to standardize evaluation criteria) to support summary comments (to articulate how well the students met the intent of the assignment) on a single evaluation form that is electronically attached to the assignment; and (2) the use of the PC in evaluating writing.

Below, I suggest a distance learning assessment strategy that can work in tandem with other instructional strategies, and can work in a hybrid learning environment using multiple delivery technologies. I have seen it work in traditional courses, as well as those taught via correspondence or online, to the point of increasing the effective per capita income of the instructor while simultaneously increasing the quality of interaction with and feedback to the students. This strategy is especially effective in the assignment, evaluation, and coaching of research assignments and discussions requiring reflective, critical, and creative thinking.

One Example

Imagine yourself as an instructor of an upper-level business management course running on the World Wide Web. Your course allows students to "go to school" from anywhere, any time of day or night. Commuting time and expenses for your students and you have disappeared. With a full-featured combination of asynchronous conferencing (in which each conference message is essentially a multimedia-capable HTML Web page), e-mail, and real-time synchronous "chat" conferencing, your "virtual classroom" is even livelier than your on-site sessions. Because you can immediately link your course globally to virtual libraries, corporate and government sites, online tutoring services, and other resources, you now possess more instructional resources than you ever dreamed possible. From the perspective of instruction, you are now able to do more, in less time, using fewer personal and institutional resources. On the other hand, the time you and your colleagues have spent in assessing and grading assignments has increased significantly, enough to make both you and your dean reconsider expanding the online MBA program that has just been launched.

However, this obstacle can become an asset. A corporate partner provides your "virtual campus," freeing the academic institution from both the costly struggle to maintain a reliable and cutting-edge delivery capability and also lengthening your marketing reach. This partner has developed a number of "instructor tools" and techniques that can streamline tasks in the online environment. Among these is a template for evaluating written assignments. In conjunction with your writing program director, you adapt the template to your needs.

Standardization. Along with the template, you discuss procedures for integrating other online capabilities such as spell-, grammar-, and style-checkers; online writing handbooks; instructor-developed lists of marginal comments; interactive remedial lessons that can be "linked" to your courses; and human writing tutors who can be available via the Internet. You have, in the course of solving one difficulty, constructed the most extensive learning resource "center" your department has ever had, and one whose quality can continuously be monitored.

Speed and Quality Control. Using a framework of rigorous standards such as those applied for the GRE, a professor evaluating a written assignment (such as a research paper or case study) can apply an assessment checklist more evenly and, in the aggregate, faster than was the case with the old method of trying to keep the elements of evaluation in his head or on an informal list. Without such criteria—and as the fatigue of evaluating complex assignment sets in—evaluation is uneven, and sometimes unfair. Checklists can be simple and dichotomous, providing "yes/no" answers to assessment criteria, or may be more complex, including supplementary comments and a summary. A summary supported by detailed criteria on a checklist is a powerful yet flexible tool for assessment, one that is unfortunately often rejected as too time-consuming, too complex, or as generating too much paper per assignment. In a paperless, automated environment, these objections disappear.

The first evaluations generally take two to three times longer than traditional grading. But patterns quickly appear, and the proven speed of a "specifications" template is evident after the first two or three assignments. A trained instructor using an assessment checklist can easily provide better, more comprehensive, and more personalized feedback. Furthermore, such an instructor can do this more quickly, thereby getting it back to the student sooner than ever before. A 750-1000 word research paper can drop from thirty to fifteen minutes' evaluation time, yet gain more than three times the number of substantive items of feedback. We have provided a sample of such a checklist, with some explanatory annotation. This checklist is, in effect, a "specifications sheet" that allows the instructor to control the scope of the task, the steps in the process, the qualitative criteria and the time required. Note also how the steps in the process (Rs=Research, O=Organizing, D=Drafting, R=Revising, P=Proofing) are coordinated with qualitative criteria, allowing the checklist to be used at different stages of the assignment. This checklist is also available in a compiled database form that further speeds up the assessment process by automatically advancing from item to item, and by incorporating a gradebook.

Streamlining. Streamlining here refers to the design of assignments and instruction, allowing instructors to rapidly and flexibly assess a much wider variety of assignments. While online assignments can be labeled and transmitted in forms easier to file, assess, and return, students may also now submit assignments with sound, animation, and other qualities not possible in a traditional setting. When the assignment is an extensive one that may be time-consuming to download, the student simply posts it on a Web site and sends the instructor the address.

Even more significant is the expansion and extension of the role of grading assistants to include checking fairly complex but repetitive predetermined criteria (such as major elements in a business proposal) as well as setting up the assignment for quick access and grading by instructors, no matter whether they are in the office, at home, or traveling.

Widening the Scope of Application

Increased efficiency in writing assessment is a single example of a broad potential in education and training, as broad as the application of automation on the shop floor. I have used this example because I have seen computer-supported writing assessment gain increased acceptance as PC and online capabilities become more flexible and accessible, and as written communication gains increased importance in its electronic form.

What does this perspective mean for instructors and administrators over the wide perspective, over the horizon? First, with telecommuting now in a state of exponential growth (and that growth affecting the campus as well as the workplace), we must have a conceptual distance education framework in place for training instructors and molding an online learning environment in which the needs of instructors and students come first. Application of the principles of Frederick Taylor provides that framework in a way that Taylor certainly never anticipated. Second, such an approach is an example of a specific, proactive strategy to exploit technology rather than simply adapt to it, and a strategy that supports Stan Davis's holistic approach to management in a high-tech, diverse, and global society. Finally, it provides a measurable method of improvement in learning and the conditions of teaching and learning, from assessment of assignments to an instructor's per capita income (which will rise as the grading time decreases, feedback and student-customer satisfaction increases, and professional telecommuting and communications skills improve for both), to evaluation of educational support services.

The challenges are to focus on worthwhile areas to test, agree on criteria for success in our pilot programs, and aggressively replicate what works. Grant programs tend to measure success in the weight of the final report. Corporate control often results in a vending-machine approach. A better alternative is an academic-corporate partnering in which each "culture" provides what each does best. And because cyberspace is a frontier for us all, we can learn and build effective and efficient campuses together. There is plenty of territory to cover.


Davis, S. M. (1987). Future perfect. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Drucker, P. (1995). Managing in a time of great change. New York: Dutton.

Gubernick, L. & Ebeling, A. (1997, June 16). I got my degree through e-mail. Forbes, 85.

Kanigel, R. (1997). Taylor made: how the world's first efficiency expert refashioned modern life in his own image. The Sciences, Vol. 37 (3), 18-23.

Moss, A. & Holder, C. (1988). Improving student writing: a guidebook for faculty in all disciplines. Pomona, CA: Cal State Polytechnic University Press.

Stallings, D. (1997). The virtual university is inevitable: but will the model be non-profit or profit? Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 23 (4), 18-23.

Stallings, D. (1997). Blair resources for teaching writing: distance education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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