Tony Bates on the Lone Ranger Model of Courseware Development

Many traditional universities use what has been described as the Lone Ranger model of courseware development. Tony Bates provides an excellent description of this model, which is appended below.

In addition to reading what Tony has to say, it may also be useful to contrast the Lone Ranger model with the team-oriented, project management approach used at the British Open University.

If you would like to do so, see my blog post:

David L. Kirp on the British Open University

But getting back to the Lone Ranger model, here’s what Tony Bates has to say in his excellent book:

Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders (2000)
by A.W. (Tony) Bates

Chapter 3: Planning and Managing Courses and Programs

Laissez-Faire Planning, Lone Rangers, and the Autonomy of the Faculty

In most countries, tenured faculty have considerable autonomy with regard to teaching. Especially in research universities, there is a long history of faculty writing grant proposals for research purposes, and this model has been extended to cover innovative approaches to teaching. Consequently, the most common approach to encouraging the use of technology, at least in universities in the United States and Canada, has been to provide funding for a part-time graduate student and some equipment or software.

Thus, technology-based materials are increasingly being initiated and developed by faculty through what I call the Lone Ranger and Tonto approach. Tonto is the computer-skilled graduate student who does the HTML markup and scanning and generally tries to keep the professor out of technical trouble

Advantages of the Lone Ranger Model

Using small grants to encourage faculty to use technology has several advantages. It can get a wide range of faculty started on using new technologies for the first time. It provides opportunity for experiment and the development of faculty skills in using technologies. It can help faculty understand the potential of the technology and thus lead to innovative ideas about how to use the technology in a specific subject area. It allows graduate students to develop computer skills that can be applied to their area of subject expertise. It avoids having to make difficult decisions about the long-term investment in technologies that may prove ephemeral; “winners” can emerge. Finally, it maintains the autonomy of faculty to decide on the teaching method that best suits them, thus fitting in with the prevailing university and college culture.

Using grant monies to support individual proposals from faculty could be considered a laissez-faire, or bottom-up, approach to planning. A laissez-faire strategy creates an environment that encourages experimentation. From a management perspective, it also enables successful practice to be identified from the bottom up and the resources needed to support such innovations to be more easily identified. Faculty are likely to support a policy of using central funds to provide technical support to individual professors. As already noted, a laissez-faire approach fits well with the culture of universities and colleges, where faculty have considerable autonomy and are used to operating on a small-grant basis for research.

Disadvantages of the Lone Ranger Model

There are also many disadvantages to this approach. On most university and college campuses, as a result of Lone Ranger funding models and laissez-faire approaches to the use of technology for teaching and learning, amateurism rules in the design and production of educational materials.

A characteristic of many Lone Ranger projects is that often there is never a final product. The site is constantly under construction or not developed as a full teaching resource available on a regular and reliable basis. This is because the project drags on, being constantly upgraded or improved, or has to be redesigned as a result of inappropriate or outdated technology decisions in the early stages. The initial funding is often inadequate to complete the job, and much effort is spent seeking additional funding to continue the project.

Often the graphics and the interface are poor compared with commercial products with which students are familiar, and the potential for high-quality learner interaction with the materials and other students is often missed. Finished products have limited applicability because their graphics and interface are not of high enough quality or because they are insufficient in volume to become commercial products or be used by other teachers in the department.

The most valuable resource in a university or college is the time of the professor. The problem with the Lone Rangers is that they often spend a lot of time doing technical work, such as designing Web pages or animation, that a professional could do much more quickly and much more effectively. …

For the extra cost of using technology to be justified, it needs to be accompanied by the reorganization of the teaching process. This requires moving away from fixed, scheduled group instruction to more flexible and individualized modes of learning, and to more strategic use of the materials, in order to support a variety of teaching and learning contexts.

Another disadvantage of the Lone Ranger approach is that dissemination of knowledge gained from the experience is often poor or haphazard. Only “successful” projects get known, and even then the practices that led to success may not be shared. Unsuccessful projects just fade away, and equally important lessons about how not to do things are lost. Therefore, other projects that fall into the same traps continue to get funded.



This blog post discusses the traditional method of developing and maintaining content. It’s what you find at most traditional colleges and universities. IMO, most traditional colleges and universities do NOT see themselves as really being in the business of developing and maintaining course content. For the most part, faculty at these institutions are academically free to develop textbooks, or not. Also, if they do develop content, they assert that they own it. Therefore, they are free to sell their content to textbook publishers. Their employer – i.e. the college or university – really has no say in the matter.

So, I would argue that in these cases (which are most cases) the college or university in question really isn’t in the business of developing and maintaining course content. Of course, this creates serious problems if the school does want to go into the business of offering online courses. What is their business model for developing and maintaining said content if faculty are academically free to walk away from maintaining the content?

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