The problem or, rather, problems
Many universities are in a difficult financial position, with falling state appropriations, pressure from the public to reduce tuition, a worsening demographic profile here in the U.S. related to traditional college-age students, and increasing competition from online and locally-based remote campuses who are attempting to poach the university’s traditional market.
Okay, so it’s clear that cash in-flows will not be trending up any time soon. Further, the cost side doesn’t look much better.
The usual solution
University leaders are faced with the question of what to invest in. What should they spend money on in order to ensure their survival? This is the focus of the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Richard A. DeMillo titled “So you’ve got technology. So what?” What colleges have been doing is investing in technologies in the service of classrooms such as learning management systems. DeMillo doesn’t think this is such a good idea:
The classroom is the handmaiden of a factory model of higher education, and the colleges that are truly strategically focused are already abandoning that model. Their technology investments will be aimed at reinventing education.
In characterizing the effects of technology on higher education, he draws the useful, though not uncommon, analogy between that industry and retailing. Executives at retailers such as Montgomery Wards (and, now, Borders and Sears and JCPenney and, now possibly Best Buy) thought that all of their infrastructure that supported their personal relationships with their customers would protect them from new competitive threats. (How is that working out?) Recent troubles at (irony!) Best Buy and Walmart are putting a lie to that position.
It turns out that their past investments, far from being an asset as change is buffeting the industry, are actually a drag on the university as it confronts change:
- All of that physical infrastructure will have to be maintained. This is at the expense of investments that it might make in technologies and people that might support online or remote education.
- Much of that physical infrastructure could only be re-purposed at great expense, so universities are probably stuck with it. This will encourage them to continue to offer traditional classes. This will distract their leadership from the actions and decisions that need to be made to commit them further to an online model.
- Traditional classes have to be taught by faculty. These faculty have only a limited amount of attention and time to spend on teaching classes. If some students are in-person and some (extra, additional, add-on) students are remote, then faculty will not have an incentive to design a class that is optimal in any way for the remote students. They will have pressure to service those sitting in the classroom right in front of them, and this will probably be at the expense of the remote students.
- Their faculty also do research. Unless that research is valued by students, then the whole research infrastructure maintained by the universities will be a further drag on the university, further increasing its costs. This is not a problem when all of the major players engage in research; however, when some viable alternatives have a mix of activities that doesn’t include research, then the value of that research can be cast in stark relief, and it’s possible that the outcome will not be what research-focused faculty desire.
Let’s assume that, like retailing (and many, many other industries), education is coming up on a time of radical change. History has shown us that companies who have attempted to make marginal changes may perform acceptably for a while, or they may go under quite quickly (Circuit City, anyone?), but in any case it will be a tough period in which hard decisions have to be made.
A potentially enlightening piece of information
DeMillo wraps up his article with a comparison:
It has been known for 30 years, for example, that one-on-one tutoring is such a vastly superior mode of instruction that virtually every student’s performance can be moved two standard deviations on standard achievements scales. Incumbents [universities] have inexplicably read this data as a call to invent a classroom that has a similar effect on learning.
Disruptors look at the same data and say, “This has nothing to do with classrooms. Why not use the technology for personalization that matches the performance of a human tutor?” That would not involve new classroom technologies or better learning management systems. It probably does not even require fundamental technical innovation. Instead, it would involve abandoning a business model that overly values selectivity, investment in physical infrastructure, and ineffective use of human capital in favor of a culture of sharing and accessibility in which students are able to use the technology to develop deep and personal ties to instructors and fellow learners.
It is this last sentence that you should really focus on. How might it even be possible to move from the first to the second?
So, again, what to do? Where should college presidents, provosts, and deans be directing their investments? I propose a multi-pronged strategy:
- Grow remote enrollment as quickly as possible
- Universities need to think of remote students as central to their mission. The only way to really drive this home is to increase the numbers so that they are equivalent to, and then larger than, the number of students on campus. This will involve changes in marketing, admissions, staffing, and myriad other areas of the university.
- Support remote learning
- This really involves at least two main efforts. The first is related to faculty. The skills for teaching a face-to-face class differ from those needed in online classes. Some retraining will be necessary for existing faculty, as well as the recruitment of new faculty. The second is related to technologies that support remote learning. This is a fast moving field, and knowledge is continually advancing related to what is the state of the art. This is going to require continued investments in order to keep up with the competition. Say good-bye to long life cycles, and say hello to annual changes (if not full-fledged reinventions) of courses.
- Support the combination of multi-section classes into one
- Given that they will be teaching in-person classes for the foreseeable future, they need to address this type of class delivery model. And given that they will be competing with more nimble and less financially encumbered competitors, they are going to have to become more efficient. Thus, no matter the number of students taking a particular class, think of teaching them as one section. Given that scenario, make the investments that improve the teaching of that type of class.
- Ignore investments in small classes
- Current faculty love teaching these classes, and generally don’t require much coercion in order to get them to teach it. If an investment related to teaching does not support the teaching of extremely large classes (either face-to-face or remote), then don’t make it. Get by with the minimum. Something has to give, and this is it.
This would be a fairly radical prescription for change at most large universities. Can you see it working at your university? If not, how do you see it surviving in the coming decade? What does it need to do…and will that be enough to ensure its survival?