What is education, and how to get one

Historic library building at Columbia University

Some people think of college as a collection of courses you take on a beautiful campus for four years. It is so much more than that. In the following I try to provide a way of thinking about what college actually is while also constructing an answer to what it might be in the future.


In David Leonhardt’s NYTimes article “College for the masses”, the author highlights what research has shown in an overlooked benefit of completing college:

Its graduates have managed to complete adulthood’s first major obstacle course. Doing so helps them learn how to finish other obstacle courses and gives them the confidence that they can, so long as they stay focused. Learning to navigate college fosters a quality that social scientists have taken to calling grit.

So much of the college experience is simply the development of this grit, the persistence needed to overcome obstacles, big and small, in pursuit of an overarching goal: What classes should I take? How can I learn this material? How can I pass this class? Where is this class being taught? How can I clear up this confusion about my meal plan account? How can I arrange my time so that I have clean clothes to wear, have some fun, make some friends, and do well enough to stay enrolled? How can I get an answer from this person who isn’t responding to my email? How can I pay for this educational experience? How can I get a job? What kind of job do I want? And so on…

Students need to be able to solve all kinds of problems that crop up in order to get through the maze that is an undergraduate college education. Every college provides a different answer to the question “How, and how much, should we help a student solve the problems facing him/her?” This help comes in the form of professional and peer counselors for academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular activities. It is demonstrated by the length of the lines for help, by the speed at which email answers are received and the helpfulness of those answers.

Two questions

A college or university — its people, places, processes, and organizational structure — is the organization’s answer to the question “What does it mean to be educated?” It is certainly not just a collection of courses. If that were so, then online learning would arguably easily and quickly fully replace the vast majority of colleges and universities worldwide. An institution of higher education is a highly internetworked set of resources and processes, of which faculty and classes are certainly important but are not alone in determining the quality of the educational experience.

The rise of easily accessed high quality online courses may actually end up diversifying and strengthening the answers the colleges and universities construct to this answer. In a WSJ essay “The Future of College: It’s online”, Daphne Koller (of Coursera) makes the following point:

At the same time, universities will devote considerably more effort to activities that occur outside the classroom, be it research, individual mentoring by faculty or senior students, team activities, volunteering, internships, study abroad, and many more types of work and experience. Universities will largely distinguish themselves not by the content they deliver, but by the activities that support and enhance core learning activities.


Right now colleges and universities are like the Comcast (or similar) cable service that so many of us can purchase — a big bundle of services for a relatively high cost. Very few students will be interested in the Aviation Club but, don’t worry, the university will have more than a thousand other clubs that the student might join. Yes, that means that each student’s tuition has to support the extra expense (from his/her point of view) of those other 1000+ clubs, but this is the cost of ensuring that the university will probably have a few clubs that the student is actually interested in.

This same analogy can be extended to many other dimensions of the college or university experience. Just as Netflix, Sling TV, HBO Now, and many other services have risen up to disrupt the cable television industry, so have Coursera, edX and others acted towards higher education. But for a person who wants to receive the equivalent of an undergraduate education, he/she has to, first, answer the question “What does it mean to be educated?“ and, second, construct and successfully complete a series of experiences, academic and otherwise, that would enable the student to gain the academic learning and the grit that would fulfill the requirements of his/her answer to the first question. The challenge for the “graduate” then would become that of convincing the world of the quality of the answers to both questions!

I don’t think I have to explain how difficult and confusing this would be if potential hiring organizations were confronted with this for each person who walked in the door looking for a job.

Answering the questions

How do we currently do this? We outsource. We have accrediting organizations whose very reason for existing is to ensure that colleges and organizations meet a reasonable expectation for providing an education (I’m waving my hands and leaving out a lot of details here). This allows us to trust that if a person graduated from a college or university that we have heard of, then we can believe that the person meets some standard expectation we might have related to what it means to be educated. It allows the interested hiring party to focus on the details that he/she is interested in rather than the bigger picture that would distract and complicate the overall process.

An opportunity

Right now, colleges and universities provide a useful bundling of services and experiences. Graduates get an education — academic knowledge and grit. Society (private and public organizations) gets relatively easily understood resources (i.e., educated citizens) that is has learned to allocate in productive ways. An opportunity exists for a new type of organization to structure a virtual education from a set of unbundled educational experiences, services, and classes that are pre-approved to grant the person who completes them as a “graduate”. (That is, an accreditation agency would sign off on this organization’s claim that a graduate has been educated.) This should reduce the cost of completing the education while also making it easier for students to complete since the answers to the two questions are, if not fully answered, at least extensively outlined for them.

I, for one, am waiting for such an organization to appear. It would certainly make higher education potentially more competitive, higher quality, less expensive and open to more people.

Educational technology and Christensen’s disruptive change framework

The major challenge facing higher education has been brought about by educational technology and its ability to bring about disruptive change. In March 2000 Clayton Christensen and Michael Overdorf wrote “Meeting the challenge of disruptive change” (Harvard Business Review), which discussed why so many successful companies have such trouble innovating, and then laid out decision rules that set out plans for action for companies in order to give them the best chance for successfully innovating. This seems like a fairly direct application of this framework, and one that I would expect my students to bring up fairly quickly in their analysis when thinking about what higher education institutions should be doing in relation to this challenge.

The innovation framework

The authors described a 2×2 framework, with one axis being fit with organizational processes, and the other being fit with organizational values. The idea is that the path towards innovation depends upon the fit between the existing organization and the innovation needed:

Processes Well Poorly
Well Functional or light-weight teams Heavyweight team, developed in-house, then spun off
Poorly Heavyweight team, within organization Heavyweight team, separate spin-off or acquired organization

Applying the framework to higher education

I think it’s fairly clear to anyone who has been around higher education for any period of time that it does not have the right values to innovate. Everything about higher education is centered on stability and incremental change. From the framework we can now see that we’re going to end up with a heavyweight team that will eventually have the commercialization of the project be in a separate organization. The only remaining option is whether development will be done in-house or in a spin-off organization.

This option is determined by whether or not the existing organization has the right processes to innovate. Here I am just going to focus on the decision-making protocols (one of the significant processes) of a fairly typical top business school. Each tenured faculty member has what amounts to lifetime employment and operates more-or-less as an independent contractor. He is accustomed to teaching the classes he wants, how he wants, with the topics he wants, in the programs he wants, and generally at the times he wants. Sure, not every professor gets what he wants every time, but the professor expects his desires to be taken into account. When major questions are addressed, task forces are convened, data is gathered, committees are formed, faculty meetings are held (and held and held), further data is gathered, votes are called and postponed, more meetings are held, and then the proverbial camel emerges from the other end. Then, assuming that some type of decision is made, actually getting faculty to do something significant is another matter entirely — the phrase “herding cats” is frequently bandied about. So, I would say “no,” higher education generally does not have the right processes to innovate.


Thus, according to the innovation framework above, this would say that when a higher education institution is addressing the wholesale changes required by technology, they should create a heavyweight team dedicated to the inovation task. The team should have complete responsibility for its success, and it should end up operating in a separate spin-off or acquired organization.

The next question is how should this be done? For a future post…

Technology turbocharges a new educational philosophy

We can be empowered by the community we live, work, and learn with.

In this article I add a couple of points to my ongoing analysis of the new educational philosophy that is becoming apparent to me, and then I describe how technology makes this superior experience more frequently available to more people.

A new educational philosophy for large classes

In this article I proposed that the way to provide a great education at a lower cost is based on the concept of community:

Students have to feel they are part of a supportive and available educational community — as both givers and receivers of that support — as they strive toward personally relevant goals.

I have previously emphasized some concepts underlying this philosophy:

  • Project-based learning is one key
  • Students as both learners and teachers
  • The student must have some motivation for learning and participating.
  • One of a a professor’s key areas to focus on, especially during the first phases of a semester, should be toward building connections with the students and among the students.

There is a sense in which none of this is new — I myself participated in just such an experience in my classes at Furman University. I had many very small classes (less than 15 students; some less than 10) and formed close connections with students and professors. We worked on significant projects, we were expected to take responsibility for our own learning, and we frequently taught other students both in class and out.

What is new here is that this philosophy is to be extended to much larger groups of students. The never-ending hours of the sage on the stage delivering a PowerPoint lecture to a large, uninterested, an uninvolved audience is to be forever banished to our memories (and hopefully forgotten soon after that). Recent changes in attitudes and technologies have given hope to those people who want to reinvent education.

Competence and gamification

In my previous discussions, I have forgotten two additional points that I am adding here:

  • Competency-based focus
  • Gamification of learning

In this first point, the idea is that education should no longer strictly be about pitting the students against each other and seeing who does better. Increasingly, the goal is to get students to achieve a level of competency. Professors have always known that our measures of “goodness” are inexact. We hope they are generally correlated with knowledge in a specified field, but we know that applying decimal points to the measures we use is putting too fine of a point on it. In many instances we should acknowledge this reality and simply certify that a student has reached a satisfactory level of competency.

Note that this switch is not solely of interest to students and faculty. It will require some cooperation from other constituencies who value the ranking that we do within our classes. Think about organizations who hire our graduates and graduate schools who enroll them. What would they think about seeing a large number of “competent” check-marks on a graduate’s diploma? How and when would they determine which of our graduates were our best students? Should we care? (My guess: Yes, we should, at least in the short run.)

For the second point, the gamification of the learning process in a sense explicitly recognizes what every student who gets good grades knows: If you want to get a good grade, then figure out what the professor wants, and do more of that. Gamifying a class makes what the professor wants fairly clear or, at least, determinable in a shorter time frame. Feedback, by definition, comes quickly and directly. “Did I get a trophy/points/badge?” If so, the student did well; if not, then he/she needs to do something else. This gamification can support the move toward building a process that leads towards competency; it can support the process of completing a project; it can support students in their roles as student and teacher; it can provide some extrinsic motivation where the intrinsic motivation might be lacking. In short, gamification is can be a powerful tool in this move towards the new philosophy of education.

Photo used under (CC BY-NC 2.0). Photo by ThomasHawk at Flickr.com

Technology makes all of this more frequent and feasible

With the development of and focus on new educational technologies, as well as with the successes of classes delivered by Udacity, there is real hope that the new educational philosophy can take hold at a large scale. Technology extends the capabilities and influence of professors and students. They can both reach farther; they can both create far more things (both real and virtual) than they ever could before. Simply: they are empowered to teach and learn in new ways.

Technology also supports different communication patterns. Traditionally, students have been assumed to be learning when the professor is delivering material to them. Students talking to the professor? That is either an “interruption” or a “question”. And let’s just ignore the “students talking with other students” part. Both of these were not what learning was about. But now? We recognize that some of the most important interactions occur when students are talking with other students or when students lead the professor to consider something in a different light. Students are highly qualified to teach other students; they generally have very good insight into how these other students are thinking and what types of problems they might be having; they can communicate in the other student’s language directly to the problem that they are having. Use technology to support and rewards this type of communication. Improved learning could be the result.

If these other communication patterns are so important, then why have they been relegated to the sidelines? Why, indeed. Probably because they were done outside the limelight, away from the arenas in which the “serious learning” was, in theory, taking place. With technology, and with the recognition of the importance of this other communication, the hope is that we can now capture, support, measure, and reward it so that it gets more frequent and more meaningful.

We must also remember that everybody’s different. And we differ in different dimensions. The power of technology allows us to track, and learn about, and respond to each of our students differently. It allows us to move away from the lock-step madness with which we have been infected. We can think “what does this student want?”, “what does this student need?”, and “what is the most appropriate thing for this student to be doing?” These are questions that we couldn’t allow ourselves to think when teaching large classes. It would lead to too much work, and it would be seen as being “unfair” or giving “preferential” treatment. With developing educational technology, the hope is that every student might receive this “preferential” treatment and that it might become the norm rather than the very rare exception.

Wrap up

As Sir Ken Robinson says, let people do something they are good at and that they are passionate about, and good things will follow. Using educational technology in the right way seems to empower faculty to create a learning environment that allows students to do just this. It allows us to teach more students in this way. It empowers students to teach other students. It empowers the professor to think about personalizing the educational process for the student. All of these changes should make it clear that it is not the new technology that is creating all of the excitement in education circles — it is the changes that it enables that has people talking about a revolution in education.

To a large part, it is up to us to act, to try things out, and to learn in the best possible situation. With that as a goal, why shouldn’t we give it a try?

What higher education should be investing in

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?

My proposal

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?

Yong Zhao’s idea of a world class education (ISTE12 keynote)

Message delivered by Dr. Yong Zhao, University of Oregon, at ISTE12 in San Diego.


Last Tuesday I attended the ISTE12 keynote by Dr. Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon. He is a deeply interesting, funny, and motivating speaker who clearly has a wealth of knowledge on his topic of what it means to deliver a world class education. He has written World Class Learners and Catching up or Leading the Way along with many dozens of articles.

Here I will try to summarize the main points of his talk in a unified essay. As far as I can recall, the points below are his; I wish I could take credit for them, but I can’t.

Choose the right goals

He considers the story of Easter Island (as recounted by Jared Diamond) to be a good metaphor for what is happening with educational reform. The Easter Island residents seemed to think that their rock carvings were a sign of prosperity of their carving, so each family dedicated all their resources to carving bigger and better rocks. They neglected farming and everything else that was needed. Eventually their society collapsed not because of external influences but because they had chosen the wrong goal.

He came back to this again and again: If you choose the wrong goal by which to measure yourself, no matter how good or efficient you are you will never get to where you need to go. Actually, the more efficient you are, the more quickly you will disappear (or at least become irrelevant).

He likens the above situation to education reform in the US, Australia, England and many other places around the world. Here in the US we have the following:

Common Core
He says that he is not against standards, but he would like this one better if it weren’t common and if it weren’t considered the core of what is to be learned.
No Child Left Behind
Sometimes it is good if a child is left behind. For example, what if we are all going in the wrong direction. Wouldn’t you like if it that child was able to choose to go in another direction?

(This is among many others.) He says standardized test scores are like the giant stone heads on Easter Island. They are really beautiful and seductive, but they aren’t what we need. Using technology to raise our test scores is the wrong use of the technology. He mentioned this saying:

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb, it will live its whole life believing that it’s stupid.

You cannot judge technology by its ability to improve test scores. This is not what it’s really good for.

The leaders in standardized testing

When the 2009 PISA test results (gold standard of education results) were released, China took #1 in all three categories. Obama said that this is the Sputnik moment for us. Arne Duncan said this is a wake-up call. Everyone wanted to know how these countries did so well. However, when these results were announced, China did not celebrate. Why not? Well, they are looking for different talents:

Wen Jiabao
“China must have entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.”
Kai-fu Lee
“The next Apple or Google will appear, but not in China…unless it abolishes its education.”

Why were these Chinese leaders worried after seeing these results? Well, it has to do with the innovation and leadership disparity they saw. For example, in patent filings in 2008, China had 203k while USA had 400k and Japan had 500k. Given the difference in populations among these three, China should have had significantly more than either of these. Also, while Asians make up 5% of the US population, and 15-25% of the student bodies in the Ivy League (and other top schools), they make up only 2% of the board seats of Fortune 500 firms.

So, the Chinese were not satisfied with their educational system because they perceived something lacking in it as the underlying engine for their economy. At the other end of the spectrum, tthe US was (and is) really dissatisfied with its system.

History of bad test-taking

You hear that US education is in decline. The College Board says we’re crumbling. Professor Zhao says that US education isn’t in decline — it has always been bad. He wonders why the US is still among the leading countries

He brings up several points when emphasizing how bad our educational system has been. It was bad in the 1950s. Remember the whole Sputnik thing? There was a special issue of Life magazine in 1958 titled “Crisis in Education.” In 1983 we were comparing our educational system unfavorably with that in Japan. Again, the US was at risk, this time from Japan. We have a long history as bad test takers. In 1960s we were 12th out of 12 in math. In 1970s-80s, we then were 12-15th out of 15 in math. You could actually say that we are doing better now than we ever did.

Explanations for the bad scores

All sorts of explanations have been put forward for why the US has such bad test scores. First, it has been found that there is an inverse relationship between test scores and perceived entrepreneurial capability. He isn’t saying that the perceived entrepreneurial capability is causing bad test scores; however, given that we are so high on this dimension, it then makes sense that we would have low test scores…even if it is still unclear why this relationship exists.

Second, he points out that all sorts of surveys have shown that we are very confident in our math ability even though we are really bad. Our political leader have said that this implies that we need higher standards, and that these standards need to be clearly and frequently measured by tests so that we will know just how bad we are. This will then cause us to be sad and to work hard at raising our scores. Or so their thinking goes.

Third, in the US most teachers care more about children than math. This is apparently a big problem here; he said this with a huge sense of irony in his delivery.

The professor made it clear that he is not particularly satisfied with any of these possible explanations. Actually, he is not even satisfied with the question because he doesn’t think that the scores matter at all.

A “Lady Gaga” curriculum

What he is really interested in is whether or not it is possible for a school to develop a curriculum that could churn out a whole lot of Lady Gagas. No matter how you judge her music, he said that it is clear that she is talented, entrepreneurial, and creative. Would it even be possible to create a Lady Gaga curriculum? A Common Core for Lady Gaga? Does this even make sense to think about?

When creating a curriculum, we are placing a bet on what’s going to be important in the future — what will make us “college-ready” or “ready for our career.” The predictions that we place are based on the past. The question becomes what really makes people rise to the top?

Amy Chua, in Day of Empire says that tolerance is the key. Richard Florida, in The rise of the creative class, says that it is technology, talents, and tolerance. It turns out that tolerance gets us diversity, creativity, and entrepreneurship, which are the things that an economy needs to thrive. Whether or not you believe that the resulting creativity can be taught, it is clear that an education can help kill it. Maybe it’s the case that US schools kill creativity less successfully than other school systems.

What education should be

The professor poses three important questions for a school system:

  • What matters to you: test scores or confidence?
  • Do you allow exceptional talents to exist?
  • Are you taking advantage of the resources that you have?

The structure of our current educational system was to support our industrial, manufacturing-based economy. While it is true that the average profit per Apple employee is $400,000, they are not the ones putting the devices together. This is being done (mainly) by Asian companies who are much less profitable. Today a company (and an economy) needs unique workers with special skills, and you have to be great because this is a global society.

Further, the economy needs entrepreneurs off all types: business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, policy entrepreneurs. These people, when they are unhappy with a situation, comes up with a solution to make it better. When enough people are working on a problem, and when those people think about things in lots of different ways, then problems get solved and economies advance.

These so-called “black-collar workers” (who he named in honor of Steve Jobs’s turtleneck) don’t wait for someone to create a job for them; they create the job for themselves. He has identified qualities that are common to these people:

They have to have an innate confidence in their own abilities.
A supportive network of friends help them persevere.
A sense that risk-taking is acceptable, or even desirable, gets them to try important and difficult problems.
A passion for their efforts helps them keep striving in the face of difficulty.
This allows them to try different approaches when the first 100 fail.
These people have a real inner drive to solve these problems and to make a difference.

We should all abandon the idea that US schooling can produce employable skills. Kids turning 13 this year, if they work until they are 72, will be retiring in 2071. Think about what has happened in the last 10 years. People make a living working for Facebook, writing Angry Birds, and tweeting. Was that predictable 10 years ago? What makes you think that you can predict that we know what skills will be “employable” for these people in 2071? Remember, our predictions are based on the past. Well, no matter how perfect a horse wagon is, it will never make it to the moon.

Education should involve student autonomy, a global campus, and product-oriented learning. They need to make real things. Schools need to focus on the individual strengths of the student. They need to turn the students into makers of things and not only consumers. This can only happen beyond the school’s walls; the world must become our campus. The people of the world are our collaborators, investors, and customers. Work with them, not against them.

He concluded by saying test scores should not apply to everyone. They don’t reflect your student’s, your teacher’s, or your school’s abilities. A great education allows each child’s maximum potential. Design your class with that in mind.

Higher education sounds an awful lot like Borders right now

An old Borders location in San Diego, CA

In the June 26, 2012 New York Times, a great article titled “Public universities see familiar fight at Virginia”. In describing recent events at the University of Virginia, author Tamar Lewin perfectly captures the difficult situation in which highered finds itself.

Here is ex-President, rumored to soon be reinstated President, Teresa Sullivan commenting on online education:

Dr. Sullivan said that online education was no panacea — and indeed, was “surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential and unless carefully managed can undermine the quality of instruction.”

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Let’s see, where have I heard these words before? Oh, yes:

  • As a leading retailer, Sears has found that selling clothes online is no panacea and, indeed, is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential (compared to our vast network of stores) and, unless carefully managed, can undermine the personal service that we provide our customers.
  • As a leading bookstore, Borders has found that selling books online is no panacea and, indeed, is surprisingly expensive, has limited revenue potential (compared to our vast and growing network of stores) and, unless carefully managed, can undermine the personal, in-depth, knowledgeable service that we provide our customers.

Not a good sign for highered, for sure. The following is a great description of how highered leadership works, and provides insight into the difficulties people in those positions face:

And while she agreed that she is, indeed, an incrementalist, she stressed that that did not mean she lacked a strategic plan.

“Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university,” she said. “Sustained change with buy-in does work.”

Many public university presidents, past and present, said that those on the boards of the leading universities — typically business executives without much experience in academia — do not always understand the complexities of leading a large research university, and the degree to which a president can succeed only by persuading.

The UVA board tried to move quickly — too quickly, it turns out — but I wouldn’t be surprised if the next board is successful in getting its way because the situation is becoming untenable for too many institutions. Faculty salaries are going to have to be cut drastically; classes are going to have to increase in size; and educational technologies are going to have to be deployed (effectively, let’s hope) on a fairly extensive scale. Difficult choices have to be made. Reality must be faced, and soon. Getting a president reinstated doesn’t change any of that.

Finally some clarity surrounding the turmoil at UVA


What a week at the University of Virginia. This article at the Chronicle of Higher Education finally provides some clarity surrounding Teresa Sullivan’s abrupt departure as president. So few details had been available that it most of what I read was simply speculation surrounding very few hard facts. Now it appears that the underlying philosophical disagreement with the board and important donors had to do with Dr. Sullivan’s apparent attitude toward online education.

UVA is a history-laden university in ways that very few other higher education institutions can claim. They are, rightfully, very proud of this history and all that they stand for. Most universities are slow to move because of their size and complexity. Further, they are led by senior faculty who are by their very nature conservative — after all, they have chosen a career in which the goal is to attain a position in which they cannot be fired! Given UVA’s history, I can only imagine that these forces might be even stronger in Charlottesville.

Given all of this, the upheaval caused by the changes going on related to online learning (efforts by Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and even Michigan) has clearly shocked the campus. Some are apparently worried that they are going to be left behind, necessitating drastic changes. Others think that, as usual, measured steps are needed. Whatever the case, it can’t be the case that your position is I need to think about that. We all need to think through our position on this, to come to some decisions, and to have a strategy for addressing it now and over the next three to five years.

What is your strategy?

The future of higher education — changes are afoot

Recently, three articles provided various insights into the future of college education. The first is a call for revolution; the second describes the multiple forces acting on higher education; and the third describes many of the forces that are tugging at, if not tearing apart, the world of higher education. After reading these it would be hard for anyone to think that colleges can continue to provide the same educational experience that they have been providing for the last several decades.

Questions remain, certainly, as to what colleges should do and, also, what prospective students should do. In the following I provide a few highlights from each article, and I conclude with my thoughts about both how I think students should think about their options and how organizations should respond to these challenges.

A call for a revolution

Oh, not that kind of revolution?

Over at CNN.com, William J. Bennett recently wrote “Do we need a revolution in higher education?”. This is a thoughtful opinion piece that I encourage you to read. His basic points are as follows:

  • He describes the many cases in which “a college diploma may no longer guarantee the high potential lifetime earnings it once did.”
  • With “almost 54% of recent graduates were unemployed or underemployed,” “[a] college degree does not hold the status and significance it once did.”
  • “[E]conomic status now turns on many other things, like intellectual capital and skills training…”
  • “Many students are ill prepared for the labor market, whether by fault of their own or by colleges and universities that are out of sync with the needs of a skilled work force.”

It is clear that he thinks that colleges need to radically re-think what they do and the education that they provide.

Dueling purposes of higher education

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo wrote a related piece titled “A college education with multiple purposes”.

What many of those in higher ed fail to realize is that as college has become more expensive, parents and students increasingly view a bachelor’s degree as a transaction. For many, education for education’s sake no longer cuts it. That doesn’t mean students shouldn’t major in French literature or philosophy, or anthropology, but institutions need to do better at connecting such academic programs to lifetime employment prospects. Otherwise, it’s going to be almost impossible to get students and parents to pay $200,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree.

At the same time, employers and politicians need to learn that if colleges provide training only for jobs that need to be filled now, those workers will probably be useless in about two years, given the rapid pace of change in most industries.

He makes a useful recommendation:

Colleges need to reframe the question when asking employers what they need. Instead of asking about the jobs they need to fill tomorrow, colleges should ask employers to describe the valuable skills of their best-performing and longest-serving employees. It’s likely the answer will be critical thinking, writing, team work, and problem solving — all attributes of a classic liberal-arts education.

Forces acting on higher education

David J. Staley and Dennis A. Trinkle, at the Educause Review Online (Jan/Feb 2011), wrote “The Changing Landscape of Higher Education”. In this article, they describe ten coming changes in college education:

Which way do I go?
  1. The increasing differentiation of higher education
  2. The transformation of the general education curriculum
  3. The faculty faces of the future
  4. The surge in global faculty and student mobility
  5. The new “invisible college”
  6. The changing “traditional” student
  7. The mounting pressure to demonstrate the value added of a college degree
  8. The revaluation of “middle-skill” jobs
  9. Higher education as a private rather than a public good
  10. Lifelong partnerships with students

These are all-encompassing changes in almost all dimensions of the industry — the students, the faculty, the value proposition, the competition, the content of the “good” (education, in this case). I highly recommend that you read this article to get a sense of the strength of these forces. Again, after reading this article and understanding the arguments that it makes, it seems impossible to me that anyone could think that higher education can continue in its daily operations in a business-as-usual basis.

Thoughts about the future

Oh, not that kind of revolution?

Each of the articles above are worthy of detailed explication, analysis, and reaction so whatever I say here is limited and leaves much uncovered. Given that, I have a few thoughts that I wish to highlight related to the future of higher education.

First, some people need time to grow up, to mature, after they finish high school. They are not ready for advanced study; they are not ready to join the work force; they are not ready to assume responsibility for their lives as citizens. Organizations (similar to the Peace Corps in a previous generation) have a great opportunity in front of them to be a training group for large groups of young adults who are transitioning into maturity but who are not interested in doing this while in college. These organizations don’t need to provide an academic environment, just one that supports their growth. Colleges have provided this environment for students of all types with the downside being that they have many students in their classrooms who are not interested in the education, only in the time away from home. The new reality will allow them to provide an education to those who are focused on the education.

Second, some people need specific knowledge and certification of that knowledge but have little desire to study other subjects. Training and certification organizations should get highly attuned to the needs of industry so that they can take these slightly more mature, more focused students and prepare them for specific jobs and careers. Later in their careers, as they advance in their companies, many young managers and entrepreneurs should be quite interested in advanced business training (whether as an MBA or otherwise, I do not know).

Third, the world has changed so that learning resources are now available to anyone connected to the Internet. Learning, not “formal education”, can occur anywhere. It can happen all throughout a lifetime, and can happen when a student is actually interested in the material. Colleges should think about how to sell their programs to these students, no matter their age or location.

Further, students should accept the idea of paying more money to gain access to world class professors in the subjects in which they are interested. It should become clear to everyone — prospective students, faculty, universities, governments, prospective employers — that the ideas and concepts within almost any class in the world is available in some articles, Web sites, and/or books somewhere. The students aren’t paying for the content, per se. The value of a class is provided in two ways: (1) the selection of topics and interpretation of the material, and (2) the interaction between the students and professor so that the student’s understanding can become more refined. A student paying for this high-priced education, no matter whether it is in person or distant, will assume that he/she will get plenty of interaction with the professor.

Finally, a person going into a career or living a “life of the mind” (such as a professor) needs the education and validation provided by a traditional education. Far fewer students need this than currently attend our colleges; many should get out of this business and redefine themselves or go out of business entirely.

The above are quite radical recommendations, asking for the complete reconstruction of the education industry. I know that, but I also have seen long-standing industries such as that for news reporting get completely blown up. I don’t see how education can avoid this fate. I ask that the education industry leadership take charge and make the needed changes proactively rather than waiting for other organizations to spring up and seize the opportunities.

China’s growing university system

The U.S. has had the premier university system in the world for quite a while now. I think it’s fair to say that. And, overall, its top universities have been the envy of the world as well. Okay, that and $5 will get you a cup of coffee. What’s the likelihood that this will remain the case in the coming decade? If you think the U.S. is at least even odds to keep the status quo, then you might want to consider the following discussion.

As preamble, from data in the 2010 U.S. Census we know that the United States had 20.3 million students enrolled in some type of college in 2010, and we can guess that it will not be increasing rapidly any time soon. Sean Coughlan, in his article “Graduates – the new measure of power” at the BBC News, cited three statistics that, when taken together, tell quite a worrisome story (for those of us in a traditionally powerful large public research university, anyway):

Apollo 11 Launched Via Saturn V Rocket
  • China had about 1 million college students in 1998.
  • In the last four years, 34 million students have graduated from Chinese universities.
  • By 2020, it is projected that China will have 35.5 million students enrolled in their university system.

That kind of nearly vertical growth curve is shocking to see, and it’s clearly worrisome. Some points strike me immediately:

  • The Chinese university system is going to have to educate a lot of students. They are probably going to have to figure out — given the extreme pressure on their system from the rapidly growing number of students — how to do some type of “high volume production” approach when feasible.
  • If they can figure out how to educate their own students in that system, why wouldn’t they try to reach overseas for more students if the incremental cost of adding a student is low?
  • There’s no reason to think that they won’t work on scaling their graduate schools up and improving their quality as well.
  • They are probably going to send fewer students to the U.S. as their system’s capacity catches up to the needs of their population.
  • More students from the U.S. will go to China for their education, either undergraduate or graduate, as its economy continues to grow and its university system improves.
  • They are probably going to need more faculty than they can produce. They would probably look at bringing U.S.-based faculty (as well as other high quality systems) into their own university system.

To summarize: Fewer students enrolled in the U.S. system (which means fewer dollars). A draw on our faculty resources (which means lower quality)… which would probably mean more students (from the U.S., China, India, Europe, etc.) look elsewhere. Which means…lather, rinse, repeat.

Yes, we got trouble (right here in River City).

What did I miss? Did I go off-the-rails in my analysis? In any case, what should faculty in U.S. institutions of higher learning do? I certainly will have more on this soon but, in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts.

Observations from Bingham and Connor’s The New Social Learning

I am currently reading The New Social Learning by Tony Bingham and Marcia Connor. This book is about enabling, supporting, and boosting the learning that is going on via social means of an organization’s employees. Of course, I am more interested in doing all of this for the students in my class, but I am hopeful that I will be able to transfer some insights from one context to another. As I have started to read it, I’m getting so many ideas; in this post I list of the ones from just Chapter 1 that excite me most; the emphases below are mine. I assume that longer posts will follow on some of these individual ideas (and on some from later chapters). This is not meant to be a review or to capture the important points from the book — this is just a set of my reactions to some of their ideas at the beginning of the book.

A student’s roles in a class

From p5: “We encourage you to use this book to discover how social media tools facilitate learning, how they might be leveraged to extend and expand your interactions with colleagues, and how to use them to create something vibrant. As Chris Brogan, one of the top bloggers in the world, coauthor of Trust Agents, and author of Social Media 101 says, ‘Focus on connecting with the people, and the tools will all make sense.’ ” — When designing my upcoming class, I continue to look for tools that enable connections at the right time, but I’m also thinking of how I can get across the idea to the students that they are supposed to support each other, to teach each other, to share with each other. They have been programmed from at least elementary school (and certainly at Michigan Ross with our enforced curve) that school is a competitive experience, that if you do better, then someone else has to do worse. I will have a strong tide to swim against.

The social basis of knowledge

From p7: “At its most basic level, new social learning can result in people becoming more informed, gaining a wider perspective, and being able to make better decisions by engaging with others. It acknowledges that learning happens with and through other people, as a matter of participating in a community, not just by acquiring knowledge.” — It has only been in the last few years that I have come to know this! (I’m a little slow sometimes. Okay, a lot of the time.) I have come to know that knowledge is an extremely social construct, that knowing something in some sense means knowing how to work with and through other people to get something done, that if you don’t have that level of knowledge, then you don’t really know something. If it’s possible to teach a class in a way that supports a discovery of this truth, then I will be looking for that way.

Technology for social learning

Social learning isn’t new. It has been going on since humans have walked the planet. We have used technology to support the process for at least 50 years (even though that’t not what it was called at the time). — Personally, I tend to get somewhat swept up in the latest technology. (If you know me, you know that I just said the equivalent of “The sun is hot.”) But I have been around long enough to know that this is true…at some level. The technology might have supported this process before, but it was only for people with a certain skills set or for people who worked in a certain industry. The technology now seems to be available and useful to a much broader segment of the population doing a much broader range of tasks. Given this, it seems like it would be useful to get students some experience with these tools sooner rather than later.

Social learning for higher ed

Social learning technologies “move services, assets, smarts, and guidance closer to where they are needed — to people seeking answers, solving problems, overcoming uncertainty, and improving how they work.” — This captures why I think social learning technologies would be useful for my class. I am not going to have all the answers; I want students to take ownership of some of the material and learn to share their own expertise; I want students to learn to reach out to a community for answers instead of just the supposed expert (i.e., me), even though that is what they have been trained to do all of their academic lives. Once they get into the work world, they will have to learn to operate in this generally ambiguous fashion. I figure I can start the process early for them in order to give them a leg up once they get out into the real world.

Social learning in my class

On p9 the authors explain what social learning is not, and this helped me clarify my thinking related to how I would use these technologies in my class:

  • It’s not at odds with formal education. By setting the students up with twitter accounts (that is, those that don’t have one already), I can enable them to share and seek information formally and informally (if that distinction even makes sense any more).
  • It’s not a replacement for training… That’s good, because I was still planning on using training videos and in-person experiences and online exercises in the class.

Appropriate testing

On p11: “The 21st century mind is a collective mind where we access what we know in our friends’ and colleagues’ brains. Together we can be smarter and can address ever more challenging problems. What we store in our heads may not be as important as all that we can tap in our networks. Together we are better.” — Testing a student’s ability to recall facts just seems silly in today’s world. What we need to be testing is a student’s ability to solve a problem using appropriate methods. More and more, “appropriate methods” include usage of the student’s personal network. Why? Because that is how they will address problems for the rest of their lives. It is a social world, and no student will ever be an island. (Except, apparently, if they sit in a classroom.)

Sharing expertise vs. enabling collaboration

On p19: “Learning can easily occur anytime, anywhere, and in a variety of formats. It always has, but now it’s codified and easy for others to see. These new social tools can enable organizations to strike a balance between surfacing the knowledge people need and giving them the ease and freedom to learn in a healthy and open way.” — Organizations have long worked to get employees to share their expertise so that others can build upon it. It seems to me that this new model of social learning has a bit different take on this. Efforts here are focused on getting employees to collaborate in problem solving, to draw them explicitly into the process so that their expertise can be used directly. The social tools should make it easier to reach out to these people, and to establish the true nature of the need for others to see (via an ongoing open, sharing practice).

Expanding the boundaries

On p20: “Learning is what makes us more vibrant participants in a world seeking fresh perspectives, novel insights, and first-hand experiences. When shared, what we have learned mixes with what others have learned, then ripples out, transforming organizations, enterprises, ecosystems, and the society around us.” — I want to make my class as valuable as possible. I want students to share what they have learned. I want people who are not in my class to be able to get a glimpse of the wonderful experiences we have shared in the class. I want students in my future classes to build upon the works and learning of my current class so that future students can go beyond where my current students are able to go. How? That’s a topic for a future post! But I think it’s a good goal, and one that is in reach.

How and when students learn

On p20: Some researchers in learning have found that “70 percent of learning and development takes place from real-life and on-the-job experiences, tasks, and problem solving; 20 percent of the time development comes from other people through informal or formal feedback, mentoring, or coaching; and 10 percent of learning and development comes from formal training.” — This might be true because formal training only takes place 10% of the time; mentoring 20% of the time, etc. Or it might be that formal training provides knowledge that is not measured by these statistics. Or, most disturbingly, it might be that formal training hasn’t been imparting knowledge that is in any way useful. That would not be a happy interpretation of the data from my perspective. My personal takeaway from this is that I try to provide students with many opportunities to create tasks that both are personally relevant to them and apply theories and frameworks from the class I am teaching. I also try to give personal feedback as much as possible and create opportunities for students to give and receive feedback among themselves (if possible for the class); I have found that both teaching other students and learning from other students also help students retain information.

Class as a context for experimenting

On p21: “The new social learning, which centers on information sharing, collaboration, and co-creation — not instruction — implies that the notion of training needs to expand.” — This is a good summary of my motivation for working on this class. It provides a context to test my theories of learning and teaching, to see which facets of these processes can work in a digital environment and which require a blended approach.

Application of knowledge as a means for remembering

On p22: “Knowledge acquired but never put to use is usually forgotten. We may act as if we care about learning something and go through the motions, but we will forget it unless it is something we want to learn and it fits how we work.” — As I have taught over the years, I have learned this again and again. (Have I mentioned that I have a thick skull?) The concept of “covering the material” is nearly a meaningless phrase. Unless a student interacts with the concept, makes it somehow personally meaningful, it will be forgotten. Just because the teacher says the words doesn’t mean that the student heard them, understood them, or will ever even remember that they were said. Design a course so that the student has time to apply the concepts in a meaningful context. It is best if the student can construct that context; otherwise, what is perceived as meaningful to the professor can end up being perceived as irrelevant or confusing by the student. Not good. The question for the professor becomes how to come up with a way of managing all these different contexts during the learning process. Again, another question for another blog post.


That’s it for now. (As if that wasn’t enough, huh?)

As I said, this post is in no way a summary of the book, or even of this chapter. I hope it does, in some way, encourage you to read this book for yourself; as you can tell, I feel it has been worth my time. I would love to hear your take on some of the points above. I’m struggling with a lot of concepts, and juggling lots of balls. I need some of you to help me think through all of this.

Relating the housing and education markets

In a wonderful and expansive blog post, Mark Cuban — businessman, billionaire, and owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks — draws a clear and detailed analogy between the housing market bubble bursting and the current state of the higher education industry. Yes, I had heard this before but he paints a wonderfully vivid (though, of course, disturbing) picture of the economics of the situation.

His general points are as follows:

  • Too many students have loans that are too big to be easily paid back.
  • Student loans are too easy to get.
  • The end recipients of the loan money (colleges and universities) are motivated to continue raising their tuition rates because they don’t have to worry about either paying the money back or whether or not they will receive it — it’s guaranteed!
  • Borrowing money to pay for college and then hoping to earn it back in lifetime earnings is just like home buyers hoping to buy an over-priced house and then flip it in a couple of years for many thousands of dollars more. And it worked for many years…until it didn’t any more. And the effects of this bubble bursting are likely to be no less horrific than those for the housing bubble.
  • Since student debt is so high upon graduation, students are essentially forced to move back home and put almost all their money to their loan payments. Not saving for a car. Not buying a nice wardrobe for work. Not stimulating the economy and creating jobs! Making the loan payment…for years and years. Unless they can’t, and have to go into bankruptcy.

Here are words (those of Mark Cuban) that should send shivers down the spine of every business professor in a top-ranked (or even medium-ranked) school:

As an employer I want the best prepared and qualified employees. I could care less if the source of their education was accredited by a bunch of old men and women who think they know what is best for the world. I want people who can do the job. I want the best and brightest. Not a piece of paper.

If this sentiment were to spread, then the game would change over night. What if potential employers defined “best prepared and qualified” in a way that wasn’t necessarily equivalent to “degree from a highly ranked and accredited university”? It’t not like there aren’t alternatives out there waiting.

Let’s consider these three:

DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education is a book by Anya Kamenetz “about the future of higher education. It’s a story about the communities of visionaries who are tackling the enormous challenges of cost, access, and quality in higher ed, using new technologies to bring us a revolution in higher learning that is affordable, accessible, and learner-centered” (from this page).
P2P University
From their home page, “IT’S ONLINE AND TOTALLY FREE. At P2PU, people work together to learn a particular topic by completing tasks, assessing individual and group work, and providing constructive feedback.”
Their mission is “To change the notion that university is the only path to success and to help people to thrive in an ever changing world in which it is virtually impossible for educational institutions to adapt.”

With the efforts by MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and others, professional schools (such as Michigan Ross) need to be leading the charge towards digital education. Why? Because they have the most to lose. When students routinely are asked to pay $50,000 per year while simultaneously giving up their position in the work force, the professional school better have a really good defense against any questions about their value proposition. Lots of questions need answers, or at least the possibilities need to be explored:

  • What will digital education look like?
  • How is digital education best accomplished?
  • What are the different pricing levels and education delivery models?
  • How does the blended learning model fit in all of this?
  • How can the threat of “free” (or, at least, extremely low cost) models of education be met?

In any case, standing on the sideline shouldn’t be an option. And, to be sure, the burden of worrying about this should not fall on the head of only the administrative team. Faculty, staff, and administration need to feel the urgency of this threat — the sense that something needs to be done, the feeling that the organization’s existence is being questioned, and that everyone is pulling in the same direction and working towards the same goal. Not all compensation questions and long term organizational issues can be answered before schools need to begin taking action. Faculty need to begin trying out educational delivery models with support from the school. The administration needs to come up with strategic plans for positioning themselves in the marketplace, while the faculty needs to have a sense of that direction and trust that the administration will be looking out for their best interests. If action isn’t taken soon, the range of possible actions available to schools and faculty is going to be severely limited. Act now, and figure out answers later. Everything can’t be known because the world is changing too fast. Some best guesses and assumptions have to be made.

This can only work if faculty and the administration have the sense that they are sitting on the same side of the table. What do you feel at your school? Are these two groups ready to work together?

A new teaching and technology initiative from Purdue

In this article on Purdue University’s student newspaper, Rachel Rapkin reports the following:

President France Córdova announced an initiative for college students around the world to access Purdue’s online courses. The system is called PurdueHUB-U and it includes a “blended format” class for residential students. … Through this website hub, residential students will be able to learn class content online by watching the lectures, submitting homework and taking tests. The actual class time will be used for activities, more engagement and participation.

In the article Purdue’s provost also points out that their research indicates that a blended learning model might be superior to online only or lecture only. Well, that makes sense to me, certainly. I also consider this a great way to make progress with this — conduct experiments with actual classes, learn from them, then make the technology more widely available. There are many steps before we have arrived at The Future of Education (drumroll, please!), but we’ll never get there without taking our first, tentative steps.

Delivering the right education at the right time

I have seen a lot of articles about challenges to traditional higher ed recently, and I’m not hopeful for the future of the university given the types of reactions I’m seeing from the field’s “leadership.” Here I show you a little of what I’ve been seeing and give you my take on the matters at hand.

The threat of MOOCs

Let’s consider MOOCs and the Professoriate by Kaustuv Basu at Inside Higher Ed. (This is a reflection on Tom Friedman’s very positive NYTimes article Come the revolution about MOOCs, Coursera, and online education, generally.) While it might be excused for a professor’s first reaction to the reality of online education to be defensive, by now we should be past this reaction. We should have moved on to figuring out how we can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. By the tone of this article, many professors haven’t taken that step yet. The article ends with this quote from Margaret Soltan, who was the first professor at George Washington University to offer a MOOC:

“Online is clearly inferior, even if done very well, [compared to] face-to-face education and to the social rites of growing up which college represents for many, many people,” she said.

Knowing what the customer values

This is an example of a really dangerous way of thinking. (This is where I put my “business professor” hat on…) This is a very important point:

It doesn’t matter if their product is inferior. It doesn’t matter if a bundled good (the accompanying “social rites”) increases the value of your product. If the customer wants something else, then the organization that provides that new “something else” will win out in the end.

Let’s think about early 1970’s American cars (for example, the 1971 Chrysler Imperial). Was the 1971 Honda Civic a superior car? No, but Chrysler should have been extremely worried about it. Why? Because it addressed a segment of the population whose needs weren’t being met. It provided reliable, economical transportation. It didn’t have a big trunk and it barely carried 4 passengers, but sometimes what it provided was just enough — and it was a lot less expensive.

Or, for another completely different type of example, the 2012 Ferrari FF is clearly a superior car to the 2012 Ford Taurus. But should Ford be worried about the Ferrari? Remember, the Ferrari is clearly a superior product in almost every way. Why isn’t Ford worried about losing all of their customers to Ferrari? Well, the Ferrari is astoundingly more expensive; for many customers, the Ford delivers more value for the money. It is the customer who determines the value being received — not the product itself! Ferrari definitely has a market for their product, but Ford’s product is appropriate for a much larger segment of the overall population.

For an interesting aside, note that Fiat owns Ferrari and sells a variety of cars: Fiat, Ferrari, Maserati, and Chrysler. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this allows Fiat to sell a wide variety of cars to a larger, diverse, global market than if they just sold one line of cars.

In these two examples, if it’s not clear already, traditional universities (that would be me and my organization) play the roles of Chrysler and Ferrari. We have a well-defined product that hasn’t changed much. We are faced with a lower cost, somewhat comparable product (online education in a variety of forms) that provides a different value proposition than we do. We are the high cost provider who tries to integrate all possible benefits into our value proposition. This leaves us vulnerable to the threat of competitors who are able to unbundle these benefits in a rational way.


This analysis leads me to a few conclusions:

  • Not all students in all meetings of all classes need the high end product. Further, let’s stop pretending that all of our classes are a high end product. Have professors recently sat in some of these huge lecture halls where a majority of students receive a majority of their education? After doing so, it would be hard to defend the position that a well-done video lecture wouldn’t provide the same (or even more) benefit in many instances. Yes, small seminars do provide a highly valuable experience. But how many students experience this (and how often) in their undergraduate education?
  • There is a legitimate reason and justification to deliver different types of products (education) at different price levels, even if the same product (some particular piece of knowledge or learning outcome) is at the core. Universities should work at creating different products for different parts of the market, some with lots of human contact, some with less human contact, or maybe some programs with blended delivery. Parts of the market clearly hunger for a lower cost product, especially when they don’t see the value of the higher cost version.
  • Universities (particularly business schools) should think about spinning off a company that provides expertise in the job hunt to young job seekers (for example) — they could then sell this to the marketplace instead of just providing it to their current students. The university could also think about doing this with other services. Why wait for other companies to unbundle your services for you? Why not do it yourself?

If universities (and the faculty they employ) want to continue to exist for another century (or even couple of decades) at anything like the scale they currently operate, then faculty and should stop trying to wish the problem away and start trying to be part of the solution. Professors should experiment with different delivery mechanisms in your own courses on a small scale. University leadership should encourage this experimentation, be willing to forgive experiments that fail (i.e., complaints from students or lower course evaluations), and set up systems for sharing the successes and failures so that everyone can get better faster.

A variety of educational models from which to choose


I was in a meeting yesterday where we were discussing different ways that we (as a school, or as faculty) might innovate in educational delivery. I felt I was flying a bit blind, bumping around in the dark, hunting for answers. I needed some type of landmarks for navigating this journey. The following are some of the high level organizational ideas that helped me think about the possibilities.

Available models

The models that I could come up with varied in several ways:

  • Are students learning at the same time?
  • Are students learning in one big group, or alone, or in “pods”?
  • Are students in the same place as the teacher?
  • Is the intermediary technology of extremely high quality or not?

I’m sure there are other ways that this pizza can be sliced, but this was helpful for me as I considered the possibilities…

Bored students are not the fault of the student
Same time, same place

This is the traditional method of teaching as practiced by universities and just about everyone else for hundreds of years. Before computing and communication technologies, there really weren’t any alternatives to this to speak of. Now, if traditionalists in the higher-ed community want to continue to offer this model, then the benefits of having students all in the same room with the teacher have to outweigh the serious costs and inconveniences of making that happen. Too often, students get lectured at in a classroom when they could have gotten just as much out of it on a YouTube video (given the chance he/she actually had to interact with the faculty or students). If universities want to continue to deliver this model, they are going to have to up their game.

Education delivered under this model certainly varies tremendously based on the number of students. We have everything from a small seminar with maybe 5 students, to a small classroom with 15 students, to a medium-sized class where everyone knows everyone else in the class, to a huge lecture hall filled with anonymous students.

Global education, any time, any place
Different times, different places

Of all the alternative models, this is the slow pitch over the heart of the plate (for those of you who understand “baseball”). Or the “gimme” for the golfers among us. Khan Academy has seemingly taken the world by storm with its self-paced tutorials on (seemingly) just about anything. My parents even asked me about them.

The myriad tools that make this model possible are widely (and cheaply) available. When professors create these resources to teach the “basic facts” of their course, this could free up class time for more valuable activities. It would also allow students to learn the concepts at their own pace and also ask questions before the class in which the concept is used, thus allowing more students to have a positive contribution to the activity.

Every professor should see this these technologies as a way of making his/her own teaching in a classroom better right now. It shouldn’t take a school initiative — just go do it.

Same time, single remote place (standard quality)

Here at Ross we have been doing this for nearly two decades in our Global MBA Program and now our ExecMBA Program (among others). The professor is in one place and the students are sitting in some classroom far, far away. This is fairly easy to do moderately well. The problem is the limited bandwidth between the teacher and the students in the class. It is really hard to get a dynamic classroom environment going — subtle clues are difficult to pick up, and it’s hard to get a quick give-and-take discussion going.

This model gets harder to implement well as the number of students increases, or the size of the display screen on either end decreases! All subtlety is lost in this type of environment.

Same time, single remote place (telepresence)

Telepresence is defined in wikipedia as:

Telepresence refers to a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance of being present, or to have an effect, via telerobotics, at a place other than their true location.

The idea here is that the recipient end (classroom with students) has some pretty high-end video and audio technology which enables the students to get a much better sense of the professor being in the classroom (although she might be continents away). Most of the technologies today are related to conference rooms, but it is fairly easy to project that larger-scale implementations would give the impression of a faculty member lecturing at the front of the class (from the students’ side of things) and a faculty member seeing a roomful of students (from the faculty member’s side).

For now, this would be a relatively high-end, expensive undertaking; however, soon enough it will be expected. It is a nearly perfect tool for projecting a high end brand (e.g., a superstar professor from a highly reputable university) to classrooms all around the world. The professor could be in some production room anywhere (becoming more common all the time) and the students could be anywhere that the university is able to project its brand, to attract a large enough body of its students. Further, there’s no reason that all of these students would have to be in the same classroom. Why couldn’t there be a pod of students in Shanghai, another in Los Angeles, and a third in Sao Paolo?

If universities are worried about other universities moving into “their territory” now, they haven’t seen anything yet.

Yes, you could actually take classes in your pajamas
Same time, multiple remote places (singles)

This is a model that I described in a previous post, supported by tools such as LectureTools. The idea here is that students don’t necessarily need to come to a specific classroom in order to learn the material — all they have to do is watch, and participate in, the “broadcast” of the lecture. Under this model (practiced at the University of South Florida, among other places), students could either be attending a traditional university and taking the online class along with their other face-to-face classes, or they could be physically at home but attending summer classes back at school, or they could be “joint enrolled” in a class taught at another university.

Same time, multiple remote places (groups)

This is a variant of the previous model. It emphasizes the fact that there are benefits to having multiple students in the same room going through the process together. Maybe they work on exercises together; maybe they have group activities; maybe they have small group discussions at specified times during the class; maybe they have different skill levels so that one person can help mentor the other students. Any of a variety of circumstances might be applicable but, in any case, here we have the same remote educational process but students are attending the session in groups.

Blended models

Finally, the “unit of analysis” need not be a full semester class. It could be that a teacher organizes the class so that it meets once every couple of weeks in person and meets remotely during the other weeks. Or maybe there would be one in-person meeting at the beginning and then lots of smaller different time and different place learning activities for a month, followed by same time, multiple place sessions. The possibilities are endless — but only if teachers learn to think about applying the right teaching method to the right desired learning outcome.


Certainly, the above taxonomy doesn’t cover all of the interesting dimensions that are available. A couple, right off the top of my head, are the number of students enrolled in the class (i.e., is this a MOOC?), whether or not the student’s performance is graded, and whether or not the student’s performance or capabilities are certified. All of these matter, but they are for me to think about at another time and place (ha! little joke!).

Let me know what you think about the above. Does it help you think about the possibilties? Any other big dimensions I should include in my thinking?

The online education wave: is it time to catch it or get swept away?

David Brooks, at The New York Times, wrote an intriguing editorial “The Campus Tsunami” (May 3, 2012) that provoked a lot of thinking on my part. Regardless of what I write here, be sure to read his article. It will be well worth your time.

What I do below is simply list a series of short quotes from his article followed by my reactions to each. As always, I am writing this as a long-time professor (though one not in any type of leadership position; these are simply my thoughts and do not reflect any “official” position) at the Michigan Ross School of Business.

The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.

This isn’t quite what it feels like from my position. From my office at Ross I feel like UM’s recent move with Coursera is happening at a place far, far away. Maybe it is entirely true that online activity is at the core of how UM envisions its future, but I can’t see it from down here in the weeds. (Not that anyone should tell me or anything; I’m just reporting what I see.) We are moving slowly and cautiously. I have hope that we’ll do something more soon, but I haven’t seen it yet.

What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web.

Yes, yes, yes! Certainly, we have heard these proclamations before (Fathom comes to mind), but this time it feels like there’s more meat on these bones. With its OpenCourseWare, MIT has now been in this game for a decade. edX is a collaboration between Harvard and MIT in which they plan to “collaborate to enhance campus-based teaching and learning and build a global community of online learners.” The University of North Carolina now offers a fully online MBA program whose tuition is essentially equivalent to their in-person, on-site MBA.

Yes, stuff is definitely happening, and I don’t see it slowing down. It is going to change how the public and how the government view the concept of education and will change what they’re willing to pay for (and how much they’re willing to pay). Just like newspapers, we need to figure out what our revenue model is going to be and what expenditures we are willing to support, and these decisions better be right or we might find ourselves on the wrong side of the AOL/Google divide.

Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience?

I don’t think these are necessarily contradictory notions. I don’t see why online learning couldn’t coexist with face-to-face community in a traditional college. Here’s a couple of thoughts. Teach some classes using purely online learning to students on your own campus. Why? To reduce the number of classrooms needed, to increase the number of students who can take any particular class, to increase the number of classes you can offer at popular times. At the same time, continue to offer other face-to-face classes and other traditional college extra-curricular activities. If these are seen as providing a significant-enough value, then students will be able to justify the expenditure of attending a traditional college experience. I have lots more to say about this point, but I’ll stop for now.

On a related point, the unstated (and, by me anyway, inferred) question here is “Does online learning provide an inferior education to the face-to-face learning currently provided in the typical college experience?” Your answer to this question depends on how you think about education and what you think education is. I’m not sure that face-to-face learning is the what of education — it might currently be, and might have been (for the last several millenia), defined by this type of learning; alternatively, it might simply be the how of traditional education. Yes, people are wired fairly well to pick up on physical clues, tonal clues, and all sorts of implied communication when we are physically in the same room when we are communicating. On the other hand, I think technology is getting close to good enough (and might actually be there) so that taking an online class from an excellent professor would be superior to taking a traditional, face-to-face class from the average professor. It’s certainly something to think about (and experiment with). I think this points us in the direction of exploring online learning so that we can figure out how to do it better.

If a few star professors can lecture to millions, what happens to the rest of the faculty?

It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? What happened to newsrooms in the last ten years? What has happened to corporate organizational structures over the last twenty years? Lots and lots of people in positions that were not rewarded by the market lost their jobs. Professors at MRFIHLs (major research-focused institute of higher learning) bring in revenue in two significant ways — first, by teaching classes with tuition-paying students, and second, by bringing in grant money from corporations or foundations. Many details are not clear, but it seems apparent to me that, as both direct state appropriations and tuition support programs continue to shrink, MRFIHLs are going to have to strategically reduce faculty. (As I have said before, I have more to say here but this post is already too long as it is.)

Will academic standards be as rigorous?

I don’t see why it wouldn’t be the case that some places have rigorous academic standards, and other places have almost no academic standards, with many others falling in-between the two extremes. Not much different than the current situation.

What happens to the students who don’t have enough intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptop hour after hour?

What happens to students at a traditional school who don’t have enough intrinsic motivation to go to class or to pay attention when in their class? Online learning is not a panacea for poorly prepared or minimally motivated students — it requires a different type of discipline but does not remove the need for it entirely.

Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world.

This is absolutely true. It is an amazing opportunity. This is why we should be excited about the new opportunity for extending our reach and effect on the world. Yes, it will be painful in the short term and require all of us to change our skill sets and comfort zones; however, the alternative is obsolescence or irrelevance.

Research into online learning suggests that it is roughly as effective as classroom learning. It’s easier to tailor a learning experience to an individual student’s pace and preferences.

These are seriously important questions: What types of teaching and learning can be most effective for online learning, and what absolutely depends on in-person and face-to-face experiences? Also, what types of information needs to be captured in order to create a personally-tailored learning experience that is most effective? These are significant areas for research, some of which will be generally available for public consumption, and some of which will be kept confidential for competitive reasons. MRFIHLs need to start addressing these now, or they risk being left on the sidelines as the global education market evolves.

People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion. If you think about how learning actually happens, you can discern many different processes. There is absorbing information. There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper.

For the “arouse emotion” comment: yes, yes, yes! I work very hard at this when I am teaching a face-to-face class. I want the students excited about something — anything — because I know that the engagement itself will help them both remember the material and feel better about the time spent in class. The question becomes “how can a professor do this when teaching an online class?” Well, I would think film, performance, and media studies would have a lot to say about this as well as studies of pedagogy.

As for the rest of the above paragraph (that is, the different processes), I think a question facing those who want to provide online education is “how can a professor enable or encourage or, even, recognize the appropriate time for these other processes?” The organization that can figure this out and apply it appropriately will have a leg up on teaching a wider variety of classes more effectively.

Well, that’s it for now. I know that the above is a lot to absorb, but Brooks’s article provided a lot stimulus. Let me know if you have any thoughts or reactions based on the above.