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?

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?

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.

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.