Tag Archives: Academic Commons

Future of Higher Education Conference (6)

The fourth panel at #masonfuture included Bryan Alexander of NITLE, Robert Beichner of NC State, Anne Moore and Terri Bourdon of Virginia Tech, and Kevin Clark and Mark Sample of Mason. Their topic is “Beyond the Lecture Hall: Technology and Student Learning.”

Beichner showed us a model of the “scale up” classroom that they use at NC State that is drawn from the design first pioneered at MIT. Mason has just about finished one of those rooms for our engineering program. Because it seats 80 students, and is largely dedicated to the engineers, and was extraordinarily expensive to install (and will be equally expensive to maintain), we won’t see many of these rooms on our campus in the near future, nor with the folks in humanities and social sciences have much access to it. But I plan to do an observation in the room one day soon when it comes on line so I can see how well it is living up to its potential.

This sort of innovative design of space around learning outcomes is something I’m spending a lot of time thinking about and working on this semester. I’m on two committees — one explicitly devoted to this topic, and another devoted to the design of a brand new building — that are grappling with the intersection between space and learning.

One point I’m been making in those committees is that as our students get more and more connected to the global market for higher education, we need to design new learning spaces that facilitate rather than hinder these connections. So, for instance, I can imagine a future where small groups of students (3-5 let’s say) are clustered around larger monitors in a residence hall or an academic building taking a course in Moscow or Shanghai. We do not have such learning spaces on our campus right now, but are going to need them soon. Very soon.

Clark described his work with gaming and at risk students — using games to help these students prepare for the challenges of higher education. Our game design program is one of the fastest growing at Mason and Clark’s work is bringing an important educational dimension to the work of that program. One of the things I love about this program is that, as I argued yesterday in my remarks, the Internet is now a space of creation for students and this program teaches students to create media rather than consume it.

Moore and Bourdon previewed the “Math Emporium” at Virginia Tech.  Moore ended her brief introduction to the Emporium with a great bit of data — how much money Tech is saving on a per student basis by using the Math Emporium to help deliver mathematics education to very large numbers of students.

Bourdon called the Emporium a “comprehensive learning space,” by which she meant a mixture of traditional space (tutoring lab, etc.), but also online spaces. Tech did this all the hard way — wrote all their own course materials, etc. — which isn’t necessary today given the number of open source tools out there.

Mark Sample told us about his “social pedagogy” and used the example of writing about the word “alien” in one of his classes using Twitter and forcing students to write in just 140 characters. The best takeaway from this presentation in my view, is that we can actually think differently about such key concepts at “writing” and still accomplish our pedagogical goals.

Bryan Alexander then gave a brief overview of the landscape of MOOCs — a much bigger landscape than the over-hyped Coursera/U-da-City/EdX model we’re hearing so much about. One of the things Bryan pointed to is that all of these models are dependent on institutional subvention, but, as he said, it won’t be long before institutions figure out how to start offering credits (Antioch University already is) and new business models that won’t depend on subvention.

A question that keeps banging around in my head — yesterday and today — is how we might be able to un-silo our institution to develop new business models that remain focused on education while being attentive to our bottom line. I am convinced that as long as we live in our institutional silos, we have no chance to prosper in the coming two decades. But shattering those institutional silos, silos that have been in existence for decades (here, centuries elsewhere) is going to be extraordinarily difficult.

Maybe that’s our biggest challenge for the coming decade: how to make it possible for Mason to dance to the new tunes that the advent of a global market for education is performing?

In the Q&A, moderator Steve Pearlstein, pressed the panelists on the institutional political dimension of institutional change. It’s hard when your moderator is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, because he does tend to want people to answer his questions, not the questions they want to answer. The issue he kept pressing on was the speakers to take a position on how much leverage institutional leaders have when trying to get tenured faculty to change how they teach.

To try to get at an answer, he asked which level of administration was going to have the best change to bring about change: president, provost, department chair. Bourdon’s answer was department chair. Moore said department chair, but only if the dean stood behind them. Sample said “enthusiasm is not what gets [faculty to change].” Instead, it’s seeing other people being successful, which is why our teaching needs to be as open as possible. Given that I’ve been making this same argument since 1999-2000, I have to agree.

The Future of Higher Education Conference (4)

The third panel of the #masonfuture conference was titled “Alternative Frameworks for Educational Delivery” and included Burck Smith, founder of StraighterLine, Andrew Rosen, Chairman and CEO of Kaplan, Inc., Sally Johnstone, VP of Academic Advancement at Western Governor’s University, and Jeff Offutt and Tyler Cowen, professors here at Mason.

I’m interested to hear how the reps of Kaplan and StraigherLine will respond to the argument that their business model is substantially threatened by the advent of MOOCs. If you could take an economics course from Tyler Cowen or from StraighterLine, which will you choose?

Not knowing much about StraigherLine before today, I was very interested to learn that their courses are “tutor supported” rather than “instructor supported.” In other words, students taking their courses are not being taught by individuals with deep content knowledge, but rather than by “tutors” who are knowledgeable in how to guide students through the online models created by the company. It’s certainly a very cost-efficient model, but what happens if Student X has a question that we might call an example of “critical thinking”? How can one of those tutors, who knows a lot about how to help students complete the models in the curriculum, respond to such a question? Probably not very well.

As Jeff Selingo sort of alluded to during the morning session, here is a crux of the value proposition of higher education. How we make that value proposition clear is going to say a lot about our prospects for success in the future.

Sally Johnstone of Western Governor’s University explained the WGU model of having students advance through a degree based on successfully completing a series of assessments rather than “completing a bunch of courses.” I think this is a very interesting model, but a quick look at their curriculum indicates that all of their degrees are in fields with external accreditation (nursing, business, education, etc.). In the humanities and social sciences (the fields I know best) we have very few of these external accreditations and so implementing such a model would require us to create those assessments ourselves — or found consortia, perhaps around our professional associations — that could create those for us.

In the history business, I suspect such assessments just can’t work for the simple reason that the whole process of developing history assessments has become so politicized (think the “history wars” of the 1990s) or the Florida legislature’s decisions about how history ought to be taught. We can certainly agree on skills, but we’ll never be allowed to agree on content.

Andrew Rosen from Kaplan argued for a very capitalist model around learning outcomes — “We need incentives around learning outcomes.” To what degree, I wonder, will the traditional universities be willing to cooperate with for profits such as Kaplan in an economic model like the one he proposes? Probably very little, because we have paid a lot for the expertise of our faculty. The only reason we’d be willing to license that expertise to a for profit competitor like Kaplan who might then use the results of that expertise against us in the future. I’d say that only if we had the sorts of strongly worded contracts that, say, two technology firms might have if they cross-license their patents.

Jeff Offutt told us about his experiences teaching online, but there wasn’t really much new in what he said, other than that his experience was good, his students are achieving a lot, and that he’s a fan. By contrast, Tyler Cowen’s presentation of MRUniversity laid out how to do what they do in very low tech and simple ways. What is not simple or low tech is developing the Tyler Cowen brand which, as he said, is the result of 10 years of co-blogging with Mason colleague Alex Tabarrok, and many well reviewed publications over the years. As Tyler and Alex are examples of those faculty members with “individual brands” that Jeff Selingo referred to in the morning  session.

One of the geniuses of the MRUniversity approach is that, as Cowen points out, economists around the world are contributing content, often at the level of a single video or resource, rather than being required to create an entire course as in the Coursera model. This gives MRUniversity much greater reach than Coursera.

A reasonable question is what is the value of MRUniversity to Cowen’s employer (Mason)? Certainly we get visibility out of it, but since Cowen seems to be sticking to his “we’re not charging anyone” for the content, how can Mason capitalize beyond exposure? This is a bigger question for universities in general about how to deal with faculty with strong individual brands who wander or step purposefully into the online educational marketplace?

Now, here’s a meta commentary on the event thus far. It seems to me that one of the messages being delivered today is based on an assumption that the audience in the room ranges from skeptical to hostile to online educational delivery and that the audience needs convincing that online delivery isas good or better than face to face instruction. I think that may be a misperception. Most, but certainly not all, of the faculty I know are not hostile to online education. Many are skeptical, but remember, academics are trained skeptics, so their skepticism is no surprise. Most, but certainly not all, are willing to see many flowers bloom, so long as the students seem to be learning to similar levels in either model.

Future of Higher Education Conference (3)

Now that my session is done, we get to hear from Anya Kamenetz, author of DIYu. Like our other speakers, she began with a focus on the rising cost of college for students, the amount of loan debt they acquire, and the general trend of shifting the cost of higher education to students and away from the general public.

But, and this is something neither of the two earlier speakers (Selingo, Cabrera) mentioned, is that demand for higher education continues to grow very rapidly, which means  that “many, many models can exist in higher education.”

How then, can radical transformation happen?

Her prescription begins with, “You can’t improve higher education without improving the cost issue” and “we’re going to have to figure out how to do a lot more with the same amount [of money].” To accomplish this, we need to focus on Content (what we learn), Socialization (how we learn), and Accreditation (why we learn).

She argues that Content is not about Knowledge (the what). Instead, it is about Competency (the why). As her avatar of the future in which open content will reign, she promoted the Khan Academy as one example. [I will be interested to see over the next few days if any of our speakers reference the significant critiques of both the content and the teaching models of the Khan Academy that have begun to surface.]

“It’s a wonderful future,” she argued. [If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I am sanguine about the digital future in higher education. But a long time ago (in Internet years) I gave up on the notion that the digital future was, just because it was cool and transformative, necessarily “wonderful.” The hard part for those of us here, those of us who have to make change happen, is how to figure out what  works, wonderful or not.]

Will higher ed lose our monopoly on accreditation? Her argument is that, yes, it will. One example she gave was smarterer.com, where you can create your own credential. Given the increasing amount of cheating that seems to be happening in MOOCs, how will accreditors such as smarterer police who is and isn’t demonstrating their skills? I’m entirely sympathetic to the argument that students ought to be able to create knowledge portfolios, and have been arguing since 2008 that this is where we’re headed.

But, and I think this is a very important but, employers aren’t going to accept a credential with a bunch of badges on it as valid unless they know, somehow, that the person they are interviewing actually knows what their badges say they know, or has the skills their badges say they have. Right now they out source that to us. Will they take on the expense of testing employee credentials? Maybe. But that’s expensive, and letting us do it costs them virtually nothing. So, call me a skeptic on the model created by smarterer.com and others. I could certainly be wrong. But for now I’m going to remain skeptical that employers are going to want to stop outsourcing credentialing to education.

In the Q&A she made an argument for the value of peer review, but in a non-hierarchical way, such as PLOS. I think this is a useful self-corrective to her earlier enthusiasm for badges and models like smarterer, because it provides a role for expert assessment of research/skills, etc. I agree with her larger point that we can’t assume that the existing and very hierarchical structure of higher education is going remain the main model for peer review. In fact, I think that model is largely doomed (give it a decade or two before it is largely displaced). What will be interesting to see is what sorts of alternate and more open and/or non-hierarchical models of what she calls “accreditation” will emerge.

Productivity in Higher Education

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of productivity in higher education. There are many ways to measure what we accomplish such as numbers of graduates, what kinds of jobs our graduates get, research dollars, patents received, research productivity (publishing), just to name some of the most obvious. But any discussion of such factors leads immediately to the budget, what the marginal cost of any of these things is, and whether that marginal cost is increasing or decreasing.

This question of marginal cost is one I had to think about a lot last year because part of my brief as an Associate Dean was to monitor the enrollment in all the many hundreds of course sections in our College to make sure that all of those sections had sufficient numbers of students given how much it was costing us to offer that course. Was the class being taught by a tenure-line faculty member (Cost = x), by a term, i.e., non-tenure track but full time faculty member (Cost = x – 1.5) or by an adjunct faculty member (Cost = x – 4)? These formulas are made up and arbitrary, but they approximate the kind of decision making we had to engage in. Considerations of marginal cost per course had to be balanced against student needs, i.e., a particular capstone course had to be taught so some students could graduate. But as the start of a new semester approached, we had to think carefully about which sections to cancel and the marginal cost per section was an important consideration–one of many, to be sure, but an important one of those many.

As education budgets and endowments imploded across the United States during what some are now calling the Great Recession, plenty of people have asked whether or not efficiencies could be found that would allow us to lower the marginal cost per course. The obvious solution is to shrink the number of sections and expand the size of every section. There are well known educational downsides to fewer and larger course sections, but such has been the state of may university budgets that bigger classes are a necessity.

Here at George Mason I sometimes hear the argument that the solution to all our budget woes lies in ever greater adoption of technology as a course content delivery vehicle. After all, the University of Phoenix is hugely profitable and most of what they offer is offered online. Why can’t we just follow their model and reduce costs per student taught and, possibly, even teach many more students with our existing faculty? After all, we have run out of classroom space, but need to teach more students to keep bringing in more money. I think this argument is flawed for two reasons. First, the University of Phoenix, Walden University, and others have already beat us to that punch and anything we tried to do on a large scale would not measure up to what they do. Second, a shift to substantially online teaching would require either significant retraining of faculty and investment in technology infrastructure that we don’t currently have. Faculty would resist such retraining and right now there is almost no money for investment in infrastructure.

So where does that leave us? Should we, as the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of UC-Berkeley have argued, make a massive federal investment in a small number of top flight universities and thereby beggar smaller or less well known institutions? Or should we demand an ever greater share of the federal budget for education, but for all sectors of education? As a former Provost of the University of Southern California has pointed out, there simply isn’t enough money in the budget for higher education to grab a bigger slice. And if it’s true that higher education is in the midst of a bubble economy, we are in serious trouble, because the only way industries recover from the popping of a bubble is through massive restructuring.

If there were clear and obvious answers to the linked questions of funding and productivity, we would have found them already. Whether we would have embraced them is another story, but at least we would know what we were turning down. Instead, colleges and universities keep muddling along hoping that the changes we need to make won’t really be necessary after all. Some institutions are willing to try out some new ideas such as the outsourcing of grading. Our students are already changing the old higher education business model by renting textbooks. Others are saving thousands of dollars by taking courses from companies such as Straighterline.com.

If we accept the idea that the business model of higher education has to change, then I think we need to take some very, very hard looks at how we measure productivity in our industry. In my next post in this thread, I’ll outline some of the ways higher education may be able to make much greater use of technology without (a) having to engage in massive investment in infrastructure, (b) retraining faculty, or (c) diving into the online degree ocean while having failed to take swimming lessons.