The University of Michigan, and all of higher education, are in for sweeping changes courtesy of the Internet. Will the Wolverines remain the leaders?
by U-M Prof. Scott Moore
Even as the Internet has fundamentally changed how business is conducted in most industries, universities have largely retained their traditional model. For dozens of decades they have imparted knowledge to students sitting in a classroom.
Change comes slowly in the academic realm, but it is coming, and momentum for that change seems to be building.
That change is centered on the Internet and the digitization of information, the same forces that thoroughly reconfigured – some might say “blew up” – the newspaper industry, separating the news from the previously integrated help-wanted and classified ads.
This isn’t about bits and bytes around the edges; higher education is facing a fundamental shift. Professors will have more options in the way they teach. (Those who fail to adapt will perish.) Students will have more choices and variety in their day. Parents not satisfied with the four-year higher education process will have alternatives that may be more appropriate for their children. As more types of educational opportunities are created, employers will more clearly define what they’re looking for in their new hires. New types of local businesses with new classes of service will be needed. It might be mobile video production studios, rentable test-monitoring facilities, organizations to support yearly service internships … or something completely unforeseen. But it’s almost certain that new services will be needed and if they aren’t provided in Ann Arbor, they would probably be outsourced.
Clearly, the University of Michigan’s response to these digital forces of change and, consequently, how well it survives them will affect not just the university but the entire community in ways both large and small.
Many articles about the coming digital revolution in education get somewhat breathless about the learners’ self-motivation. (“The case for the virtual classroom,” by Sarah Kessler, Jan. 3, 2011, is.gd/virtclass; “Bill Gates praises online education, criticizes textbooks,” by Laura Ratcliff, Aug. 12, 2010, is.gd/gatesed) They make it seem that if the information is available, students will magically receive an education. But we can probably all agree that reading a book or watching an educational video is not the same as receiving an education; otherwise, Borders (R.I.P.) and Amazon would have been handing out diplomas along with their non-fiction book and video sales
I am fully in the camp of the Chinese proverb: “I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand.” Students should, in addition to the internal mental activities related to learning (analysis, evaluation, etc.), undertake the social processes of structuring, presenting and defending an argument in writing and speaking.
Given the above, students can be said to receive an education if they have many opportunities to do interesting, challenging and diverse things, to improve their thinking and argumentation skills.
This is the experience that universities sell. It is not a specific technology or class or professor or major or program or building – it is that the person who enters the school is transformed into a wholly new person upon graduation.
Part of this transformation comes as a result of maturation. Expose college-age people to a variety of experiences over four years and they will be transformed, formal education or not. Universities recognize this; they have long deemed extracurricular (“out of the curriculum”) activities important to the development of the finished student.
None of the above rely on technology; neither do they rule it out. The trick for educators will be figuring out how to improve education, improve the transformation process, keep a lid on costs and stay relevant during a period of great technological change and simultaneous cost pressures.
A matter of degrees
The standard way to get a degree is to take classes from professors at a university. “Credit hours,” or simply “credits” (see the sidebar on credit hours, page 17), are the currency of higher education, and have been for decades. The determination of how many credits a class is worth is based on the number of hours a professor lectures per week. (Equating “learning” with “listening to a lecture” is an assumption that runs deep in academia.) Graduation comes when enough of the right credits are earned, with the appropriate distribution across fields.
When you get a degree, it has the name of an institution on it. That institution generally requires that the student has taken upper-level classes at that institution, while introductory classes and distribution requirements can generally be earned in a variety of other ways (at other institutions, advanced placement credits, etc.). These lower-level classes are seen, to an extent, as an interchangeable part that a student can plug into his/her degree.
When you have a degree from an institution, it doesn’t certify that you learned specific concepts, facts or subjects, but that you have a general basis of knowledge and learning with an in-depth exploration of some field. Professors are responsible for the assessment (though it might actually be performed by a teaching assistant or, increasingly, an automated tool) with standards varying widely among professors, classes, majors, schools and universities.
Degree-earners become members of the granting institution’s network of alumni. Much of the network’s strength is in the experiences and requirements that the alumni have shared, even across large spans of time. The degree is a signal to other degree-holders that the graduate has performed adequately in relation to all who have come before. A university has to uphold its standards or else it risks devaluing the degrees that all of its alumni share. A change as great as promised by educational technology has to be approached with great care in light of this risk, even if nothing else is taken into account.
Why universities should change
The degree-granting education industry, and universities in particular, are excruciatingly complex, intertwined as they are with politics, culture, economics and personal self-image. Major technical innovations related to the educational process have come along before – think of voice recorders, television and videotape – so why would universities even contemplate an all-encompassing reorganization of their educational mission? Well, several reasons present themselves:
1. Opportunity: Many universities see in educational technology an opportunity to change their position in the hierarchy, to increase their visibility among their alumni and to redefine their image. (See “Degree programs at other universities,” page 15.)
2. Politics: Funding agencies (including state governments) are reducing their support of state universities or looking for ways to provide education at a lower cost. Online education and outreach enable universities to provide a relatively inexpensive service to state citizens, and the universities can add this activity to a list of services they provide to the state in exchange for funding.
3. Competition: When a university sees other universities – especially such strong competitors as Harvard and Stanford – out there in the marketplace, pursuing online education, it can be hard to resist the call to enter the fray. (See “University outgrowths,” page 19.)
4. Substitutes: As the cost of higher education has reached an historic high, free or low-cost substitutes have appeared. While these are not officially sanctioned, they do offer a reasonable option for those looking to learn inexpensively. (See “Anti-university approaches,” page 15.)
5. Demand: Computers and the Internet have been part of the lives of today’s students since they were conceived. It does not make sense to these students that they use electronic devices for everything except education – the part of their lives that consumes the highest percentage of their waking hours.
6. Improve the product: It is possible that digitized information will not only reach more students at lowered per-student cost, it may also be better in some ways for some students. The only way to figure this out is to experiment and see what happens.
Universities have been the “all-in-one” educational choice. Almost all services that are required for students to earn degrees have been provided by and within the physical confines of the university. Now, however, teachers can reach beyond the classroom and the university to the world. Massive Open Online Courses are available to students, traditional or not, wherever they happen to be. Other coming changes involve:
• The “maturation” process: Given the existence of online courses, students could work at a series of service internships around the U.S. or world for two to three years while they take introductory university courses. This would give the students time to learn about their interests, to develop a better sense of their place in the world and to gain a better understanding of the unique opportunity provided by a university education. Organizations such as Teach for America, the Peace Corps, the armed forces and others as-yet nonexistent could provide these opportunities for students. The experiences could be integrated into the students’ educational life, with a little cooperation among all the participants. Further, “service” scholarships where companies pay for the students’ time for a couple of years while they are taking online introductory classes could help defray the cost of education while at the same time benefitting the student, organization and society.
• Competency matters: With a lot of effort by universities (and probably various think tanks and funding organizations), measures of competency could replace the credit hour. This would allow self-education and online education to substitute for classes offered by traditional universities. Competency exams could be given in order to demonstrate mastery of a subject, rather than taking a specific class. This would make the path to graduation faster and cheaper. Of course, this would be a major threat to entrenched universities. They would almost certainly oppose any type of standardized exam but they may not have a choice. If competency measures came to be accepted, new organizations (for-profit or not, affiliated with a university or not) could provide learning materials that could be used to pass the exams.
Universities have legitimized the concept of education outside the classroom with things like Coursera. (See “University outgrowths,” page 19.) Quite recently, Coursera is piloting the use of a keystroke-matching algorithm to support the process of certifying that a particular person completed a course. (“Coursera to offer verified certificates for students,” by Adi Gaskell, Technorati.com, Jan. 10, 2013, is.gd/coursera) This project would seem to be a strong step toward eventually granting college credit for these courses. The problem of assessment still remains for these online courses, but this might be a Pandora’s box that cannot be shut.
• Flexibility of staffing: While it is possible that superstar professors might be used to deliver course material to hundreds of thousands of students at hundreds of classes around the world, it might still be in the students’ best interest to have a local resource to rely on for mentoring, feedback and assessment. In this case, universities might choose one packaged set of material, purchased from another university or organization, to deliver a course while an instructor on staff could supervise the learning experience (class) to students enrolled at the local university. This would allow the school to deliver a world-class education with a limited set of resources.
• Physical plants: If classes can be taken remotely, many classrooms and, in fact, whole classroom buildings will become extraneous. The experience of sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture will be less central to the overall university educational experience. These buildings might be converted into video recording studios, mentoring support, and/or testing centers.
• Bigger teaching toolkits: When they are working toward their Ph.D., future professors sometimes receive training in pedagogy. In the standard instance, this training is in lecture delivery, various modes of leading a discussion and, possibly, in exercise design. New educational technologies open up a wide variety of teaching modes. Professors are going to have to develop a bigger teaching toolkit so they can choose the most appropriate method given the learning environment (Remote students? Distributed students? Synchronous communication? etc.). They will have to learn to use technologies such as Google+ Hangout for mentoring students and Twitter for making announcements.
All the basic assumptions related to the existing state of the world are being challenged and universities, if they hope to continue to stay relevant, have to be ready to respond with a speed that they are not usually known for.
How this will play out
Lots of money and a place in the future of the educational industry are at stake. Major players are all in the game and experimenting in various ways. (See “How U-M is involved,” page 15.) Some universities and schools have committed to online education more than others. Large, name-brand universities such as U-M should have a leg up as this evolves – all else being equal – because people want to be associated with a winner and a known, valuable, quality organization. But it’s not a foregone conclusion that all else will be equal.
Within the next 20 years, U-M could have much larger enrollment, but the number of students at the Ann Arbor campus will probably not get much bigger. All of these extra, “non-traditional” students would receive much of their education online. The university could draw on students who are not interested in moving to the upper Midwest but who are attracted by the university’s broad range and mix of academic programs. The university could have more students taking classes year-round while they’re working on internships in places around the world.
This would entail repurposing some buildings and classrooms and some significant investment in technology. It is hard to see how the overall cost of providing education would go down, with all of the new investments that will be demanded; certainly the per-student cost might go down from current levels but that is yet to be seen.
If the problems involving certification and assessment can be addressed, or if sub-optimal solutions somehow become acceptable in the marketplace, then a whole new world of possibilities will open that are beyond the scope of this article.
The threats to U-M’s position in the industry are real and strong, though it is not inconceivable that they could be addressed effectively. Ann Arbor is a great place for college graduates – and just about everyone else. (“Best places for new college grads, 2012,” by Richard Florida, May 14, 2012, is.gd/bestplaces) The university will want to ensure that students spend some time in Ann Arbor while getting their degree and simultaneously work to maintain a sense of community among U-M students and between students and faculty.
If classes simply become credits that can be earned online, and a degree becomes a series of online classes, then education will become a commodity and U-M will be easily replaced. It is clear that U-M’s senior leadership sees education as much more than that.
The questions then become: What will the market decide? Will enough in the market agree with U-M’s concept of education so that U-M remains among the leaders and best?
Different universities will make different decisions based on their own concepts of what education entails and how assessment can be completed. The answers are not obvious, nor have all options been explored. Much is on the line, though; the university will either gain or lose in the race for top students, professors and funding based on its decisions.
The best thing the university can do is continue a wide range of experiments and not settle on one anointed best answer. We are far too early in the game to think that anyone knows best.
Given this, U-M’s respected Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (crlt.umich.edu) becomes even more important. It should continue to play a role in gathering and disseminating information and coordinating efforts at learning about educational technology among U-M’s schools and programs.
Professors will need the courage to try new teaching methods and technologies, and school leadership will have to have the courage to support these experiments even when (or especially when) they do not pan out. Success is not a given but if we do not take bold steps, then others will gladly take U-M’s place in the industry.
Change is here. U-M is right in the middle of it. It is highly uncertain where it will end up, but during this storm sweeping through academia, there are far worse places to be than in Ann Arbor.
Change generally happens one course at a time, one profesor at a time, after the administration and the academy at large make it clear that they will support these efforts. U-M’s leaders have done this, making it clear by words and deeds that online education and educational technologies are important. But it is still not clear what the consensus of leading faculty will be relative to the importance of time spent on innovations in digital teaching versus time spent on other activities, such as research. Movement by the average professor will be limited by both of these factors as well as his/her own facility with technology.
Further, professors should be rewarded for spending time developing classes that work in such an environment. If U-M rewards research innovation over teaching innovation, it will continue to lead in research. However, it will be much easier for other institutions, over time, to gain more students and the tuition and gifts and prestige that come from providing a world-class education to hundreds of thousands of students. These are the decisions that have to be made, and these are the implications of those decisions.
Scott Moore predicts the future of higher education
Scott Moore, above, is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Business Administration in the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. He has won two teaching awards and served on the CRLT Faculty Advisory Board for two years. He taught a mostly online class during 2012 on the use of web-based information resources. He’s currently teaching an introduction to business course with online discussion sessions. He is also active in U-M’s Coursera initiative. His blog on education, technology and business can be found at samoore.com; his course websites can be found at bk4a.com/; his Twitter handle is @drsamoore; his YouTube account is drsamoore; and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo by Benjamin Weatherston
1. Online/video will become an accepted, unexceptional part of higher ed.
2. More students will earn credits using online courses even before they arrive on campus.
3. Rich colleges will get richer, bigger and more powerful while struggling colleges will shrink and disappear.
4. The onsite college experience will, for an increasing number of students, be less than four years.
5. Consortia of universities will become commonplace and it will be easy to transfer credits among those universities.
6. Students will earn an increasing number of credits through study-abroad and other programs away from their home campus.
7. Education based on certificates and competencies will grow as an alternative to the old model based on class credit.
8. Educations as partnerships between universities, corporations and nonprofits will become more common as a way to decrease student expenses and increase opportunities for students to work on real-world projects.
9. Universities will spend lots of money on technology and physical plant improvements in order to support video production on a large scale.
10. Smaller colleges that are able to provide a truly superior educational experience will thrive though they will be challenged on all sides. Consolidation will inevitably occur.
How U-M is involved
Some of the highlights of the University of Michigan’s involvement in online education:
• A founding university partner with Coursera, and Scott Page and Gautam Kaul of U-M have taught two classes with the largest enrollments.
• Adopted Google Apps for Education (which is used by 66 of the top 100 schools [is.gd/top100]), including Google+ Hangouts and Google Docs.
• The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching is involved in digital education, coordinating educational technology efforts and a central information exchange.
• Invested in technology: is.gd/edutech for details.
• Perry Samson, a Thurnau Professor of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, developed LectureTools, a software program for assisting professors and students in large lecture-hall classrooms. His company was recently acquired by a larger software company. [is.gd/samsonedu]
Degree programs at other universities
Just a few of the online programs highlighted by either TheBestSchools.org or usnews.com:
UMass Online: More than 100 degree and certificate programs and more than 1,500 online courses.
Penn State World Campus: More than 80 online degree and certificate programs, both graduate and undergraduate.
University of Illinois Online: More than 100 programs and degrees ranging from certificates to doctoral degrees.
University of Florida Distance Learning: More than 50 programs and degrees ranging from certificates to doctoral degrees. Online undergraduate degrees have been offered since 2002.
University of North Carolina MBA@UNC: Includes self-paced content, face-to-face online content and three-day, in-person sessions each quarter.
University of Indiana Kelley School of Business Online MBA: More than 60 different courses to choose from when working toward the degree.
Fully online universities, with no “home campus” for students:
Western Governors University: [is.gd/wguedu]: Founded by the governors of 19 Western U.S. states and supported by more than 20 foundations and corporations; held its first classes in 1999.
University of Phoenix: [phoenix.edu]: This for-profit school has more than 200 locations for studying and classes; they’ve offered online degrees and classes for more than 20 years.
The following organizations have something of the flavor of your local community-based continuing education efforts, only scaled up:
P2P University: From p2pu.org: “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.”
UnCollege: Their mission (uncollege.org) 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.”
Learn more: “Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education,” by Anya Kamenetz
Examination of credit hours
The initial online offering of U-M Prof. Scott Page’s “Model Thinking” class, through Coursera, attracted more than 40,000 students. Photo by Benjamin Weatherston
Usage of credit hours in education assumes that classes are generally structured the same – a lecture delivered to a room full of students. In the U.S., both student credit for learning and faculty pay and workload are generally tied to credit hours. Europe has moved to a more flexible system based on competencies and student workload. (The change in Europe came as a result of the Bologna Process [is.gd/bolproc].)
Why is flexibility needed? U-M’s Scott Page created a set of videos for his “Model Thinking” Coursera course [is.gd/modelthink]. More than 40,000 students signed up for this class the first time he taught it [is.gd/nytedu]. He is teaching this course again. Suppose he teaches the course five times, to 200,000 students, with one set of videos. Does he get paid for one, three-credit-hour class? Or five classes? Or 200 equivalent classes (of 1,000 students each)?
Also consider the project-based work being conducted around the world in a class such as MAP at U-M’s Ross School of Business [is.gd/mapedu]. Students may never sit in a lecture for this class; they learn by completing a team-based program under the supervision of one or more faculty members.
If a student takes an online class, or simply reads a book, then he/she may be advanced enough to have competence equivalent to a student who has taken a class. Why not reward that?
Ten to 15 years
Ernst & Young conducted an extensive study of higher education in Australia last year and concluded “that the dominant university model in Australia — a broad-based teaching and research institution, supported by a large asset base and a large, predominantly in-house back office — will prove unviable in all but a few cases over the next 10-15 years.” (“University of the future: A thousand year old industry on the cusp of profound change”: http://goo.gl/99Lzd)
The study found five key “drivers of change” in higher education: the increased availability of “knowledge” online and access to university education; competition for students and funding; digital technologies transforming the delivery of education and perceived value; global mobility; and integration with industry.
The study in Australia found three broad lines of evolution for higher education:
• Some established universities will continue the status quo, but with streamlined services and administration
• Some established universities and new entrants will reshape themselves, targeting specific “customers”
• Some private providers and new entrants will carve out new positions, creating “market spaces” that merge higher education with other sectors.
An interesting tidbit in the Ernst & Young study: “Many of the leaders we spoke to saw teaching-only institutions as inevitable. Interestingly, not one of them — and we spoke to leaders of more than 20 universities in Australia — saw their own university becoming a teaching-only institution.”
University outgrowths, especially MOOCs
As experiments in providing online education, several organizations currently focus on free Massive Open Online Courses:
EdX: [edx.org]: Founded by Harvard and MIT, currently also involving Cal/Berkeley, Texas, Wellesley and Georgetown. More than 370,000 students enrolled in fall 2012 courses.
Coursera: [coursera.org]: Founded in January 2012, currently working with 33 universities with more than 2.2 million students signed up for courses. The original university partners were Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania.
Udacity: [udacity.com]: Operating under a different model, this organization designs and produces its own classes, sometimes with corporate partners. Teachers may or may not be professors affiliated with a university.
The two major difficulties with giving college credits to MOOCS:
• Verification of identity, ensuring that the person performing the work is the same as the person who gets credit for the class.
• Assessment of work on a large scale, especially for non-technical classes.
edX is approaching these problems by giving exams at proctored test sites (“edX team up with Pearson to offer MOOC students end of class exams,” by Adi Gaskell, Nov. 18, 2012, http://www.business2community.com/digital-education/edx-team-up-with-pearson-to-offer-mooc-students-end-of-class-exams-0335274) while Coursera is using remote biometric validation.
For more about MOOC’s: