Students at the state of Washington's 34 community and technical colleges will save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because of low-cost textbooks produced by the state's Open Course Library, the college system said this week. The library, which received funding from the state legislature and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spent $1.8 million to develop low-cost course material, including textbooks of no more than $30, for 81 common courses. The effort has already saved students $5.5 million since fall 2011, according to an analysis by The Student Public Interest Research Groups, an advocacy organization.
“Students are clearly the winners in the open courseware library model,” said Marty Brown, the executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, in a conference call with reporters.
Nicole Allen, a textbook advocate for the student group, said Washington's materials are used outside the state, including by a math department in Arizona. Policymakers in California and British Columbia have created similar projects, she said.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have captured the nation’s imagination. The notion of online classes enrolling more than 100,000 students is staggering. Companies are springing up to sponsor MOOCs, growing numbers of universities are offering them, and the rest of America’s colleges are afraid they will be left behind if they don’t.
But MOOCs alone are unlikely to reshape American higher education. When history looks back on them, they may receive no more than a footnote. However, they mark a revolution in higher education that is already occurring and which will continue.
America is shifting from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy. Our social institutions, colleges and universities included, were created for the former. Today they all seem to be broken. They work less well than they once did. Through either repair or replacement — more likely a combination — they need to be refitted for a new age.
Higher education underwent this kind of evolution in the past as the United States shifted from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The classical agrarian college, imported from 17th-century England with a curriculum rooted in the Middle Ages, was established to educate a learned clergy to govern the colonies. This model held sway until the early 19th century.
In the years before the Civil War, the gap between colleges and society grew larger. European higher education modernized, creating models that would inspire America to grow our own. Innovations, mostly small, were attempted; many failed. During and after the war, the scale of experimentation increased with the founding of universities such as Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago a few decades later. Other institutions, such as Harvard University, remade themselves. The innovations spread. By the mid-20th century a new model of higher education for an industrial era coalesced. It was codified in California’s 1960 master plan, balancing selectivity with access and workforce development.
This transition brought new institutions that better met the needs of an industrializing America.
An entity called the university was imported from Germany, with what would become a mission of teaching, research and service. It offered instruction in professions essential to an industrial society, organized knowledge into relevant specialties, and hired expert faculty in those areas. It not only transmitted the knowledge of the past, but advanced the frontiers of knowledge for the future.
The federal government created the land-grant college to bridge between the old agrarian America and the emerging worlds, agrarian and industrial America. Now found in all 50 states, the land-grant college was designed to provide instruction in agriculture and the mechanic arts without excluding classical studies.
Specialized institutions emerged. Some, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were modeled on the European polytechnics; they promoted industrial science and technology and prepared leaders in these fields. Others, the normal schools, sought to provide more and better teachers as the evolving economy demanded more education of its citizenry.
The two-year college — originally called a junior college, later a community college, sometimes Democracy’s College — was initially established to offer lower-division undergraduate education in the local community.
As these institutions emerged, the curriculum changed. Graduate studies were introduced. New professional schools in fields like engineering, business and education became staples. Continuing education and correspondence courses were added. Elective courses and majors arose. Disputation, recitation, and memorization, the teaching methods of the agrarian college, gave way to lectures, seminars, and laboratories.
The colleges that persisted adopted many of the era’s changes, and the classical curriculum largely disappeared.
This is the history of higher education in America. Change has occurred by accretion. The new has been added to the old and the old, over time, modernized. Change occurs with no grand vision of the system that the future will require. New ideas are tried; some succeed, many fail. By successive approximations, what emerges is the higher education system necessary to serve the evolved society.
Social change is a constant, and so is the need for higher education to adapt to it. When the change in society is deleterious, as in the McCarthy era, it is the responsibility of higher education to resist it and right the society. It is a natural process, almost like a dance. However, in times of massive social change like the transformation of America to an information economy, a commensurate transformation on the part of higher education is required.
We are witnessing precisely that today. MOOCs, like the university itself or graduate education or technology institutes, are one element of the change. They may or may not persist or be recognizable in the future that unfolds.
What does seem probable is this. As in the industrial era, the primary changes in higher education are unlikely to occur from within. Some institutions will certainly transform themselves as Harvard did after the Civil War, but the boldest innovations are likelier to come from outside or from the periphery of existing higher education, unencumbered by the need to slough off current practice. They may be not-for-profits, for-profits or hybrids. Names like Western Governors University, Coursera, and Udacity leap to mind.
We are likely to see one or more new types of institution emerge. As each economic and technological revolution creates new needs for higher education, unique institutions emerge to meet them. In the agrarian era, only a tiny percentage of the population needed higher education, and the college served these elite few. When industrial America required more education, more research, and mass access to college, two major institutions were established: the university and the community college.
The information economy, which requires a more educated population than ever before in history, will seek universal postsecondary education and is likely to create new institutions to establish college access for all at low cost. These institutions will operate globally, not locally, which will dictate a digital format. Because information economies emphasize time-variable, common outcomes — unlike the industrial era’s common processes and fixed times (think assembly lines) — universal-access institutions will offer individualized, time-variable instruction, rooted in mastery of explicit learning outcomes. Degrees and credits are likely to give way to competency certification and badges.
Traditional higher education institutions — universities and colleges—will continue, evolving as did their colonial predecessors. Their numbers will likely decline. At greatest risk will be regional, part-time commuter universities and less-selective, low-endowment private colleges, particularly in New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Midwest. The future of the community college and its relationship to the universal-access university is a question mark. It is possible that sprawling campuses will shed real estate in favor of more online programs, more compact learning centers and closer connections with employers and other higher education units.
In this era of change, traditional higher education—often criticized for being low in productivity, being high in cost, and making limited use of technology — will be under enormous pressure to change.
Policy makers and investors are among those forces outside of education bringing that pressure to bear. It’s time for higher education to be equally aware and responsive.
Arthur Levine, a former president of Teachers College, Columbia University, is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.
California's Senate education committee is expected to vote next week on a newly amended plan to allow online courses from unaccredited providers to count for credit at the state's three college and university systems.
The committee on Wednesday heard an hour of discussion about the bill, SB 520. The bill's sponsor, Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg -- who is the leader of the Senate -- showed up to defend the bill against a parade of opposition by faculty representatives from unions and the state's academic senates. Student support for the idea, which is meant to expand access to over-enrolled lower division classes and lower costs for students, also appeared mixed.
Steinberg offered three new amendments to his bill, which he also amended last week. He said the new amendments will prevent public money from going to private companies and make it possible that colleges can develop their own classes without being forced to turn to outside providers, although seeking aid from private sector technology companies remains a key impetus for the legislation.
“What are you afraid of?" Steinberg said to faculty who attended the hearing to oppose the bill. "What are you afraid of?”
Faculty representatives expressed concern that unproven private sector companies would be put in charge of students' education. They argued that the solution to access problems in California is more funding for the public higher education systems.
Public universities have a long history of adapting to technological change, but they must speed up their embrace of online education -- and work together to do so -- to remain at the forefront of educating the citizens of their states and the country, argues a new report from two Washington research groups. "State U Online," from the New America Foundation and Education Sector, traces the history of public universities and of online education and suggests that major public universities have been slower than other sectors -- especially for-profit higher education -- to incorporate digital learning into their offerings. The author, Rachel Fishman of New America, argues that the institutions are best positioned to offer a high-quality, affordable digital education that is "grounded in public values," and offers a roadmap for doing so, including creating a clearinghouse where state institutions can "collaborate to provide an easy-to-search library of online courses and degrees," sharing contracts for digital platforms and online support services to meet multiple institutions' needs, and sharing credentialing beyond state borders.
The Minerva Project, the San Francisco-based "hybrid university" trying to appeal to top-tier students that plans to open in 2015, announced Monday that it has joined with a Nobel laureate to offer a $500,000 prize each year to a distinguished educator. Roger Kornberg, a Stanford University professor who won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, is governor of the newly created Minerva Academy, which will award the prize. The prize is "designed to recognize extraordinary advancements in teaching excellence and impact" in higher education.
A bill is dead to create a fourth college system in California to award credit and degrees to students but offer no courses, according to the head of the state Assembly's higher education committee.
The bill would have created the "New University of California," which would have issued credit and degrees to anyone capable of passing certain exams. The bill received criticism and news media attention even though it had an uphill battle to become law: its sponsor is Assemblyman Scott Wilk, a rookie Republican lawmaker in a Democratic-majority legislature.
“Of course we need to look at creating different paths for students to achieve college completion,” Das Williams, the Democratic chairman of the Assembly's higher education committee, said in a statement. “At the present time the author of the AB 1306 has decided to pull the bill. This bill, and others like it, must be closely reviewed and solution-oriented to ensure that they meet our state’s higher education goals and prepare our students for a robust career in the workforce.” A spokesman for Wilk did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the bill's fate.
The bill is just one of several across the country this year to suggest new models for graduating students. Another, which is sponsored by the leader of the California Senate, is still believed to be very much alive. It would require California's 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for certain low-cost online courses offered by outside groups, including classes offered by for-profit companies.
In Florida, a measure is advancing that would allow Florida officials to accredit individual courses on their own -- including classes offered by unaccredited for-profit providers.
Although massive open online courses have been gathering substantial recent attention, future histories of education will likely only note them as a harbinger of change or transitional step into an educational model that is organized around learning. In most cases, MOOCs operate on a grand scale but use a traditional form in which a faculty member (or two) is responsible for most aspects of course design, delivery, and assessment. The real threat to traditional higher education embraces a more radical vision that removes faculty from the organizational center and uses cognitive science to organize the learning around the learner. Such models exist now.
Consider, for example the implications of Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. More than 10 years ago, Herb Simon, the Carnegie Mellon University professor and Nobel laureate, declared, "Improvement in postsecondary education will require converting teaching from a solo sport to a community-based research activity." The Open Learning Initiative (OLI) is an outgrowth of that vision and has been striving to realize it for more than a decade.
Teams of cognitive scientists, technology consultants, designers, and disciplinary specialists are designing interactive, online courses that are available now from OLI. The program uses the latest research in cognitive science to inform course design, and it tests each element of the design by evaluating its effectiveness in promoting student learning. As more students take courses and the integrated assessments, the OLI team gathers more data that allow team members to further refine the course. Creating such courses is capital-intensive, but since students interact solely with the computer when taking the course, the marginal cost to deliver the course to each additional student is minimal.
OLI in its current incarnation is a proof-of-concept endeavor, and in 2012, Ithaka S+R published findings that demonstrate it has succeeded. A rigorous study comparing student learning in a traditional face-to-face statistics course to that of students in a hybrid OLI course found that the hybrid courses were at least as effective in promoting student understanding of statistics as traditional courses. Further, students in the hybrid courses learned as much even though they spent significantly less time in learning activities, which echoes earlier work by OLI showing that Carnegie Mellon students learned statistics with OLI in half the time that students in traditional courses did. We should note that the hybrid courses were not offered fully online. Students worked through the material using OLI’s online interactive materials and met as a group once weekly with a course tutor.
With the Ithaka S+R finding, OLI has reached a milestone, and it is reasonable to assume that continued investment in refining its courses will yield additional gains in student learning or efficiency. We can howl in protest, but the question is no longer whether computer-based, intelligent agents can prompt learning of some material at least as well as instructor-focused courses. The question is whether the computer-based version can become even more effective than traditional models, and the implications for higher education are sobering.
Let us suppose, for example, that Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which is already pioneering competency-based credentialing, partners with OLI to create New Way College (NWC) within SNHU. New Way College supports community-based educational initiatives through which students can earn an associate degree while paying significantly less than is available to eligible students receiving the maximum Pell Grant. (I want to stress that this is a hypothetical example generated to demonstrate how things might play out. It is not based on any plan announced by SNHU or on any inside information from SNHU or the other real organizations mentioned in this essay.)
With backing from foundations or venture capitalists, NWC will pay OLI $25 million to develop 30 interactive, online courses that will form the basis of NWC’s educational program. In addition, NWC will provide OLI $40 for each student enrolled in an NWC course in exchange for ongoing course development and support. The courses themselves are taught in hybrid fashion in classes with no more than 20 students. Classes are sponsored in local communities by host organizations. Any nonprofit or educational organization — a public library, YMCA, school district, religious or service organization — could apply to be a host organization. Hosts would be responsible for providing a meeting space, recruiting classes of students, and identifying tutors for each class but not traditional faculty members.
To support program administration, NWC might then forge a long-term contract with Pearson Education, making Pearson responsible for recruiting, assessing, and supporting host organizations. Tutors are vetted, trained, and evaluated by Pearson to meet standards established by NWC, although host institutions would be responsible for paying those tutors who were not volunteers. As part of its services, Pearson would run a social media site that included tools for students to rate individual hosts and tutors, much like eBay and Amazon rate sellers in their marketplaces. The same site would also provide pass rates broken down by course so that prospective students could identify effective hosts near them.
Pearson would provide assessments aligned with NWC’s standards and a secure test site for mid-course and end-of-term assessments that would determine whether a student earned credit for the course. Classes would typically span 12 weeks and have limited enrollment to ensure that every student received the support he or she needed to succeed. Students would pay $100 per credit for courses, with the standard course carrying four credits and 64 credits required for an associate degree. Students who needed no remedial work could easily complete the program in two years and pay the minimum tuition of $6,400.
At the scale typical of most higher education institutions, this model makes no sense whatsoever, but at web scale, the model is compelling: Students would pay $400 to enroll in a typical four-credit class section, and courses would be designed so that there are minimal additional costs beyond online access. Of that $400, we assume $40 goes to OLI, $120 goes to the host institution, Pearson collects $200 for its services, and SNHU keeps $40. A 15-person class would generate $600 for OLI, $1,800 for the host (some of which might be used to pay a tutor), $3,000 for Pearson, and $400 for SNHU. If NWC offered 30 four-credit courses in a typical year — each of which enrolled a minimum of 10,000 students annually — OLI and SNHU would each collect at least $12 million in annual revenues,
Pearson would collect $60 million, and local hosts would collectively receive $36 million. Since the marginal cost of adding additional students would continue to decline as the number of students grows, early entrants using this model could quickly attain market dominance, much like Amazon, Apple, Walmart, Google, and eBay dominate much of their respective markets. If NWC could achieve similar market dominance in the two-year college market, annual revenues to be split among the partners would exceed $1 billion. A much larger sum might be lost by community colleges and other institutions, which charge more for courses leading to the same credits.
By unbundling the learning experience — separating local support, course design, delivery, assessment, administrative support, and advising — the NWC model achieves superior outcomes at lower cost, at least when outcomes are measured by exam or other task performance. Local organization and student support is provided by entities with deep roots in their communities, missions aligned with the educational endeavor, existing meeting spaces that are often underutilized and could readily be used to house weekly class meetings, access to volunteer or relatively low-cost tutors to provide student support, and budget constraints that create incentives to leverage these resources to market and support classes for their communities. A public library with an appropriate meeting space and quality volunteers who would be willing and able to support a class in exchange for $500 per class could expect to earn $1,000 per course after accounting for incidentals. A robust program offering 10 or more courses annually could afford to support a part-time program administrator.
Through OLI, expert teams design and deliver course content, assess course effectiveness, and continuously refine the interactive online tools to optimize student learning. Logistics, independent and verifiable testing of student learning, marketing, and social media tools for community-sourced assessment of host institutions and tutors are outsourced to a corporation with expertise and facilities that can sustain that work. The sponsoring college or university provides curricular structure, advising services, student tracking through its student information system, access to accreditation and federal financial aid, and legitimacy that connects the endeavor to the larger higher education landscape. Students can earn essential credentials in a supportive program whose standards would be widely understood and appreciated.
What is missing from this picture are professors at the center of course design, delivery, and assessment. Some might argue that is its fatal flaw, others that it is the mark of its genius. I consider it a reminder that other realities than the one in which we now live are possible. Should NWC or a similar organization gain market dominance and public acceptance for delivering two-year degrees, Clayton Christensen’s model of disruption suggests it will move up market and take on the bachelor degree, which could underwrite the demise of any four-year college that was unable to articulate its value apart from the credential its students earn for passing exams.
If those of us at liberal arts colleges believe there is something of value in our current model, something that cannot be replicated by online programs in which students interact primarily with a machine rather than with an instructor, then we need to articulate what that is and demonstrate its value. Something essential is lost when the news industry is unbundled and newspapers, which historically had the resources to support extensive reporting staffs, are replaced by online news sources with much smaller budgets, and journalists find it hard to support themselves and their families by exercising their craft. Bemoaning that loss and advocating for journalists’ crucial civic role has not stopped the steady erosion of the news industry and the livelihoods of those who work in it. Traditional higher education, faculty, and others who work in the higher education face similar threats. We would be wise to consider how to respond while there is still time.
Richard Holmgren is chief information officer and associate dean of the college at Allegheny College.