The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Tuesday announced $9 million in grants for "breakthrough learning models" in higher education:
The awards include:
$3.3 million to EDUCAUSE for four winners of the Next Generation Learning Challenges' latest RFP. These winners include state systems, four-year and two-year programs, and all have signed up to deliver significant improvements in completion at scale, at affordable tuition rates.
$3 million to MyCollege Foundation to establish a nonprofit college that will blend adaptive online learning solutions with other student services.
$1 million to Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop and offer a new, free prototype computer science online course through edX, a joint venture between MIT and Harvard, and partner with a postsecondary institution that targets low-income young adults to experiment with use of the course in a "flipped classroom."
$450,000 to the League for Innovation in the Community College to develop and pilot a national consortium of leading online two- and four-year colleges that will help increase seat capacity in the community college system and support more low-income young adults in attaining a postsecondary credential. The consortium will initially include Coastline Community College (CA), the University of Massachusetts Online, Pennsylvania State World Campus and the University of Illinois-Springfield.
In a recent Wall Street Journal interview about college costs and online learning, Stanford University President John Hennessy said, "What I told my colleagues is there’s a tsunami coming. I can’t tell you exactly how it’s going to break, but my goal is to try to surf it, not to just stand there." Stanford and other elite institutions, such as Harvard and Carnegie Mellon Universities, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology are not sitting back and waiting for technology to disrupt higher education — they are out there experimenting with both delivery formats and cost. They are part of the change. This is why they are elite. They boldly anticipate. And they have the wealth, confidence and the unassailable market niche to do so.
But are they looking in the right place for that tsunami? I would argue “no!” Much of their current effort is directed at experimenting with online learning. This is a necessary component of the massive change that potentially will reconfigure higher education in the United States. Princeton and Stanford Universities and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania have combined to form Coursera, offering free selected courses to the public. Harvard and MIT have announced a new nonprofit partnership, known as edX, to do the same. Carnegie Mellon is offering its Open Learning Initiative (OLI) to the public.
But all of these efforts are not the tsunami. Open online learning is merely a tool that adds variety to how education is delivered. And many 18-21-year-olds and their families still believe — despite the rhetoric to the contrary — that a college education is as much about maturing in a residential setting as it is about learning or getting a job.
No, online learning may be part of the current, but the tsunami itself will be something different. The tsunami will come from a notion as old and as distinctive as American education itself. The notion about which I speak is that education takes place not just in the classroom — and now through a computer, iPad or smart phone screen — but literally "everywhere, anywhere, anytime."
Yes, education happens in schools and colleges, but it happens also in the home, on the job, at places of worship and through individual initiative. Education also is never finished. A degree offered decades ago — even a few years ago — is obsolete with respect to up-to-date factual knowledge (critical-thinking skills, leadership skills in a residential setting and historical knowledge stay relevant, however). The "anytime" in a distinctively American education means that there is an imperative to amass knowledge through a lifetime and demonstrate acquisition.
Now, imagine that a highly respected, unassailable institution or set of institutions offers a set of completion exams at the bachelor’s level to anyone everywhere, anywhere, anytime. One need only look at the GED, or to some extent the Western Governors University, to say this is possible. Of course, a GED probably doesn’t have the "prestige" of a regularly earned degree and the WGU is still a new model. But we are talking here about what is possible over time with experimentation, improved technologies and unrelenting public pressure to offer an undergraduate education at a more reasonable price than currently predicted.
Necessity clearly still drives invention. Imagine that this move is made by those extremely prestigious research universities currently at initial stages of experimentation with online learning, open access and the rewarding of certificates. Imagine that these universities find a way to equal a high level of academic achievement online to that on their residential campuses, are secure in knowing that there will be always sufficient students who wish a traditional residential experience at their respective campus, and convince their alumni and the public that their coursework on campus and online is academically equivalent as far as the transfer of knowledge is concerned. Would they ultimately leave money on the table in times of ever increasing financial constraint and unrelenting demand to fund pioneering research? Would they restrain from total market dominance?
Imagine the moment when these completion exams permit a person to assemble learning from a variety of academic institutions and life experiences to complete a degree. At that moment, the monopoly of institutions over source and cost loosens, and the student gains control of how knowledge is to be gained and at what price. At that moment, the sources of learning are severed from credentialing. At that moment, American higher education is radically changed.
A tsunami is in the making, but it will encounter a wall of resistance in yet another defining characteristic of American higher education — a 24/7 residential learning and living experience that aims not just to transfer knowledge to 18-21-year-old students, but also to guide their maturation into citizenship. This pushback will be located squarely in the historically prestigious liberal arts colleges and in those institutions like the Ivies and the major research universities confident in securing undergraduates regardless of alternative developments because they have the wealth to afford what always was. But this wall of resistance is not very deep when it comes to all students. All the governors and other policy makers embracing WGU and other forms of recognition for prior learning as well as online learning seem to be quite willing to give up that residential experience, at least for other people’s children.
This residential learning is often inefficient, costly and repetitive, and that is because many developing young people are emotionally and intellectually unpredictable during undergraduate years. The mission for much of 18-21-year-old undergraduate education is to move these students to another level of maturity and corresponding engagement. It is a worthy pursuit. It is education for democracy.
The tsunami is close to shore. The warning siren is sounding. But the outcome is not evident. A barrier — albeit increasingly thin -- formed by commitment to undergraduate residential education for democracy confronts a wave of convenience and necessity defined by centralized credentialing, dispersed sourcing of knowledge and learner-controlled pricing. This is the wave to surf and the shoreline to protect.
William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College.
In the past few weeks the twin quasars of the New York Times opinion page -- Thomas Friedman and David Brooks -- have waxed poetic about the coming revolution in higher education as presaged by recent announcements of elite universities moving online: MIT and Harvard with edX; Stanford, Princeton, Penn and Michigan with Coursera. According to Friedman, “In five years, this will be a huge industry.”
The exuberance is understandable and stems from two factors: (1) Quality; and (2) Affordability. It’s hard to argue with either given the reputations of the institutions involved and the current pricing for these MOOCs (massive open online courses): free.
Online higher education is already an industry of some scale – over $30 billion annually in the U.S. – and there’s no question that it will be huger still in five years as it takes off across the rest of the world. There’s also no question that affordability will play a major role in its acceleration – the Internet axiomatically causes the effective price paid for information and online services to plummet – and that free is a pretty good place to start.
“Colleges are a bit like funeral homes.
Talking about getting your money’s worth strikes some as a little crass.”
--Rick Wartzman, writing on The Drucker Exchange
This may have been true a year ago, but a lot has happened in America since the Occupy protests last fall. Even TheNew York Times has come to understand that the cost of actually providing a quality education isn’t close to what our universities spend, and hence charge as tuition.
The days of charging the same for an online program as a traditional on-ground program are numbered; much lower tuition models are coming to online education. The question begged by the Times is this: Are Stanford, MIT and the Ivy League likely to lead the way?
The threshold issue is the gap between non-credit-bearing MOOCs and meaningful credentials, currently in the form of associate, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees. These are what matter in higher education for now and the foreseeable future. (This week’s exhibit: the college skeptic Peter Thiel’s hedge fund posting an analyst position last week explicitly calling for candidates with a “high GPA from a top-tier university.” The fund changed the posting following Slate’s reporting.) We would live in a better world if love of learning were the key motivator for payment and persistence in higher education. Alas, based on the 85 percent drop rate in Thrun’s non-credit bearing MOOC, we can fairly conclude that it is the credential that attaches to you for a lifetime.
Higher ed. commentator Kevin Carey (Education Sector, The Quick & The Ed) noted last week that Stanford responded to a piece he had written wherein he described last fall’s MOOC offered by then-Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun: “Over 100,000 students around the world [took] the course…. Those who did well got a certificate from the professor saying so.”
Stanford’s official response to Kevin was as follows:
“Students who did well did not receive a certificate. Neither Stanford nor the professors issued a certificate. All students who completed the courses received a letter from the professor saying that they had completed the course. And that’s it.”
Hell may freeze over before Stanford is willing to provide any credential for these learning experiences. The gap between exclusive residential degree programs for elite 18-22 year-olds and online learning open to the hoi polloi is a chasm that few will cross.
Even so, given the number of elite institutions with MOOC dreams, in time a few may talk themselves through the obvious brand and reputational concerns and cross the chasm to something like a meaningful MOOC credential, perhaps with a differentiated brand like edX. Still, is this hypothetical adventurous elite university likely to dominate the online future?
We would submit that colleges today are less like funeral homes and more like airlines 30 years ago, when flying the friendly skies cost much more than it had to and there was similar grousing aplenty. When the discount airline model became possible as a result of deregulation, many traditional carriers started their own discount carrier: United begat Shuttle by United and then Ted; Delta begat Delta Express and then Song; US Air begat MetroJet; Air Canada begat Air Canada Tango.
They all failed. They failed because they attempted to leverage the operations of the parent carrier. The traditional operations were hub-and-spoke, whereas the new discount model worked best point-to-point. The traditional operations had more costly product and process design. Traditional operations were less productive per labor unit. And traditional operations had labor costs sometimes 50 percent higher than what a new entrant would pay.
One can envision similar conversations along the Infinite Corridor at MIT. Quality comes first and can only be guaranteed in the new edX online venture via full participation by faculty and other highly paid employees. It’s also tempting for the institution to allocate some of its lofty cost structure to the new online project. There are certain defined expectations as to what a program from or affiliated with the university must include. (It took traditional airlines over 20 years to do away with the in-flight meal; imagine how long it will take MIT to do away with the cohort in a credit-bearing course.) Productivity, which is the hallmark of successful discount carriers – turnaround times of 20 minutes vs. 45 minutes for traditional carriers -- is much more studied than practiced by these institutions.
So it’s hard to envision any top-tier university launching an online program with the objective of keeping every aspect of its operation separate. Clearly, it couldn’t if it wanted to grant degrees; degrees must be granted by the accredited institution. But realistically, no online program would be completely separated from the mothership. The allure of trading off the brand is irresistible, as United, Delta and Air Canada demonstrated with their choice of discount carrier names. Even MetroJet, US Air’s discount airline, invoked the parent brand with its logo.
Of course, the winning discount carrier is Southwest. With one type of airplane, no meals, no paper tickets, no lounges and online booking only, Southwest has redefined the industry and the traditional carriers are still trying to catch up.
So the right question to ask is: Who will be the Southwest Airlines of online education – delivering what customers need, but doing so much more cost-effectively? It could be a private-sector university. Or perhaps a very innovative traditional university with a clear vision of educating and granting credentials to millions of qualified students from around the world, along with a willingness to throw aside its existing model.
Either way we arrive at a conclusion that refutes the Times: it will not be MIT, Stanford or an Ivy League institution. Their impact is likely to be limited to the extent other universities opt to incorporate their content into new programs – equivalent to today’s textbook publishers. And just as many people who can afford to pay much more actively seek out Southwest over traditional carriers, rather than cementing their leadership, the coming revolution could very well change up the pecking order in higher education for the first time in the history of the Republic.
Ryan Craig is a partner at University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.
A survey of 500 college students has found that 67 percent can't go more than an hour without using some sort of digital technology, and that 40 percent can't go more than 10 minutes. The independently conducted survey was prepared for CourseSmart, which sells e-textbooks on behalf of leading publishers. The survey found that students today are more likely to bring a laptop to class than to bring a textbook.
The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the State Higher Education Executive Officers have created a panel to study the regulation of distance education. The commission will be led by Richard W. Riley, the former secretary of education. The issue of how the federal and state governments regulate online programs has grown increasingly fractious in the wake of new rules crafted by the Obama administration.
Just three months after Susan Hockfield announced her plans to retire as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT's board said Tuesday that it had hired Provost L. Rafael Reif to succeed her. The remarkably quick (for major research universities) succession came about not for a lack of candidates -- MIT considered more than 100, said its board chairman, John S. Reed -- but because Reif emerged so clearly as a "uniquely qualified candidate," Reed said. Reif was centrally involved in many of the institute's most innovative efforts in his seven years as provost, including the creation of MITx and its recent expansion, with Harvard University, into EdX. “I cannot tell you that this is a dream come true,” Reif told reporters after his selection, “because this is a dream I never dared to imagine.”