The Student-Centered Cloud University

Quality, not scale.

April 7, 2014

Steven Mintz wrote about some new models available to postsecondary institutions as they seek to manage trends around student swirl, changing demographics, increased costs, and eroding state support.

Rebecca, one of the discussants on the Steven’s article, commented that:

"None of these are new. The only thing "new" about them is that someone is calling them "new"; in fact, each has been around for years at various institutions.”

I’d probably defend Steven by arguing that nothing is ever really new, particularly in higher ed, and what the article is doing is giving us a framework to discuss strategy and change.

Still, I’d like to offer an extension of Mintz’s framework - and then ask Rebecca, (if she is still out there), and the rest of you if this formulation counts as new?

In my extension, we combine some parts of Model 3:  The University in the Cloud, and some parts of Model 4:  A Student-Centric Model.

For Mintz, the University in the Cloud seems to be primarily about scale.   I think that this is a mistake.  

The value that our colleges and universities offer is an experience that does not scale.  This is a relationship between educators and learners.  

Any college or university that fails to reorient around non-scalable services will face serious economic pressures.   Or to put this in another way, either figure out a way to make sure that your professors know your students as individuals or face going out of business.

This relationship-first education model has existed for a long time.  It is the basis of a liberal arts education.  What is new is that the cost for all the non-relationship education goods have dropped to near zero.  

If we can get content for free form MOOCs or YouTube/EDU or iTunesU, and adaptive learning platforms can do a credible job of tutoring and skill building, then the price that universities can charge for offering only these goods will necessarily converge at the market price.   

This is good for learners but bad for universities - at least universities that don’t figure out how to leverage the new technology to add value in ways that the technology (and free Internet content) cannot.

This shift is analogous to what happened with satellite imagery.  Before Google bought Keyhole a few people paid lots of money to have access to satellite imagery on their computers.  Today, Google Earth is free, and if you want to make money you need to create lots of new services on top of that free satellite imagery.   

So if we throw out higher ed scale, at least scale as a viable business model, what is left from the University in the Cloud?

What is left are all those cloud tools.   We should use a combination of "fully online and hybrid delivery and videoconferencing or some sort of emporium model”.  We can make use of "interactive learning objects and personalized, adaptive learning pathways”.  But let’s do so in the service of enabling our faculty to get to know our students as individuals.  Let’s do so as a tool to free up time for educators and learners, and to break down barriers of distance and space.  

The way we will do this is to embrace Mintz’s 4th model, the Student-Centric university.

The only play available to higher ed is a strategy based on quality.  

Offer an education that is valuable and it will be valued.  

A laser like focus on the the needs of the learner may require higher levels of specialization.  For most schools it will be impossible to be really good at everything, so find those areas of strength and build on them.

Providing a high quality student experience, one that will command revenues sufficient to pay to create this experience, will require some hard choices.  It will not be possible to do everything.  Some things that have always been done will need to stop being done.  Higher ed is not very good at focus.  We will need to be.

What student-centric means will differ for every institution.  

In some places, this will mean the ability for students to work closely amazing researchers and thought leaders. (Read - investing in faculty). 

At other places, a student-centric university will be more about community, coaching and mentoring.   (Again read - investing in faculty).

The best colleges and universities will combine both.

Do you agree (or disagree) that quality is our only play?

What hard choices will you institution need to make if the imperative is quality rather than scale?


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