• Rethinking Higher Education

    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

Big Idea: A National Digital-Cyber Land-Grant University System

An effort to build cross-institutional collaboration to combat a growing imbalance in wealth and access to technology.

April 15, 2020

Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University system, is developing a truly staggering idea. And while reasonable people might disagree with some of its assumptions and organizational elements, the concept of a new public entity, a National Cyber Land-Grant University System, modeled after the Morrill Act of 1867, addresses several critical issues that are plaguing rural America and will only worsen without action.

Hagerott is addressing the concentration of technological expertise and wealth in selected urban areas across America. As a result, he writes, “As this space (cyberspace) expands, its benefits are concentrating and large swaths of our country are being left behind, unable to critically navigate or prosper in the digital economy.”

The problem goes far beyond the ongoing discussion about the need to get broadband services into previously unserved rural areas. As important as that is, the deeper underlying problem is a growing imbalance in wealth and access to technology and technological expertise, which will lead ineluctably to broader socioeconomic instability.

To counter this trend, Hagerott is calling for an industry-financed national system that is available to any public or private institution that wants to play. He writes,

The proposed system would provide seed money and sustained funding with which to hire and retrain a core group of faculty members. They would then rapidly develop courses in highly technical fields like computer science and cyber-security, and in fields that that grapple with related ethical and social challenges such as business, the humanities, and the law. Like today’s land grant universities, the cyber version could eventually provide "extension services" to further help lagging areas understand and benefit from the digital economy.

I think the concept behind Hagerott’s proposal is both accurate and badly needed. We need nationally consistent and validated content that can be trusted by employers and colleges, as well as learners. I would recommend significant flexibility in how the curriculum is used. That flexibility might include prepackaged degrees, certificates and courses. But it also should allow for smaller units of study to be extracted and used based on need. And a receiving college ought to be able to take the content and use it in any way that is appropriate for the situation they are addressing. Technology defies top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions.

In a similar vein, participating members of the cyberconsortium should be officially linked to economic and community development efforts in their region or state. The cyberconsortium should eschew the traditional “vertical” tendencies of colleges and universities, tending instead toward a “horizontal” and community-based approach that includes employers, government, libraries and other organizations as appropriate.

Finally, this “big idea” has to pay attention to other, similarly targeted efforts that are popping up in business and nonprofit settings. No single entity is going to produce all the content going forward. And trying to establish the Cyber Land-Grant System separate from the external marketplace will lead to a weaker outcome.

Having said that, bringing all 50 states to the technology table, sharing technological and scientific expertise with all of them, and, in so doing, leveling the economic and economic development playing fields, are critical steps to take.

Thank you, Mark Hagerott!

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