Forward Planning on Technology

Report argues public flagship universities need incentives and coherent strategies, not scattered experiments.

December 15, 2014

Technology can address some of the financial and organizational challenges facing public flagship universities, according to a new report, but those challenges have to be solved with input from the entire institution -- not just a “coalition of the willing.”

Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit research organization, last academic year traveled to 10 institutions in the Public Flagship Network, a group of 17 such institutions, to learn how the universities are using technology to respond to shrinking state funding and changing student behavior. Ithaka’s researchers interviewed 214 senior administrators, directors of online learning, department chairs and staffers at those universities, finding similar concerns: The institutions are struggling to perform the traditional functions of a research university as outside forces -- politicians and students among them -- urge them to make higher education more affordable and accessible.

“The administrators of these public flagship institutions are all facing the same pressures, and they know they have to make changes,” said Deanna Marcum, managing director at Ithaka. “Faculty are still operating in research university mode, and they’re trying to do research and publication, so online learning and exploring new models and thinking about the undergraduate experience, that comes as the second order of business.”

The Ithaka report, funded by the Lumina Foundation, suggests collaboration as one possible remedy -- first among administrators and faculty at individual institutions, then possibly between the network’s member universities. But collaboration can only take place if administrations carefully plan, clearly communicate and create incentives for faculty members to use technology in the classroom.

“Public flagship institutions, by definition, serve multiple missions and audiences,” the report reads. “Increasing, often vocal, demands are coming from all directions, and responding to those demands generally means that already constrained budgets are simply being spread thinner and thinner. Technology may provide relief to some of these competing pressures, but only if there is a coherent organizational strategy for doing so.”

On that point, the members of the network have yet to settle on a common strategy, but the report highlights some that appear to be working. One university distributes funding based on the number of student credit hours (online and in person) each department teaches. A second charges students a $100 fee for taking online classes. A third offers what is perhaps the clearest incentive: Tuition revenue generated from online courses goes directly back to the departments.

Marcum said such a policy “really makes a difference” for departments with dwindling enrollments, as revenue from online courses could prevent cuts to faculty positions. “The challenge is to figure out how to make it an institutional priority,” she said.

Several flagship institutions and university systems have in the past few years attempted to organize their campuses’ scattered online initiatives into centralized efforts. At two such institutions, the University of Arkansas and California State University, some faculty have said they would rather individual campuses and departments handle how they approach online education.

“I feel a lot of sympathy for the people who are given the responsibility for managing online learning programs on those campuses, because it’s so hard to find the leverage anywhere,” Marcum said.

The report acknowledges that the idea of more online courses is a source of “palpable trepidation” for many faculty members, but it also suggests some faculty don’t have a clear definition of online education. Some faculty members “pointed to confusion within the university about what constitutes online learning,” while others “jumped directly to [massive open online courses] when we mentioned online learning and were often quick to emphasize that faculty would never be replaced by MOOCs,” the report reads.

Marcum said that finding is one of the most surprising in the report, but added that the timing of the interviews -- October 2013 to March 2014 -- may provide an explanation. “MOOCs were a much bigger issue then than they are today,” she said.

Another surprise, Marcum said, was hearing how the institutions have coped after state legislatures slashed their budgets. “It shouldn’t have surprised me -- because I know this -- but ... the drops in state support have been precipitous,” she said. “I just didn’t realize how strapped these institutions feel.”

At the same time, student behavior is trending toward the more expensive. More students arrive with Advanced Placement or transfer credits from community colleges, which lowers demand for introductory courses and raises it for upper-level courses, which are often more expensive to produce.

To avoid those educational demands from cannibalizing the time faculty devote to research, universities are hiring more lecturers. In fact, each of the 10 institutions the researchers visited is experimenting with turning some tenured faculty positions into lecturer or “professional teacher” positions. Still, Marcum said she thought it unlikely that research universities will one day separate teaching and research into two separate roles.

“There are certain standards that we all agree as defining the research institution,” Marcum said. Distinguishing more clearly between lecturers and faculty primarily interested in research “disrupts the research university model, but it seems to be working at a few places anyway.”

So far, there are “pockets” within the universities -- professional schools in particular -- that are pushing for more online courses and collaboration. But "relying on the volunteer efforts of a few faculty with entrepreneurial spirits will not bring the widespread change that is going to be effective in the long run," the report reads. Instead, the institutions in the network should "think big."

“I think that this network has a real opportunity, because they all have the same problems,” Marcum said. “They’re all facing the same financial pressures and the same state pressures. They seem to be in a better position to identify at least a few people who are willing to try.”



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