Not a Tsunami, But...

Stanford president outlines vision for a more digital future for higher education, but also rejects idea that undergraduate degrees will disappear or that higher education is "deeply broken."

March 16, 2015
John L. Hennessy
(Stanford U.)

WASHINGTON -- In 2012, John L. Hennessy, president of Stanford University, famously told The New Yorker that technology was about to dramatically change higher education. "There's a tsunami coming," he said. The quote quickly was picked up by pundits arguing that massive open online courses were about to take over higher education. Hennessy never actually made such a prediction based on MOOCs alone, but given Stanford's crucial role in the development of MOOCs, it's perhaps not surprising the quote took hold as being about MOOCs.

On Sunday evening, Hennessy spoke to hundreds of college and university presidents gathered here for the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. Delivering the Robert H. Atwell Lecture, Hennessy didn't use the word "tsunami." He made quips about MOOCs, dismissed those predicting the end of traditional undergraduate degrees and said that good online education costs a lot of money and requires a meaningful faculty role. At the same time, he outlined a future that -- if not a vision of a tsunami -- is radically different from the state of most of higher education today.

Hennessy started off his talk by trying to reassure the presidents, who are regularly barraged by those saying that there is no value in higher education or that the undergraduate experience serves little purpose. Hennessy disagrees.

He said he was speaking “not with the assumption something is deeply broken in higher education, because it’s not."

And as for MOOCs, which many still predict will displace traditional teaching, he said that they "were the answer when we weren’t sure what the question was."

He said that their massive nature, which attracted so much attention, was ultimately a problem. "When I think about MOOCs, the advantage -- the ability to prepare a course and offer it without personal interaction -- is what makes them inexpensive and makes them very limited."

Students "vary widely in terms of their skills and capability," he said, such that massiveness is simply not an educational advantage. "For some it's too deep and for some it is too shallow."

The "unbundling" of degrees that many are predicting -- where students assemble the learning they want, offered in person or online, by one or more institutions to earn credentials -- is something that Hennessy predicted was the future of continuing education and professional education. "Online technologies will dominate this marketplace," he said. And this will include many professionally oriented master's programs, he said.

But he rejected the idea that this would be or should be the future of undergraduate education.

An undergraduate degree “is a lot more than a group of unrelated courses," he said, and its “value proposition is different" fromi changed from "for" -- this change ok? dl the sum total of credits.

Still, he said, colleges and universities need to improve undergraduate instruction, and there are ways to do so that will both increase learning and decrease some expenses.

Hennessy advocated for hybrid courses -- based on a relatively small set of top-quality digital lectures, enhanced by simulations. He said he believed not in MOOCs, but in LSOCs, or large selective online courses.He pronounced LSOC  -sj

He said, for instance, that introductory courses could be "more compelling" if the best instructors produce courses, and they are enhanced and distributed, with on-campus faculty members acting as in-class coaches, leading group exercises, offering extra help to those who are struggling, and so forth. He said that research already demonstrates that high-quality hybrid courses can improve student learning.

He said that if these courses are "done well," they will be better than most of those offered by individual colleges. "Only the very best instructors will be able to compete with very high quality courses," he said.

The real challenge, he said, is that producing these courses will be expensive -- "probably millions of dollars."

Hennessy said that these courses would feature adaptive learning. “If we work hard, over the next 20 years, we can develop a set of customized courses that tune to the student," he said. These lectures would not only be compelling, but would make sure students were getting them, with a question or two every five minutes, asking, in effect, "Did you understand the last five minutes? Were you awake the last five minutes?"

Reaching this "deeply hybrid" kind of instruction will require colleges to overcome difficulties faced today. Among them are issues with attention span, the ability to assign and supervise group work in online environments, cheating, and grading. But he argued that it would be possible to overcome these problems.

Repeatedly in his talk, Hennessy talked about the importance of the faculty role in instruction, and he acknowledged that there are senior-level "high touch" courses that faculty members should lead, in part with time saved from doing the lectures for introductory courses.

All of the technology, he said, would help “only with intense collaboration of faculty who touch the lives of our students every single day."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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