Submitted by Ryan Craig on November 20, 2015 - 3:00am
“It is important to remember that amateurs built the ark and it was the professionals that built the Titanic.”
-- Ben Carson
The above quotation is my favorite snapshot from the presidential campaign so far, and Ben Carson is involved in many of my other favorite moments, from continuing to insist that the Egyptians built the pyramids to store grain to the controversy over whether young Ben Carson actually attempted to stab a friend in a stomach.
Due to his lack of training in Egyptology and -- more important -- politics, Dr. Carson has a vested interest in elevating amateurs at the expense of professionals (including, presumably, medical professionals like himself -- for the record, it’s not clear if Carson takes the same position on neurosurgery). Nevertheless, the apparent appeal of such populist positions this election cycle demonstrates that Carson is giving voice to the frustrations of millions of American who are credulous enough to take phone calls from pollsters.
Some have asked whether we’re seeing a similar trend in higher education. Are professionals at colleges and universities taking a backseat while Americans learn from Gentle Ben and other amateurs?
Back in April, LinkedIn spent $1.5 billion to acquire Lynda.com, a library of more than 5,000 online courses and 250,000 video tutorials on business, technology and creative skills. Udemy is home to over 30,000 amateur courses in 80 languages, including Jimmy Naraine’s top-selling course Double Your Confidence and Self-Esteem,and reported annual revenue growth of 160 percent in 2014 and 200 percent in 2015. (I have a feeling that Ben Carson and Jimmy Naraine share a similar demographic appeal.)
In IT, there’s Pluralsight, offering 3,700 IT courses, where revenue is doubling annually and a planned IPO should value the company over $1 billion. Finally, there’s Udacity, which provides IT courses and “nanodegrees” and recently announced both 1,000 nanodegree graduates as well as a financing that valued the company over $1 billion. These fast-growing companies are convincing millions of Americans that their educational products and programs are a good investment without regard to the involvement of faculty members or colleges and universities.
All this begs the question: Have we reached amateur hour in higher education?
The answer depends very much on how we define expertise. College and university professors are undoubtedly the leading experts in their domains of knowledge, particularly as it pertains to published books and research. Some (but far from all) are also leading experts on effective instruction and assessment.
But few college and university faculty members (or programs or departments or schools) can credibly claim expertise as to the competencies employers are seeking in new hires, particularly for easier-to-assess technical and hard skills. In this area, companies like Udacity -- which builds its nanodegrees with employers like Google -- can stake a firmer claim to “expertise.”
In fact, virtually any “amateur” provider that is successful in engaging employers in program development and delivery can credibly stake a greater claim to this expertise than even (or especially) our oldest and most prestigious institutions. This leaves colleges and universities in the uncomfortable position of “amateurs” -- stewing over comments from the likes of Google’s senior VP of people operations (grades in degree programs are “worthless as a criteria for hiring”) and partnering with employer-facing prehire training intermediaries like Galvanize or ProSky in order to remain relevant to students.
This is not to say that skyrocketing interest in Udacity and its brethren demonstrates an elevation of amateurs at the expense of experts. Rather, it is indicative of a shift in the type of expertise most valued in the postsecondary education market. While faculty expertise on subject matter and instruction is often profound, the value for students is increasingly viewed as abstract or frivolous. In contrast, expertise on the competencies in demand by employers is increasingly viewed as purposeful, dynamic and attractive -- both in terms of clarity of interface, as well as providing a full-stack offering.
“We needed more skill in the workforce. We turned to colleges and said, ‘You have a new mission.’ Higher education really is a workforce-development system. It doesn’t like to see itself that way.”
-- Anthony Carnevale, director, Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce
Colleges and universities have resisted their role in workforce development primarily due to the historic association of workforce development with “skill” development, and the association of “skills” with matters “vocational.” Our isomorphic view of what it means to be an excellent institution of higher education doesn’t come close to comprising vocational skill development.
But you won’t be surprised to learn that the market is moving faster than colleges and universities. Providers like Udacity, Galvanize and ProSky are delivering the type of expertise most valued by students. They are doing this not only by connecting with employers, but also by wrapping themselves in the mantle of workforce development and recognizing that “skills” also comprise higher-level executive function capabilities such as critical thinking and problem solving.
Colleges and universities that dismiss these providers as limited to vocational skills -- the purported amateurs” of the sector -- may have Jimmy Naraine’s confidence, but it’s a false confidence. Institutions that wish to float like an ark rather than sink like the Titanic on the choppy seas ahead should learn from Ben Carson and take a stab at connecting with employers.
Ryan Craig is managing director at University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.
It’s taken decades, but educational technology is finally beginning to change the way we think about education itself -- not just the way we deliver it.
Twenty-four years ago, I taught my first writing course in a classroom kitted out with 25 computers. A few years later, I team taught my first online and hybrid courses via threaded discussion boards and asynchronous email-based class discussions, respectively. Of course by that time, the pioneers in the field had already been at the online learning game for years.
In those days, online learning was about experimentation -- seeing what the new technology could do. Soon, though, online learning became a means to an end, in the form of rapid market expansion and tuition growth, aided by 100 percent year-over-year growth rates in the mid-1990s and driven by the early entrants in the market -- for-profit universities and continuing and professional education divisions at nonprofit universities.
A couple decades on now, we see millions of students pursuing degrees wholly online and millions more taking the odd online course for credit, while still millions more are signing up for non-credit-bearing MOOCs. That goes some way to underscoring the fact that online learning is an established and maturing field. But it’s also flattening out. Today the growth has slowed, almost to a standstill, and thus the high-octane revenue growth phase may be behind us.
This may explain, in part, why the field is starting to be talked about in new ways, particularly as new sorts of institutions get involved, as the motivations for deploying an ever-growing number of learning technologies gradually begin to shift, as learning scientists leverage the growing quantities of data captured by these technologies and as the organizational structures online learning operates under begin to take new shape.
If the era of online learning over the past two decades was in large measure about revenue growth, the present moment is about something else.
Evidence of this change can been seen in a subtle shift in how we talk about this work. Where once we spoke consistently about “online learning,” now, more and more often, I hear higher education leaders talking about “digital strategy” -- a shift in terminology that signals, I believe, a significant change in how we are thinking about the utility of learning technologies.
The phrase “online learning,” for example, might be said to be associated with other terms, like growth, tuition streams, content development and professional master’s degrees. By contrast, the phrase “digital strategy” is associated with a more diverse and inclusive set of terms, like pedagogy, market relevance, undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as online and residential learning experiences. If online learning was, more often than not, about money, then digital strategy is about how we think about, define and structure learning.
As Claudia Urrea, a lecturer at MIT’s recently established Office of Digital Learning, put it to me, “It’s no longer just about putting content online but an opportunity to rethink learning.”
Kevin Bell, who serves as executive director for online curriculum development and deployment at Northeastern University, put it somewhat more forcefully: “There needs to be a digital strategy for face-to-face courses, as well.”
Interestingly, both MIT and Northeastern have been busily realigning their organizational structures in the digital realm to assist them in yielding a broader kind of payoff. The Office of Digital Learning at MIT, headed up by Dean Sanjay Sarma, is a relatively new organization into which established initiatives now report -- such as OpenCourseWare, founded more than 15 years ago, and MITx, launched in 2012 and the precursor to MIT’s collaboration with Harvard, called edX.
Last fall, Northeastern brought on Chris Mallet from Western Governors University to serve in a new role as vice president of online programs, and while the job title underscores the familiar and still persistent use of “online” as a term of art, the new role was conceived as a way of integrating and expanding a diverse set of teaching and technology-related initiatives. Other institutions are similarly reorganizing, adding new layers of management and governance to oversee and harmonize their increasingly diverse digital holdings.
In 2014, James DeVaney joined the University of Michigan as its associate vice provost for digital education and innovation, with the explicit aim, he told me, of making his office’s services “obsolete -- in a good way -- so that academic units are thinking about the innovative use of technology in all their learning environments.” Within a few years, DeVaney added, “I would like to see the word ‘digital’ removed from our unit name.”
One way to account for this shift in thinking is the growing awareness of the potential for educational technologies to enhance teaching and learning broadly and to strengthen the value that colleges and universities are delivering at their very core.
“I see the shift not as one from online to digital,” said Eddie Maloney, the executive director of the center for new designs in learning and scholarship at Georgetown University, “but as a shift from a content-driven or faculty-driven curriculum to an intentional design and assessed curriculum. It’s really about a growing focus on learning design.”
Indeed, where the online era was characterized by efforts to make technology-enabled courses just as good a classroom courses, digital strategy and learning design are about making education better -- regardless of the medium.
Of course, this isn’t to say that there aren’t still institutions out there looking to grow revenue by delivering programs online. And even institutions like Harvard are seeking to generate income from initiatives like HBX, an initiative at Harvard Business School, with its online courses in business fundamentals targeting alumni, corporate and other audiences. Likewise, of course, there are certainly countervailing examples to the structural integration underway at places like MIT, Northeastern and Michigan. Southern New Hampshire University and Champlain College, to name just two examples, have intentionally set out to create organizational separation between their on-campus and online learning activities, and with strong enrollment growth to show for their efforts.
For others, though, the ambitions are different. According to Josh Kim, director of digital learning initiatives at Dartmouth College, and author of Inside Higher Ed’s “Technology and Learning” blog, “Places that really want to protect their brand -- like Brown, Yale, Georgetown, Dartmouth -- are experimenting with low-residency online programs in professional schools and they are having real success, which is driving some rethinking about what we need to be doing to improve our core product. At Dartmouth, it’s a quality play. We want to bring new techniques into residential teaching but also create sustainable programs.”
To the extent that this shift in emphasis from online learning to digital strategy can produce sustainable programs of enhanced quality, we can undoubtedly expect to see more institutions pursuing the path of learning design informed by digital experimentation.
While it may yet be too early to say for sure whether this shift will be long lasting, if it is, we should expect to see evidence of it in some very prominent places. As DeVaney put it, “I think we’ll know if this shift is real when we see more institutions differentiating around this. Hopefully we’ll see mission statements that look different, too.”
Kathleen Ives, chief executive officer of the Online Learning Consortium, agrees, noting, “Digital is becoming mainstream. But for an institution to succeed it has to be part of their vision and mission and has to permeate across their organization.”
Bell at Northeastern argues that truly effective digital strategy will have to go a step farther even than connecting diverse institutional activities. “Digital leadership should not just be about harmonizing initiatives,” he said. “It should also be about harmonizing our messaging and conveying our unique philosophy to the communities we serve -- and at Northeastern, the emphasis is on online experiential learning.”
In other words, the shift to digital strategy will only be significant if it enables institutions to not only think and teach differently, but also to talk more effectively about who they are and what makes them different at the very core.
Peter Stokes is a managing director in the higher education practice at Huron Consulting Group.