Delivering Online Ed, Worldwide

American universities are missing an opportunity to better deliver their education globally -- through external hubs, Brett Bruen writes.

August 13, 2015

American universities mostly miscalculate international engagement. Many see online education as the best means to expand globally. Some invest in creating expensive overseas campuses in places like Dubai and Shanghai.

Yet the most significant opportunities exist somewhere in between. External hubs would provide physical platforms for international students to take classes abroad, without an institution having to build a remote campus. In this space, there are currently very few universities operating. If a shift does not take place soon, American institutions stand to lose significant ground to foreign competitors who are closer, more relevant and quickly developing the capacity to compete with our best universities.

I spent a lot of time with universities in my 12 years as a diplomat and as director of global engagement at the White House. I was often struck by the limited options American universities had to offer foreign students. A lot of time, effort and resources were spent recruiting students to come to the United States. Yet the price, cultural constraints and complexity of our system deterred many promising prospective candidates. Branch campuses in Asia and the Persian Gulf are expensive and have limited reach. The default at many universities has therefore been set to online education, both massive open online courses (MOOCs) and distance learning.

Online education has its place. It can connect, though it often struggles to sustain interest. It can convey content, though not always context. It can start a conversation, while also diluting the strongest part of our education system -- vibrant interaction between professors and students, between students and other students. It can continue to develop a concept, but it can face challenges communicating a new one. In short, online education underperforms if used in isolation, especially internationally.

Even in the United States, online education has not always lived up to the hype. After six years of study, only a third of students pursuing online degrees graduate. But it’s not just about getting to graduation. A recent study by two professors at the University of California at Davis documented that students at community colleges in the state performed significantly poorer than their counterparts who sat in a classroom. Now add a foreign language, a completely different cultural context, as well as a general unfamiliarity with our education style, systems and structures. Online education is not well suited for foreign students, without additional assistance.

The solution for improving online education overseas can also address the false choice many universities believe they face between recruitment, building branch campuses or relying heavily on virtual engagement. What I call “external educational hubs” are dedicated spaces for taking classes and collaborating on course work. They don’t require construction, continual operating expenses or in-country staff. Hubs can be created in the corner of a café or in a company’s conference room. You could establish a hub with just a few television screens, some desks, chairs and a whiteboard. Yet they offer a physical place for students to have a more enhanced educational experience. More elaborate hubs might look to include technological resources, such as 3-D printers. In whatever form, the hubs would bring vibrancy to the virtual.

Online education would then be about not only content, but connections. Students would have the opportunity to meet others in their community with similar interests. They could help clarify confusion, collaborate on projects and continue to motivate each other throughout the course of the class. The conversations and cooperation could carry on even after the class and spill out into the creation of new companies, organizations and initiatives. As a result of extended exposure, they would also develop the kind of deep bonds that make alumni relations so powerful.

There’s more to gain from these hubs than just enhancing the educational experience. Creating a physical presence makes American universities more accessible. Confusion was one of the most common reactions I encountered overseas as I tried to explain the complexities of America’s higher education system to foreign students. Our decentralized and demanding application process is completely different from what many foreign students are familiar with at home. There is also a common perception that American universities are for the most part the bastion of the wealthy and well connected in their country. Bringing the classes to their community will start to break down these challenges and misconceptions.

The hubs shouldn’t necessarily be put on universities' campuses. One of the attractive aspects of online education is its accessibility. Therefore, they should for the most part be located near where people live and work. Students ought to be able to stop by for a quick class over lunch or after work. They should also offer an American environment. Walking into a hub, one should feel they are experiencing a part of the United States. This unique setting can play a critical role in bringing to life American education for foreign students.

Unlike branch campuses or other international initiatives, American universities wouldn’t need to invest in creating or maintaining the hubs. The concept could be franchised to businesses or other private organizations. An American-style restaurant could create a hub on its premises. The chamber of commerce of Paris could establish one in its offices.

Based on my time overseas, there would be overwhelming demand to host one of these hubs. They could go into big cities and small towns, significantly extending the reach of higher education around the world. Some will undoubtedly say that co-locating a class in a fast food restaurant diminishes the stature, if not the quality of education. Yet it is certainly preferable to taking a class in isolation on a computer.

We have an international exposure deficit in the United States. Fewer than 10 percent of U.S. students study abroad and just 4 percent of students on American campuses come from overseas.

Hubs could help address this issue. They have the potential to quickly and substantially increase the number of foreign students taking our classes. American students would now be able to discuss climate change with Europeans, business with Indians and journalism with Venezuelans. At the White House, we saw addressing these global challenges as national security, as well as an economic imperative. Indeed, increased international participation in classes taught at our universities will help to better prepare our students to compete in a global marketplace.

At a time when the market for international education is exceptionally competitive, external educational hubs can help American universities overcome some of their most significant obstacles for reaching a broader segment of the global community. They will increase the quality of instruction being offered through online courses and perhaps even of the courses taught on campus. Hubs offer a fast, innovative and cost-effective way to deepen, as well as broaden, a university’s international ties. There is no country that is better at franchising than the United States. We ought to capitalize on this experience to enhance the educational opportunities we can offer to millions more around the world.


Brett Bruen served as director of global engagement in the White House. He is president of the Global Situation Room and an adjunct faculty member at the Federal Executive Institute.


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