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Can Higher Education Afford Innovation?


Mon Jul 16 2012


So...this whole week I was pretty excited about the idea of riding the interest from my last two blogposts. I was all set to mount a rousing defense of Google+ as a social media tool worth greater interest from learning folks of all kinds. I really was. Maybe one day you'll get to read that blog post, replete with breathy exhortations and compelling infographics.

...and then, I got distracted by something shiny and buzzy. A colleague of mine who is headed to business school sent me this article, in which Robert F. Bruner, Dean of UVA's Darden School of Business, meditates on the hurdles that online education will have to surmount in higher education. I'm going to admit that my first impulse as an e-learning instructional designer after reading perusing hastily skimming the article was to fall into a bit of defensive confusion, especially with passages like this:


But it’s possible that what iTunes did for music and Netflix did for films will be what online education will do to traditional colleges and universities—not a pretty prospect. (Is what iTunes and Netflix did for music and movies bad? What was that, again? Are they the same thing? Can media forms like music and movies be equated with institutions? While we're at it, has iTunes U not been a successful venture? I have questions.)

After a re-read, I realized that Bruner isn't so much pooh-poohing the coming digital transformation of the traditional college experience so much as he is scoping out the roadblocks that donors might throw up when called to empty their wallets for their alma maters. Fair enough, but I'm still not convinced that the investments necessary for improving the quality an accessibility of education are getting a fair shake.

Still, as an educator who has never worked in higher education, I think I may be missing something here. To explain my disconnect, I've matched Bruner's five points of potential investor balk with what I hear and think when I read them.

  • I read: Learning platform experimentation will "require ongoing investments through time," and obsolescence is a constant danger.

  • I hear: Educational technology is evolving, and such evolution will be expensive and full of dead ends.

  • I think: Dot matrix printers still print. Haven't seen one in a campus library in ages.

  • I read: While online courses may result in more effective learning experiences for students, they may not result in greater productivity for professors.

  • I hear: Our professors may have to spend more time developing their curricula, not less. If so, what's the point?

  • I think: This kind of thinking seems to fall into the familiar trap of trading cost for quality. It also calls into question what a given university might see as the primary role of professors.

  • I read: Economies of scale may allow one professor to reach thousands of students. While cost effective, this sort of mass dissemination is antithetical to the 'high touch' personal attention that is the hallmark of liberal arts universities.

  • I hear: We're afraid of separating the content and delivery from the institution itself.

  • I think: Is the synchronous, traditional higher education classroom consistently living up to its 'high touch' potential? Is 'high touch' a thing that all higher ed institutions actually value? Also, would not innovations such as the flipped classroom allow for professor time to be further partitioned into virtual office hours? Again, this is more work for the professors, but I believe it might allow for better experiences for the students.

  • I read: A "'star system' of well-known instructors" will "amplify the arms race for talent that already exists among colleges and universities."

  • I hear: We'd like to state again that we're really not comfortable with the idea of separating the content and delivery from the institution itself.

  • I think: The only way that I see online course education exacerbating this 'arms race' (!) is by removing more physical barriers to hosting 'celebrity' professors. Is a university's only argument against dumping their physics professors' sets for a series of live events with Neil de Grasse Tyson been that it's hard to get him down to Charlottesville?

  • I read: Traditional university teaching structures require a certain number of people and things, and the need for these things and people might change if we change the way that universities teach.

  • I hear: We have made considerable investments, and are calling on our donors to continue making investments in time-honored methods. Changing our methods threatens both current and future investments.

  • I think: Yes, yes it does.

I obviously think that using technology to mix synchronous and asynchronous sessions can only help universities by increasing the depth of student engagement. Still, Bruner has a point -- someone has to pay for all of this. His meditation brings up a number of other issues that I'm not qualified to answer:

  • How do traditional universities update their methods and structures without breaking the bank and/or alienating nostalgic investors? How can they bring alumni donors around to supporting ways of teaching that are outside of their experience and (possibly) removed from the confines of the campus itself?

  • Even if it proves possible, is such a feat desirable?

  • Is the value of online instruction greater at the undergraduate level than in graduate courses (or vice versa)?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that anyone reading this has had experience with a higher ed institution as a student or as an employee. What do you think? Is this a watershed moment for colleges and universities, or soon to be a minor speed bump in the history of our higher ed institutions? Is it possible for higher ed to wait this movement out and invest in an eventual learning platform 'winner'?


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