Yet another possible future for higher education?

Chris Peterson, of MIT Admissions, has a terrific piece on Ben Nelson and Larry Summers’ Minerva project, which is properly skeptical of the business model, let alone the educational vision, of such projects.

This week the tech and educational press has been buzzing about the launch of Minerva University. According to its founder, Internet entrepreneur Ben Nelson, Minerva is intended to “tap into the demand for an elite American education from the developing world’s rising middle class.” His proposition is simple and compelling: there are more smart students in the world than there are seats in Ivy League schools, and the elastic enrollment afforded by Minerva’s online format will provide an elite electronic education for those huddles masses yearning to learn.

In support of his subversive educational enterprise Nelson has mustered both heavy artillery and covering fire. The former comes from Benchmark Capital, the VC behemoth which has invested $25 million dollars to found Minerva. The latter comes from the long list of luminaries Nelson has recruited to form his advisory board, including such superstars as Larry Summers (former President of Harvard), Senator Bob Kerrey (former head of the New School), and Pat Harker (president of the University of Delaware and former dean of Wharton, Nelson’s alma mater).

I am a big believer in educational access. Education is awesome. Extending education to those who cannot presently achieve it is extra awesome.

And yet I’m troubled by the Minerva Project; specifically, by the lack of credible answers to a few questions that the painfully shallow news coverage have yet to actually address. So I’m posting them here and trying to think through what some of the answers might be.

Peterson’s take on Minerva is compelling, but what I find especially interesting is that the educational “solution” devised by Summers, Nelson, and their powerful friends perfectly reflects the economic forces we discussed last week at the forum on the future of higher ed.

Minerva represents one of the fullest crystallizations of the for-profit and privatized model of higher ed that I could think of.  Not a trace of education to be found in it.

Yet I am convinced that it will not work except as a way to ” load [Nelson’s] comparatively underleveraged international students with loans that will return an appreciable rate to his investors.”  And I don’t think that either Harvard or UH will be much threatened by this model, unless we decide, suicidally, to embrace it ourselves.



Thanks for Attending our 3/30/12 Workshop on the Future of Teaching in Higher Education (Summary of Discussions)

Workshop March 30:  What is the Future of Teaching in Higher Education?

Dave Mazella welcomed the participants to the final workshop of the Spring Semester, and urged everyone to share ideas they have about future workshops to be held in the 2012-2013 academic year.

Frank Holt opened the proceedings with a disclaimer. As an ancient historian, he might not be the best-equipped person to discuss the future. Still he offered a “water-cooler” viewpoint as a starting place for discussion. The vision he shared was somewhat bleak.

Pressures on higher education are growing to increase the ratio of college graduates in our population. There will be demands for more degrees, more access, more accountability, more relevance to employment, and less cost. (Pressures are already on us to create a B.A. that costs less than $10,000.) It is likely this will redefine the experience in institutions of higher learning.

There will be more part-time students, who will demand a self-service education with the speed and efficiencies of Ikea over Ethan Allen. There will be an increasing divide between research and teaching. The teaching function will be outsourced to for-profit retailers such as textbook and software vendors and online universities such as Phoenix University. Teaching will develop into a “Hollywood” model, where instructors become “stars” unaffiliated with any particular institution, and who offer their wares directly to the marketplace. Instructors will be expected to seek corporate sponsorship. The thousands of introductory courses now taught will eventually be serviced by a handful of star quality packages leased back to universities for use by their students. New entities will create institutions of higher learning with special slants on education, such as religious and government groups, corporations, and even political organizations. The ability to offer credentials such as the B.A, will end up in new hands. Brick and mortar universities will take on the role of the Grand Tour in Victorian England – a form of conspicuous consumption indulged in only by the very rich.

Holt ended his talk by saying that he hopes this vision is wrong, but processes that tend in these directions are already underway.

There was a lively discussion, which included the following points (not necessarily in chronological order).

President Khator’s call for UH to do a better job of servicing the needs of the City of Houston opens the question: what exactly does our city need?

The ability to offer credentials is beside the point. The real question is what exactly do our students need to do well in their lives? For-profit educators do a better job at focusing on education with demonstrable immediate payoffs. Maybe, but occupational training is not sufficient in an economy where needed job skills are rapidly evolving. What students need is training in general skills that can be applied to a fluid workplace.

At the moment, universities have a monopoly on credentials that blocks the development of independent global online educational sites. When this monopoly is broken, there will be a thunderbolt, and universities will be in deep trouble.

We need to learn how to partner with publishers and software vendors and ask for grants from them to create course materials.  Yes but we may end up becoming a service organization for our sponsors. Like food contractors, we will become contractors for educational services. Well, we are already dependent on courseware vendors to some degree. Adoption of grading systems is being heavily marketed by vendors offering perks like conference travel.

What really matters for an institution is not its competitive pricing but its ability to compete in the race for institutional reputation. This is how we attract good faculty and good students. But limiting admission to only the best students restricts access. The new emphasis on accountability emphasizes fast and cheap education, but the students we have are not ready to handle college level work. Of 2,000 students entering our introductory math courses, half of them know next to nothing. This is a problem all the way up to the graduate level, where we are forced to dumb down what we teach. So called “efficiency” and lower DWIF rates are near impossible to achieve when students come poorly prepared. Is it my fault if I must award an F to a student who never showed up to class in the first place? Students display a YouTube philosophy where education means taking the path of least resistance to a degree. American culture does not value knowledge. On-demand education means to students that they do not need to learn it now. What they do not realize is their short-cut strategy does not pay off in learning the skills they badly need.

UH probably has as many students now as it can handle. In the future, the state is more likely to pay us for degrees granted than for class enrollment. As the total state contribution declines, it is in our interest to abandon the old model where we let in everyone to see who washes out. Instead, we might improve our faculty to student ratio, and concentrate on quality in admissions. On the other hand, it is not likely that we will be seeing fewer students, nor will they be significantly better prepared. We have to face that reality.

The challenge is to do more with fewer resources. This raises the problem of quality management, where we are way behind. The reason is that academic freedom limits he degree to which demands for improvement get converted into reform. All that is left is continuous quality improvement, which some of us engage in, but which is not widely enough practiced.

Outsourcing has already imposed a massive cost to our economy. Outsourcing in education will be a disaster. Yes, but we already engage in outsourcing to community colleges, since their credits automatically transfer to UH.

We need to make clear what it is that we do that is different from community colleges. One answer is that we generate knowledge, another is that we offer higher quality teaching where students are engaged in research and come to understand the importance of research. Excellence in undergraduate teaching can be part of what makes us unique. It is easy to sell the idea that quality of teaching in for-profit institutions is comparable to ours, but this is false. We should emphasize the skills (such as leaderships, and writing) that are hard to develop online. Some students are happy to remain anonymous in large classes.  But students trained in small classes in basic skills are snapped up in the job market. There is no substitute for face-to-face teaching. The very fact that class attendance is so strongly correlated with good grades shows the value of face-to-face learning.

It is crucial to our mission that we do not decouple teaching from research, and that we make clear to the public the importance of research. But the reality is that the main value at UH is research and relatively meager resources are devoted to integrating research with teaching. Furthermore, the ratio of tenure track jobs is decreasing, so that more and more teaching is done by instructors without a research mission. Workload policies may take us in the same direction, by shifting the teaching load to faculty who are not productive enough researchers.

We could partner with high schools and community colleges to better prepare the students who come to us. The best students are ones who do not come directly from community colleges, but who have had a year or to get ready.

Most of the forces that will change higher education are out of our control, so let’s think about what we can control. We need communicate with people who will be making the crucial decisions, the people who are in control. The question was asked: how many people here belong to the AAUP? Almost no one did.

Another suggestion for what we can control is to refuse to cooperate with publishers who convert education into a commodity. Yes, but we need to learn how to use online instruction and other techniques in the best ways to teach large numbers of students well. We are not going to have the small classes that would be found in an ideal university.

The best argument to those in control is to cite events like this workshop. This shows our commitment to teaching, improves our reputation, and is something we can control.

Dave Mazella closed the session by saying that he hoped that the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) could take a more active role in communicating with administrators. As faculty, we tend to operate in splendid isolation. It is better to band together than suffer in silence. We are not alone. There are many universities like ours who are facing the same issues, so research on what they are doing can be helpful to us. You are invited to participate in the CTE blog, not to just to gripe about the issue, but to develop solutions to the problems that face us. We need to organize at the department and faculty levels to improve teaching at UH. Revising a course here or there is not enough. We need to work together in a committed and systematic way. If you are interested in helping by joining CTE, please get in touch, as we are opening up the membership of CTE.


DM postscript: On the subject of Distance Education and Hybrid Education models in the high-quality education of the future, I am going to quote myself from earlier blog posts, and ask everyone to consider Ed Glaeser‘s highly useful dictum about online interactions:

My rule of thumb, which I have taken from the economist and NYT columnist Ed Glaeser, is that online interactions do not substitute for interactions, but supplement them, in more or less-powerful ways. This is a view that seems to be getting corroborated in at least some of the research that I have seen. (See, for example, this 2003 study by some sociologists at Berkeley [Brint et al.]).

The study by Brint et al. linked above contains a description of online education that constitutes a warning, I think, for any institution that embraces online education as a means for cost-control and swelling enrollments:

Eventually a new “digital divide” will likely separate institutions that can afford to maintain control over the means of their online production and those that cannot. This divide will correspond to two educational cultures: one oriented primarily to training (“learning just the skills and content you need”) and the other to higher education in the traditional sense – with its stress on creative activity, capacity development, theory and methods, contexts for understanding, and critical approaches to existing knowledge.

It is imperative, then, to maintain quality in online programs as in all other forms of content delivery, if we wish to remain competitive with other institutions in reputational terms.

UPDATED: This Moody’s Higher Education Sector Outlook report for 2012 provides plenty of fodder for both optimists and pessimists.  (Found in our Division of Administration and Finance’s remarkably useful Budget page)

Look particularly at frames 12-13, which talk about the “broken” Higher Ed Model, and the declines of governmental support.

Having highlighted all the challenges we face, I still think that questions of quality and reputation, especially in regard to instruction, are paramount for institutions like ours.  See, for example, this quote: “Student demand and net tuition growth remain strongest for those that are most affordable, reputable, and programmatically diversified” (frame 7).  The question becomes how, and for whom, we define “quality.”


A Response to Friday’s Panel from Peter Bishop (TECH)

[Editor’s note: Peter Bishop, of the College of Technology and its program of Future Studies, of which he is Coordinator, had this email exchange with Frank Holt.  He later agreed to share these thoughts on the CTE blog. We thank him for his interesting comments during the session, and for giving permission to quote his email here.–DM]
Thanks for your session today.  Since I came late and had to leave early, I’m assuming that were teaching the session!
Can you send me your slides?  I just came into the last one, which is also a favorite theme of mine.  For-profit universities almost always have central development and distributed delivery, almost all with para-professionals and part-time adjuncts who are usually working in the field full-time.  It’s a much more efficient model.  I know Phoenix could price their courses much lower as a result, but they price it just below state university rates in order to leave their healthy profit margins intact.
And yes, the rest of the system could move toward central development through the licensing arrangements you mentioned.  I’ve offered to license our futures curriculum many times since it is unique and very few colleges could mount such a course on their own, but so far no takers.  But maybe someday.
It occurred to me, however, that we do have a form of central development in the textbook market which is now expanding its effect on the course through CDs, DVD, test packs and now websites
And I found the discussion following your talk very interesting.  One tendency we have in thinking about the effect of trends that are changing an institution (like higher ed) is to believe that the new will completely replace the old.  That does happen, but much more often it reduces the old as it grows and gobbles up parts of the market, but rarely does the old go away completely.  And I love your analogy of college as the grand tour.  The undergrad experience will remain for many, but it will be expensive so smaller than it is today.
I found the rest of the discussion a study in dialectics.  Attached are the many either-or problems/dilemmas/dichotomies that people were bringing up.  I tend to be a both-and person myself.  Most of the New stuff is definitely on the rise, but it doesn’t mean that all the Old stuff goes away.  The task is to maintain balance and not let either, the New or the Old, take over completely.
So thanks again for holding this session.  Should be a lot more of this type of discussion…
So what do others think?  What would a “both/and” model of past, present, and future higher education look like?

VIA Dissent: Three Crises in Higher Ed Affordability

To place some of yesterday’s discussion of our historical challenges into context, I thought I’d pass along the economist Mike Konczal’s recent discussion of higher education’s debt crisis, from Dissent magazine.  Here’s a representative passage:

Privatization is an ongoing project in state-level school systems. Mark Yudof, the President of the University of California system, once described the evolution of the “hybrid university”:

“[T]he extraordinary compact between state governments and their flagship universities appears to be dead – or at least on life support…Though we believers in the civic value of education may lament it greatly, with the wage premium widening, education today is increasingly seen as a private, rather than a public, good. Consequently, many legislators appear more comfortable with students’ paying higher tuition than they did in the past, tacitly encouraging students to borrow today and pay back later…Paradoxically, to continue the long tradition of broad access for students to public research universities, these institutions will have to become more like their private peers; to ensure the access for low-income and historically disadvantaged students that low-cost tuition once allowed, I believe that public research universities will have to work hard to augment funds for student aid and scholarships.”

This is an active project, reformulating state schools so they mimic their private peers. This involves reducing state funding for students and having students pick up the slack. The privatization school doesn’t view accessible higher education as a social good, a necessary component to equality of opportunity, a means of creating alternate hierarchies of education, or part of the basic process of how a civilization functions with its citizens. It focuses on the private economic gains of a university education and finds ways to shift costs to private citizens, with debt to make up the shortfall. Finding ways to get students to pay higher tuition, like choosing out-of-state applicants, becomes a priority. This creates a cycle: the more public universities are defunded and reconceived as a private good, the less civic interest there is in defending them as a public good.

Ultimately, as Konczal points out, this discussion of affordability turns on the question of “what kind of public universities and education we want to have.”

So whose wants, needs, desires, opinions, demands are being attended to now, as we watch the transformation of public higher education across the board?


VIA Reality-Based Community: A Report on the Politics of Teaching Quality from UC/Berkeley

“Quality and Politics”

Michael O’Hare, a Professor of Public Policy at Berkeley, has an interesting post about the UC system’s self-defeating response to repeated budget cuts. He writes,

As is well known, the California legislature is slashing state support for higher education, forcing us to raise tuition again and again.  One response at Cal has been a consulting project from Bain and Co., called Operational Excellence (perhaps because the words quality and excellence hardly occur in any of their product, which is about saving money and doing almost as much almost as good work).

The project had a big show-and-tell event on campus today, with posters and folks answering questions about this and that initiative.  I came away pretty discouraged, because I think our leadership has got the politics of this wrong and we will keep getting our nose bloodied if we think our problems are all in the administrative zone.  There is low-hanging fruit here. For example, we don’t charge units for their energy consumption so we have no incentive to fix our windows (we have to pay for stuff like that) or even turn the lights off.  But our problems are bigger, and more at the core of our business.

My take – anecdotal at least in part, YMMV – is best characterized by remarks at least one colleague and I have heard more than once from our wonderful public policy minor students: “This is the first course I’ve had at Cal in which  I really had to think/I raised my hand in class!” To hear that from a junior is frankly heartbreaking.  I know my students are strongly socialized to flatter my ego, to try to guess “the answer” I have in my head, and not so much oriented to teaching each other, and it takes some serious effort every semester to get them in a mode where real learning is possible.

O’Hare thinks that part of the problem is the profound isolation of higher education professors (“we never see each other work and never talk about what we do in this area”), and suggests a far more collaborative environment with far greater opportunities for peer observation and review. I think that’s a great idea, and a much better use of our time as faculty than most accountability initiatives we hear about.  Best of all is O’Hare’s description of the intellectual challenges of improving one’s own and one’s peers’ teaching:

Teaching is intellectually challenging, complicated, and fun to get better at.  Learning is really complex and hard to understand; many things we know about it are not true.   Intellectually challenging, complex, demanding, refuting errors…that’s catnip for this work force!  We would start to learn that the naches provided by actually increasing student learning per hour, per course, and per degree awarded is actually much more rewarding than the ego trip we get from hearing ourselves say the most interesting things we know to a room full of students writing it down so they can try to say it back to us on the final.  We would start having fun and feeling smart and competent; nothing wrong with that.

No, nothing wrong that I can see.