Some Random Thoughts on the Future of the University

Writing on the future of the university has long been a cottage industry. Predicting disruptive changes and revolutions to conservative institutions and industries requires little in the way of penetrating insight. A few friends asked what I thought about Nathan Harden’s recent article in the American Interest, and it being a holiday weekend, I decided to take some time to respond a length.

Harden’s article predicts that online MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other digital open access education initiatives at the university level will be a disruptive and transformative approach to higher education.  He argues that these innovations lead by schools like Harvard and MIT have appeared at a crucial moment when universities have become expensive, financially vulnerable, top heavy with administrators, and enduring widespread critique for deviating from their traditional missions of producing good citizens, an educated workforce, and ethical society.

For Harden, the involvement of elite university’s in producing MOOCs and other open access initiatives leverages the best of American higher education, and, as good currency drives out bad, these offerings should either elevate offerings by their more modest brethren (small and midsize state universities and liberal arts colleges), drive them out of the higher education business, or force them to become a local tutor for elite offerings. For an industry that long prided itself on low student-teacher ratios, responsive instruction, and a wide range of campus services (from organized sports to libraries and dinning halls), the critiques offered introduces a new kind of Jeremiad where innovation disrupts the deeply flawed university system as we know it.

Harden seems to see the difficult financial conditions of many schools as indicative of the flawed model of American higher education. I have my doubts. First, some of the financial issues experienced by private universities comes not from pricing themselves out of the game, but because their endowments suffered during the global economic down turn. Next, state universities have suffered because funding priorities have changed. Dating to before the recent recession, state colleges and universities have received less and less money from the state governments while at the same time being restricted in how they can raise money to make up the funding gap (e.g. states often limit tuition increases, require the admission of instate students at a discounted price, and even restrict the amount and kinds of fees charged to students). Neither of these issues are directly related to the performance of the university system except that our society as a whole has become increasingly skeptical of our institution’s ability to contribute to the production of a economically and socially dynamic society. In other words, funding for higher education and the performance of higher education are separate issues and the lack of funding does not mean that the approach or performance of our universities is flawed.

(As an aside, the average amount of student loan debt – $23,000 per student – seems quite reasonable in that it is far less than, say, the average price of a car ($30,000 in 2012) and unlike a car one’s education tends to appreciate over time rather than lose value…)   

But to return to the disruptive potential of MOOCs and other open course initiatives, I’ll offer three observations: 

1. Trends. The dream of several massive online courses servicing massive numbers of students is an appealing one for anyone who sees the issues with U.S. higher education as our institutions have never adjusted to the rapid increase in the number of students who started going to college in the middle of the 20th century. As a result, we continue to use methods developed to teach a small number of economic and social elites to teach the masses. Massive online courses provide an antidote to this failure to adapt.

The problem is, of course, that similar efforts to scale higher education have not worked. Massive courses at massive universities drove down the cost of higher education by supplementing the ranks of the faculty members with legions of eager graduate students who mediated between the sage on the stage and the students. Over the last two decades, both students and faculty have rebelled against this model for teaching. Calls to “invert the lecture” and to create a more dynamic, interactive classroom have tended to feature more intensive faculty involvement rather than a more distant, highly mediated source of erudite authority. While online teaching can provide this kind of hands-on mentoring, it is difficult to image being able to do it on such a scale as the current MOOCs without significantly increasing the degree of faculty involvement or the number of faculty members involved. In short, MOOCs run counter to a century long trend in American higher education that calls for smaller class, more faculty involvement in teaching, and more hands-on, personalized instruction.  

2. Technologies of Scale. MOOC type classes will begin to lose some of their economies of scale if they come to provide a significant source of for credit instruction. I regularly teach an online class of 100 students and received 4-5 student questions about the technologies involved in this course per week. This is rather low-tech class and a relatively static interface. If I were teaching this class to 1000 students I might expect 40-50 questions a week and I see no reason why this trend wouldn’t continue as the course size increased. With MOOCs enrolling over 50,000 students one can imagine hundreds, if not thousands, of student related issues per week. While this is not an insurmountable problem, it will require an investment in course infrastructure to keep pace with not only the massive numbers of students enrolled, but the increased pressure of evaluating and managing the students in class. Economies of scale and new technologies might make MOOCs sustainable at a cost relatively lower than traditional university education, but I cannot imagine that they will continue to be free.   

We should remember that the current first generation of MOOCs do not seek to engage students in the same way or to the same extent as a classroom based course. The metrics for evaluating student performance remain crude in comparison with a typical university classroom, the active contact hours between faculty member and individual student are vanishingly small, and student expectations remain modest (or at least in keeping with the price of the courses!).  MOOC style course that have yet to introduce robust methods to manage elevated student expectations, increased contact hours, and more subtle standards of performance. These will cost money. 

3. Continuity. Finally, it is important to stress that much of what students encounter in MOOC style education is radically different from what they encounter in secondary education. While taking nothing away from the flexibility of the student mind, the change from a highly structured school environment to an à la carte system provided by MOOCs seems to be the kind of radical departure from how we teach students to learn. If we believe that our current teaching and learning methods are broken or unsustainable, then it is going to take more than just changing how we deliver information or construct knowledge on the university level.

Lest people see this post as the rantings of a luddite, I should point out that I proposed a series of MOOC style courses at the University of North Dakota over 2 years ago. It made its way though the university bureaucracy before dying in Deans’ Council. Since that time, I have thought about the potential of MOOCs and what they can offer to higher education. My general feeling at present is that MOOCs present very little threat to the typical university curriculum. They do, however, offer a significant threat to textbook publishers. Assigning a free MOOC as part of an established class (as universities are already doing) provides a more dynamic, personal, and inexpensive interface for the delivery of content than the traditional textbook.

Sad News

Last night, after the last of the trick-or-treaters had taken away their spoils, I heard that Stu Hilwig had died. Stu went to graduate school with me at Ohio State and was one of the world’s genuinely good guys.

I was never close friends with Stu, but like so many of my colleagues, his presence in the Department of History graduate student offices and at social events was so regular that I have Stu Hilwig stories. I remember when my buddy Mike Fronda and I had a little party at Mike’s place where everyone cooked meat together. Stu was extraordinarily concerned that his grill was too small. He must have mentioned three or four times that “it is just a little grill.” For years after the event, Mike and I would repeat that line whenever anyone remembered that party.

My most vivid memory of Stu, and perhaps the most famous, was his Chris Farley imitations in the graduate student offices. All anyone had to say was the phrase “so you want to be a writer…” and Stu would leap out from behind his little graduate student cubicle and regale the room with his version of Chris Farley’s memorable “motivational speaker” skit.

While this may sound like a trivial thing to remember someone for, but during the those long years between comprehensive exams and completing the Ph.D., Stu’s humor and outgoing personality could transform a bleak Columbus, Ohio afternoon into a reason for laughter. His stories, humor, and willingness to stop and chat despite the pressures we all felt to be working at every waking moment, made the graduate school more humane. Even through I did not keep in touch with Stu (and I wasn’t even Facebook friends with him), knowing he was in the world made me feel better. 

His passing in a serious loss for his family, his university, and anyone who cares about a more humane and positive world.

Do Professors Work Enough?

There is so much chatter about this article in the Washington Post over the weekend, I feel compelled to offer at least a few words. In the article David Levy argues that faculty do not work enough hours and that part of the rising cost of higher education is tied to the inefficiency of university level teaching. In short, he suggests that for a forty-hour work week, faculty could teach 20 hours rather than the 10-12 hours that he frequently sees, and use the rest of the 20 hours for preparation for teaching, advising students, and marking.

The best response I’ve read so far comes from Timothy Burke over at his blog Easily Distracted. He argues – in a post well worth reading – that university faculty are gradually succumbing to the same processes that overtook other late 20th century professions.  The professionalization process regarded notions of self-governance, autonomy, and commitment to craft as central to their effective contributions to the industrialized economy.  Over the last 50 years the fruit of industrialization – the expanding power of corporate interests –  have gradually reined in autonomy of professions such as law, medicine, and in the financial sector and argued that these professions need to come more into line with the standards of efficiency central to industrialized, corporate culture.  For Burke, professors are the last in the line of professions to be set into a later 20th century corporate model.  This is good stuff.

I might add two things, however, to his observations. First, he might have pointed out (in a different post) that growing corporate (let’s say “late capitalist”) attitudes toward higher education do not stop at an interest to break the professional structure of the faculty. These attitudes have saturated all aspects of university life. The presence of similar attitudes toward student life is particularly striking. The desire to increase the efficiency of the learning process by focusing on student life through increasingly fine-grained assessment processes. The result of this is not just a reconfiguration of faculty time and attention, but also student time. As faculty deploy more robust mechanisms to monitor student actions – from projects broken down into smaller and smaller part to online learning environments that simulate Foucault’s famous panopticon – student life has shifted from a form of apprenticeship driven by the final results of their time at university to a process and method driving experience. Faculty members have bought into this paradigm shift through their championing of projects like SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) that has frequently reinforced the value of assessment and viewed the student learning experience as a regimented observable series of events. The results of faculty efforts to systematize the teaching and learning experience is student resistance (obviously this process is more complex than I sketch in my post today) and this parallels increasing faculty resentment of administrator’s efforts to manage their professional lives.

Finally, the irony of this is that even as universities attempt to adapt to a 20th century corporate culture, the very structure of innovation in the corporate world is undergoing significant changes. Large corporations – like Google and Apple – have increasingly drawn inspiration from the creative freedoms celebrated by 20th century university life. Google’s famous “20% time” provides employees with the kind of flexibility to be creative that plans like David Levy’s would regard as inefficient.  The “low grid” culture of many dynamic high-tech start ups embrace creative space that actively resists the culture of observation, hierarchy, and the maintenance of docile bodies.  In other words, the models of 21st century corporate culture increasingly look toward 20th century university models for inspiration at the same time as 21st century universities embrace models of productivity associated with the waning glories of an industrial past.