The question of whether higher education is moving too slowly to position itself for a rapidly changing world has been front and center throughout 2012. Not a week seems to go by where there is not another conference to discuss the future of higher education. The topic is anxiety-filled for many college leaders, who feel adrift as they attempt to position their institutions for a sustainable future.
Ideas for change are everywhere, and indeed, innovative concepts for reforming higher education are being tested and delivered with measurable results by researchers, professors, entrepreneurs, and college presidents. But much of that work remains unfamiliar to many leaders interested in the vibrancy of higher education, and as a result, detached from their conversations and strategy about the future.
College presidents, governing boards, state policymakers need help in their efforts to scale innovation. The federal government can quicken the pace of change—and perhaps even innovate its own outdated regulatory policies—by creating an innovation fund and designating campuses to be living labs for trying out ideas. Think of it as a Race to the Top for higher education. Better yet, revive the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, whose explicit purpose is to scale innovation in higher education (the fund has been weakened in recent years).
Among some of the issues an innovation fund could tackle:
Speed up hybrid course development. Blended courses (meaning a mix of face-to-face and online content) have been shown to have equal learning outcomes as purely face-to-face content, and in one study, students finished a hybrid course in a quarter less time than students in a traditional course. With the onslaught of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the growth in Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, we have reached a point where more intro classes on college campuses can be “flipped” using open courseware.
Define credit for new learning experiences. The unbundling of higher education will mean that students could acquire knowledge from different providers and different players than just a traditional campus as they do now. But traditional universities get the final say as to what they accept as credit, and the term itself is defined by the federal government when it comes to handing out financial aid. In order to embrace new course delivery systems, certify outside-the-classroom experiences, and reduce costs, we need to redefine what a credit means in higher education.
Harness the power of Big Data. Technology has always been seen as an add-on in higher education, and especially an added cost by most administrators. But the modern data analytics that allow us to see what similar people buy on Amazon or rent on Netflix is a powerful tool to improve decision making. Until recently, data science was largely absent from the high-stakes decisions made in higher education. Colleges are now embracing data to make decisions and this change has huge implications for how students will choose colleges, pick majors, make course selections, and even find partners for discussing a problem in a math class. Decades after the personal computer arrived on college campuses, the promise of technology to better match students and colleges, as well as improve learning and lower costs, is finally close to a reality.
Photo Credit: Justin Metz, Boston Magazine