As I have mentioned here before, I was a member of the University of Denver’s Strategic Issues Panel this year, and the subject was the Future of Higher Education. The SIP program, headed by Jim Griesemer, former Dean of the business school at DU, is a testament to DU’s mission of being a “private University dedicated to the public good.” The panel, a distinguished group of trustees, faculty, and civic leaders, were assigned to read several books, and attended 16 one-hour presentations by experts in the area, and after much discussion, produced a preliminary report (for internal use only) in January and submitted it to the Board of Trustees. The Chancellor search committee used it in selecting our next Chancellor Rebecca Chopp, who begins in that role September 1. But it was always the intention that the report would be shared as a gift to other Universities, and this version of the report was recently completed. It will be finalized and printed in July, and distributed around the country in early August. The SIP website will have a copy available for download. But in the meantime, I thought I would offer my own personal summary of what I learned doing this work. (I have previously posted some preliminary thoughts here.)
There is broad discussion and concern that disruption is coming to Higher Education. These two recent articles in the Economist (here and here) are examples, but there is much digital ink on the subject. Clayton Christiansen (Harvard) may have been discussing mostly business related phenomenon when he described the innovator's dilemma, but he recently applied it to higher education (one of the books the SIP was assigned to read) and his conclusions are troubling.
If my service on the Strategic Issues Panel for the Future of Higher Education taught me anything, it was this: standing still is not an option. Or, I suppose, it is an option, but one for which the long-term outcome is not in doubt. Achieving consensus on this point is not a simple matter, but it is a critical step for any University.
The majority of Universities are not heavily endowed. Those that are may not have to be quite as concerned. But the rest, well… they must work unceasingly to stay ahead of their competition or suffer the consequences. They can do this by advancing a culture of innovation, and by enabling their faculty to increase the impact the educational programs they offer. While increasing value they must, where possible, decrease cost. Costs have simply gotten out of hand in the last decade and the reduction in legislative funding for public Universities has only exacerbated the situation. The judicious application of technology can help us do this, but converting the entire University course catalog into MOOCs is not the answer either. (For my thoughts on MOOCs, see this post).
Important to the future of higher education will be exploring the nature, techniques, and outcomes for providing a more customized learning experience for our students. We know we want to treat each student as an individual - not a fungible widget - and we usually succeed in meeting that goal. But there are emerging technologies that can help us follow their progress and support our students as the individuals they are that go well beyond traditional faculty advising. In the near term, Universities and colleges should investigate those and adopt what works.
Students notice such efforts immediately. And employers will notice in the long term. Both are required to survive in the coming era of higher education.
Despite massive change in how many students will achieve the undergraduate degree across the country (and online), there will remain enduring value in a high-quality residential undergraduate experience. It may own a shrinking percentage of the market, but it retains great value for those who can afford it. However, as other options proliferate we must remain vigilant to preserve and enhance that value.
In the residential setting, the greatest value we provide our students is often in the small-group and one-on-one work that we do. We cannot do that all the time, but we should dedicate ourselves to preserving and enriching those places where the “high touch” work happens most effectively. That is something that is hard – or impossible – to replicate online. Fortunately, that makes it one of our greatest opportunities for strength in the future. And Experiential Learning, in clinics, full-simulation courses, labs, and externship opportunities monitored and supported by faculty will be an important differentiator in the future. Those institutions that get the balance between theory and application right, and can handle a more permeable wall between the institution and the outside world, will be stronger for having done so.
It is critical that the undergraduate years are well designed and tuned, and that students not waste the time they spend in college. Broad inquiry is good, but graduating with no direction in mind is not. This does not serve the student well, and as costs have risen parents are increasingly unwilling to underwrite such an endeavor.
Every healthy organization needs a center of innovation, and most Universities have this. At DU, it is now called the Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL), and it is currently hiring for a replacement for Prof. Julanna Gilbert, who did great service in creating the role and the office some 10 years ago. That position will hold the title of Associate Provost for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning. This is an indication that DU is serious about placing a priority on innovation and excellence in teaching. Any University that expects to survive in the future must make this sort of commitment, and back it up.
Further, all Universities need to enable a culture of measurement. Not merely “teaching to the test,” but rather programmatic assessment that leads to cycles of continuous improvement across the University. Indeed, a strong assessment program is an important part of the mission of any University today. Such a program supports a culture of measurement across the university, but does not complete it. Perhaps most important when discussing assessment is the understanding that a well-designed assessment program leads to deeper student engagement and deeper learning. This is the best foundation for a comprehensive assessment program, and once faculty understand this, they will embrace it rather than resist it.
A diverse culture is also mission-critical. Just as with assessment, a more diverse learning environment leads to better learning outcomes for every student. We must never forget that we are preparing our students for their future, not our past, and they will live in a much more diverse world than we have even today. The very best way to prepare them for that is to create a world within the University that reflects the world they will go into.
The future of teaching and learning will only be more complex and demanding than it already is. In such an environment teacher support is essential. While much of that happens at the unit level, there are things the University can do. Great teachers pour themselves out every quarter and every semester, so programs for teacher enrichment and renewal are essential. In this new world, we will be asking more of our teachers, and so we must support their training and their renewal.
At its core, a University or College is about teaching and training a new generation of citizens. Teaching is – or certainly should be – a joyous activity. Every teacher can tell their own personal stories about the “light bulb” moments that students have had under their tutelage. When you ask a teacher to tap into those moments, their eyes start smiling. This is a form of alchemy, and we must remain mindful of not describing it so comprehensively that we kill it, or thinking we can dump it all online. Not everything can be measured perfectly or replicated digitally. But if we connect a culture of innovation to the joy that teachers feel when they achieve “flow” in their classrooms, we will have made our Universities even more compelling places to work and learn. Those institutions that can do this will not just survive, they will thrive in the coming future of higher education.