By Richard Garrett
Vice President & Principal Analyst, Online Higher Education
Lots of publicity for San Jose State University’s partnership with Udacity, one of the leading MOOCs. At the outset, 300 SJSU freshman will take $150 Udacity courses in algebra and stats to address widespread remedial issues in the incoming population, both from high school and community college. The “end of college as know it” argument came from TechCrunch, a popular technology blog. Gregory Fernstein, author of the post, is gleeful at this possibility, noting that remedial needs are pervasive yet rarely effective, graduation rates at SJSU and many similar schools are under 50%, and the typical remedial or lower division class nationwide still fits the stereotype of large lecture hall and faculty going-through-the-motions. Fernstein thinks automated instruction, supplemented with one-on-one support, whether face-to-face or online, as envisaged for the SJSU/Udacity alliance, can significantly improve student performance and radically lower cost. California Governor Jerry Brown has wholeheartedly endorsed the initiative. Great to see a business model, too.
Let’s make a distinction between rational and probable.
I agree that remedial and lower division undergraduate classes at many school could be significantly improved with adaptive learning software and judicious amounts of non-automated support. The more standard the content, and the more the latest technology truly resembles mass customization, the conventional artisan model, which few are truly invested in at lower undergrad level, will be found wanting. But let’s not forget that this kind of course redesign through technology has been pushed by the likes of the National Center for Academic Transformation since 1998, supported by many millions of dollars and rolling out across multiple courses nationwide. Evidence of dramatic cost saving, reduced time and improved learning are very tangible, yet success stories have more often than not failed to catch fire on campus. The N-CAT experience cautions that higher education is remarkably resistant to profound change.
In my view, here are the three barriers that will need to be overcome before we call revolution:
Students Demand Change
The student voice is pretty absent from these debates. Students, particularly lower-division undergraduates, tend to be pretty distracted with work, sports and social life. Students are pretty conservative group when it comes to higher education. A 2012 Eduventures survey found 83% of prospective students have a degree as their goal, questioning consumer enthusiasm for radical alternatives. The majority online experience at undergraduate level still feels pretty uninspiring to the typical applicant. This remains a tough barrier to cross. Today, the likes of Udacity are more convincing in terms of economies of scale than rounded, immersive student engagement. In terms of student outcomes, case studies of various innovative tools, such as adaptive learning, tend to cite significant improvement but still leave many students failing or dropping out. This suggests that we’ve yet to arrive at anything like a game-changing model. Innovation will keep coming, but how fast?
National Pressure on Enrollment
For years, demographics meant an endless supply of high school graduates fixated on college. That’s come to an end, and we’ve seen the first straight two-year decline in enrollment for 15 years, and the biggest single year decline since 1984. This kind of shift will concentrate institutional minds, so this is a new catalyst for more radical change
Around 75% of students in U.S. higher education attend public colleges and universities, which are very hard to consolidate or acquire (the secret to rationalization in other industries). The very fragmentation of higher education contributes to and insulates tensions around cost, quality and time. Power is very devolved, and there’s lots of emotional and physical capital bound up in our huge network of ultimately tiny, local institutions. Eduventures latest data on the online market (see our new Online Higher Education Market Update 2012/13) shows that early consolidation achieved by leading schools is beginning to fragment as hundreds of colleges and universities seek a piece of the pie. Is higher education in fact domesticating online rather than being fundamentally disrupted by it?
One out of three ain’t very good, although a forthcoming decade of enrollment pressure may well accelerate glacial melt elsewhere. But let’s not forgot that the much-maligned status quo is still pretty functional and popular.
What do you think? Do you have examples of schools that are truly scaling up radical course redesign, where mainstream students are opting in and turning away from campus, and where state officials are not praising with one voice but undermining with another? Let us know by leaving a comment.