Computing Profession Viewpoint

Technology and the Failure of the University

Considering the double-edged sword of learning technologies in various academic settings.
  1. Introduction
  2. Technology-Enhanced Teaching and Learning
  3. How Much Does All of This Cost?
  4. Threats to Technology
  5. Threats from Technology
  6. Is Technology the Answer?
  7. Strategies for Survival
  8. Concluding Thoughts
  9. References
  10. Author
  11. Footnotes
Technology and the Failure of the University, illustrative photo

There are predictions that half of U.S. universities will fail in the next 15 years.a Will technology be responsible for some or all of these failures, or does technology have the potential to save the American university? The purpose of this Viewpoint is to examine the dual role of technology in the future of higher education. It argues that technology-enhanced teaching and learning can dramatically improve the quality and success of higher education, but learning technologies alone will not save the university. However, universities that lack the leadership, motivation and the resources to innovate with technology are good candidates for failure.

Technology is a double-edged sword. Schools that embrace technology and use it to improve the educational process are in a much better position than those that do not. Success requires the commitment of the administration, faculty, staff and students and it requires substantial resources invested in the technology. Schools that lack the will and the resources are the ones most likely to fail. Students are going to expect the variety, flexibility, and richness that learning technologies bring to their programs. The most vulnerable institutions are small, private colleges with low enrollments, heavy reliance on tuition income, and that are well known only within a 200-hundred-mile radius of their campus. They are unlikely to be able to afford to invest in the people and skills to infuse their programs with technology-enhanced teaching and learning.

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Technology-Enhanced Teaching and Learning

The rapid adoption of new teaching technologies in universities has happened concomitantly with an emphasis in education circles on active as opposed to passive learning. Fortunately, the two trends reinforce each other; new technology-based approaches to education can be used to encourage active learning. Active learning means that students are heavily involved in their own education as opposed to passively sitting through a lecture. Discussing a case study, working on a simulation, playing a game, breaking a class into teams to work on a problem are all examples of active learning.

Learning technology can be divided into synchronous and asynchronous components. Asynchronous refers to course materials and exercises that students access at a time and place of their own choosing while synchronous interaction means that some number of students and an instructor are interacting at the same time, usually through video conferencing system of some kind. Frequently, students access asynchronous material like readings, videos, simulations, and games through a learning management system like Blackboard or Canvas.

Figure 1 depicts several different types of courses; online, blended and MOOCs all make use of teaching and learning technologies. The traditional course before the availability of the technology described here featured a physical classroom with an instructor and students. Typically, the instructor lectured and encouraged discussion depending on the size of the class. Course materials came in the form of textbooks and reading packets in hard copy. The first online courses were mostly asynchronous with interaction between the instructor and students occurring through email and discussion boards. With the advent of reliable video conferencing software and fast Internet connections, it is possible to have synchronous online classes where the instructor and students interact in real time on a computer or mobile device. A blended course features physical interaction between the instructor and students with course materials, including lectures, available asynchronously for the student to access at her convenience. A blended course stresses active learning when the instructor relegates all lectures to videos and uses the physical class meeting for interaction among and with students, for example, discussing current issues, case studies, student presentations on a course topic and similar activities.

Figure 1. Traditional versus technology-enhanced courses.

A massive open online course is a different animal altogether; virtually all of the course occurs asynchronously without direct interaction with an instructor. MOOCs utilize videos viewed by students at their convenience. The major MOOC platforms provide the ability for students to submit homework some of which is graded automatically and some by peers. But MOOCs really are massive, with thousands of “learners” taking the courses, mostly for fun or for an inexpensive certificate for passing the course. Recently Coursera, the largest MOOC provider, has offered specializations by combining four courses or more in a particular area. A small number of colleges are using MOOCs to offer courses for credit including Georgia Tech with an MS in computer science for under $7,000 and the University of Illinois with an MBA for about $20,000. Students who want to take the MOOC-based degree programs have to apply to the universities and be accepted so that the schools can control the input and size of these specialized programs.

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How Much Does All of This Cost?

Some have suggested that the technology will make it possible to dramatically reduce the cost of college through innovations like MOOCs, which scale from a few students to hundreds of thousands with virtually no incremental costs. In this new world of learning technologies there are schools that are content producers and those that are content consumers. (Of course, the producers also consume content as well.) The content producer in general bears the full cost of developing technology-enhanced teaching and learning materials and systems.

The technology offers different options for creating content at different price points. An instructor might make 10–20 videos that replace lectures and post them to a learning management system. This instructor will also “curate” material from the Internet, adding YouTube videos and TED talks for example to her lectures. Some faculty will create the lectures using a PC with a touchscreen and pen, a Web cam, and video capture and editing software. Other faculty less comfortable with the technology will want to have a script and record the video in a studio; it takes considerable time to create a script and to undertake post-production of the video. The Smith School of Business, which has a number of blended courses, a MOOC and a completely online MBA program (with two residence periods) as of this writing has seven instructional designers and an audiovisual studio with a staff of three; five years ago none of these positions existed.

What about a MOOC? The first MOOCs were prepared with a faculty member using a computer, but as with other developments, competition has driven the adoption of more costly production processes. Udacity, one of the MOOC platforms, supposedly budgets $200,000 for each of its courses, and EdX, the other of the “big three” platforms charges $250,000 to produce a MOOC.b (It should be noted that many MOOCs are created for far less.)

Given potentially high investment costs, can the technology reduce the overall cost of college? One cannot talk about reducing the cost of education, and hence the price of education for students and their families, with learning technologies without talking about quality at the same time. Figure 2 illustrates the cost and quality trade-offs in the production and delivery of technology-enhanced courses. Quality is a subjective measure of the coverage, content, assignments, readings and student and peer evaluation of a course. On the production side the least cost option is for the instructor to create the course using a PC with limited editing; this approach is also likely to produce the least compelling asynchronous material. At the high end of the quality spectrum as well as the high cost side, the instructor creates and edits a script, records a video in a studio, and a post-production staff integrates illustrations with the video recording. The same trade-off in cost and quality exists for the delivery of courses; an online course can be completely asynchronous with little or no interaction between students and an instructor, or the course can feature interactive video classes held frequently during the time the course is running.

Figure 2. Cost-quality trade-offs

The MOOC-based course for credit has the potential to make dramatic changes in the cost of education as the two existing examples of Georgia Tech and Illinois illustrate. There is no question that the development costs for MOOCs for programs like these can be fully amortized as the number of students scales up well beyond what a physical campus program could accommodate. Will the MOOC-based degree become the future of higher education? If so, a large number of schools that do not have the resources to offer these degrees will surely fail.

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Threats to Technology

There are four major threats to the adoption of technology to enhance teaching and learning. The first of these and the most prominent is university faculty, many of whom oppose changing the system that has been in place for hundreds of years. The reward system in most schools and the inherent conservatism of faculty members in my experience create a huge barrier to adopting new technologies for education.

Assistant professors at research universities are rewarded for publishing scholarly articles and books, which they must do to be granted tenure. Learning and adopting new technologies takes time and is a huge risk for them.

Tenured faculty can largely do what they want, and they by the time of receiving tenure have fallen into a rhythm of research and teaching; once tenured they are expected to undertake more service to the school. What is the motivation to adopt a completely new approach to teaching?

Non-tenure track instructors are employed because they are good or at least adequate teachers. Adopting new technology in the classroom is risky and could result in lower student evaluations, which in turn could affect their employment status.

The second major threat to adopting the technology is the resources required. A colleague at a small, but well-known private college lamented that his school did not have nearly enough resources to even consider becoming a content producer or adopting new teaching and learning technology. Large public and well-endowed private schools can afford to experiment with technology and pedagogy where schools that are on the edge financially and highly dependent on tuition revenue do not have the resources needed to develop content or infrastructure.

The third threat to adoption comes from university administration; to overcome faculty resistance and to allocate resources to a new venture requires vision and leadership. Universities embrace bureaucracy as the natural way to organize and operate. Large staffs strive to grow larger still; an AAUP analysis based on the IPEDS database showed that from 1975 to 2011 professional staff grew at 16 times the growth of tenured and tenure track faculty. These large staffs treasure the status quo, making change very difficult to bring about in the university. Deans, department chairs and other academic administrators are pulled in many different directions and it can be hard to influence highly independent faculty to innovate.

In this new world of learning technologies there are schools that are content producers and those that are content consumers.

Faculty governance is the fourth issue inhibiting progress; it exacerbates the difficulties for academic leadership and faculty adoption. The Smith School’s very successful online MBA program was implemented without a faculty vote, a fact that still disturbs many faculty members. A fearless dean decided that the online program was not a change in the curriculum, which requires a faculty vote, but rather a change in format that does not. It is unlikely the program would have survived a faculty vote. Why is that? When you ask the people who are most resistant to change to vote on change, the outcome is fairly predictable. As long as faculty governance procedures in universities require resisters to vote on change, moving ahead with technology-enhanced teaching and learning is going to take very special leaders who can make a compelling case for change.

Schools that do not overcome these obstacles to the adoption of learning technologies dramatically increase the probability that they will fail in the next 15 years.

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Threats from Technology

What schools are threatened the least by technology-enhanced education? The selective privates and state flagship universities are not going to disappear. They could, if they fail to innovate, see declining applications and lower quality students, but such a change will take a long time to be noticed given how sticky academic reputations are. Small colleges with strong reputations, loyal alumni, and some endowment are probably all right, but they need to be careful. Potential students may lose interest if they perceive these schools as too resistant to new ways of teaching and learning.

Smaller colleges with low rankings, low endowments and declining enrollments are not in a position to invest in new technologies and will find themselves falling behind other schools.

The biggest threat is to less well known schools with a local reputation lacking much of an endowment and a base of wealthy alumni.

These schools will have difficulty in meeting student expectations for technology-enhanced teaching and learning. While the colleges may be able to purchase content, they will be at a disadvantage in creating exciting new student experiences like a MOOC-based degree program. They will lack the knowledge, skilled staff, technology infrastructure, and faculty capabilities to make technology pervasive in the curriculum.

The biggest threat is to less well-known schools with a local reputation lacking much of an endowment and a base of wealthy alumni. These schools are often private and tend to have few resources and few, if any, star faculty. They do not have the resources to innovate and will always have to consume what others produce. With tuition probably higher than the state flagship university and fewer resources, what is their value proposition? They need to develop a niche whether in a particular group of subjects, study abroad programs, work-study options or stress the benefits of a small campus. Even that may not be enough if their enrollments drop.

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Is Technology the Answer?

Earlier, technology was presented as a double-edged sword, and the preceding examples show how difficult it is for many schools to adopt it successfully, threatening their very existence. Are universities that become content producers and adopt new learning technologies guaranteed a healthy future? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is “no;” many schools are caught between declining applications and enrollments, declining state aid for publics, increases in tuition, insufficient endowments, increasing costs, and pressures from parents and the government to do something about constantly rising college costs. Schools need to consider many options for reform in addition to the implementation of learning technologies.

The opportunities for reform are many and a number may be found in Lucas.1 Areas to consider include the tenure system, teaching loads, resources devoted to research, long summer vacations, departments with few students, bloated administrations and bureaucracies, staff sizes, faculty governance, expenditures on physical plant, and the distortions from high-cost varsity football and basketball programs. Universities are complex institutions with many actors and stakeholders. Saving schools that are on the edge will require concerted action across a number of variables to make the system work.

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Strategies for Survival

A single strategy does not fit all types of schools—the private elite and state flagship universities, the small regionals private or public school, and the start-up. A number of recommendations for these three groups may be found in Lucas1 Exhibit 13-3. Suggested strategies for group 2, the most threatened, include:

  • Building a brand in a niche like global study experiences
  • Creating and joining a network of peer institutions
  • Combining resources on campus and with peers to create technology-enhanced courses.
  • Purchasing content from others
  • Developing very high quality in a few programs
  • Considering the elimination of most research to focus on teaching
  • Increasing teaching loads
  • Reducing staff and overhead
  • Sharing facilities such as computer centers, labs, athletic facilities, and so forth

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Concluding Thoughts

In 1873 Disraeli said in the English House of Commons that “A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.” Whether learning technologies enhance that mission or whether they threaten the university itself depends on how academic leaders and faculty members implement technology-enhanced teaching and learning.

*  Further Reading

Christensen, C., Horn, M., and Johnson, C.
Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, N. McGraw-Hill, NY, 2008 and 2011.

Terwiesch, C. and Ulrich, K.T.
Will video kill the classroom star? The threat and opportunity of massively open online course for full-time MBA programs. Mack Institute for Innovation Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 2014.

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