NYT Rear Axel 1912

I returned from eight months in Qatar in May and spent the next few weeks wrapping up the manuscript for my new book Heroes and Martyrs: How A Small Band of Innovators will Remake Higher Education. Doha made an interesting hilltop for observing and writing about American higher ed. In many ways the wealthy Persian Gulf nations have not changed much over the last hundred years.  Their massive investments in the knowledge economy may still pay off, but it will be a steep climb for societies that value membership in privileged tribal groups over actual achievement.

Meanwhile, the pace of change here is accelerating. Zealots love the idea of rapid innovation, but there are real and imagined roadblocks–and a lot of people who are trying to disentangle the two. It would be a shame to declare today that technology-enhanced education is doomed because of a barrier that may be irrelevant tomorrow. Or worse yet, because success might be bad for professors.  In short, it seems to me pretty early in the innovation cycle to be declaring–as University of California President Janet Napolitano did last week–that a roadblock is insurmountable.  She was talking about MOOC’s, but her critique was a repackaging of objections to educational technology that have been repeated so many times that casual observers might confuse them with established fact.  Maybe it’s just a result of living in the Middle East, but I hear in domestic  arguments about the future of higher ed more than a little tribal talk about what is good for professional academicians.

I was keeping this 1912 New York Times article as a reminder of how far off base preliminary assessments of what’s feasible can be–especially when underlying technologies are being transformed. Ford’s use of lightweight Vanadium steel for axles gave it an insurmountable advantage until drive train technology made  modern suspension systems possible. It’s a morality play. Higher education is in the the early days of a technology-enabled revolution. So early that no one should be trying to tie breakdowns (yes, there are breakdowns) to intractable root causes. I tried a different approach in my new book.


The “Year of the MOOC” is really over. Now that 2012 is behind us, many seem to be hoping that the hype about MOOCs has faded. The reality of coping with producing new kinds of courseware has set in across many campuses. Coursera — already the grand elder — is holding a partners conference this spring that will attract hundreds. The major MOOC providers already have stakeholders. It is a sign that things are calming down.

Other signs are more tangible. I have heard from presidents who are returning to their comfort zones:

I want to raise the rankings of all my programs to Top 20

Or, the even more popular,

My faculty is too focused on its research to…[insert almost anything not directly related to research]

In fact, the more prestigious  the research program the louder is the sigh of relief that things will quickly return to normal.

The specter of immediate budget cuts has faded, so extreme measures are no longer necessary to guard us from the dangers that seemed to be looming just offshore six months ago.

This year’s reports on the financial health of public and private institutions show that the failure rate has ether plateaued or entered a kind of emotional stasis in which it is possible to believe:

The world will always need [insert the name of any of the 1,000 schools that offer unrealistically discounted tuition to keep its enrollments stable].

Fueled by tuition increases and the benefits of prior cost-cutting, hiring has picked up.  Private donations are also on the rise some places. Long-delayed capital improvement projects have restarted.  Most importantly, faculty members have simply stopped worrying about it.

I’m feeling like Jaws’  Captain Quint warning all the Fourth of July beach-goers,

This shark he swallow you whole.

There are are many more Mayor Vaughns who take at the ups and downs of academic fortunes in stride and look for ways to sooth the worried townsfolk:

…it’s all psychological.  You yell barracuda, everybody says “Huh?  What?” You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands….

I guess we overreacted.  It’s safe to go back in the water.

That’s why Moody’s 2013 outlook report on the future of higher education should be such a shock to the system:

The 2013 outlook for the entire US higher education sector is negative, including the market-leading, research-driven colleges and universities, says Moody’s Investors Service in its annual industry outlook. Previously Moody’s had a stable outlook for these leading institutions and a negative outlook for the rest of the sector since 2009. Moody’s perceives mounting fiscal pressure on all key university revenue sources.

It’s not safe to go back in the water. This shark he swallow you whole:

Even market-leading universities with diversified revenue streams are facing diminished prospects for revenue growth

Almost everyone else will see declining enrollments as prospective students become more price sensitive.  A Huffington Post article reports on a separate survey of 300 colleges and universities that shows a dramatic drop in the number of institutions expecting to see rising revenues.

In addition to concerns about student debt, revenue uncertainties and the public perception of value, Moody’s sees the potential for disruption by technologies like MOOCs. Chaos has not left the scene, and as Moody’s points out, structural changes — whether technology-enabled or not — are necessary in order to survive. Far too few leaders are willing to even discuss what structural changes might look like.

I spoke to a gathering of presidents and provosts about this last week.  Presidents of research universities were noticeable absent, although they sent a few worried deans who see the coming challenges. Presidents are the only ones who can make the scale of changes that are needed, but they must believe in their hearts that “it’s all psychological”

Backer Jacob  envy

The next verse of the epic poem “Year of the MOOC” will almost certainly be a recounting of a fall from grace if I am correctly reading my recent discussions with dozens of institutional leaders. Whether there will be enlightenment and ultimate redemption is less clear at this point, but what should be a path forward for thousands of institutions could just as easily lead to despair and ruin.

Not because MOOCs are a bad idea, mind you. If there were ever a confluence of innovations that could perfect learning, the simultaneous maturing of  MOOCs, social networking,  and big data are it.  Daphne Koller makes the point in her now ubiquitous Coursera speech: We have known for thirty years (since Benjamin Bloom’s landmark paper “The Two Sigma Problem”) that the master classroom is a way to universally improve learning when compared to traditional classrooms.  The only thing holding us back was the cost of personalizing the learning experience for each student.  MOOCs allow master classrooms be operated effectively for large numbers of students.  I just spoke with edX’s Anant Agrwawal, and he cites a half-dozen other research results confirming better learning enabled by MOOCs.That’s the innovation, and that’s what makes MOOCs such a great idea.

The very existence of MOOCs could be a pathway to think about value in a new way, to looking at the constraints that existed before Udacity, Coursera, and edX and wondering what the next world would be like. It may not turn out to be paradise but it will be a world without those constraints. Instead, too many institutions are reverting to the seven deadly sins of higher education.  Beginning with envy.

In Abelard to Apple I blamed envy for many poor decisions by otherwise insightful academic leaders. Higher education has opted into a destructive, needlessly competitive class system in which schools at the top of the hierarchy are chased by everyone else in a rigged game that ultimately hurts students. If you are a state school, you envy one of the famous public research universities. Technical universities envy MIT and CalTech, Liberal arts colleges envy whichever institution is  at the top of the pyramid whose riches they covet. It is institutional envy pure and simple.  It has been the ruination of hundreds of otherwise promising colleges and universities and has helped drive American higher education to the brink of unsustainability.

Here is an excerpt of my recent conversation with someone in a senior leadership role at a college — in the Middle to use Abelard to Apple terminology —  that is beginning to produce its own MOOCs:

Q: Why are you producing your own MOOCs?

A: Why should we let [deleted] do all the MOOCs? We are just as good as them. Why let them get all the credit?

There are a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea, but the common thread is that this school is trying to buy its way into a game that is rigged against them.  At the very least they will spend a lot of money (that they do not have) to produce a lot of MOOCs (that are not very good).  Yes, there will be a few that are really great, but those few do not justify the level of spending they are thinking about.  Most importantly they will fail because they have defined success as enrolling 100,00 students or more. Why is this an important number:  because [deleted] enrolls 100,000 students in its courses.

It’s a small leap to consider the effect of other deadly sins:

  • Lust: “100,00 students?  Wow!”
  • Gluttony: “I want them all”
  • Greed: “That should be worth a lot of money.”
  • Pride: “No one can do it better.”

There is no agreement on the the sins that belong on the list. I took theology courses from Thomistic scholars who had a decidedly medieval view of these matters. Aquinas for example was not a big fan of including sloth (“I don’t have to teach?”)  in the list preferring instead to go for a more popular malady afflicting monks who spent their lives in prayerful isolation (“I am so tired of dealing with unprepared, unmotivated undergraduates”).

Nor is there agreement on how tightly bound together these things are.  Can you have envy without pride?

Who is virtuous in this new world? At the risk of promoting unwanted scrutiny, I would have to say that San Jose State University is doing the right thing.  San Jose State decided to conduct an experiment in blended learning using the edX version of the MIT 6.002 course entitled Circuits and Systems. It could not have been an easy choice.  SJSU faculty had to sacrifice their hallowed position on the stage and redefine their roles in the classroom:

SJSU students have been viewing and using online materials as homework, including lectures, quizzes and virtual labs available through the edX platform. Then they go to class to work through problem sets with their instructor, thereby flipping the conventional approach of lectures in class and problem sets at home.

Initial reports are encouraging.  A course that historically flushes out 40% of the enrolled students in the traditional format, retains 90% in the flipped format.  Professors and students alike had to adjust, but maybe that is the price of virtue.  It is a price worth paying, because simply lusting after the 100,000 students is not a strategy that will be rewarded in this pre-MOOC world  or the next.

When I wrote Dancing with the Stars of Pure Math the idea of attending Dick Lipton’s seminar with 10,000 students was  novel and risky.  That was 2009.  Well before the start of the innovative whirlwind in online education that was started when Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng opened their Stanford courses to hundreds of thousands of students.

Dick and I spoke with Sebastian before Udacity was launched and we were both impressed with his vision of the learning experience as compelling media.  As best I can recall, here is what he said.

If the traditional lecture is a stage play, then I want to be the movies.  Although early film makers tried to adapt live stage plays to the new media by pointing a camera at the stage, it was not a good experience.  It was only when film makers realized that they had to recreate the dramatic form that film became a new and compelling experience.

In his recent post at Godel’s Lost Letter (GLL), Dick has given us a vision of a new form of instruction:

The usual video-based course is a film of an instructor talking and writing at a board or on a tablet computer. These courses are popular among students, at least partially because they are free. The videos are informative, although it is yet unclear whether they are as good or better than physical courses. You know—course with students in seats and an instructor talking and interacting with them. We will see…Our plan is to make a mini-series length course with characters who have issues, who follow an interesting story line—vampires?—and yet are able to convey the information we want the students to learn. Our view is to create a new type of film: not a documentary, not a docudrama, not a dry lecture. A mixture of fiction and information.

This is unabashedly an experiment.  I have been trying to find a way to incorporate GLL into our online experiments at Georgia Tech, and this is a a prototype of how that might work.

What do you think? Will students go to the movies with stars of pure math?

What other formats do you think might work?  I have been (unsuccessfully so far) lobbying Dick and Ken to try what I call The Larry King Show format.  In this format the host (Dick or Ken) and maybe a sidekick talk about math by interviewing math celebrities (including the people who created the ideas).  They can even “interview” celebrities who are dead by using actors and inventing plausible dialogues.

Larry King was famous for his “Hello, Duluth Minnesota!” call-in dialogues, and that part of the show seems to me to be ideally suited to a seminar.  There might even be some surprise call-ins when the topic is (for mathematicians) controversial.

You have to get used to the idea of classrooms as performances.

The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (logo)

Today’s commentary at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy leads off with my article about where accreditation is heading.

Accreditation is an idea that makes sense if you think of universities as factories:

Accreditors were supposed to be the quality control department of the factory.

That factory model is crumbling, however, shaken by new technology. This is the “Year of the Massive Open Online Course” in which technology-enabled teaching to global classrooms of 100,000 students has been the subject of feverish coverage by virtually everyone with an interest in the dire condition of American higher education.

MOOCs may be an over-hyped fad, but the educational landscape has been forever changed.

Change will revolve around outsized characters like Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller. They are the whiz-kids whose weekly inventions incite great thoughts about what college might become.

Accreditation is, well, boring. Accreditors are the green eye shade players in the drama of higher education.  It’s hard to get excited about green eye shades, buttoday—improbably—I  find myself  excited by accreditation. To bemore exact, I am excited about what will replace it.

This is an era in which the value of credentials is being reexamined, and the focus of quality assurance is shifting from institutions and programs to individuals and personalized, lifelong educational experiences.  Traditional accreditation — costly and largely ineffective — must certainly adapt or risk being marginalized.


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