SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Hundreds of investment bankers, venture capitalists and geeky tech entrepreneurs gathered near the pool of the Phoenician, a luxury resort outside Phoenix. The occasion? A high-profile gathering of education innovators, and as guests sipped cocktails, the mood was upbeat.
Major innovations — forged by the struggles of the Great Recession and fostered by technology — are coming to higher education.
Investment dollars are flooding in — a record-smashing 168 venture capital deals in the U.S. alone last year, according to the springtime conference’s host, GSV Advisors. The computing power of “the cloud” and “big data” are unleashing new software. Public officials, desperate to cut costs and measure results, are open to change.
And everyone, it seems, is talking about MOOCs, the “Massive Open Online Courses” offered by elite universities and enrolling millions worldwide.
As with so many innovations — from the light bulb to the Internet — the technology is emerging mostly in the United States, fueled by American capital. But as with those past innovations, the impact will be global. In this case, it may prove even more consequential in developing countries, where mass higher education is new and the changes could be built into emerging systems.
One source of this spring-like moment is the wintry depths of the financial crisis that struck five years ago, pushing higher education as never before to become more efficient. Another is simply the arrival of a generation demanding that higher education, at long last, embrace the technologies that have already transformed other sectors of the economy.
“The consumer, after five years on a tablet and five years on an iPhone, is just sick of being told, ‘you can’t do that,” said Brandon Dobell, a partner at William Blair & Co., an investment bank and research firm based in Chicago. “I can do everything else on my phone, my tablet, why can’t I learn as well?”
But while technology is at the center of this wave of innovation, many argue it is merely the pathway to something even bigger.
Cracks are opening in the traditional, age-old structures of higher education. Terms like “credit hour” and even the definition of what it means to be a college are in flux.
Higher education is becoming “unbundled.” Individual classes and degrees are losing their connections to single institutions, in much the same way iTunes has unbundled songs from whole albums, and the Internet is unbundling television shows and networks from bulky cable packages.
Technology isn’t just changing traditional higher education. It’s helping break it down across two broad dimensions: distance and time.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean, as some contend, the traditional university is dead.
AT HIS DESK at a telecom company in Lagos, Nigeria, Ugochukwu Nehemiah used to take his full one-hour lunch break. Now, he devours his meal, then watches his downloaded MOOCs. He’s already finished courses in business, energy and sustainability, and disruptive innovation, taught by institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland.
Nehemiah needs a master’s to advance at work, but cannot afford the United Kingdom program where he’s been admitted. The MOOC learning doesn’t translate into a widely recognized credential. But the teaching is free, not available locally, and helps him even without a credential.
“It’s a form of self-development,” said Nehemiah, a father of two. “The way I would speak when I have meetings to attend,” he added, “would be much different than the way I had spoken if I had not taken this course.”
When non-profit edX offered its first MOOC in “Circuits and Electronics” in 2012, 154,000 students from more than 160 countries signed up (though only 8,000 lasted to the final). Now edX has more than a million unique users in about 60 courses. For-profit rival Coursera has exploded with 4.1 million students, 406 courses and 83 partner institutions. From radio to television to the Internet, technology has always promised to revolutionize higher education. So far, it’s enabled good teachers to lecture to thousands of even millions of students. But truly teach them, with individualized interaction and feedback?
It’s not clear the MOOCs can do that, either, and only 10 percent who sign up for a course are completing it. But with their more advanced interactivity, they are arguably the most sophisticated effort yet to solve the central the problem of college access and affordability: the difficulty of “scaling up” learning.
“This is virgin territory in terms of having tens or hundreds of thousands of people engaged in the same educational experience simultaneously in a way you can capture what you’re doing,” said Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. “We’ve never had that. The assumption is we’ll learn lots of things and that will lead to better classes the future.”
The MOOCs are just one part of this new landscape.
Sal Khan, a charismatic former hedge-fund adviser, discovered his knack for explaining things while tutoring his young cousins in algebra in 2004. In 2006, he uploaded his first YouTube video and two years later founded Khan Academy.
Today, Mountain View, Calif.-based Khan has 6 million unique users a month from 216 countries, who watch the 4,000-plus videos available on Khan Academy’s website. These are not full courses, but connected series of free, bite-sized lessons — about 10 minutes each — taught by Khan and others in everything from math to art history.
Khan talks excitedly not just of shaking up education across distance, but time. He says students can learn what they need, when they need it, without having to take and pay for an entire course.
“Whether we’re talking basic literacy or quantum physics, it’s the ability to cater to one person’s needs,” Khan said.
SOME AT cutting-edge traditional universities are also rethinking notions of academic time.
One morning last spring, not far from the innovation conference, at Arizona State University, a handful of students worked through problems in a developmental math course that looks little like the traditional model. There’s no lecturer; software takes students through the material at their own speed, adjusting to their errors. An instructor is available to answer questions — a model that’s proven cheaper and more effective than the traditional class.
Yet what matters most is what isn’t here: Most students have mastered the material and moved on to other classes.
“We’ve organized higher education into this factory model where we bring a group of students in post-high school and march them through more or less in lockstep,” said Richard Demillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “People that don’t conform are rejected from the factory and people that make it through are stamped with a degree.”
ASU has broken up the traditional model of two-semesters-per-year into six parts. Some classes have accelerated versions that run essentially at double-speed: six or 7.5 weeks. So students who quickly finish a flexible-time class don’t have to wait before starting a new one. They can move more quickly and cheaply toward their degree.
“We began to say, ‘What are all these sacred cows about time?’” said ASU President Michael Crow, who has transformed ASU into a laboratory of innovation. “What we’re looking for is intensification by freeing up the clock.”
More than a century ago, the Carnegie Foundation invented the “credit hour,” the basic unit of academic time, measuring hours spent in class but not necessarily what students learned.
Now, the foundation is reviewing that model and may move toward a competency-based approach — awarding credit for what students learn, not how long.
In March, the Department of Education approved a competency-based program at Southern New Hampshire University, inviting other colleges to seek approval for programs that don’t mark time in traditional credit hours. ASU’s challenges are a microcosm of the country’s and the world’s.
Amid scarce resources, it’s trying to accommodate diverse and growing demand. Yet despite a 50 percent state funding cut during the Great Recession, ASU did something unusual: It kept growing, from 50,000 students to around 72,000 over the last decade. Completion rates are up, too.
Still, Crow’s careful to emphasize innovation’s purpose is to make traditional universities work better, not replace them. He wants technologies like those in use in the math class to free up faculty resources for upper-division and critical-thinking courses where personal interaction really matters, and for the other endeavors of a physical university.
“Technology cannot produce new ideas,” Crow said. “Technology cannot produce new understandings. Technology cannot produce new connections between disciplines.”
IN MUCH of the world, the question isn’t whether innovation can make higher education more efficient and affordable. It’s whether it can help it function at all.
A year ago, the campus of Felix Houphouet Boigy University, the largest in the West African nation of Ivory Coast, was nearly deserted, an institutional casualty of recent post-election violence. During the conflict, so-called student groups had become armed militias, accused of racketeering and rape. Buildings were looted, and the university shut down for 17 months.
Today, the campus is open again but bursting at the seams and barely functional. It’s added 10,000 students, for a total of 60,000. But there’s a shortage of classrooms, and no books in the two libraries.
For students like Abdoulaye Coulibaly, it would be easy to see the appeal of other options. To reach his 8 a.m. class by bus, he leaves home around 5 a.m. He’s been robbed a half-dozen times en route.
Yet he’s skeptical.
“We’re going to be very lazy online,” he said. “If you put my class online I’m going to take it and I’m not going to come to the university again. We need to come to class. They’re the teachers and they have to teach us. If we don’t understand, we need to ask questions. That’s the only way for us to understand.”
Fellow English student Stephanie N’Guessan was also unconvinced.
“Many of us don’t know how to manage the Internet very well,” she said. “I myself am computer illiterate.”
Many experts argue the hype of technology transforming higher education in such places is overblown.
“Disadvantaged populations need higher-touch services, not self-services,” said Peter Stokes, an expert on education innovation at Northeastern University in Boston.
Still, roughly 40 percent of Coursera’s registered students come from developing countries, and close to half of edX’s.
India’s latest official 5-year plan calls for increasing college enrollment by roughly 2 million students each year, to help it catch up with emerging economies like Brazil and China. Coursera co-founder Daphne Kohler says meeting its goals would require India to build 1,500 new universities — when it can’t staff its current ones. Scaled-up teaching through technology is its only hope.