Data: Allen and Seaman, 2010; Graphic: Richard Morin/Solutions The rate of enrollment in online education is outpacing the rate at traditional institutions of higher education. This trend, in tandem with reform efforts, could help increase the affordability, accessibility, and accountability of the higher education system.
For many decades, America’s global leadership success has been attributed to its robust and rigorous public higher education system. Yet today, only 34 percent of young American adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are enrolled in college, making the U.S. seventh in that ranking among industrialized countries. (Korea is first, with 53 percent.) The business model upon which U.S. public higher education is built has rendered it unaffordable to students, and it is in fragile fiscal health. There is little accountability.
The status quo is untenable—and the system cannot be fixed one institution at a time. An integrated and transformative approach is required to once again provide an affordable, accessible, and accountable higher education to mainstream America.
This article discusses that transition and offers a solution: an online education environment that capitalizes on the power of digital technologies, rich content, open learning systems, and the sharing of capabilities across campus boundaries to engage students already comfortable with online interactivity.
This paper proposes that the federal government create a grant program for the education of students. Such a program would provide a fertile, grant-based competition for diagnostics, remediation, curriculum design, learning management, assessment, and integration. Teams of faculty, technology professionals, and assessment professionals in consortia would develop the material. Different systems would emerge; research on their effectiveness would be published; and systems would improve over time in response to the research. Home institutions would still grant degrees and approve curriculum. The transition could be modeled on the one made by public universities beginning in 1950, when federal money began to fuel science research.
The American Graduation Initiative proposed by President Obama calls for the U.S. to have the highest percentage of college graduates per capita in the world by 2025. This would require that we produce 16 million more college graduates than we would at current rates.1 We do not believe this is possible without transforming the way America structures public higher education and the way individual public institutions function.
Many agree that U.S. graduate education is the very best in the world. The quality of undergraduate education relative to other industrial countries is more variable, but it is good—for those who can attend and graduate. And nearly all institutions are well managed fiscally. But the fact is that vast numbers of people cannot attend our public higher education institutions because of rigid frameworks that drive up costs and limit accessibility.
Calls for fundamental change, even transformation, in higher education began in 1991 with Ernest Boyer’s Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate2 and were accelerated in 1993 by the Pew Foundation’s initiative, “Seeing Straight Through the Muddle.”3 Since then, scores of excellent books and hundreds of papers on transformation and change have been published by highly experienced and accomplished people, many of them university presidents.4-6 Every new U.S. secretary of education has had a reform initiative—yet not much has happened over this nearly 20-year period.
Public higher education cannot be improved by retooling the current system, nor by fixing it one institution at a time. The norms, reward systems, policies, promotion criteria, cultures, and business models of existing institutions all work to reinforce the existing paradigm. And if one university were to break through the conventional wisdom and implement changes, the national accreditation organizations and the external ranking systems imposed on universities would force the changes to wither before they could take root. Einstein’s insight is apropos: “The specific problems we face cannot be solved using the same patterns of thought that were used to create them.”
There are currently about 2,000 public universities and 1,000 public community colleges in the United States. Nearly all U.S. public universities state their mission as teaching, research, and service. These goals are rooted in the Morrill Act of 1862, which delineated this tripartite mission as a requirement for obtaining a land grant to build a college. With the arrival of the baby boomers in the 1960s, the number of community colleges exploded. Their purpose was laid out in 1947 in the report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education, which suggested a network of public community colleges that would provide education to a diverse group of students at little or no cost and serve community needs through a comprehensive mission. Their public funding comes largely from the counties they serve rather than from the states. They are charged with providing workforce development, remedial work so that adults with poor K-12 outcomes can prepare themselves for college, and associate’s degrees that replace the first two years of a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree program. A few now offer bachelor’s degrees.
The Morrill Act charged public universities with educating the mainstream population of the states in which they were located, enhancing the economic development of that state and advancing its social progress. That is exactly what the universities did for their first 50 years. But following World War II, as the Cold War mounted, public universities began to disengage from their states and focus on federal needs in response to the large and growing sums of money available from the federal government for research in science and technology. Without a doubt, this research enterprise has proven to be spectacularly successful. However, the stress on federal research, and the significant resources it provided, caused a major change in the cultures, reward systems, productivity, policies, organizational structures, and business models of universities. They started to focus on obtaining federally funded research dollars rather than on educating the mainstream students in their states or addressing state economic and social issues. Some would argue that, while the change was good for research, it was bad for undergraduate teaching and undergraduate student learning—and perhaps played a role in the declining college attainment rate.
Affordability is the first challenge. Although they were conceived to educate the middle class, public universities and community colleges have become more expensive for students each year. Since 1980, state support for public universities (as measured in dollars per full-time student) has been declining. The announcement in November 2009 by the California Board of Regents that tuition for the University of California system would increase by 32 percent is a stark reminder that costs, too, are headed in the wrong direction.7
A blame game has been playing out on this issue for 25 years, with universities blaming state legislatures and politicians accusing universities of runaway costs and lax, unaccountable professors. Parents, meanwhile, wonder what they are scrimping and saving for. But blaming simply won’t solve the problem: affordability can only be achieved through the transformation of higher education.
Accessibility is also a major obstacle. While the working class and women have broken down the barriers to higher education, minority enrollment still lags.
Lastly, there is a lack of accountability in higher education. This issue has three dimensions: (1) inadequate attention to assessing learning outcomes and adjusting teaching in response to assessment, (2) the “siloing” of disciplines, and (3) the fragmented general education curriculum. Professors assume responsibility for teaching, but little for linking their teaching to student learning. Many do not know such tools exist. Institutions often ask students to evaluate their professors’ teaching, but that does not correlate well with student learning. For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy for learning objectives, along with teaching approaches for realizing those objectives, was introduced in 1956.8 We have known for a long time that learning is superior when the students are highly engaged in experiential and collaborative settings. A recent survey published in Nature indicates that faculty believe the quality of undergraduate science education is poor, but that their own teaching is good.9 The survey suggests that faculty do not know about the pedagogies and tools available to change the quality of science education—nor do university administrators, who could provide incentives to faculty to learn about them.
In addition, learning is currently measured through testing individuals in individual classes in thousands of institutions. For example, an institution does not expect two of its professors teaching different sections of the same course to produce consistent outcomes. And there is no expectation of consistency across the thousands of higher education institutions.
We now have tools for assessing learning that provide feedback to both professors and students. One of the learning evaluation tools that is emerging is formative assessment. Black and Wiliam consider an assessment “formative” when the feedback from learning activities is used to adapt teaching to meet learners’ needs.10 Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick have shown how this process can help students take control of their own learning.11 The knowledge level of a person who completes a chemistry, English, or political science course at Harvard can be compared to that of an individual taking a comparable course at a small urban college or a university in another country. The Collegiate Learning Assessment project (www.cae.org) has shown that the ability of individuals to analyze complex materials is measurable. Students’ written responses to tasks are evaluated to assess their abilities to think critically, reason analytically, solve problems, and communicate clearly and cogently. The curriculum and culture of the new Rochester campus of the University of Minnesota are focused on the strong and reliable measurement of student learning.12 Assessment tools can level the playing field among institutions. It has never been accurate to assume that students graduating from elite universities have more knowledge or better skills than those graduating from mainstream universities or colleges. With these new assessment tools, institutions can identify the learning systems that produce the best outcomes and learn from each other in order to continuously improve student learning. The tools can also introduce accountability across institutions.
The compartmentalizing of disciplines presents another challenge. Research and teaching are typically carried out in subfields within subfields of disciplines. The journals that publish the research fuel this disaggregation of knowledge so that many, perhaps the majority, of publications are read by only a handful of people. For example, at the extreme, a political science department could have 10 subfields; each subfield evolves a set of journals that publish research in that subfield. These journals publish increasingly fragmented research, and they do so at high cost. They are the respected journals in the academy. Faculty members must publish and, therefore, must work in subfields. While significant exceptions exist at the graduate level, where interdisciplinary activity is common when it is funded externally, the undergraduate curriculum at large universities is often delivered in subfields.
Finally, the general education curriculum for the freshman and sophomore years in public universities, and for an associate’s degree at community colleges, has the aim of broadly educating students in the liberal arts. The curriculum is generally understood to include analytical and communication capacities, problem-solving abilities, scientific and mathematical competence, historical and aesthetic knowledge, and ethical responsibility.
While there are exceptions, both the amount and the coherence of the general education required by universities have declined over the last 40 years. In public universities, faculty members are usually not rewarded for teaching general education curriculum. College graduates in history or English, for example, may be ignorant about the natural sciences, and vice versa. The National Endowment for the Humanities conducted a survey that showed it was possible to graduate from 78 percent of U.S. colleges and universities without studying the history of western civilization; 37 percent without studying any history at all; 45 percent without studying American or English literature; 41 percent without studying mathematics; 77 percent without studying a foreign language; and 33 percent without studying natural sciences.13
Can we create a system that delivers higher education that is affordable, accessible, and accountable? How would we create it and transition toward it?
The solution is online education that is integrated into the curriculum across existing institutions and uses technologically based learning management systems.
In order to encourage the development of online curriculum that takes advantage of the potential of technology to improve learning, the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT), with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, created a national grant competition to redesign large-enrollment courses, using technology with the goal of improving learning. The Center identified the following best practices.14
Twenty-five of the 30 course redesign projects showed significant increases in student learning; the other five showed learning equivalent to that produced by traditional formats. Of the 24 projects that measured retention, 18 reported a noticeable decrease in drop-failure-withdrawal rates, as well as higher course-completion rates. Most dramatically, all 30 institutions reduced their costs by an average of 37 percent. Positive student attitudes and increased student and faculty satisfaction were reported.
A Lumina Foundation study15 highlighted how course redesign can change learning outcomes. At the University of Southern Maine, the majority of students enrolled in the online program of study, and they had scores averaging 10 percent higher than their counterparts in the traditional lecture classroom. At the University of Tennessee, students in a redesigned Spanish course received higher grades and incurred lower costs. They were required to be physically present in class only once a week, but received personalized e-mail feedback from faculty and had 24-hour access to materials. At the University of Missouri—St. Louis, 55 percent of first-year algebra students, on average, fail the traditional course. After redesign, 75 percent complete and pass the course, according to the study.15 Finally, The U.S. Department of Education,16 analyzing 12 years’ worth of studies, concluded that online education not only has advantages but that, on average, students performed better in these redesigned online courses than in face-to-face courses.
Today, enrollment in online education outpaces enrollment in traditional higher education. The Sloan Foundation reports enrollment growth of 9.7 percent in online education and 1.5 percent in higher education overall.17 Parry reports that online education in the U.S. is growing by 13 percent per year and that 25 percent of students will take an online class this year.18
This growth is occurring despite these facts: most of the standard online education offerings are inside one institution at a time; costs are high; learning outcomes are about the same as they are in a traditional setting; the curriculum fragmentation has not changed; and the technology delivery systems are not integrated, but consist of traditional lectures, readings, problems, and assessments—conducted online. The rapid growth is driven by the convenience of 24/7 availability. Most universities do not know the cost of these traditional online offerings. The Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications found that 7 percent of institutions said that online courses cost the same as traditional teaching; 45 percent reported that online teaching costs less than traditional; and 45 percent reported that they had no data on cost comparisons.19
These examples, and the data on cost and enrollment trends, relate only to offerings inside one institution at a time. The solution proposed here crosses institutional boundaries. Its goal is access to a quality college education at an affordable cost, with accountability for learning outcomes, for millions more Americans. It aims to move the U.S. to the top among industrialized countries in college attainment rate, with no sacrifice in the quality of learning—and perhaps even enhanced learning.
Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative20 has begun to pave the way for integration across institutions. It provides classes that combine online and in-person instruction. Students at any university that has approved the coursework as part of its curriculum may register for it. The students can “go to class” on their computers at whatever time of day suits them, although at certain times they are required to be in a classroom with a professor from their home campus. That professor receives information in advance about what portions of the online curriculum are causing the students the most problems. Students and teachers receive continuous feedback because an assessment component is embedded in each instructional activity. With money from the Gates, Lumina, and Hewlett Foundations, the Open Learning Initiative is turning its focus to community colleges.21 Learning with peers across institutional lines is already the accepted way of learning among young people who have grown up with Internet access.
It is only one step from the Open Learning Initiative to an alliance of member institutions offering high-quality education in the traditional courses and degree programs. Such an alliance would allow hundreds, even thousands, of students to take the same course by accessing the same online materials, problems, and discussions. Weekly or biweekly sessions at the students’ own campus with professors, professional staff, and peers in the alliance keep progress on track. The initial cost of developing these types of online materials is high: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates the cost for its Open Courseware is $10,000 per course,22 and this is not an integrated design. Integrated designs are more expensive. However, that cost, spread over thousands of students over several years, would shrink. More students could be taught with less faculty time and fewer facility needs. Learning could be assessed and improvement could be continuous.
Content would be fully accessible to the public, but certification that the course has been completed would require registration at the home university. Content could be grouped at a variety of scales, ranging from a full course syllabus to smaller modules. Any course taken for credit at the home university would have to be approved by the home university. Currently, the Creative Commons software protects intellectual property in a system such as this. And moodle (moodle.org) provides a virtual learning environment and is easy for professors and students to use. A student pays tuition to his or her home university or college, which pays a portion to the university in the alliance where the course originates.
There are indications that students are ready for such a system. The millennial generation is a connected population, interacting with each other and with a vast amount of information in a 24/7 environment. Students say they cannot imagine life without the daily use of various technologies such as cell phones, laptop computers, and gaming devices.23 Because of the new mobile capabilities of technology, students are constantly in touch—texting, creating, uploading, viewing, reviewing, interacting, listening, and watching.
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The NCAT program identified five distinct course redesign models. The supplemental model retains the basic structure of the traditional course, but adds technology-based activities outside the classroom to increase student engagement with the content of the course. The replacement model reduces the number of class meetings, replacing face-to-face time with online, interactive activities for students. The emporium model eliminates all class meetings and replaces them with a learning resource center. In this model, students choose when to access course materials, what types of materials to use depending on their needs, and how quickly to work through the materials with the support of on-site staff and instructional software. In the fully online model, an instructional system (e.g., Academic Systems software) is used to deliver the content of the course, with student assignments, test feedback, and tracking done within the context of the software. The buffet model departs from a fixed view of the way content is delivered; it offers students an assortment of interchangeable paths that match their learning styles, abilities, and preferences at each stage of the course.
At the heart of these models is a focus on learning rather than teaching. The National Educational Technology Plan from the U.S. Department of Education describes the challenge in this way: “We put students at the center and empower them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions.”24
The barriers to an integrated approach are significant. First, resistance from faculty is powerful. Faculty members have to expend the time and mental energy to learn a new pedagogy, become facile with Web-based learning management systems, be comfortable with a combination of lecture and interactive dialogue, and accept the fact that a faculty member from another institution might provide the lectures and online materials to their students. And many believe it is impossible to foster critical thinking or encourage original ideas in an online setting.
An even more serious barrier is the change in the university business model required by an integrated online system across institutions. Online education, in which students from many universities are enrolled in the same course, dramatically changes the facility requirements and faculty and staff time and roles. This business model cannot be implemented by any one university acting alone, and it is likely to blur the identity of one university relative to another. The competition between community colleges and state universities for students with certain needs causes the cost to the state to rise, but can make business sense for the state university. For example, some state research universities offer remedial courses in order to access the state dollars that flow for those courses, even though a community college down the street has that mission and fulfills it well.
These significant obstacles might make any solution appear to be a pipe dream. But we believe a previous transformation in public universities provides a model for how to accomplish this transition.
The transformation made by public universities after World War II, from a teaching and state focus to a research and federal focus, provides a model. From the vantage point of 1950, most would have said that the progress made in research between 1950 and 1970 was impossible. Yet it happened—and it unfolded in four steps:
1. Public support. At the end of World War II, the public understood the role of science research. They knew that science and engineering had produced technology to win the war and was producing medicines to cure diseases.
2. Leadership from the president. In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt commissioned a study about how to convert the wartime science and engineering enterprise into one focused on peacetime issues. In 1945, Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development under Roosevelt, proposed the creation of a national research foundation.25 After five years and the introduction of many different bills, President Harry Truman signed a bill establishing the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950.
3. A federal program with money. The National Science Foundation established the criteria for obtaining research dollars competitively and developed a system, which is rigorous and promotes quality, to review research proposals. In the first year (1951), appropriations to the National Science Foundation were $225,000. By 2009, the NSF appropriations were $6.5 billion.26 Twelve other federal agencies now also have enormous research divisions, so that federal appropriations for research and development in 2009 were just under $150 billion, with the Department of Defense representing the highest fraction. Appropriations for research and development received a big boost following Sputnik in 1957, another following President Kennedy’s vision to “send a man to the moon and bring him home safely by the end of the decade,” and yet another when Congress committed to doubling the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for medical research between 1998 and 2003.
4. Universities following the money. Over a 15-year period after 1950, the universities’ business models, promotion criteria, reward systems, policies, and very organizational structures changed dramatically to create incentives and support for access to federal money. Teaching by full-time regular faculty does not focus on undergraduate students, especially not on freshmen and sophomores, but on graduate students who help the faculty with their research. Faculty are rewarded or promoted not for teaching or conducting applied research aimed at helping their states, but for conducting research funded by federal dollars and published in established disciplinary journals. A robust system of conferences and journals has evolved to publish the findings of this research. Faculty members are judged by the number of their publications and the number of times their publications are cited by others. Teaching is evaluated, but is marginally important in promotion. Student learning is not evaluated. University administrators and faculty are perplexed when asked by the state, which already pays most of their salaries, to work on a state issue without extra resources. The salaries of many science and engineering faculty are paid for by federal grants, but rarely is this true of faculty members in the social sciences, fine arts, or humanities, even though they spend roughly half of their time doing research. A combination of state and tuition dollars pays for this faculty time. Buildings are funded and libraries stocked through the indirect use of grants. Large numbers of professionals, from accountants to hazardous waste specialists, are employed to operate this research enterprise. And faculty who perform well at research are promoted, tenured, and rewarded financially.
Over the years, federal policy has only put more weight on the value of research. For example, the Bayh-Dole Act (1980) allows universities to retain title to inventions made under federally funded research programs. In other words, universities can make money by commercializing inventions made by their faculty with federal research dollars.
The results of this transformation have been spectacular. Science and engineering research fueled the growth era of the last 60 years and is the primary source of innovation. Research in the social sciences and humanities has greatly deepened our understanding of the world in which we live.
Yet we argue that by some vital measures, public higher education is not serving the public. Only 34 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. are enrolled in college.27 Too many students who matriculate never finish: In public four-year institutions, only 30 percent of those who begin complete in four years and only 54 percent complete in six years. Completion rates in public community colleges are worse—19 percent complete on a normal schedule (two years for most programs) and 37 percent in twice the normal time.28 By applying the model from 1950, we can shift our institutions again without losing what is great now. The same four steps can make the next shift successful; the first two are already underway.
1. General public awareness, understanding, and support. Just as it did in 1944, the American public today knows a problem exists with its public higher education system, and it knows there is a very significant opportunity to address the problem. Public perception is well summarized by an article in the New York Times by Paul Fain, “Less for More.”29
2. Leadership from the president. In 2005, President Bush asked Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to provide him with a report making recommendations on accessibility, affordability, and accountability in higher education. That report30 suggested improvements in what we have today. It did not paint a picture of a different system or call for a federal program or agency analogous to the National Science Foundation. No bills in Congress have been introduced to implement its recommendations. But it helped enhance the understanding of the public and Congress about the seriousness of the current situation. Today, a bill and federal program, possibly even an agency, are taking shape: the American Graduation Initiative introduced by President Obama.31 It is a $12 billion program aimed at moving the U.S. from 12th to first in the percentage of the population with a college education. It includes components for remediation, certification, and associate’s degrees.
3. A federal program. The Obama plan is a good start. It must be deployed in a manner that produces the best college education in the world for people in the U.S.—at a low cost. It must create a coherent general education curriculum, incorporating learning assessment. Just as the NSF did for research, this program must establish criteria and quality standards for higher education. And it must have money. The $12 billion proposed is a good start. For perspective, the NSF budget for research is $6.5 billion, and the total federal allocation for research for all of the federal agencies is $150 billion. We believe that providing a college education to all Americans is at least as important as scientific research.
A federal grant program, similar to the NSF program for research but for the purpose of curriculum design and delivery, can request proposals for learning management systems. A learning management system can be defined as an integrated package of diagnostics, content, student learning activities, delivery modes, and assessment tools. In the early years of this federal grant program, the requests for proposals (RFPs) can focus on remediation and the general education requirements at the college level. Teams of faculty, technology professionals, and assessment professionals in consortia will develop the material. Different systems will emerge; research on the effectiveness of these will be published; and systems will improve over time in response to the research.
4. Follow the money. Mainstream universities have not yet engaged with this possibility. They still discount the quality of online education, and no one institution can overcome the financial barriers. But they will engage when the vision is communicated, the federal structure exists, and the federal money is accessible competitively. This will cause the walls between universities and community colleges to become porous, the walls between disciplines to shrink, the faculty reward systems to change, the power of the current accrediting agencies to decline as more reliable quality control systems emerge, and the departmental and university ranking systems to be modified. But much more importantly, it will educate the public.
We thank Ida Kubiszewski and Robert Costanza of the University of Vermont for sharing their white paper, Global University Metacourse Alliance, with us. It sparked us to “get to work” and develop the solution we had been talking about.
Martha W. Gilliland Vice president, Research Corporation for Science Advancement
Amelia A. Tynan Vice President for IT and Chief Information Officer at Tufts University