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ESSAY: No Quandaries About Boundaries

July/August 2013

By Richard DeMillo

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Forward-thinking institutions don’t allow physical borders to limit their value proposition.

RICHARD DeMILLO is director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a distinguished professor in its College of Computing. During his 20-year academic career, DeMillo has also held positions at Purdue University, University of Wisconsin, and the University of Padua (Italy). DeMillo, the author of Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (MIT Press, 2011), previously was chief technology officer at Hewlett-Packard, and was director of the National Science Foundation’s Computer and Computation Research Division.

Where does the campus boundary lie? What does it really mean to be a campus? 

The universities that strike me as having a forward-looking strategy in this area understand what value they offer to their current students and what value they offer to the community—but they are willing to modify their preconceptions about where their physical boundaries are and reach out globally, or even locally, to serve audiences they may not have served well before. 

Let’s use MOOCs (massive open online courses) as an example. A few years ago, several things happened simultaneously. The financial collapse occurred, which focused a very bright spotlight on student debt and default rates and public confidence in the value—or lack of value—in a university degree. At the same time, technology had matured to the point where you could run a demonstration of what a completely different online experience would be.

Also at the same time, some university leaders started looking forward and, for various reasons, concluded, “We’re not on a sustainable path. We need to reimagine what a university might look like.” 

Although a jump-on-the-bandwagon effect seems to have developed lately around MOOCs, institutions that became involved early on had an internal strategy pushing them in that direction. Their justification for MOOCs was based on the considerations: Does it improve learning for students? Does it improve outcomes? Does it improve the way that we use resources? 

A Flexible Space

Think about all the capital spending that has been poured into campuses in recent years. Some of it may never prove a great investment. If, for example, your value proposition to students is climbing walls and really nice dormitories, then you’re already behind in the race to get the most attractive students. And if your master plan calls for building more amphitheater-type lecture halls, with tiered seating and fixed seats, forget it: That’s not the kind of learning environment that will be most useful to you in the future. 

At the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, the most useful room we have is completely undistinguished. It’s an open space that can be configured in various ways with tables, desks, and chairs—or those can all be pushed against the walls. Every wall has a glass board to write on, and you can hook up a computer anywhere in the room to display an interactive screen. But there are no tiers, and no fixed seats or desks.

We deliberately call this flexible space the Unconference Room because the events we hold there are unstructured, crowdsourced, and driven by the people who attend. We quickly learned we were consistently wrong about how people would talk and interact with each other, even whether they would sit or stand. So now we don’t make any assumptions about how people will use the room. 

It Takes a Team  

We have also learned that MOOCs place a premium on having quality, engaged faculty, and shift the burden back to the institution to add value. If a professor can reach a worldwide audience by offering a compelling learning experience, the institution has to step up and say, “What value do we add to that process?” 

Early on, for example, we realized that you can’t offer online courses on the scale of MOOCs simply through individual professors and a couple of teaching assistants. Instead, you need the concept of a professor as a master teacher surrounded by a team that will help that course succeed. Once you decide there’s a type of superprofessor who can reach out, not only to students on campus but also to students around the world, you start looking at the university as a collection of these teams. 

These aren’t traditional teams. They incorporate instructional designers—whom professors aren’t used to working with—and people who know how to produce a MOOC, everything from video to scripting to managing the online experience. Because many pitfalls surround the technology, the professor also needs access to platform expertise—advice on how to interact with students in large numbers, gather and analyze large amounts of data, and deliver to students the experience they want. Maybe some members of the team will work in the research realm, not just the teaching realm. 

Rethinking Assumptions

The underlying business processes then change in interesting ways. At Georgia Tech, we have an ongoing discussion about how to appropriately incentivize the faculty who do MOOCs. The last thing we want to see is every professor at Georgia Tech deciding, “Resources be damned. I want to do a MOOC, and I don’t care how much it costs or how good it is.” As a result, we’re actively rethinking the incentives for the faculty, schools, colleges, and departments to participate. We’re rethinking what MOOCs mean for degree programs: How do we value the revenue stream from degrees?

Every business plan we come up with seems to be a new one. 

It’s not the natural way that we incent new course formation. It’s not the natural way that we incent experimentation with new forms of education. The natural things you’d think people would look at—providing extra pay for faculty, for example, to participate—aren’t necessarily wanted by the faculty. And MOOCs leave the university with a modified workload for some faculty, so traditional ways of budgeting—say, assuming professors teach so many courses per semester to this many students—may no longer be appropriate mechanisms. 

Then there’s the question of accreditation and assessment, which our center has started looking at: Does a university need to rethink how accreditation is done? Certainly, what accreditors do for a traditional classroom has very little bearing on what they would do in an online world. A classroom of 30 students or even 300 students differs greatly from one with 30,000 or 300,000 students. But that’s the world we’re in. 

I first wrote about MOOCs in 2008, when a MOOC of 10,000 students was considered very big and edgy. We’ve blown past that in just a few years. The next innovation will take us completely by surprise and build on the experiences we’re having now. 

Check back in two years, and you won’t recognize the landscape. Higher education is going to be a very, very different world.


Mind the MOOCs

Salman Khan Shakes Up the Classroom

It Takes a Village

If a professor can reach a worldwide audience by offering a compelling learning experience, the institution has to step up and say, ‘What value do we add to that process?’