Last Updated: Mar 28th, 2013 - 15:54:01
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Higher education’s new age: Peril and promise

By Cliff Foster

The title of George Mehaffy’s lecture and PowerPoint to the MetroLeads group last Friday was “Peril and Promise in a New Age.” And in his view, there’s plenty of both facing higher education in the 21st century.

Mehaffy, the vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) in Washington, D.C. said that lightning-fast changes in technology and new e-learning ventures are challenging traditional institutions. To meet the challenges, institutions must break out of legacy systems and redesign undergraduate education to school more students with greater learning outcomes at lower costs.

“If our institutions are not only going to survive but thrive in a new era, with reduced funding and higher expectations and in a hugely competitive environment, then what we have to do is create institutions that work really well,” he said in an interview.

The most recent of several initiatives Mehaffy has launched through AASCU is the Red Balloon Project.

That project is aimed at helping institutions restructure to respond to the rapidly changing circumstances of the new century. In a 2012 article for EDUCAUSEREVIEW online, he wrote, “Our university model is antiquated, we have too many similar traditional practices, our funding model depends on increasingly resistant consumers, our costs are rising at a rate greater than health care costs, our business model supports fewer students, and our institutions are not producing more graduates with greater learning outcomes.”

At the same time, he told MetroLeads, higher education is undergoing a technological revolution that challenges historic models of institutional organization and structure, teaching and learning and the concept of expertise.

On top of that are a host of new players in the higher ed marketplace. Venture capitalists, for example, are investing heavily in startups such as Udacity, Udemy and UniversityNow, expanding the e-learning environment. Massive Open Online Courses—MOOCS—are growing, and a number of colleges and universities are moving toward granting college credit for MOOC courses.

“We’re in a hyper-competitive environment,” he said. “We simply are not accustomed to this world.”

So, how can traditional institutions avoid what’s been called “disruptive innovation” caused by technology and competition? Mehaffy noted in an interview that each institution will have to chart its own course but cited three thematic areas that should be addressed:

  • Pay close attention to student learning outcomes, both academic and beyond, and how those are measured;
  • Innovation: “The understanding that we are not only a teaching organization, we are a learning organization…We have to constantly be innovating, experimenting, using data and being willing to asses ourselves for outcomes.”
  • Course redesign: Develop flipped courses, hybrid courses, courses created by faculty and students. “Take those boundaries of ‘the course,’ which is this one experience, in one room, with four walls and one faculty and blow it up…you redesign in order to make sure you get the kind of learning outcomes you want.”

And, an institution also should consider this question: What does it do that cannot be done as well or better by others? For MSU Denver, it’s the connection with the community.

“No one else can come into the Denver area and work with nonprofit providers, community organizers, groups in the neighborhood—nobody else can build those kind of human relationships” in an online role, Mehaffy said.

And as Joan Foster, dean of the School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, noted, MSU Denver offers small and diverse classes that promote collaboration, an element of the “flipped course.”

“We can give … students the opportunity to learn how to work in a team environment with different people, which is what businesses want…You just won’t get that in the MOOCS.”


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