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Rethink higher education

The new University of Arkansas System president's vision for online education.


Donald Bobbitt image

If you think about the university nowadays, we offer semesters based on agrarian calendars even though few to none of our students are actively engaged in farming. Our semesters and courses are designed in 15-week blocks of times. What's so special about 15 weeks? Material is presented linearly. Which means if you miss a concept in a chemistry course, you're in serious trouble come the final. Everything drives from the concept you missed. Because we're working with 20 to upwards of 300 students in one class, we orient the material and the rate and everything we do in the classroom around the middle of the class. For those who are struggling, it's very difficult to help get them up to the middle; those who're bored are doing nothing when they could be doing more advanced work.

Much of what we do in higher education — from the way we teach to the administrative structure we use to carry out the mission — has been around for hundreds of years and perhaps even a thousand of years going back to the formation of Oxford and Cambridge. So the question then becomes, is that structure appropriate for the challenges facing higher education both within the state of Arkansas and indeed across the nation?

In his book "The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out," Harvard professor Clayton Christensen examined business leaders a decade after they were at the top of their industry and found that most were at the middle of the pack and many were in bankruptcy. He found that leaders rarely got beat in head-to-head competition. Rather, a business came in at the bottom to offer a new product that was simpler, more affordable and allowed more people to participate. Christensen suggests that online education has the potential to be that sort of disruptive technology in the world of higher education.

Of course many people have already figured this out. The University of Phoenix enrolls 30,000 students per month. Last year, its revenues were $3.8 billion. Someone asked me recently, "What hope is there if Phoenix can do this?" Well, the University of Arkansas means something in the state of Arkansas. The brand means something; we just need to embrace the technology. In the future, I think our students are going to be fully online, fully taught using technology in the classroom or taught through a hybrid of the two, where technology is brought in to enhance the educational experience.

Online courses can be started at a variety of times and in a variety of formats. There's no reason why a class couldn't start on April 15 or Oct. 1. Students should be able to take classes parallel, the traditional way, or sequentially, where they'd concentrate on a topic for five weeks, learn it very deeply and then move on. For working adult learners, sequential is really an advantage. Over a year, the student gets the same number of credits, only in a different format. Alternative pricing structures might also be envisioned to address a variety of approaches.

We know a lot more about our students online than in the classroom. I can tell you how long a student spends on a particular module. I can tell you who read the material and how many times they went back over it. Because of the anonymity of the Internet, students are more likely to comment freely and contribute to discussions. Feedback to students can be immediate and constant. There are ways to build loops into the system, so that as individuals have problems they're sent back to the appropriate section, where they review the material, develop competency and move on.

A lot of critics have suggested that some disciplines are not going to be amenable to online education. But about the time that someone says that, they're proved wrong. A lot of people said an MBA could never be earned online. Then the London School of Economics and the University of North Carolina put their programs online. Some have suggested chemistry can't be taught online — safely. But at Harvard there is a chemistry course for non-majors where you do all of your experiments in the kitchen. It's the same experience; you just get to eat your experiments. They said you couldn't teach biology. But it turns out that you can buy an attachment for your iPhone that turns it into a 10-power microscope.

The quality issue, which rears its head often, has been addressed recently in two reports, one from the Department of Education and one from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Both looked at online education and came to the same conclusion: There are some students who benefit from face to face instruction. If you can't get out of the bed in the morning, you're not going to turn on the computer and take your class. The role of mentors and the benefits of socialization are among other benefits. At the same time, other students benefit quite dramatically from the online experience because they're time or space bound and can't make it to the campus. Both reports concluded that for students who are properly motivated, the learning outcomes are identical between face-to-face and online education.

Donald Bobbitt is the University of Arkansas System President. The essay above was extracted and edited from a speech he delivered on Nov. 14 at the Clinton School for Public Service entitled "Innovate or Perish: The Challenges Facing Higher Education in the Next Decade," which is available to watch in full in streaming video at Bobbitt began serving as UA System president on Nov. 1.

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