Aaron Brower is typical of many academics in that he generally takes a well-reasoned, measured approach when addressing various topics with reporters. So the choice of words from UW-Madison's vice provost for teaching and learning was telling when he was asked to comment on a rash of recent media accounts pointing to a potential seminal shift in how higher education is delivered to students.
"This is an incredibly volatile, transitional time in the world of higher ed," says the soft-spoken Brower. "I truly believe we're in a transformational age."
Those within academia — if not John and Jane Public — took notice May 2 when Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a partnership dubbed edX that will deliver free online courses to the public. This announcement came on the heels of other name-brand institutions — the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Penn, Princeton and Stanford — announcing a similar initiative in April called Coursera.
These massive online open classrooms — known as MOOCs — enable thousands of people at once to take a course from a professor at one of these highly regarded universities, but students who complete the classes don't earn university credit toward a degree. Instead they receive a certificate of completion, sometimes referred to as a badge.
For now, a diploma remains the common currency that allows college grads to compete for jobs. But if credits were to someday be awarded for these courses — or if significant numbers of employers were to start accepting these badges as a means into the workforce — higher education could be quickly and significantly altered.
"If employers see value in badges, then this has the potential to break open the liberal education degree model," says Brower. "If a software company values a mobile apps badge, why get a computer science degree? For some fields, this has the potential to break apart what the four-year degree is all about."
While UW-Madison has no immediate plans to dive into the burgeoning MOOCs movement, the trend is certainly on leadership's mind as the university takes significant steps to rethink and redefine how it delivers education and remains relevant in the Internet era. The university is in the midst of what it's calling an "Educational Innovation" initiative pushed by interim Chancellor David Ward. The efforts are focused on improving learning, finding efficiencies and increasing revenues by expanding UW-Madison's reach to nontraditional and distance learning audiences.
At a time when technological advances are significant, and concerns over state budget cuts and rising tuition are omnipresent, Brower says the tipping point has arrived where the university must seriously examine its current enterprise and rethink what kind of educational experience it wants to offer in the decades to come.
Among the issues to be hashed out is the proper balance between what Brower terms click (online learning) and brick (face-to-face learning that takes place in traditional brick-and-mortar facilities) education.
"So how much material do you put online?" he says. "How can we use new technologies to reach more nontraditional students and realistically provide access to people all over the world? And what should the focus of residential education be? What is the value we can add for those who come to campus? We really need to start thinking differently about what we do and how we support that."
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Although there are pockets of campus that are embracing online learning options faster than others, UW-Madison administrators tend to agree that the university as a whole is generally behind the curve when it comes to offering such alternatives.
In 2010-11, the most recent year for which figures are available, UW-Madison's Data Digest indicates that the university offered 376 "distance education" courses, with 7,937 course enrollments and 21,460 student credit hours. A decade earlier, in 2001-02, those numbers weren't a whole lot different, with 258 distance ed courses, 7,525 course enrollments and 18,373 student credit hours. To put those numbers in perspective, the student credit hours accrued in distance education courses in 2010-11 account for just 2 percent of all credit hours at UW-Madison that year. That figure was 1.8 percent 10 years earlier.
So while the Internet and other evolving technologies have drastically altered how people communicate and socialize, gather information and purchase goods, it has had a less dramatic impact on how higher education on a campus such as UW-Madison is delivered. In large part, that's because until recently there was little pressure — either from outside the institution or from within — to significantly change.
UW-Madison, like most other state flagship institutions across the nation, is at capacity and turns away thousands of qualified applicants each year because so many young adults straight out of high school still crave an on-campus college experience. They look forward to living on their own, working in state-of-the-art labs, having face-to-face interactions with professors and other young people, hanging out on the Memorial Union Terrace and attending Badger football games.
But the perpetual state budget cuts to higher education are forcing the university to find new ways to lower costs, increase capacity and develop new revenue streams. Couple those realities with Ward's self-proclaimed "passion" for finding better and more efficient ways to educate students, and you have the impetus to get the ball rolling on the Educational Innovation initiative.
Ward, who previously served as UW-Madison chancellor from 1993 to 2000, explains that he developed this strong interest in finding more productive ways to teach students during his stint as president of the American Council on Education from 2001 to 2008. The council, based in Washington, D.C., is an association representing 1,600 accredited, degree-granting institutions across all sectors of higher education.
During that period, Ward was involved with examining ways to help students perform better in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields. He became a believer in delivering some materials online so students could go through a course at their own speed. And when students did meet with live instructors, he preferred that they do so in an open classroom instead of the traditional lecture hall, so teachers could walk around and help students while they were working on exercises.
This is one example of "flipping" the classroom, a technique in which students generally amass information outside of class by taking in recorded lectures or reading. And when students are in class, they work with professors, teaching assistants and peers on solving problems or other forms of homework.
John Booske, chair of UW-Madison's electrical and computer engineering department, says he's a real convert to believing in the value of the flipped classroom and blended learning that uses both face-to-face and online elements. He explains that for his transmission lines for digital applications course (Electrical and Computer Engineering 321), students watch a handful of five- to 15-minute video "lecturettes" on their own. During class time, students then work in small groups on solving pre-selected problems, with Booske roaming the room to help where needed.
"It's great," says Booske, who also is the director of the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning. "So I'm a coach in the midst as opposed to the sage on the stage."
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Generally speaking, the university's College of Engineering where Booske works is one part of campus that has embraced online learning. The college launched an Engineering Beyond Boundaries initiative in 2005 to rethink its approach to teaching students. And since 2007, that campaign has led to 42 pilot projects for technology-enhanced teaching, mostly on a class-by-class basis.
More recently, engineering leaders on campus have been examining ways to implement some of these ideas in a sustainable way across the college. The plan now is to accelerate this process by moving 75 percent of engineering's core courses to a blended learning model over the next five years. The classes will use video-captured lectures, web-based course management technologies and face-to-face instruction to improve learning.
Engineering physics professor Greg Moses says "shallow" course content, such as teaching students about basic facts and ideas, tends to work well online, while "deep" content that may include more analysis, hands-on work or "what-if" thinking is better with face-to-face interaction.
"It's not for everything," Moses says of making use of online tools. "But it's for an awful lot."
Indeed, in a 2010 paper titled "Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning," the U.S. Department of Education examined more than 1,000 studies of online learning and determined that students who learned online performed slightly better than students who learned the same information in a traditional face-to-face setting. And instruction combining both online and face-to-face elements was even more successful.
Research like that leads Paul Peercy, the dean of the College of Engineering, to say that "the train has left the station" on online learning. "It's time to get on board."
Not only can the blended and online courses be rigorous and high-quality, proponents say, but they also have the potential to alter — or even lift — enrollment caps on high-demand classes. In traditional class settings, if the hall where the professor lectures has a limit of 400 students, that's basically how many can enroll. But if the in-person lecture is abandoned and made available online, enrollments can be bumped up.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could take all enrollment limits off some of these key courses students need to graduate, without any issues with quality?" poses Ward. "We have these logjams in some science, psychology and economics courses. Now we can consider improving quality and capacity."
Ward also argues the university should consider offering online add-ons to degrees, such as certificates, to help make students who are about to graduate — or who have recently graduated — more appealing to employers.
"Many people argue — wrongly, in my opinion — that a liberal arts degree isn't very utilitarian," says Ward. "But perhaps if you were to add a certificate or a professional master's, that's value-added. And if we can find ways to provide that add-on at a distance (via online options), that would be a way for us to broaden our market with our own students."
Jeff Russell — the dean of UW-Madison's Division of Continuing Studies who is heading up the Educational Innovation project with Brower and Maury Cotter of the Office of Quality Improvement — adds that the university has "excellence and eminence" in many areas across campus that could be built upon. He hopes to help examine the feasibility of expanding noncredit professional development course offerings, professional master's degrees and capstone certificates. These could be made more easily accessible to the public via online and blended learning — with some in-person campus visits on weekends and nights — in an effort to reach a broader audience, increase the number of students served and generate new revenue.
The trick, says Russell, is to realize where the marketplace demands such offerings.
"We need to understand, is this push or pull?" he says. "Are we pushing something out there that there may not be a market for, or is there real pull from the public? And how are we going to differentiate ourselves in a global marketplace?"
From December to May, the university hosted discussions to pitch ideas for the Educational Innovation project and more than 400 people from across the UW-Madison campus took part in at least one session. This first phase was designed to identify and share educational innovations that already exist in order to provide models that can be scaled up across the university, while simultaneously identifying resources (such as technical help) that will be needed to push the campus forward in the 2012-13 academic year. That's when Ward says he hopes to "be a little pushier and put the foot on the accelerator" on this undertaking before turning over the reins of the university to his successor in about a year.
"The classic residential degree and the classroom have been dominant in higher education since the late 19th century," says Ward. "But we have to change."
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It's not just the advent of new technology that is changing the education landscape. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in mid-May: "Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary. The costs of getting a college degree have been rising faster than those of health care, so the need to provide low-cost, quality higher education is more acute than ever."
(In fact, annual tuition and mandatory fees at UW-Madison will top $10,000 for the first time in 2012-13.)
The Friedman piece was referring mainly to the potential of coursera.org. Unlike the nonprofit edX Harvard-MIT alliance, Coursera — the new online education company that's partnering with Michigan, Stanford, Penn and Princeton — is a for-profit entity backed by venture capital.
Coursera was founded by Stanford computer science professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng and builds on the technology they helped develop that was implemented by Stanford last year to host free online classes for more than 350,000 enrollees from nearly every corner of the globe. The company currently is offering 40 online classes, spanning the humanities, social sciences, business, health care, computer sciences, engineering and more.
The courses feature online lectures broken down into concepts and delivered in 10- to 15-minute snippets. Those who sign up can take frequent, interactive quizzes to help increase retention of material and track progress. Exercises are graded automatically to give instant feedback. And although there is no one-on-one interaction with professors, students can connect with others in the class by posting questions and comments online, and having others vote on how helpful the comments are.
The universities produce and own the content in this endeavor, according to a company spokesperson, while Coursera is the platform that hosts and streams the material to students. The company also is working to connect employers to students, according to Friedman, although there currently are few safeguards against cheating in the online classes so it's not clear how companies can assure they're getting in contact with the best and brightest students.
But that's not the only potential issue. While delivering high-quality information to the public for free is certainly a noble cause, many wonder what the business model is to sustain these programs and what's in it for the institutions beyond increased brand recognition. Several people interviewed for this article mentioned the similarities of this endeavor to newspapers in the late 1990s deciding to make articles available for free online. The public got so accustomed to accessing free news that most newspapers today still do not charge for their online content, which undermines all the revenue streams connected to their print products.
"I think some are seeing the newspaper world as a cautionary tale," says Brower.
Ward says UW-Madison would likely be able to create a consortium, particularly within the Big Ten, to deliver free online content. But he has no interest in initiating the conversation. "I would think this might be one of the first agenda items for my successor," says Ward. "They'll have to not only think about whom to collaborate with to do this, but try to figure out a real revenue structure based on how you award credits. I'm not sure about the payback, and we don't have the loose change that MIT and Stanford have. I'm interested to see what their next move will be."
Setting aside the question of how the technology will affect the business of higher education, however, Coursera and edX do offer significant sources of valuable data for researchers hoping to get a better handle on what works — and what doesn't — in the world of online education.
In fact, when the edX venture, which was started with a $30 million commitment from both Harvard and MIT and will be overseen by a nonprofit organization governed by both institutions, was announced last month, the schools explicitly noted that the "edX platform will enable the study of which teaching methods and tools are most successful. The findings of this research will be used to inform how faculty use technology in their teaching, which will enhance the experience for students on campus and for the millions expected to take advantage of these new online offerings."
Add them up, and there remain many unknowns about the ramifications of name-brand institutions getting involved with MOOCs. It is too soon to say if a "college education revolution" truly is under way — and what that means for a place like UW-Madison. While such endeavors could be devastating to the future of higher education as most know it, the potential they hold also is extraordinary.
In a contribution to the Sifting and Winnowing blog earlier this year, Ankur Desai — a UW-Madison associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences — writes: "I don't know if this is the future or just another fad. I'm not into doomsday talk or denigrating the value of the knowledge, creativity and economic engine that we are as UW. But it's worth asking, in this arena, what do we have to offer? Imagine if we could reach 100,000 people in one year to think about a topic of importance to you! What would you do?"