The Virtual University

For most of the thousand years or so since it was invented, a university education was thought to be suited for only a tiny group -- a ruling class or a subculture of scholars. Today, nine out of 10 American high school seniors say they want to go to college. Since World War II, this country has turned higher education into not only a mass-market product but the best hope of achieving a middle-class income. Sending your kids to college is now part of the American dream, just like homeownership. And like homeownership, it's something for which we have been willing to go deeply into hock.

Faith in the universal power of higher learning is at the heart of modernity. From enhancing our basic humanity to preserving culture, from developing our economy and technology to redressing ills like global warming and AIDS, there are very few needs for which more education has not been prescribed. As H.G. Wells famously put it, "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

Young people worldwide are caught between the spiraling cost of college and an apparently bottomless hunger for it. According to a 2009 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), today 150 million students are enrolled in some kind of education beyond high school, a 53 percent increase in less than one decade. With such numbers, there is no foreseeable way enough traditional universities could be physically built in the next two decades to match the demand.

Meanwhile, here in America, the birthplace of mass higher education, we are stalling in our educational attainment while the rest of the world is roaring ahead. In the U.S., about 30 percent of high school students drop out, and just 56 percent of college freshmen complete their bachelor's degree after six years, 150 percent of the time allotted. Only a little more than a third of Americans end up with any kind of college degree. For more than a century, arguably the world's most educated nation, we've now fallen behind nine others. Unlike citizens of every other rich country except Germany, Americans in their late teens and early 20s are no more educated than older generations.

President Barack Obama clearly understands the problem. In his first address to Congress, he promised, "We will provide the support necessary for all [young Americans] to complete college and meet a new goal: By 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Obama has appointed some wonderful advocates for students to the Department of Education. His administration has backed great proposals, like increasing the Pell grant's maximum amount, cutting corporate subsidies out of the student-loan program, simplifying the federal student-aid application process, and raising funding for community colleges. But nothing on the table addresses the underlying issues that make tuition rise or the capacity problems and leaks in the system.

College tuition has been outpacing inflation for decades. Between 1990 and 2008, tuition and fees rose 248 percent in real dollars, more than any other major component of the consumer price index. Raising the Pell grant's maximum doesn't address this underlying problem. Constant transfusions of public money help keep the patient alive but do not stop the bleeding.

What's to be done about dropout rates and outstanding student-loan debt that currently totals over $730 billion, or $23,200 per graduating senior in 2008? At first, I stood with progressives who say the federal government should increase grants and rein in the parasitic student-loan business. But while the student-loan industry has been part of the problem, and more grants are part of the solution, there is more to this story.


The higher-education system has a lot in common with another great challenge our country is confronting: health care. Colleges, like hospitals, have little incentive to conserve resources or compete on price. They can actually gain prestige by raising tuition. They shift costs to students to make up for gaps in state funding and then hand out grant money to the applicants they want the most, not the ones who need the most help. Community colleges dedicated to serving the poorest get a fraction of the public money that goes to flagship state universities.

The fact is, as aspirations toward, and for, higher learning grow, the model of inexorably growing bureaucratic institutions of formal education is under extreme pressure. "Our learning institutions, for the most part, are acting as if the world has not suddenly, irrevocably, cataclysmically, epistemically changed -- and changed precisely in the area of learning," Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg write in their 2009 book The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. Universities may be on the brink of a phase change from something monolithic to something more fluid: a sea of smaller, more specialized and diverse institutions offering a greater variety of learning opportunities, a cloud of ideas, texts, and conversations. More than one in five of the nation's 19 million college students took at least one online class by the fall of 2006, according to a study by the Sloan Consortium, but technology hasn't yet changed the prevailing model or brought down costs in higher education as it has for so many other industries.

Princeton economists William Bowen and William Baumol argued in their 1966 book, Performing Arts: The Economic Dilemma, that modernization, mechanization, and efficiency just plain escape certain areas of human endeavor. If you want a proper Beethoven string quartet, you can't cut the cellist, and you can't squeeze in more performances by playing the music faster. Just as there is no substitute for the concert hall experience, the writers argue, there is no substitute for being in the classroom with a professor. Higher education and health care, as well as the arts, are subject to a "cost disease."

Today, live performance is still vibrant and without rival. However, the music aficionado has opportunities that go far beyond what could have been imagined when Beethoven was composing or even when Baumol and Bowen were writing. My husband's grandparents go to a New York City movie theater to watch a live broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's Tosca. If I search YouTube for "Beethoven," I can watch 80,800 videos, like of the late Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan conducting the full "Seventh Symphony in A Major." Contemporary composers can record entire symphonies from their bedrooms. Musicians from around the world can collaborate and perform for an audience of millions without ever meeting each other. The marginal cost of distributing a copy of a musical recording around the world has dropped to pretty much zero.

The same is happening in education. Since 2001, a growing movement -- from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and hundreds of other universities worldwide to insurgent bloggers and entrepreneurs barely out of school themselves -- is looking to social media to transform higher education. They're releasing educational content for free to the world and enlisting computers as tutors. Google has scanned and digitized 7 million books. Wikipedia users have created the world's largest encyclopedia. YouTube Edu and iTunes U have made video and audio lectures by the best professors in the country available for free.

The face-to-face learning experience, like the live concert experience, remains inimitable. Research shows that, at its best, hybrid learning beats both online-only and classroom-only approaches. Learners can take in and retain more content faster and more easily, form strong mentoring and teamwork relationships, grow into self-directed, creative problem solvers, and publish portfolios of meaningful work that help jobs find them. These innovations hold out the tantalizing possibility of beating the cost disease while meeting the world's demand for higher education.

As exhilarating as this future sounds for students, there is plenty of anxiety about the transition. "Thinking Big in a Crisis" was the title of a summer 2009 higher-education policy summit in Washington, D.C., featuring representatives from the worlds of journalism and architecture sharing war stories about the scary impact of the Web on existing business models. Later that summer, I attended an Open Education conference in Vancouver titled "Crossing the Chasm." The pace of transformation is uneven. Existing institutions don't want to give up their authority, nor faculty their jobs. Even among early adopters, there's a divide over basic issues: Some see an economic opportunity, while others are eager to spread free education; some want the university to absorb the new information technologies, while others see the digital age absorbing the university.

As a print journalist, I'm all too aware that a cardinal way the Internet has disrupted traditional knowledge industries is through disaggregation or unbundling of services. In the case of a daily newspaper, for example, Craigslist replaced the classifieds, Yahoo! Finance the stock listings, the sports scores, bloggers the op-eds. Newspapers are making shaky attempts to profit from their remaining unique strengths in local and investigative reporting.

Higher education is not just an industry. Still, from students' point of view, colleges do provide a bundle of services. You crack a book or go to lecture and learn about the world. You go to labs or write papers and build a skill set. You form relationships with classmates and teachers and learn about yourself. You get a diploma, and the world can learn about you. Content, skills, socialization, and accreditation.

The Web and allied technologies can make each of these services better, cheaper, more accessible, and even free to the student. Content, whether text, video, audio, or game-based, has progressed the furthest along that path. Interactive teaching algorithms can adapt to your learning style on the fly, allowing you to grasp concepts intuitively and at your own pace. And the Internet hasn't just changed the way we consume information. It has altered the way we interact. Social media can help students and teachers form learning communities. Reputation, assessment, and certification are held jealously as a monopoly by existing institutions, but new tools and models are knocking on that door, too.

"If universities can't find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them," professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University has written on his blog, "universities will be irrelevant by 2020."

Open content -- also known as open courseware, or open educational resources (OER) -- can mean any use of the Web to share the fruits of faculty time, from curricula to lesson plans to texts to original research. As Wikipedia is to a conventional encyclopedia, open content is to a conventional textbook or lecture hall. Both open-source software and Creative Commons, a nonprofit set up in 2001 to create the intellectual and legal framework to share or remix creative work found online, share intellectual DNA with OER. For example, you can search the photo Web site Flickr for CC-licensed images and use them like stock photos, for free, to illustrate a blog post, so long as you live up to the requirements of the CC license, such as crediting the creator or linking back to the original photo on Flickr.

More than a technical innovation, CC has spread to millions of works in all media and become the focus of what thinkers like Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, author of the book Remix, term the "copyleft" movement. "What happened was unexpected," says Ahrash Bissell, former director of CCLearn, the educational division of Creative Commons. "We tapped into this social dimension of people who are hungry to be able to stand up and say, 'Yes, I am part of this new and exciting universe of possibility around distributed collaboration and adaptation.'"

Those values -- distributed collaboration and adaptation -- are central to open education. The ball got rolling in 2001 with the OpenCourseWare project at MIT, funded by the Hewlett and Andrew W. Mellon foundations. If you go to MIT's Web site today, you can find the full syllabi, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and some video and audio for every one of the 1,900 courses MIT offers, from physics to art history. By the end of 2009, some 65 million current students, aspiring students, alumni, professors, and armchair enthusiasts around the world had checked them out.

"Education has a long, long history of a gift economy around knowledge," says Steve Carson, a director of MIT's project, explaining why the university devotes up to $15,000 per course in development costs from its own budget to put each course online to everyone for free. "That ethos underpins both open-source software and educational sharing." Over 200 institutions in over 30 countries have posted courses online at the OpenCourseWare Consortium under CC licensing. Countries from Kenya to the Netherlands have started their own open courseware repositories. China's Ministry of Education has been funding the release of university courses since 2003; over 10,000 courses are now available for free online, many including video.

These materials have been accumulating for several years now, but most colleges have yet to fully take advantage of them. Students spend an average of $1,000 a year on textbooks, and faculty spend countless hours preparing and updating course materials, which prompts the question: What will it take for colleges to realize the power of free and open resources and use them to cut educational costs?


Judy Baker is the administrative supervisor of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources. Approximately 140 colleges have signed on to share textbooks that can be downloaded, edited, and used for free. Faculty, she says, have to be led by the hand to the wellspring of resources. "The biggest resistance is intellectual property rights," she says. "Many faculty have a lifelong dream that they will write a textbook. The reality is, particularly in a community college, it's a tiny, tiny proportion of faculty who actually do that, and even fewer who actually make more than minimum wage from it," when you consider the time it takes. So she first asks professors to try out the resources and experience the joy of "free" as users. Then she appeals to their vanity. "'Think about it,' I tell them. 'You've done all of this work, and over the years, maybe a thousand students have seen these great learning materials you've created. If you open-license them, I guarantee you, within six months, you'll have 100,000 page views.'"

And thus a sharer, ripper, and remixer is born.

Baker is sly. She is patient. She has a much broader agenda than just free textbooks. She has a vision of the future of open education and she wants to share it with the world. "I view open educational resources as a catalyst for faculty to leverage all the possibilities that are now available with the Internet. Not many people would state that as the benefit -- that's my personal view. But whether they view it that way or not, that is an outcome."

But education is more than just access to knowledge, and the possibilities Baker alludes to go far beyond content. "If you didn't need human interaction and someone to answer your questions, then the library would never have evolved into the university," Wiley says. "A sufficient infrastructure of freely available content is step one in a much longer endgame that transforms everything we know about higher education." Rather than layering new technologies as bells and whistles onto existing classes, or adding a free textbook to a traditional lecture course, courses need to be completely redesigned using information technology strategically in order to save significant money and improve outcomes at the same time.

Over the past decade, the National Center for Academic Transformation has been doing just that. NCAT has worked with hundreds of public universities to redesign individual courses "to prove that it is possible to improve quality and reduce cost in higher education," says Carol Twigg, NCAT's founder. Twigg had been working in education reform for several years when in 1998 she landed a $9 million grant from the Pew Charitable Trust. "We had a pretty big carrot," she says. "Part of the design included $200,000 apiece for institutions that would step forward and agree to try this." She told universities: "We want you to improve student learning, reduce cost, and use technology. Other than that, it's a blank slate."

Universities in NCAT's Course Redesign program have come up with a wide range of solutions for courses in all disciplines, from psychology to Spanish to math. These course redesigns blend social-media tools and software-based drills with peer-to-peer instruction, tutoring, and traditional classroom settings. They combine tools like online tutoring modules with in-person meetings structured like labs, seminars, office hours, or study groups. For example, the Universities of Alabama and Idaho, Louisiana State University, Ole Miss, the University of Missouri?St. Louis, Virginia Tech, and Wayne State all got rid of lectures in introductory math classes. Instead, they introduced an "emporium model" using self-paced tutoring programs like MyMathLab, published by the textbook company Pearson. Using the program, students spend their time solving problems and get instant feedback, hints, and examples. Students can work from home or in a computer lab staffed, often late into the night, by professors, grad students, and peer tutors who are available for help if they get stuck.

At Alabama, a representative example, the percentage of students who passed the course went up from less than half to just under 70 percent for first-time freshmen. Women and African Americans made even larger average gains, and student satisfaction rates were at an all-time high. The most recent round of NCAT course redesigns at public university campuses across the country cut costs an average of 39 percent -- a few courses cut costs by up to 75 percent. Outcomes improved by almost any measure you choose: test scores, grades, information retention, student persistence, student satisfaction, and graduation rates.


Public support of open content could be crucial. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has called for digital textbooks to be adopted in schools across California. Sen. Dick Durbin, with the input of Wiley and others in the OER movement, has introduced The Open College Textbook Act, a law that would mandate all educational materials, including curricula and textbooks, created through federal grants to be released under open license. It would also award special competitive grants specifically for the creation of open textbooks.

In the summer of 2009, the Obama administration announced $500 million in federal funds to create the "Online Skills Laboratory," inviting colleges, publishers, and other institutions to create free and open-source online courses, primarily at the community college level, with an emphasis on vocational topics.

"The coin of the realm is faculty time," as Carson at MIT's OpenCourseWare puts it. An estimated three-quarters of the costs of colleges and universities are personnel costs, so cutting costs means saving faculty and administrative time wherever possible. When faculty can build on existing high-quality course material, rather than reproducing the work from scratch; when systems automate what can be automated -- grading tests and quizzes, providing immediate, standardized feedback and practice; and when students can help teach each other as peers, there are significant savings to be had over a traditional, butts-in-seats classroom model.

Whether hybrid classes, social networks, tutoring programs, games, or open content, technology provides speed skates for students and teachers, not crutches. To save money and improve learning, educational technology has to be well-designed and carefully implemented. The roles of professors will shift, and new jobs will be created in place of the old. "Technology can't make a bad teacher into a good teacher," says Sarah Robbins, an expert on the use of gaming in teaching who goes by the Internet handle Intellagirl. "Students who don't want to learn won't suddenly become great students when you put a gadget in their hands. Learning to teach with technology is less about 'how does it work' and much more about 'why should I use it.'"

Will tools like open courseware and social networking actually equal free education? Both free as in speech and free as in beer, as the old open-source adage goes? And will these new changes doom universities to "irrelevance," as Wiley has written? I tend to believe that there is no free lunch. Still, technology can create real efficiencies. And, crucially, new distribution methods can allow the cost of educational content and teaching to be distributed more equitably based on students' ability to pay.

Over its long history, higher education has been uncommonly resistant to innovation in teaching practices. It's clear we're just beginning to glimpse the full potential of what technology can do to transform education. Increasingly, this is going to be considered part of good teaching practice. Rather than dust off the same old mimeographed course packets year after year, professors these days have no excuse for not bellying up to the buffet of brand-new, free course materials and activities or logging on to the wealth of wikis and portals to find and share best practices. Administrations and state governments that profess to be interested in broadening access to affordable, quality education should be beating a path to the door of organizations like NCAT and open courseware discovery sites like CCLearn's OpenEd.

From this position at the top of the first hill, it's not clear yet which innovations will become mainstays, the chalkboards, textbooks, and diplomas of the future, and which will be marginal applications or mere flashes in the pan. At this point, however, the hybrid, NCAT-style course-redesign models seem most compelling. Not only do they show some of the best learning results, but they're in keeping with the multifaceted history of the university, and they offer the reassurance of familiarity -- a scaffolding, if you will, for the transition to new modes of teaching. tap


This article is adapted from her new book DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education published by Chelsea Green © 2010. Reprinted with permission.

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