Key document 3: Chubb and Moe in the WSJ

This concerns the third of the three documents supporting the view of online education that contributed to the forced resignation of Theresa Sullivan as president of UVA: “Higher Education’s Online Revolution,” by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, in The Wall Street Journal on May 30th.  Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas emailed this piece to fellow Visitor Mark Kington and then commended it to alumnus and donor Jeffrey Walker, in response to Walker’s email about online education.  Walker asked, “How might [online education at UVA] lower our costs, improve productivity and link us to a group of students we couldn’t afford to serve (maybe more kids from the state to please the legislature)…maybe more second career grads?”

Chubb and Moe do present online education as a major disruption to higher education, and, like Brooks, the put forth a fundamentally optimistic view.  They also address the uncertainties and drawbacks of the current initiatives, however: they note that the Harvard-MIT edX initiative has no revenue stream, is paid for by $60 million in university funds, and has no business plan going forward.

Their acknowledgement of the limitations of online courses leads Chubb and Moe to envision a blended model of higher education:

In this way, college X might have its students take calculus, computer science and many other lecture courses online from MIT-Harvard (or other suppliers), and have them take other classes with their own local professors for subjects that are better taught in small seminars. College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world—and do locally what it does best, person to person.

What I find most interesting about this piece, in light of Dragas’s endorsement of it, is that it could easily support either side of UVA’s contest between Dragas’s wish for a major, top-town initiative or Sullivan’s advocacy of an incrementalist, grass-roots approach to online offerings.  Chubb and Moe write that “[e]arly stumbles and missteps (which edX may or may not be) will show the way toward what works, and what is the right balance between online and traditional learning.”  Not many institutions can currently afford to put tens of millions of dollars into learning from stumbles and missteps–and those are the risks built into the optimistic view of two Hoover Institution fellows.

Key document 2: the David Brooks column

As I said in my last post, there were three key readings supporting the view of online education that contributed to the forced resignation of Theresa Sullivan as president of UVA.  The second of these was David Brooks’s “The Campus Tsunami” of May 3rd.

Brooks says that the key recent shift in online education is the entrance of elite schools into the online arena:

[O]ver the past few months, something has changed. The elite, pace-setting universities have embraced the Internet. Not long ago, online courses were interesting experiments. Now online activity is at the core of how these schools envision their futures.

Brooks presents an optimistic view.  Note that, like Kirschner before him, he cites Clayton Christensen to make his point:

In a blended online world, a local professor could select not only the reading material, but do so from an array of different lecturers, who would provide different perspectives from around the world. The local professor would do more tutoring and conversing and less lecturing. Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School notes it will be easier to break academic silos, combining calculus and chemistry lectures or literature and history presentations in a single course.

Brooks implies that elite universities will gain from online education but only by changing their practices dramatically; his is the sunnier articulation of Kirschner’s gloomy take on the status quo.  Brooks closes with this:

My guess is it will be easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than ever.

I am not ready to hazard many guesses about the future of elite institutions, but I would take the other side of a bet on Brooks’s first proposition.  The deployment of high-quality introductory courses online will make it very much harder to be “a terrible university on the wide-open Web” and for that matter to be a community college or other institution other than the most selective.  The more the education you deliver is about building skills rather than establishing credentials, the more of a challenge the new model will be.  I will explain this opinion in light of my experience with the Stanford online course: stay tuned.

Key document 1: Ann Kirschner in the Chronicle

In the wake of UVA President Theresa Sullivan’s forced resignation, the student newspaper The Cavalier Daily filed a FOIA request that revealed the centrality of online education in the Board of Visitors’ move to remove Sullivan from the presidency.  Jeffrey Rossman of the Charlottesville Daily Progress provided a useful summary of the emails.

Rossman outlines the three readings about online education that informed the conversations among the two key Visitors, Helen Dragas and Mark Kington, and alumnus (and major donor) Jeffrey Walker.  The first of these pieces is Ann Kirschner’s column “Innovations in Higher Education? Hah!” from the April 8th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Kirschner argues that institutions of higher education have been too slow to respond to the disruptive innovation in online learning and have therefore undermined their own efficiency:

Online courses are an important component of higher education’s productivity tool kit, one of the few that offers an intellectually rigorous, measurable, and fiscally responsible way to serve more students while making better use of physical space. We could have tremendous impact by shifting first-year, entry-level courses wholly or mostly online, developed cooperatively but taught locally. Sounds radical, but it’s a pretty old idea, put forth by Carol A. Twigg in 1999, and validated by trial programs over five years with 30 two- and four-year institutions. Her research documented that when institutions redesigned their large lecture courses, retention and learning outcomes improved, and costs went down. It is akin to hospitals discovering that cleanliness reduces bacteria and saves lives.

Kirschner’s invocation of Clayton M. Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma would strike businesspeople and investors with special force: Christensen’s influential argument concerns the susceptibility of seemingly dominant businesses to competitive challenges from smaller upstarts that, because they are smaller upstarts, can adjust to fast-changing environments without the pre-committed resources and organizational inertia that can afflict their seemingly invincible predecessors.

For me, this piece explains the actions of Dragas and Kington better than any other.  Seeing UVA as the established behemoth, beset not only by institutional inertia (and anybody who knows UVA understands the prominence of that inertia) but also by funding cuts and the expenses of an aggressive financial aid program, Dragas and Kington could have perceived three more years as too long to wait for a new president, and they could have justified their change of direction as a response to a radical shift in online education even in the two years of Sullivan’s term.

Crucially, in this view, public outcry from faculty, alumni, and even other members of the Board of Visitors was a predictable outcome that further reinforced the logic of the decision.  Sullivan’s popularity among these constituencies shows Sullivan to be on the wrong side of the contest resulting from disruptive innovation.

Dragas’s comments to date, while expressing regrets about process, express exactly this view of the public opposition to the substance of her her actions.  We are now seeing a contrary wave of pieces such as this by Johann Neem taking on the logic of disruptive innovation.  I anticipate the same debate playing out in my faculty meetings and, if applicable, yours over the coming year.