Chapter 1: Engineering a 21st Century Higher Educational Model: Guidelines for Leading the Work

by Paul L. LeBlanc, Ph.D.

Posted on September 06, 2017

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I'm an aviation nut, and one of the best gifts I've ever received was an hour of flying time in a 1932 Tiger Moth biplane over the south of England.

Its wings were constructed of Irish linen stretched over ash frames, its take off speed was a stately 42 miles per hour, and sitting in the open cockpit I felt the thrill of flying in ways I never experience in the modern passenger jets in which I spend too much time. The plane had a kind of craftsmanship and beauty all its own, and its low and slow, open-air experience cannot be matched by modern technology.

One can love the Tiger Moth, while never thinking that it can suitably meet the needs of modern society. Since its exquisite creation in those early glory days of flight, we have harnessed amazing technology and advances in materials, engines, fuels, and more to create modern airliners, glorious and complex machines. Airline companies mostly conspire to make the quality of our experience almost unbearable, but that is a conscious market-driven choice. The advances themselves have made flight inexpensive (in relative terms), available to most, extremely safe, and reliable and has thus changed our world.

I'm not saying that traditional higher education is akin to a 1932 biplane, but it still feels largely handcrafted, and when done well, it still offers students an amazing experience. In our fast-paced world, it goes low and slow – taking four years for a bachelor's degree, maintaining an agrarian schedule of summers off and ample breaks during the year, offering handcrafted courses created by intellectual craftspeople (the faculty), and features little pressure to arrive on time. For the decreasing number of people who can afford it, traditional residential higher education and the coming-of-age experience it offers to young people is the best four – or more – years of many people's lives.

However, our modern society needs a better solution to its challenges. We need to educate many more people at every stage of life at far lower cost. As life spans approach 100 years, the notion that we can take a 2% or 4% slice (the associate's and bachelor's degree, respectively) at the age of 17 and have it suffice is hopelessly antiquated. We need a dynamic system of post-secondary education into which people will come and go repeatedly over their lifetimes, accessing a broader granularity of offerings (from just-in-time micro-credentials to traditional degrees), with reliable outcomes, and at affordable prices.

We need a dynamic system of post-secondary education into which people will come and go repeatedly over their lifetimes, accessing a broader granularity of offerings, with reliable outcomes, and at affordable prices.  

Because higher education is more like health care than journalism or the music industry – that is, it is a regulated system with a third-party payer, the federal government – it will not change quickly. Unlike journalism and music, it will not be disrupted overnight. That said, we are reaching a crisis point in American higher education, a perfect storm that includes:

  • Enormous state divestment in higher education and cost shifting to students and families
  • Over two decades of near stagnant income for most Americans, as well as the loss of home equity during the recession (a primary way of paying for college in the past)
  • A resulting explosion of student debt
  • A broadly held belief among employers that colleges no longer produce workplace-ready graduates
  • The implosion of institutional business models as soaring discount rates, decreasing state support, declining demographics, and climbing operational costs conspire to put many IHE operating budgets in the red

If that were not bad enough, between 40% and 50% of those who enroll don't complete a degree, a failure rate that would be a crisis in most other industries.

Enthusiastically or grudgingly compelled, institutions are stepping up their innovation efforts. More are entering the online education market, as we've seen through the growth in OPMs (outsourced program managers). Competency-based education is taking hold, and there are a half-dozen "direct assessment" CBE programs that have moved away from the credit hour, allowing them to produce dramatically restructured academic programs at much lower costs. The federal government's EQUIP program (full disclosure: I had a shaping hand in its design during a sabbatical at the U.S. Department of Education) is allowing non-IHE's, like coding boot camps, into the Title IV eco-system and standing up new approaches to accreditation and quality assurance. The education-technology sector is exploding with new solutions.

Most college and university leaders can point to innovations in their institutions. However, far fewer can articulate an innovation strategy, at least something more than the equivalent of "try a lot of the new things we have been reading about."

I would argue that an innovation strategy should include:

A clear identification of the jobs you are trying to do. I'm borrowing this phrase from Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen, a guru of disruption theory and long-time member of my Board, and it comes from his research on the way people "buy" jobs they want to get done. In his recent book, Competing Against Luck , he outlines the way strategy should flow from hard-nosed clarity and analysis on this question. For example, if you try to use the same policies and systems you have constructed to educate campus-based 17-year-olds to also educate working adults with kids, you will miss key aspects of the job those non-traditional students are asking you to do: to make their experience extremely convenient with great customer service (a phrase most of us cannot even use on our traditional campuses), to get them to the finish line as fast as possible; to offer the degree at a low cost. Institutions more often think about what they offer rather than what students are asking them to do, the job students want completed.

A process for creating, testing, and transforming into reality whatever innovation you are exploring. Innovation ideas can bubble up from almost anywhere, but how will you make sense of them and then turn them into useful components of your enterprise? Our process looks like this:

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This process works for us. You might have something far different as your process. But you should have one.

A safe space in which to try things…and fail. The federal government has the ability to create demonstration sites. It was the use of a demonstration site that led to the lifting of the 50% Rule and the ability to offer fully virtual degrees that launched online education (and drove growth among for-profits, for good or bad). Under Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education used its experimental site authority – really only meant to test tweaks in financial aid processes – to support competency-based programs and launch the aforementioned EQUIP program. Accreditors offer little safe space for institutional experimentation. Do you? Culture, organizational processes and systems, and governance swallow up innovation. Leaders must fend them off and create safe spaces in which to try things and to be tolerant of failure. If you are innovating and not making mistakes, you're probably not innovating.

Knowledge of technology. You must really know technology and think hard about where to test it, how to use it, and how to harness it to rethink the job you are trying to do. I was in a recent meeting with the chief technology officer of a major automobile manufacturer, and he said, "I grew up in the car business, and now I work in the technology platform business." He explained that his company no longer competes with other car manufacturers (at least not solely), but with Facebook. To explain, when I was a 16-year-old, I waited at the door of the DMV to get my license on the very first day of eligibility, because access to a car meant freedom and the ability to socialize. Now, a teenager can drive to a friend's house or drive around with two or three other friends or sit on a bed and be in touch with hundreds of friends at once. If the job to be done is being super connected with all of your friends, Facebook does it far better than a car. In contrast, for a senior with vision problems, loss of a driver's license is a devastating loss of freedom and autonomy. Self-driving car technology will give those seniors new life. Technology is changing everything.

So here are the technologies to which we are paying close attention. Some may take longer to be impactful than others. Some are already transforming our work at Southern New Hampshire University. Some will prove to be flops or perhaps just not that useful in our industry. What I do know is that we need to think hard about them. They include:

Artificial intelligence and machine learning (often used interchangeably). Advances in this area are startling and stand to change our world and the future of work in existential ways. For higher education, look to AI to drive intelligent and adaptive learning platforms (the first generation of these has been limited – but they are getting better. Fast.), to automate assessment, to provide customer service interactions (think voice bots here), and to provide learning efficacy insights at scale.

Data Analytics. We now use data for everything from managing our marketing budgets to monitoring our processes to predicting student success to measuring outcomes. The cadence of traditional college management was measured in months, usually six, and in years. Modern data-driven insights allow us to monitor performance in real time, every day, to get ahead of the negative trends and more quickly act on and amplify the positives. Workforce analytics now allow alignment between curricular planning and workforce in ways that make the old Labor Department statistics seem antiquated. Applying a data analytics approach to student success and using modern Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms, we can use data to support and strengthen the human interactions that remain central to our students' experience.

Virtual and augmented reality. If you haven't tried the high-end systems now available even in the consumer market, do so. We can now create immersive, transforming, and transporting learning environments. As profound a change for the way we experience the world as was the printing press.

Social media, mobile, and nudge theory. If you hope to educate and support students in most of the world outside the U.S., you should be designing with a mobile-first mindset. If you are trying to connect with students through email…well, good luck. New ed-tech entrepreneurs are creating solutions that use social media to move students through the application process, improve persistence, and guide student behaviors, often using "nudge" or behavioral theory to subtly encourage the kinds of choices we hope to see students make on their own. Add new peer-to-peer platforms, such as Twitch, and pay attention to all the ways that digital learners seek knowledge in new ways (think YouTube more than Google).

Block chain. Most know it as the basis for bitcoin, and it took me a long time to understand it, at least in a basic way.  It has enormous implications for any kind of credentialing and verification system. In other words, a big part of what higher education does today. Fundamentally, it means that students own the record of their learning (with implications for Student Information Systems, registrars, financial aid systems, and more). Consider the thousands of very highly trained Syrians sitting in refugee camps or resettled and unable to prove their credentials because the holders of that information are destroyed or unwilling to supply. In a block chain credentialing world, their credentials would exist in a virtual and globally distributed "ledger" and would be available to them in a secure and protected manner.
Those are some of the primary technologies that we think about and experiment with in various ways. Not one of them is science fiction – they are available today and can be immediately impactful.

My hope is that the incumbent institutions often most threatened by innovation, and the new technologies and delivery models that are emerging, will be willing to engage with and help drive the innovation. We could have modern air travel with all its marvels (speed, safety, capacity, world linking) that isn't awful, but those who manage and control our experience have made decisions solely driven by profit, and no one loves modern air travel. The new world of higher education needs to harness the new technologies, while keeping a primary focus on students and the values that I feel are most important in education, including the vibrant marketplace of ideas, genuine learning, useful skills (and not just seat time), an embrace of our human interactions (with all their messy, hard-to-program qualities), and the widening of the mind. In other words, we need our existing institutions to "own" as much as possible the emerging models.

My hope is that the incumbent institutions often most threatened by innovation, and the new technologies and delivery models that are emerging, will be willing to engage with and help drive the innovation.  

What I fear is that we will see too many institutions continue to do more of what they have always done, diligently working harder to be better at an increasingly out-of-date model. In that sense, our biggest challenge is behavioral. I can illustrate by switching from airplanes to cars (my other love). We can make improvements in our fleet of taxis, buy new cars, get better-trained drivers, and buy some time by getting the local authorities to protect our monopoly, and we can take pride that we have a better taxi fleet than anyone. None of that will stop or overcome Uber. The same is true for most retail today.

Too many organizations in changing-demand environments are unable to see that working harder is not the answer; they sadly have to wait to see the death of all their competitors around them before they draw the correct conclusion. By then, it is too late for them to morph into a survivor. Because higher education is regulated and colleges are hard to kill, we have time. But not a lot of time to build the 21st century higher education that our world needs. It doesn't look anything like a 1932 Tiger moth, as glorious as that little plane is.