The Transformation of Higher Education
By Michael Hooker
[Note: This chapter was originally published as Hooker, M. (1997). The transformation of higher education. In Diane Oblinger and Sean C. Rush (Eds.) (1997). The Learning Revolution. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc. Reprinted here with permission of Anker Publishing Company, Inc.]
Higher education is on the brink of a revolution. For those who think regularly about the future of education, this proclamation will come as no surprise. We have become accustomed, even expert, at thinking and talking about the changes to come. Our familiarity with impending change, however, may have numbed us to what it will really mean. In ways not yet imagined, technology will change the way we order life. It has moved us toward a different kind of economy and modified ways of living. We are in the midst of changing from an energy-based to a knowledge-based economy which will alter the rules of international economic competition, thrusting universities into roles they have not traditionally played. Two of the greatest challenges our institutions face are those of harnessing the power of digital technology and responding to the information revolution. The opportunities and challenges technology presents are far greater than at any previous time in higher education's 750-year history.
There is still debate about exactly where higher education's history began. Irrespective of whether it was in Paris, Oxford, or Bologna, historians agree that it began at the start of the 13th century. It has not changed much since. Fundamentally, higher education is still a process of imparting knowledge by means of lectures to those who want to acquire it. This chapter describes the forces accelerating change in traditional modes of education, raises difficult questions that will help us determine what a transformed learning environment could be, and offers some thoughts on why it is important for higher education to take the lead in realizing that vision.
Forces of Change
In oversimplified terms, there are two kinds of change in society: cyclical and structural. We accommodate cyclical change constantly, such as change in the weather, fashion, and interest rates. Structural change, on the other hand, is uni-directional and irreversible. Once a society, an economy ,or an institution has undergone a structural change, it will never return to its former ways of doing or being. Examples abound: the Scientific Revolution, the Women's Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, etc. The way an organization responds to structural change can determine its future. For higher education, structural change is the result of the confluence of two forces. One force is the information revolution, which is driving the shift from an energy-based to a knowledge-based economy. The other is the management revolution, which itself is being driven partly by changes in our capacity to use information.
In an energy-based economy, raw material is transformed by energy into a product. This service creates economic value. In a knowledge-based economy, information or knowledge creates economic value. Consider the process by which a new piece of software is developed. The process begins when an 18-year-old student sits down at her computer, hammers away at the keyboard for a few hours and-if she's clever and lucky-develops a new piece of software which can be of enormous economic value. The raw material-a polymer with a little paper attached-goes into the disk. But the disk is not the product; it's the package. While disks cost only a few cents to produce, software packages easily sell for $100. The value of the raw material is minimal relative to the total value of the product which itself is intangible-it is information organized in a novel way. The trend in every sector of the economy is that the relative contribution of energy to the total value of the final product is declining and the relative contribution of knowledge is increasing. Sometimes, as in the case of software, knowlege itself is the product.
As the millennium approaches, it is clear that knowledge will fuel prosperity and that those who can manage knowledge will enjoy a considerable advantage over those who cannot. As the primary facilitator of the process by which individuals learn to use knowledge, higher education will be even more essential to the economic success of regions, states, and nations. What has given competitive advantage to economies in the energy age-the availability of raw materials and indigenous sources of energy-will matter little. What will count more than anything is the way that an economy develops and deploys its brain power. Higher education will become more important than ever before. However, there is no guarantee that traditional universities will be the preferred providers of higher education. Unless colleges and universities embrace the management revolution, they will steadily lose ground to emerging competitors.
The management revolution began before the information revolution, but took longer to become established. It was W. Edwards Deming who set the wheels in motion shortly after World War II when he said that a company would do better in the marketplace if it constantly asked itself this question: "How could we do our work or produce our product better, faster, and cheaper, that is, with higher quality, in less time, and with less cost?" No one in the United States listened, so he took his message to Japan.
As Japan began to rebuild its economy, the simple directive to do things better, faster, and cheaper led to sustained economic growth and eventually to Japan's market dominance in many sectors of the world economy. Decades later, the revolution moved to America. Over the past 15 years, the result is that American industry has undergone phenomenal change. The revolution has now spread to health care, where its impact is of unprecedented magnitude. Largely because of public anxiety about education's skyrocketing cost and legislators' misgivings regarding its efficiency, the management revolution has finally reached higher education, and it will never be the same again.
Cost Crisis and Productivity
The cost crisis in education must be viewed within the context of the shift from energy to knowledge as the basis for our economy. During the past 25 years, the shift has enabled productivity gains in virtually every economic sector except higher education. Higher education hasn't enjoyed the productivity gains of other industries because our costs--primarily labor costs--are growing disproportionately to the cost of living and we have not experienced offsetting growths in productivity. To raise salaries commensurate with the cost of living, colleges and universities have had to raise prices for the consumer. College costs, therefore, are growing out of proportion to the cost of living and out of proportion with other sectors of the economy. Although higher education has been slow to embrace Deming-style management initiatives on its own, outside forces, especially legislatures, are now prescribing change. There are currently 27 state legislatures that have commissions studying the question: "How can the public university do things better, faster, and cheaper?"
Governors and legislators across the country are looking at their public university systems with increasingly critical eyes. They are acutely aware of the need to train labor to keep their economies competitive, and they are coming to recognize the value of universities as engines of economic development through their technology transfer activities. It is sometimes said that war is too important to be left to the generals. I fear that many are coming to believe that education is too important to be left to the educators. It is increasingly difficult to convince the public of the importance of a liberal arts education. We believe it cultivates intellectual traits and has intrinsic value. My fear is that if higher education does not respond by precipitating change and influencing its direction, legislators and lawmakers will take over the job. Unless we take the information and management revolutions seriously, quickly addressing the imperatives of those responsible for reallocating taxpayer dollars, many public universities will not survive, or at least their current levels of autonomy will not.
As it is now, lawmakers believe that higher education is unwilling to reallocate existing resources to priority areas such as technology. Their image of us is that we are often wasteful of taxpayer money. It is small consolation that this waste is not attributed to malice but to lax management, minimal accountability, and the inertia of doing things as we have always done them. We do not frivously spend money on things that do not benefit our states. We do, however, spend money on things that benefit our states far less than others might. Corporations must maximize the value of their shareholders' investments. The public recognizes that responsibility. Similarly, public universities have a moral imperative to return the highest possible value to the taxpayers. That is our only justification for "confiscating money" from wage-earners to provide for the tax support of the university.
Impediments to Change
Adoption of the mandate to change higher education will require major cultural adjustments. A critic might say that the trendline in higher education has been to take longer and spend more while working to do things better. Our external constituencies will increasingly scrutinize the cost of education and measure it by the quality of our output, asking how much things have actually improved. They will challenge us to demonstrate that we are as good as we claim to be. We have avoided developing ways to measure our success. Yet, we cannot defend the university as providing something important for society if we cannot articulate what it is, explain why it is important, and demonstrate that we have, in fact, provided it to our students. We must respond aggressively to the public's suspicion that what we are doing is not worth the cost that taxpayers, students, and their parents, are having to bear.
While the demands of the external environment have rapid and radical change in higher education, the internal environment has cultural textures that make change very difficult.
One problem that prevents higher education from progressing faster is our consensus form of internal governance. The cultural expectation within universities is that any major change will occur only after consensus is reached by the affected community. Because everyone understandably fears change, this culture works to retard the pace and magnitude of change. The culture also works to protect its weakest members; continued employment has come to be seen as a property right within the community of higher education. Rarely does anything get done that significantly inconveniences anyone. Once programs and positions have been created, they are rarely for eliminated.
A necessary precondition for doing things better, faster, and cheaper in an organization is the reallocation of resources from low priority areas to areas of high priority. The cultural norms of higher education, however, hold that growth should come from addition rather than reallocation. New priorities must await the infusion of additional funds from the outside, either from tuition increases or from growth in state appropriations or philanthropy. As William Bowen has observed, institutions each raise all the money they can, spend all they get, and spend it in ways that relate closely to the way they spent the money the previous year. Reallocation is not our modus operandi.
In the new atmosphere, we face the necessity of managing internal resources differently. The emerging expectation is that resources needed for new priorities will come from within through reallocation, achieved by closing, consolidating ,or downsizing programs and activities of lower priority. Although this may be a necessity, it is a dangerous move for any administrator seeking to maintain his or her position.
The search for new educational resources now focuses largely on technology. An emerging rule of thumb is that to stay current, an institution should spend five to ten percent of its budget on information technology. Few universities are doing that now. To do this effectively, universities must prioritize what they do and take the unfamiliar step of ceasing to do things of lower priority by reallocating resources from within. There is risk in reallocation. Without a vision of what the technology-enriched future could be, as well as consensus from the faculty and support from boards and legislators, it is unlikely that a significant number of campuses will reallocate significant funds from existing programs into technology.
Questions to Answer
Higher education has not developed the discipline of constantly looking for ways to maximize its value to those who support it. And this is where the two forces accelerating structural change join. Higher education managers--a category that includes faculty--must be no less compulsive in their efforts to maximize value to taxpayers than corporate managers are in trying to maximize their value to shareholders. Institutions should be flexible in their willingness to rethink how they provide education.
Rethinking education requires that we ask the right questions. I believe that one question we must ask is how to improve learner productivity.
In articles that are critical of higher education, you often see discussions of the need to increase faculty productivity. The main argument is that faculty should do less research and spend more time teaching. There is a fallacy in this argument (Johnstone, 1992). Certainly, faculty at our comprehensive research institutions could teach more. However, remember that these comprehensive research institutions employ about one-fourth of the nation's full time faculty. These are the same faculty who are charged with leading the world in the production of research and the training of graduate students. If these faculty spent more time teaching or advising, it would not make them more productive, per se. It would simply assign them to different tasks. Those who deal with faculty issues on a daily basis are convinced, as I am, that the number of truly unproductive faculty is small. Increasing their teaching loads would not significantly improve higher education's productivity.
D. Bruce Johnstone has written a thoughtful treatise on learning productivity. His thesis is that significant and sustainable productivity increases must be achieved through greater attention to the learner. "Learning productivity relates the input of faculty and staff not to enrollments or to courses taught or to credit or classroom hours assigned, but to learning, i.e., to the demonstrated mastery of a defined body of knowledge or skills." (Johnstone, 1992).
One way to make learning more productive is for students to master a body of knowledge in less time. Learning that takes less time can cut the traditional costs carried by the institution, but also the opportunity costs (lost earnings) of the student. Another way to make learning more productive is to make it possible for students to get the courses they need when they need them. As Johnstone says, "There is inadequate learning when students are reduced to filling their course rosters according to what is available or convenient rather than what is needed or even wanted." (Johnstone, 1992).
The way we will achieve sustainable productivity gains in higher education is by facilitating more learning from students, not just increasing the workloads for faculty. If we are serious about learning, the learner should be our focus. How many would argue with the contention that the average student is not learning as much as he or she could? If we focused on the things that maximize learning-the best curriculum, the best pedagogy, the best learning environment, the most flexibility to adapt to learning styles-wouldn't all of us be more satisfied with higher education?
The Tough Questions
If we focus on learning, there are many traditions that we might question. Where is the proof that 120 credit hours makes an educated person? What does the baccaulaureate degree certify? How did we come to believe that education parceled out in 50-minute increments, three times a week, was optimum for all of our students? What caused educators to decide that the length of the semester should be constant while student learning is allowed to vary? Why did we decide that mastery of the subject was less important than the time spent in the classroom?
The truth is that we don't have good reasons for some of these traditions. At some point in our past-during the agricultural age or perhaps the industrial age-this factory model might have been more efficient. We no longer need to accept that as true today. Technology allows us to customize education, to provide options, and to allow students to study for as long or as little as they need. Technology allows us to focus on learning productivity without an impossible increase in faculty numbers and facility costs. However, none of it will work unless we rethink what we want to achieve and how we go about it.
It's hard to break these habits. How many times do you hear faculty fret, "I have so much content to cover." Why do we assume it is the faculty's responsibility to cover the material? First of all, it may be a false assumption that the material will even be relevant or correct by the time the student graduates. Second, why do we assume that it is the faculty member's responsibility to cover it? Why not set objectives for the students and let them explore and drive their own learning? The technology exists that will enable them to do so.
For whatever reason, we have many habits and traditions that make less and less sense in the information age. As educators and scholars, we in higher education should be in the lead to tear down these artificial barriers. If we don't, my prediction is that the public will lose more confidence in higher education and more control will be wrested from our institutions. This is not a prospect that any of us relishes, or that is in the interest of the public.
Perhaps all of the stakeholders of higher education are caught in a paradigm paralysis: We have difficulty changing the way we think and the way we behave. What fundamental changes are we making in our educational system to handle the doubling of knowledge every seven years? Neither our courses, our curricula, our reward systems or our funding models are changing at this rate.
To break this paradigm paralysis, we should consider asking ourselves some new questions. For example, should business bear some of the responsibility for the kind of education that is necessary for us to remain economically competitive? Higher education has been willing for business to fund educational projects. But why not incorporate business more intimately in the educational process? Would we benefit from business helping us establish curricula? How could business help us educate students? We all stand to lose or benefit from how we answer this question.
Are we asking ourselves how we are changing our methods and forms of delivery to shift from education defined as K-12 to K-80, or lifelong learning? If we were to define our market as lifelong learning, our major customers would be employees first and traditional students second. As Davis and Botkin articulate in The Monster Under the Bed, people have to increase their learning power to sustain their earning power. What should we do to reach our alumni and other adult learners who need our expertise? Davis and Botkin observe that colleges routinely say good-bye to their best customers at graduation rather than turn them into lifelong learners/customers. What benefit would society receive if our medical schools or colleges of public health were to reach out to consumers and help them understand the fundamentals of good nutrition or healthier lifestyles?
This paradigm paralysis does not exist just on campuses. In fact, it may exist because of the administrative structures we have inherited. If the accumulation of student credit hours is an insufficient measure of learning, why are we wedded to funding formulas that award dollars based on seat-time? If courses could effectively be shared among campuses--even within the same university system--why are there barriers to sharing the student credit hours? If students can learn anyplace at any time, what is the justification for residency requirements that mandate students enroll at a campus for their last two years of college? If education can be made available worldwide, thanks to technology, is there sufficient rationale to prohibit interstate sharing of courses?
Among our off-campus constituencies of parents and students, we may need to stimulate a paradigm shift. The scoring systems used to rank colleges and universities are based on measures such as volumes in the library, student/faculty ratios, numbers of full professors, etc. In the digital age, volumes in a campus library is less important than access to worldwide resources. A numeric score for student/faculty ratios is less meaningful than the quantity and quality of the interactions that occur. I contend that it is more important whether competency has been gained than how or from whom our students learn. We need to help our constituents define the true measures of quality so we can break away from ratings that reinforce the past instead of the future.
If technology competency is a competitive requirement for our graduates--and all indications are that this is true--are we willing to invest in it? There is hesitance to require that all students possess a computer, yet we have no difficulty requiring students to purchase textbooks. We require our faculty to have Ph.D.'s., but few institutions stipulate proof of technology competency or teaching excellence in their new hires.
These are difficult questions. They cause us to challenge our traditions. The point is not that our past has been wrong or bad. The point is that the future will be different. It is only by asking these difficult questions that higher education will retain the position of importance to society that it has enjoyed in the past.
Value of Traditional Education
As Robert Zemsky (1995) and others have pointed out, higher education's core values will be at severe risk if a larger share of the market for undergraduate education is secured by nontraditional providers. Proponents of the residential university experience will have to develop credible and persuasive arguments for the value of the programs they offer. The focus of the curriculum and other institutional priorities will necessarily shift from the simple transmission of information to the role of the undergraduate experience in developing capacities that are essential to success in the global knowledge-based economy. These capacities, which have been referred to as "executive virtues" (Macedo, 1990), include, among others: imagination, historical perspective, initiative, independence, resolve, perseverance, diligence, and patience. It may be difficult to convince the for-profit market of the immediate wisdom of investing in these qualities. However, as we redefine the strengths of the physical university, we must attempt to draw connections between the experience of an on-campus living/learning opportunity and the development of social and cultural characteristics that add significant value to the graduates universities produce (Noam, 1995). Extracurricular activities such as student government, the newspaper, and cultural events compound the value of the residential educational experience, and that experience will continue to be sought by those who can afford it.
Even so, there is significant risk that the current gold standard, the baccalaureate degree, will soon be devalued or will disappear altogether. Nontraditional providers of education will begin working with employers to define desirable skills and to design educational modules to provide them. As these partnerships emerge, the marketplace value of certificates validating the acquisition of specific skills will increase. They will signify exactly what abilities have been mastered by the holders of those certificates and what employers can expect of them. If higher education cannot defend the baccalaureate degree as certifying specific abilities, employers are increasingly likely to opt for the certainty of certificates which tell them exactly what curricula a student has mastered and exactly what knowledge base a student has. If we believe the baccalaureate degree has significant value, and I do, the challenge is ours to articulate that value and to provide mechanisms of accountability that will ensure that every degree awarded does certify what we contend it does.
We know that one of the most important functions of education is to mold the soul as well as to inform the intellect. I worry that, in focusing on the practical aspects of enabling our students to live productive lives in a knowledge-based economy, we risk paying too little attention to the challenge of enabling our students to live meaningful lives in the world of the future. There is no challenge more daunting or of greater urgency than providing our students the ability to contend with the moral ambiguities of a rapidly changing chaotic world. It is the traditional liberal arts disciplines, especially the humanities and the arts, that often enable students to understand the world. It is those disciplines that provide our best spiritual and psychological moorings and help us to define our place in an uncertain world.
The turbulence of contemporary change is best understood and dealt with against the background of history, literature, and those other timeless disciplines that connect us with the broader human experience. In a world of certificate-based education, we risk losing what may be of greatest value in traditional education. At risk is not just the quality of the lives of students whose education could be short-changed, but the ability of a democratic populous to make informed decisions. The Jeffersonian ideal of an educated democracy requires a breadth of education best provided by the classical liberal arts disciplines.
Towards a Transformed Learning Environment
Because of rising costs, insufficient accountability, and questionable productivity, public confidence in higher education has been declining steadily. Ironically, education will be vastly more important to society in the 21st century than it is today. National economies in the next century will find a competitive advantage in the way they develop, foster, nurture, cultivate, and deploy their brain power. Because of higher education's importance to the economy, questions related to college and university performance will be much more important; we will be scrutinized more closely than ever before and held to more stringent expectations. Education has always been important in enabling people to live meaningful lives, but it has not previously been so essential to a nation's economic productivity. The energy-based economy did not require as much of education as the knowledge-based economy will.
The structural changes precipitated by the information revolution will, therefore, transform what higher education does. For example, the role of the research library is shifting dramatically. The need for archives that make objects such as traditional texts available to scholars and students will increasingly be met through the use of digital technologies, both for storage and delivery. Libraries will become sites of information processing and dissemination as well as storage. In the future, instead of users coming to the library to access information, libraries will deliver information electronically to the user. This shift will require massive investments in technology and an equally great cultural change.
The information revolution is transforming research as well. We have already seen amazing benefits in scientific research through tools such as computer modeling and virtual reality. Emblematic of the breadth of effect that computers are having on scholarship is the burgeoning number of technoloy-based research applications in the humanities and the arts. Applications of digital technology in fields like history and literature are having stunning effects on the quantity and quality of pedagogical material available for the transmission of new knowledge. Software that links historical data with images, sounds, and text gives students and scholars the opportunity to engage subject matter in ways heretofore unthinkable.
Just as the digital revolution is changing libraries and research, it is also changing the way instruction takes place. For its 750-year history, the dominant mode of delivery has been the talking head (i.e., the lecturer standing in front of a group of students). That mode of information delivery makes two simplifying but incorrect assumptions. The first assumption is that every student comes to class with the same level of background preparation. We know, however, that no two students bring the same knowledge base to class, either in a specific field of study or in ancillary areas which provide a richer contextual understanding of the subject being studied. The second assumption is that all students have the same learning style and proceed at the same pace. We know that no two learning styles are exactly the same and that no two students learn at the same pace. In addition, we know that individual students will have varying levels of attention and different degrees of motivation from day to day. An appropriate fusion of technology and pedagogy offers us the opportunity to overcome the negative effects of both of these fallacious assumptions.
Many, including Gregory Farrington and Jack Wilson, have attempted to describe in greater detail than I have here the ways in which technology will change education and scholarship. While it is easy to think in terms of the tools and software available now, it is more difficult and would perhaps be more accurate to imagine the possibilities of our wildest imaginings. They will most likely come true sooner than we think. At the same time, the heart of the university's mission will not change fundamentally. Institutions will continue to manage the conversion of collections of facts and data into knowledge-information structured for innovative uses. What technology will do is transform exponentially the quality, speed, and breadth of our ability to effect that conversion and to convey it to our students and the public.
As it continues, the technological revolution will strengthen the mission of the university as it simultaneously promotes profound structural change. The economics of education may, for example, dictate that in the future we will need fewer full professors. There will be a tendency on the part of many faculty to resist technological change in order to protect their jobs, but market forces will have a stronger say. Proprietary institutions are likely to enter the marketplace first by contracting with the best professors to provide video-based courses with exclusive rights to their distribution and use. A vendor could easily afford to pay a professor an annual license fee of five times her university salary for the exclusive right to market her course. Economies of scale will make such partnerships possible.
Market realities and new pedagogical imperatives will have other far-reaching implications for the internal structure of colleges and universities. Technology will lead to increased research and teaching across disciplines. Traditional boundaries will break down. Technology will have a tremendous impact on criteria for tenure and promotion, workloads, copyright regulations, the research/teaching balance, physical/digital space, public/private partnerships, and assessment (Lanham, 1995). New university structures will also reflect demographic shifts in demand.
Changes in coming-of-age digital technology will, for example, enable the asynchronous delivery of courses at distributed or distant locations to students who could not heretofore travel to a site-specific program. One of the factors driving the rapid increases in the cost of education is the fact that students must present themselves at the same place and same time-repeatedly -for the process to occur. Once course content is digitized, it can be delivered anywhere at any time. E-mail and the Internet provide efficient means of communication and interaction between instructor and student, again asynchronously.
Once the above changes take place, educational institutions will be able to market their products virtually anywhere in the world. State and national boundaries will no longer define an institution's market area. In the United States alone, higher education represents a $175 billion/year market, so the emergence of new technologies will enable and encourage vendors to develop products for it. Other changes (such as it in accreditation and a growing demographic-based demand that current universities will not be able to service) will enable alternative vendors to penetrate markets more quickly.
The thing that has kept competitors out of the higher education market to date has not been so much the capital cost of developing site-specific infrastructure, but the lockhold that accreditation has imposed on existing non-profit higher education institutions. In an action that had the effect of declaring that the emperor has no clothes, Roy Romer, Governor of Colorado, recently challenged the entire institution of accreditation. The governor's staff determined that the population of high school graduates in Colorado would grow by 30% between now and 2010. Alarmed that the state's future in a knowledge-based economy depended on having a well-educated workforce and recognizing that the state had neither time nor the capital necessary to erect new college campuses, Governor Romer convened a meeting of the eleven Western governors to tell them that they faced a similar predicament and to search for common solutions.
As a result of that meeting, the governors decided to create a "virtual university"--The Western Governor's University marrying the resources of their public institutions and linking them via telecommunications. Their intent is to deliver telecommunications-based baccalaureate and specialized training programs throughout their states. As the governors discussed the possibilities, the question was raised whether the program they were setting up would meet accreditation standards. The governors observed that the whole purpose of accreditation is to guarantee quality and that since the governors were concerned about adequately serving their citizens, they were more concerned than anyone about insuring quality. The governors declared that it should be the states, not a self-serving, self-appointed accreditation agency that should decide what was satisfactory for the states and their citizens.
I believe that the Western governors have issued a challenge that will have earth-shaking consequences in higher education. Once the strangle-hold of accreditation is broken, the market will open up for alternative providers and will encourage the development of joint ventures between corporations who could conceivably create a global digital university. In any case, technology and telecommunications are gaining dominance. In addition to the governors of our Western states, the public higher education system in Maine has forged steam ahead with a telecommunications-based higher education curriculum. States will begin to contract with other states for courses and curricula, and very soon every university in the telecommunications business is going to realize that the market is not Colorado or Tennessee, nor is it the United States. It is, in fact, the world.
The challenge to educators is to preserve the essence of traditional education while changing with the times. Our highest obligation to society and to ourselves is to work within the context of change to ensure that it follows a trajectory of maximum benefit to society.
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