Wired posted a provocative headline earlier this month: Colleges Need to Act Like Startups — Or Risk Becoming Obsolete.
The authors note three factors key to success of start-up organizations — three factors that the modern university can draw upon: density, shared resources, and nurturing communities.
On shared resources, the authors note:
Many successful education and innovation initiatives minimize expenses by pooling resources: faculty, research personnel, administrative services, coaching, labs, prototyping facilities, and more. Meanwhile, universities have become too bloated to properly allocate their own resources… And they don’t pool resources regionally or nationally (with other colleges) to enforce tuition differentials. If universities are to stay relevant here, they need to recognize their competition isn’t just other universities anymore. - Wired Magazine, March 5, 2014
Certainly, universities have been doing this more and more, especially within the online space, though perhaps at not a fast-enough rate as they need to (and yet certainly at a faster rate than the independent school community).
As universities move into the online space collaboratively, they seem to do so for three distinct, though not unrelated, reasons: to enhance teaching and learning on campus, to expand program and opportunity, and to mitigate costs of teaching and learning (either from a cost neutral or expense reduction perspective).
Enhance Teaching and Learning on Campus
Many elite universities have been seeing online learning as way to understand how in-classroom education can get better. This may come as a surprise to some, but even the folks at Harvard and Dartmouth do not think that they know “the best” way to teach.
We view our commitment to offer a small set of open online courses as part of a systematic and strategic effort to utilize technology to enrich our traditional model of teaching and learning.
Specifically, we see joining the edX consortium as an opportunity to build competencies, skills, experience and the infrastructure necessary to create and improve digital materials that faculty can utilize in their teaching with our enrolled students. This digital toolset for teaching may include recorded lectures and presentations, assessments, and exercises. Gaining experience with developing teaching materials for open online learning will enable all of our faculty to access this infrastructure and expertise for all of their courses.
Participating in teaching at scale can also help in-person learning if we are able to utilize the data generated in open online courses. We need to understand what sort of teaching methods effectively support student learning. These data can be analyzed and then acted upon in changing how we create learning materials and how we introduce formative and summative assessment. The idea is to move towards an evidence-based approach for teaching practices. - Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2014
In the independent school community, we see good examples of this, as well. St. Mary’s Episcopal School in Memphis has encouraged faculty members to engage in online education by teaching (five St. Mary’s teachers teach for the Online School for Girls in student or professional development courses), and taking online courses (more than thirty faculty members have taken online OSG professional development courses). The results? Faculty incorporate online learning techniques into the courses, and students engage in online and blended course work regularly (more than thirty students at St. Mary’s are taking online courses with the Online School for Girls this year). In addition, faculty are encouraged to experiment and tinker in classrooms and share successes and failures. Leadership at the school has created a culture of innovation — and has used online education to spur innovation in the classroom.
Expand Program and Opportunity
The ability to expand program and opportunity for students is perhaps the most readily apparent benefit to schools, and the easiest entry into online education consortium for all constituent groups on a campus — faculty and administrators typically are not threatened when they see online education purely as a program enhancement, and students and families welcome the increased opportunities.
This week, when the Council of Independent Colleges announced a new consortium for online course work, many school leaders noted that it allowed their institution to “go bigger” without “going big”:
“It helps us go bigger by not going big,” said Jo Ellen Parker, president of Sweet Briar College. “We want to teach more than we can. We know that the strength [of small colleges] is the very personalized kind of learning — the high level of learning, the intensity of the relationships. We know there’s that strength, but operating at that scale that we’re deeply committed to, it does sometimes limit some of the topics, some of the courses that we might be able to offer.” - Inside Higher Ed, March 19, 2014
And, other presidents noted that consortium building was not without challenges — in particular, the need to think about education differently — but accomplished more easily when working with like-minded schools:
“Collaboration is hard,” said R. Richard Ray Jr., provost of Hope College in Holland, Mich. “Everybody wants to collaborate, everybody can see the value in collaboration, but when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty of having to do it, it often means changing what you’re doing in the present to do something different in the future.”
Yet Hope will apply both to the CIC and to Teagle, Ray said. The college has yet to come up with specific plans, but Ray said he looked forward to taking advantage of small colleges’ “natural affinities” and “shared DNA” to help one another. - Inside Higher Ed, March 19, 2014
The opportunities and the challenges are reflective of experience in the independent school community. Change to current educational practice is eased when affinity schools collaborate — as we have seen at the Online School for Girls. And, there is strength added to institutions by thinking and acting “bigger” (collectively).
What has been interesting about collective work on curriculum is that one fear — how will our institution be different if we are working on classes together? — has not materialized in practice, in large part because each institution has used the consortium differently. That is, whereas the collective power has allowed the group of institutions to be “bigger” than any one, the differentiation in how a school has used the consortium has allowed for an individual identity to shine, and resources on each campus to be used more effectively.
For example, The Hockaday School has used the consortium to get “bigger” in computer science offerings (among other areas). The Archer School for Girls has enhanced AP course offerings and transitioned some AP courses to the online space. St. Andrew’s Priory has used the consortium to allow students to be off-campus more frequently to explore internships and engage with the city of Honolulu. The list goes on… In each case, the consortium allowed the school to enhance offerings and to concentrate on what it can do well (its unique advantages) on its own campus.
Mitigate Costs for Teaching and Learning
Not unrelated to the ability to expand program and opportunity is the trend at the higher education level to do so while mitigate costs for teaching and learning. The new Council of Independent Colleges consortium has this in mind from the start, as Eugene Tobin from the Mellon Foundation (a primary grantor for the initiative) notes:
We believe this is the moment to explore whether liberal arts colleges can effectively use online learning to enhance their core missions… In order to do so, we need to learn more about the kinds of developmental programs that will encourage faculty members (beyond early adopters) to embrace the potential of new digital pedagogies in their teaching and scholarship and whether the use of new approaches improve student learning outcomes without increasing costs. - Inside Higher Education, March 19, 2014
This point is important: colleges are looking not to simply replace what happens on-campus by working in consortium, but to enhance while thinking about cost structures differently.
For the independent school community, this understanding is key. Like colleges, independent schools cannot offer all things to all families, and yet with tuitions reaching $50,000 for boarding schools and $35,000 for day schools in major metropolitan areas, parents and students believe that our schools should be able to offer everything to everyone (in part because better funded public schools or charter schools seem to). And yet, the typical independent school already sees 65-75% of expenses in faculty/staff salaries and benefits. So, the ability to build new program for a few students is limited unless one can do so not just one’s own campus, but across a consortium. In order for a school to build program for specialized needs at the same (or a reduced) cost as current operation, the school has to build program off of a variable cost model (student enrollment in course) rather than a fixed cost model (faculty teaching section), and shift expenditures accordingly.
We have seen independent schools do just that. Instead of offering Multivariable Calculus, or AP Computer Science, or AP Chinese to two or three or four students on campus at a cost of a faculty section, they are now offering the courses online via the consortium. This change has reduced costs for particular, specific courses, which has, in turn, allowed the school to find cost savings (if needed), or be able to expand program more broadly through other online (variable cost) offerings at no net increased cost.
This shift to a model that involves variable cost for instruction is one that requires engagement across a school administration and transparency with and for faculty. Heads of School need to understand the model, generally, and often need to encourage the academic and operations teams at the school to work together towards solutions that work well for a particular institution.
Regardless of positioning within the school, there is a requirement to think about teaching and learning from a new perspective. Operations leaders (primarily the business officer) must think about costs of teaching and learning not tied directly to faculty/staff employee costs, and thus must shift budget models in both the short and long term to reflect this. Academic leaders must become comfortable with the idea that all academic program does not need to originate and be delivered on their own campus, and they must think about long range staffing/hiring models that incorporate more variable instructional costs. Perhaps, most importantly, the operations side of the school must work hand-in-hand with the educational size of the school in ways that they have not done before. The business officer needs to work toward an understanding the school’s academic strengths, mission/uniqueness, and pedagogical approach. And, the academic leaders must work toward a greater understanding of the business operations of a school. As a result, both should be at the table (with a strong voice) when course sectioning, curricular offerings, and programs are decided.
There are now models out there — specific schools and consortia — who are engaging in constructive ways to work together. And yet, there could be more, as many within and outside of the independent school community have noted (and David Cutler recently blogged about).
It seems time for schools to ask a simple question whenever they plan to embark on a new initiative or re-think an existing one: do we have to go it alone?