Higher Ed 2.0

Emory finds its voice in the national 'relevance debate'

Dante Terzigni

Call it sensational, but it had the intended effect. On September 9 of last year, a Newsweek cover demanded, “Is College a Lousy Investment?”

It is a question that would have been unthinkable in the historic period of growth that higher education experienced in the aftermath of World War II. Then, it was perceived as a public good and not—as some consider it now—a private benefit conferring economic reward.

For close observers of higher education, the negative turn is now decades old, starting after 1970 as critics began voicing concerns over unchecked expansion. In the 1980s and 1990s, the drumbeat continued when the costs of attending college outstripped the economic returns. And certainly since 2008, the pressures on the industry have been accelerated by the economic downturn and shrinking government support for research.

Even before the economy faltered, the US Department of Education issued a 2006 report titled “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of US Higher Education.” One sentence stands out: “What we have learned  .  .  . makes clear that American higher education has become what, in the business world, would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive.” Issues that higher education sometimes has seemed slow to address include runaway prices, chronic inefficiencies, uneven outcomes, lifetime faculty tenure, arcane research, and scattered authority.

The uncertainty even has breached ivory tower walls. A survey of the American public and of more than a thousand college and university presidents, conducted this past spring by the Pew Research Center in association with the Chronicle of Higher Education, revealed significant concerns not only about the costs of education but also about its direction and goals.

Harvard colleagues Richard Chait and Clayton M. Christensen famously have taken positions on either side of the relevance debate, as it has come to be known. In the July–August 2011 edition of Harvard Magazine, Christensen and Michael B. Horn lit the fuse with the article “Colleges in Crisis: Disruptive Change Comes to American Higher Education.”

Christensen and Horn point to a failed business model in which—among other things—undergraduate tuition has risen at a 6.3 percent annual rate for nearly the past three decades. That is even faster than the 4.9 percent annual increases in health care costs. For years, philanthropy, earnings off endowment, and federal subsidies made this problem less visible to students and families, but the chickens were coming home to roost, pundits warned.

As traditional universities guarded their eggs, the enrollments of online providers were swelling along with their coffers. Roughly 10 percent of students took at least one online course in 2003, compared with 32 percent today.

That shift, experts say, bears watching. “Typically,” write Christensen and Horn, “the existing and established players in a sector do not survive battles of disruptive innovation; upstart companies utilizing the disruption upend them. Rather than recognize these disruptive innovations as exciting new opportunities, the established players characteristically regard them as mere sideshows to their core operations.”

The article sparked the rebuttal “Bullish on Private Colleges: On the Enduring Strengths of Institutions of Higher Education,” by Chait and Zachary First. In their view, the academy cannot be wholly governed by the strategies and practices of for-profit corporations. “The business mindset conditions outsiders to expect powerful CEOs, comprehensive strategies, precise directives, systematic execution, and rapid response,” they write. “Instead, artful leadership on campus unfolds tentatively, ambiguously, gradually, and somewhat obscurely.”

To Chait and First, the threat was not coming from for-profit institutions or online providers. Instead, they identified four key risks to traditional universities: expanded authority for two-year colleges to offer four-year degrees; greater resource disparities between four-year colleges and research universities; the possibility that federal and state financial aid will become performance-based—payable upon commencement, not enrollment; and the prospect that the wealthiest colleges and universities virtually will eliminate undergraduate tuition.

But the authors’ advice, ultimately, was to accept the current system’s oddities and outright contradictions. “Welcome to Wonderland,” they said—although not everyone was reassured.

Changing the conversation

What factors allow Emory to feel calm amid this storm? President James Wagner believes we are at a moment when universities need to address societal expectations, especially with regard to discouraging some students’ and parents’ overemphasis on immediate gratification—the shorthand for which is, Can you get me a job immediately after graduation?

Though creating a path for students to be meaningfully employed always will be a key emphasis, an Emory education is more than vocational training, more than private benefit. The president, however, acknowledges that society has come to devalue the role of universities as leaders of thought innovation and creativity.

“We must attend not only to what society wants, but its needs as well,” he says. “Our mission is not to preserve the universities. Instead, we have the opportunity to be knowledge engines serving society.”

One of Emory’s differentiators is that it strives to be a research university infused with the liberal arts. Even as that remains an unbeatable combination to many potential students, there are those—according to Doug Bowman, professor of marketing at Goizueta Business School—who consider Emory to be in the difficult business of “selling the intangible.” Bowman recommends that schools link the “learning-how-to-learn skills”—Emory’s proud liberal arts base—to tangible outcomes.

The pressures on the university’s research function mirror those on the education side of the house. For instance, any number of people ask, Can Emory’s world-renowned research solve the immediate problems of illness and disease?

“There is less understanding than ever,” says the president, “of the sometimes complex, time-consuming, and nonlinear paths that must be forged to such solutions.”

Despite the market and societal forces at work and attempts by the media to sound warning bells about higher education’s future, Emory is charting a future consistent with the university’s past, and yet alive to opportunity—what Claire Sterk, appointed provost last January, calls “healthy change.”

Leaders share a conviction that Emory can play a role in championing, in the president’s words, nothing less than “a reawakening of the purpose of universities.”

“That,” he says, “is where we can be disruptive. We must create, preserve, teach, and apply knowledge in the service of humanity. That is our only rule. We will bring the best of the past and the opportunities of the future to doing that.”

Wagner points to a number of ways in which Emory already is being disruptive, including a financial support program for middle-class families, the many areas of partnership and collaboration with Georgia Institute of Technology, and a renewed emphasis on and commitment to the humanities across disciplines and programs.

Emory leaders also have continually evaluated the university’s business practices, believing that change in this realm could better support future efforts on the academic and research sides. One quiet force behind Emory’s gradual, deliberate evolution is Mike Mandl, executive vice president of business and administration and the primary architect of the university’s operations process.

Cleaving to Emory’s intended course is a constant theme for Mandl. “There are great opportunities to innovate consistent with our mission,” he says.

One of those innovations involves the exploration of online education and its potential for the future. According to Sterk, Emory has been engaged in online teaching and learning for more than a decade, especially in the schools of business, public health, and theology.

“At times online education is presented as being in response to having a student generation socialized and raised with technology,” Sterk says. “However, studies on teaching and learning as well as our students’ own voices show that it is part of a portfolio of teaching and learning, as opposed to the solution.”

In September 2012, Emory and sixteen other institutions signed an agreement with the online education provider Coursera. The latter is going gangbusters; a recent blog post ticked off its new additions, which included twenty-nine new schools, ninety-two new courses, and five languages. For a company that made its first course offerings in March 2012, the growth is remarkable. They even coined a term for their students—Courserians.

Emory has begun the process of determining what existing courses may be best suited to online. Lynn Zimmerman, senior vice provost for undergraduate and continuing education, acknowledges that it was a whirlwind relationship at the start with Coursera and that the university had three weeks to define its first three courses—commonly referred to as MOOCs, or massive open online courses—which ended up being on digital sound design, immigration and US citizenship, and AIDS.

For Steve Everett, professor of music and past director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, the experience of teaching the course on digital sound design was like nothing else in his career. The classroom course always has been small, consisting of roughly fifteen students; online, Everett had forty-two thousand students. Close to two thousand enrollees had sufficient mastery of the material that they could be considered TAs helping Everett teach the course. Moreover, his online students asked him challenging new questions, ones he had not heard in years of teaching.

To Everett, there is an altruistic component to Emory’s online presence and the idea of bringing knowledge to places in the world where it could not go otherwise. He also mentions the favorable ways in which online courses can extend a professor’s research profile, which in turn benefits the home institution.

The litmus test for Everett is whether “online can be as good or better than the classroom experience.” And in that regard, initial signs are good—at least according to anecdotal reports.

Nicole Dzuris 15PH got her introduction to Emory online. Dzuris—now a first-year student in environmental epidemiology at the School of Public Health—took Emory’s AIDS course, offered through Coursera just after she had applied to Emory. She is well schooled in online learning, having taken courses on the food system, vaccines, principles of public health, and sustainability from the University of California, University of Illinois, and Johns Hopkins University. At the time Dzuris took the AIDS course, she lived in Seoul and found it convenient to watch the course on her phone as she took the subway to work.

What are the advantages of online ed? Dzuris talks about the ease of sampling classes to see if the future investment of time is warranted and the ability to replay lectures when needed. In Dzuris’s eyes, the AIDS class was “amazingly effective advertising for Emory.” Dzuris couldn’t come to the open house at the School of Public Health after she was accepted because she was still abroad; no matter. The AIDS course introduced her to faculty members beyond Kimberly Hagan, the instructor of record, and provided “a very warm welcome to Emory.”

Zimmerman reports that the relationship with Coursera has settled into a mature union. Emory’s process of choosing courses has been defined: the Faculty Advisory Committee on Online Education (FACOE), with representation from all the schools, makes recommendations to the provost. When an open call went out to faculty to join the committee, eighty-four people raised their hands, from which fifteen went on to serve along with ex officio members from University Technology Services and Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching.

And Emory has heeded Bowman’s advice when it comes to identifying online courses. To pass muster with FACOE, each proposal must include a video of the instructor. Content must be presented in fifteen-minute segments, interspersed with quizzes and activities. And Emory’s online faculty are being coached by a Shakespearean actor—Kevin Quarmby, assistant professor of English at Oxford College.

Faculty also have begun to experiment with “flipping the classroom,” or using online delivery for more traditional in-class content, such as lectures, so that class time may be devoted to interactive discussion, problem solving, and group work. That reversal process “naturally builds up the skills that will improve our online offerings,” Bowman says.

For the president, ensuring faculty growth and student success is important, but he also is interested in how online learning will affect Emory’s community. It should never be, in his words, that we “have an internal and external community. Instead, fourteen thousand students will benefit from the input of hundreds of thousands of students if we do this right.”

Credit where it’s due

Another Emory partner in the online realm is 2U, or Semester Online. 2U announced for-credit courses in April of this year. Students who enroll in 2U classes pay the same amount as students attending in person and receive credit.

Emory’s fall courses—its first—are on drugs and behavior, and baseball in American culture. According to Sterk, “The Emory courses focus on topics that show our distinctiveness.” Emory’s Course Atlas lists Semester Online courses available to Emory students at partner institutions, including Boston College, Northwestern, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Notre Dame, and Washington University in Saint Louis.

Reliable assessment is critical. Student attrition is as high as 90 percent for some MOOCs, and remains a problem even in smaller courses when compared with classroom learning. David Jordan, Emory’s director of the Office of Institutional Research, Planning, and Effectiveness, says that assessment will be required for Coursera courses; however, Emory’s priority will be the Semester Online courses because they are offered for credit. Though Jordan can point to credible research about how online education outcomes sometimes outpace traditional classroom learning, he acknowledges that schools involved in Semester Online have a unique opportunity.

“No assessments of online learning yet have been done by a consortium of schools at the quality level of Emory and our Semester Online partners,” he says. Each school will send its own faculty and student surveys at the end of the fall term, including questions from Semester Online about the online platform and its effectiveness. The partner schools then will share data with one another.

Still, online and for-credit is complicated, and becomes especially so when those courses come from an online provider, because that encroaches on traditional territory of universities. It looked for a time as if online providers would successfully push universities to award academic credit to students in MOOCs created by those third-party providers. But a recent headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education read, “The MOOC ‘Revolution’ May Not Be as Disruptive as Some Had Imagined.” According to reporter Steve Kolowich, “Political, regulatory, administrative, and faculty barriers to the kind of unfettered online education that MOOC promoters originally envisioned have proved quite high, and it’s starting to look as if what they have to offer to universities may be technology tools and services that are more helpful than revolutionary.”

And that is exactly what has unfolded close to home: Georgia Institute of Technology recently made the front page of the Sunday New York Times by offering a master’s degree in computer science through MOOC courses for a fraction of the on-campus cost—$6,600 rather than $45,000. Georgia Tech will provide the content and professors and receive 60 percent of the revenue, while Udacity—its online partner—will provide the computer platform and course assistants and receive 40 percent. The projected budget for the program, which will start in January, is $3.1 million—including $2 million donated by AT&T, which will use the program to train employees and find potential hires.

The Times article quotes Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, who notes, “Georgia Tech is exceptionally important because it’s a prestigious institution offering an important degree at very low cost with a direct connection to a Fortune 100 corporation that will use it to fill their pipeline. It addresses a lot of the issues about universities that the public cares about. But how good and how transferable it is remains to be seen.”

Georgia Tech President G. P. “Bud” Peterson recently swapped stories about online education with Wagner during a broader conversation about the partnership between Emory and Tech. They agreed that online education must be handled with care, but the potential advantages are exciting—including the diversity of students it can create, such as working professionals taking the same course with undergraduates.

“It’s an experiment,” Peterson said. “If it works, it will open up the possibility that students can have an international experience anywhere on the planet and not risk falling behind. It opens up the possibility that we could have more students without having to expand facilities.”

When online delivers quality consistent with Emory’s mission, Sterk is a supporter. “It is not Coursera or 2U,” she says. “Rather, it is our mission expressed through these means that gives us a natural advantage.”

For Emory, it appears, progress is not about revolution, but evolution. On the one hand, the university is flipping classrooms and developing Courserians. Yet it remains true to an identity and mission forged during the better part of two centuries.

“We are called upon to safeguard and advance the value of thriving processes of scholarship, discovery, and innovation in all their glorious, complex inefficiency,” says Mandl, “despite tremendous upheaval in economics, technology, and society.”

And whatever Emory’s future might look like, its leaders agree on its heart and soul.

“We will improve and advance,” says Sterk, “through our people. Technology will assist with that, but people will make it happen.”

Email the Editor

Share This Story