Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Reimagining Higher Education Based on Value (2) – New Perspectives Are Needed

Let’s start again where we left off in the last blog. Reimagining higher education requires taking a fresh look at what the future might be, post-recession. This will be a world in which most industries – healthcare, agriculture, financial services, real estate, manufacturing, energy, and even education - will be under tremendous pressure to be more productive. Most will have realigned their processes and practices to more competitive, cost-and-price-sensitive environments.

For K-20 education to thrive, it must realign its perspective in the following ways, which are reflected in the figure at the end of the blog:

Utilize Resources in New Ways. William Bowen characterized universities as “like a chamber music orchestra, a complex, interacting mechanism of many interconnecting parts,” which is one reason why it is difficult for them to save money. He also famously noted that “Universities raise all the money they can and spend all the money they raise.” For the past several decades, in the face of declining public support, university presidents have been pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion in raising external resources. While they must continue to assure adequate resources, an additional perspective is needed.

To thrive post-recession, leaders will need to focus on “optimizing value in an environment of resource scarcity.” Figuring out how to stretch existing resources through new approaches will be the new zeitgeist of the times.

• Evolve a Culture of Performance Measurement and Improvement. Most academic institutions are in the midst of evolving from a culture of reporting to a culture of evidence. Other professions, such as medicine, are already practicing “evidence-based medicine” and are evolving toward a culture of performance measurement and improvement, where the emphasis is on achieving successful outcomes through the most economical and effective means, carefully measured and demonstrated. This approach has yet to penetrate many practices, but it is regarded as the way of the future.

Higher education is heading down this path as well. But we lag behind medicine. Savvy leaders are positioning their institutions to focus on improving performance, changing practices to do so.

• Focus on Value. Most institutional leaders are committed to “quality,” but not to “performance.” For many institutions, success is measured in traditional ways: 1) benchmarking against a group of peer institutions, 2) copying successful programs and practices; 3) targeting comparative levels of resources, faculty salaries, and other traditional measures of quality and success. The driving force is quality, often equated with resource inputs and success on various ranking schemes.

On the other hand, value consists of a combination of: 1) the nature and quality of outcomes, 2) the essence of the experiences through which these outcomes are achieved, and 3) the cost/price associated with them. Quality is a monologue between peer reviewers and their perception of the institution. Value is a dialogue between each stakeholder and the institution. Our goal should be to optimize value delivered in continuing environments of resource scarcity.

• Differentiate Offerings. Traditionally, institutions create courses, certificates, and degrees and offer them to learners, who select what is on offer. This is mass education. Learners do have some capacity to tailor these offerings to meet individual needs, but not much. Over time, learners have achieved the capacity to receive credit for prior learning or courses from other institutions, to customize parts of their learning experiences, to select fresh certificate programs designed to meet emerging market needs, and other variations within the existing course/degree model.

The post-recession environment will likely require providers to furnish the capacity to customize their learning experiences. This will include the topics and contents covered, but also the learning experiences. Does your institution enable me to come to campus just one day a week? Can I test out of specific competences I’ve already achieved? Can I receive credit for high school concurrent enrollments and accelerate my progress to graduate with my baccalaureate in three years? Can I take courses online from another university if I cannot register for the offerings I need to maintain my progress? Can I lock in a schedule a year in advance if I pay earnest money for the privilege? This is mass customization and will differentiate institutions from one another.

Use Partnerships with Other Providers, Online Learning, and Open Educational Resources. Today, many institutions cover a full range of disciplines, including those in which they are not distinguished. This is not sustainable. Post-recession, the most successful institutions will figure out how to focus faculty and research positions in areas in which they are distinguished, and rely on other institutions for offerings in other areas. Many of these will be provided through technology and some may be at significantly lower price points.

For example, a university would achieve competitive advantage if it decided to focus on those disciplines in which it demonstrated real strength, and offered courses in other disciplines in partnership with institutions that were distinguished in that area. Or the institution might choose to provide on-line courses from a for-profit provider. Or it could enable students enrolled at the university to participate in an online community of practice-based learning experience from another institution. The availability on a national utility of online open resources would help in building such capabilities across a range of academic disciplines.

• Become Transparent and Accountable. A key part of a achieving a culture of measurement and performance is providing access to information that really demonstrates value. Most institutions are awash in data, but make it difficult for learners, their families, outside policy makers, and public stakeholders to compare value at different institutions.

In the post-recession environment, learners, their families, and other stakeholders will demand greater transparency. The early signs of this are demonstrated by the Transparency by Design initiative currently being supported by the Presidents Forum group. In future, learners will require a much more detailed comparison of the capacity of institutions to meet their disciplinary and mass customization needs.

• Fast, Fluid, Flexible, and Affordable. Most institutions are currently based on a “take what we offer on our terms” model. When Michael Dolence and I wrote Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century, we suggested that higher education needs to become “fast, fluid, and flexible.” This battle cry was taken up by educators who applied our principles to their institutions . These included many of the for-profit learning providers. Post-recession, institutions need to become “fast, fluid, flexible, and (a)ffordable” if they are to appeal to learners.

This is not beyond our reach. Many of the for-profit institutions have established more flexible learner services, tailored offerings, and convenience customized for the working learner. If we deploy these tools and techniques, we could dramatically enhance the service capacities of institutions. The next generation of Web 2.0-based technologies will make it even easier to mashup learner services in ways that have proven impossible for tightly integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

Systematically Seek Systemic Solutions. Traditionally, institutions have taken a decentralized, siloed approach to solutions. Even successful innovations were seldom scaled to the entire institution. Colleges and universities dealt with the remediation problems that were passed to them by K-12, rather than systemically addressing the issues in the K-20 system.

In order to thrive in lifting out of recession, we are going to have to address both institutional solutions and systemic, cross-institutional solutions. We even will need to address cross-sectoral issues that span K-20 and deal with learning and workforce issues. Virtually every state in the United States has significant K-20 and workforce initiatives underway. These efforts need to be enhanced, redirected, and made part of every institution’s overarching strategy if we are to succeed in repositioning American higher education to thrive in the post-recession global economy.

The next blog will revisit the issue of Reimagining Higher Education Based on Value. We will focus on the different ways of transforming academic productivity and content to reduce costs and elevate value.

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