Friday, September 4, 2009

Reimagining Higher Education Based on Value (3)

This is the third and final blog on this topic – at least for now. We will revisit this topic again, soon.

I’ll begin by referencing a provocative article, “the good enuf rvlutn” in this month’s Wired magazine by Senior Editor, Robert Capps.

Good Enough is Preferable for Many Products and Experiences. The basic premise of the article is that ubiquitous Web tools are succeeding by providing experiences that are “Good Enough.” Web-based disruptive technologies furnish consumers with a variety of product and service options and consumers are consistently choosing the ones that are not the highest quality, in the traditional sense of the term. Rather, they are choosing the options that provide accessibility, the new killer app. Accessibility is reflected in ease of use, continuous availability, and low price. The Web makes it easier to achieve all of these.

So MP3 tunes replace higher fidelity CD music; Hulu provides access to lower definition TV on your computer, whenever you want it; Kindle provides a reading experience without complex graphics and art but with instant portability for hundreds of titles; netbooks offer puny computing capabilities, but appeal due to accessibility and price; and virtual trade shows powered by solicitous sales avatars are expected to grow 500% this year, fueled by economic concerns and the desire to do business at bargain basement prices.

The same reasoning applies to physical products, such as Single Use Digital Cameras and stripped-down camcorders (Pure Digital’s Flip Ultra). Light and nimble products are highly popular in the afterglow of the worst economic downturn in 70 years.

The Good Enough effect is also reflected in more serious minded concerns, like healthcare. For example, consider a new initiative by Kaiser Permanente, the largest not-for profit medical organization in the country. For years, Kaiser Permanente has relied on building complete, self-sustaining hospitals, employing 50 doctors or more, offering one-stop shopping for a region. But since Kaiser has digitized all patient records, prescriptions, and supporting information, it could consider a distributed model of linking regional hospitals to smaller community-based clinics. So it has started to establish two-person micro-clinics in strip malls. These clinics can perform 80% of the functions. No pharmacy, no radiology, no receptionist – just a full-service kiosk. To receive services not provided by the local clinic, Kaiser members can go to a full-service Kaiser regional facility if they need one. The prototype has worked well and functions at roughly half the per-member cost of a regular Kaiser facility. Adapting this model will enable Kaiser to attract and serve many additional members – all at a reduced overall cost. It's building the first prototype in Hawaii.

So “Good Enough” is right for the times. Web 2.0-based technologies reinvent physical products and Web-based experiences, and redefine “value” for customers that value accessibility, convenience, and a lower price. Given options, people choose the alternative that best fits their personal value proposition. Good enough is not just satisfactory; it is often preferable. Unneeded "quality" is both wasteful and unnecessary in many situations.

Starting Off the Radar Screen. The Good Enough effect is the heart of Clayton Christensen’s message about disruptive innovations. Such innovations often start by offering existing customers greater convenience and amenity, making up for what they lack in “quality” by the traditional meaning of the term in that setting. Or they reach potential customers that have not been able to achieve or afford access to the existing offerings. Often these solutions develop off the radar screen of the market leaders. But they don’t stay there for long.

Good Enough in Higher Education – One-Stop Shopping. Higher education has seen Good Enough in operation for some time. In the late 1980’’s the University of Delaware used the occasion of implementing a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to re-imagine its approach to student services. It reconsidered the conditions under which students needed to talk to student services and policy specialists. Using the capacity of the new IT systems to manage and share knowledge more effectively, the University restored and converted an historic school house near campus to serve as a “one-stop-shop center” for student services. Rather than talking to specialized student affairs professionals, students were to meet with cross-trained customer service professionals who used the ERP systems to address every student need from parking tickets to pre-registration advice. Students needing real policy expertise were referred to policy specialists, over in the administration building. Students loved the convenience and didn’t mind talking to non-experts to solve most problems, then accepting a referral when necessary. Good Enough was, sure enough, good enough.

Over time, students began to access the university's on-line systems while waiting in line for a customer service agent, using the terminals lkining the walls in the one-stop center. Progressively, more and more forms, processes and procedures were moved on-line, and students made another “good enough” choice: they migrated from assisted service to self-service. Today, the University seeks to achieve the “90-8-2” standard: 90% of student problems can be solved in a full self-service mode, 8 % require some minimal assistance by staff, and 2% require a serious support effort by an expert staff person. The one-stop shop has been again transformed by “good enough.”

Good Enough in Learning. For the past two decades, many colleges and universities have been progressively increasing their use of adjunct faculty and shifting the balance of their faculty and teaching staff rosters. Driven inexorably by the need to control costs, adjuncts have proven “good enough” as part of the faculty mix.

The “good enough” concept has also been deployed in reinventing academic courses. The National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) has utilized technology-enabled redesign to shift responsibilities from full-time faculty in traditional lectures to teaching assistants, mentors, and other staff or to avatars, intelligent agents, bodies of knowledge, and other means of accessing knowledge, answering questions, and building competence. The roles of faculty have been deconstructued and reconstruicted in a multitude of combinations. All of these reinventions have been engineered by faculty working with the NCAT team. The “studio model for teaching mathematics has been particularly successful, producing better results (faster learning, higher proficiency) at lower costs. Sometimes “good enough” has proven actually to be better.

The academic model followed by the Western Governors’ University, University of Phoenix, and British Open University have all deconstructed and reinvented the role of faculty. The traditional model held that top quality was assured by having full-time faculty, content experts responsible for course design, instruction, testing, mentoring, and certification of competence. The deconstructed model used a single body of knowledge and standards of learning for all instances of a course, and used faculty as mentors to guide learners along their path. The result has been greater student satisfaction, consistency, and lower cost. All around, a better value.

There are still some faculty skeptics who believe that the only way to assure a “quality” result in learning is to have a full-time faculty content expert standing in front of a class of 25 students. But the truth is that technology enables other options that are not just “good enough” but often a much better value.

The Opportunity: Deconstructing and Experimenting with New Value Options. In earlier blogs we discussed the opportunity provided by President Obama’s plans to invest $500 M in developing open course materials, building on the open courseware materials developed by MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, and other institutions.

If these enhanced materials were made available as a utility to institutions all over the United States (and the world), they could create a pool of reimagined online courses that could become a critical part of the offerings in high schools, colleges and universities, corporate learning settings, and competence building in other settings. Some institutions could agree to use this body of knowledge and practice in all instances of its courses on particular subjects, and reinvent the roles of faculties and mentors, driving down the tuition that would be needed to be charged for such courses. Consider the following virtuous possibilities made possible by such a network of reimagined practices:

• Institutions could rethink and simplify their course offerings, especially in the core curriculum, and increase their flexibility; hybrid courses could become standard practice;

• Institutions could build greater flexibility into their ability to grow enrollments in particular courses, given the relative ease of rolling out additional online sections, themselves, or relying on other online providers;

• Participating institutions could provide their online resources and faculty mentors to be part of an “electricity grid for elearning” where demand greater than can be met by local resources in institutions could be furnished by surplus supply from other institutions or by institutions that consciously build surplus capacity;

• Institutions could reduce their own course offerings in disciplines where they were weak and provide the stronger offerings from other institutions; and

• Institutions could guarantee the ability of students to enroll in the courses they need, when they need then and even enable registering in advance to secure a full year’s schedule.

To provide optimal value, these offerings would need to be made available at reduced price points.

A Bonus for Public Institutions: The Ability to Grow on Tuition Alone. One of the banes of public colleges and universities has been the roller coaster ride of state funding: up in economic good times, down in recessions, requiring mid-year cuts, rescissions, and freezes. Such institutions often end up trimming course offerings at the very time that enrollment demand is rising.

If an electricity grid for learning infrastructure were in place it could utilize cadres of adjunct faculty, mentors and practitioners under the supervision of seasoned faculty, and reduce the marginal cost/price of rolling out an additional section to the point where it was less that the tuition price. In this circumstance, enrollments could grow even in economic downtimes.

Some variation on this theme must be part of a sustainable financial solution for public colleges and universities, moving forward. Institutions need to have the flex and access to surplus supply to be able to accommodate learner needs. Suppose an institution has 10 additional interested students for a section of Econ 101, on top of the 10 sections already filled with 30 students in each. Using the electricity grid, it could either attract 10 students from other surplus demand institutions or allow its 10 students to enroll in the online course at another participating institution.

When Michael Dolence and I wrote Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century, deconstructing and reimagining the roles of content-expert faculty was one of our primary points of focus. Web 2.0 tools are making that promise a reality.

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