Building programmes of study

For most of this year, I’ve been working with my colleagues to put together some big piles of documentation for the official university validation of our new degree programmes (Politics and Sociology and Politics and Economics for undergrads, European Politics and Policy and International Politics for Masters).

For those of you not familiar with the British system, students enroll for a specific degree programme, which has a defined programme of study. The university allows departments (who run these degrees) to advertise and accept registrations on the basis of a relatively short outline validation document, but before students actually start, then there has to be an extensive process of detailing individual modules, learning & teaching strategies, pedagogical and pastoral support for students, resource implications, finances, and much more. In addition, since our MScs will replace our MA programmes, we’re also required to produce a critical reflection over the past years of operation, to show how we’ve addressed issues and how that has informed our switch to the new degrees, and the validation panel will also be talking to current students to get their input to the process.

In short, it’s a big pile of work.

I will not complain about the volume of work, since I have not been the one doing it: that has fallen to my colleagues who are the programme directors. Instead, I want to consider one of the more difficult issues that this process has highlighted, namely creating a programme of study.

When we own and run a module, then it’s not so hard to build an integrated and reinforcing structure to support student learning in a particular direction: we run the classes, set the assessment and are basically left to get on with it.

In contrast, a degree brings together many instructors (each with their individual modules), plus a set of learning objectives that are – by definition – much broader and open than in a module. Add to this the involvement of other teaching departments and you can see the potential for not quite hitting the target (to put it mildly).

The solution is largely one of communication. Our teaching teams have spent many hours in meetings (formal and informal) discussing how we will make the whole into more than the sum of its parts. This means looking at overlaps, reinforcement, approaching topics in different ways and using different tools, as well as building programme-level sessions to ensure that all students are given a robust platform for their learning. We’ve had a hard look at different practices, to see if we can roll them out more widely, as well as shamelessly being like magpies and taking good ideas that we find elsewhere.

Indeed, the entire validation process is about communication too: our meetings next week will involve external assessors, who will talk to us about what we’re doing, coming with a critical eye and constructive advice.

As always in these things, until we actually run the programmes, we won’t know either the full potential or the possible difficulties, but we are go into that phase with a high degree of confidence that we have a programme that will work in continuing to let us try out lots of good and innovative practice. And that makes all that paperwork worthwhile.

What Is Political Science

Michael Brintnall, APSA executive director, talked to TLC attendees earlier today about the need for those who teach politics to act with a disciplinary voice in shaping the undergraduate political science curriculum. Historically, decisions about what a student should learn about the practice and analysis of politics have been left to individual departments and faculty. However, our students are increasingly cobbling together their college educations from a variety of institutions and professors. Without systematic agreement on what constitutes a minimally sufficient baseline of political knowledge, it’s more likely that students will leave college with significant gaps in their understanding.

I find this subject particularly relevant — I work at a university in which political science majors are not required to take a course in comparative politics or international relations. Since majors aren’t required to take these courses, many of them don’t. I can guess that similar situations exist at other institutions.

Trouble, Trouble, Toil, and Bubble

The January 2013 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics contains an interesting symposium on the “The Troubled Future of Colleges and Universities.” All of the contributors come from the elite universities that are the best insulated from having to adapt to a changing higher education environment, so it’s easy to dismiss what they say as the typical incessant and irrelevant hand-wringing of Ivory Tower intellectuals. But the simple fact that they are all commenting on the same subject in the same way (even if they don’t realize it) deserves attention.

Virginia Sapiro (Boston U) claims that even the most academically-talented college students find it difficult to successfully graduate without an expensive “array of advisors, high-touch academic experiences, support services, residential programs, [and] efforts aimed at stimulating engagement and a sense of place and community.” She then states that universities are now seeking ways to earn “alternative sources of revenue from learners whom they have had little or no interest in serving on campus” (p. 108). This would seem to be a situation of universities wanting to simultaneously have the cake and eat it too — let’s take what has become an inordinately expensive system of higher education that neither taxpayers, legislators, nor most borrowers still want to pay for, and tack on some peripheral profit centers in an attempt to remain financially viable. My guess is that such a strategy won’t work, at least for most universities that are forced to attempt it.


Gary King (Harvard) and Maya Sen (U Rochester) identify four “external economic threats” to traditional universities: the Internet, distance learning, for-profits, and online start-ups — this last being from my perspective simply a logical symbiosis of the first three.

To the above four, Nannerl Keohane (Princeton) adds “migration of loyalties of some faculty and students to different modes of learning and away from their campus base.”* Universities were built at a time when the most economically viable method of creating and disseminating highly-specialized knowledge was to concentrate information (books) and smart people (instructors and students) in the same physical location. The tremendous start-up costs in land, buildings, equipment, and faculty, coupled with society’s constantly growing demand for knowledge, created monopolistic market conditions for higher education. A natural outgrowth of such a geographically-fixed system was student and faculty loyalty to a single institution. Alumni weekends, anyone?

These conditions no longer exist and we can see this in the data (the graph on p. 84 of the King and Sen contribution). The number of public and private four-year institutions in the USA has been level since 2000, after several decades of steady growth (college enrollment of Baby Boomer and GI Bill students in combination with Cold War policy priorities). Over the same period, private two-year colleges have declined precipitously and the number for-profits has skyrocketed. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to assume that the four-year institutions have hit an inflection point and the curve will bend downward over the next few decades. Many state university systems have already seen majors and departments eliminated on certain campuses as part of an effort at consolidation.

So we are left with the perfect crunch — a need for revenue, an inability to cost-effectively enroll additional students on physical campuses, and fading loyalties to all but the most prestigiously-branded institutions. The hoped-for solution to this impending nightmare is The Next Big Technological Thing, even though no one really knows what that Thing is going to be.

I have some other ideas:

  • Post-secondary education is openly biased in favor of and reliant upon the socioeconomically and educationally advantaged. As King and Sen point out (p. 86), U.S. universities currently only serve the approximately 30 percent of the country’s population that gets college degrees — making most of the Ivory Tower prognostications an exercise in survivorship bias. Ignoring the 70 percent of the population that can’t afford college or isn’t academically prepared for it is a stupid business model. Focus your energies on serving that market, in a pay-as-you go manner similar to what Udemy is already doing, and you might find yourself in a much better position.
  • In a similar vein, push college instruction down into high schools, where the physical educational infrastructure already exists. This is what much of Europe does already. There is no fundamental law of the universe that requires the most talented students to sit through four years of high school and four years of college.
  • Take the chains off faculty and let them experiment, a la Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok and their creation Marginal Revolution University. Yes, many of these experiments will fail. But not all of them will, and some will help market the universities these faculty are affiliated with — in some cases, by functioning as a portal through which that 70 percent of the population that is currently under-served can gain access to a high quality college education at a price that is much lower than it is now.

Meanwhile, this recent New York Times story helps confirm my belief that CourseraUdacity, and perhaps even edX — or operations like them — will become the providers of low-cost content to medium- and low-tier institutions that are looking to cut the price of attendance. Want to offer computer programming courses but don’t want to hire a department’s worth of faculty? Sign a license agreement with Udacity. Want to outsource the content of your liberal arts core? Your students can enroll in Coursera’s poetry and mythology offerings and at one price point they can meet once a week on campus with an instructor for discussions and collaborative projects; at another price point, students who pass a test (from which the MOOC provider and the student’s university of choice get revenue) earn two credit hours on their transcripts instead of three.

Perhaps the most telling statement in the article about these MOOC providers is from UPenn’s Edward Rock, a law professor: “it makes more sense to build your user base first and then figure out later how to monetize it, than to worry too much at the beginning about how to monetize it.” People tend to forget that Amazon didn’t become profitable until four years after its initial public offering, and it did so by building its customer base.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Dr. Keohane was president of Wellesley College when I took two courses there. I shall forever be grateful to her and other administrators at Wellesley for the campus meal plan that enabled me to get free ice cream from the meal tickets that the full-time students were (and presumably still are) required to purchase.

The eBay of Education

In my post on the end of the university as we know it, I outlined the financially unsustainable system of higher education in the USA and how organizations like edX (the soon-to-launch amalgamation of MITx and Harvardx), Coursera, and Udacity offer low- to no-cost education to hundreds of thousands of students through open-source online content. I’ve since stumbled across two other platforms that deserve attention, Udemy and Alison.

Alison’s courses are free, but it uses advertising to generate revenue. The more traffic a particular course gets, the more Alison can charge for advertising on the course’s webpages, and instructors who have designed a course of their own supposedly get a share of that revenue. Students can also pay a fee to avoid advertising or to obtain certificates of course completion.

Udemy uses a different business model. There is no advertising. Some courses are free, while others aren’t. Udemy retains thirty percent of any tuition charged for a course; the instructor gets the remainder.  So Udemy has the potential of functioning as an auction system, similar to eBay, that determines the market clearing price for any course. Like carbon credit markets identify how much companies are willing to pay for the right to pollute, Udemy could reveal what students are willing to pay for instruction on a particular topic. My guess is that for most traditional universities — the ones without prestigious brands — tuition is priced higher than what this new market will bear. Unless universities figure out how to drastically cut costs, they will need to radically alter what happens in the physical classroom to convincingly demonstrate that there is value-added to being on campus. Climbing walls and French Fry Fridays aren’t going to do it — people can already access these products for much less off campus.

For people who want to learn for free, Udemy is a superior platform, simply because its pages aren’t cluttered with advertising. The same free content is often on both Udemy and Alison, as well as at the content’s original online location. If a person wants to watch Khan Academy videos for free, no one is going to choose to go to a website plastered with ads when they can watch them ad-free on Udemy or on Khan Academy’s YouTube channel.

One last note: according to this press release from MIT, of the 155,000 people from 160 countries who enrolled in MITx’s initial course this past spring, only 7,157  successfully completed it — a pass rate of less than five percent. That extremely low percentage signifies how difficult the course was and makes completion a very meaningful credential. Most universities, because of limits on enrollment and grade inflation, can’t provide students with a credential that is as meaningful.

How Soon Is Now? The End of the University As We Know It

The university as we know it is headed for extinction.

Imagine the U.S. higher education system in the early 1960s – universities were awash in government money because of the Cold War; enrollments were surging because of the GI bill and the baby boom. The paradigm of undergraduate education was the four-year, full-time, residential college experience, best suited for unmarried 18-22 year olds who could delay entry into the workforce. The university was the Emerald City in the Land of Oz – a fortress of knowledge where truth was revealed to humble supplicants.

Compare that with the current educational landscape. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately forty percent of undergraduate  students are older than 24. About half are classified as financially independent of parents. Forty percent attend college on a part-time basis. A huge percentage of students simply don’t have the time for the four-year, full-time, residential college experience that was the norm in 1960.

Simultaneously a bachelor’s degree has gotten a lot more expensive. In inflation-adjusted dollars, the average price of a four-year college education is 2.5 times what it was in 1980. During the same period, real wages for most Americans have been flat. People in the USA now need a college education just to maintain the same standard of living enjoyed by their parents and grandparents, but the cost of that education keeps going up. So more students go into greater amounts of debt to finance their educations.

As the traditional college model has become less convenient and more expensive, the opposite has happened to information. When I grew up, newspapers printed the news on paper, radio programs were broadcast over the air, and there were three TV channels. Then cable, satellite, and the internet completely disrupted the media industry. Today anyone can access almost any kind of news or entertainment at any time, and, perhaps even more importantly, anyone can create it – much of the content is user-generated. In many ways this transformation resembles Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press, which broke the monopoly on information that had existed in Europe for centuries.

The same is now happening to higher ed.

The Emerald City is being replaced by an information ecosystem that resembles a coral reef. There’s no moat, no wall, no gatekeeper controlling how the information is accessed or interpreted. It is open source and the architecture is scalable.

According to Wael Fakharany, Google’s regional director for Egypt and North Africa, worldwide there are 4 billion Google searches and 4 billion online video playbacks every day. Every second, someone uploads an hour of video to YouTube. These webpages, videos, and the ability to search them are free.

At this point you are probably thinking that 1) the internet is an unorganized and unreliable mess, and 2) undergraduate students still need the traditional university to organize, evaluate, and deliver educational content effectively.


People interested in learning have been migrating from free but unorganized educational online resources – the webpages that turn up in a Google search and the videos uploaded onto YouTube – to free organized information for several years. Now the movement is toward educational systems – housed at least in part online and frequently open-source – that offer convenient, affordable, and credentialed content mastery.

The simplest example of free organized information is Wikipedia, which started 2001. Wikipedia’s content is 100 percent user-generated.

A step up in terms of quality is MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which began in 2002 and currently has material from over 2,000 courses, such as classical mechanics.

Khan Academy, which began in 2006, now has over 3,000 video tutorials. Khan Academy’s motto is to provide a “free world-class education to anyone anywhere.”

The nonprofit educational foundation TedEd, a spinoff of TED, went live last month.

People can now use this free online content to learn anything, anywhere, anytime. There’s just one problem: how do you demonstrate what you’ve learned to others? If you walk into a job interview and say “I learned chemistry from Khan Academy,” the person on the other side of the table will simply shout “Next!” You need some sort of recognized, accepted credential signifying that you learned what you say you’ve learned.

Historically credentialing has been the function of the course credit and diploma offered by the traditional university. It has enabled universities to maintain an expensive monopoly on higher education, despite inroads by lower-cost but less prestigious for-profit institutions.

Until now.

Students who take the equivalent of an online self-paced correspondence course from the non-profit Saylor Foundation (motto: “education should be free”) and receive a certificate. So what, right? Students can then take an exam administered by the for-profit StraighterLine; if they pass they receive American Council on Education (ACE) credit, which then can be transferred to other educational institutions.

Still not impressed? This month, Saylor and StraighterLine began a partnership with Northern Virginia Community College and George Mason University to make college more accessible and lower the cost of completing a degree. The plan is to allow students to begin their college education at any of these four institutions; prospective students will know upfront the benefits and costs of each starting point.

A different method of unbundling undergraduate education was pioneered at Stanford by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig last fall. Thrun and Norvig taught a massive open online course on artificial intelligence that enrolled 160,000 students. Students were ranked according to performance in the course and received a certificate upon completion.

This year, Norvig and Thrun started Udacity, which currently offers six free computer science courses and enrolls a total of 200,000 students. Udacity’s plan is to offer certification to students at an affordable cost.

A similar venture, MITxoffered its first free online course, on electrical engineering, this year. MIT has now partnered with Harvard to create edX, a $60 million nonprofit joint venture, to offer free online instruction worldwide. Like Udacity, edX will offer certificates demonstrating successful completion of courses for a small fee.

At this point, you might be thinking that these developments aren’t relevant, because you teach political science, or history, or English, not computer science. These innovations will affect you, if they haven’t already, in three ways.

First, higher education is headed toward a system of price discrimination that resembles a Starbucks menu. Elite universities with established brands will continue to draw students who have the necessary time and money for the traditional full-time, four-year campus experience. The mid- and low-tier brick-and-mortar schools will be forced, due to the increasing convenience and cost-pressure of open source alternatives, to redesign their curriculums or die. They will need to abandon uniform pricing for course credit so that they can hit as many price points as possible, and they will need to go after more undergraduate students who are older, employed full-time, and unwilling to come to campus three days a week between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Second, the transformation of the higher education market will force universities to better demonstrate that the product they are selling justifies the price at which they are selling it. Each item on the educational menu will need to clearly reflect “you pay for what you get and you get what you pay for” because of what open online courses will do to credentialing. Grade inflation is rampant in American higher education, and the massively scaled competition offered by open online courses can produce a credentialing system that is far better than what brick-and-mortar universities – even many of the most prestigious ones – are offering. For example, let’s say that Cal Tech gets 10,000 applications a year but admits only 1,000. You’re admitted, you enroll, and eventually you graduate at the top of your class. In the end, though, you are still 1 of only 10,000. Now let’s say that instead of going to Cal Tech, you take a computer science course from Udacity, or a whole set of them, along with 500,000 other people. You end up being the top student. Best of 500,000 is likely to be a lot more meaningful to an employer than best of 10,000, and you didn’t have to pay $200,000 in tuition, room, and board to prove it. Think what that’s going to do to the universities that aren’t Cal Tech but that (for now) charge $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree.

Third, instructors will have to pay greater attention to whether their teaching creates value for the student and the university. Massive open online courses are going to generate huge amounts of data on teaching and learning. They’ll be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of particular teaching methods much more easily than the compartmentalized classroom environment. The pedagogies that are developed and tested online will filter into the physical classroom, and anyone who is not interested in continuous improvement in their teaching will lose students to the people who are.

Perhaps more importantly, course content will move out of the physical classroom and onto the internet. Open source initiatives like MIT’s OpenCourseWare demonstrate that course content is the least valuable educational component that universities have to offer, so it’s simply given away for free. The more valuable forms of learning that cannot be easily replicated online – research, project design and execution, problem solving, peer-to-peer learning – will take over the classroom. It will be more important for students to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B than for an instructor to tell them that Point B is better than Point A. The lecture at the podium will cease to exist.

As it moves online, educational content will be created and delivered in a distributed manner. Both students and instructors will become accustomed to feeding it forward – they will locate and analyze what others have done, adapt it for their own purposes, and then make what they’ve created available for others to use in their own learning.

Instructors who are unwilling or unable to engage with content or students in this manner will be at a disadvantage. Unfortunately most PhD programs currently do not provide training in this pedagogy to the graduate students who will be entering the teaching profession.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any of the entities discussed above.Thanks to Sally Gomaa, members of the PeckNet, and Chana Motobu for their helpful comments. Any mistakes are the fault of my cats, who like to sit on my keyboard.

Incentivizing Active Teaching

Although I’m not an economist, I’m quite interested in identifying incentives, and faculty usually have few to no material incentives to experiment pedagogically.  Occasionally someone might receive a stipend or grant to vary one’s teaching methods, but these rewards are one-shot deals. Sometimes merit pay exists, but frequently it’s based on student evaluations of teaching, which is a recipe for disaster. This situation is particularly disturbing given the findings in Academically Adrift (Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, U. of Chicago Press, 2011) that certain writing and reasoning skills fail to improve for over one-third of  students during four years of undergraduate education. Students aren’t learning, and faculty have no incentive to change that.

I’ve been thinking about this subject recently because I’m involved in an effort to redesign an interdisciplinary major. Team teaching has been proposed as a way of delivering content that crosses disciplinary boundaries — something that I wholeheartedly agree with — but at my university there are no incentives for it. The credit hours for a course that is team-taught are regarded as shared between instructors, and any teaching duty that equates to less than a complete three credit hour course is compensated as overload at a drastically reduced pay rate. Unless a full-time faculty member is really desperate for money, the cost of team teaching to faculty in time and effort is greater than the financial reward.