Alston Road


Take Five: Dave Brubeck Quartet

Take Five. Dave Brubeck Quartet. Left to right: Joe Morello, Eugene Wright, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond


MOOCs & Higher Education’s Two Solitudes

I grew up in Quebec – Canada’s predominantly French-language province. But my neighbourhood was inhabited almost entirely by English speaking families. And my clan – with it’s UK-origins – fit right in.

The sharp divide between the French and English in Quebec has faded somewhat since I moved away. But at the time, the divide felt “natural” as these sorts of things often do when we know of no other way.twosolitudes

Author Hugh McLennan depicted the divide between Canada’s french and english in his novel Two Solitudes, and although his novel is more than half a century old, the phrase “two solitudes” remains in use. In fact, Canadians will use it occasionally to describe any two groups – not just English and French-Canadians – who somehow manage to live in close proximity, but have little understanding of each other.

Two Solitudes came to mind recently when speaking with a friend about MOOCs. For many people in and around higher education, the emergence of MOOCs caused them to ask if this was finally the start of a “revolution in higher education” (cite); a “disruptive innovation” and a “game changer“.

There were others, though, for whom the celebratory and revolutionary language used to describe MOOCs seemed unjustified, even perplexing. I’m referring here not to people that simply don’t like online education in any form; those that see any move away from the classroom as a step in the wrong direction. Rather, I’m referring specifically to those that have been working in and on behalf of digital education (often for more than a decade), and believe strongly in its potential. This group of higher ed professionals – which I’ve labelled the technorati – asked why people were getting so excited about MOOCs; despite the fact that it reinforced the traditional lecture format – a practice advocates of online higher ed have been trying to quell for years; despite the fact that it inappropriately equates the high-rank of the institutions involved (a by-product of research capacity and exclusivity) with instructional quality; despite the fact that the ultimate of MOOCs is highly dependent on institutions bestowing on it credit worthiness – a developed that would hurt these same institutions by reducing their exclusivity and revenues; and despite the fact that technologically speaking, MOOCs could have been achieved fifteen years ago, had the institutions had interest in sharing their wares. And so on.

Those that questioned MOOCs remained largely silent thus far; voicing their objections only in hallways and amongst those with similar viewpoints. But the tide seems to have turned. Maybe it was the incessant articles about MOOCS, or the lack of a sustainable business model, or because the President of the US was now pushing MOOCs, but the people that questioned the hyper-ventilating response to MOOCs seem to have recently felt safe to come out from behind their desks and to express their thoughts publicly.

A recent blog post from University Ventures, for example, made fun of Sebastien Thrun’s (CEO of Udacity) recent proclamation that he’s now found the “magic formula” for online education: student support. University Ventures asks if maybe, just maybe, this isn’t really all that new. “The magic formula sounds uncannily like the online degree programs offered by thousands of accredited higher education institutions, in which over 3M American students are currently enrolled.” Oh, snap!!

My friend Dr. Tony Bates has led, consulted for and written (14 books) about digital higher education since the late 1980s. Earlier this summer, he was asked to speak at MIT’s LINC conference. His presentation asked (as politely as possible) how is it that the people behind MOOCs – many of whom were in attendance – managed to avoid 20 years of research into how students learn online. Ouch.

Solitudes, “Encore Une Fois”

How could these two camps possibly manage to exist side-by-side in in higher education?

I suspect part of the answer lies in the fact that the technorati within digital higher education overestimated the extent to which people were actually paying attention to what they thought was some of the more important issues in the history of higher ed. Yes, most everyone is conscious that digital higher education is a “thing”. But the more nuanced conversations amongst the “technorati” that concerned what was working and what wasn’t, weren’t as widely familiar as the technorati probably assumed. The debates carried out amongst the Technorati at conferences, in journals, and in hallways around the world were probably less enthralling to others than they (we) imagined. While the field of online education declared itself “mainstream” a half-decade ago, most professionals in higher education were dutifully focussed on their increasingly narrow specializations, like everyone else.

If there’s a lesson from this disconnect, it’s that we need to be conscious of the different worlds each of us occupy in higher education. With the pressure to specialize increasing, we can’t be sure that even those working in the same field will share a frame of reference for understanding issues.

Notes on “Beyond Retrofitting: Innovation in Higher Education”

Debate about the revolutionary potential of technology in higher education has never been more intense, nor greater in volume. For spectators and participants alike, it’s great fun. Me, I’m just glad people outside of the academy are finally paying attention to higher education.

There are two particularly loud camps in the debate. On the one hand, there are those that believe that technology is revolutionizing higher ed, providing us with better, cheaper, and faster ways of learning. The more extreme wing of this camp believe that this will very soon lead to the toppling or “disruption” of the traditional higher education system. (They can be identified by their almost complete lack of knowledge of how technology is currently used in higher ed or the constraints placed on professionals that work on-the-ground in digital higher ed.) Then there are those that believe that the promise of educational technology is little more than hype, pushed by vendors and edtech evangelists. They contend that the actual improvement in value offered by technology is overblown and ultimately limited. (This camp loves to make reference to the low retention rates in MOOCs.)

A Third View

In a recent essay entitled “Beyond Retrofitting: Innovation in Higher Education”, Andrew Kelly and Frederick Hess offer a useful third perspective. Broadly speaking, they argue that educational technology indeed has the potential to revolutionize higher education, however, “cheerful claims that American higher education is undergoing an irresistible change driven by digital technology are unduly optimistic.” Use of technology has not significantly altered the value of higher education. This is because our use of technology, to date, amounts to little more than “retrofitting“ – the ”grafting on“ of new technologies to a traditional higher ed system that is fundamentally largely incapable of leveraging the revolutionary potential of technology. Traditional higher education + technology does not = a revolution. Consequently, the current reform efforts in higher education constitute simply a ”doubling down“ on the traditional model – an attempt to stretch the capacity of the system to do more – rather than ”real innovation.”

Real innovation, in contrast, requires fundamental changes to the institution – new business models, essentially. However, it is notoriously difficult for established and successful institutions to recreate themselves and employ new business models (and there are few more established or successful institutions than Western higher education). It’s for this reason that innovation tends to come from new organizations, not from incumbents.

The solution according to Hess and Kelly is to ensure that new organizations can participate in our higher education system. We need to redesign the higher education system to allow these new organizations to influence, inform and, yes, disrupt the traditional model.

Hess and Kelly’s work draws heavily on Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. This brilliant, but regularly misused theory, describes how “disruptive innovations” typically emerge from new, rather than established organizations, by leveraging technologies in better ways through new business models. At first these new solutions are ignored and often restricted to niche markets (e.g. online education in the 1990s). In time, though, the value of the new approach increases, and ultimately challenges more established providers who – given their committment to widely accepted notions of excellence and best practices, can muster only “sustaining innovations.”

This recurring process of new solutions replacing older ones is happening at an ever increasing clip (c.f. Blue Ocean Strategy for more on this). But change in higher education is unfolding far slower. Hess and Kelly believe policy is the means by which we can stimulate faster change. They propose four changes:

  1. Focus on outcomes rather than the act of delivery.
  2. Openness to new providers.
  3. Unbundling (Enable institutions to draw on a range of service providers in order to facilitate better quality, lower costs.)
  4. Portability (Allow students to learn from a variety of providers and to have this learning validated. e.g. badges as certificates.)

The Role of Policy as a Driver of Innovation

Some will likely see Hess and Kelly’s argument solely as support for a more market-style higher education system. That wouldn’t be wrong. And the fact that the essay comes by way of a conservative think-tank won’t make its’ reception in higher ed more welcoming. But I think if we focus exclusively on the market-friendly nature of this work, we may miss the more important contribution – the call for greater attention to policy as a tool for driving positive change in higher education. In a similar vein, I’ve written previously about the importance of business models. Like policy, business models provide the overarching framework in which we work; they structure the possibilities. While a good deal of discussion in digital higher education focusses on instructional practices and technology, to a considerable extent, these are determined  by broader, structural conditions – such as policy. Put another way, the right policy (or business model) makes it possible for great educators to use the best instructional strategies and technologies to help students learn.

Disruptive AND Sustaining Innovation

Although the focus on policy is useful, I think the essay – like many before it – may over-simplify innovation. The authors position disruptive innovation as the end-game, our single objective; other less revolutionary types of innovations (sustaining, incremental) seem to be of little consequence. Although I am as impatient as the next educator to see dramatic improvements in higher education (I think my colleagues will vouch for me on this matter), I think it’s important that we don’t let our desire for big wins cloud our judgement. The distinction between disruptive and sustaining innovations is almost always less clear than theory suggests. Sustaining and disruptive innovations don’t operate in separate realms, untouched by each other. They interact constantly and feed off of each other. Forensic analyses of any disruptive innovation will show that sustaining innovations made it possible. Yes, disruptive inovations are exciting and satisfy our desire for quick changes, but they are one part of a large set of innovations required to improve the value of higher education for our students, faculty and other stakeholders.

Keith Hampson is the Managing Director, Client Innovations at Acrobatiq, a new Carnegie Mellon University venture. 


In a recent post, Dr. Lloyd Armstrong writes: “Unfortunately, most of the push-back about using MOOCs so far has been about preserving academic freedom in teaching, and not about benefits to students. Perhaps that will change with time.”

I will avoid adding to the barrage of arguments about what MOOCs “mean to higher education” or how it will all unfold. But it’s interesting to note how the quality of the concerns from faculty about loss of autonomy in response to MOOCs resemble those made during the early years of online higher ed. Criticism in the mid and late 1990s defined the issue in essentially the same terms – as a challenge to embedded occupational models and the labour market value of faculty. This was a key facet of David Noble’s argument: online education, to him, was about the inevitable narrowing and deskilling of faculty labour. This view of online education, though, seemed to fade during the last 10 or 12 years, as faculty saw that universities continue to employ the traditional one course = one instructor model – the classroom model. (The maintenance of the classroom model had less to do with the sector’s pursuit of the best instructional strategies for online courses and more to do with limited imagination and the challenges of restructuring labour in a conservative, decentralized institution.)

Concerns about autonomy and labour market value is clearly evident in a recent paper entitled  The Predatory Pedagogy of On-Line Education. It lays out ten reasons for opposing the growing emphasis on online edu, touching on issues such as the greater potential for surveillance of faculty labour and the growing role of private businesses. It’s worth a read if you are interested in the politics of higher education. However, the essay is limited by its focus on the needs and interests of faculty. It  downplays or outright ignores the value of online learning to students and other stakeholders (instructional, financial, etc). Moreover, it somehow manages to paint faculty as mere victims; a proletarian class under the thumb of administrators and commercial interests. While I’m schooled in the logic of Critical Theory and recognize its’ value, its’ application in this case focusses more on the labour market value of the people practicing critical theory than the people and society that the labour is designed to serve.

The essay begins by citing a speech by Josh Coates, CEO of Instructure (below).

Technology, Transparency and MOOCs


MOOCs have introduced a greater level of transparency in online higher education. They offer students a chance to evaluate and compare institutions to a degree previously unheard of in higher ed. The focus of the evaluations is, primarily, instructional content and related activities. This focus may create new opportunities for less prestigious institutions to compete.


Technology’s Unintended Consequences (Strike Again)

Before the concept of the MOOCs was adopted by elite universities and became “a thing” in 2012, it had  a decidedly anti-establishment posture.  These courses had a DIY quality. They were created and run by people excited by the possibilities of forming ad hoc online communities of learners that could use the Net to learn what and how they wanted. By design, MOOCs operated outside of the constraints of traditional higher education. Today, of course, MOOCs are associated with institutions like Stanford, HarvardMcGill and other institutions which see an opportunity to combine their international brand recognition with open courseware in order to stake out a large slice of the future of digital higher education.

This may not be exactly what the people who started experimenting with MOOCs had in mind, but innovations have a history of leading to unintended, even contradictory consequences. MOOCs are no different. Indeed, the trajectory from DIY to “upmarket” may not be the most interesting unintended consequence; MOOCs may have also inadvertently ushered in a new degree of transparency in higher education.

By providing free and public access to courses and faculty – MOOCs and other “open” initiatives, such as OER – enable learners and other stakeholders to review, evaluate and compare an institution’s core “product” without ever being admitted to the institution. Comments by students are beginning to appear across the Web on the relative merits of different MOOC courses and platforms. And new portals have been created that allow students to select and rate courses from different institutions, much as they would a Hollywood film (see here and here).  The change can’t be overstated. A MOOC can be witnessed by 100,000+ people and discussed in the New York Times. On the other hand, faculty have often been hesitant to have a colleague sit in on their lectures. Night and day.

Transparency & Evaluation of Quality

This is new territory for higher education. We’ve not been subject to the transparency and “perfect information” that many sectors of the economy have faced. For example, customers seeking to purchase appliances at the local mega-appliance store now come armed with more information on-hand than the salespeople. Vacation resorts can’t stop tourists from sharing their bad experiences in online forums. By and large, though, students still make decisions about which institution to attend with virtually no direct exposure to the quality of teaching they will face over the next few years.

If the MOOC phenomenon continues to pick up steam, and more institutions see value in making one or more of their courses available through these public platforms, then MOOCs may become a key platform by which the value and differences of institutions of higher education are evaluated and, as a result, the terrain for competition between institutions.

But on what basis are institutions competing?  To answer this we need, first, to recognise that MOOCs expose certain parts of the  participating universities and not others. MOOCs place certain qualities and features of the universities on display, while other features are hidden. As it has throughout history, technology changes what we pay attention; what “matters” and doesn’t. (For example, the advent of television changed what kinds of people were “electable” in our political systems.)

Greater Focus on Instructional Content

The feature that is privileged in MOOCs is instructional content – the material that is presented to the students in the course.

Instructional content is privileged for a couple of reasons. First, because MOOCs are stripped of many of the other common elements and experiences that usually come packaged with being a university student: loans, registration processes, socialising, and concern about grades. (Because of how students are currently using MOOCs, the vast majority of MOOC students are less concerned with grades than in their college or university courses.). Consequently, instructional content is proportionally a larger part of the overall experience. Second, instructional content is a relatively tangible part of the learning experience. While learning is as much a “process” than artefact, evaluating a process is relatively difficult. Instructional content, on the other hand, is tangible and can be compared with relative ease to content in other courses.

On some level, participating institutions already recognise that these courses are being used to showcase the institution and its faculty. Universities are putting more effort into their MOOCs than is typical of online courses. Duke University recently provided a recap of the process they went through creating and launching a MOOC. They reported a total of 620 hours of labour for the development stage – well above sector norms. That included over 11 hours of video (12 individual videos per week) and more than 1000 files for an eight hour course.

But the effort at Duke will likely pale in comparison to the type we will see in future course developments. Once it becomes obvious to university leadership that these courses are serving as a calling card/front door/flagship for the institution we may see what amounts to another variety of the university “arms race” – this time focussed on instructional content in publicly available courses. I think it’s safe to assume that the President of one Ivy League school won’t be thrilled if the courses offered by their institution look shoddy and home-made in comparison to what’s coming out of another Ivy League school.

The significant impact that MOOCs can have on a university’s reputation was nicely illustrated earlier this month when Georgia Tech decided to pull the plug on its Coursera MOOC after only a few weeks, due to challenges with its design and execution. Those that work daily with online courses in traditional colleges and universities can vouch for the fact that many, many bad courses are designed and offered each semester, many of them incomplete at the start of term – no different from campus-based courses, in this respect. But these courses are not pulled from the shelves mid-stream. The difference, of course, is that the Georgia Tech course was part a high-profile initiative. An institution’s reputation was on the line.

Content: “It’s a Good Thing”

Instructional content has received very little attention in digital higher ed, to date. Some equate concern with the quality of instructional content with passive, one-way learning. They see interaction as the primary basis of learning.

While interaction is fundamental, so is content; the importance of one feature does not mean that the other is irrelevant. No matter what the subject matter, high quality, thoughtfully presented instructional content – whether it is illustrations, videos or well designed activities – is an absolutely powerful component of learning.  In fact, I expect the role of content to grow more important as the two currently distinct spheres of content and software merge (e.g. adaptive software, simulations), and as higher education moves beyond the current “cottage model” of content development in which much of the burden for content development falls to lone instructors without the time, incentives or necessary skill sets. I find dismissals of content’s importance quite simplistic, frankly, and when these arguments are put in the form of high quality content, humorous.

The changing status of instructional content can be seen in the trajectory of open educational resources (OER). When individual academics began in the late 90s to make components of their courses available on repositories like Merlot, it was of little significance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that academic leadership were rarely aware of the faculty’s involvement in these initiatives. They reasoned that the intellectual property resided with the faculty member, and if they wanted to dedicate the time to participating in these initiatives, this was the faculty’s concern. Today, decisions about participating in Coursera and other open content/course platforms involves the University Board, investigations by General Counsel, and planning from the VP of Marketing.

The extent to which an institution will seek to use MOOCs as a showcase for their online courses will be influenced by the degree to which the course is affiliated with the institution. Some MOOCs are presented clearly as output of the institution. The most direct path to communicating this direct affiliation is to (a) give the MOOC course the same title as the course within the university, (b) have it taught by an academic of the university, (c ) have the academic identified as a member of the faculty at the university. For illustrative purposes, consider the particular way that Udacity defines the origins of its courses (Figure A).

Compare Udacity’s approach approach to labelling the origins of the courses to Coursera’s, which links the MOOC directly and fully to the institution. Both models rely on the credentials of the instructors (s) behind the course, but Coursera aims to define the course more closely with the partnering institution (Figure B).

The difference stance in relation to universities taken by these two platforms is significant as the closeness of the affiliation to prestigious institutions was the basis of the original excitement about MOOCs in 2012. Private vendors had been doing MOOCs since the 1990s, after all, but to little excitement. Nor would we have read about MOOCs in the New York Times or The Guardian had they come to us via Pocatello Junior College.

The excitement about MOOCs was a by-product and reinforcement of the logic long used to evaluate and rank higher education institutions: the more exclusive, the better. The assumption is that the instructional content made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions. That exclusivity and research productivity doesn’t necessarily correlate with instructional quality is well . . . interesting. And herein lies an opportunity (read on).

A Different Basis for Competition

There is very little stopping less prestigious institutions from producing higher quality courses than the elite institutions. Because the basis of competition has changed, and instructional content is now a key driver of value for learners, other colleges and universities that have made a significant investment in online education could produce high quality courses – as good or better than today’s MOOCs. In fact, as I suggested in a post last spring, the elite institutions may be less well suited to producing high-end instructional media. These institutions established their strong brands through research. Less prestigious institutions have generally focussed more on teaching and dedicated more of their resources to online learning, on average, than the elite institutions that currently dominate the MOOC space.

Technology has the power to change the basis upon which institutions compete. The oil crisis of the 1970s changed what mattered to car buyers; they wanted fuel efficiency. Honda and other then marginal players in the auto industry seized the opportunity and offered fuel efficient cars. Honda and Nissan (then Datsun) likely couldn’t compete head to head with the major US auto manufacturers, but when the way in which cars were evaluated changed, they took full advantage.

Similarly, technology is starting to change how value is defined in higher education. By deciding to take advantage of the technology’s capacity to distribute their courses, elite institutions have provided a previously unheard level of exposure to their core “product” – courses. But in doing this, the participating institutions also provide the means for learners and other stakeholders to determine quality for themselves. In turn, this creates opportunities for ambitious institutions of higher education, just as it has in other sectors, to compete in new ways.

By Keith Hampson, PhD. Analyst and Consultant to the Digital Higher Education Industry

Five Big Issues: Hanover Research

Sometimes the best way to understand what’s going on in higher education, or any field for that matter, is to ask a research firm. Because they work with a range of colleges and universities daily, research firms enjoy a particularly useful view of the landscape. They get to hear what’s keeping academic leaders up at night.

Case in point: I recently spoke with Cam Wall, Content Director for Higher Education at Hanover Research (Washington DC). Cam touched on five of the stickier issues – some predictable, others surprising.


Institutions are striving to identify new ways to make their programs and operations financially sustainable. For the last couple of years, particularly, institutions want to know what new business models and which markets they need to focus on to ensure they address the new budget realities.

Student Support

What kinds of student support do today’s students need? What’s the best way to deliver this support and how might the support translate into student success and retention?

Workforce Readiness

How do we best go about preparing students for the workforce? What constitutes workforce readiness in 2013? And how can the institution demonstrate to regulators and other stakeholders that their learners are properly prepared?



How can the institution do a better job of assessing student success? What are the most meaningful rubrics, how do we manage this data, and once we have the data in-hand, how do we use it to institute change across the institution?

Online Education

Not surprisingly, Cam reports that online education is major focus for many of the firm’s 450+ clients. Many institutions, particularly during the past year, are asking how best to invest their limited resources so that they can properly respond to the sector’s embrace of online education. Institutions also want to know where they stand visa vie other institutions; how far ahead or behind they are and what will it take to be competitive.

Big questions, all.

By Keith Hampson. Analysis, Strategy, and Workshops

Recommended Post-Holiday Track

Bill Evans, Peace Piece (1958) from “Everybody Digs Bill Evans”.  Ideal for late night work.

Week’s Most Interesting :: 12.27.2012

Hand-picked selections of articles, reports, blog posts and events from the last seven days (or so).


Learning New Lessons

I’ve been in the digital higher education arena long enough to still be shocked when major, mainstream news outlets pay attention to what we’re up to. It seems only yesterday that we were eating at the kids’ table. Last week’s article in the Economist offers the now oft-repeated claim that MOOCs will put some institutions out of business.

Excerpt: Top-quality teaching, stringent admissions criteria and impressive qualifications allow the world’s best universities to charge mega-fees: over $50,000 for a year of undergraduate study at Harvard. Less exalted providers have boomed too, with a similar model that sells seminars, lectures, exams and a “salad days” social life in a single bundle. Now online provision is transforming higher education, giving the best universities a chance to widen their catch, opening new opportunities for the agile, and threatening doom for the laggard and mediocre. Read the full article.


Online Education Whitepaper

University Ventures is a 2 year old private equity concern that invests in promising businesses that serve the needs of colleges and universities that wish to go online. Below, they offer an interesting whitepaper on digital higher education. Worth a read.

Excerpt: Since establishing University Ventures nearly two years ago, we have written and spoken on many aspects of higher education and online education in particular. With nearly 15% of U.S. students enrolled in higher education studying entirely online and earning degrees without ever setting foot on campus, and with online education in the headlines and popular consciousness like never before, this holiday season we thought it would be a nice gift (to ourselves, primarily) to organize our views on the evolution of online education and its impact on higher education more broadly in a handy whitepaper format. Read the full article.


The Best Ideas of 2012 from the New Economy

Higher education, despite its best efforts, has never been independent of the broader forces sweeping society. Not surprisingly, then, I find I learn at least as much from articles that appear irrelevant to higher ed. This post on Quartz by Glen Kelman is a good example. (Actually, one of his ideas addresses education directly; see below.)

Excerpt: In 2012, Silicon Valley stopped complaining about the shortage of educated talent and started doing something about it. Microsoft is sending software engineers into high school classrooms. A spin-out of Amazon engineers, Vittana, just raised money to support a wildly successful micro-finance site for funding education in developing countries. Universities launched the first large-scale massive open online courses on everything from math and cyptography to finance or a crash course in creativity. Read the full article.


Pearson & Rutgers Partnership

I’m in the last stages of writing a book. One aspect of the book’s thesis is that traditional colleges and universities are ill-prepared and, in certain respects, incapable of fully leveraging technology to improve the value of online education (cost and quality). When I first started writing the book in earnest, symptoms of the structural limitations of traditional higher ed were hard to come by. Today, I can barely keep up. Here’s one to consider: the growth of public-private partnerships.

Excerpt: For more than a decade, thousands of Rutgers University students have been able to broaden their educations by taking a wide range of online courses offered by the university. Now Rutgers is preparing to significantly expand the reach of the university’s online curriculum to even more students across New Jersey and beyond.

The university today announced a new public/private partnership with Pearson, provider of educational technology, content and services, which positions the university to significantly expand lifelong learning opportunities — including undergraduate and graduate degrees available entirely online — while maintaining access to the same level of academic quality that is offered in the traditional Rutgers classroom. Read the full article.

Change in Higher Education: An Educator’s Perspective (Interview with Dr. Jesse Martin)

Dr. Jesse Martin is a thought-provoking educator. A Senior Lecturer at Bangor University in Wales, Dr. Martin focusses on the role of evidence-based in university education. Below, Jesse and I exchanged notes about the nature of change in higher education. 

* *

KCH: You wrote earlier this fall that many of the academics with whom you speak tend to be defensive when discussing the anticipated transformation of higher education; and that they “think that the world will change at their pace.” If this is the case, will learners – and those that fund higher education – wait for them?

JM: There is a great deal of unease in the sector because we can all see that things are changing. There is nothing new in change – that has always been with us. What is causing the unease is both the scale and speed of the change.

The first part of your question – will the learners wait – depends on what you mean by a learner. Most of us in higher education are painfully aware of the disconnect between learning and education today. A great many of the students don’t come to HE for learning, but come for a qualification. They want the points at the end of the game, and what they want from us is a clear set of rules and guidelines that will allow them to maximise their points and minimise their efforts. For these stakeholders, learning is one of the necessary challenges that occasionally gets thrown up as one of the obstacles in the game.

On the other hand, there are still some – I would guess the same relative proportion of the population – who have always wanted to learn, and that’s all they come to university for. Those who want to learn are satisfied with things as they are, and can’t really see the need for any massive overhauling of the system. They will succeed at the game, regardless of what we do to or for them. They will wait.

What massification of HE has done is increase (by a lot) the numbers who only want a qualification. I would say that the split is about 80/20, with the smaller number wanting to learn.

However, the larger group, the group that is in HE for a qualification, want to maximise their return with a minimal investment. For them they want as much prestige as they can afford, and as high a qualification as they can earn with as little effort as they can get away with. This is the group that I think will drive the greatest changes in HE. They will opt for non-traditional offerings if it works to their advantage. They know what they want, and will adapt to get it. They have no intention of waiting for anything (3 second wait for a website and they’re gone). If something that they think will suitably meet their needs comes along, they will opt for that.

The funders are another story. Private, for-profit providers are quickly moving into the non-traditional market, and as long as the sector is in a sellers market, the for-profits will charge a fortune and deliver a minimal experience – they are profit-oriented, and so will maximise their profits. As the number of available student places grow, and the availability begins to meet the demand, these for profit institutions will have to become more competitive, and the cost of a decent qualification from a for profit will drop dramatically. This will create high growth in this sub-sector as more and more students opt for private providers with better value for money (as far as qualifications go)

Governments are already withdrawing from the HE teaching sector, and are driving much of the change that we are experiencing. Although political expediency means that they pay lip service to teaching and learning, I think we will see a concentration of public monies in the big research-intensive institutions where the primary purpose is not teaching, but bringing prestige to the funder.

I think that the only significant stakeholders who will be willing to wait for lecturers to adapt are the students who really want to learn. The rest will (or are) simply react to the changing environment.

KCH. What are one or two of the more promising instructional approaches you are currently employing for your learners at Bangor University?

JM: The traditional approach to instruction involves a teacher reading, organising, and presenting information in bite sized chunks to the students for them to regurgitate back to me (with a little bit more) at some later date. My approach is to not do that.

In one of my classes (statistics in psychology) we’ve moved to a largely practical and problem based approach to teaching. The students produce data sets, and then I ask them what they want to find out from the data and how they think they might get it. I get some interesting approaches to data analyses (did you know that doing a find and replace in Excel returns the number of occurrences – an interesting way to count responses). The classes tend to be split on the approach with about half the students loving the freedom and half hating it that I’m not telling them what I want them to do. Regardless of what they feel about the approach, they learn how to manipulate numbers, and they understand the questions that they are asking of the data. I use a problem based, practical approach to learning a skill that they need in order to carry out research in psychology.

My most exciting class is about applying the principles of psychology to education. I provide loose guidelines about what I expect the students to bring back, and then I send them off to find out what they can. They give bi-weekly presentations (non-assessed) to each other (and to me), and write weekly blogs (assessed) about what they find. All I do is evaluate what they find.

As one of my students wrote last year: To put this bluntly, Jesse did nothing in this module; yet in doing nothing he did absolutely EVERYTHING… (The) end goal is learning. It’s the teacher allowing the students the freedom to make the classroom their own and to be there for them whenever they need a push in the right direction. This is proper teaching… (

KCH: One of the aspects of the response to MOOCs that I have found most interesting is the implicit assumption that great research institutions necessarily produce great learning experiences. As an academic, how do you see the relationship between subject matter expertise among academics and educational value?

JM: I wrote about this earlier this year (see: and I still feel the same. I think that the two skills (teaching and research) are orthogonal. They have no relationship whatsoever. Great research is a mix of personality traits (inquisitiveness, attention to detail, methodological approach, etc.) and good training. Great teaching is a mix of personality traits (enthusiasm, empathy, positive outlook, creativity, etc.) and good training. There may appear to be a great deal of overlap, however the personality traits are different, and the training is different. Many will be good researchers, and many can be good teachers, with a few who end being great at both.

I would go so far as to suggest that being a hyper-expert can be (and often is) detrimental to good teaching. Often, the detail gets in the way of the story. Keeping in mind that the researcher is the one who knows about the detail, it is only natural that their interest gets in the way of good teaching.

I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that a topic area that could be covered in five minutes during a lecture in 1955 could be expanded to a full hours lecture by 1976. That same topic area can now be expanded to cover a full 15 week module. Hyper-experts end up so far out in the tendrils of their fields that the bigger picture gets lost along the way.

The second factor that this question alludes to is the ability to teach (my definition of teaching is to foster learning). Too often academics think that anyone can teach. Someone with years and years of experience in the field of education (first as a child, then as an undergraduate, and finally as a postgraduate) who eventually gains a PhD (or even a BA or BSc) knows what good teaching is (teacher cognition). They know what good teaching is because they have experienced it (as well as bad teaching). These pre-conceived ideas of good teaching by academics are highly resistant to change. However, just because you have experienced a lot of teaching doesn’t mean you are a good teacher.

Because institutions are made up of individual faculty or staff members who teach, the institutional reputation for research in no way reflects the quality of the teaching. Teaching is done by individuals, and although some researchers end up being good teachers, if the institutional focus is on research, good teaching is something usually happens by accident. Usually, leading research institutions put enough resources into teaching to achieve mediocrity and keep the student complaints to a minimum.

KCH: You’ve written a good deal about Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation as it applies to higher education. Are there early symptoms of this disruption to which you think we ought to be paying more attention?

JM: The innovation that I think is the disruptive innovation or paradigm shift is the ubiquity of information. Digitisation has moved the world from information scarcity to information abundance. The symptoms of this change occur at both a micro and a macro level. The micro level symptoms include the general unease among lecturers (what is my value added), the rise in plagiarism, the demands of students for a better packaged product – these are things we are facing every day and should indicate (using John Naughton’s metaphor) that water is getting into the ship.

The macro symptoms that are easier to follow and notice as a community would include the encroachment of for profit institutions, the rise in open educational resources and open content, and the increase in teaching methods that take advantage of iniquitous content (e.g. MOOCs, blended learning, or flipped classrooms).

Christensen’s research demonstrates that the macro symptoms will be resisted by the established institutions to the point that so much resource has been put into defending themselves from the symptoms that we begin to see exhausted institutions collapsing in on themselves with no energy left to adopt.

The box has been opened, and the genie is out. We either figure out how to survive in this brave new world or we don’t.

Follow Jesse Martin’s blog HE Thoughts

Originally posted on Management & Strategy Issues in DIGITAL HIGHER ED:

Louis Coiffait is Head of Research at the London -based (UK) Pearson Think Tank. Louis and I had a chance to speak recently.  

KCH: It’s quite unique to have a think tank directly associated with a private company. From where did the idea for launching a think tank at Pearson come? What are its main objectives?

LC: The Pearson Think Tank is certainly pretty unique, if anybody can find a similar example please let us know because we’d love to talk to them! There was no one big bang, rather just a slow evolution as the policy team at Pearson began to find a need for its expertise outside the company in the wider sector and in turn Pearson wanted to develop its voice in the education debate. With our growing focus on research we’re still changing, hopefully to meet those external needs even better. It’s really exciting, to be starting a new…

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Alfred Essa: The State of Analytics in Higher Education (Interview)

I’ve known Alfred Essa for a couple of years. From the start, Al struck me as one of those people that is truly focussed on improving higher education. After a career at various organizations in the US, including MIT and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, Essa now serves as the Director of Innovation and Analytics Strategy at Desire2Learn, the Canadian education technology company (which recently accepted an 80 million dollar investment from OMERS). 

KCH: I suspect there is still considerable confusion about what the term “analytics” means when applied to higher education. Can you provide your own high-level perspective?

AE: Analytics is sometimes characterized misleadingly as “data-driven decision making”. Why is this misleading? Because we use data all the time to make decisions. Analytics is fundamentally not about having more data from a user perspective. It’s about having access to quality data, relevant data, and contextual data. That’s a very hard problem which can’t be solved by merely building very large databases. When it comes to analytics at Desire2Learn our mantra is: “Less Data, More Insights.” Analytics is as much about design as it is about technology. On the technology side it is now possible to leverage wonderfully new techniques such as machine learning to uncover hidden patterns. But that’s only the first step. On the design side we refine, shape, and expose those patterns visually so that they can be interpreted by humans. On the user side analytics means looking at the world empirically and statistically, which for most of us is not intuitive and requires training.

KCH: Are there different degrees to which institutions can use analytics?

AE: It’s useful to think of analytics as having three levels or degrees of maturity. Analytics (Level I), which is the current state of most tools and also organizational capability, is reporting. It is  the realm of traditional business intelligence. What are student retention, achievement, and completion rates? How does it break down by demographics? What is the trend? Analytics I is retrospective. It’s data about the past. At best, it’s data about the present. It’s like a rear-view mirror in a car. You need it but imagine having a car where you can see where you came from but not what is ahead of you. Analytics II is data about the future. Where will I end up being? With Analytics II we begin to use advanced techniques such as predictive modeling to forecast the future. Analytics III is the holy grail.  Anytime someone wants to go from point A to point B, there will be multiple routes. Analytics III is about finding the optimal path among many to reach one’s destination.  The most competitive institutions will be those who are either at Analytics III or well on their way. The least competitive one’s haven’t even begun.

KCH: Using data to plan and manage organizations is now fundamental in other sectors. What are the key obstacles to greater use of analytics in higher ed?

AE: There are two key obstacles. The first obstacle is technical. Underneath the hood analytics is technically very complex. Most organizations lack the resources and talent to do it on their own. The second obstacle is dogmatic. The reigning dogma is that we know how students learn. The reality is that we know very little. Erik Mazur’s work at Harvard illustrates this point. The promise of analytics is that we can finally take an empirical approach to understanding the learning process and use evidence, rather than guess work or speculation, as our guide for determining what works and what doesn’t. With analytics our understanding of learning is about to transition from alchemy to science.

KCH: Which segments of the higher education market have moved most quickly to implement analytics?

AE: The for-profit sector has taken an early lead, at least in recognizing that analytics can be a differentiator. Markets tend to concentrate the mind. The non-profits have taken longer to awaken from their dogmatic slumber. But they are waking up. In the long run an advantage that non-profits have is the value they place on research and collaboration. This will be a critical driver for successful adoption. There is also the sideshow going on with MOOCs, which will be interesting to watch

KCH: Faculty can be resistant to the idea of implementing analytics, as some interpret it as a tool for tracking their performance. How do you work past this issue?

AE: I remember a conversation several years ago with Mark Millirons on this topic. Mark is a pioneer in the field of analytics. His advice to me was you have to flip the conversation with faculty. The goal of analytics should be to empower students and instructors. If faculty perceive that analytics is yet another regime by administrators to use data about them against them, then analytics will not succeed. I think of analytics as real-time instrumentation for pilots and air-traffic controllers. The student is the pilot in their learning journey. They need real-time instruments in the cockpit to help them navigate through various obstacles. Air-traffic controllers also need real-time instruments to make sure all planes in their charge or on course. The measures and instrumentation for evaluating pilots and air-traffic controllers is different and not primary. The primary goal of analytics should be to empower, not evaluate. We often confuse the two.

B.F. Skinner explains the value of “teaching machines”

The word you are looking for that describes this is . . . “creepy”.

Sources of Information on Higher Education

If you are interested in how higher education operates, or are doing research on issues pertaining to higher education, these organizations may be of value: