Essays & Articles


Technology and the Rise of the For-profit University


Technology Begets Change Begets Crisis Begets OpportunityThe traditional university is all things to all people, but it is primarily a place for professors to learn, to study, and yes, to teach. The teaching follows thetraditional model of pouring knowledge into the heads of obedient students. This is a teacher-centered model of education, one that has repeatedly been shown to be inferior.

Aristotle showed how learning can be an exploration. Pundits ever since have continually rediscovered active ways of engaging the mind. The university hasresisted, for these other ways were not conducive to the comfortable life of a teacher. And anyway, it didn’t feel like teaching.

But today, education remains one of the last remaining labor-intensive activities, and it is pricing itself out of the marketplace. Worse, it does so using amethodology known to be deficient. Enter technology.

Every time a new technology enters the fray it is thought to be the solution to all that ails education. Probably the most successful technologies to date are thedevelopment of writing and reading, of books, of inexpensive paper and writing tools, and then of blackboards.

Photography, movies, video, and computers have all had their proponents, but each has had an impact far below that which was claimed.

But maybe today something new is happening. Maybe the new technologies of simulation, of active computation, of exploration enabled by the computer +communication link can finally allow the precepts of Dewey and other active learners to come into play.

Can the new technologies make it? Many companies are betting on it, including my own. Hence the rise of the universities.

What is their role in the scheme of things? One thing is clear: it will change life considerably.

Take for example the courses we are developing. They are problem-based, high-touch, interactive courses, Students are asked to solve problems from day one, long before they have the requisite knowledge. Why? As motivation. As goal-directed reading. As tools for understanding.

Are these low-quality training courses? No, they are high quality courses, developed with our consortium universities: Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, CMU,London School of Economics.

Note: we have separated the development of the course from the instruction. We use the best professors in the land to develop the course. The instructional staff then teaches them without deviation. No favorite lecture (no lectures). No re-ordering the textbook chapters. No skipping sections. The knowledge experts prepare, the teaching experts teach.

Will education change in 2010? You bet.

The Future of the University

There is a new model of education in the land. Crass, moneymaking companies are entering the field. Universities are scrambling to respond. Suddenly, universities speak of “brands” and ownership of the intellectual products of their faculty. Some commentators predict the death of the university. “The University won’t survive,” says Peter Drucker. “The future is outside the traditional campus, outside the traditional classroom. Distance learning is coming on fast.”

Can this be true? Can the venerable university, an institution of learning and knowledge that has existed for over 1,000 years suddenly disintegrate before the force of the mighty Internet? Unlikely. And those who predict its failure fail to understand the multiple functions of the university, functions in which classroom teaching is only one of many.

But before I continue, let me state my own biases, and yes, my conflicted inner life in which I represent both sides of the current interchange. I am an academic, professor emeritus of one of the top research universities in the United States where I taught, did research, and served as chair of two different departments. But now I am with the profiteers, president of a division of a distance-learning institution, UNext.

As a good academic, I have a mixed response to the death threat. One the one hand, don’t be silly: the university will be with us for along time. On the other hand, these new forces are likely to have major permanent impact on the teaching side of the university, changes that will therefore impact the other functions. Let me explain.

Those who predict the death of the university fail to understand its true roots: scholarship and knowledge. Teaching is only a small part of the life of the modern research university. Instead, the faculty see their main responsibility that of pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge whether it be of ancient history, the behavior of people and societies, or the nature of the universe.

Professors are not taught how to teach, but rather learn by a sort of osmosis, in which they imitate the way they were taught (by similarly untaught professors).The ones who care continually experiment, trying this and that until they find a method that fits their style and seems to satisfy the students. The ones who don’t care emphasize scholarly pursuit.

It is this part of the university that is under attack, and rightly so, for even those professors who truly care about teaching know little about the art. Promotion at the world’s best universities depends upon one’s scholarly publications and international reputation among other scholars, not upon teaching ability and effectiveness. Good teaching can get rewarded, but it is the rare university that will do anything negative to world-renowned scholars, no matter how inadequate their teaching

The remarkable thing is that the system works rather well. The top research universities in the United States and Europe are the envy of the world. They produce high quality students who are original, creative and effective. Note that this is true even in the United States which suffers from a woefully inadequate primary and secondary education. The university system seems to compensate.

Despite its apparent success, the traditional university suffers a number of serious defects. First, because teaching is not the primary function, at least not as far as the professors are concerned, the costs are high. The university is very labor intensive, for the style of teaching has hardly changed in the past 1,000 years, with the most important innovation being perhaps the invention of the blackboard some 200 years ago. Second, the modern university has a rather narrow view of scholarship: the more arcane, abstract, and irrelevant the discipline, the more it is prized. Practical arts are sunned. In many universities, even well-established professions and arts such as engineering, law, business, and medicine are frowned upon and painting, popular writing, acting, and performing downgraded in favor of the scholarly analysis of art, literature, drama, and theatre. And then there are those entrance exams. In the United States it is the might College Board examinations that govern admission, with similar hurdles throughout the world. Note that even the College Board warns that these exams should not be the sole vehicle for selecting students, for they measure only a very narrow aspect of a person’s abilities and skills. Despite the warnings, exams remain the major selectionmethod in University systems across the world.

The style of teaching is also one that is best suited for the professor, least suited for the student. The courses are offered in a rigid schedule, with little concern for whether the student cares, is motivated or has any interest whatsoever. Students are trapped, and that is that. The length of the course is that which makes scheduling of the instructors and rooms easiest with the year being divided into terms, and the lecture into hour-long time slots. Note that lectures are the easiest form of delivery for the professor, one of the least effective for the learner.

Finally, the university is geared around full-time students who live close by. Working adults have to struggle to fit night and evening courses into their crowded lives, usually at local teaching colleges, for the more established universities seldom make concessions to the struggles of those who must work, or who cannot afford the costs, or who don’t live within convenient distance.

The result is a system that is expensive (labor intensive), elitist (difficult and ill-suited entrance requirements), and aimed at the first third of today’s ever-increasing healthy life span.

The opportunity for innovative new educational movements seems clear. Take the best course material developed by universities and offer them to everyone, no matter where they live, no matter what time constraints they have. Let people learn throughout their lives, learning when the need or the desire arises rather than when it is convenient for institution. And make the length and style of the course be whatever is most appropriate to the topic and the student. Let some courses be a week long, others a year. Let some require practice and experiment. Let others be mostly reading and writing. Rigorously monitor the quality of teaching; make the quality of instruction paramount.

Hence the rise of distance learning, or as I would prefer, distributed learning. The best example is the UK’s Open University, fondly known as the OU. In the OU, skilled professors spend several years developing a course, seeking out the best instructors, the best material and the best methods of instruction. The courses are offered to everyone regardless of location, with television, books, laboratory assignments (laboratory kits are shipped to the homes of the students). Today, the OU is experimenting with the computer and the Internet as the medium of course delivery.

The OU has been very successful as a teaching institution, a bit less successful in convincing the traditional academic community that its graduates are worthy of serious consideration. Pity.

Hence the rise of for-profit companies, seeking to fill the voids left by the traditional university campus. My company is an example. We work in harmony with some of the world’s leading business schools (London School of Economics, Columbia School of Business, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon Universityand Stanford University). Together we are developing courses suited for this new method of presentation. Our courses will be rigorous and deep. The education will be available to all, regardless of age, location or even time of day. We intend no entrance requirements, letting the course material itself serve as an indication of the ability required by the student. We put high-quality education first.

Technology is a method, not a goal. My favorite high technology, high-resolution, high contrast, rapid random access display technology is the book. Yes, we will use the Internet, for this allows students to study all over the world, from places where quality universities are not easy to get to. We use the Internet and modern computer technology to enhance the social interaction, the access to reference materials, and the ability to work jointly with other students, no matter where located. We will employ skilled instructors to watch over the students from a distance, cajoling, tutoring, mentoring. We have just begun our company, but we hope to enable students all over the world to experience the best education possible throughout their lives, regardless of their physical location, regardless of the day or time.

“But what about social interaction?” the traditionalist will object. “What about real face-to-face contact with the professor, with other students? What about thelibraries, the coffee shops the bars?” These are valid criticisms. The technologies of distributed learning cannot replace these important aspects of learning. We believe that students who can afford to be unemployed for several years and to move from their homes to the university should do so. Physical presence is usually a superior way to learn, for the social interactions alone will more than make up for any deficits in actual instruction.

But not everyone can do this. Once beyond the years of formal education, most people are employed and cannot spend the time or money required to go to atraditional university. Many excellent students outside of the major industrial nations simply don’t even have access to high-quality universities, even if they were able to attend. In other words, these new educational methods need not replace the traditional university, they can are complement it.

In theory, there is room for all. But along the way, the nature of the university is apt to change in significant ways. For example, I believe that in the end, theseprofit-making institutions will do a better job of education than the university, for after all, quality of education is their major reason for existence. The normalselection process of a competitive economy will move these companies to better and better education. But if their education is truly superior, then what role does the university play? From the student’s point of view, the major reason for attending the university will be for the socialization, for the experience, for the maturation process. The education can take place elsewhere.

This will dramatically change underlying rationale for the university, to say nothing of the cost structure. Professors may spend most of their time seekingknowledge, but the costs are borne, in part, through tuition payments. What will happen when the teaching is done elsewhere? The only recourse of the traditional university is to compete for quality of education, to hire – and more importantly -reward – those who are the best teachers, even if not the best scholars. Famous universities have well known brand names (Harvard, Oxford, Coca-Cola – the names have instant recognition). Universities will have to innovate, to recognize that students are customers, which means they need to be treated with respect, to receive quality service and value for their money. Student as customer? The name of the university as a brand? Pat attention to students? Horrors, what has the world come to?

Will universities die? I doubt it, but they are about to undergo substantial change.

About the Author

Donald A. Norman is President of Cardean Learning Systems, a division of UNext, a distributed education company located near Chicago. Norman is a leading authority on human cognition and the interaction of technology and society. He is the author of numerous books, including The Design of Everyday Things, Things That Make Us Smart, and The Invisible Computer.

Norman is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, San Diego where he served as chair of the departments of Psychology and of Cognitive Science. He has been an executive at Hewlett Packard and Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple Computer. Professor Norman waseducated at MIT and the University of Pennsylvania. He has received an honorary degree from the University of Padua (Italy).