Domestic, Education Quality, MOOCs, Opinion, Regulatory, Required, Technology, Universities & Colleges, Venture Capital - Written by on Monday, November 26, 2012 16:23 - 0 Comments

Columnist Ryan Craig: The University Is Not Flat … But Needs To Be

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By Ryan Craig, Columnist

In his 2005 book The World is Flat, New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Thomas Friedman illuminated the new digital face of globalization, its results and discontents.  Friedman’s “flat-world platform” permits individuals and small groups to compete globally, which results in massive increases in productivity and corresponding dislocations.

Recent headlines in higher education seem to suggest that a flattening world is also flattening the university – creating a world where (IIT) Bombay is a suburb of (MIT) Boston, and of increasing competition and productivity.

Borrowing Friedman’s nomenclature, one major flattener is “uploading,”  defined as individuals and small communities sending up, out and around their own products and ideas, often for free.  Substitute “Sebastian Thrun and Udacity” for “individuals and small communities,” and you have the entire MOOC origins story minus the blue and red pills.

A related flattener is community-developed software or the open-source movement.   The emergence of Moodle serves Friedman’s argument.  A platform for delivering higher education, Moodle is now deployed at over 70,000 educational institutions and boasts total enrollment of over 45M.  The Moodle developer community has over 1M registered users, and earlier this year industry leader Blackboard had no choice but to acquire two of the leading commercial products based on Moodle.

What is odd, though, is that Friedman describes four characteristics of a flat world that don’t typify higher education.  One flattening force – in Friedman’s sequence, one that is fundamental and antecedent to uploading and community-developed software – is workflow software.  This is software that allows geographically disparate individuals and teams to collaborate on the production and delivery of an entire product or service.  In higher education, while most online institutions and programs utilize a series of systems that permit collaboration at a distance for many functions, these systems aren’t fully integrated and don’t span the entire value chain (e.g., program and course development).  The absence of pervasive workflow software in higher education explains the other three missing forces:  outsourcing, offshoring and supply chaining.  While Antioch’s recent announcement that it would license Coursera MOOCs and incorporate them into its programs is an example of outsourcing and supply chaining, the attention the announcement received only illustrates how odd and rare the arrangement is.

So according to Friedman’s definition, the university is not flat.  Not even close.


“We often forget that the software industry started out like a bad fire department.  Imagine a city where every neighborhood had a different interface for connecting the fire hose to the hydrant.  Everything was fine as long as your neighborhood’s fire department could handle your fire. But when a fire became too big and the fire engines from the next neighborhood had to be called in, they were useless because they could not connect their hoses to your hydrants.”     - Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat

Friedman points out that none of this flattening would have occurred if not for the alphabet soup of standards that the technology industry came to agree on in the 1980s and 90s.  According to Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s Chief Research and Strategy Officer, TCP/IP, SMTP and HTML/XML “allowed people to exchange things other than standardized Word documents or e-mail.  They enabled anyone to describe any kind of document they wanted – from an page to a credit card payment format – and transport it from machine to machine, and put it in front of your face, without any prior understanding or preparation between the person sending it and you, the person receiving it.”  Friedman correctly reports that these standards beget other standards (“standards on top of standards”) like Paypal and Salesforce (and now Facebook and Twitter).

In thinking about the current state of standards in higher education, it’s worth noting that last week’s MOOC headlines included Coursera’s deal to submit its courses to the American Council on Education.  ACE’s Credit Course Review service determines “if the content, scope and rigor of the course… is equivalent to a college-level course.”

So instead of focusing on whether students are actually learning, Coursera must attempt to retrofit its MOOCs to a system of credit hours that was developed a century ago.  It’s tantamount to Tim Berners-Lee consulting with the Union Pacific Railroad to determine the rules of the road for the Web.

The reason the university is not close to flat is the awful state of standards in higher education.  Three distinct categories come to mind.  First, there is no agreement across the sector as to what student learning outcomes should be and how they should be measured.  The Department of Education’s metrics, reported by colleges and universities and provided to the public by the National Center of Education Statistics, relate much more to inputs than outcomes.  The few outcome data that exist (e.g., student persistence) are poorly defined and generally regarded as irrelevant.  Last week’s report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showing a 28% positive variance in college completion from the NCES numbers (54% vs. 42%) is good news overall, but an embarrassment for those of us focused on data definition and integrity.  Second, there is no progress in defining the set of skills and knowledge that students should have upon completion of a given program of study.  All this contributes to confusion around accreditation.  What does it mean to be an accredited institution?  What does a course credit actually mean?  Based on some recent decisions by accreditors, it seems like higher education is not only still in the railroad era, but also that there is a different gauges of track in use in each of the six regions.

Information technology coalesced around standards more easily than higher education for two reasons.  First, IT is an industry where firms have a common incentive to maximize profits.  In contrast, not-for-profit and public institutions have relatively complex decision sets that make intra-institutional consensus a challenge, let alone agreement across institutions.  Second, by setting standards, the IT industry believed it was establishing ground rules that would produce not only growth, but greater influence over the rest of the economy.  In contrast, traditional universities take a more conservative approach:  if we were to agree on a clear framework for credits and competencies, would it put us out of business in a decade?


“Our university system is the best… [It’s] competitive and experimental.  It is a chaotic system, but it is a great engine of innovation in the world… We will really have to screw things up for our absolute wealth not to increase.”   - Bill Gates, quoted in The World is Flat

Understanding how far we are from a flat university puts the MOOC phenomenon in perspective.  MOOCs aren’t changing everything.  Rather, they are a stark reminder of just how far we have to go.

Getting there will require setting meaningful standards.  But it won’t happen by itself.  The nature of higher education means this critical, industry-building exercise will require real government leadership.  If we get it, the U.S. could dominate the emerging global market for higher education to the same extent as global technology.  The opportunity to build “standards on top of standards” in higher education will unfreeze productivity and create myriad new enterprises and institutions of scale.

The great irony is that the apparent strength of American higher education is a primary reason why Tom Friedman is so confident about America’s prospects in a flat world.  But whatever your view of its current strength, there can be no doubt that American higher education won’t be nearly as strong in the future unless we also flatten the university.

Ryan Craig is a Partner at University Ventures, a venture fund focused on innovation from within higher education.

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2013-01-04 16:00

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