August 26, 2011

Putting our collective heads in the cloud

About a month ago I read an interesting opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled How to Save the Traditional University, From the Inside Out by Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring.  Any article that threatens to save us from ourselves should be viewed with caution, or as Thoreau so wisely said:  "If I know for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life...for fear that I should get some of his good done to me..."  However some of the advice in this article seems quite apropos to the current climate in which universities find themselves.

The article points out that universities still have a valuable role to play in society in conducting basic research, to "serve as conservators and promulgators of our cultural memories", and to allow mentoring for the rising generation.  While I personally object to the term mentor, given that the actual role of Mentor was to put the brakes on Telemachus, all these are valuable roles that the university plays in society.  However they caution about many of the same issues I am so passionate about in this blog- the increasing social injustice that comes with the cost of higher education.  But beyond bitching about the problem, they have made some very reasonable suggestions to address it.

The most important, I believe defining, point of the article is that these issues have to be addressed inside the academy.  This is absolutely true!  The pressures on higher education are external, but these pressures are being felt across all aspects of society and, as the title of this blog alludes to, we are very short short of money so we must begin to think our way out of the mess we find ourselves in.  The article makes several reasonable suggestions that outline a path forwards:
  • Intelligently combine distance or asynchronous learning opportunities engendered by technology with face-to-face interaction and mentoring.
  • Focus on each institutions strengths and be willing to cut programs and classes that don't contribute to that strength including low-enrollment graduate classes.
  • Focus on enabling students to graduate in four years.
Or as the article succinctly states the university needs to clearly identify "the students it serves, the subjects it offers, and the scholarship it performs."

These are all great ideas, but I don't think the authors go far enough.  It is not enough for a university to simply cut back to self-identified strengths.  It also needs to partner with other schools (that don't have the luxury of multi-billion dollar endowments like Harvard) to offer a complete range of services.  Think of this if you will like a "cloud" model of higher education.  One of the images I present when I give talks is shown below:
Pretty much every faculty member in the audience gets this right away.  My next question to the audience is more subtle:  "What sat on the shelf next to every one of these computers?".  I get a variety of answers, but a correct one  that makes my point is "a shelf full of floppy disks".  The point is that in the dawn of the computer age, say fifteen years ago, you had to have a physical copy of every piece of software you wanted to run and every piece of data you wished to analyze.  Now of course much of this resides elsewhere, in "the cloud".

This cloud model is a good one for universities, particularly given the current financial straits we will likely be in for a long time.  Does every university need every engineering department, what about a business school, or a registrar.  Consuming services to maintain a broad spectrum of educational opportunities makes a lot of economic sense, particularly given that this model would allow a university to market its strengths to others and both monetize its services and gain status.