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Challenged Public Research Universities Could Do Way More with Tech

Publicly funded research universities aren't doing everything they could to leverage the technology in addressing two of their major challenges: budgetary pressures and changes in how students consume higher education. That's the primary conclusion of a new report by Ithaka S+R, a consulting and research service within Ithaka, a not-for-profit organization focused on the use of digital technologies in scholarship, research and teaching.

The researchers spoke to 214 people within 10 institutions that are members of the Public Flagships Network, a new consortium of institutions that aims to influence policy discussions about educational innovation, new business models and the value of public research universities.

The recent project, which resulted in a 43-page report, "Technology-Enhanced Education at Public Flagship Universities: Opportunities and Challenges," involved interviews between October 2013 and February 2014 with academic administrators, directors of online learning, chief financial officers, career services staff and department chairs.

The project focused on talking with individuals within five core departments for every campus: English, mathematics, economics, sociology and psychology. It also sought interviews with others to "reflect" institutional differences in size, academic field and perspective. The work was funded by the Lumina Foundation.`

The researchers found that administrators "are hoping to harness the power of technology-enhanced education to improve time-to-degree and completion rates, provide relief for space constraints, improve student learning and fulfill their institution's outreach mission." Yet, they noted, most "budget-enhancing efforts are traditional in nature and where there is innovation, nothing has been particularly disruptive." By now, the report said, financial officers have "nearly exhausted" their options for "streamlining operations, consolidating functions and achieving efficiencies."

Universities are holding themselves back from achieving real innovation in several ways. In order to reach their goals, the research reported, institutions need to:

  • Communicate "the value of technology-enhanced education" to constituents, including students and faculty, while also being "transparent" about the expenses and benefits of online learning;
  • Create incentives that are clear and meaningful to encourage faculty and departments to innovate with technology, such as release time or public recognition;
  • Develop and broadcast plans for implementing online learning in stand-alone and hybrid forms; and
  • Provide whatever resources are required to offer an easy transition to online learning, including creating incentives to encourage faculty and units to "facilitate cross-institutional collaboration."

Innovations do exist, according to the report. For example, in the area of incentive creation, one university's undergraduates pay an extra fee of about $100 on top of tuition for each online course they take. That money goes to the department offering the course to be used as they wish, such as bolstering the operating budget or buying equipment. In other cases, departments get a percentage of all revenues generated by their online courses for specific terms or for students designated as "off-campus" to encourage those departments to build up online enrollment of "non-enrolled students."

A major concern among faculty at the public institutes is that the more time they dedicate to experimenting with technology-enhanced learning, the less time they'll have for the research they need for attaining tenure. They also need "a significant amount of help" to produce online content, as well as technical support and "encouragement." Some campuses profiled have established centers to provide that kind of support.

The researchers recommended that the institutions develop collaborative programs within the network to push for progress. For example, the report suggested, schools could develop demonstration projects in "core arts and sciences disciplines," such as service courses in calculus or statistics or foundation courses in psychology or economics. The goal there would be to deliver classes that were "both more effective and more efficient."

Likewise with collaboration with instructional technology. "These leaders are well positioned to assess what parts of the infrastructure are shareable versus what aspects need to be managed locally," the research advised.

At the very least, the report concluded, the network could become an "effective conduit for sharing best practices and examples of successful initiatives."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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