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The Revolution in Higher Ed Is Coming ... But When?

Higher ed innovation guru Richard DeMillo talks about how and where to look for the massive transformation of education taking place right before our eyes.

When will MOOCs replace the institutions (like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) that started them? At what point does digital learning replace the live classroom? Do intellectual property rights still exist? Is tenure dead?

All provocative questions for someone like Richard DeMillo, author of a book with the equally provocative title, Revolution in Higher Education: How a Small Band of Innovators Will Make College Accessible and Affordable. Yet, in many circumstances, his answer to those questions, when asked by consultant and futurist Bryan Alexander in this week's Future Trends Forum video chat, was, "I don't know."

However, there are some things DeMillo, director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at Georgia Tech University, does know. He knows that, now that the digital genie is out of the bottle, higher education will never be the same. He said he is unsure of when and how the next generation of college students will experience wholesale changes — he's even reluctant to explain what will constitute the next generation of students! — but he knows change is coming and it is coming fastest to those communities where it is most needed.

That is why he points to great strides being made in some of the most unlikely places. He applauds at least some elite institutions that have, as DeMillo said, "invested substantially in making higher education more accessible, more affordable, more likely to achieve educational results we all hope for." Nevertheless, he went on, "For every MIT or Stanford mentioned in The New York Times, there's a Jackson State contributing to the revolution."

DeMillo said Mississippi's Jackson State University, a historically black institution, was steadily losing prospective students to in-state competitors like Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi.

"They decided to shelve their old approach to addressing students of color and reorganized the institution," he said. Administrators relied on online programs and digital resources to turn the student experience at their small state university into the kind that students at much larger, multi-dimensional higher education institutions have.

The jury is still out on Jackson State's initiatives. "There is not yet any long-term data," DeMillo said, "but they have used technology to make the 'accidents of circumstances' more manageable for students coming into the environment."

He pointed to efforts at his own Georgia Tech to deal with Physics 101, a course whose physical manifestation was routinely unavailable to students because of its immense popularity. The university, with the help of the Center for 21st Century Universities, naturally, turned it into a MOOC (massive open online course), but not a traditional MOOC either.

"We haven't tried to recreate the experience of a physical classroom," DeMillo said — a mistake so many others have made, Alexander pointed out, trying to replicate yesterday's technology when tomorrow's becomes available.

Alexander said, "That reminds me of what happened with [Second Life] back in the day. People had all this space to work with and they would recreate a classroom, with desks and chairs and all that. Why did they not have people fly or be underwater?"

In Georgia Tech's new Physics 101, the instructors replaced the old-school physics lab with process video. "They would send students out in the world to do experiments and take videos of those experiments," DeMillo said. "Those videos get uploaded to a server, processed and sent back to the student in the form a clickable file. The lab report is a video report."

The bottom line, he went on, is that "it's not a retrofit, it's a reimagining of what this course is supposed to be." And that, of course, leads to all kinds of interesting questions.

Do you need the same number of professors and traditional teaching assistants to teach the new Physics 101 as you needed with the old Physics 101? Or do you reassess the required resources and expertise and instead recruit a team of instructional designers, analysts, advisers and videographers?

And what about course materials, and who owns them? DeMillo admitted he spends "an embarrassingly large portion of my time dealing with intellectual property issues." He added, "We want our faculty members to make their materials available, but everyone comes to the table with a viewpoint about who owns what. The people we're educating have grown up in a culture of sharing and remixing. These concerns are quite remote to them."

Progress, DeMillo said, toward what he considers a "revolution in higher education" will be unpredictable, uneven and almost imperceptible as it's taking place, but it will take place. As with the case of Jackson State, he said, the transition will be "very local and not easily subjected to homogenization."

"There is already a real alignment around the missions," DeMillo concluded. "We will see institutions across the board becoming more focused, institutions like Jackson State all of a sudden poking their heads up and saying, 'We're going to get great.'"

About the Author

Michael Hart is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and the former executive editor of THE Journal.

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