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Education Trends

Has Technology Made State Regional Universities Obsolete?

While SRUs do some things well, the current model is not sustainable, with students taking on enormous debt and receiving relatively little income benefit in return. Here's how technology can help change the equation.

university building

America's place as the most successful economy in the world can be traced to our early commitment to universal public education. The engine of that commitment was the Normal School Movement, which trained teachers in the norms of pedagogy and curriculum in those critical decades when our nation was growing up. Normal schools evolved into our state regional universities (SRUs) and we owe them a great deal of thanks for kick-starting our national prosperity.

But many of today's SRUs have fallen dangerously behind the times and do not serve their students well. To see this, one has to push past our national affection for the idea of the local four-year public college, with its pretty, leafy campus and rich history, and fearlessly examine today's SRU degree as a business proposition. I will use my home campus, West Texas A&M University in Amarillo/Canyon, Texas, for my calculations here, because it is a fairly typical SRU.

While a sensible definition of success would be earning a four-year degree in four years, let's allow the more generous six-year time frame, since even our six-year graduation rate is only 42 percent. During that time a student will run up an average bill of $73,500 including in-state tuition and after financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education Scorecard website.

How much income benefit do WTAMU graduates get from their degrees? Ten years from original enrollment, or four years into a post-college career, average earnings are only $42,700. By comparison, the government median earnings figure for a full-time employed high school graduate over age 25 is $38,100. So our college grads will earn about $4,600 more per year than high school grads do nationally (though Panhandle high school grads might earn slightly less than the national average). Assuming continuous employment with no layoffs during economic downturns, a WTAMU graduate takes a little more than 16 years to recover their college costs! This does not include interest payments on student loans.

Needless to say, any financial planning firm that offered customers nothing more than a 42 percent chance of recovering their initial investment in 16-plus years would have to shutter its doors in no time. Clearly, seeking an SRU degree is a bad bet for many of our "customers." This is true because, to a large extent, the world around the university has changed a great deal while the university itself has really changed very little in response.

If our SRUs stopped being timid about taking full advantage of technology, they could reconfigure themselves as very different institutions that could offer a great deal more earning potential — and charge a great deal less. To begin to see how this is possible, let's look at the services SRUs perform for their students — and which services would benefit from a more complete reliance on technology.

Course Content

An obvious candidate for technology-based delivery is information distribution. So far, SRUs have mostly taken only the first baby steps in this direction, such as lecture capture. They create video of classroom lectures, perhaps add some crude PowerPoint bullet-point lists and a graphic or two borrowed from Google Images, and then park the product on a campus server for whenever-you-want access by students. It is often done to accommodate students who can't seem to find their way to class at the appointed morning hour.

Since individual professors have neither the skill nor the time to edit the raw footage into a more professional product, the quality of video capture often resembles a poor home movie. Of course, SRUs hire instructional designers who assist with video capture, but they can't help much. Professional-grade course video can easily require 20 or more hours to create one hour of end product, which means a departmental instructional designer could easily be buried in work by a single professor. That does not include updating media-based courses for reuse, which might be needed annually in some fast-moving subjects like technology.

Most instructional designers will, in self-defense, define their role primarily as training faculty to do their own video production work with tools like Articulate or Camtasia. Many professors of non-technical subjects will be completely defeated by the complexity of these tools. But even if professors take some training and pick up some basic production skills, they will quickly realize they don't have the time to do this right. It would be far better to make use of economies of scale across an entire state university system (if not the national university system) to produce higher-quality multimedia courses at a much lower cost per student.

Imagine a common course like sophomore Western Civilization. At any moment, an army of early-career assistant professors of history across Texas are producing hundreds of hours of virtually identical lecture videos of their version of this course. Much of the content will be delivered with little or no audio editing or video editing — including sneezes, wheezes, filler words and all the rest. No one will have the time or skills to bring the production values to the next level.

What if the State Board of Higher Education assembled a team to create one exceptionally fine Official Texas Version of the sophomore Western Civilization course? The team would include brilliant subject-matter experts, the best graphic artists, senior instructional designers, professional film editors and sharp-eyed text editors, who could produce a 48-clock-hour video course of previously unimaginable quality. It might even include purchased footage showing relevant locations in Greece and Rome! The team would then have a continuing relationship to the course to assure it would be updated every few years as new scholarship emerges. This course would require considerable upfront investment, but it would be extremely cheap per delivery if it were used by even one of the three public university systems in Texas.

Lack of diversity, you say? No problem! If there are two credible scholarly opinions on why the Roman Empire fell, the course could include two professors with opposing views making their cases. Let them debate the point on camera. If there are three or more views, record a panel discussion. It is worth the effort since thousands of students will be profiting from the result.

Of course, there is such a thing as a legitimately unique local learning need. You would not want to prevent our SRU in the Texas Panhandle from teaching a locally relevant course in the history of the region. Similarly, we have certain special needs concerning the supervision of extremely small, rural and largely Spanish-speaking school districts. WTAMU is rightfully offering a program that may help to address those needs. What is far less certain is that only a local institution can understand such needs and develop higher education curricula to address them. The Texas Panhandle's need to serve large numbers of English-as-a-second-language students is not that different from the need in the Rio Grande Valley border school districts or many other districts across the country. By technologically linking school districts with similar interests to institutions of higher learning throughout the state or, even better, the nation, we could develop programs that have the cross-pollination of many ideas and are not so much driven by idiosyncratic or ephemeral local issues/personalities.

The Library

More money could be saved by eliminating that pointless anachronism, the campus library. Libraries at the more modestly funded SRUs are often nothing more than academic stage props: They exist because a university is supposed to have one. I recently visited the Information Technology section of the WTAMU campus library. Perhaps 80 percent of the books on the shelves were so hopelessly out-of-date that they would likely never be touched again except by another curiosity-seeker such as me. Many still have paper paste-in forms for rubber-stamp check-out in their back covers. Some had not been checked out in 30 years!

The obvious remedy is the electronic storage and retrieval of what were previously printed materials. Such systems, of course, already exist. States must expand and fully embrace those systems. Each SRU can hold a garage sale and get rid of the clutter on the shelves, and then we can talk about re-purposing the buildings that used to warehouse all that paper.

Some institutions have certainly done better than others in converting their libraries into learning commons, with tech-enabled study/learning spaces, student support, labs, makerspaces and more. Others settle for installing batteries of desktop computers that are less necessary every year, as hardware gets ever cheaper for the individual student. Each institution must decide whether an old, oversized library building is too much space chasing too little function.

I don't mean to disparage the army of noble librarians fighting valiantly to keep their campus libraries relevant. Our WTAMU library has become the focal point for knitting circles, comfort dog sessions, coffee and snack distribution, and all manner of mini-events that have little relationship to what the libraries were built for in the first place. All that is wonderful, but it does not add up to sensible use for cavernous multi-story buildings filled with paper versions of arcane government documents gathering dust.

Learner Support

Technology could also revolutionize learner support. We can divide this into content support, which is helping students with actual subject matter in their courses, and diagnosis/remediation of student learning products, such as reviewing homework exercises and compositions. Much learning support involves elements of both.

While I expect professors to be massively uncomfortable with this idea, consider how inadequate the learner support function is now. There is normally very little opportunity to ask the professor questions in an undergraduate lecture hall. Class sizes are large, time is always short, and often a very small number of hyper-aggressive students, who have no social capital to lose with their peers, will hog whatever sliver of face-to-face time remains. Fortunately, technologies already exist for learner content support by audio and video, including the remote control of a student's screen when needed. Technology companies routinely support their customers quite successfully with banks of overseas experts. And questions and answers can always be captured in Frequently Asked Questions documents for the benefit of others not participating in a specific interaction.

Let's return to our Western Civilization class. Jane College has just listened with rapt attention to national expert Professor Jones talking about the exploits of Alexander the Great in a fabulous instructional movie from the system-sponsored standard course. She still doesn't understand how Alexander's army could conceive of him as a god. In our technology-driven school of the future, Jane will be able to call the support number for her course or perhaps initiate a Skype-like audiovisual connection with a support team member.

This team would be trained and experienced not only with Classical History but also in the structure and content of this particular course. Support specialists would be prepared to anticipate the questions they will frequently get from students. They would also have been trained on learning theory and would know that it is far better to suggest resources that will help Jane answer her own question than to simply tell her the answer. So perhaps they would discuss the question with Jane a little, and then send her to a list of primary or secondary sources for dealing with this question and related questions. Better yet, they could help her discover those sources on her own by assisting her to improve her research skills. They would also invite her to call back to discuss what she has found out after accessing the resources. The call ticket is not closed until Jane is satisfied that she has what she needs.

Jane's online helper is likely to be far better prepared to assist than your average teaching assistant, who is likely to be far more interested in their own graduate work and publication opportunities in furtherance of their career. Jane would get help from a full-time team member, who understands that Learning Coach is an honorable profession in and of itself, and not just a stepping stone to somewhere else. Again, economies of scale come into play. While Jane's helper will be expensive to hire and train, the cost is spread across the many institutions using the system-sponsored course and its designated support team. And not every Jane will need the team at the same time.

The system can succeed because Jane wants help, not a standing relationship with a particular helper. This has been a revelation in my own academic career. In my course evaluations, I get some of the highest ratings available for student service, but I have virtually no visitors to my on-campus office. Very few students wish to "get to know me." Most contact me because they want a problem solved or a question answered as quickly as possible. As soon as they understand that the most efficient way to get their needs met is by e-mail, that is what they use. They are perfectly happy with a return e-mail that says nothing more than "Yes, I approve of your proposal." Or, "Take another look at Step 22 of the exercise because I think your original problem may have started there."

Student work can also be evaluated by a bank of trained learning coaches shared by multiple institutions. These more personal interactions will take more skills and more of the specialists' time, even though the specialists will be very well acquainted with every assignment in advance. Yes, there will be practical limits as to how much time a specialist can spend discussing the sentence structure of a student's essay or a student's great ideas about the significance of the Peloponnesian Wars. But compare this to our current system: If an overworked assistant professor desperately trying to publish rather than perish must service a total of 300 undergraduates in five classes, how much "great idea time" is each student currently getting from the professor's few office hours under the current system? And if a serious problem is discovered with a student's writing clarity, they will probably be directed to a campus writing center, where their helper may well be an only slightly more proficient fellow undergraduate being paid minimum wage under a work/study program.

What SRUs Do Well

Does that mean that there is nothing that SRUs do that couldn't be done better through maximizing technology? Not at all. There are some services that students currently get from SRUs that no amount of silicon ingenuity will ever replace.

1) Practical experience and the many forms of "hands-on." Simulation through technology can't always replace the real thing. If you want to learn to play in an orchestra, explore fossils in our local Palo Duro Canyon, learn to swing a golf club, apply a tourniquet (careful!), learn to converse at full speed in French, teach third-graders to subtract, or do whatever those Ag people do to their cows on the other side of campus, you must be at a given place at a given time with access to a given set of equipment to do it.

2) Guidance. The big questions — "What am I really suited for?" or "What are my values? or "What do I want to accomplish in my life?" — will never be satisfactorily explored with an artificial intelligence programmable counselor.

While online support can help you fill gaps in your knowledge or evaluate your homework, every undergrad also needs a flesh-and-blood "case manager." A good analogy is medicine for seniors, something I am beginning to learn a bit about. I may have a large handful of "-ologists" keeping an eye on my bones, heart, feet, etc., but what I desperately need is someone who really knows me — in addition to keeping track of every medication that every specialist is prescribing and how they all interact.

3) Personal growth. Whether it be a professor, coach, clergyperson or even an older friend, every student needs a mentor or two who will take an interest when life knocks their personal gyroscope out from under them. Often this person teaches and guides through modeling; that is, by demonstrating how they live, much more than what they say about living. Modeling is extremely difficult to achieve online.

4) Social growth. Clubs, groups, weekends at the university place in the mountains, all provide an invaluable part of the benefit of higher education. Facebook is a laughably inadequate replacement for real opportunities to learn and practice social skills. Only in-person interactions can partially fill the hollow place in all our hearts that is the inevitable result of our potentially overwhelming sense of separateness as individual human beings.

5) Post-graduate reference support from professors. It is awfully hard to write a meaningful letter of reference for a student you have never met, although I have to attempt it all the time.

6) Lifelong education. This is a little off our track, but there will always be a place where the need for new skills and knowledge meets the need to be socially engaged. That is where the short courses and light content of lifelong learning and the recreational side of continuing education comes in. I recently attended a three-session course on Wagnerian Opera at something called the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Texas Tech University. Everything I learned about opera I could have easily studied on the internet. It didn't matter. I had a great time reconnecting with my tribe of older people sharing certain cultural interests. I will do it again on another topic soon.

A Vision for the Future

Having seen what SRUs are good at and what they are not very good at, it is time to grab a glimpse of where SRUs need to be headed.

When technology is fully embraced because the need for a better and cheaper product finally trumps the political protection of the status quo, the state regional university will be replaced as part of new state university systems in which local institutions will play a very different role. These new local institutions could be called Learning Satellite Centers (LSCs).

These new university systems will support the shift of undergraduate higher education to pre-employment training in marketable skills. General education courses that were previously considered necessary to producing the theoretical "educated man/woman" will be optional. They will be readily available for those who wish to take them but, in addition to, and not replacing, the marketable skills courses. They should also be available at any time during a graduate's life at no additional tuition charge. Graduation with a professionally oriented degree should come with a free lifetime subscription to all the personal enrichment courses you wish to take.

Actual course content in the pre-employment programs will be delivered electronically from a very few University Centers across the state. These centers will likely be housed at the currently recognized flagship institutions. In Texas, that would be Texas Tech, the University of Texas-Austin, and Texas A&M University-College Station. Whether or not semester-long courses are the best way to package this content will depend on what a particular aggregation of content needs to accomplish in the context of preparing the student for extended apprenticeship experiences in their chosen field, as managed through the LSC.

Much content will take the form of high-budget, high-quality multimedia productions with delivery available to all popular devices, from desktop computers to cell phones. Access to learning materials, from course movies and podcasts to reading materials, will be through an expanded electronic distribution system that will eliminate the need for paper-based academic libraries.

Student content and the evaluation of student assignments will be provided by Help Centers staffed by trained professionals (not graduate students). These Help Centers may be physically located at the University Centers. They may also be managed by the University Centers but be located offshore to provide more professional service at less cost. Freed from the need to deliver course content and daily learning support, the LSCs would then provide an overarching layer of face-to-face personal mentoring and in-person social networking opportunities in the broadest possible sense.

The physical location of the LSC functions will be distributed in relation to the field of training. The Health Careers functions might be housed in the locality's medical campus, if not in actual hospital buildings. Criminal Justice training could arrange space with or near the Police Department, State Trooper barracks or law courts. An expanded University Ranch would not be bolted on to the Agriculture/Ranching program as a special amenity; it would be the location of the Agriculture/Ranching program. In short, the LSC component units will be at or near the place where those in training could work directly with those currently practicing successfully in their chosen field. This will facilitate a deeper level of interpersonal bonding between those who are doing the job and the students who are providing real value at the workplace while they are learning to do the job.

This is very different from the short and artificially staged "practicums" currently offered to pre-service professionals, notably schoolteachers, who nationally have a 50 percent chance of dropping out of their new profession in the first five years. It makes no sense to have a student teaching experience that drives toward just one or two formally evaluated 40-minute demonstration lessons, for which the candidate takes many weeks to prepare overly elaborate materials that they will never have time to create when they are actually teaching. That is not the way the teaching profession really works. No one should ever graduate with a degree in a field of employment and then be shocked by what it is "really like" in their first weeks on the job.

In addition to a providing a physical footprint inside actual workplaces, thought must be given to avoid creating professional ghettos. Local LSC facilities may need to be built, acquired or leased to provide convenient venues for teams, clubs and events, as well as social space where students can engage in social activities that transcend professional lines. When the computer gamers and the literature majors get to meet on neutral ground, everybody benefits.

The University Center plus Learning Satellite Center model will be able to dispense with more than a few huge, expensive to maintain and unneeded physical campuses. There will be no need for the usual top-heavy phalanx of well-paid administrators which an SRU collects, as many administrative functions such as registration and financial aid could be handled more economically at a University Center connected electronically to individual students. Gone will be the days when entire offices are unavailable to students because the one person who knows how to get from point A to point B is taking lunch. In short, we must stop mimicking the governance of Iowa, where 99 tiny counties have parallel government hierarchies redundantly serving only 3 million people.

The LSCs will require a new class of support professionals gleaned from the ranks of best current practitioners. These individuals will not need formal academic research or publishing skills, nor the Ph.D. that (theoretically) attests to the presence of those skills. Instead they will be exemplary problem-solvers and accomplishers in their fields who have received some further training in how to support new career aspirants.

The goal of the University Center plus Learning Satellite Center model is to transfer agency back into the hands of the students, where it belongs. No longer will a self-appointed privileged group of professional academics with their arcane degrees and funny ceremonial robes be dictating to the rest of society what we all need to learn and how we need to learn it. Technology will be the great leveler and the marketplace will help individual students decide what choices are best.

Of course, a brief sketch like this one will raise many questions that cannot be explored in a single article, but the conversation must begin. The current State Regional University is not sustainable and can only be propped up by politics and sentiment for so long. Too many students are piling up huge debt to earn dubious degrees that don't lead to marketable skills or significant economic benefits. Technology has made more effective models of higher education attainable and at a lower price. We need to fearlessly explore such models before our charming old regional campuses drift into irrelevance.

But no one should underestimate how heavy a lift this will be. SRUs offer immediate economic benefit to their home communities in proportion to their size. Growth is the standard measure of institutional success because it means salary dollars, construction dollars and state aid dollars. SRUs offer value to local parents in proportion to the institutions' admissions flexibility. They are a place where high school graduates with indifferent scholastic records are likely to be accepted for a relatively inexpensive four-year college degree, which has always been considered a sure ticket to the middle class. The concept of the SRU giving way to a more focused, more select institution based on creating truly employable graduates can expect considerable resistance. A great deal of public information will be needed before localities understand that true college success is measured not by your GPA, but by the quality of the position you can attract after you walk the stage in a cap and gown. A successful education is a better deal than an easier one.

Why Are SRUs Still Around?

If a great deal that state regional universities currently accomplish could be done more economically and effectively by technology outside the current SRU institutional structure, we must ask why SRUs have lasted so long in their current form. The most obvious explanation is that each SRU is protected politically because of its value as a local economic engine. For example, a recent joint advertising campaign, including billboards, claimed that West Texas A&M University and Amarillo College combined contribute about $1 billion per year to the Texas Panhandle economy.

There are also a number of myths that support the preservation and expansion of SRUs:

Myth: College is for everybody regardless of commitment or maturity. The experience of taking classes at an SRU is not much different from taking classes at an American high school. You show up, take notes, hand in homework, meet institutional standards to a greater or lesser extent, get second and third chances if you don't meet those standards, and finally get some arbitrary amount of credit toward a diploma, usually with a grade of "A."

If we are going to replace the SRU with higher education that delivers a more employable graduate at less cost through better use of technology, we must remove some of the overprotective training wheels from the system. Those high school graduates who lack the commitment and maturity to profit from technologically delivered courses may simply not be academically or emotionally prepared to enroll in the university of the future. Of course, they may not ready for the university of the present either, which may be why WTAMU's six-year graduation rate is a dismal 42 percent. More stringent admission standards at SRUs would put pressure on the high schools to demand more for their diplomas as well. (I am fully aware of the profound political implications of raising admissions standards.)

Myth: The local student body is uniquely defined by its blood and soil. This myth suggests that the students in Rochester, TX, or Rochester, MN, have very little in common with their peers in Rochester, NY, or Rochester, MI. Only a professoriate that lives and works in any locality can truly understand the local students, so only the local SRU can be trusted to teach them. The mantra for this thinking might be "Computers will not replace us!"

This is nonsense. While there are undoubtedly cultural differences between regions, and between major cities and more rural areas, a little situational awareness of the part of faculty well-trained in cultural diversity is sufficient to adjust to these subtleties. There are as many important differences among students on the same campus as there are among students on different ones.

Myth: Each faculty member is a uniquely precious little snowflake. This myth says that there is absolutely no one else in the universe who teaches Western Civilization like Dr. Jones at our local SRU. After all, no one else has read exactly the same books as Dr. Jones or had exactly the same life experience.

While that is undoubtedly true, it does not necessarily follow that local students get a better experience by being in Dr. Jones' class. On the contrary, they might do considerably better by participating electronically in the class of some nationally recognized teacher with greater content depth and exceptional ability to inspire. Perhaps that teacher would not dream of taking a job at the SRU where Dr. Jones teaches because of salary or cultural environment.

Myth: The local SRU is the ideal place to get a "well-rounded" education. This is actually a few separate myths in need of unpacking. The first is that there is actually some way of measuring what an educated person is. This is actually a rapidly moving target. A hundred years ago, no one would have been considered educated who lacked either Greek or Latin. Fifty years ago, being considered educated might have included intimate familiarity with the famous University of Chicago set of 160 "Great Books." The problem was that no two scholars could agree on which books were truly great or why.

Even if we accept that "educated" is a reasonable adjective to apply to people and that we can somehow define what "educated" means, there is no reason to believe that the micron-thin spray-painting of Western culture embodied in a typical SRU's first two years of "general education" courses achieves anything at all. This is not surprising, since so many students are captives who would rather be learning a paying trade than musing about Julius Caesar's mindset when he crossed the Rubicon. This is even more so with today's older and more goal-driven undergraduates. Education by coercion is rarely a productive venture.

As a 67-year-old, it appears to me that education for personal enrichment is often more useful and enjoyable as one gets considerably older. For example, you need to slow down a little to appreciate great literature. In the opinion of many who study such things, one of the greatest of novels of all time is Henry James' Portrait of a Lady. I read it in high school and saw nothing in it. I just read it again and saw everything in it. I would love to be attending a general education class right now on Great Victorian Novels, but during my college years, you couldn't have dragged me into one with free steak dinners.

Myth: Only at an SRU can students have the happy experience of being "taken under the wing" of a professor or two who takes an interest in them. Like most pernicious myths, this one has a tiny grain of truth to it. Yes, happy accidents do occur when, due to some unknown bit of chemistry, Dr. Smith is really taken with the earnestness, intelligence and dedication of student George or student Maggie, and lavishes a completely disproportionate amount of time and attention on them. Common sense suggests that this will only happen for a tiny percentage of students and, most probably, for those who are exceptionally talented. Coach Baker is far more likely to bond meaningfully with a star member of the track team than with some out-of-shape English major struggling through a mandatory P.E. class. The "under the wing" experience simply does not scale in the normal SRU institutional structure. It is far more likely to occur in an environment where the student is helping their mentor with actual work.

Myth: Nothing can replace "the campus experience" of the SRU. This is nothing but a marketing myth. If living on campus was so glorious, why does such a large percentage of students get off campus the moment school rules allow? West Texas A&M offers students a rent-free year of dorm housing if they voluntarily stay on campus for the last two years of their college careers. Yes, great friendships are sometimes made on campus, but young people will find ways to get to know each other no matter where they live. Living on campus fits some and not others.

Myth: SRUs must be preserved because they shower the globe with useful research. In reality, many SRU professors consider scribbling off a yearly paper on something or other to be an obsolete chore needed to keep their "real job," which is teaching. Quality research is created by professors who have something to say, not those who are required to say something. Of course, there is a staggering amount of outright fraud in research at the SRU level, where faculty who have no interest in research can get nearly anything published in some dubious overseas journal for a reasonable "review and editing fee." Of course, other SRU professors do superlative research work even when the level of support at their institution is a tiny fraction of what is available at Carnegie Level One or Carnegie Level Two research universities.

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