Public universities confront changes

Ithaka S+R logoHow are leading public universities coping with the current higher education crisis?  A new Ithaka S+R report by Deanna Marcum,  “Technology to the Rescue” (pdf), offers sobering, even grim answers.

To begin with, these institutions have hit an economic wall, and don’t know what to do next.  Listen:

Most of the chief financial officers reported that they have exhausted or are close to exhausting their initiatives for bringing in additional revenue or cutting costs. There is also talk about the current model being ‘broken’ and ‘unsustainable’, but there is very little evidence of anyone actively working to institute anything significantly different at the university level.

Are they responding with bold imagination?  In a word, nope:

the primary focus of both administrators and faculty is on trying to do the traditional things as well as possible with more limited resources…

In general, we did not see evidence of strategic plans to reassess how instruction is delivered at a systematic level…

Is retrenchment helping?  Nah: “None of the universities we visited appear to have found a sustainable model for resolving worsening budget situations”.  Is this more evidence for peak higher education?

The contrast between these faculty and administrators and the students they serve is huge.  According to Marcum, learners

want a degree from a public flagship university because of its value and national recognition, but they do not want to pursue it in the traditional way.

Marcum goes on to describe undergraduates working hard to take fewer classes at these expensive universities, using AP credit, high school college classes, and classes taken at less expensive campuses to lower their costs.  Students, in short, are where the innovative and entrepreneurial energies live.

What about technology?  The report sees public universities exploring new forms of computer-mediated teaching and learning with greater imagination than they do economic ones, but just barely.  Institutions face some serious and well-known challenges:

  • competition in faculty members’ minds between research and teaching time
  • an “ambiguous terminology for online learning”
  • issues of “faculty roles and institutional barriers”.  For example, the usual need for collaboration in online/blended class redesign threatens faculty autonomy, as does the possibility of changing the nature of who owns classes.
  • money: the “shortage of funding and state financial support”

One unusual finding is a claim that adjuncts are the many source of computer-mediated teaching innovation: “non-tenure-track faculty are the major initiators of technology-enhanced education”.

Indeed, the report discusses the rise of a non-tenured teaching cadre which seems to present reasons for pedagogical optimism:

These semi-permanent lecturers, or instructors, often have a great deal of interest in pedagogy, more time, and more of an incentive to develop innovative teaching than research faculty.  Accordingly, they appear to be responsible for developing many of the online courses at institutions we visited.

In contrast, Marcum describes universities having to allocate extra resources to convince tenure-track researchers to do the same, sometimes professor by professor.

Perhaps this is a glimpse of one future for higher education.  As tenure continues to decline, student demands increase, and budgets stagnate, we might see universities developing such new instructional staff bodies.  This could be a way forward for teaching innovation. Such instructional staff cost less money, even at full time, thus helping CFOs somewhat with the budget problem. And maybe some will see this as a humane response to the adjunct humanitarian crisis.  Given the public role of flagship universities, this model could spread fairly quickly, at least in institutional time.


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9 Responses to Public universities confront changes

  1. gamersrch says:

    Bryan a thought commentary on the report.
    I think some folks, back at the time of the original dot com boom, of a university with two faculty bodies, one for research and one for teaching. If the report is correct about the adjuncts and lectures being pioneers in the teaching and learning mission, perhaps this faculty bifurcation may be of benefit.

    Also, one hears reports that funding for the public institutions is beginning to make a comeback, at least in some states. One wonders if that will weaken the incentive to re-invent the institution.

    • I’ve been tracking that research/teaching split for a while, gamersrch, and few in the US want to make the case for it, at least openly. Perhaps it’s something that will simply surface as a fair accompli.

      Re: state spending, eh, to a degree. North Dakota, rich with oil, is spending money freely. Beyond that, some states (California) are reversing cuts… but aren’t climbing anywhere near earlier spending levels.

  2. Bryan, given the percentage of adjuncts versus tenure track faculty, isn’t it predictable that they would be more involved in computer mediated teaching? By the numbers, they are more involved in teaching and so more involved in everything related to it.

    • That’s a good point, Joseph. Adjuncts do have the advantage of numbers.
      However, they have several roadblocks to making use of tech, or so I once thought.
      First, institutions often (not always) prefer to direct resources to support t-track faculty over adjuncts.
      Second, adjuncts who cobble together employment across 3-6 institutions have less time to spend on tech.

      But Marcum points out that these non-t-track faculty are often full time and on multi-year contracts, which eases those two objections somewhat. And I suppose adjuncts trend younger (generalization), which means they have, on average, greater tech fluency than their tenured elders (generalization),

  3. I think the real quandry here is also at the point of course development and curriculum approval. Adjuncts can deliver online courses, but they usually are not empowered to create them, and those courses also have to make their way through a traditional curriculum committee. Thus, even having adjuncts to teach the courses assumes that there is a means of developing, revising, etc.

  4. That’s a very good point, Bob. In which case the innovations come not through curriculum but through pedagogy.

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