AUDIO | The Hand-in-Hand Evolution of Higher Education Institutions and Edupreneurs
As higher education institutions become closer with edupreneurs, it’s going to become critical for colleges and universities to determine what their main value proposition is, and what tasks and services they can afford to outsource.

The following interview is with George Siemens, associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. Siemens is a pioneer of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and has written and spoken at some length about the growth of open learning. In this interview, Siemens discusses how the partnership between private providers and higher education institutions will evolve over the next decade, and shares his thoughts on what the future holds for MOOCs and other edupreneurial ventures.

1. How are private businesses changing higher education for the better?

Well, there’s a variety of areas where that impact is being felt. I think one of the biggest benefits — and I’m thinking more so about startups than, let’s say, broadly larger or established corporations — through startups is there’s a questioning of the existing approaches to education and so you have software companies or a group of young individuals who are basically thinking about the education system through the lens of their experience with media, technology, the internet and so on. And so, as a result of that experience, they have a different framework or different perspective than what many of us who have been in higher education for decades or more.

So, what I see particularly interesting in the startup movement is the growth of the natural element of creativity that individuals bring when they are given an opportunity to create something or when they are given an opportunity to have, really, just control over the kinds of products or services that they use in their daily lives.

So, from my perspective at least, what’s most beneficial with the growing startup movement in ed tech, is bringing new ideas in and questioning existing assumptions.

2. Open online learning seems to be increasingly becoming the domain of edupreneurs, but done in partnership with higher education institutions. Why don’t private providers like Coursera just develop their own content, similar to what’s being done at the Khan Academy?

… First of all, Coursera is a startup as well and their approach, though, has been maybe roll out more rapidly to retain that tie to the university. The other thing to remember is what’s being taught through Coursera is world-class researchers that have significant footprint in their respective areas of study. So, for Coursera to duplicate that without those faculty members would be quite challenging and very expensive as well. Another component is that Coursera has now in excess of 220 courses available online. For a company like Coursera to develop those courses themselves is quite difficult to do, especially at the pace they’ve been able to add these courses and add these institutions. …

On the one hand that’s really an example of the internet effect; don’t do everything yourself, don’t centralize yourself, work with partners and work with others who are going to help move your content online. You develop your area of specialty or expertise, which in this case is the development of the MOOC platform; the name, the fact that if you run a course on Coursera you’re going to get thousands of more registrations than if you’re on any other platform. And so, that’s one thing I think Coursera has done quite wisely is they’ve taken the initiative, saying, “We want to have others develop the content so that we don’t have to become content experts, we can connect the pieces of specialization that already exist.”

The drawback to that, though, is … they don’t actually own their own content. So it’s more of a relationship right now that’s built on some level of trust or mutual benefit. From Coursera’s end, they give universities and individual academics a great opportunity to reach a broader audience than they would if they were, let’s say, running it off their own website or they are running it through their own university system. A big benefit that Coursera brings to the table is the … approaching three million learners now that have a Coursera account. So that’s something the universities benefit from, and the academics as well. Coursera, though, benefits from having world-class knowledge and expertise at their fingertips, basically, so you have folks that have written the book literally on complexity theory… or you have individuals that are running courses and data processing that are literally the cutting edge, world-class researchers in this regard. So, the benefit for Coursera, obviously, is exceptional quality access to academic ideas that they likely wouldn’t be able to do, or at least do cost-effectively, if it wasn’t for the university partnerships.

Now, Udacity is an example of startup that has actually taken the Khan Academy model. So, what Udacity has done is developed a model where they develop and own the curriculum. They have a faculty member that teaches it and develops it, but Udacity has an [intellectual property] stake in the courses that they are developing. And that allows them to do a few practically different things, at least short term, which is the University of San Jose initiative, where they are going to develop a series of courses for that university sector to try and improve the quality of math or related to the field of study for the students. It gives different opportunities but, at the same account, Coursera has 220-plus courses where Udacity has about maybe a dozen or two at the most. So that’s the trade-off that Udacity has made.

Which model is most effective in the long run? Still a little early to tell, but it will be interesting to see the emergence of particular benefits to each of those approaches.

3. Looking 10 years down the line, what will the partnership between edupreneurs and higher education institutions look like?

…  We don’t know at this stage, at least, how these various things will play out. At this stage, let’s just look a little bit at what are the factors that are up in the air from the perspective of higher education.

First of all, there’s been an enlargement of accrediting or recognition of competence through — and this is still in the early stages — but through the development of, let’s say, badges as an example, or alternative certificates that are being offered by the startups like Udacity or Coursera. Or through the development of existing university systems accepting Coursera courses for credit and so on. So, the accrediting aspect is a little up in the air, how that’s going to play out.

Another aspect that’s very much up in the air is how the teaching approach is going to play out long term. This is an argument that has been out many times over the last year and a half is, if you have, let’s say, in a country like the [United States] or in a country like Canada, 100 first-year ‘Intro to Psychology’ courses being offered every single year at different institutions, why not take that 100 (or in the U.S. case, probably 1,000 courses) and develop one exceptional course and have that be taught — professionally produced, or whatever you want to call it — and then have the activity happening at the local college or university level be more focused on application, considering what that particular learning activity means, so students actually develop a deep understanding, so teaching is a bit up for grabs as well.

Another aspect that’s very much up for grabs is the experience of the end user, of the learner, and that comes just through the proliferation of content that’s freely available. This goes back to the MIT’s open course and even prior to that where open content was accessible by students, individuals; through self-regulated learning we’re able to meet some of their interests and their needs. So you have a student who might be entering a university today that has taken a Coursera course, accessed open educational resources, spent time watching tutorials on YouTube, might even be reading open online journals in that particular field or that area of study. Perhaps they’ve been involved in some workplace activity as well, where they’ve been able to apply some of the concepts that they’ve been developing, informally or through self-regulated learning. All of a sudden you have this learner who comes in that, unlike 20 years ago where you would come in from maybe having read a book or something … now a student comes into university and if they’ve been somewhat thoughtful in their planning they will bring with them a huge range of existing learning activities that may have prepared them very different from what student 10 to 15 years ago. So that’s another aspect that’s up in the air.

So, if you look at just a few of those factors and when there’s … in Canada, in particular, we face concerns around the reduction of public support for higher education — this is probably more prominent in the [United States], it’s been very significant in the UK over the last two to three years — that’s another factor to consider: what’s happening when there’s a reduction of public support for education and the cost of education, of transfer, to the student which then in turn produces a student expectation of a greater service or greater responsiveness to their levels of interests or needs within the university sector.

You can go on and look at a variety of other factors that impact whether to increase calls for accountability, whether it’s the growing call for standardization or testing, and the flipped side of that which is the growing call for increasing creativity in education and so on. So you really have a large segment or a large proportion of what happens in higher education now being essentially up for grabs, where there isn’t a clear trajectory forward with any one of those and, where there is a trajectory, we might say, “Okay, well, this is where things are going to” — that isn’t necessarily the case for the remaining factors that’s up in the air.

So that’s why I say, when you’re talking about the future of university, what’s it going to look like in 10 years, if anybody guesses it right, it will be due to luck, not due to insight.

One of things that we possibly look at, though, is considering a variety or a range of futures for the university. So, we could say, “What would happen, what are potential outcomes of these various factors and, so, what kind of a structure might we be looking at, or what are the potential options?”

That can range anything from the status quo where we continue with the existing university model, public funding gets restored slightly, things resume as they largely were. It could also come in the form of significant changes to the university sector that involves more of a commercial presence in the offering of its products, and that’s already evident through some of the work that Arizona State University is doing out of the [United States] partnering with Pearson, Knewton, but certainly that’s not the only one. There are a variety of universities out there that are starting to partner more and more with providers or service providers … companies like, let’s say, Tutor, or whether it’s working with companies like Pearson or whoever they end up dealing with. They are starting to outsource certain aspects of curriculum design or course design or marketing or technology and so on. So, that’s one scenario in the future: we’re going to have potentially far greater university commercial partnerships because the university just simply cannot remain as this large, monolithic structure that serves this range of needs; they need to start partnering with others to fulfill some of those requirements.

Other options include literally what people have been saying about MOOCs, which I don’t think is entirely true, that it transforms the higher education market where the segment is completely changed and emphasis now becomes some option of blended learning or a greater emphasis on individuals being involved in out-of-class learning activities, which will reduce the cost of education and so on.

But, again, you could spin out the list of … different future scenarios for higher education just based on how unsettled some of the change pressures are right now.

4. Do you feel that the partnership model that you briefly touched on, where various elements of institutional … programming, whether it’s marketing — some elements of an institution hold inside right now — will probably get outsourced to some partner. Do you see that being a most-likely scenario, whether or not funding increases or decreases over the next 10 years?

I think, certainly, we will see greater involvement from commercial entities in higher education. So that, regardless of whether public funding is restored to a certain level or whether it continues to decrease and universities have to look for ways to reduce costs or ways to become more competitive, it’s very likely that the future scenario of the university will be one where it will be greater or more substantive presence from commercial vendors or commercial providers.

One of the things we started to do, just to give you an example, at Athabasca University is we initiated a series of Ed Tech Startup approaches where we’re looking to partner with existing university researcher startups and other members who are in that startup space, with a venture capitalist or whoever else that might help bring the ideas or the concepts of startups and researchers to marketplace or for commercialization more rapidly. …

Now, that’s not to say that I’m not considering companies like Pearson or McGraw-Hill or others as part of it; our interest in ed tech innovation is broadly on what’s happening with university partnerships, connection to commercial spaces, but at this stage at least, many of the existing providers of universities services are as vested in the university model as the universities are. And one of the benefits from the startup space is there’s actually generation of new ideas and new approaches that will help to increase the profile of, how does a university partner with, let’s say, a company in delivering teaching and services. If there’s things you can outsource to companies from the university end, maybe there’s a greater amount of options to partner with universities from a corporate end to provide support or train development from their own staff members.

It’s an interesting relationship between the university and the public, the university commercial spaces, government. And this has been referred to in various ways as the ‘triple helix’ model of the university which is the way in which the various partners in a knowledge economy collaborate to increase their competitiveness internationally.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about how the partnership between private providers and higher education institutions might evolve over the next 10 years and what that relationship might look like in a decade’s time?

…  I just want to emphasize one aspect, which is: there’s a growing opposition, obviously, from a variety of groups, faculty and otherwise, that are concerned about the corporate takeover of higher education and that’s going to be an important discussion for university leaders as well as partners with universities to navigate, because there is more to the university experience than just developing someone with the skills to be an employee.

It’s more than teaching someone how to write a piece of code; there’s more to it than moving someone through the process of achieving a particular competence. That aspect and the broader societal good, some of the intangible elements that come from having an educated population, how to preserve those attributes of the university system when the metrics that are brought in by commercial entities primarily favor things that can be weighted, measured and determined — whether there’s an ROI benefit for those kinds of activities — that’s going to be something that both the university sector is going to have to do some soul-searching on in terms of, how do they preserve that aspect of it, and corporate partners also need to reflect on, how can we partner well with universities and acknowledging that the metrics of higher education can’t always be reduced to profit and loss.

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Readers Comments

Daniele Thomas 2013/03/21 at 7:15 am

As higher education institutions begin accepting credits from private providers, the latter will (rightly be) subjected to greater scrutiny to ensure their content meets the standards of the institution. There is great potential here to create a meaningful relationship between these two entities that will benefit students in the years to come.

Ian Richardson 2013/03/21 at 8:59 am

I agree with Siemens that it’s too early to predict which model being pursued by private providers will succeed in the future. Thus, it is important for the higher education industry to assess these providers, not only in terms of enrollment but also the rate of completion among their students to truly see which model works.

Natasha Rubin 2013/03/21 at 4:05 pm

I like the way George Siemens describes the ‘triple helix’ model of higher education, where each contributing partner stands to benefit from the work that’s being done by all. It is extremely important that the private sector, higher education institutions and governments continue working together in this manner. It would be dangerous to privilege one partner’s interests over another’s or start to use one partner’s performance measures (e.g. profit) to judge all.

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