Research universities have a mission that is more comprehensive than just teaching and learning, and require an engaging environment to meet that need. Unless such a comprehensive environment can be developed online, online learning simply will not meet the needs of research universities. Photo by Alexander Raths.

The following interview is with Christine Geith, the Assistant Provost and Executive Director of Michigan State University’s MSUglobal. Geith has nearly 20 years of experience in online learning and her publications and research focus on costs, benchmarks and business models for online and blended learning. She plans to present on the role of research universities in innovating alternative online education, and discussed with The EvoLLLution her view of the mission of research universities, and whether online or blended models can fit into that vision.

1. The higher education industry is facing a number of questions about its relevance and return for students; research universities in particular have been at the center of this storm. Is this simply a case of society misunderstanding the goals and mission of research universities?

Apparently so! People have been writing about this for a long time. There’s a good report that just came out about a month or so ago from the National Academies… that talks about the value proposition—at the federal level, at the state level and to businesses—and it has an important call to action in terms of funding for research universities and their role in our country’s innovation, really. It’s discovery and innovation. The seed of that is at U.S. research universities.

That’s a fundamentally different proposition than schools whose primary focus is teaching, and degrees and programs. We do degrees and programs, but our main focus—and the context in which those degrees and programs rest—is the discovery of new knowledge and the application of that to the grand challenges that we all face in the world.

2. How does the mission of a research university differ from that of other four-year and two-year institutions?

Research universities have the classic three-legged stool; research, teaching and service or outreach. …

Those three things—research, teaching and service—are a broader scope than at a community college or a four-year institution or most for-profit institutions. It doesn’t mean they don’t have some of those components, but we have infrastructure and investment in it. Our mission, and our scope of what we do, and the impact that we have on society at large, comes from those three things being integrated together.

You can’t really take one out and do it in isolation by design; especially at a land-grant institution like Michigan State. They’re integrated in by design and that integration is more like an ecosystem that benefits through a balance of those three. The values inside of which we operate—what are people rewarded for, where does money get spent, what is prioritized—it can be summarized by saying “we prioritize the creation of new knowledge and the solving of society’s problems.” Applying that new knowledge in the process of solving problems.

Degrees and programs and courses are just one of the many tools we use to do that, so in that way we’re different because our mission is bigger and we are measured by different outcomes. We have a broad base of stakeholders—everybody is a stakeholder at a research university—and the metrics by which we’re measured are very broad. They’re not just degree completion, number of graduates; they’re also innovation and economic development. …

3. You pointed out in your presentation abstract that the benefits of a research university are usually expressed with the traditional student in mind. What benefits does a research university provide for its non-traditional, online learners?

There’s two issues to talk about with this; one is our more expansive mission and our core values around creating knowledge, and the other one is, in that context, teaching and learning. Because our definition of…quality teaching and learning is based in the context of which research pieces are there. …

For accreditation visits for programs, the marks of quality are the learning outcomes for courses, the learning outcomes for whole programs and then institutional learning outcomes—which includes things like critical thinking, global citizenship and things of that nature—things that cut across multiple courses and programs that a university or college would hope that all students graduate with. …

The way that we go about achieving those goals is also in the context of this innovation and economic development goal that we have as an engine at the federal and state level. When we offer learning; it’s in the context of this problem-focused mission being imbedded in the university culture. We focus on knowledge creation and personal transformation and then classes and programs are just one way we get there. …The learning experience we offer tends to be very place-based, because of that nature, because of the different roles students take on, and the different types of things that they’re involved in. …Those are the methods by which we create this transformative experience for students, and it tends to be very physically place-based.

4. Do you have any ideas about how higher education institutions could reduce the costs of their online offerings to widen the scope of accessibility to programming?

If you define what you’re looking for as degree output, and        you think of those as a widget, and you think of reducing production costs for every widget, the costs for doing that are well-known. The cost and the cost-reduction strategies—for making things more efficient and whatnot—are very well-known. It’s not the only challenge, though.

Part of the challenge is that the programs and courses are in an ecosystem of knowledge creation and dissemination. You can’t just pull the widget out like you would in a factory; it’s really embedded in more of a biological metaphor, it’s embedded in a system or an ecosystem. …It doesn’t mean it’s not open for disruption, though! …

I think there’s plenty of potential for new types of learning factories, if you will, to come up that are very speedy-output and low-cost and have high quality. Those kinds of things, there’s lots of things to look for that might hold the keys to a future disruption; you could look at the open education movement, you could look at MOOCs, you could look at accelerated programs, there’s all kinds of things going on that we should all be paying attention to.

For a research university, with all the different stakeholders and all the different outcomes that we’re held accountable to, we’re not doing society or especially our students—we’re doing people an injustice if we’re pulling out just the course or just the program and making it as efficient as possible. Because students wouldn’t get the full experience of all those different roles, all the different assets we bring to the table. And unfortunately all those assets are very diverse, they benefit multiple stakeholders, they also tend to cost a lot of money.

So research universities, in my opinion, are not designed to be teaching factories. We don’t just create one type of product or one type of service. It’s all embedded with a lot of co-dependencies, not only in the class piece but in the culture of what we’re offering students as a learning experience.

I’m not saying we’re immune to cost reduction, but we’re not teaching factories so the variables are different.

5. Do you have anything to add about the role of research universities and innovating alternative approaches to online education?

I’m very interested in forms of online and blended learning that go beyond the current popular focus on delivering courses and programs. Like I said, that’s kind of a factory approach, a commodity approach. … There’s lots that can be scaled up that’s very appropriate certain kinds of programs.

I’m very interested in using the techniques of online and blended learning to see how we can enable what is now pretty place-based by tradition—in terms of what we do at research universities—and finding alternative ways, using these same tools, these same best practices, these same theories, that we can apply to helping students have transformative experiences and involving students in research, innovation and creating new knowledge. …

Christine Geith will be presenting on the Research Universities’ Role in Alternative Online Education Innovation with Ken Udas on September 18 at the 2012 NUTN Network Conference. For more information, click here.

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Readers Comments

Yvonne Laperriere 2012/08/28 at 3:11 pm

This may sound ignorant, but I would think the first mission of any institution would be providing its students a first-rate education, with everything else coming secondary

Chuck Schwartz 2012/08/28 at 11:45 pm

When I first read this article, I really disagreed with your reasoning for not wanting to expand the online offerings that you provided. After all, they widen accessibility to the knowledge housed in the institution and make participating in higher education more reasonable for non-traditional students.

However, I really think I see where you’re coming from now. There’s more going on at a research university than just teaching — there’s research, there’s innovation. And all these things translate into the degree you confer on successful graduates. Without all these other elements of the learning experience, how can a student say they had the full educational experience of the institution?

Stephen J. Gill 2012/09/06 at 9:30 pm

Christine Geith’s description of how Michigan State University is serving online learners locally and globally is admirable but I’m afraid research institutions like hers are faced with organizational barriers that get in the way of their good intentions. Yes, they are in the business of “discovery of new knowledge and application to solving society’s problems.” This is a very important role that institutions like Michigan State are good at. However, the university incentive system rewards faculty for publications and grants; it does not reward them in any significant way for high quality teaching or service to the university and broader community. If online instruction makes their classroom responsibilities easier (which it usually doesn’t when online instruction is done well), then faculty will be motivated to teach in this way. Otherwise, there is no incentive to experiment with new methods. For many faculty their goal is to be released from teaching to do research and writing, not to improve their instruction.
Another organizational barrier to serving online learners is the customer. The research university’s primary customer is faculty and, to a slightly lesser degree, staff. The physical plant, course schedules, and departments are organized for the benefit of faculty, not students. If we were to organize these institutions to serve students, they would be set up quite differently.
And if these institutions were really serious about “solving society’s problems” they wouldn’t be divided into so many different disciplines. The most intractable problems of our society, such as poverty, low levels of education, poor health care for most people, the lack of affordable housing, and environmental degradation, will not be solved by political scientists, sociologists, historians, artists, chemists, biologists, physicians, or educators each doing discipline-focused research. It will take all of these folks working together in an applied environment to solve society’s problems. Research universities (and most universities) play a very important role and should be supported. Just don’t count on them to deliver high quality online instructional programs to their students and the wider community.

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