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What do Research Universities Uniquely Bring to Online Education?

—Co-written with Ken Udas | Deputy Vice Chancellor and Chief Information Officer, University of Southern Queensland

Teaching and learning may not be the exclusive focus of research universities’ missions, the way it is at other institutions, but there are still a number of ways they can use online and virtual learning to meet their full range of needs.

Research universities make significant contributions to society and humanity through acts of discovery and innovation. But how do those capacities translate into value through online education, and what roles can research universities take on in an ecosystem flourishing with new and bold alternative education initiatives?

We explored this question during the annual meeting of the National University Technology Network (NUTN) held in Kansas City, Missouri, last month. A small group of representatives from predominantly research universities engaged in a focused conversation on the topic for nearly an hour and a half.

Historically, higher education has been cast as the great social equalizer, functioning as a major contributor to workforce development, economic growth, and social progress, ultimately serving as the most effective means to increased quality of life and civic capacity. Yet legitimate questions about program relevance (leading to lack of productive employability) and cost (leading to crippling student debt) have engendered debate about whether the price of attending college has grown to the point that higher education is more of a drag on social and economic progress than a contributor.

Research universities take a special and complementary role in the education ecosystem along with teaching colleges and universities. As a number of research-intensive universities have a rich history with distance education and have made significant investments in online learning, it is natural to ask about the unique benefits that research universities offer students and funders. Feeling as if they are caught between exclusively career-focused universities, colleges and alternatives and experimental educational initiatives, research-extensive universities are compelled to ask, “Just what is it that a research-intensive university brings to online learning that is unique, valuable to students, and that other types of institutions are not well equipped to provide?”

One of the things that distinguishes research universities from many organizations offering extensive online programming is the depth of research and service missions, which of course should complement the teaching mission. That is, research universities—with a broader and more diverse mission than many institutions with which we share the online space—are fundamentally different than for-profit, career, and two and four-year teaching schools. They are also fundamentally different from alternative organizations, services, and initiatives, such as Kahn Academy, MITx, edX, Straighter Line, OERu, Coursera, Udacity, and Western Governors University. Our challenge lies in framing educational offerings to take advantage of the balanced discovery, teaching, and service mission of the research university, while discovering new ways to do so affordably.

During the 2012 annual meeting of NUTN, we openly posed the question, “What do research universities uniquely bring to Online Education?” during a general session, with an invitation for participation later in the day. The topic was very well received. We purposely decided to not talk about online learning, but instead talk about the nature of research and service as it relates to online education. We felt that explicitly framing the discussion in terms of “online learning” would lead us to talking about the same old topics and significantly constrain creativity. Judging from the feedback on the discussion, the approach seemed to work well.

The facilitated dialogue pointed out the level of sophistication at which research-intensive universities operate regarding the connections between research commercialization, licensing, technology transfer, and service.  We recognized the role these activities play in online education, and the connection this capacity has to online learning as well.  Based on the examples provided during the discussion it seemed clear that such a capacity is uniquely found in research-intensive organizations; and universities are the archetypes.  I am guessing that there are some government agencies, a few public institutes, and a handful of commercial labs that operate similarly regarding reach and commercialization, but they would not share the service and learning missions of research-intensive universities such as those represented in the meeting.

What we found striking is how (some) organizations with such sophisticated processes and activities around research and service may have a lack of sophistication around the virtualization of those activities, and around connecting them with learning—particularly with online learning.

We structured the discussion by taking the element of the research university’s tripartite mission (teaching, research, and service) and applying to it the Five Pillars in the SLOAN-C quality Framework (Learning Effectiveness, Scale, Access, Faculty Satisfaction, and Student Satisfaction).  Even with this well-understood framework, we soon realized that we were just going to scratch the surface on this topic.

Under the categories of learning effectiveness, scale, and access, we identified many ideas for research and service where online methods add value. For example, virtually creating and sharing authentic cases from diverse contexts in which the university is conducting research. Also, solving global problems via applied research by drawing together virtual collaboration and on-ground service learning. MOOCs designed to address research questions were another idea.

Several examples were also identified that are already applying these ideas. At Colorado State University, (a social enterprise) collaborated with CSU’s Social and Sustainable Innovation Program, combining technology transfer and student-led applied research with learning effectiveness and access. The Michigan State University Open Educational Resources AgShare project is a collaboration with the leading agriculture university network in Africa that combines student research with online curriculum to create scale, service and learning effectiveness.  Also, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center integrates research, teaching, and service to achieve the highest impact possible to improve the quality of life for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

Although the group did not reach substantive conclusions about the larger topic, there was the feeling that to engender discussion with much of the teaching and research faculty on campus, we need academic language around the framework, not Sloan language.  Finally, we left the conversation with an unanswered question about the types of students who would gravitate to an intensely integrated educational experience with activities supported by research, service, and teaching.

Ultimately, there are still some questions left to be answered but it is clear that research universities bring a lot to the table when talking about online education.