Four Radically Different Models in Higher Ed Worth Considering

change-ahead-street-sign-300x225There are radical models in higher education worth examining that challenge the conventional model of undergraduate education; the traditional model representing a four-year on-campus program that includes instruction by faculty or teaching assistants, institution-determined course selections guided by the credit-hour formula, transcripts with GPA calculations, etc. Yet there are countless articles and posts that cry out for reformed models of higher education, even more that provide suggestions and remedies. Yet there are few models in practice that offer face-to-face education experiences that are truly transformational. However, I suggest the four models presented here are worth pondering; two created from scratch, and two that changed within an existing framework.

To reiterate, the institutions discussed here are not virtual schools, each provides face-to-face undergraduate learning experiences where technology is leveraged to facilitate learning. The schools are also committed to teaching foundational subjects—courses from the humanities, yet each provides unique learning experiences that challenge the traditional model in some way.  Each institution takes a different approach, though all encourage learners to choose a learning path, to be self-directed, to follow their interests, and establish their own learning goals. All seek to engage young people in learning, prepare students to think critically and to guide them to find their passion.

Why We Should Be Interested
Why should educators concern themselves with considering non-traditional models of higher education; models that appear far-fetched and irrelevant?  It’s becoming apparent that the current model needs to change, and change for several reasons. First, the majority of existing models at four-year higher education institutions are not sustainable. For the past two years we have heard about the bubble of higher ed, the rising costs that are pricing college education out of reach for many. It’s coming true as predicted. According to a report described in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 28 percent of public institutions, compared with 15 percent the year before, expect declines in their net-tuition revenue. Already several private institutions have taken drastic measures in response to declining revenue as reported in Inside Higher Ed.  Second, the four institutions described here offer a different perspective on education; a lens that provides a glimpse into what higher education might look like in the future—food-for-thought.  Third, some argue that there is a gap in what the current higher education institutions offer students; not only are many students excluded from higher education for a variety of reasons, but there is a lack of preparation for students to be effective as a post-graduate. Many are ill-equipped to find meaningful work in the knowledge and global economy.

Education Needs to Adapt to the ‘Big Shift’
Change is hard to do, and not just for higher ed. Deloitte’s Center for the Edge for the past three years has published a report that describes the ‘Shift Index‘ which provides metrics that signal changes in order for institutions and organizations to identify long-term trends, and plan accordingly. What is interesting is how applicable the content of the 2011 report is to higher education. The full 2011 report is here, but one interesting fact applicable to higher education is this—”the price/performance capability of computing, storage, and bandwidth is driving an adoption rate for our new “digital infrastructure” that is two to five times faster than previous infrastructures, such as electricity and telephone networks.” Furthermore, it appears individuals (i.e. students) are having a far easier time keeping up with the changes than are the institutions and organizations. It is far more challenging for organizations to remain nimble, yet still quite necessary. The point is, there are significant implications with the Big Shift we are experiencing, and it’s consumer, student, employee, life-long learner behaviours and their adoption of technology that will shape institutions, organizations and businesses of the future. It will be organizations [i.e. higher education institutions] that adapt and harness the new “knowledge flows” that will be successful, and “doing so will require significant institutional innovations” (Kulasooriya, Brown & Hagel, 2011).

Four Schools:
Below I provide a summary of each the four schools, and highlight why each is radical in context of conventional higher education. Though there are other higher education institutions implementing new models, many embracing technology and responding to the needs of students, the four presented here were chosen because of the uniqueness and diversity.

1) Quest University Canada. I heard Quest University’s Vice-Chancellor, David Helfand speak at a conference in November where he described the school he founded. Quite remarkable. Quest started with its first class in 2007 with 73 students. Classes are small. There are no lectures, but all classes are seminar-discussion format. All students complete the same foundational courses in the first two years that cover the humanities, math and sciences, yet the latter two years are unique and individual learning paths chosen and directed by the student. The selection process for professors is most unusual, and all work in an open office where there is no separation by academic schools or disciplines. Why it’s radical: there are no grades; students receive check marks to indicate if they are engaged in learning. The study path for the last two-years of the undergraduate degree program is a unique learning path chosen by each student based upon his or her personal interest/passion. Quest at a glance.

2) Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom.  Founded in 1825 started as a Polytechnic, and in 1992 the school became Liverpool John Moores University, one of the UK’s new generation universities.  This is a research university, that launched ‘a globally unique model of higher education that stresses work-related learning and ‘skill development in tandem with effective employer engagement’. Why it’s radical: the university’s program, World of Work is a support and skill development program for all students that involves involvement and input from national and international employers and business experts. Students not only gain work experience with top companies, but students develop a skill-set labeled World of Work skills. Students abilities are also verified through an employer-validated Skills Statement and interview during their undergraduate course of study. More info here.

3)  University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia. UTS is one of the largest universities in Australia and aims to be a world leader in technology education. The focus is on global, practice-oriented learning where students undertake research, professional and community work experiences. It is heavily focused on collaborative learning that integrates institutional research. Why it’s radical: the hands-on learning approach beginning in first-year of study, and the school’s updated learning strategy for 2014 includes student-generated learning goals, personalized learning paths that integrates online sources, faculty feedback, and development of a personal learning network using digital platforms and tools (three-minute video clip that describes the approach: UTS 2014). UTS undergraduate information.

Screen Shot 2012-04-11 at 9.01.58 PM
Minerva’s logo

4)  Minerva Project, United States. I hesitated to include the Minerva Project here, as this school has long been in the planning phases, and has only just begun to enroll students. However, even if it doesn’t work in this format, it’s worth examining. Conceptualized by Ben Nelson, former chief executive Snapfish the online photo printing site, Minerva seeks to be an ivy league institution with tuition fees that undercut elite US universities by half while guaranteeing students an education based not in one location, but in six of the cities around the world. Why it’s radical: it’s ambitious—not only does it seek to compete the Ivy Leagues, but provides education in brick and mortar classrooms in cities in different countries. It will leverage technology by encouraging students to access content and resources online, i.e. MOOCs but still include face-to-face interaction. By its very nature, it’s an education in globalization. More here.

As highlighted, the schools examined here and the respective models, provide insight into what can be done in higher education to address the Big Shift as described by the Deloitte Center. Though radical as they may seem, each provides a glimpse into how face-to-face undergraduate education is adapted to provide relevant and effective education for a global and digital world.


Related Reading:

Beyond the Buzz Words: Highlights from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario Conference

Buzzwords …Game-changing …..Paradigm shifts….Disruption…Innovation….Technology in the Classroom….MOOCs….Massive Open Online Courses…..Student-centered….

I attended the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario [HEQCO] two-day conference “Re-thinking higher ed Beyond the Buzzwords” last week on November 7 and 8th. The conference made the journey north to Toronto worthwhile; the keynote presentations were outstanding, each provided a unique perspective on the future and potential of higher education, as did the concurrent sessions.

The conference was introspective, forward-thinking, and uncluttered. Acknowledging the buzzwords upfront, putting them on the table had the effect of clearing the air. It felt similar to peeling back the top layers of an onion—allowing participants to get to the core discussions on the issues facing higher ed.

BtheB_Banner_ENGKeynotes of the Conference
The Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, a graduate of Harvard University, long-time educator and supporter of higher education, opened the conference. Another, Dr. David Helfand, physicist and professor of Columbia University described Quest University—an unconventional model for a new liberal arts university based in British Columbia during Thursday’s lunchtime keynote. And Da Hsuan Feng, Senior Vice President, Tsing Hua University delivered a presentation The Ascension of Asia-Pacific Higher Education on the rise and rapid expansion of universities in Asia [which will likely affect Western education institutions in the very near future].

Highlights of Keynotes:
Opening Keynote
Governor Johnston has a deep passion for education; he started as a professor of law, become a dean, then vice-chancellor of McGill University, and finally a president of the University of Waterloo in Canada. Highlights his advice to educators and administrators:
1. Reach out to other educators within and outside the institution
2. To department heads: encourage work and collaboration with outside institutions
3. Reach out to other countries—make connections outside of one’s institution
4. Leverage technologies
5. Create chaos in classroom stimulate students to think beyond the credential

Day One: Lunch Keynote
David Helfand is former president of the American Astronomical Society, an astronomy professor of  Columbia University [currently on leave], and is now the president and vice-chancellor of Quest University—Canada’s first independent, not-for-profit university founded in 2002.

Quest University’s foundation academic program built around a block system.

Helfand described how Quest University began, which was with a blank piece of paper. A new model for a 21st century university, created for today’s multi-tasking, connected student.
1. Goal of QuestU: create most engaging undergraduate education
2. Structure: Quest in stark contrast to traditional university—it has no departments, professors are called  tutors—every class sits around a table with a maximum of 21 students. There are no majors.
3. Curriculum: Liberal arts education, all students complete the same 16 courses. Each student picks a question to solve and takes two years to research, analyze  and present the problem as a capstone project that is delivered to a panel in his or her fourth year.  Based on Colorado college, block system. Take courses in a series. Students have one month to explore one subject—are able to delve deep into each topic.

Day Two: Lunch Keynote
Dr. Da Hsuan Feng of National Tsing Hua University gave a compelling talk on the emergence and future of Asian Universities. This talk was quite incredible, requiring a post all its own, though in summary intellectual courage and academic agility were its core themes.

Session Themes
Technology in the classroom
The skills gap—perception or reality?
New graduates in workplace
New models for higher education

Concurrent sessions were run as panel discussions on topics specific to higher education with selection of individuals to provide a breadth of perspective that included faculty, employers, students and administrators, addressing pressing topics in higher education.

Though the conference presenters and participants were primarily represented by Canadian institutions and organizations, there were a numerous faculty, administrators and journalists from the United States. Though there are cultural differences between Canada and USA’s higher ed systems, viewing challenges from another’s perspective proved to be instructive. Over the next couple of posts I’ll delve into at least two of the themes that may be of interest to readers, though I’ve highlighted key takeaways.

1. Institutions and its educators will need to be academically agile and intellectually courageous to thrive in the current climate of change and digital chaos.
2. New and innovative models of higher education will emerge in response to the pent-up demand for life-long education.
3. More pathways to alternative forms of higher education will develop, offering accessible and viable options of education for post-secondary students.
4. Education institutions in North America will change in ways yet to be determined as universities in Asia and other parts of the world grow, expand and educate millions of students.

Further Reading: