Abelard to Apple and the Future of Higher Ed

University leadership in the United States for the most part is unaware that the crossroads is ahead.  […] The obvious question is how so many smart people could miss what seems to be an inevitable crisis?  Richard Demillo, Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities.

A wake-up call is the best way to describe the book I just finished, Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities by Richard Demillo professor at Georgia Tech and Director of its Center for 21st Century Universities. It’s a must-read for any stakeholder involved with higher education institutions or for those with a keen interest in the direction that higher education is going. The book should come with a warning though, it may cause elevated blood pressure, anxiety or even feelings of distress for anyone working for, or with a middle-tier college. The ‘middle’, as defined by Demillo are schools that make up the majority of higher education institutions in the United States; not the elites with large endowment funds, or the proprietary for profits, but all the rest.

Its universities in the Middle, according to Demillo who are in peril and will face challenges over the next few years given the influx of new learning models that technological innovations are providing. This message was similar yet more emphatic in a webinar featuring Demillo in week two of the MOOC the Current /Future State of Higher Ed [#CFHE12]. It was this webinar that motivated me to read his book. I share below where colleges are headed as per Demillo, and the three principles he recommends colleges carry out— essential, according to Demillo, for survival.

The Title
The title, Abelard to Apple, is an analogy for teaching.  Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142) a French monk of the Middle Ages, a gifted and charismatic lecturer, was one of first scholars to conduct formal lectures for small groups of students. Apple refers to iTunes University, where  accomplished professors can create lectures and upload them to the sophisticated and slick platform iTunes U. Technology has transformed the traditional lecture model;  thousands of students can now view lecture content delivered by expert scholars in their field [like Abelard] to anyone, anywhere and anytime, free of charge [unlike Abelard]. What does this mean for the traditional model of higher education?

The Message
Demillo’s message is compelling. The messenger has a list of credentials and experience that suggest he knows what he’s talking about. Demillo has hefty credentials. He’s currently a professor of computing and management at Georgia Tech, and has worked in government and business (at one time the Chief Technology Officer at Hewlett-Packard).  Demillo’s experience makes his arguments credible.  Below are some highlights from his book and webinar that summarize the key points.

  • Traditional universities are no longer the gatekeepers. With the recent technological innovations that have created numerous learning options, combined with the higher cost of education, the value of a college education is in question.
  • Only the elite have ‘global’ brands that will hold their value, the remaining – the middle, have misjudged their value. Customers (families) will no longer be willing to, or able to pay for a college education.
  • As faculty-centered institutions turn their attention inward toward the needs of their profession, they become protective, rigid and inevitably irrelevant.
  • The middle-tier has many stakeholders making the system multi-sided and complex, which makes change cumbersome and onerous unless there is a strong leadership presence with a sound strategy.

Key Takeaways
Though Demillo highlights all that is wrong with the current system, he does provide three principles that successful institutions will need to follow to thrive.

  1. Focus on value. Schools need to focus on charging a reasonable cost while offering quality education if they are to be competitive. And schools that offer a unique learning experience that is differentiates itself from others will position themselves well.
  2. Focus on costs. Cutting costs to survive is essential through better use of facilities, materials and other [more details in the book about this area].
  3. Establish reputation.  Build a reputation on school’s strengths and focus on the student. Schools each have a unique niche, focus on what sets the school apart from the others. No longer can schools fall into a pattern of trying to be like the elites or another bigger and better schools. (Demillo, pp. 36 – 38).

I’ve barely covered the depth that Demillo goes into in his book. He provides excellent discussion and narrative throughout on how the ‘middle’ can adapt to the tumultuous environment of higher education.

There’s Hope
The book is not all doom and gloom, there are glimmers of hope for those institutions that are able to re-focus and adapt. The book published in 2011 just before the MOOC phenomenon, seems somewhat prophetic.  Rereading the book in two or three years will be even more interesting. I am curious though, what it will look like for those colleges that won’t be successful in adapting. Will they just close their doors and become a landmark? How long will it take? Though change is rapid, there are already several alternative options for higher education that didn’t exist seven or eight months ago. Time will tell.

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