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Photograph by Samuel Zeller of a train on a snowy train

Scale, Economies of Scale and Online Higher Education


The first piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: Internet Economics and Online Higher Education. 
The third piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: The Network Effect and Online Higher Education. 


The “iron triangle” of cost, quality and access in higher education has seemed, at times, unbreakable. The sector has frequently operated under the assumption that improving one of the three objectives – access, quality or price  – is necessarily at the expense of one or both of the others. Like health care,  costs in higher education rise faster than in other industries where technology can be more easily deployed to increase productivity.

Breaking the iron triangle has become a more pressing issue for higher education’s stakeholders as student debt hits record highs, institutional costs rise faster than inflation, and access to higher education becomes a social and economic imperative for nations struggling with challenges of global competition.

“We can’t allow higher education to be a luxury in this country. It’s an economic imperative that every family in America has to to be able to afford.”

President Barack Obama, February 27, 2012.

In this context, the task of finding smart ways to “scale-up” and improve economies of scale is generating more attention. Historically, institutions of higher education have used a number of tactics to increase scale, including:

  • Large, lower-level courses that enrol hundreds of students at a time. While much maligned, the “lecture” course is very economical;
  • Greater reliance on adjunct/sessional instructors, which allows institutions to adjust supply quickly as demand rises and falls, at a far lower cost that full-time faculty;
  • Mega-universities. While not common in Western nations (save for Open University UK), these institutions, according to an analysis by Sir John Daniel, have a lower per-student cost;
  • By simply creating more universities: many Western nations funded a new crop of all-purpose universities in the mid-twentieth centuries to serve the first of the baby boomers and feed an increasingly post-industrial workforce.
  • Participation in consortia with the hope that sharing resources, rather than going it alone, reduces costs. (My own analysis of online consortia found that this objective often remains elusive.)


The impact of technology-mediated learning in higher education on costs, quality and access have been, to date, moderate. While the online format has added significant value, particularly through convenience for adult and working learners, it has not led to downward pressure on tuition or significantly increased participation rates. Certainly, online education’s scalability pales in comparison to the new breed of Internet-born companies we hear about so often these days. (Instagram was sold for 1 billion dollars when it had only 13 employees.)  For our purposes here, let’s set aside the terrifying labour implications of this particular example.

The challenge of scale in higher education is not merely technological – it’s organisational and social, as well. While achieving scale is fundamental to most enterprises, it can be deleterious in higher education. Increasing access and reducing price can actually hamper an institution’s value in the marketplace.  Value is based, in part, on maximizing exclusivity: an institution’s reputation typically increases when it admits fewer applicants than competing institutions. When we tell friends that our daughter “got into a good school” we mean, in effect, a school that is relatively difficult to get in to. The recent statements by Peter Thiel about the unique economics of higher ed, who made his fortune through highly scalable Internet-based businesses, are amusing in this context:

“[Higher education admissions is] a crazy tournament. It’s a zero-sum tournament. If you were the president of Harvard or Stanford and you wanted to get a lynch mob of students, alumni, and faculty to come after you, what you should say is something like this: We live in this much larger, more global world. We offer this great education to everybody. So we’re going to double or triple our enrollment over the next 15 to 20 years. And people would all be furious because the value of the degree comes from massive exclusion. And what you’re really running is something like a Studio 54 nightclub that’s got an incredibly long line outside and a very small number of people let inside. It’s branded as positive sum, everybody can learn, but the reality is that it is deeply zero sum.”

Photograph by Samuel Zeller of a train on a snowy train
Photograph by Samuel Zeller

The same claim can be made about price: Increasing tuition levels can increase exclusivity, which in turn, increases perceptions of value. New York University and George Washington University have used this tactic according to Daniel Luzer (see The Prestige Racket).


The good news is that educational technology has matured to the extent that it can now have a major impact on costs, access, and quality.  It scales. Some of the most promising applications of technology include:

  • Software that generates automated, real-time feedback to students on their performance. This instructional technique frequently increases student retention of the curriculum and ensures that the student doesn’t proceed to the next unit of curriculum with misconceptions about the curriculum;
  • Sharing common instructional content across as many courses and programs as is suitable in order to ensure (a) the lowest possible cost per student and (b) access to the highest possible quality (at a given price);
  • Adaptive, personalised learning that identifies and responds to student differences – an instructional tactic that’s not feasible in most mid to large size courses due to the demands it places on instructional staff;
  • Course authoring applications with instructional intelligence embedded within the software. LMS typically don’t seek to guide instructors/authors toward best (better practices). But new, more sophisticated applications have been developed that make it possible to generate learning activities that are beyond the capacity of what most instructors can achieve independently. (In this respect, educational technology will become more similar to other, time and labour saving technologies, such as desktop accounting software that, for example, directs the user toward adhering to accounting standards and rules, or blogging software like WordPress that makes it possible for content creators with stunted design sensibilities to create beautiful, easy-to-navigate sites.)

Most importantly, each of these applications of technology captures what educators have told us is valuable to students. The technology isn’t dictating the instructional method; rather, it reflects our best thinking and practices while allowing us to scale education, one of our most important and precious resources.


The first piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: Internet Economics and Online Higher Education. 
The third piece from the series, Internet Economics”, can be found here: The Network Effect and Online Higher Education. 
Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

Online Learning at VSU: An Interview with Art Fridrich

Art Fridrich is the first Director of Distance Education at Virginia State University, where he’s charged with bringing courses and programs from the classroom to the online environment. Art also works with faculty members to change the in-class experience for students. Prior to his role at VSU, he spent over 30 years in higher education as a consultant, administrator and technologist with over 70 colleges and universities in the US and abroad. 


Q. The common perception is that HBCUs have been less aggressive about creating online and hybrid programs. Is this a strategic decision?

This is a common perspective that I’ve heard many times. However, I believe that this thought might be somewhat misplaced. Nationally, there are 106 institutions that have the designation of an HBCU. Of those, a little over 30 percent offer at least one online program. The institutions that comprise this mix includes Tugaloo College, a private institution with less than 1000 students, who offers one online program to North Carolina A&T, a 10,000 student public institution with thirteen certificate and degree programs. The two institutions offering the most programs online are Hampton University, a private institution and Tennessee State University, a public institution, which are offering 20 programs online. In the end, when you consider size and other factors, I believe HBCU’s are delivering a comparable number of online programs to other institutions.

With this being said, there is certainly tremendous room for further growth, not only among HBCU’s but in general. Regarding the HBCU community, there are likely many factors that contribute to what may be perceived as stunted growth that might be encapsulated under the moniker of “strategic decision.”

Q. Should technology play a bigger role at HBCU’s? 

Even as a technocrat, I do not personally see technology in and of itself as a game changer. This is illustrated by the fact that I can’t begin to come up with the amount of technology that has been acquired by institutions during my career and shelved prior to or after implementation due to a lack of audience for the product.

In my mind, it is the role of a university’s administration and faculty to set into motion the evolution or transformation of the academy, embrace this change and then to adopt the appropriate technologies required to facilitate this change. For some institution’s, HBCU’s or otherwise, this already exists and it frankly isn’t difficult to identify them when looking. For others, there may be a need to reexamine their reason for existence, determine whether they need to begin developing a culture of change and then adopt the technology that will facilitate their vision of the future.

Q. Competency-based education has taken off in the last year. How do you see CBE fitting into the larger higher ed landscape? 

For an educational model that is still in its online infancy, I find myself as a big proponent of CBE. Nationwide, over 30 million adults have taken some and 4 million of those have completed at least two years of college. For even a portion of these learners, the ability to reenter the academy and apply a portion of their life experiences towards their completion will not only enhance their growth potential moving forward, but likely contribute to the reduction in the shortage of college graduates the nation now faces. For traditional students, CBE has the potential to address a major dilemma we currently face in education. Specifically, our classes are filled with students of varying readiness for the class they are enrolled. As such, the instructor is left to determine which population to address in the course, which leaves lesser prepared students by the wayside or better prepared students bored and unfulfilled. By focusing in on the level of knowledge acquired we rip down the barriers of time and types of student to provide just in time education.

Q. What areas of instructional technology do you find most promising as of 2015? 

With proliferation of VC infused vendors across a broad range of niches, that’s a difficult one to answer. So here’s my sense at this moment – MOOCs, Adaptive Learning and Competency Based Learning.

With MOOCs, I may see their role somewhat differently than others. I believe they have started to be and will continue to be the incubator for new education technologies. With the sheer numbers of students enrolled, regardless of motive, MOOC outcomes provide the most significant environment for quantitatively assessing the role a technology plays in the outcome of a student.

Although the latter two have a few years behind them, I don’t sense that they’ve come anywhere close to reaching their apex in the market yet. With Adaptive Learning, we have a large number of resource and platform based solutions, which I suspect will take five years or so before the technology settles and the market corrects itself to a supportable number. With CBE, we have seen explosive growth in the institutions adopting it and consultancies supporting it, but we (or at least I) haven’t seen the same explosion in technologies, beyond that of AL and proprietary institutional software.


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value.

The Trajectories of the Fourth Estate and Instructional Media

The rise of “free” content may be shaping higher education and news journalism in similar ways. 


Writers concerned with the future of higher education frequently point to the music recording and news industries as evidence of what’s in store for higher education. Apparently, the change won’t be pleasant.

As described in a previous post, these forecasts for higher education typically draw on the intertwined concepts of “disintermediation” and “unbundling”. It’s argued that learners will increasingly bypass universities to learn directly from other, direct-to-consumer providers (i.e. disintermediation) and they’ll assemble (i.e. unbundle) their own, unique portfolio of learning experiences (e.g. individual courses, nano-degrees).

There’s much to like about this vision from a purely instructional point of view. If well executed, it puts more choices in front of learners and enables a new degree of personalization. Examples of non-collegiate providers that might reflect this vision include General Assembly, Fullbridge, and Codecademy.

But the comparison to the music and news industries tends to understate the degree to which individual learners are restricted from seeking out and assembling educational experiences according to their own criteria. Whereas consumers of music and journalism are free to make up their own minds as to what constitutes good value, what constitutes “educated” is defined by social conventions, regulatory and loan systems, and, of course, employers. Therefore, determinations of what constitutes good value in education can’t be made unilaterally. New and more flexible forms of credentials will continue to become more widely accepted, but the processes of disintermediation and unbundling will unfold far more slowly in education than in other sectors.

Scaling Back High-End Journalism

There is, however, an alternative parallel that exists between higher education and, in particular, the news industry. It springs from the unique economics of the Internet and the ways in which it has expanded the number of content sources, role of free content, and the sustainability of relatively expensive content.

Revenue in the news industry has declined sharply during the last decade. While consumption of news remains high, the Internet has expanded the number of providers, and dispersed advertising revenue more widely. Many major news organizations have been forced to reduce costs.

Funding of relatively expensive types of reporting has been especially hard-hit. Journalism that takes longer to produce, involves a larger and/or more experienced team of professionals, and requires substantial research is obviously more costly.  The social and political implications of this change are considerable. Nicholas Carr, a longtime analyst of the relationship between society and technology, believes that the Internet has ultimately weakened professional journalism:

“If we can agree that the internet, by altering the underlying economics of the news business, has thinned the ranks of professional journalists, then the next question is straightforward: has the net created other modes of reporting to fill the gap? The answer, alas, is equally straightforward: no.” Nicholas Carr

Provocateur Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur and The Internet is Not Enough, argues that the rise of free content by non-professionals is undermining the quality of journalism and other fields.

“What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune . . .  “The new winners — Google, YouTube, MySpace, Craigslist, and the hundreds of start-ups hungry for a piece of the Web 2.0 pie — are unlikely to fill the shoes of the industries they are helping to undermine, in terms of products produced, jobs created, revenue generated or benefits conferred. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites ‘aggregate.’ Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave.” Andrew Keen.

Free Instructional Content in Higher Education

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Free content has also come to occupy an important role in higher education. Educators regularly capture free content from the web for use in their courses. Most of this material is found through general web searches (i.e. Google), but a small and growing percentage is found on sites dedicated to free curated instructional content (OpenStax, Merlot). In limited instances, educators take steps to share content they’ve created on these sites, as well.

The vast majority of free, publicly available content built expressly for instructional use in higher education is developed in a DIY fashion – by instructors working independently, drawing on a limited range of skills, and supported by minimal investment.

Although the Instructor may intend to share the content with instructors and students at other institutions, the funding model for course development in place at colleges and universities typically is designed according to the assumption that the material will be used only within a single institution for a single course. This limits the investment of talent, time, and money that can be made in each effort, as a limited number of end-users, which subsequently limits the revenue generated from the material (i.e. tuition and grants), which in turn limits the development budget. Despite the social benefits of sharing instructional content, institutions are not designed to underwrite the instructional costs of other institutions, or inclined, I suspect.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 14.52.51
Source: BC Open Campus

As a result, the free instructional content built for use in higher education tends to be limited to simple lecture video, home-made graphics, and text – the types of materials that this particular resource configuration allows. What this resource configuration doesn’t enable is the development of instructional materials that are more capital-intensive, such as games, adaptive learning, extensive feedback mechanisms, and rich media.

Both types of content are valuable. Both are needed. The danger is that free content may limit the sector’s ability to sustainably produce and distribute more expensive forms of instructional media and software that offer different types of instructional value – types of value that are simply not possible through the DIY model.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 12.40.51
Source: Wall Street Journal

One symptom that this may be occurring is the state of the textbook industry – historically, the source of more third-party instructional material in education. Second-hand textbook sales, piracy, as well as the growing volume of freely available materials are all contributing to declining revenue.

Textbook publishing is organized to enable a relatively high-level of investment in instructional materials. Whereas a open-content initiative may offer a faculty member the chance to produce a new open textbook with a $5,000 grant (often from public sources), a textbook publisher can easily spend 100 times that much on the same effort.

It is entirely possible that open content is built with a larger pool of talent, more time, and far more funding. And it’s not unheard of; examples include The Big History Project, produced by Intentional Futures and funded by the BMGF, and RSA Animate Series, a product of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.

But open content as this time seems to be aligned with an interesting mix of culture, politics and occupational standards that eschews larger projects and celebrates individual, “edu-punk”, DIY-style efforts. Indeed, anti-corporatism is part of its identity (c.f. .Never Mind the Edupunks; or, The Great Web 2.0 Swindle). The antagonistic, “us versus them” stance taken by some advocates of open content regularly targets the traditional publishing industry.

Parallels: High-End Journalism and Instructional Media

We have, then, something of a parallel between the news industry and digital higher education. As citizens we need to ensure that we have ready access to the more substantial, in-depth reporting by experienced professionals, As educators, need to ensure that digital learning is not limited to simple, DIY forms; that we find ways to regularly test, develop and distribute more advanced forms of digital instruction.

The ability of individuals to produce and distribute content – both journalism and education – is one of most positive and important developments in the early 21st century. It expands the range of voices and pushes back against entrenched interests and their perspectives. But we need to be certain that our desire to push-aside corporate and other large scale enterprises doesn’t weaken our capacity to provide students with more sophisticated forms of instructional media that are only possible through more extensive investment, wider pools of talent, and the luxury of time. Improving learning outcomes has proven very difficult, and we need to begin to take fuller advantage of the possibilities of new types of instructional media and software.

Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

Transparency, Instructional Content, and Competition

We like to believe that we interpret the world around us objectively, accurately, and consistently. But to a great extent, we make sense of the people, objects and virtually everything around us on the basis of the circumstances in which we experience them. Context matters. Art is the classic example. If we take a work of art out from behind the red ropes, away from the quiet guards, and out of the art gallery, the meaning and value of the art may change a great deal. So too might its’ monetary value; in fact, it may no longer be interpreted as art at all (c.f. Senie, Harriet).

Context is also crucial in commercial markets. Vendors go to great lengths to control the context in which their products and services are positioned. Television advertisers, for example, avoid placing ads in the middle of programmes that address unsettling topics; that evoke emotions and sensibilities that are not supportive of the product being promoted. “The Day After” was a bad made-for-TV movie in the 80s about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on the U.S. The film’s producers found it so difficult to attract advertisers that they were forced to run all the ads prior to the point in the film when the nuclear attack occurs. Apparently, convincing people that having fresher breath will make them truly, finally happy is more difficult after witnessing the end of the world.

What, if anything, does this have to do with higher education? Until recently, not much. Historically, higher education has limited what people outside of the institution could access to and, generally, held great control over how people interpreted the institution’s value. Compared to other types of organisations, colleges and universities are like remote islands, “all-inclusive” experiences, in which only enrolled students have access.

Educational Content in New Contexts

But the walls around higher education are becoming more porous; sometimes by design, sometimes not. Piece-by-piece, components of the university experience are becoming knowable outside of the university. Students rate professors on commercial sites like “RateMyProfessor”, universities set up Facebook groups in which all-comers can contribute, and ranking systems by the likes of US News and World Report are becoming common destinations, as well as easier to interpret.

But the most dramatic change involves access to instructional content. The Net is making it easier and, possibly inevitable, for instructional materials — normally held behind password-protected sites — to be available to those outside the institution. This puts the core of the institution on display in a way that we’ve not seen before, opening it up to evaluation and comparison.

We saw this first with OER — open educational resources. Individual instructors uploaded elements of their course materials for public consumption on platforms like MITx, Academic Earth, OpenStax and Merlot. Sharing instructional content publicly was a low-key affair; faculty often made the decision to share content on their own accord. Yet, even early on, we began to see how this sharing of content; this new transparency could lead to surprising repercussions. Even the most prestigious institution was now subject to criticism if what they shared publicly wasn’t well-prepared. For instance, Philip Greenspun did a rather biting minute-by-minute evaluation of a lecture by a high-profile, Ivy League professor, suggesting that it was a wasteful, self-indulgent use of class time.

I first wrote about this trend in early 2012. At that time, I suggested that if this trend continued — and there was no reason to think that it wouldn’t — then academic leaders would need to pay more attention to what is being shared, as these course materials ultimately represent and reflect the institution from which they come.

And Then MOOCs

Then . . . MOOCs happened. Suddenly, this small-scale sharing of instructional materials became a very big, very public matter. Not merely of interest within academia, MOOCs became a subject of discussion in the broader public through celebratory articles in The Guardian, New York Times, Huffington Post, and elsewhere (“Free Elite University Education!”). Regardless of their level of interest in online learning to-date, university presidents at elite institutions were now paying rapt attention. They knew that participating in this MOOC frenzy was a key means by which their university was going to define its identity in the broader marketplace of brands. The money spent on MOOCs climbed higher with every editorial in the New York Times or Washington Post. Soon, videographers, make-up artists, lighting crews and even actors were receiving invitations to campus to help create a more polished product.

It would be easy to cynically dismiss this as merely a marketing issue. But if we take a step back, I think we can see this as part of a broader trend toward greater transparency and accountability in higher education. As is the case in other fields, the Internet is increasing the amount of information available to the public. If so inclined, a student can gather an extraordinary amount of information about an institution, its faculty, students and, of course, its scandals. And, clearly, they want this information. Institutions would be best to be prepared. 


Harriet Senie. Critical Issues in Public Art: Content, Context, and Controversy. Smithsonian Institution, 2014.

Keith Hampson, Ph.D. is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximising value. 

Higher Education is Not a Newspaper (Except when it is)

It has often been suggested that higher education is undergoing the changes we’ve seen unfold in other sectors – notably music recording and journalism. The Internet will do to us what it did to them. Apparently, we won’t like it.

“Look at the music industry. It’s been completely overturned by the Internet. My vision of the world is that everywhere will be like the music industry, but we’ve only seen it in a few places so far. Journalism is in the midst of the battle. And higher education is probably next.” Tyler Cowen

The nature of these changes is described using one or both of these related concepts: disintermediation and unbundling.

Disintermediation: The Internet makes it easier for people to bypass certain types of gatekeepers and mediating organizations to get products and services directly from the source. (Investing directly in the securities market, rather than through a bank, is a well-known example.) What constitutes the “source” differs by sector, but in most cases disintermediation tends to increase the intensity of competition between providers, improve choice for consumers, and drive down prices. In higher education, the vision is that students will be able to find learning experiences beyond what’s available from accredited institutions.

Unbundling: The concept of unbundling is applied in very different ways, depending on the industry. Essentially, though, it refers to the practice of marketing goods and services separately rather than as part of a package. A university degree, for example, can be understood as a bundle of courses. A music album is a bundle of songs; iTunes makes it easy to unbundle albums. Traditionally, institutions have required students commit to the degree/bundle. Public (state/provincial) funds are geared to serve these bundled programs. Unbundling in higher education would allow students to create a personalized compilation of courses from a variety of providers, in the same way that music fans create their own “playlists”.


There’s no question that higher education is subject to these forces: more learning will occur outside of accredited institutions (disintermediation) and more institutions will make it easier for learners to pick and choose courses from multiple colleges (unbundling). But in their zeal to shake us from our complacency, writers that use these comparisons to the music and newspaper industries often understate important differences between higher education and these other, information-intensive industries.

“Substitute goods are two goods that could be used for the same purpose”

The key difference that warrants more attention is in the degree to which “substitute goods” are available. Consumers of music and journalism are relatively free to select new providers and to use them in new ways without the value of the goods declining appreciably.

Music recording industry (global) has seen its revenue flatline from 38 billion in 1999 to 16.5 billion in 2013. Music fans are purchasing single songs, rather than albums, p2p remains a factor, new platforms allow people to listen songs without paying (e.g., and while revenue from streaming services (e.g. Spotify) is increasing quickly, its yet to make a sufficient dent in earnings.

(insert graph of music industry earnings)


For its part, news has seen its revenues drop during the past decade and a half.

Screenshot 2015-06-01 16.54.01


Screenshot 2015-06-01 22.06.56


Consumers of news have access to a wider range of sources, many of which are free – some of them by professionals, most new sources are simply other news consumers, passing on information via social media.

When consumers seek out and consume news or music from new types of providers or use them in new ways, there’s no penalty or disadvantage. The quality may be lower, in the case of news sources, but rarely. New distribution models for music offer far greater value.

Not so in higher education and the difference, of course, is accreditation – the ability of the provider to offer recognized credit courses and bestow degrees and diplomas. In higher education, accreditation remains a key source of value. A student needs assurance that the education in which they invest their time and money will be widely recognized by other institutions and, in particular, future employers. In an increasingly mobile and mass society, the universality of credits earned becomes only more important. Learning is important, but no more than the ability of the degree to function as a signalling device in a world where CVs are read by computers (seeking keywords), and we apply for work at organizations we’d not heard of until we read the “help-wanted” ad. The importance of formal, widely recognized credentials won’t fade quickly, and as a result, disintermediation and unbundling will unfold far more slowly in higher education than elsewhere.

There is, however, a very strong parallel between higher education and news that, to my knowledge, has been totally ignored. I think it can help us understand how the Internet will impact higher education in the short-term, say the next five to ten years. We’ll examine this in our next post – coming June 9.

The Structuring of Debate: Notes on Higher Education

“Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

The idea at the core of this quote has been rehashed so often and by so many public figures that it’s now difficult to be certain of its origins (Woodrow Wilson?). But the relevance and longevity of the quote likely owes less to the actual insignificance of the debates in higher education, than its unrestrained quality. We have a tendency in higher education to not hold back.

There is no end to the topics worth debating: rising costs in higher education (and who’s to blame), identity politics, the “adjunctification” of academic labor, and rising calls for accountability, to name but a few. The role of educational technology is now a frequent focus.

There’s more of it, too. The Internet has dramatically increased the number of venues to facilitate debate. And just as importantly, its’ allowed many of the interactions between warring camps to be anonymous – a perfect recipe.

Faculty v. Administration

il_fullxfull.202059503-640x426Debate in higher education is frequently organized along the lines of faculty versus administration. I’ve been on both sides of the fence and the differences are striking.

More often than not, the context for public debate favours academics. The rules of engagement and the skills required to compete effectively suit them well.

Academics tend to be granted more freedom to publicly and passionately weigh-in on issues pertaining to higher education. Of course, serving as public intellectuals is considered part of the job – although only a fraction of academics do this regularly. The opportunity to speak-up is not limited to the academic’s area of expertise (e.g. neuro-engineering), but includes anything related to the institution.  And when they do speak, it’s as individuals, buffered by academic freedom, not as representatives of an institution.

It’s not surprising, then, that academics feel able to speak from the heart and with more passion, which in turn tends to generate more attention and, amongst audiences with limited knowledge of the topic under discussion, passion, certainty and the title of “professor” is often more than what is required to be perceived as in-the-know.

Not least important, academics tend to be very good at debating. It’s a core skill of the occupation and I think, as a group, they may be more comfortable with the flurry and exchange of ideas than almost any other category of professionals.

Administrators, on the other hand, are expected to be far more circumspect in their public statements. When they speak publicly they are representing an entire organisation, unlike academics. Nor do administrators have the protection of academic freedom. Not surprisingly, administrators are often less skilled at debate.

Administrators may be at a disadvantage, then, given the rules of engagement that structure public debates.  This isn’t to suggest that administrators are powerless. Indeed, I think it’s safe to assume that administrators have more power and universities are “more manageable” than a quarter century ago, much to the chagrin of most academics. But this increased power may not be a result of administration’s effectiveness in public debate.

Having said this, both faculty and administrators are operating within a social and political climate that does its best to limit thoughtful debate. We seem to have less patience for nuanced arguments, quicker to publicly shame people we disagree with, and more anxious about offending others (and lawsuits). Freedom to speak honestly and accurately, regardless of your views or the position you hold, improves the quality and value of debate for everyone. At a time when the issues shaping higher education are more important than ever, we can’t afford to suppress the conversation further .



Mary Lewis, PhD, Professor of History at Harvard has been compiling a list of interesting articles that concern key subjects of debate in higher education. Available here.


Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

Institutional “Fit” and Educational Technology

One of the skills I’ve come to appreciate in leaders of online and hybrid education is the ability to evaluate not just the value of the ever-increasing range of new technologies, instructional methods, and business models on offer, but also how well these different opportunities will align with the unique organizational design, processes and culture of our colleges and universities. They recognize that “fit” is all-important.

As more opportunities and solutions get thrust in front of academic leaders, they need to combine an understanding of instructional value with a sensitivity towards how these different opportunities will or won’t succeed within the institutional setting.

For the purpose of illustration, consider the difference between the LMS and the version of MOOCs originally presented by Udacity and Coursera.

MOOCs a la Udacity and Coursera

Despite the excitement created by these courses and the fact that they came from elite institutions, getting institutions to grant academic credit proved difficult. The problem wasn’t so much a lack of a clear revenue model, as was often argued, but that the value of these courses, despite their pedigree, was largely dependent on their being accepted for credit. With acceptance for credit, their value would leap and the revenue would follow.

Asking institutions to adopt these courses for credit ran headlong into a number of entrenched interests and practices. Here are a few:

1 . . . Elite institutions benefit when they maximize exclusivity; this is an enduring marker of quality in the higher education marketplace. They accomplish this through high tuition levels (pre-discounts), but primarily through tougher admission standards. Providing open admission to MOOCs that, not incidentally base their value on their similarity to the “real” courses offered at elite institution, works against the imperative of exclusivity.

2 . . . If MOOCs were accepted for credit, a sizeable percentage of the higher education market would be compelled to establish themselves as suppliers in this new marketplace. (A new version of “publish or perish”?) But if the market for MOOCs operated like other markets, and I don’t know why it wouldn’t, the vast majority of institutions would be in the role of consumers; they would adopt courses built elsewhere.

The adopted courses would bear the marks of the institution and academics from which they originated. However, higher education is organized such that each institution and each faculty member is hired and rewarded on the basis of subject matter expertise; they are expected to be the source of knowledge for the students that attend. For institutions, this is reflected in the way research productivity serves as the basis for rankings. (QS University rankings, for example, calculate the number of awards granted faculty to compile its list.) With respect to individual faculty, demonstration of subject-matter expertise isn’t merely a requirement for employment and the means of promotion, but part of their professional (and I would suggest, personal) identity. It’s what makes them different from mere “teachers”.

The misalignment of this version of MOOCs and higher education was evident in the concerns raised by some of San Jose State University faculty who were asked to use a MOOC from Harvard; they wrote: “Let’s not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.” Similarly, in his refusal to serve as faculty for another MOOC, Gianpiero Petriglieri of INSEAD described the venture as a form of academic “colonialism”.

3 . . . Institutions may also have seen the early version of MOOCs as a threat to a key source of revenue — high-enrolment courses. Accepting credits from students who enrolled in MOOCs at other institutions, or offering free or low cost MOOCs at their own institution, may cut into the revenue that goes a long-way toward funding other parts of the institution (i.e. cost-shifting).

Because of these and other obstacles, the MOOC model defined by Udacity and Coursera was perceived as often as a threat as an opportunity. In lieu of acceptance of these courses for academic credit, or the emergence of alternative forms of credentials from outside higher education proper, this particular approach to MOOCs reduced the effort to a promotional vehicles for elite universities that didn’t really need promotion, and examples of innovation from institutions with the least to gain from change in higher education.

The LMS: A Perfect Fit

On the other hand, learning management systems were quickly and widely adopted when they first landed fifteen-plus years ago. Their success was predicated on the fact that they fit easily into the existing organizational model of higher education. The technology was expressly designed to allow individual educators to create and deliver their own courses — without significant assistance or mediation by the institution. Which is, of course, how classroom higher education has long been organized. This kept the cost of putting courses online down (by minimizing the need for additional labour), adhered to conventional notions of academic autonomy, and didn’t require a significant modification to institutional practices.

By mirroring the existing organizational design the LMS may have inadvertently reinforced an approach to online course design and development — the “lone-wolf” model — that is actually quite ill-suited to the demands and possibilities of online education. Nevertheless, it fit the institution well.

Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value.