Tuesday, July 28, 2015

ASU wants to be a new sort of University and they're getting there

Watched TED 2 last night (the drug-fuelled bear not the over-righteous talks) and ASU was the butt of the bear’s jokes. I thought– they’ve done it, ASU have achieved stardom by being referenced in the culture of ‘cool’. Actually, TED 2 is a lot less funny than TED, but back to ASU. I love ASU.
The ‘Crow’
Michael Crow has run ASU since 2002 and is a smarter than the average bear. His goal, well vision, even dream, was to create nothing less than the "New American University". It’s all in his Designing the New American University (2015). Here he explains how he wanted to do the unthinkable – grow research at a blistering pace and, at the same time, raise the bar on teaching in terms of both access and quality. Any one of these would have been difficult, all three at the same time, tricky.
The key word for Crow is ‘scale’, a clever word on which to hang a vision. Scaling student numbers or bums on seats is easy enough but that is to focus on the wrong end of the learner. Quality has be scaled and attainment (less drop-out) also scaled – that’s a ball crusher. And its here that they have embraced a certain truth, that scale must come through the smart use of technology. They take this as an assumed truth, as self-evident. If you can get increased numbers of students over that first year undergraduate hurdle (in maths, writing and reasoning) you’re well on your way to sustaining subsequent quality.
Profs are doing it for themselves
But here’s the rub. Courses are almost universally owned by individual professors. They design, develop, deliver and assess their own courses. It’s their baby and so implementing technology is like threatening to pull their offspring from their arms and shove them into some sort of uniform collective nursery.
That’s why tech in HE remains a cottage industry. It’s stuck at the fragmented level of the individual. So when Blackboard is rolled out, all of these profs create stuff, but they don’t have the resources and skills to do it well, so we end up with lots of low quality, repository resources. It’s all a bit crap really.
The trick is to get a collegiate thing going with all of the profs involved in the teaching of say, maths. Now you have a posse of maths profs. Explain to them the power of adaptive learning and personalisation. They get it – it’s down to the power of maths. Maths is a touchstone here as it’s such a hurdle for many students.  It also happens to be well defined with clear dependencies. – ideal for adaptive learning. ASU manage to get approximately 85%  through developmental maths. The national standard for success is around 55% to 60%. They think the theoretical limit is around 95%. That’s smart, recognising that success should be real and not too utopian. At the same time they have to move faculty towards a different sort of coaching and supporting role. That’s the hard bit.
Global Freshman Academy
Now for the big bear hug. You’ve proved over five years that the technology has significant results on reducing drop-out and increasing attainment. You’ve shown that groups of academics, working together, can leverage this technology on the scale that’s needed. You now roll this out across all undergraduate courses and subjects – for free. Using EdX, they are producing a full slate of courses. – doing things on scale. The cultural change is immense but so are the benefits. To what problem is all of this a solution? Losing too many students. It was that simple. Once everyone focused on that one problem, the solution was obvious.
Next step is a step up
The next step is to match student expectations on the quality of online courses. They all have smartphones, good laptops and experience exemplary content on all of these devices. Education needs to meet those expectations. This is really hard. Learning is not entertainment and often damaged when it becomes too glitzy. The stuff that’s produced within Blackboard looks like the stuff that was done on computers before these kids were born. Within the next few years every high school leaver will have been born in the 21st century and every teacher and academic in the 20th century. This is not an arbitrary decimal barrier. The turn of the millennium was when online really started to rocket. Over the last 15 years we’ve seen an eruption of services that these students use daily, if not hourly, even by the minute. That’s the new challenge and one I'm glad to be involved in, as I'm in an organisation that is providing adaptive courses in a range of subjects that ASU see as critical to their vision.

Michael Crow is not without his critics, some are as angry as a bear with a sore head at his effrontery – how dare he take responsibility away from the individual academic?  He has , after all, challenged the nay-saying power of academics who want to keep it all at their single cell level of evolution, whereas his vision is of a multicellular future. He can’t afford to let those attitudes win, as that is what keeps access low and costs high. What Crow rejects is that the system will always be built on scarcity and not abundance. He wants to scale out of scarcity into high quality abundance through technology and adaptive technology, which personalises the learning experience.  They are redefining the University as a scalable organization serving the public good. You may not like his vision, but a vision it is.

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