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Higher education seeks answers in evolving economy

by Andrea Bennett
Guilbert Hentschke, Michael Sandler and Ryan  Craig, from left, at the first meeting of the California Higher Education Innovation Council
Photo: Guilbert Hentschke, Michael Sandler and Ryan Craig, from left, at the first meeting of the California Higher Education Innovation Council

The model for higher education that defined the last century is falling short today. According to university and technology leaders who gathered at USC this month, these institutions need to find new sources of revenue, reduce costs and prepare more students to compete in the global economy of the 21st century.

Such challenges require innovation, and many schools are enlisting the help of for-profit service providers.

On Dec. 11, 50 Southern California academic, nonprofit and technology industry leaders met at USC to explore emerging trends in this arena and learn how universities have partnered with technology companies to create online and hybrid-learning systems they could not have otherwise developed on their own.

The event was co-hosted by the USC Rossier School of Education and the Parthenon Group, a higher education strategy consulting firm based in Boston.

“There is a crisis in higher education,” said Michael Sandler, a Parthenon senior adviser who helped coordinate the event. “The best way to learn about innovative approaches and new models to deal with these challenges is for peers to share their experiences and best practices. There is an urgent need, but there is also no single solution and one size does not fit all.”

The first meeting of the California Higher Education Innovation Council (CHEIC) featured conversations with leaders at entrepreneurial universities that have ventured into the online space, including USC Rossier, Brandman University, Northeastern University and Arizona State University (ASU), and the heads of companies with innovative products, including InsideTrack and Synergis Education.

The event was the first in a planned series of discussions hosted by CHEIC, a member-driven professional networking forum for academic and industry leaders to promote education innovation and drive economic growth across California.

Ryan Craig, managing director of University Ventures, who co-moderated a panel with USC Rossier Professor Guilbert Hentschke, asked participants why a university might need to partner with a for-profit provider.

“The academic mission of the university is core and almost everything else — marketing, student services, enrollment coaching — could be outsourced without detracting from the core educational mission,” said Phil Reiger, president of ASU Online. “You need to break down the university mindset of ‘We can do anything because we have a lot of smart people and billion dollar budgets.’ But how much of that budget can you shift?”

USC Rossier Professor Melora Sundt, vice dean for academic programs, described working with the technology company 2U to develop the online platform for the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program, which launched in June 2009.

“One unexpected way that the partnership influenced us was it made us look at our own processes in the university from the inside out, such as financial aid, faculty hiring and curriculum review,” Sundt said. “We were working with an organization that expected us to move faster than an institution of higher education usually does.”

According to Reiger, online and hybrid learning have the potential to increase productivity and educate more of the population, but it should not replace the teaching of university faculty. “We want to give a brilliant faculty member the technology so that instead of 120 students, he or she is impacting 1,200 students a year,” he said.

In response to a question about the importance of hands-on fieldwork, Sundt described how students in USC Rossier’s MAT Online program gain real-world teaching experience.

“They are anchored in a school from the first course on the first day, and they video their own practice and review it with their classes and faculty,” she said. “We actually see more of their practice than we would by sending someone out into the field every three or four weeks to observe.”

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