New Universe of Learning: The Emergence of Networked Institutions

In early 2015, I wrote an article for The New England Journal of Higher Education, titled “Living with Abundant Information: What’s a College to Do?” In that article, I described the sources and impact on colleges and universities of newly developed abundant information, elaborating on five areas that an institution interested in harvesting the potential of abundant information through innovation and change should consider directly. They were:
• The emergence of high-quality, abundant and free content and the potentials they’ll unleash;
• The development of evidence-based assessments and their implications for more accurate assessment of learning and the emergence of assessment as a pedagogy;
• The shift from teaching as the sole focus of the academic program to one including learning support and improved information on personal traits and career choices;
• The growing interest in linking academic achievement more directly to work readiness; and
• The emergence of non-accredited third-party providers as viable players in the postsecondary arena.

What I did not see two years ago was the impact that abundant information would have on institutional forms and the organization of postsecondary services. As this phenomenon began to materialize, my tendency was to look at each of the areas of innovation and analyze them individually. Two years later, however, we are confronted with the early stages of another question: How do we organize and support networked services through existing or new organizational models. These burgeoning alternatives and new types of services are lacking a conceptual overview that places them in context, not only institutionally and academically, but also qualitatively and economically.

The objective of this article is not to promote or define any particular organization or practice. Rather, it is to propose a context within which policymakers and practitioners can begin to design their own, situation-specific responses to the new universe of learning and to the potential of what I could call networked institutions. Without this larger context, the practitioner will continue to be confronted with multiple ideas, opportunities and examples without a framework within which to understand them. To use a Vermont term, it will be like skiing in a blizzard without goggles. With the goggles provided by this article, practitioners can hopefully begin to design and follow their own particular policy or institutional course. What follows is my best attempt to define the critical elements in this emerging field of networked university services.

Independent third-party providers. The accelerating emergence of non-accredited third-party providers as viable players in the postsecondary space is the single most compelling development in the past 24 months. It turns the heretofore unassailable primacy of the campus and the resources housed on the campus on its head by demonstrating and legitimizing that purposeful and qualitative learning can indeed happen elsewhere, including on the web and in the cloud.

Exhibit A in this evolution: the U.S. Department of Education’s EQUIP program, created to develop examples of unaccredited third parties working with established institutions in a seamless way that makes academic recognition and financial aid available while providing assurance satisfactory to accreditors. This pilot encourages types of activity and relationships that would have been unimaginable and largely impossible to implement even five years ago.

EQUIP imagines a world in which a college or university can extend its umbrella of quality horizontally across the community, incorporating other programs and services into its portfolio without actually owning or controlling them. In so doing, it recognizes and enables several emerging practices that comprise the value of horizontal, networked institutional models. EQUIP encourages the notions that:

• Entities other than institutions and MOOCs can legitimately create great content and employ it to create excellent outcomes in independent settings; think Bootcamp.
• A relationship between a college and one or more independent third parties can be based on and reinforced by evidence-based assessments that not only link more directly to work readiness (think Credential Transparency Initiative and Connecting Credentials) but also strengthen the learning by employing assessment as a pedagogy. When the learner is actively engaged in the review and assessment of her performance, the act of assessment becomes a learning exercise as well.
• Other uses of data analytics by third parties can improve learner support and success while creating more information for the learner regarding, for example, personal traits and career choices.

The sea changes exemplified by this list include: 1) the presence of third-party organizations where none appeared before, 2) data analytics that allow us to know exponentially more about learners and the learning process than before, and 3) the development of evidence-based (competency) assessments as viable and reliable options where that perceived value did not exist five years ago.

A spectrum of organizational models and arrangements. I envision a spectrum of organizational arrangements and models extending from the existing model on the one hand to informal and entirely horizontal, learner-controlled environments on the other extreme. Along this spectrum, the EQUIP pilots would fall away from the existing model of higher education, given what we know today. And the spectrum will be populated by new types of institutions, whether they are more traditional, like Minerva, a global university with meeting sites around the world operating from one consistent curriculum across all sites, or more paradigm-busting like Ubiquity University, with individualized paths and progress for all learners around the world. Consequently, the networking arrangements that any given institution makes will necessarily be specifically informed by their perceived needs and aspirations. The critical thing to understand here is that each institution will have to decide for itself where it sits on the spectrum of networked possibilities. Then, based on that decision and institutional mission, each institution will have to decide what will work for them.

Investment capital for partnerships. There is, however, a third dimension to the new services available in the networked world that is approaching: new sources of capital to invest in new ventures. New companies that make venture capital available are a critical emerging sector in the networked world. Companies such as University Ventures, Entangled Solutions, Learn Capital and Varroom are looking for institutional partners with viable innovations or business expansions that require investment. These companies seek to partner with institutions in joint ventures, as well as other possible arrangements. Varroom goes so far as to offer financing and construction of solar power sources for institutions. So, the traditional funding sources available to colleges and universities—endowments, major gifts, bonding, other types of loan instruments—are now augmented by new forms of business and financial partnerships in which risk and reward are shared.

What we see coming over the horizon is a multidimensional postsecondary and lifelong learning space. Based on their mission and needs, institutions can now expand into that space using capital and business arrangements that were unimaginable five to seven years ago. With that capital, they can create new services or affiliate with third parties to provide new services.

Some examples of networked services being developed or in play today

• One of the initial EQUIP projects is the Dallas County Community College District (DCCCD), the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and StraighterLine. CHEA’s Quality Platform will serve as the quality-assurance component in validating StraighterLine’s learners’ readiness to matriculate to the DCCCD.
• Other EQUIP pilots will link established boot camps with accredited institutions to test similar arrangements.
• The Credential Transparency Initiative and Connecting Credentials, two Lumina-funded projects, have taken dead aim at eliminating the gap between graduation standards and work-readiness skills. They are creating databases and sponsor partners with industry, association and higher education institutions to minimize the bureaucratic hassle and maximize the alignment of competencies between job descriptions and academic standards.
• An older example is the Western Governors’ University’s use of free learning resources, MOOCs and others as the core of learning resources for their learners. Their academic model is focused primarily on advising and assessment, using other content resources—free and paid—to fill out their students’ learning plans.

It is only a matter of time before networked solutions become mainstream activities in higher education. Increasing numbers of colleges and universities will partner with other entities, nonprofit and proprietary, to provide, among other things, student support services, gamified curricula and career services for which they do not have sufficient capital or expertise. The incumbent institutional vertical model, in which virtually all services offered by the institution are owned and managed by the institution, will succumb to the rapid pace of change and development beyond institutional boundaries. Whether we are talking about capital acquisition, academic support, learning management systems, new approaches to content and assessment, or elaborated learner support services, the days when any one institution can be “all things to all learners” are coming to an end. As one practical example, consider learning management systems (LMS).

Ten years ago, consortia of institutions attempted to build and maintain their own LMS platforms. But their ability to upgrade and improve those initial products has been outstripped by external companies whose sole focus is selling state-of-the-art LMS systems.

The real question facing most institutions is not whether they will incorporate the potential of networked services, but how they want to employ that potential to best serve their individual missions.

Peter Smith is Orkand Chair and professor of innovative practices at the University of Maryland University College. He is the founder of the Open College at Kaplan University (OC@KU) and founding president of the Community College of Vermont and California State University, Monterey Bay. Smith represented Vermont in the U.S Congress and served in the Vermont Senate and as lieutenant governor.

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