Remaking the Academy in the Age of Information

Innovation at the for-profit University of Phoenix foreshadows change throughout higher education.

Higher education around the world must undergo a dramatic makeover if it expects to educate a workforce in profound transformation. In 1950, only one in five U.S. workers was categorized as skilled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 1991, the percentage had risen to 45 percent, and it will reach 65 percent in 2000. This dramatic upheaval in the labor force and in its educational and training needs reflects the fact that a great shift has taken place in the corporate world from an overwhelming reliance on physical capital, fueled by financial capital, to an unprecedented focus on human capital as the primary productive asset. This development, combined with the aging of the baby boomers, has been altering the course of higher education at a pace and with a significance undreamed of even five years ago. Likewise, this rate of change in the workforce and its educational needs has been the context for the success of the new for-profit, postsecondary institutions–making it possible for the University of Phoenix (UOP), with nearly 70,000 full-time students and more than 26,000 continuing education students, to become the largest accredited private university in the United States.

In a world where technology expenditures dominate capital spending and the skills that accompany it have half-lives measured in months, not years; where knowledge is accumulating at an exponential rate; where information technology has come to affect nearly every aspect of one’s life; where the acquisition, management, and deployment of information are the key competitive advantages; where electronic commerce already accounts for more than 2.3 million jobs and nearly $500 billion in revenue; education can no longer be seen as a discrete phenomenon, an option exercised only at a particular stage in life or a process following a linear course. Education is progressively becoming for the social body what health care has been to the physical and psychic one: It is the sine qua non of survival, maintenance, and vigorous growth.

Not surprisingly, a new education model, which UOP anticipated since its founding in 1976, has been quickly molding itself to fit the needs of our progressively more knowledge-based economy. Briefly, the education required today and into the future assumes that learners will need to be reskilled numerous times in their working lives if they wish to remain employed. Access to lifelong learning will therefore become progressively more critical for employees as well as their employers, who will find themselves pressured to provide or subsidize that access if they wish to retain their workforce and remain competitive. This new model is also based on the need to provide learning experiences everywhere and at any time and to use the most sophisticated information and telecommunications technologies. It is also characterized by a desire to provide educational products tailored to the learner; and in order to be competitive in the marketplace, it emphasizes branding and convenience.

It is not difficult to imagine why what were once innovations championed by UOP have become common practice in the corporate and political worlds. A quick survey of the contrasts between the “old” and “new” economies helps to elucidate their necessity. A knowledge-based economy must depend on networks and teamwork with distributed responsibilities; its reliance on technology makes it inherently risky and extremely competitive; and the opportunities created by new and continually evolving jobs place the emphasis on ownership through entrepreneurship and options, rather than on wages and job preservation. With technology and the Internet have also come globalization and e-commerce, making a virtue of speed, change, customization, and choice, and a vice of the maintenance of the status quo, standardization, and top-down hierarchical organization. This is a dynamic setting where win-win solutions are emphasized and public-private partnerships are widely prized. In such a vibrant milieu as this, many of the risk-averse, traditional rules of higher education are beginning to appear not merely quaint but irrelevant or, to the less charitable, downright absurd.

What society needs

The contemporary disconnect between what traditional higher education provides, especially in research institutions and four-year colleges, and what society wants can be gleaned in part through a 1998 poll of the 50 state governors. The aptly titled inquest “Transforming Postsecondary Education for the 21st Century” reveals that the governors’ four priorities were (1) to encourage lifelong learning (97 percent), (2) to allow students to obtain education at any time and in any place via technology (83 percent), (3) to require postsecondary institutions to collaborate with business and industry in curriculum and program development (77 percent), and (4) to integrate applied or on-the-job experience into academic programs (66 percent). In contrast–and most tellingly–the bottom four items were: (1) maintain faculty authority for curriculum content, quality, and degree requirements (44 percent); (2) maintain the present balance of faculty research, teaching load, and community service (32 percent); (3) ensure a campus-based experience for the majority of students (21 percent); and (4) in last place–enjoying the support of only one of the governors responding–maintain traditional faculty roles and tenure (3 percent).

But politicians and business leaders are not the only ones having second thoughts about the structure and rules undergirding higher education today. In a recent poll primarily of university presidents, administrators, and faculty by one of the six official accrediting bodies [the North Central Association (NCA) of Colleges and Schools], the respondents identified the following trends as likely to have the greatest impact on NCA activities: increasing demands for accountability (80 percent), expanding use of distance education (78 percent), increasing attention to teaching and learning (72 percent), and expanding use of the Internet (71 percent).

Perhaps more than any other institution, UOP has contributed to the recognition that education today must be ubiquitous, continuous, consumer-driven, quality-assured, and outcomes-oriented. In effect, UOP has truly shattered the myth for many that youth is the predominant age for schooling, that learning is a top-down localized activity, and that credentialing should depend on time spent on task rather than measurable competence. From its inception, UOP has addressed itself to working adults; and given what it has done in this niche, it has become the country’s first truly national university. In doing so, it has helped to prove that the age of learning is always, the place of learning is everywhere, and the goal of learning for most people is best reached when treated as tactical (with clear, immediate aims), as opposed to strategic (with broad aims and distant goals).

By restricting itself to working adults (all students must be at least 23 years old and employed), UOP contributes to U.S. society in a straightforward fashion: In educating a sector previously neglected or underserved, it helps to increase the productivity of individuals, companies, and regions. A 1998 survey of UOP’s alumni–with a 41 percent response rate–eloquently expresses my point: 63 percent of the respondents stated that UOP was their only choice, and 48 percent said they could not have completed their degree if it were not for UOP. The assessments of quality were also gratifying: 93 percent of alumni reported that UOP’s preparation for graduate school was “good to excellent”; 80 percent agreed that compared with coworkers who went to other colleges and universities, the knowledge and skills they gained from their major prepared them better for today’s job market; and 76 percent agreed that compared with coworkers who went to other colleges and universities, their overall education at UOP gave them a better career preparation.

That said, how UOP or any other institution of higher education is likely to contribute to human well-being in the coming century is not obvious. UOP must continually balance the inevitable need to invest in its transformation with the need to fulfill its present promises to its students, their employers, its regulators and shareholders, and to its own past. But maintaining this balance is a difficult task, because the road leading to the new millennium has been made bumpy by the uncertainty that has accompanied the rapid technological and economic changes.

Shifting sands

To begin with, the New Economy can be characterized by unprecedented employment churn, which is making a potential student out of every worker. Labor Department officials claim that an estimated 50 million workers, or about 40 percent of the workforce, change employers or jobs within any one year. Most of this churn comes from increases in productivity made possible, in part, by companies reducing their labor force in unprofitable or underperforming sectors and expanding their head count in more profitable areas. In addition, a significant part of the churn results from shifts in the ways companies are managed and organized. Today’s companies, facing more varied competition than in the past, must be more flexible than ever before. To accomplish this, they need management and a workforce that have been reeducated and retrained to be cross-functional, cross-skilled, self-managed, able to communicate and work in teams, and able to change on a moment’s notice. In this far more demanding workplace, managers and others who do not meet the criteria are usually the first to be dropped, but the more fortunate are retrained or reeducated.

The model of higher education, as represented by, say, Harvard, is an ideal that not even today’s Harvard seeks to implement.

In an environment with this level of churn and organizational and managerial transformation, where the median age is in the mid-30s and where adults represent nearly 50 percent of college students, a growing number of learners are demanding a professional, businesslike relationship with their campus that is characterized by convenience, cost- and time-effective services and education, predictable and consistent quality, seriousness of purpose, and high customer service geared to their needs, not those of faculty members, administrators, or staff. Put another way, students who want to be players in the New Economy are unlikely to tolerate a just-in-case education that is not practical, up-to-date, or career-focused.

This is not to imply, as some zealots of the new believe, that traditional institutions, especially research-driven ones, are going to disappear. What I mean instead is that the model of higher education, as represented by, say, Harvard, is an ideal that not even today’s Harvard seeks to implement. For instance, Harvard Provost Harvey Fineberg, reflecting on the future of his institution, recently spoke about the UOP model by making reference to Intel founder Andy Grove’s anxious observation that the U.S. domestic steel industry is moribund today because it chose not to produce rebar (the steel used to reinforce concrete) and thereby permitted the Japanese to gain market share in the country. Nervous about the future of his venerable institution and other traditional centers of higher education, he asked during an interview published in the Boston Globe, “Is the University of Phoenix our rebar?” And fearful of being left behind by the future that UOP is helping to create, Fineberg concluded with the observation, “I know that Harvard has to change. No institution remains at the forefront of its field if it does the same things in 20 years that it does today.”

Indeed, no institution of higher education in today’s economy can afford to resist change. Ironically, some of the most jarring characteristics of today’s innovative institutions–their for-profit status, their lack of permanent buildings and faculties, and their need to be customer service-oriented–were actually common among the ancestral universities of the West. What these old institutions had in common with their traditional descendants, however, is that both were and continue to be geographically centered; committed to the pedagogical importance of memorization (rather than information management); and, perhaps even more important, synchronous in their demand that all students meet at regular intervals at specific times and places to hear masters preach to passive subjects.

But the needs of the New Economy challenge higher education to provide something different. Web-based education, an inherently locationless medium, is likely to push to the margins of history a substantial number of those institutions and regulatory bodies that seek to remain geographically centered. Meanwhile, the Internet and the database management systems that make useful the information they transport and handle can provide time-constrained consumers with just-in-time information and learning that, because it can be accessed asynchronously, places the pedagogical focus on arriving at syntheses and developing critical thinking while making localized learning and mere memorization secondary. And with asynchronicity and high electronic interactivity, socialization can be refocused on the educational process, a phenomenon that is reinforced by a commitment to results-oriented learning based on actual performance of specified and testable outcomes, rather than, as in the traditional situation, relying primarily on predetermined inputs and subjective criteria to maintain and assess quality.

All this represents a huge challenge for higher education and technology. A brief comparison of traditional and online university settings may help here. To begin with, there is the issue of content and its delivery. The predominance of the lecturing faculty member, the bored or passive student, and the one-size-fits-all textbook is subject to much condemnation, yet the alternatives are also problematic. Discussion-oriented education, which characterizes e-education, is not easily undertaken successfully. It requires the right structure to make everyone contribute actively to his or her own education, it calls for unlimited access to unlimited resources, and it is best unconstrained by locations in “brick and mortar” classrooms and libraries. Likewise, it calls for a guidance, maturity, and discipline that are often well beyond the reach of indifferent faculty members and unmotivated students, and it is helpless in the face of a disorganized or illogical curriculum. In short, the online education world needed by the New Economy is a daunting one, with no place for jaded teachers or faulty pedagogy.

With these challenges in mind, who can step forward within the world of traditional higher education to force a changing of the rules so as to transform the institutions of the past into those that can serve the needs of the knowledge-based economy of today and tomorrow?

Principles and practices

Making front- and back-office functions convenient and accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, is today primarily a matter of will, patience, and money. But creating access to nearly “24 7” academic programs able to meet the needs of the New Economy is a totally different matter. This also calls for rethinking the rules that guide higher education today. To drive home the point that this is not a simple matter and to answer the question I just posed, I must remark on the catechism that articulates our faith at UOP. We believe that the needs of working adult students can be distilled into six basic propositions, which are easy to state but difficult to practice, particularly for traditional institutions:

  • First, these students want to complete their education while working full-time. In effect, they want all necessary classes to be available in the sequence they need and at times that do not conflict with their work hours. But for this to become a reality, the rule that permits faculty to decide what they will teach and when must be modified, and that is not an easy matter, especially when it comes to tenured faculty.
  • Second, they want a curriculum and faculty that are relevant to the workplace. They want the course content to contribute to their success at work and in their career, and they want a faculty member who knows more than they do about the subject and who knows it as the subject is currently understood and as it is being practiced in fact, not merely in theory. To make this desideratum a reality, the rule that would have to be revamped is the one that decrees faculty will decide on their own what the content of their courses will be. In addition, faculty would have to stay abreast of the most recent knowledge and most up-to-date practices in their field. Here the dominant version of the meaning of academic freedom would have to be reconsidered, for otherwise there would be no force that could compel a tenured professor either to be up to date or to teach a particular content in a particular way.
  • Third, they want a time-efficient education. They want to learn what they need to learn, not what the professor may desire to teach that day; they want it in the structure that will maximize their learning; and they want to complete their degree in a timely fashion.
  • Fourth, they want their education to be cost-effective. They do not want to subsidize what they do not consume (dorms, student unions, stadiums), and they do not want to pay much overhead for the education they seek.
  • Fifth, and this should be no surprise, they expect a high level of customer service. They want their needs to be anticipated, immediately addressed, and courteously handled. They do not want to wait, stand in line, deal with indifferent bureaucrats, or be treated like petitioning intruders as opposed to valued customers.
  • Last, they want convenience: campuses that are nearby, safe, with well-lit parking lots, and with all administrative and student services provided where the teaching takes place.

The UOP model has been addressing these needs for more than a quarter of a century by focusing on an education that has been designed specifically for working adults. This means an education with concentrated programs that are offered all year round during the evening and where students take their courses sequentially, one at a time. All classes are seminar-based, with an average of 14 students in each class (9 in the online courses), and these are facilitated by academically qualified practitioner faculty members, all of whom hold doctorates or master’s degrees, all of whom have been trained by UOP to teach after undergoing an extensive selection review process, and all of whom must work full-time in the field in which they are specifically certified to teach. In turn, all of the curriculum is outcomes-oriented and centrally developed by subject matter experts, within and outside the faculty, supported by the continuous input and oversight provided by UOP’s over 6,500 practitioner faculty members who, although spread across the entire country and overseas, are each individually integrated into the university’s faculty governance structure. This curriculum integrates theory and practice, while emphasizing workplace competencies along with teamwork and communication skills–skills that are well developed in the study groups that are an integral part of each course. Last, every aspect of the academic and administrative process is continually measured and assessed, and the results are integrated into the quality-improvement mechanisms responsible for the institution’s quality assurance.

The rule that permits faculty to decide what they will teach and when must be modified, and that is not an easy matter.

Still, my tone of confidence, and indeed pride, should not lead us away from the question that follows the critical observation made of his own institution by Harvard’s provost: In the face of the challenges the new millennium portends, how durable is the UOP model, or the many others it has inspired, likely to be? For instance, although content is quickly becoming king, its sheer volume is placing a premium on Web portals, online enablers, marketing channels, and information-organizing schemes. In turn, these initiatives–demanded by the knowledge-based economy–have the capacity to transform higher education institutions into totally unrecognizable entities. Online enablers, the outsourcers who create virtual campuses within brick and mortar colleges, can provide potentially unlimited access to seemingly unlimited content sources. And the channels they establish for marketing education can easily be used to market other products to that very important consumer group.

Online information portals can provide remote proprietary and nonproprietary educational content, and more important, they can integrate themselves into the traditional institutions. Traditional institutions that begin with outsourcing educational functions to the portals could eventually find it cost-effective to outsource other academic, administrative, financial, and student services to the technologically savvy portals.

The importance of the role portals and online enablers will play in the transformation of the traditional academy cannot be overestimated. Quite apart from the­like possibilities they open for some higher education institutions, another way to appreciate their effect is to think of them in terms of the parallel represented by the shift of retail banking out of the branch to the ATM and then onto the desktop. Just as bank customers can use the ATMs of many banks, students may find it possible to replace or supplement their alma mater’s courses with courses or learning experiences derived from any other accredited institution, corporate university, or relevant database. Fear of this possibility has spurred traditional institutions to undermine innovations such as the ill-fated California Virtual University, to slow the efforts of Western Governors University, and to create problems for the United Kingdom’s Open University in its ambitious plans for the United States. The power of the entrenched faculty will make it difficult for traditional institutions to take advantage of new technology and adapt to the evolving needs of students.

Winners and losers

What institutions, then, are likely to be the winners in the future? Because staying ahead is critical to UOP, let me return to it once more as a source for speculation. In the light of the dramatic shifts taking place, it may be that UOP can better serve the adult learners of the future by transforming a significant part of itself so as to function as a platform or hub that emphasizes its role as a search engine (an identifier and provider of content), as a portal (a gateway to databases and links to learning experiences), as a rubric-meister (a skilled organizer of complex data), and as an assessor (a recognized evaluator of content, process, and effectiveness whose assessments can help take the guesswork out of shopping for education and training). This is a legitimate proposal for any university that has prided itself on its capacity to innovate and to transform itself. It is as legitimate, at least, as the one the railroads should have posed to themselves when confronted with the question, “Are you in the business of trains, tracks, and warehouses or of transportation?” And it is worth remembering the fate they suffered for their unanimous adherence to the former position. In effect, if, as any university that wants to survive into the next millennium must believe, UOP is primarily in the business of education rather than of brick and mortar classrooms and self-created curriculum, its transformations in the future should be and no doubt will be dictated primarily by what learners need, not by what it has traditionally done.

Consolidation in distance learning can be expected, but the behemoths lie unformed and, I suspect, unimagined.

But before the openness of future possibilities seduces us into forging untimely configurations, a simple warning is in order. A proposal such as the one I have laconically described is not easily implemented even in an innovative university such as mine. After all, UOP is fully aware that to serve its markets well in the future it must provide a variety of delivery modes and educational products, but it is not easy to identify what information technology and telecommunication products are worth investing in. For instance, although UOP pioneered interactive distance learning as early as 1989; although it has the world’s largest completely online, full-time, degree-seeking student enrollment (more than 10,000 students and growing at over 50 percent per year); and although it rightly prides itself on the effectiveness of its online degree programs, we recognize that all our experience and our new Web-enabled platform, which we developed at a substantial cost, cannot in themselves guarantee that we have a solid grasp on the future of interactive distance learning.

First of all, the evolution of distance education has not yet reached its Jurassic Age. Consolidation can be expected, but the behemoths lie unformed and, I suspect, unimagined. An acquisition that does not entail a soon-to-be-extinct technology is hard to spot when technology is changing at warp speed. And opportunities to integrate the next hot model are easy to pass up. Only deep pockets and steel nerves are likely to survive the seismic technological displacements to come.

That said, to serve its markets and thrive, UOP, like any other higher education provider that seeks to survive the next few decades, will need to keep its focus as distance education begins to blur with the edutainment and database products born of the large media companies and the entertainment and publishing giants. That focus, always oxymoronically tempered by flexibility, is most likely to be on the use of any medium–PC, television, Internet appliance, etc.–that permits the level of interaction that leads to effective education and that can command accreditation (if such is still around), a premium price, and customers whose sense of satisfaction transforms them into effective advocates.

Still, although it is a widespread mantra among futurists of higher education that colleges and universities will undergo a profound transformation primarily as a consequence of the quickly evolving information and communication technologies, this does not necessarily imply the demise of site-specific educational venues. To survive deep into the next century, UOP, like any other innovative institution, will need to reaggregate some major parts of itself to form a centralized content-producing and widely based distribution network, but it is unlikely to be able to do this without some forms of campus-based delivery. Having already advanced further than any other institution in unbundling faculty roles (that is, in separating teaching from content, development, and assessment), UOP, without abandoning its physical presence of multiple sites distributed globally, is likely to shape itself more along the lines of a media company and educational production unit than to continue solely as a brick and mortar university with a massive online campus. With media specialists as guides and content experts on retainer, UOP will probably emerge as a mega-educational system with widely distributed campuses, multiple sites in cyberspace, and possibly with a capacity for self-regulated expansion.

As education moves more toward the certification of competence with a focus on demonstrated skills and knowledge–on “what you know” rather than “what you have taken” in school–more associations and organizations, who can prove themselves worthy to the U.S. Department of Education, will be able to gain accreditation. Increased competition from corporate universities, training companies, course-content aggregators, and publisher-media conglomerates will put a premium on the ability of institutions not only to provide quality education but to do so in a way that meets consumers’ expectations. In short, as education becomes more a continuous process of certification of new skills, institutional success for any higher education enterprise will depend more on successful marketing, solid quality assurance and control systems, and effective use of the new media and not solely on the production and communication of knowledge. This is a shift that I believe UOP is well positioned to undertake, but I am less confident that many non-elite, especially private traditional academic, institutions will manage to survive successfully.

That glum conclusion leads me to a final observation: Societies everywhere expect from higher education the provision of an education that can permit them to flourish in the changing global economic landscape. Institutions that can continually change to keep up with the needs of the transforming economy they serve will survive. Those that cannot or will not change will become irrelevant, will condemn misled masses to second-class economic status or poverty, and will ultimately die, probably at the hands of those they chose to delude by serving up an education for a nonexistent world.

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Cite this Article

Alva, Jorge Klor de. “Remaking the Academy in the Age of Information.” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 2 (Winter 2000).

Vol. XVI, No. 2, Winter 2000