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Exporting American Higher Education Around the World

Globalization of Higher Education Conference—Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Day 2

While the first day of the conference focused largely on the disruptive technologies that are transforming higher education, the second day concentrated on the exporting of online learning to better serve students around the world.

U.S. colleges and universities are far younger than many European universities—including conference co-sponsor, Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, which was founded in 1448. Yet, the U.S. higher education system and its many brands have established themselves as the gold standard for delivering exceptional education worldwide.

In his remarks, Dr. Fareed Zakaria, CNN host and TIME magazine editor-at-large, echoed this idea by recounting his own experience of being a young boy in India in the 1970s determined to attend college in the U.S. While many like Zakaria have the opportunity to come to America to participate in the U.S. higher education system, there are millions more who lack access.

Higher Education Drives Economic Growth

Former President of Colombia Álvaro Uribe discussed how the path to education, or lack thereof, affects young students seeking advanced degrees. In Colombia, however, the challenge extends beyond getting a degree. “It’s very common to see lawyers as taxi drivers and medical doctors working in hotels,” Uribe said. “We need to tackle this problem.”

Today’s noted leaders from academia, business, and government emphasized that it is the middle class that helps drive economic growth and education is the gateway to open doors to better opportunities.

Robert Zoellick, former president of The World Bank, spoke of the way this connection (or the lack thereof) impacts the middle class, and in turn, influences a country’s economic growth. “Tertiary education leads to higher employment rates and earnings,” explained Zoellick. “Social mobility is enhanced, and the children of these graduates have better prospects, too.”

New Models of Learning

Online learning has become a viable path to educating the middle class, whether that is extending skills and training in specific areas or in attaining educational degrees. According to a panel of higher education leaders, the world turns to U.S. universities for creating these models of learning.

Moderated by Inside Higher Ed Founder and Editor Scott Jaschik, the panelists included David Leebron, president of Rice University; Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California at Berkley; and James Ryan, dean of Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The world is looking to the U.S. for the game-changing technologies that have emerged in the digital information space. According to Leebron, however, U.S. universities must also be prepared to look beyond the technological changes to also address the cultural, institutional, and organizational changes as well.

Looking ahead, international partnerships will continue to be the catalyst in fostering cross-border education, noted speakers Sir John Daniel and Stamenka Uvalić-Trumbić. Sir John is the former CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning and is a world-renowned expert on distance learning, while Uvalić-Trumbić is the former chief of higher education at UNESCO.

“Partnerships are right in principle and effective in practice,” said Sir John. “The combination of an international brand and a credible local partner is very powerful.”

Rapid Change in Technology Sparks New Environment for Higher Education

Globalization of Higher Education Conference—March 24, 2014

Recap Day 1

Technology has been as revolutionary to higher education as Guttenberg’s printed press. This was one of the common themes among speakers during the first day of the Globalization of Higher Education Conference held in Dallas, Texas. Former Governors Jeb Bush (FL) and Jim Hunt (NC) co-hosted this first-of-its-kind event at which former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged attendees to continue to invest in higher education and share it globally.

The rapid transformation of technology has created a sense of urgency—and opportunity—among leaders in academia, according to Dr. Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor.

It has only been since 2007 that the world has come to know Skype, Google, Twitter, cloud computing, and a social media landscape that has transformed the way people interact and organizations operate, noted numerous speakers, including New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas Friedman. For higher education, as with the rest of the world, this has resulted in rapid change.

“Today, we are faced with the most radical change in distance learning, technology, and logistics since the invention of the printed book,” said Lord Eatwell, President of Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, which co-sponsored the conference with Academic Partnerships. “For the potential globalization of knowledge, only the invention of printing has been more important.”

Change Demands Collaboration

It is this important shift in information delivery that is opening the doors for universities to bridge the gap in affordability and accessibility by exporting higher education from the Western world to emerging economies.

This means finding creative solutions and forming collaborative partnerships, explained Naledi Pandor, Minister of Home Affairs of the Republic of South Africa. In South Africa, she explained, this transformation began in 1995 when the late Nelson Mandela established the first higher education commission. Today, South Africa has seen marked increases in the numbers of students accessing higher education, with approximately one out of eight students coming from outside of South Africa.

“When one looks at our statistics there is much to celebrate, but South Africa still lags behind other regions,” Pandor said. “Our progress has been overshadowed by the rapid progression of the developing world. There is a massive gap and there is massive opportunity.”

Quality Even More Important

With this expansion of online opportunities also comes increased responsibility to ensure the quality of learning matches that of traditional classroom environments. The consensus among speakers was that the traditional campus environment would not be replaced by online learning, but rather enhanced by it.

Yet, the speakers encouraged the more than 250 conference attendees, primarily higher education leaders from the U.S. and abroad, to focus on providing a high-quality experience. And for today’s younger learners this means creating an integrated experience that meets them where they are: in the digital space.

“What should our goal be as we open ourselves up in digital spaces?” asked Martin Bean, Vice Chancellor of The Open University, which has been providing distance learning for more than 40 years. “Quite simply, it’s as it always should be—it has to be about great teaching. Those students have never known a world without digital being part of their lives. And shame on us if we think we can sit still, put our head in the sands, and deliver a teaching experience that not only doesn’t map to the world they live in—but  it also doesn’t map to the jobs and prosperity that we wish for them and their families for generations ahead.”

While each institution must determine how to best extend online learning to meet the needs of students, whether at home or abroad, the consensus is that making higher education more accessible and affordable benefits everyone—and will require leaders to think as critically and be as curious as the students they serve.

“We need to continue to experiment with new programs and models,” said John Wilton, Vice Chancellor of the University of California at Berkley. “It’s important to take risks, try things, and be willing to fail. This is largely foreign to the traditional academic approach, but these issues we are dealing with are very different. They lend themselves to experimentation, and the pace of change is so rapid, that I think it is foolish to think any of us know where this revolution will end.”

 Check back tomorrow, Tuesday, March 25, for a recap of the final day of the conference.

Building a global university brand

These are unnerving times for higher education worldwide. After a four-decade rise in global demand, universities are grappling with powerful forces colliding at once: reduced government support, rising public skepticism about the value of a degree, increased institutional competition and the emergence of disruptive technology. Adding to these pressures is a seismic shift in global demographics. Demand for higher education is levelling off in North America and Europe compared to “huge unmet demand” in emerging markets, according to a September, 2013 forecast by the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. In the United States, the number of high school students is not expected to peak again until 2021, according to the National Centre for Education Statistics, creating excess capacity. By contrast, India will account for one-quarter of 18-22 year olds by 2020, predicts the United Nations, with insufficient university seats to serve them.

By 2020, about 200 million young people worldwide will have degrees — 40 per cent of them elite and middle class students from China and India — according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). By 2025, the number of those travelling abroad for a degree could double from today’s estimate of 4.3 million students. In response, universities are eager to raise their global profile to ensure their long-term financial viability and create a sustainable business model. Public institutions that once relied on government funding and tuition hikes for revenue now are turning to social media, online learning and new credentials to make their mark with international students. “It’s always been about prestige and reputation,” says University of Toronto professor of higher education Glen Jones. “Now with global competition and new media, reputation simply becomes increasingly important and rankings play into that.” With business models in flux, adds Jones, “part of the answer is to find other sources of revenue, which is why reputation becomes such a big factor.”

With ranking-conscious elite universities intent on holding on to their place in the top echelon, middle-ranked institutions will have no easy time climbing the ladder.

“It is very uncertain terrain with serious competition on a worldwide scale,” says Francisco Marmelejo, lead tertiary education specialist at the World Bank. “There will be significant disruption in the way higher education operates and will operate… this is a trend that is unavoidable.”

Using new tools

Historically, universities relied on exchanges of students and faculty to build their overseas profile. Over the past decade, some institutions have added smaller-scale online programmes and built overseas branch campuses (there are now at least 200 worldwide), with mixed success. “There is a history of schools going into countries and a few years later pulling out,” says Andrew Crisp of CarringtonCrisp, a Londonbased education marketing consulting firm. “It is pushing schools to look at more modern methods of raising the brand rather than bricks and mortar.”

At a minimum, “modern methods” translate to smartly designed websites delivering key messages to a target audience. The University of Buffalo (UB), which ranks among the top 20 US institutions for international enrolment, recruits 17% of its 28,000 students from abroad with the help of its site. UB pioneered a “high touch” strategy in the late 1980s that relied on face-to-face meetings with prospective students, and even today is one of a few publicly funded state institutions that travel overseas to meet students and families at recruitment fairs. However, it now competes with scores of schools from the US, the UK, Australia and Canada, says Steven Shaw, assistant vice-provost and director of international admissions. To bolster its face-to-face pitch, the university has revamped its website after spending a year researching what prospective students value most—a safe and welcoming campus, personal connections and a globally-enriched curriculum. “It is not your grandmother’s website,” says Rebecca Bernstein, UB’s director of strategy and online communications. “It is filled with information based on research and needs that will close the deal on international recruiting.”

Schools have also been using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to help them tailor messages to prospective candidates. Increasingly, students themselves are enlisted as virtual ambassadors to sell peers on their institution, responding to granular questions and sharing information based on their own experience. “We now have the technology that allows broader conversations than we have ever been able to have, and that requires paying a lot more attention to the conversation,” says Michael Stoner, president of mStoner, a US higher-education marketing and branding consultancy. On social media, the university initiates a conversation to send out official messages to its target audience while students use the same sites to talk to peers for informal insights on the institution.

“Everything is connected,” says Stoner. “If you are telling kids from China that you are a welcoming community, you had better be able to demonstrate that,” he says. “It is easy enough for students to find out without visiting the campus because they can access social media and find other Chinese students to see what is their experience.”

The MOOC method

Many institutions of higher learning believe that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer a promising way to polish their reputation for innovation and grow beyond their geographical boundaries. Since 2012, these free and mostly non-credentialed courses have attracted more than six million students from around the world.

But the jury is out on MOOCs, not least because their designers have yet to develop a sustainable business model. Despite the “wow” factor of tens of thousands of students signing up for a single MOOC, participation and completions are low, according to early evaluations. And contrary to initial forecasts, a July 2013 survey by the University of Pennsylvania found that the majority of those who signed up for a MOOC already had a college degree. In developing countries, participants were more affluent and better educated than the general population. Still, a number of small and mid-size institutions see the potential to secure a following by offering specialty courses in a MOOC format or to embed them as part of on-campus campus-based and online courses. The first wave of MOOCs helped to burnish the reputations of the top universities, and institutions continue to use the online courses to promote their brands. Britain’s Open University, with a 40-year history of distance learning, established Future Learn last year as the first UK MOOC platform, working with more than 20 top UK universities, the British Council, the British Library and the British Museum. “Universities see themselves as global players,” says Mike Sharples, academic lead for Future Learn. “They want to show the world the quality of their teaching and learning material to attract students to degree courses.” The University of Alberta, a top-five Canadian institution, invested US$314,000 in a high-production value MOOC to build awareness of its international reputation in paleontology research. The course attracted 20,000 participants when it started in September 2013. “As long as the MOOC is aligned with that [reputational strategy], it clearly gives us a way to talk about the U of A that we didn’t have before,” says Debra Pozega Osburn, vice-president for university relations for U of A. “Now we have several thousand people all over the world who know the university and didn’t before.”

A number of universities are moving beyond using MOOCs to build their brand awareness by creating programs to convert leisure MOOC learners into enrolled students. Earlier this year, the University of London (with 54,000 online learners and 70,000 on campus) offered four MOOCs through Coursera, attracting 210,000 registrants from more than 160 countries. Five more are scheduled for 2014. “If we can convert some of those students and make them aware of [our] international programmes, then that is a business model that makes sense to us,” says Michael Kerrison, director of academic development for University of London International Programmes.

MOOCs may become an integral part of higher education, but some question their staying power. “It is way too soon to tell,” says Allan Goodman, president of the US Institute for International Education. “I would have expected MOOCs to be taking campuses by storm and they aren’t yet.” But what they have done, unreservedly, is raise the profile of online learning in an international context.

Credentialing and affordability

In the hunt for sustainability, some schools are mixing the MOOC format with more traditional courses, offering selective programs at the graduate level. Georgia Institute of Technology, an Atlanta-based university ranked 25th in the world by the Times Higher Education allows MOOC students to earn a Master level computer science degree. The program is priced at US$6,630, one-third the cost of the on-campus degree. For the initial cohort, Georgia accepted 400 students from more than 2,300 applications, with a goal of 10,000 students over three years.

MOOCs have grabbed the headlines, but other strategies are gaining traction to bring higher education within reach to a wider cohort of learners. One way is to “unbundle” credentials in bite-size pieces of learning, with specific competencies recognized through digital badges, certificates and other forms of accreditation.

In 2014, the University of Arizona’s Eller School of Management plans to offer three non-degree online “Specialisations” based on content from the school’s top-ranked, on-campus programmes in management information systems, entrepreneurship and strategic digital marketing. Aimed at those seeking job-ready skills, the new Specialisations represent a concentration of relevant knowledge in high-demand fields, with a student required to take three certificate programs, each comprised of three one-month online courses.

“This is the iTunes version of higher education,” says Joe Valacich, Eller’s director of online initiatives. “We have to create very small learning modules and have them done well. The students have to find them to be of great value,” he says of the university’s strategy. “It’s about reach. The idea that we could have hundreds of thousands of students globally all being U of A alumni is mind-blowing.”

In addition to the three initial Specialisations from the business school, Valacich says the university is “exploring the development” of additional offerings by Eller and other on-campus professional schools, such as law. “Our goal is to engage various colleges in non-degree offerings specific to a particular college as well as hybrid programs that will blend content across colleges.”

As new credentials gain ground, so does interest in competency-based education that awards degrees based on what students know, not time spent in class.

An American pioneer in this fast-growing field is Utah-based Western Governors University, an online, public institution founded in 1997 by a group of state governors to serve the country’s 37-million working adults, many of whom have some college training but no degree. Over the past five years, WGU reported a four-fold expansion in enrolment to more than 42,000 students in 50 states, with rising levels of retention, students in good academic standing and student satisfaction.

On average, students arrive with one year of college, earn a bachelor’s degree in 34 months (two years faster than at a bricks and mortar institution) and pay $6,000 a year, a fraction of tuition charged by conventional public colleges. With computer-mediated interactive instruction and full-time lecturers serving as one-on-one mentors, students advance by completing assignments that assess their knowledge of industry-vetted material.

The focus of the online university is working adults, not high school graduates headed to an on-campus college. But WGU president Robert Mendenhall says his institution’s business model is increasingly relevant given the public backlash against rising tuition and student debt. “Having a model that says we can provide high-quality education for $6,000 a year does send a message that we need to find more efficient ways to deliver high-quality education,” he says.

Since 2010, WGU has partnered with five American states to set up online, state-based affiliates that aim to graduate adults ready to contribute to economic growth. WGU has also advised half a dozen other higher education institutions in the U.S. in the throes of adopting competency-based education.

As in the past, technology is crucial to WGU’s future. Students now can write exams from home using a webcam instead of driving to a secure site, while instructors use data analytics to assess gaps in student learning. “Over the next five years, technology will increase the gap between how effective a teacher can be in the classroom with 30 students as opposed to how effective technology can be in delivering the right thing at the right time and helping students learn more efficiently and effectively,” says Mendenhall.

Where from here?

As online learning options and credentials proliferate in what some are now calling an era of “post-traditional higher education,” universities still need to ask the core questions: whom will they serve, and how well? At the very least, both students and institutions are watching out for new yardsticks to measure success. For example, if a viable business case emerges for MOOCs, they will be evaluated on the number of student participants, drop-out rates, student learning satisfaction and relevance to a career. In time, say analysts, there could be global rankings for MOOCs, as now exist for top-rated global institutions. Meanwhile, badges, certificates and other credentials are in their infancy, with the onus on institutions to explain how they complement traditional forms of accreditation.

“The big challenge for providers is how to convince governments, institutions and employers that what students study not only represents new skills but is worthy of a new document or diploma or certification,” says the World Bank’s Marmolejo.

There will be no easy shortcuts for universities that want to expand their presence internationally, warns Sir John Daniel, the former head of the UK Open University: “You become a well-known global university by a long hard slog of doing things well.”

The new class: Non-traditional students are changing the market for higher education

The demographic profile of students at US colleges and universities has changed dramatically in recent decades. Once a minority, today “non-traditional” students far outnumber the 18-to-22-year-olds who have historically entered college directly from high school.

Today’s college students tend to be older and come from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and often have work and family obligations. Some 36% of undergraduates in 2008 were 25 years old or older, and 46% were enrolled parttime; 43% held part-time positions. According to statistics from the US Department of Education, the enrolment rates of older students are expected to grow faster than those of traditional students over the next ten years.

According to Pathways to Success, a 2012 report prepared for the US Congress by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, non-traditional students have been inadequately served by colleges and universities, despite their growing numbers. Schools may schedule classes at times inconvenient for non-traditional students or offer insufficient financial aid. Researchers, meanwhile, typically overlook these students in studies, and a lack of understanding around their different circumstances allows them to remain underserved.

Different students, different needs 

Perhaps because of these challenges, more Americans have been attending college online, according to a 2013 report, Online College Students 2013: Comprehensive Data on Demands and Preferences. About 32% of the country’s 21m college students were taking at least one online course in 2011, and nearly 3m were enrolled in fully online programmes, according to the report. While the growth rate of online enrolment has slowed from its peak in the mid-2000s, it remains three to four times that of classroom enrolment, which declined in 2012 after years of steady growth.

For many students, classroom-based programmes may be unsustainable because of work, family, financial or personal obligations, the study says. “Life got too busy,” one online student was quoted as saying. “I got married, had a career and two kids. I needed something more flexible without taking away from my time with my family.”

Addressing the needs of non-traditional students could help boost college completion rates, which have been stubbornly low in the US, once a world leader in degrees conferred. That will require “modifications in the structure and delivery of higher education,” the report says, citing a panel of experts.

A changing marketplace 

“Higher education has focused on a segment of the learners that is not the typical learner as we see it today,” notes Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University. He says that non-traditional students account for up to 85% of postsecondary students: “They want curricula that are adapted to their needs.”

Non-traditional students look for solid outcomes such as skills and job eligibility rather than more traditional metrics of a given school’s brand or selectivity, he says. By failing to focus on jobs, higher education has created a kind of dichotomy between education and preparation for the workplace, he says. Appealing to non-traditional students also has financial implications. Colleges and universities that target only traditional  students risk leaving the majority of the market to competitors, says Mr Aoun. Curricula eventually will be tailored to students’ needs and price points will vary.

“Online learning is becoming ubiquitous,” he says. “Everybody will have some form of online classes, and therefore you will not be able to say, ‘I have an advantage because I have courses online.’ Content is going to be king.”

Richard Garrett, vice-president and principal analyst at Eduventures Inc, a research and consulting firm, says a concerted effort to target adult learners, particularly by for-profit schools, has led to a 50% increase in adult undergraduate and graduate students over the past 20 years. With the boom in adult learning and online education over the past 20 years, the average student’s age is poised to rise over the next decade. The trend is hardly new. Continuing education and correspondence courses began more than 100 years ago to protect the academic core but allow the general public at least some level of access. Over time they have become part of the mainstream and now constitute the majority, Mr Garrett says. Today, however, the markets are actually maturing and becoming more crowded. Growth is harder to come by and the value proposition is increasingly commoditised.

“The identity of higher education is still so much about that traditional core, which is now the exception. Given the size of this trend, schools have to decide, ‘Do we want to be everything to everyone, or are we going to specialise in a particular student type and invest more in certain types of programmes?’”

“The real problem is not ‘how do we expand faster, how do we include more students’,” he says, noting the low completion rate that plagues many online programmes.   “The real question is ‘how do we serve more effectively the already very diverse student body we already have? How do we optimise the already wide range of delivery modes that are currently on offer?’”

Experimental approaches have emerged, and competency-based learning — less expensive and focused on student knowledge — has seen a revival with wholly online institutions such as University Now, New Charter University and College for America at Southern New Hampshire University, he says. “We don’t know if they’re going to fly or flop, but that’s certainly been one theme, to get away from credit hours and traditional faculty-intensive models, to customise, individualise and make learning as relevant and tangible as possible.”

What seems most likely to come out on top will be more strategic hybrids between the two approaches that appeal to different groups of students — those who want more of a campus-based curriculum and those looking for a stronger online component, such as adult learners with full-time jobs. In Pennsylvania, public universities are preparing for more adult students and plan to expand prior learning assessments that give students the opportunity to earn credits for learning outside the classroom.

“We’re going to open [the state system] up to any kind of prior learning that people are bringing,” says John Cavanaugh, the state system’s chancellor, in conversation with Inside Higher Ed. State officials expect that students will seek and obtain credits from prior learning experiences ranging from military service to massive open online courses, or MOOCs. “You’re still going to have to demonstrate that you’ve got the learning before that translates to credit,” Mr Cavanaugh notes.


Whatever approach is taken, higher education will remain a reliable path to economic reward. Job growth in the US in recent decades has benefited workers with at least some college or post-secondary education, and college graduates earn far more in their lifetimes than those with only high school diplomas.

“The demand for higher education has broadened,” says Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. People who were once able to find “legitimate, satisfying and well-enough paying work” without more sophisticated knowledge and higher-level skills are no longer able to do so.

As a result, the participation rate in higher education has grown dramatically and consistently over the past 25 years, says Mr Lingenfelter. “The real challenge for higher education will be to create successful pathways [for completion] as early as possible in life, because the opportunity cost is high.