John Pientka

Academia is on the Ropes but is Reluctant to Change. Why are Most of Them Digital Dinosaurs?

Moving a university is like moving a cemetery—you can’t expect any help from the inhabitants,” says Barb Oakley, Ph.D. Higher Educations’ product is too expensive, takes too long and doesn’t produce enough of the graduates needed. New technology could be transformative, but…

The ugly truth: at most public universities, only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years. Even at state flagship universities only 36 percent of full-time students complete their bachelor’s degree on time. To make the numbers look better educators have moved the goal posts to now show how many graduate within six years.

Great! Now the students and their families are even deeper in debt. Total student loans clock in at $1.45 Trillion. That’s more than all the credit card debt held in the U.S. and almost 5 million student borrowers are delinquent. It’s no wonder that society is questioning whether so-called higher education is worth it.

And the bad news keeps on coming. Forget AI taking jobs. We cannot pump out enough degree holders for the openings there are. Take the critical area of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) upon which our modern world is so dependent. There were only 30,835 STEM graduates to fill the 230,246 additional STEM jobs from 2014-2015. That’s a shortfall of almost 87% in this key area.

What the hell is going on? Listen to what Larry Summers, the economist and ex-president of Harvard had to say: “Not enough people are innovating enough in higher education. General Electric looks nothing like it looked in 1975. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford look a lot like they looked in 1975.”

It’s not like there is a shortage of technologies that can make the university experience more productive, rewarding and efficient. MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) pioneered the concept of challenging the traditional lecture model. These online courses can be even better than the traditional lecture because they more effectively deal with the way humans actually learn.

Too hard to abandon the traditional college lecture altogether? Worried that social interaction is also part of the learning experience? How about flipping things on their head. The chalk talk part of the lecture is packaged in more digestible video for pre consumption and the lecture time is devoted to interaction, Q&A, etc.

How do we make the learning experience more personal? I can remember sitting in a 600 student lecturing hall and then struggling to wrestle with the material and my questions because my TA (Teaching Assistant) spoke poor English. Georgia Tech may have hit on the way to address this need for personalization. It has a very well known and increasingly popular online master’s in computer science. (BTW, talk about cost–effectiveness, this online degree costs $7,000. The very same in-person degree is $25,000 for GA residents and $60,000 for non-residents.)

It’s so popular that Ashok Goel, the lead professor in a course on AI, can’t deliver the personal experience he knows students deserve because he can’t leverage his TA’s far enough. His insight: most teachers know that most students ask the same questions year after year as they come to terms with the material. Doctor Goel thought why not build an AI to help.

The result was Jill Watson (yep, the “Watson” of Jeopardy fame). “She” was so successful that most students did not know “she” was not human. Imagine how this could work for all those foundation courses that are required of all students, which tenured faculty hates to teach and adjunct professors are stuck with grinding out their delivery. You could have a rock star professor record an on-line set of video lectures and an AI handle most of the student interactions.

And there is much, much more. Even the mind numbing, obtuse textbook can be subject to digital magic turning it into a lively compelling teaching instrument that is more like “education software” than just text. With all these exciting options, higher education could seem ripe for some disruption, right? Not so fast. All these examples are notable because they are rare.

The inmates run the asylum. A recent report on digital transformation in higher education, only 50% of respondents (including students, university leaders, and education technology company founders) expect the traditional university “model” to be disrupted by 2025.

Given the nature of human institutions we should not be surprised. Inertia is a powerful drag on the advent of the new. However, there are some pretty powerful forces at work. Costs are too high. Society demands for talent are not being met. And, maybe most importantly, each year the oncoming cohort of students are more and more tech saving and demanding. When do you think it will be academia’s Kodak moment?

By John Pientka

John Pientka

John is currently the principal of Pientka and Associates which specializes in IT and Cloud Computing.

Over the years John has been vice president at CGI Federal, where he lead their cloud computing division. He founded and served as CEO of GigEpath, which provided communication solutions to major corporations. He has also served as president of British Telecom’s outsourcing arm Syncordia, vice president and general manager of a division at Motorola.

John has earned his M.B.A. from Harvard University as well as a bachelor’s degree from the State University in Buffalo, New York.

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