Thoughts on ‘Innovating the 21st-Century University: It’s Time!’

Tom PreskettBy Tom Preskett

I’ve read and re-read Innovating the 21st-Century University: It’s Time! by Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams (Educause, 2010) to try and absorb its key messages. Here are some quotes from the article, followed by my comments.

Universities are losing their grip on higher learning as the Internet is, inexorably, becoming the dominant infrastructure for knowledge — both as a container and as a global platform for knowledge exchange between people — and as a new generation of students requires a very different model of higher education.

The important point here is that the internet has taken away the monopoly over information from all the previous powers. Universities are one example. This has to be a good thing for learners and learning. If it’s bad for the educational institutions in their current model then they have to change.

We need to toss out the old industrial model of pedagogy (how learning is accomplished) and replace it with a new model called collaborative learning.

This is an argument often made (particularly in Educause). I’ve often talked about how it’s really all about pedagogy, not technology. I wholeheartedly agree with Tapscott and Williams, but a meaningful debate is difficult because the issues are complex and winning is even more difficult. First, because of the “no significant difference” argument, i.e., it’s impossible to win a pedagogical argument. Also, in my institution (and I suspect elsewhere), there is no single mantra and code to guide instructional delivery. Sure, most use “the old industrial model,” but they include instances of collaboration, discussion, group work, etc. The point here is that much of higher education can make a case for innovative, collaborative pedagogy in existing practices if the need arises. So a “model of collaborative learning” would be difficult to implement not least because a “model of broadcast learning” doesn’t officially exist. There are many other barriers, but this is important.

With technology, it is now possible to embrace new collaboration models that change the paradigm in more fundamental ways… this represents a change in the relationship between students and teachers in the learning process.

This relates to the previous point, and there are a lot more like this, which reads like an advert for collaborative pedagogy. I agree with it, but there’s not much to add.

We like the direction of Vest’s thinking. [Charles M. Vest, “Open Content and the Emerging Global Meta-University,” in EDUCAUSE Review.] For universities to succeed, we believe they need to cooperate to launch what we call the Global Network for Higher Learning. This network would have five stages or levels: (1) course content exchange; (2) course content collaboration; (3) course content co-innovation; (4) knowledge co-creation; and (5) collaborative learning connection

The stages for this Global Network for Higher Learning are pretty self-explanatory, but I’m not sure five stages are really needed.

The lowest level in the Global Network for Higher Learning is simple content exchange: colleges and universities post their educational materials online, putting into the commons what would have traditionally been viewed as cherished and closely held intellectual property. MIT pioneered the concept with its OpenCourseWare initiative (, and today more than 200 institutions of higher learning have followed suit.

This is the first stage. I’ve included this to mention how far away we are from making the Global Network a reality. In the UK, we have the Open University and tiny, tiny amounts of similar efforts at a couple of other institutions. As everything in this model flows from the free exchange of content, it’s hard to see how such a system could get off the ground. You would need a big sea change for it to work. Realistically, consortiums could spring up, creating open courseware mini-networks. If they are set up for sustainability, the end result could act like a regional network and snowball from there.

What higher education desperately needs is a social network — a Facebook for faculty. But it shouldn’t be a standalone application; it should be integral to the Global Network for Higher Learning.

My initial reaction to this was “no way.” But we’ve seen how quickly such networks can explode. Perhaps an education only network is the answer and a valuable plank in this idea. At the moment, informal learning happens in an infinite variety of places (e.g., the blogosphere), but for formal education, a truly collaborative communication platform is mouth-watering and, I guess, the obvious opposite of the closed virtual learning environment discussion boards.

Why not allow a brilliant ninth-grade student to take first-year college math, without abandoning the social life of his or her high school? Why not encourage a foreign student majoring in math to take a high school English course? Why is the university the unit of measurement when it comes to branding a degree? In fact, in a networked world, why should a student have to assign his or her “enrollment” to a given institution, akin to declaring loyalty to some feudal fiefdom?

I have mixed feeling about this, but the authors have a point. At the moment, you go where your subject is strong. Is there enough of a need for variety to demand a piece from here, there and everywhere? This challenges the whole notion of a degree in one subject in favour of a variety of different ones. I’m not sure this is really an issue. Certainly, all the identity that you have accumulated with one institution is challenged in the Global Network.

Next-generation faculty will create a context whereby students from around the world can participate in online discussions, forums, and wikis to discover, learn, and produce knowledge as networked individuals and collectively.

I guess the logistics of this worry me. How will this happen? Who will look after it? Certainly, a global network that caters to all of higher ed is far fetched. But an initially small scale version that gradually gathers pace could happen.

As the model of pedagogy is challenged, inevitably the revenue model of universities will be too. If all that the large research universities have to offer to students are lectures that students can get online for free, from other professors, why should those students pay the tuition fees, especially if third-party testers will provide certificates, diplomas, and even degrees? If institutions want to survive the arrival of free, university-level education online, they need to change the way professors and students interact on campus.

I think current practices in universities are based on a generation of learners not quite able to tap into what’s out there and the quality and quantity of what’s out there not quite being enough. This will change, and it will be a shock when it hits. I’ve been saying this in my articles for a while now.

Many will argue: “But what about credentials? As long as the universities can grant degrees, their supremacy will never be challenged.” This is myopic thinking. The value of a credential and even the prestige of a university are rooted in its effectiveness as a learning institution. If these institutions are shown to be inferior to alternative learning environments, their capacity to credential will surely diminish.

Credentialing in higher ed has been a hot topic for a while now, and it’s one that we need to focus on in the future. In the statement above, Tapscott and Williams threaten the traditional notion of credentials in an interesting way. Certainly, reputation is vital in this world, and it’s true of higher ed as much as anything else.

As part of this, the academic journal should be disintermediated and the textbook industry eliminated. In fact, the word textbook is an oxymoron today. Content should be multimedia — not just text. Content should be networked and hyperlinked bits — not atoms. Moreover, interactive courseware — not separate “books” — should be used to present this content to students, constituting a platform for every subject, across disciplines, among institutions, and around the world.

Some of this stuff is almost apocalyptic! I’m not totally on board with this. Yes, ebook readers will have an impact on how text is presented, structured and mixed in with multimedia, but there will always be a place for text and books of text.

In this structure, students would enroll with their “primary” institution, which would handle the disbursement of their tuition fees depending on what other courses they study. The value of, say, a second-year psychology course at Stanford would be determined by market forces, not by some central bureaucracy.

This notion of primary and secondary institutions is key to the global network and feels like a utopian ideal fraught with danger. Still, I like the message it sends to the learner: Whether you like it or not, you’re in charge of your learning.

If universities are to become institutions whose primary goal is the learning by students, not faculty, then the incentive systems will need to change. Tenure should be granted for teaching excellence and not just for a publishing record.


The analogy is not the newspaper business, which has been weakened by the distribution of knowledge on the Internet, he [Luis M. Proenza, president of the University of Akron] notes. “We’re more like health care. We’re challenged by obstructive, non-market-based business models. We’re also burdened by a sense that doctor knows best, or professor knows best.”

The article finishes with some interesting statements about why nothing changes.

A powerful force to change the university is the students. And sparks are flying today. A huge generational clash is emerging in our institutions. The critiques of the university from fifteen years ago were ideas in waiting — waiting for the new web and for a new generation of students who could effectively challenge the old model.

Ultimately, the change will come from the students. Governments talk about e-learning without really understanding what’s going on, but the students will demand this pedagogy. What we need is a clear choice. The model proposed here is a second stage structure. Initially, what we need is a good higher ed example where all that’s best about learning technologies is embraced. A prominent program somewhere needs to stick its head above the water to give students a clear choice. After that, market forces will take care of the rest.

14 Responses

  1. Early in the review, collaborative learning comes up. Personally, I’m not a big fan of collaborative learning despite the fact that it works well for lots of students at many levels. I’m making the point that no learning model works best for all students. I was one such student.

    • Harry, you may have experienced real collaborative learning. On the other hand, you may not have.

      I first tried collaborative learning quite a few years ago, and it didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t like it. I stopped doing it altogether.

      Then I attended a workshop in which some explained how to do it, and I realized I had never set it up correctly as the instructor. In fact, I had set it up in a way that was doomed to fail. Soon I learned how to make it work the way it should, and before long it was the primary method I used to teach, and it was extremely effective.

      When I look especially at how most online collaborative discussions are set up, I cringe. Three is no way they can work. It is not the method’s fault, though. It is all in how the teacher sets it up.

      • I probably didn’t, John. In school, I always was a loner and preferred to learn on my own. I was never in a study group in four years of college and four years of graduate school. It’s just not my thing.

        That said, I can understand that others feel differently. I also agree that any technique or technology must be done properly to have a good impact.

        Finally, I can only repeat that each learner is different and that I am a fan of your idea that using all learning styles for all students is most likely to have the best results.

  2. On tenure, I understand Tom’s position very well having been successful at the learning but not at the publishing. I found that the only way to have success at both was either to have no sleep or have plenty of graduate students. As a result, I suspect that most professors put minimal effort into teaching at research universities until they have tenure and often not then.

    However, these universities are in the business of obtaining grants, not of educating students. Were I to redo my education, I’d begin with a liberal arts institution without any doctoral programs. I’d attend graduate school at the best research institution I could find, and then go to another for my postdoctural work.

    Undergraduate learning and graduate learning usually are very different, at least in my field: science.

    • When I was teaching at a major university, the chancellor specifically told us that we were a research institution and our focus should be on research, not teaching. Later on, when a friend was teaching at the same school, he was warned that it looked like he might be named teacher of the year in the department by student vote, and that would be considered a red flag that he was not putting enough effort into research. He was indeed named teacher of the year, and the department responded by taking him off all teaching duties the following year so that he could put proper focus on research.

      • Yep. Big research universities make their money from grants. You’d think the high tuition would be the primary driving force. Yet, if the school is in the news as getting lots of grants and making lots of news, then it can attract students who aren’t clued into the fact that undergraduate life and government grant work don’t often intersect except in senior seminars and research programs.

        I was fortunate to do summer research for three years at Caltech.

  3. Tom says, “… there will always be a place for text and books of text.” Although literally true (after all, history is based on books of text for the most part), this statement misses the point.

    At one time, textbooks were almost entirely text. They might have a few woodcuts if really needed. The result were very dense works that most of today’s students would be unable to manage.

    Now, we consider quite normal books filled with full-color illustrations of all sorts. Is it really such a big step to animations? What about books that read the text to you? These are modest steps compared with what will really happen. You could see big changes in five years or just a bit more. BTW, I intend to be a part of that change and am talking to publishers. Significantly, they are interested at some level. That level will necessarily escalate over time.

    You’ll see interaction with “textbooks,” although they may or may not retain that name. These “books” will have ways of assessing how well you’re acquiring the knowledge and adapt accordingly. I expect that we’ll find ways to make these assessments non-intrusive.

    It will indeed be a “brave new world” for education but not like the novel at all. Freedom to learn will become one of our fundamental rights. It won’t be free, but it won’t cost a year’s salary for a year’s education either.

  4. This is an interesting subthread — the future of books.

    We’ve used books for so many centuries that we tend forget that they’re just another medium for communication. And other media that we’ve been using for ages are lectures and classrooms.

    In the last couple of decades, we’ve been expanding the range of media via the web. The progression is a natural one, and we’re really on the brink of a breakthrough gadget that will place the web and all its communicative functions in our pockets. iPod-type devices, on the one hand, will merge with the tiny and inexpensive web- or net-book computers, on the other, and the result will replace the book as we know it.

    It wasn’t too long ago when a cell phone was a big, clunky device. No way was it going to replace landlines. But in very short order, they became small and light enough to carry in pockets, and landlines are beginning to go the way of typewriters.

    Through these new “hand-books,” everyone will have access to the wold’s information. They’ll be small and light enough to replace paperbacks, and the advantage will be TV, video, and audio as well as text — all in this single device.

    We’ll be able to place these handbooks into cradles and project HD video onto walls as well as high-resolution audio into audiophile speakers and headphones.

    As they become ubiquitous, prices will drop, and we’ll begin to see a global connectedness that we can barely imagine.

    What this means for education is mindblowing. Handbooks will replace books, lectures, and classrooms, and with built-in cameras (video and still) and mikes, they’ll allow everyone to bring his/her world to everyone else.

    Publishing (books, periodicals, journals, etc.) will be transformed to accommodate handbooks. So will schools and colleges.

    • The potential of what are currently known as ebook readers within education is huge. What is vital is that such devices include annotation and wiki capabilities. But a system where students have a single reading/annotation/storage device is attractive. They would need to be pretty robust of course.

      • Hi, Tom. Yes, the “handbooks” that I’m envisioning would be like ebooks, but with cell phone and computer capabilities. And, yes, they would definitely have to be robust — as well as light and easy to power, perhaps including solar/dynamo power packs.

  5. Tom – this is an interesting article. One point not mentioned is addressing prior knowledge and experience. If change will come from the students, then they will pick and choose the classes and learning opportunities they need if they are accredited and meet the expectations of their learning goal. Can we get Universities to accept prior knowledge and let students challenge classes?

    This can be another revenue stream for Universities. Let’s be real. There aren’t enough classes for students. Some students have work and life experience that meets that course requirement. With technology, the university could design an assessment that measures how much a student understands about a course. Then the student could demonstrate understanding or mastery of that subject and receive credit.

  6. These are good points Barbara. Prior learning is an important issue if and when a more fragmented and learner controlled system were to exist. Let’s be honest, things aren’t going to change any time soon but HE needs to think about repositioning itself rather than protecting itself.

  7. I do not believe that the future of textbooks lies in eBooks, to be honest. I will describe what I think is going to happen in somewhat vague terms because it contains proprietary information.

    One of the largest school districts in America has quietly made a contract with an online education course provider. That in itself is not such a big deal–there are thousands of such contracts in the country. The difference is that they purchased the rights to the content, which is in HTML and Flash. There are no textbooks–all content is contained in the course. The product is being used in the school’s online program right now, but at the same time they have their own experts tweaking the content to make it exactly what they are looking for IN ALL THEIR CLASSES.

    When they are done, the online content will be what is used throughout the district, in regular classrooms and in online classrooms alike. They will never purchase a textbook again, whether hard cover or eBook. They will be able to update the content whenever they want, even in the middle of a given week. In theory, they will have eternal, always current textbooks that never need replacing.

    • John,

      I respect your opinion a great deal. In this case, I think that the district has made a mistake, at least in the long run. Their strategy may work well in the short run. In fact, it probably will.

      The future of technology and of education technology will change the landscape very greatly. The work that I’m doing is just one potential for dramatic change, and it’s still in its infancy. Who knows what is about to be revealed for ELA, math, history, and other subjects that could make this district’s purchase obsolete.

      At least in science, I’m vigorously seeking entirely new ways to improve science learning and replace the methods that have been in use for 150 years. Note, however, that the underlying ideas I’m using were first enunciated over 100 years ago. Our initial efforts enabled these old ideas using new technology. I’m now looking at ways to springboard from where we are today.

      On a separate note, content does not create learning. It takes a good teacher. Someday soon, good new technology will mean that less teacher “bandwidth” will be required for good learning. Technologies that reduce teacher bandwidth significantly while improving learning outcomes will take over. I think that the “new” learning will involve much less reading of content or even of watching Flash animations. Anyway, I’m doing my best to remain healthy so that I can see this future unfold.

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