Strategies for Universities of the Future

By Ernie Kulhanek
English Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

Welcome back to the online book club discussion of Teaching Naked, by Dr. Jose Bowen. If you missed our review of the Preface, Part I: The Digital Landscape, the first section of Part II: Designing 21st Century Courses, or the second section of Part II: Designing 21st Century Courses, just follow the links to catch up. Today will be the last post in the series, and will discuss Part III: Strategies for Universities of the Future.

As always, please feel welcome to interact with the club by reading and commenting at the bottom of each post. Last time we ended by talking about utilizing technology for assessment (chapter 7) and what a “naked classroom” looks like (chapter 8). In today’s post we will be discussing “The Educational Product in the Internet Age” and how the Naked Classroom can help shape the Naked Curriculum and the Naked Campus.

Chapter 9: The Educational Product in the Internet Age

Bowen begins this chapter with a frank statement that upon first glance has very little to do with me, and thus, does not really interest me. He states, “Part Three will address the more administrative and financial issues confronting face-to-face higher education and will argue that teaching naked is a vital strategy for its survival” (p. 217). However, I do think that there is value to understanding the big picture, even if I feel I have very little control over it.

One statement Bowen made (about those who do make these decisions) did strike me as relevant to classroom teachers. He essentially said that everyone in the “educational ranks” needs to be held accountable, and that some are surprised and offended by this idea. He argues that we need to stop viewing our students as our product and start viewing them as our customers, because we no longer have the luxury of doing and viewing things the way we always have (due to the changing environment in which we live and work).

I am still trying to digest this line of reasoning. I am aware of colleagues, who, like myself do not disagree on the need for accountability, but do not hold quite the same beliefs as Bowen on the topic of treating students like customers. I think this is because teachers feel that changing the way in which we view our role, as well as the role of students, might somehow cheapen the work which we do. To some the idea of “customer service” reduces helping someone achieve their dream through education to the same type of transaction that takes place at a McDonald’s drive-thru window.

I think part of the allure of teaching is a satisfaction that you cannot achieve in a customer service job. Schools are not businesses or corporations, so should we be convinced that we can save educational institutions by pretending that they are? I am very interested to read Dr. Bowen’s explanation as to how he thinks doing so will benefit students, teachers, and institutions.

Fast Food

To be fair to Dr. Bowen, I don’t think he is suggesting that the teacher, or the student, view the classroom interaction as nothing more significant than purchasing a Happy Meal. He cites three industries – recorded music, books, and journalism – that serve as cautionary tales to feeling invincible by mistaking the product for the packaging. When he introduces the application to higher education, he mentions specific conditions that do not exist at the institution where I teach, and thus, do not apply to me. He says that “universities have invested heavily in recreation centers, sports teams, and residence halls in recent years in an attempt to attract students” (p. 218).

This is undoubtedly true. I look back at my own college experience and do not wonder why my student loans are so high. I basically lived at a resort for 4 years: beautiful new residence halls, state of the art gyms and recreation areas, upkeep on the ancient bricks that make up the 100 year old Georgian architecture, shaded by majestic, post card worthy trees, of course. Surely these amenities cost a fortune.

Yet, Bowen notes that the very nature of “our product” is changing. “Students no longer need to spend four years on a leafy campus to get an education,” he says (p. 221). And because the market for education is so large, there is enormous incentive to create a new product, as long as that product is cheaper, more convenient, and more personalized.

Bowen argues that compared to other industries that have recently experienced similar changing conditions, like music, books, and newspapers, education has in fact changed very little. However, he warned this will not always be the case. Once universities begin to tighten their budgets, they will need to begin to look for efficiencies in product delivery (read: cutting redundant positions or entire programs served elsewhere). Bowen says,

A four year full-time degree will retain the power to change lives, but we will need to be willing to let some of the content come from other sources and to focus on developing graduates who can think, reflect, create meaning, and apply information. (p. 225)

Bowen then outlines three lessons we can learn from these industries: the product can change, customization and social isolation will increase, and more choices create new gatekeepers. The major point is that right now one’s “education” is more important than their learning, however that may not always be the case.

Bowen argues that “higher education needs to distinguish the real product from its unnecessary packaging, and the distinction will not be the same for every institution” (p. 231). He then goes on to describe exactly what forms the product may take: experience, local, a hybrid, or unique. I can see how each institution’s “real product” is going to be different from any other, particularly when the product is experience. An easy example is athletics. Any SEC school will undoubtedly self-identify college football as one of the major influences on the experience of attending their school, however this will not be true of many universities across the country. I was also intrigued by his assertion that what colleges need to embrace most is a hybrid model of teaching and learning.

Of course, finding the “right” hybrid is crucial to the long-term health of any institution. Bowen argues that offering basic, introductory courses online is not a great strategy. There are already countless free Chemistry 101 courses in existence on the Internet. Instead, Bowen says that universities should offer their “niche” courses to the global marketplace.

While there may not be enough local students to warrant an entire course in obscure subject matter, there will be less competition online, and the niche course may in fact become more popular than any basic course ever could be due to the sheer size of the potential applicant pool. It is these courses that should be taught (and perhaps, lectured) by superstar professors. “Most faculty can give up lecturing,” says Bowen. “The courses that remain on your physical campus will need to emphasize naked teaching” (p. 242).

Chapter 10: The Naked Curriculum

Delaware Tech is fundamentally a local product. The core mission of the College is essentially to provide an education (hope, access, opportunity, and excellence) to Delawareans so that they can better contribute to the Delaware economy, thus ensuring a better Delaware. In fact, a vast majority of institutions of higher education could be classified as local. Bowen begins this chapter comparing education to another industry that used to be local, but was transformed by the Internet: food.

The food industry was nearly the antithesis of globalization just 40 years ago. What happened? Essentially, three major transformations: technology and faster transportation, allowing food to be moved farther from its source before it needed to be consumed; a proliferation of convenient, customizable food options (which dovetailed nicely with society’s growing preference for isolation); and the increase in gatekeepers as the number of choices rose exponentially.

Each of these three lessons could be applied to education. Students want access to every program and course offering, at a time and place convenient for them. “Universities are about to experience the same pressures of new products, more customization, and global competition,” says Bowen (p. 244). The problem for these schools is their lack of flexibility. They have expensive existing factors, namely physical campuses and a fixed work force, that do not allow them to outright transform what they are. They need to demonstrate the value of these conditions if they are to survive. Bowen offers some suggestions on how to do this.

The Naked Curriculum

First, “turn professors into curators” (p. 245). Here Bowen returns to his core message of chapter 8, which is to say, avoid being the sage on the stage and learn to embrace your role as the guide at the side. Interestingly, Bowen outlines a plan (pp. 247-252) on how deans and provosts can encourage this, because ultimately it is those decision makers that need to work with faculty to come to a new understanding of what it means to teach.

Second, course designers should “rethink the units of learning” (p. 253). Bowen claims that our current curriculum (15 week semesters with course meetings three times per week) is a holdover from medieval times and that no research demonstrates this is the best unit of learning. He says that the reason we kept this semester and course structure is because it happened to be convenient for our current infrastructure (pp. 254-255). Of course some units of learning have changed. Colleges and Universities offer evening and weekend classes, as well as hybrid and online options. However, there is no end to demand for more convenience and customization. Bowen argues that we should begin to question such basic fundamental truths as each course, and degree, taking the same amount of time for each student. He says that our units of learning will need to be re-designed to reflect learning, not time served.

Third, we need to “improve curricular progression” (p. 261). Here Bowen actually argues for less student choice. (Yes, I am sure. I re-read the passage twice.) He makes more than a few salient points about the lack of a structured, sequential curriculum in higher education, particularly at liberal arts colleges. In this environment we expect students to be exposed to a little bit of nearly everything, however for the most part it doesn’t matter what “everything” actually is comprised of and it really doesn’t matter in which order to you are exposed to the different subjects.

It is more common than not to have freshman and seniors in the same classes completing the same assignments, although they are at very different points in their intellectual development, not to mention their college careers. This is not ideal. “Imagine being a student at the end of your sophomore year with all A’s but knowing that the grading rubrics for papers would all get harder next year and that your junior courses will require more and better conceptual thinking than you did as a sophomore,” says Bowen (p. 262). A curriculum should be more than the sum of its courses, and sequence is a critical first step in focusing on learning outcomes rather than the amount of accumulated credit hours.

These three strategies are indirect ways of encouraging faculty to change the way they teach. Bowen says that “delivery and course design influence learning, and I believe that faculty will find unique and better solutions for content once they are focused on learning outcomes, progression, and innovation” (p. 266). This is an optimistic view, especially considering his case for why teachers hate being forced to do anything administrators think is a good idea (and his case provides a convincing explanation). However, since he does believe teachers genuinely care about our students and their learning, Bowen does not see why today’s teacher would not embrace this naked curriculum.

Chapter 11: The Naked Campus

The truth is that we mostly need the campus spa to attract the most privileged students who will move us up the rankings. But there are more students who want to learn, and some of them can even pay. Our other choice is to be clear that education is our product and to deliver it. (p. 268)

Once I read this statement I began to more fully understand Bowen’s argument. I think that Bowen is saying that the type of student who is going to shape the direction for a vast number of higher education institutions is the type of student who attends Delaware Tech.

I tend to think out loud. This is problematic for Mary Paris, because we share an office. Remember that section I wrote earlier about how I spent four years living and studying at a resort? That is what the quote that starts this subsection is discussing. I spent some time talking to Mary about her college experience (hint: we went to the same college and graduated a year apart). I was not sure that I agreed with Bowen when he argues that soon students will not care about the amenities typical colleges offer. In fact, I am still unsure. (If you want to know what Mary thinks you will have to ask her yourself.)

Here is what a typical (out loud) thought sounds like: The only student who would be willing to risk not paying for a traditional education (and electing for the MITx route instead, for example) is the student that has a large and omnipresent safety net if things don’t work out. This does not describe the life circumstance of most people, at least in my experience.

So my thinking continued like this: If only elite students have the confidence (and lowered stakes if they fail) to buck the system, it will never happen because they are the students who go to the elite schools for name value, and they have no problem with the price tag. Everyone else, who from a young age is told that education is the key to a better life, will probably be to scared do step outside of current societal expectation and will begrudgingly take out loans to finance the high life for half a decade (oh, and get a diploma while they are at it).

College Bubble

However, after reading Bowen’s words, I began to see things a bit differently. At some point people were always going to stop overpaying by for a house they could not afford in the first place. It was infeasible in the long term to expect the housing bubble to continue growing and never burst. Of course everyone wanted the house of his or her American dream, but the perceived value of that dream certainly reached an apex that I don’t believe will be matched again. Too many people had their lives upended due to the decision to purchase their house at an extremely high price because that is what they thought it took to live their dream. I believe what Bowen is sort of hinting at here is that the same thing will happen in higher education.

Eventually, the bubble will burst, many young people will have their lives upended due to the cost of their education (one which they could not afford), and the next generation of students will realize that all of the superfluous amenities colleges offer (because students demand them) are not worth the cost, and will seek a cheaper, more convenient option.

The colleges that are going to survive are the colleges that take steps now to ensure that these students will choose their product when the bubble does burst. It is like when I ask my students, “When did Noah build the Ark?” (Answer: before the flood.) So what should colleges do to make sure their Ark (the campus) is built before the flood?

Bowen says we need to “integrate our infrastructure” (p. 268). In other words, use what you have, but use it better. Rather than spend a lot of money on giving every instructor new technology (which most won’t use effectively), buy new furniture. Buy more whiteboards. Improve the Wi-Fi. Repaint. Transform your existing space into an attractive one conducive to collaboration and active learning. Of course if you do this, and teachers still just lecture for the whole class period, your product isn’t actually changing.

Next, “reconsider price discounting” (p. 273). This section, like most towards the end of the book, doesn’t really have direct bearing on community colleges per se. In fact, no one would argue that Delaware Tech’s price point isn’t a point in our favor when it comes to competing for students. However, one idea mentioned by Bowen, and implemented by Coventry University in England, is pricing different degrees differently (p. 275).

This is already in practice to some extent with the integration of fees for certain labs and courses, but it might be really interesting if colleges adapted a system in which someone studying to be a social worker doesn’t pay as much as someone studying to be an engineer. Bowen argues, “implementing a new pricing system is a good way to discover what the market wants” (pp. 275-276). He also had some interesting ideas about charging students for their learning outcome, rather than their credit hours, among other things a four year University administrator could do to attract students; however, my focus is solely on instructors at this community college, so I am not going to list and comment on each idea here. If you are particularly upset by this or feel the need to discuss something I didn’t cover in detail, please use the comment section and I will get back to you.

I would like to end the last post by re-visiting Lincoln’s quote from the Preface. He said, “We must think anew and act anew.” This is never easy. But the fact is that the world is continually changing. Innovation, and the risks that come with it, must be embraced if we are to thrive in the coming years. Concepts like video game course design models and naked teaching will need to become the norm if we are to remain competitive and successful in recruiting and retaining tomorrow’s students. I have enjoyed my time with the book.

I hope you have enjoyed reading these posts. Perhaps one day we can have a face-to-face conversation about it (the horror!). Until then, stay naked bros.

Ish – mark it zero. Next frame.