The View from T-Hall

Being Disruptive—In a Good Way

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I recently attended a conference on "The Future of Public Universities" at which a young innovator, Salman Khan, spoke. Khan is the founder of the Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization offering free instruction in an array of subjects. Students who have access to the Internet can make use of an extensive video library and automated practice exercises while receiving continuous assessment. Teachers and parents can observe students' progress and see whether they have developed proficiency and where they may require additional help. Students move through the material at their own pace, advancing only as they develop a solid foundation in the concepts and skills being taught.

Khan constantly evaluates his own courses by collecting data so that he can see how to improve the presentation of concepts and exercises. He says the quality of his instruction continually improves and, because he doesn't have to re-teach the same material every semester, he can focus on expanding the range of his offerings.

Khan's work has drawn the support of the Gates Foundation and Google. It also wowed conference attendees, including me.

The Khan Academy is one example of what the noted scholar Clayton Christensen calls "disruptive innovation"—a game-changer for an industry. According to Christensen, a disruptive innovation occurs when a provider of goods or services finds a way to deliver a simpler, more affordable product that opens a market to consumers who have found existing products too expensive. An example is digital photography, which disrupted the market for film. Online education is a game-changer—and a growth industry. And, like other disruptive innovations, it is drawing both resources and intellectual capital. It is becoming a better product.

Although there are advantages to face-to-face education—more on that later—UNH, like other traditional universities, is actively exploring ways to offer courses online. Dozens of our talented faculty members are recording online lectures. Our online Blackboard learning management system enables professors to post syllabi, review homework and interact with their students. These uses of technology allow UNH to offer courses during winter break and in the summer. This is a good thing: It helps students better utilize what would otherwise be down time and earn their degrees more quickly.

But we have only just begun to realize the possibilities of online learning. To make the most of this rapidly evolving opportunity, we have established an initiative, eUNH, that is identifying ways we can use online learning to improve teaching, help students progress faster—and more economically, and create new opportunities for nontraditional learners. I am pleased to report that 711 students enrolled in online courses during January Term this year, a threefold increase since the program began two years ago.

Of course, not every course should be taught online. There remains no substitute for live classroom interaction. Students in Durham benefit from living and studying in a campus setting, where in-person mentoring from professors engaged in research and scholarship can inspire a lifelong love of discovery as well as instill the skills and disciplines needed to pursue it.

But what if we allowed online instruction to provide, where appropriate, the foundational knowledge, and directed students' time on campus toward learning activities that maximize the benefits of these mentor relationships? As online instruction improves, might we not devote more class time to teaching methods that take real advantage of students' time together, such as team projects, discussions and critiques? The results could be a better education and less time needed to earn a degree.

UNH already offers a wide range of innovative opportunities for learners, ranging from the non-residential degree programs of UNH Manchester to the distributed, applied instruction offered through Cooperative Extension. The early successes of our eUNH programs, combined with the inspiration of the Khan Academy, offer a glimpse of the future of education at UNH.

The economy has challenged many industries not only to reduce costs but also to rethink how they do business. UNH has responded to these challenges by cutting administrative expenses. In fact, each credit hour at UNH costs a student roughly a third less than it would at comparable public universities because we apply tuition dollars to instructional expenses rather than administrative overhead. But cutting expenses is no longer enough.

We can harness the disruptive innovation of online learning not only to make our programs more cost-effective, but also to become an even greater teaching university. We can help students reach their learning goals more efficiently, extend the reach of our intellectual resources, and engage more students of all ages and backgrounds in the process of discovery. In doing so, we will advance our mission as a land-grant institution and transform our university to meet the challenges of the modern era. ~

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