Identifying the problem with higher education in the 21st was the easy part (Using technology to improve the cost-effectiveness of the academy: Part 1). Much more difficult is finding solutions to the problem.

Summary of the problem

In Part 1, I argued that the challenge for universities today is that

  • student numbers have increased dramatically,
  • students are much more varied in abilities, age, and culture,
  • quality of teaching, as expressed in overlarge classes, as a result has dropped and continues to drop, despite the addition of technology
  • the cost per graduate is increasing
  • the teaching and organizational models though have not changed fundamentally to adapt to these other changes.

Open universities as an alternative model

John Daniel (1998) has argued that the very large open universities have managed to increase access, lower costs per student, and change the teaching and organizational models, while maintaining quality. Open universities have done this mainly by using mass media, such as print and broadcasting, which enable economies of scale.

However, the issue here is quality – the large economies of scale are achieved mainly through reducing the interaction between teacher and student. Without strong learner support, drop-out rates from open universities are massive – often over 90% (Belawati, 1998). To provide adequate learner support, local face-to-face study centres, or online discussion forums, need to be introduced, but these mean more instructors or tutors are needed and costs go back up.

Nevertheless the change of teaching model and the use of technology has enabled open universities, with good quality learner support, to operate somewhat more cost-effectively than traditional universities, even on the basis of cost per graduate, while maintaining a good degree of quality (the U.K Open University for instance usually ranks highly in specialist league tables looking at research, teaching quality, and student satisfaction.)

However, open universities are specialist distance teaching universities serving a somewhat different profile of learners from campus-based universities, although in recent years differences in mandate and student profile between traditional and open universities have become increasingly blurred. In any case, the open university model itself is now 40 years old, and was designed for an era when access to traditional universities was much more restricted, and was based on technologies that did not include the computers, the Internet, or mobile phones.

As with traditional universities, open universities have adapted to the new technologies, but they are not a comfortable fit – for instance, most of the undergraduate programs at the U.K. Open University, Athabasca University, the FernUniversität, UNISA, and many other open universities are still primarily print-based. The few open Universities that are now fully online, such as the Open University of Catalonia in Spain and Universidade Aberta in Portugal, have found that they need a completely different course design model from the older print-based model.

No, what is needed is a new model for the university that takes lessons from both traditional and open universities, that fully exploits the new technologies, and which assures quality as well as access at an economical cost.

Building visions for a modern university

I deliberately use the word visions in the plural. Although there is variety in the focus of different higher education institutions, for example between large research universities, small liberal arts colleges, polytechnics, two year community colleges, they all follow a somewhat similar model of teaching and institutional organization.

I believe we need much more variety in institutional structures and models of educational delivery than we have at the current time. We need in other words more innovation and experimentation, if the challenge of greater access, greater quality and lower cost is to be met. Only through experimentation, trial and error and a certain amount of risk-taking are we likely to find new models that ‘work’ in that they achieve the three goals stated: more access, better quality, less cost.

This means we need lots of different visions of what a university could be. We also need those visions from the perspectives of different stakeholders – government, research scientists, dedicated teachers, employers, students, and increasingly professional staff such as registrars, instructional designers, web designers, and IT managers.

We have heard calls for changes, from different stakeholders (mainly external to the university) but where are the visions for the future? Unless we try to identify what we want, how can we possibly achieve it? Certainly, in my vision for the future there will be a greater variety of models for the university and especially for how we deliver teaching and learning.


I am not arguing for major changes to the traditional mission of a university, which I would define as the preservation, creation and dissemination of knowledge, manifested through research, teaching, and public service. However, the balance between these activities may vary depending on the goals and mandate of particular institutions – as it does now.

Some indeed would challenge the traditional mission of the university as an anachronism. Knowledge is now created through networks and the Internet, through argument and discussion. However, I believe that this is a dangerous argument. Although the Internet can speed up immensely the dissemination of information, and open networks can add value to what we know, much of what gets into the public domain as grist for discussion is often initially generated by research and analysis conducted in the universities.

Indeed, the validation and assessment of ‘general’ knowledge, the scientific conduct of research, and critical analysis of popular thinking, will become even more important functions for the university in the age of the Internet. Thus one might add a fourth pillar to the current mission: ‘knowledge referee’, in the sense of challenging arguments that are not based on or are contrary to established facts, or ignore inconvenient data, or misrepresent or ignore minority views, etc.

What should universities look like in twenty years?

It’s time for me to stop beating about the bush. What is my vision for the university of the future, one that addresses the challenges of increased access, better quality and lower cost? My view is that technology is a useful tool for creating a new kind of university, but much more important are structural and cultural changes in which technology will play a supporting role. Without these cultural and structural changes, technology cannot change the university on its own.

Visions can be described at different levels of generality and specificity, and from different stakeholder perspectives. So I will start with a somewhat general vision from a learner’s perspective:

My university will be my guide and facilitator for higher education throughout my life. It will not only provide me with knowledge, courses, programs and qualifications itself, but will also help me access the learning opportunities I need from other quality providers.

How might this work out in practice? Well, let’s follow the life of this learner.


In my last two years at high school, one of my teachers advised me on possible programs and courses, based on my interests and abilities. Before I made a decision about a college program, I was able to enrol online as a guest student in three courses from three different universities I was interested in. Two courses, math and biology, I was studying for high school completion, and were offered by my local university in Cape Breton. The third course, on marine biology from the University of Vancouver, was new to me, but I really enjoyed it, and I also liked the teaching, because I could go to my local beach, and video and photograph material for a project in the course, which counted towards my high school completion. I therefore enrolled online for the University of Vancouver. This was a big move for me, because I had to leave home in Cape Breton and travel across the country.

First year

The best part though about enrolling at the University of Vancouver was that even in the first year, I could do about half of the program from home. I decided to start all my courses in January. I stayed with a friend when in Vancouver, and went to campus about twice a week, for the first six months of the year, mainly for the practical work in the labs, so I got a small part-time job in Vancouver that helped cover some of my expenses. For the last six months, I was able to take the rest of my courses from home in Cape Breton, which worked really well for the biology course, as I was able to collect and record specimens from the local shoreline that were different from many of the specimens from other students. Since my mother is not very well, I felt really good about this arrangement, as I could look after her, although I did go back to Vancouver for the last couple of weeks of the course, just before the Christmas break.

The courses were interesting. In my group of 20 students in marine biology, there was one, like me the year before, from a local high school, eight other first year students, four second year students, two third year students, two fourth year students, a graduate student, and three people who were working. These three already had degrees but had not done this course, which focused on the impact of waste management on coastal waters. The working students were great, giving me lots of help with stuff I didn’t know. We had to do a research project, and the graduate student was our main guide on this. I didn’t see much of the professor on campus after the first couple of weeks, but she occasionally jumped into our online discussion forums and once or twice really helped me out with my research design. However, there were about fifteen other groups that she had to look after, as well, but the grad student usually got us through, because the course was really well organised. Most of our reading in fact was done online, accessing materials on waste management and marine biology from all over the world. Our professor and the grad student had found a lot of it for us, but towards the end we were finding lots of new stuff for ourselves that related to our specific research projects. There were only three actual lectures on this course, all from the professor, and they were terrific. I missed the middle one because I was in Cape Breton, but it was recorded like the others so I just downloaded it. The prof had also made lots of short videos, showing stuff she was doing for her research, then giving us links to notes about the videos, related research articles and her own web site. I found this really useful when I came to do my own research design. The hardest part was writing up my research report for the end of course assessment. I had too much stuff – photos, videos, data, and real stuff, too, like oil-stained feathers, and had to leave a lot out – but I was able to get it all online in the end. The grad student did the first run at the assessment, but because I got a really good grade, the prof also reviewed it, so I can now concentrate on marine biology for the rest of my degree. However, I need a bit of money, so will take a break then re-enrol in the April second year cohort. (I just find it too hard to work and study at the same time).

Masters program

Well, I made it through my undergraduate program. The last year was really hard work, as my group had a really big research project to manage, and I spent quite a bit of time helping out some of the other students. Vancouver didn’t have quite the graduate program I wanted. I’m pretty clear now what I want to do, but a couple of the courses I want are from San Diego State University and some others are from Florida State University. I’m going do the research data collection mainly in Cape Breton, but I really wanted my prof at University of Vancouver as the supervisor for my dissertation. Fortunately the University of Vancouver has an agreement that allows me to take the courses from San Diego and Florida, mainly but not entirely online, and transfer them in, so I can keep my supervisor. (I think she wants me to do a Ph.D., but I’m not so sure about doing that.) As I really need to bring some money in now that my mother’s died, I’m going to spread the masters over two years, and even better my supervisor’s arranged for me to work part-time as a consultant for a local waste management company, so even when I’m working it will all feed into my dissertation. I’ll also get a little bit of money for teaching part-time in the undergraduate program, which I will really enjoy – you learn so much from the other students’ projects.

Out to work

Well, in the end it took me three years to finish my masters, mainly because I was offered a really good full-time job with the waste management company at the end of the first year. I’m now responsible for waste water environmental control. My prof was really disappointed that I didn’t go for the Ph.D., but the work is really fascinating, and one day I will probably do a Ph.D. because there’s lots of stuff we still don’t know in this area. In fact, I’m now taking a management program online from Athabasca University, which takes about all of my spare time. Again, though, I’m able to do the face-to-face group work on change management on campus at the University of Vancouver, over four weekends, as the group work is also a part of the Vancouver MBA program. My prof put me on to this and helped me work it out between the two universities. I’m also still teaching online in one of the university’s graduate marine biology courses – technically, I’m classified as a mentor – but I don’t do it for the money, which barely covers my expenses. I just keep learning so much from the students’ projects and I like helping them out.

Implications for the university

The next step is to move from the vision to the practical implications. So here are some of the implications from my vision.

  1. Abolition of the semester system. In my vision students can start – and finish – courses at different times of the year, although I would limit them to three or four start and end times, to enable groups to cohere during the course. Some courses would stretch over a year, and would be worth 12 credits; others – especially foundation or prior knowledge modules – would be shorter, some as short as a week.
  2. Since course materials or content are constantly changing – many sources will be off-campus – courses will be built around learning outcomes, such as research design, critical analysis, knowledge management, within broad topic areas.
  3. Courses would be designed to accommodate a range of students, from those still in high school to those already graduated. There would be a strong emphasis on collaborative learning, group work, and student mentoring. The professor will define very carefully the roles and expectations for different kinds of students/mentors in each group.
  4. The teaching will focus on getting students to do the work: finding material, organizing it, reporting it, evaluating it, using digital technology to create portfolios of work, and peer assessment. Students would be assessed on their progress through the course, as displayed by their work.
  5. Large undergraduate courses (over 250) will have one or two full professors, supported by graduate students and off-campus mentors (graduates of the program now in the workforce),  an instructional designer and digital technology support staff. The course will be designed and delivered as a team. The professor(s) will be academically responsible for the course, setting learning outcomes, determining the scope of content coverage, and managing the assessment of students. This will entail setting criteria and rubrics for the measurement of learning outcomes, and ensuring standardization in marking between the graduate students and mentors. Most assessment will be done by the graduate students and mentors in undergraduate classes, monitored by the professor(s), with some peer assessment by students as well.
  6. Large classes will be broken down into small groups of 20-30 students, each led by a graduate student or mentor. The professor(s) will move between the groups (both in face-to-face and online contexts), monitoring the work of the mentors, and occasionally participating in the discussions. Professors will also create learning materials that relate specifically to their research that links to the course topics. All such material created for teaching will be open content. Generally for undergraduate teaching one professor will be responsible for a maximum of 250 students or 10-15 groups. However, the concept of a ‘class’ will become blurrier, since students will be able to opt in and out more (see (7) below), depending on their needs.
  7. Assessment methods will vary, but it many cases it will be through ‘proof of learning’, either in the form of mainly authenticated electronic portfolios of work, or by challenge. In the latter case, students may opt to take an examination when they feel they are ready. They may not follow the set curriculum, but can opt to meet the published assessment requirements through a supervised or proctored examination, or through a submission of an authenticated portfolio of work. Portfolio work will be authenticated by graduate students or mentors who have been accredited to work with students.
  8. All Ph.D. students will receive up to six months training in teaching and learning, as well as research techniques, as a pre-requisite for tenure. Students taking masters courses who wish to act as mentors, as well as those who have graduated and are in the work force who wish to be mentors, will receive up to three months training in teaching, embedded within their studies.
  9. Most universities will belong to consortia, which allow for automatic credit transfer of courses or modules/credits from other consortium members into their programs. There will be many different consortia reflecting the growing diversity of higher education institutions. Many of these will be international consortia.
  10. Costs will be driven down in several ways: professors focusing on overall program design, supervision of assessment, and supporting adjuncts, graduate students and mentors in their teaching; students working within a managed learning environment, with more experienced students helping the less experienced; use of low-paid mentors from the workforce, who benefit from the contact with the research in the university; use of graduate students, who spend as much time mentoring and teaching as researching; use of technology to improve communication, and ensure that everyone (professor, graduate students, mentors, students) is aware of what is happening in teaching and learning within a program.

Build your own vision

You probably don’t like this vision – great, think up your own! Visioning is best done as a group activity, involving different stakeholders, and not giving too much attention to current reality and constraints. We need lots of different visions, because so much is now possible.You can see a video of a not too different vision developed for UBC in 2000 here (1 meg/sec) or here (56 kbs/sec)

So let me have your reactions to my vision (if you are receiving this as an RSS or Twitter feed, click on the title to go to the web page, where there is a comment box). Even better, let me know what your vision for the university would be that would help meet the challenge of increased numbers, higher quality and lower cost per student.

In Part 3, I will look at some of the administrative and management implications of my vision, and will discuss why my vision is not going ever to be implemented.


Belawati, T. (1998) ‘Increasing student persistence in Indonesian post-secondary education’ Distance Education, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 81-108

Daniel, J. (1998) Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media: Technology Strategies for Higher Education. London: Kogan Page


  1. Thanks Tony for your well-thought out/written posting here. I continue to consider different models for higher education, and I would like to see us cut the cost of getting an education by 50% or more…which I easily see happening if the current trends continue.

    Two pages that I’ve created and continue to add to that you and your readers might be interested in: (parts I-VI) (especially relevant here is

    Daniel Christian
    Multimedia Specialist
    Teaching & Learning Group
    Calvin College

  2. Thanks for these really interesting postings, Tony. I agree with pretty much everything you discuss in both Part 1 and Part 2. Universities have embraced technology to maintain the status quo with regard to curriculum design and pedgagogy. The biggest barrier to change, apart from the institutional systems, is the assessment model. We still employ a one-size-fits-all model, rather than allowing students to determine their own way of showing us what they have learned. Until we change this, and put the onus on the student to demonstrate what they have learned and to what level, then it will be very difficult to change the other structure needed to bring about the changes you talk about.

    I also feel that, in moving to a new student-centred model, there would be a need for a huge re-training programme as most academics would be at sea under a new system that moved them outside their own experience. In implementing a new model, it would be imperative that the quality of teaching and learning could be shown to be higher than in the old traditional model. Not all academics are motivated and inspiring teachers.

    I also feel that it is likely that there will always be a niche for traditional universities – not all students want to take responsibility for their own learning and will pay good money to be part of a teacher-centred institution rather than a learner-centred one.


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