Dr. Christine Geith, Michigan State University, has been pioneering new approaches in higher education for more than 20 years using educational technology, online learning and entrepreneurial practices. Dr. Geith has experience in research, teaching, small business, internet start-ups, online and adult education, peer learning and open educational resources. She is an advisor to several educational software start-ups, has served on for-profit boards, and has held leadership roles on higher education association boards.
How the course catalog killed education
Commoditization of the course catalog is underway. Ten-thousand dollar degrees, three credits for under a hundred dollars – the roots of this sweeping change started over a hundred years ago when the Carnegie Foundation created the credit hour to compare faculty workload across institutions.
For decades, our society’s demand for degree qualifications in mass has devolved to a laser focus on the course. The course is the building block of learning outcomes. The course credit is a transferable unit across institutions. And guess what? Everyone’s course catalog looks the same! From Stanford to Saylor.org the catalogs look the same.
The institution’s brand is the only thing on the course catalog that represents the full bundle of outcomes it achieves for society and for individuals. It’s the only thing on the catalog describing the difference between a $3,000 course, a $30 course, or a free MOOC.
Where do I sign up in the course catalog for unique living experiences and for contributing to leading-edge research? Where do I sign up in the catalog for transformational relationships with world experts? Where do I sign up for life-long relationships and the value they bring? Where do I sign up in the course catalog to work on real problems like ending global hunger?
These unique experiences may not give me academic credits, but they are critical to my personal success and the ultimate value of my degree. They are essential to achieving programmatic and institutional learning outcomes. They are also difficult to commoditize because they depend on a scarce resource – deep, trusted relationships. And, these experiences are expensive to offer!
Five ways to protect your brand
What can an institution do in the face of commodity courses? Here are five possible ways to protect your brand:
- Get rid of the course catalog. Given the education “market” and funding mechanisms, this would not be wise, but partially commoditizing your own course catalog through OpenCourseWare or MOOCs could be a strategy to emphasize intangibles by focusing your value on your credentials and your solutions to grand challenges.
- Put unique experiences into the course catalog. This may be one way of making them tangible: turn them into courses and measure their outcomes with learning analytics.
- Create something with peer brands that makes the intangibles visible. An example is the University Research Corridor in Michigan where the three research universities join forces to demonstrate their state economic impact
- Try and protect the definition of “university” to exclude certain types of institutions and protect the market of others. Ken Udas, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Chief Information Officer at the University of Southern Queensland, has written about this on his blog.
- Create more value. Develop tangible add-on products and services that are not sold through a course catalog. Better yet, make the course catalog the add-on.
Three questions to uncover more tangible value
What can you do to create more value, especially if you’re an institution like a land-grant or a research university where a big portion of your value is not listed in the catalog? You can look deeply at yourself and ask these three questions.
- Who do you have that is in scarce supply? These assets might be experts, networks of experts, and the people that flow through your specialized facilities. Michigan State is leveraging the talents of its Spartan community to solve world challenges through its Spartans Will campaign.
- What value might there be in the data that you have, or could have? What flows of activities create data that could be of value? EdX is an emerging example of leveraging big data and learning analytics to create evidence-based learning experiences connected with high-quality institutional brands.
- How can you identify, measure, and make visible the unique outcomes you create for your students, for your region, for the world? A good example is the Michigan State Outreach and Engagement Measurement Instrument.
The dialog created by these three questions could lead to leveraging who you are as an institution – beyond courses and credits; beyond what the media tells us our value is to the “postsecondary market.” Use the results along with one or more of the five strategies to not only protect, but to strengthen, your brand. Don’t slip down the slope, oblivious to your full purposes and values; looking at your peers.
For how long will we continue to let our most visible outcomes be courses and credits? I invite you to share your thoughts by making a reply to this post.