Toward a platform for universal learning

By redesigning public research universities and using learning technologies creatively, we can broaden access to higher education for significant social impact

By Michael M Crow, PhD - June 22, 2022  9 mins
Michael Crow quote card
As President of Arizona State University, Prof Michael M Crow writes about the need to “redesign research universities” to make them more accessible — and how his own university is doing it.

Higher education in the United States is often equated with the undergraduate experiences of successive cohorts of 18- to 24-year-olds from privileged familial backgrounds that allow them to explore, over four or five years, a variety of majors in classes taught on campus by knowledgeable faculty who actively pursue funded research projects. Admissions protocols followed by highly ranked colleges and universities, both public and private, increasingly favor students from wealthy families, which precludes selecting academically qualified applicants from less privileged backgrounds. From my perspective as president of one of the nation’s largest major public research universities, the elitism implicit in this model diminishes the societal impact of our colleges and universities because it excludes many qualified applicants. Reduced accessibility to advanced education exacerbates social inequality and stifles intergenerational socioeconomic mobility.

Our nation’s public research universities have an obligation to broaden access to research-grade higher education at scales with significant social impact. But millions of potential applicants are unwilling or unable to uproot their lives to attend residential colleges because they are bound to geographically disparate locations by necessity or preference, or because they face unique familial or financial obligations that prevent them from completing classes in ways that are typical of unencumbered younger students. Further, within the foreseeable future, most potential learners seeking advanced education, skills-building, and training opportunities will come from non-traditional backgrounds. Although our nation’s leading colleges and universities should use their sizeable endowments to explore alternative models and expand access, it is especially incumbent on large public research universities to scale up their efforts to counter the consequences of inequitable admissions practices and allow all learners as well as society to derive the democratic spillover benefits of higher education.

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Inherent limitations in the designs of colleges and universities that never intended to achieve broad accessibility have increasingly shifted responsibility for educational attainment to potential learners and their families. The advent of scalable online educational technologies that support personalized learning empowers learners of all ages. In a hyperkinetic knowledge economy in which technological innovation catalyzes opportunities, only those who possess relevant knowledge and skills will be able to compete. Moreover, appropriately executed and broadly accessible and scalable digital platforms may supplement traditional undergraduate experience of immersion learning in a residential academic setting. Well-designed online learning is critical to enable educational access and success for these learners. We cannot forestall developing effective online learning modalities that are similar to or extend the benefits of in-person learning. Rather than accepting such outcomes as inevitable, Arizona State University developed the technology and expertise in instructional design to bring online education up to par.

ASU Online extends this mission in multiple modalities. Our online programs are grounded in the knowledge core of an institution that has achieved world-class academic excellence. Online degree programs and courses at ASU are delivered by the same faculty who teach on campus. Students who graduate from online programs at ASU receive the same degrees as those who have attended class on campus. Most important, employers readily accept degrees from online programs offered by ASU Online. Within the context of escalating demand for advanced higher education in an era of public disinvestment, the model allows ASU to deliver innovative higher education more efficiently and at greater scale than could be achieved using anachronistic methods chained to modalities that cannot scale. Such scale is essential to meet challenges posed by the technological and economic forces unleashed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, social goals such as equity and inclusion, and health concerns such as delivering classes during the onslaught of a global pandemic.

Educating students from the top 5% or 10% of their high school classes is the de minimis obligation of our leading colleges and universities. The real challenge is to educate to internationally competitive standards of achievement the top quarter or third of successive cohorts of 18- to 24-year-olds — and for our public universities to provide opportunities for lifelong learning to more than half the population of the United States.

Therefore, I have concluded that our nation’s large-scale public research universities must differentially lead efforts to accommodate two distinct groups of learners:

  1. Successive cohorts of traditional on-campus immersion students (18- to 24-year-olds) but from increasingly diverse socioeconomic and demographic profiles who seek degrees and whose undergraduate educations are conducted within programs based on funded research that is embedded in the liberal arts and sciences.
  2. Everyone else, referring to all possible populations of learners, including the 36 million Americans who have attended college but not completed a degree. (Of course, this is to say nothing of the critical roles of the research university in discovery and innovation, graduate and professional education, and societal engagement.)

To advance toward these goals, ASU is creating an innovative model based on a term that we have trademarked: “universal learner.” To honor the spirit of this inclusive aspiration, we are creating a platform for universal learning that builds on the transformational technological and social advances pioneered at our nation’s universities over the past century. Because traditional on-campus immersion grounded in the liberal arts and sciences is available only to a small portion of the student population, universal learning modalities must accommodate multiple student-centric approaches that are broadly accessible to learners of all ages and from all socioeconomic levels throughout their lives. As I contend in a forthcoming book coauthored with two colleagues, a subset of public research universities must assume a broader mandate by redefining themselves as differential platforms for universal learning. As we put it in the book, this would “enable qualified students within their communities, regardless of socioeconomic status or life situation, to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to achieve their goals by empowering them to freely shape their intellectual development and self-determined creative and professional pursuits.”

Redesigning research universities will require innovative institutional models that creatively use learning technologies to cooperate rather than compete with other universities, and forming strategic partnerships that include business and industry and government agencies. The universal learning model represents an innovative paradigm for large-scale public research universities that focuses on excellence, access and impact.

In building toward the universal learning model, ASU has reconceptualized its operations under the New American University model over the past two decades. While America’s leading universities, both public and private, have become increasingly selective, ASU admits all academically qualified Arizona residents regardless of financial need. In so doing, ASU advances socioeconomic mobility and prepares students for the competitive global knowledge economy. The Fifth Wave model extends the objectives of the New American University by envisioning a subset of similarly committed large public research universities that differentially expand opportunities for learning within the communities that they serve. For instance, in 2014, ASU along with 10 other large public research universities that do not pursue selective admission policies created a coalition called the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). They agreed to broaden accessibility, improve educational attainment, and advance rates of graduation among historically underrepresented and socioeconomically disadvantaged students in ways that are differentially suitable for the communities of potential learners and active students they serve.

Although it is a selective public university, the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) expanded the community of learners it serves by offering an innovative Online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMSCS) program in 2014, the same year ASU helped organize the UIA. With the help of Udacity and AT&T, Georgia Tech delivers the OMSCS program through the massive open online course, or MOOC, format. Despite the shortcomings of the MOOC format, the authors of a paper published in Education Next found that the OMSCS program offered by Georgia Tech was the “first low-cost online degree offered by a highly ranked institution” and that it increased educational attainment. Other offerings in Cybersecurity and Data Analytics have followed with similar success.

Using data supplied by a natural experiment, the authors also found that demand did not come from students who would have pursued master’s degrees in other ways. Consistent with the spirit of universal learning, the researchers confirmed that online delivery of OMSCS “expands access to education and does not substitute for other informal training.” In addition, students that Georgia Tech declined to admit did not pursue formal training through other means. The students who pursue the OMSCS option are not younger students that Georgia Tech admits to its in-person computer science program. Instead, the OMSCS students were “largely mid-career Americans” who may well have included some of the 36 million Americans who have attended college but not graduated. The authors found that applicants who were not admitted to the OMSCS program did not enroll in other programs or fields of study. The study concludes that universities had been failing to serve this segment of the market — a result that is consistent with a platform of universal learning that expands access to higher education based on ongoing research.

As documented in various case studies, ASU has advanced both the academic rigor and diversity of students including those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds or first-generation college applicants. The charter created by the academic community at ASU grounds its strategic plan by measuring the performance of the organization by inclusion, not by the standards of highly selective universities that conduct status warfare by neglecting the needs of the excluded. Through learning grounded in ongoing research and innovative educational approaches, students are trained to become lifelong learners who can adapt to the changing needs of the workforce or pursue personal goals. As a platform for universal learning, ASU is an enterprise that serves all learners by creating, incubating, and scaling tech-enabled educational solutions that are personalized, stackable, accessible and responsive to workforce needs. In this new learning enterprise, learners acquire skills and competencies by building on traditional credentials such as high school diplomas as well as college and university degrees at any stages of their lives. The abundant systems perspective implicit in universal learning calls for high quality education to be available to anyone qualified to access it. The impact of implementing such a goal at a national scale would be transformational and empowering across our society.

Contributors


Michael M Crow, PhD
Written by

Michael M Crow, PhD

Written by

Michael M Crow, PhD

Prof Michael M Crow is an educator, knowledge enterprise architect, science and technology policy scholar and higher education leader. Since 2002, he has served as President of Arizona State University, where he is also ASU Foundation Leadership Chair and Professor of Science and Technology Policy. In his two decades of leadership, he has spearheaded the university’s rapid and groundbreaking evolution into one of the world’s best public metropolitan research universities. As a model "New American University," ASU demonstrates comprehensive excellence, inclusivity representative of the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the United States, and consequential societal impact.

Lauded as the “#1 most innovative” school in the nation by US News & World Report for seven straight years, ASU is a student-centric, technology-enabled university focused on global challenges. Under Crow’s leadership, ASU has established 25 new transdisciplinary schools, including the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and has launched trailblazing multidisciplinary initiatives including the Biodesign Institute, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, and important initiatives in the humanities and social sciences.

Dr Crow and Prof Barry Bozeman are coauthors of Public Values Leadership: Striving to Achieve Democratic Ideals (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021). Dr Crow and Dr William Dabars are coauthors of Designing the New American University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015) and The Fifth Wave: The Evolution of American Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).

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