From recession’s wake, education innovation blooms

Here’s the centuries-old concept of time in traditional universities: Yoke together students of differing abilities, sit them in lecture halls, teach them at the same speed. After 12 or 15 weeks, whether they pass with an A or a D-minus, give them equal credit. Take a break, and then repeat.

“We’ve organized higher education into this factory model where we bring a group of students in post-high school and march them through more or less in lock-step,” said Demillo, the Georgia Tech professor and author of “Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities.” “People that don’t conform are rejected from the factory and people that make it through are stamped with a degree.”

Researchers have long understood students generally do better with customized speed and regular assessment, but simple economics made such individualized learning unrealistic.

“But technology is a great multiplier just like in business, and it gives you the ability to do that,” Demillo notes.

At Arizona State University in Tempe, President Michael Crow also is a believer in innovation’s ability to improve and scale up teaching – and make better use of time.

Five years ago, ASU was already tearing down department walls, embracing technology in the classroom and re-engineering research across disciplines. Then the Great Recession’s housing bust crushed Arizona’s economy, and ASU’s state funding was slashed by half. Suddenly, ASU had to push even harder.

“Innovation doesn’t occur when you’re lying around on the beach,” Crow said.

ASU’s challenges mirror the country’s – and the world’s. Amid scarce resources, the university is trying to accommodate diverse and growing demand.

Unlikely virtually any other major American university, ASU grew substantially through the downturn, expanding from 53,000 students to 72,000 over the last decade. Completion rates are up, too, so the number of graduates has doubled.

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