If tuition costs slow their fierce rise, it will be because we figure out how to take some elements of college and put them online. How's that going? Slowly. Very slowly.
In early August, Apollo Group, parent company of the University of Phoenix, made an acquisition that is small compared to the billion-dollar deals common to high-tech industries. Apollo paid less than $100 million to acquire Carnegie Learning, a provider of computer-based math tutorials. Such technology acquisitions are rare in higher education, to say the least. Yet this seemingly small deal is a signal of disruptive revolution in higher education.
Carnegie Learning is the creation of computer and cognitive scientists from Carnegie Mellon University. Their math tutorials draw from cutting-edge research about the way students learn and what motivates them to succeed academically. These scientists have created adaptive computer tutorials that meet students at their individual level of understanding and help them advance via the kinds of exercises they personally find most engaging and effective. The personalization and sophistication is hard for even an expert human tutor to match. It is a powerful, affordable adjunct to classroom instruction, as manifest by Carnegie Learner's user base of more than 600,000 secondary students in over 3,000 schools nationwide.
Some of Apollo's potential uses of this software are immediately apparent. It will prove a boon to the hundreds of thousands of University of Phoenix students who take math courses in almost all of its programs of study. Also, the underlying learning and computer science technology are likely to be applied to math-related courses, such as those in economics, finance, and accounting that the University of Phoenix offers its undergraduate business and MBA students.
Full-time faculty members must not only assent to online learning, they should lead it.
Then there are the strategic marketing possibilities. The secondary school students who have come to value and rely on Carnegie Learning's math tutorials are future college students. They might not think now of the University of Phoenix for college. But Sony discovered something interesting about the teenagers who bought its inexpensive pocket-size transistor radios and Walkman cassette tape players: they grew up to be faithful consumers of its larger stereos and television sets. Initially, Magnavox and RCA didn't worry about the low-profit-margin products for kids. In hindsight, they should have.
WHY IS COLLEGE SO HARD TO CHANGE?
In other high tech industries, the market leaders would be scrambling to put together similar deals. But don't expect to see that happening immediately in higher education. Part of the problem is a cash crunch. One hundred million dollars is hard to come by in higher education these days, when some state governments are cutting appropriations to their flagship institutions by that amount, and when risk-free interest rates of next to nothing deflate the cushion of even a multi-billion-dollar endowment.
Yet lack of funding isn't the only reason that the traditional universities and colleges aren't responding with their own strategic acquisitions. In all industries it's hard to convince successful incumbents that innovations at the low end of the market really matter. That was true even for Sony's Akio Morita, whose top executives didn't like his Walkman, which had no recording capability; it seemed smarter to focus on more-sophisticated products for the high end of the consumer electronics market. Regard for tradition and academic freedom make it particularly hard to undertake apparently low-quality innovations in higher education. But that's true to varying degrees in all industries. Whether the business is computers chips or steel, successful incumbents have difficulty responding to disruptive technologies, often until it's too late.