Designing the course of the future

By Philip Regier

University Dean for Educational Initiatives and CEO, EdPlus at ASU

The numbers can seem overwhelming. The global demand for higher education by 2030 is expected to grow from 160 million students to 410 million. Serving that population with traditional brick-and-mortar schools would require building four new universities every week for the next 15 years. Clearly, this is not feasible.

Add to this the reality that only 36 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 have a college degree and 35 million between the ages of 25 and 45 started higher education but never completed their degree. Clearly, this is not sustainable.

Should we be satisfied that the graduation rate from community colleges is less than 15 percent? Or that only 15 percent of those in the bottom half of the US population based on family income have earned a four-year degree? Is it acceptable that the cost of higher education is beyond reach for millions of academically able students?

We are facing complex global challenges that require as much talent and as many qualified graduates as we can muster. With fewer and fewer jobs available for those with only a high school diploma, it becomes increasingly critical to expand access and shape a system that offers higher education to a more diverse population without sacrificing quality.

Everyone benefits if we increase the number of university students, and everyone benefits if we focus on educating students from the widest range of backgrounds to enhance social and economic mobility. Their individual advancement positions them to make valuable contributions to society.
But our society’s ability to serve these demands is not a given.

We are currently engaged in testing and proving the case that we can educate to meet the needs of the future. We are doing so first by building effective courses that work at internet scale, and second by providing convincing evidence that often-derided online education not only can match outcomes from the traditional classroom experience but even exceed them. The ability of students to repeat modules that they are struggling to understand, work at their own pace, make use of data-driven insights on how students best learn, and study from virtually any location—these are just a few examples of the flexibility and adaptability that these new models make possible.

Consider an online college Algebra course created by my university, Arizona State. More than 45,000 students have enrolled in the course and as many as 2,000 students are actively learning in any two-week period.

The course has been broken down into 419 individual skills. We have found that every single student who masters at least 90 percent of those skills passes the final with an average score of 90 percent.

These students need not be math wizards. We have shown that students who spend time on the system gain knowledge and benefit from an adaptive process that identifies the gaps in their knowledge, and works to remedy those gaps with the help of a coaching center. The system provides individualized guidance as it monitors their progress. This data-driven operation identifies both the skills needed and the kinds of problems that students struggle to overcome.

This is an example of a course of the future—technologically enhanced, maximizing expected outcomes and giving high-frequency feedback at a very low marginal cost. It offers a path forward to meet high demand while providing efficiency and quality in both teaching and learning.

To be sure, we must be ambitious in our goals--nothing less than disrupting a system of higher education that has denied far too many capable people the means to advance in their lives. This will allow the US to continue to lead the world in advancing the ideals of democracy while maintaining our economic prosperity.

We have the tools to accomplish this—and we are working every day to improve the technology, make it more scalable and economically sustainable, and to collaborate with a growing pool of partners who also are motivated to hasten the development. But we also recognize that it will take a broader culture shift in higher education and society, one that does not reflexively value exclusivity over inclusivity and that embraces new ways of teaching and learning to expand our capacity to tackle the problems that beset our world.