Technological evolution vs revolution and the sacking of the University of Virginia’s President.

Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium. The Washington Post

The sacking of the University of Viginia’s president Teresa Sullivan is a story that can be (and has been) told in a number of different ways. In one version, it is a story of American university governance and the importance of benefactors in their financing. In another, it is about the twin challenges that all universities face; dwindling revenues and the “technological tsunami” that is being driven by increased competition both in the real, and virtual, worlds, in particular from free online open access education.

In the latter version of the story, Sullivan was sacked because she was an “incrementalist”, and was not pushing strategic change fast enough. This, according to Rector Helen Vargas who published a statement outlining 10 challenges faced by the University of Virginia that she, and others, felt were not being dealt with by Sullivan.

The list would be familiar to anyone involved with universities anywhere in the world; Funding, workload and workforce, and research performance.

The interesting items in this list however, dealt with the impact of technology on teaching and the (inadequate) use of social media in the University’s communication and marketing strategy.

The particular concern of Dragas was the moves of other US universities such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford in offering online open access courses through platforms such as Coursera and edX (something I wrote about previously). She believed that the University of Virginia had no formal centralised response to this.

More specifically, it was the opportunity to use online approaches to teaching introductory courses that were not being taken. Here there was a reference to the University’s neighbour, Virginia Tech who uses a completely online approach to teaching courses in mathematics to classes of up to 2000 students. Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium is a warehouse-sized room filled with 537 computers that is open 24 hours a day. It only takes 12 staff, who are just teaching assistants, to manage seven courses.

The results of the Math Emporium are impressive. Not only have the students adapted to the approach, but pass rates are higher than when maths was previously taught in the “traditional method”.

Returning to the main story, it turned out that students and staff actually quite liked incrementalism (unsurprisingly) and didn’t see this as a fault in Sullivan. After a vociferous campaign, she was reinstated).

Something must have come of the whole event however as the University of Virginia has recently signed up to deliver four online open access courses through Coursera.

It is hard not to feel sympathies with both parties in this story. The pressures universities are under to change are very real and the consequences of not changing are dire, even for ancient and revered institutions. This change however, will only come about through the use of technology and those who are first to adapt are going to be best placed to benefit.

Dragas obviously believed that these changes could only be brought about by central leadership. Interestingly however, the initiatives taken by Stanford, MIT and Harvard have largely been through the efforts of individual academics (like Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig) and not necessarily through central dictate. The individuals may have subsequently received central support but perhaps leadership here was the good sense of presidents and rectors in staying out of their way and not stopping them.