John Halpin is vice president of strategic programs and advisory services for e.Republic, a parent company to a number of research and content organizations that follow the public sector. E.Republic puts on 250 events a year, including award shows, which helps the company keep track of leading-edge information technology work in government, higher education, and K-12 education. The company’s Center for Digital Education recently published Adopting Enterprise Content Management with Shared Services, which is intended for the higher education market.

What is happening in higher education that led you to write this report?

The public sector, particularly in education, has just in the past 10 years started to adopt technology as more than a back-office tool — it’s driving what’s going on in the classroom. They’re struggling with what this new animal looks like. The expectation on the student side is pretty high. With the faculty, it was “This always worked before.” That has now passed. They’re now talking about “How do we — college and universities ­– adopt technology, and what is this going to mean for us as institutions?”

When you move from analog to digital to deliver educational process, it changes everything. It changes your calendar, how you put credits together, the qualifications for staff and faculty, how you produce your content, how you assess, and how you teach. There’s so much going on that teachers need help. They’re always looking to each other and asking, “What are you doing?” and forming consortia.

And there are MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses]. Will they be a savior, will they control costs, will colleges lose students, will faculty lose intellectual property?

What changes do you see in higher education?

There’s a willingness to adopt core changes. It used to be just a few institutions. Whether it’s a shrug or “my time has come,” there’ve been really adaptive changes that come from a leadership level.

Until fairly recently, institutions were led by an orientation toward the academic side. You’re now starting to see leadership take on more of a business flavor and use technology to be a more effective institution. It’s more dollars-and-cents. Universities can’t keep raising tuition. Higher education has been outpacing the economy for decades on inflation. It’s at a breaking point. At the same time, you have an infrastructure that’s demanding more, with students and teachers wanting more flexibility. So the consumer side is growing, with the cost structure staying the same or reducing, so there’s a move to technology. Business has done it for 25 to 30 years — now education is as well.

Where do you see higher education going from here?

We’re really seeing the tip of tremendous change that’s going to take place. For 100 or 150 years, higher ed has earned its title as an “institution.” Institutions do the same thing over and over. They may get better, but processes and implementations tend to be pretty replicative. Now institutions are adopting change — it’s a necessity. The well-known top 150 to 200 institutions we all can name — they play college sports, they have fancy names — they don’t have to worry. They’re well established.

Interestingly enough, many of those are the ones that are leading the charge in this new change. Not all, but some of the big name institutions are leading the MOOC charge for different reasons. MIT and Stanford were among the very first and see this as a way to improve their unique prestige as technology innovators.  They are doing this to further improve their brand in that regard.  Some other institutions like select Ivies and others are going along with these leaders to add to their cachet as well.  However, the biggest impetus is in the large state institutions.  They see MOOCs as a way to accommodate more students without building more buildings.  The California UC system is a prime example of that.  They must find a way to address more first-and second-year university students because they don’t have the space in their institutions now.

Having said that, my observation is that it’s the other institutions — living regionally, drawing local students  — they’re the ones that really need to take a look at what they have to offer and how to rebrand themselves in being more responsive to students. With online education being what it is, they have to justify why a student should take a program from them rather than taking online courses from a name-brand institution. For that money students will want something unique, custom or flexible to meet their precise expectations.  You don’t have to live on campus for four years. For a master’s program, you can do it on weekends or online, and, once a month, come onto campus. There are all kinds of ways to approach it.  In short, higher education is moving from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market and the creative use of technology is making that possible.

Schools need to figure out “what is our niche? What can we provide? And how can we be excellent at it?” They can reduce cost, but also improve the output of the product. It’s a very interesting time right now.

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