Article by Gil Klein

Three university leaders share their perspectives on the importance of harnessing the power of new technology and embracing innovation to weather a perfect storm in higher education and create a sustainable path forward for UMUC.

Born of a need to respond to a new generation of adult learners following World War II, University of Maryland University College was an innovator from the start. Distance learning options, compressed and flexible course schedules, workforce-relevant curricula—all served the unique needs of older students, many of whom had full-time jobs, families, and military responsibilities.

Now, as the university commemorates its 70th anniversary, innovation remains central to its core—and critical to its ability to survive and thrive.

Tradition of Innovation"We operate in an environment of constant change," said UMUC President Javier Miyares, "and by embracing it—rather than shrinking from it—we have turned disruption into a positive force on a path to sustainable future success."

Miyares has called the challenges facing higher education "a perfect storm," encompassing factors such as rising costs, increasing competition for students, reductions in public funding, and changing student demographics.

Because of its history of innovation, UMUC is uniquely positioned to succeed and lead, said Peter Smith, the university's Orkand Endowed Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education in The Graduate School. Smith—the first president of the Community College of Vermont and founding president of California State University Monterey Bay—has long advocated for innovation in higher education and calls himself a "friendly critic" of new education models under development.

"Academic innovation here goes back to Day One," Smith said, adding that no other institution is like UMUC, committed entirely to adults, committed to distance learning, operating as an accredited institution within a state university system, and serving learners all over the world who might not otherwise have access to education.

Now, as online and distance learning become the norm in higher education, he added, UMUC does not have to play catch up. It already is the leader. But it cannot rest on its laurels.

"The rate of change is not going to recede," Smith said. "If anything, it will accelerate. A new universe of learning is emerging. We have to stay up and determine how we use those elements of change to improve the teaching and learning experience."

Three Big Ideas

Three "big ideas" have shaped and guided UMUC in its first 70 years.

The first and perhaps most central concept is that higher education—and the opportunities that come with it—should be available to anyone with the motivation to pursue it. This was born in the era of the post-World War II GI Bill, when the federal government provided funding to returning veterans who wished to pursue an education.

These individuals represented a new breed of student within higher education—adults with considerable life skills and ambition who had already assumed career and family responsibilities. The traditional four-year, residential campus experience was simply not a practical option.

In response to their needs, the University of Maryland established the College of Special and Continuation Studies, providing off-campus, evening, and weekend courses for part-time students across the state. The response was so enthusiastic and the demand so great that within a decade it became a separate, degree-granting school of the University of Maryland.

A second and related idea involved the expansion of the university overseas when the University of Maryland accepted a Defense Department call to provide higher education to troops stationed at U.S. bases first in Germany, then across Europe, then into Asia and the Pacific and to war zones from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan. The concept of the "Overseas Marylander" was born as professors hopscotched from country to country.

"UMUC was the first to go overseas," Smith said. "In 1947, the idea of veterans going to college was brand new. The idea of taking education to military personnel wherever they were in the world on DC-3s, flying around professors with book bags, that was revolutionary. Every step of the way since then has been a step in this ongoing revolution in learning opportunity."

The third idea involved offering coursework online. UMUC had become a separate university within the University of Maryland system in 1970, and it provided far and away the nation's largest and most comprehensive program of distance education. With the advent of new technologies, doors were opened to people who could not be served by a professor standing at the front of a classroom.

The university launched a Bachelor's Degree-at-a-Distance program in 1993 for students located anywhere in the United States. Students communicated with teachers and each other by mail, teleconference, voice mail, computer conference, audio conference, and e-mail. Instruction by Interactive Video Network allowed students in multiple sites to see and hear their instructors and classmates alike.

In September 1997, with almost 15,000 students enrolling in distance education courses each year, UMUC developed its own online learning platform, named Tycho after the 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. Using Tycho, students around the world could participate in computer conferences, access online tutors, submit assignments, work through computer-based multimedia courseware, access electronic library resources, and participate in online study groups.

The Virtual University was born, and UMUC was the midwife.

Two decades later, online education is no longer a novelty; it is the norm, and having been a pioneer is no guarantee of continued success. The competition from for-profit institutions and other large state university systems comes as the number of potential college students is declining and the cost of higher education is increasing.

That is the perfect storm to which Miyares alludes.

A Big Idea for the 21st Century

To weather the perfect storm, UMUC is embracing a fourth big idea—the use of data collected from online education to identify new strategies and approaches that will help students learn more effectively even as costs are reduced.

As a school offering open admission, UMUC does not restrict access based on test scores. Its mission is to accept any qualified student who applies and find ways for her or him to succeed.

"In the past it was, 'You go to college, and if you can't cut it, too bad,'" UMUC Provost Marie Cini said. "What we have said from the beginning is that the potential to learn—to learn well, to learn thoroughly—is not owned by the few. It is possessed by the many. We are going to find those people and help them get to the table of opportunity that America promises for every person."

Miyares, who came to the university 15 years ago as vice president for Planning, Research and Accountability, still refers to himself as a "data guy." And now, the data the university has amassed on student behaviors and success is ready to be used to improve educational performance for all.

Working with outside vendors, the university developed "a model that can predict with greater than 80 percent accuracy on the first day of class whether a student will pass or fail the course," Miyares said. "This allows us to target our retention efforts on those students at highest risk and reach out to them before they are beyond the point of help."

Finding out how to act on that information is not easy, Cini said.

"We can do a lot of little interventions, but that is not going to be helpful," she said. "You have to find out where the big levers are. It could be a policy change, a redesign of certain courses. It could involve giving students different direction on how to go through the course."

For example, she said, data on an individual course can be collected as the students move through it. If students do well in the course but crash on one assessment, the university can know instantly that there is a problem in the way that part of the course was presented.

And given enough data, she said, the university can reach down to individual students to assess how they learn best.

"We can know, say, that every time this student looks at videos, he seems to do better on a task than when he reads stuff, so we are going to recommend that he use more videos," she said. "It can be at that level."

This will require certain changes in the way faculty teach courses.

Most universities are faculty-centric, Cini said. They hire the professors and give them free reign in how to teach their courses. But UMUC aspires to a student-centric model, starting with student needs and crafting courses that meet them.

"If you start from the student, education looks very different," Cini said. "We shouldn't be afraid of that. We believe we owe our students an on-ramp to success. They still must work hard and be motivated. But there are ways to redesign curriculum to provide students with support. It certainly will be the wave of the future."

One example of how to achieve this is through "gamification"—integrating gaming elements like point scoring, competition, and achievement levels into a curriculum, all in the interest of increasing motivation and engagement.

"Sometimes people hear ‘gamification,' and they think students are just going to be playing games," Cini said. "It's really about how people learn and are engaged. You turn it into something that is engaging and fun, and, guess what, people will learn more."

Another student-centric strategy that UMUC has embraced involves eliminating costly textbooks and finding online resources for all classes. This has multiple benefits, reducing costs for students while providing them with the latest information in their subject area.

Smith called textbooks "a trap," because a student goes only there for information, while open resources with assignments found on the Internet allow students to explore topics that stimulate their curiosity. The student can be directed to videos, speeches, TED talks, or Google citations.

"You immediately get a high quality, targeted resource that is spot on to what it is you need to know at that point in time," he said. "Instead of looking for the nugget in a book, we can bring the nuggets to you based on the questions you're asking." With the average price of a textbook at $55, he said, this represents a huge saving for students.

"No other university has done this at this scale," Cini said, noting that UMUC has become a national model for the change. "We have learned how to do this well, and we are going back to continually improve our resources."

A New Approach to Learning

Even more innovative is a new approach to teaching that is currently being explored at UMUC. Generally referred to as ELM—for Enhanced Learning Model—it challenges the traditional model of online instruction in which students read, post to a discussion board, write papers, and take exams, replacing it with project-based education.

"You could have taken that old model and put it in a traditional classroom," Cini said. "It was the same thing. That is not the most engaging way. You want active learning, engaged learning. You want students to be working immediately on real-world problems."

In traditional instructional approaches, Cini said, a student interested in cybersecurity who loves playing with a computer and hacking and guarding against hacking would first be required to read a book before being allowed to actually do the work.

"We're flipping that," she said. "We want the students to immediately get into an engaging problem. ‘You have been hired by a company to stop the hackers. Here's some information to get you started.' The learning becomes exciting because you have to stop the hackers. You have to learn to accomplish that goal."

Five UMUC graduate programs—the MBA and Master of Science programs in Cybersecurity, Cybersecurity Management and Policy, Digital Forensics, and Learning Design and Technology—were launched this past fall with a curriculum built around project-based learning.

The programs offer real-world problems and projects that allow students to master the high-level competencies needed in today's knowledge economy. This can be accomplished online, Miyares said, but it requires that students be active learners, involved with projects, rather than passively sitting back and listening to lectures, reading texts, and taking tests.

"We are collecting more learner data, so that when students encounter difficulties, we can intervene more quickly and at the same time improve the curriculum in terms of learning outcomes," Miyares said.

The 1,600 students enrolled in these programs are being closely monitored so that the university can learn from their experience even as it expands the number of courses using this approach. Eventually, undergraduate courses will be redesigned to fit this format, as well.

It all fits together, said Smith. "Instead of selling courses, you are selling learning projects. You are selling things that create evidence that can be stored in a portfolio and evaluated. Then you use the open resources to drive that learning."

With these unambiguous learning paths, he said, students know where they are in the process, where they are going, how they can get there, and why they are doing it.

"If you can answer those four questions with every learner, you're going to hang onto them, and they are going to get a great education," Smith said.

A Challenging Culture of Innovation

All these changes can represent a challenge for faculty, who are being asked to assume new and sometimes significantly different roles.

As a traditionally trained PhD herself, Cini said she understands why faculty might be leery of these changes. Throughout the 20th century, she said, faculty were expected to develop the curriculum and serve as the experts in how to teach it and assess its effectiveness. For the most part, they were left alone in their classrooms, whether brick-and-mortar or online.

"I don't think [faculty] are pushing back because they don't want change," Cini said. "All of us don't like change. This is what they have known as quality. It worked for them. So it's a little frightening to think about something new."

That underscores the importance of having the university's full-time faculty—program chairs and teaching collegiate faculty—become more deeply involved in what is happening across higher education, she said.

"Our program chairs need more time and energy to focus on what [represents] quality in this new world," Cini said, adding that faculty can get so busy running their programs that they don't have time to network with peers and colleagues who are exploring new ideas and approaches in their respective fields.

This is not unique challenge to UMUC, and in fact, Smith said, because UMUC is a "nontraditional" university, its faculty may actually have an easier time getting up to speed on new methods of teaching. Most are adjunct instructors who work in the fields they teach, and having focused on adult learners, they are already ahead of the learning curve when compared to faculty at more traditional universities.

"You can't wave a wand and have everyone in a new place," Smith said. "Nor can you ask them to go by themselves. Part of the planning here is to make sure as we move a program into the new space, we are training faculty and staying with them, because they are going to have to learn how to do it. And it's going to take real work. But we start with a huge advantage."

UMUC already uses some of higher education's most sophisticated technology to power its worldwide education programs. Managing the associated data and delivering these online resources requires something even more sophisticated.

"If you were to look at our infrastructure, what is most important about this university isn't bricks and buildings," Cini said. "It's this incredible mapping of servers and software. It's like a spaghetti diagram."

There are two components to technology, Cini said. On one side is what many think of as IT—servers, software, and the like. That capacity must expand as the university grows in size and sophistication. At the same time, a second component must be strengthened as well, employing experts in academic technology who understand the new systems and products and can work with the IT staff to bring them all into harmony.

"We need to mash up the best of these technologies," she said. "The students won't know it's a mash up. They will see a nice user interface that takes them through a learning process that is intuitive, [with] easy access to what they need."

Nobody yet has built the exact model UMUC seeks, Cini said. But if UMUC can perfect it, the university will serve its students better than any other.

Where Past, Present, and Future Converge

Where do the past, present, and future meet?

Smith pointed out that, not too long ago, the concept of the MOOC—Massive Open Online Course—was all the rage. Elite universities like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, and Duke put their courses online, and anyone in the world could learn from them at no cost.

But those elite institutions, which depend on $60,000-a-year tuition, couldn't afford to offer degrees for $10,000, he said. They had to maintain their exclusivity. UMUC—which has always embraced a vision of affordable, accessible education—can.

"What is tremendously important about UMUC is that the game of innovation has come to us," Smith said. "We are where we always were: serving adults in the most appropriate up-to-date and qualitative ways. When you shine a light on that space, there we are where we always were. We have new innovations and new opportunities, but we're an old hand at that."

He contemplated that for a few seconds.

"It's like Cinderella's slipper. A perfect fit."

For Miyares, embracing innovation today extends the same opportunity to all of higher education.

"As technology is recognized, not as a threat to the status quo, but as a powerful tool to advance learning and learning opportunities, the Holy Grail of higher education—the nexus of access, affordability, and quality—is finally and fully within our reach."

This article appears in the Spring 2017 edition of Achiever magazine.