Today’s higher education supply chain is ripe for disruptive changes.
The year was 1892 and the world was booming with industrial activities where the telegraph, the railroads, and the automobiles were all just around the corner. On the education front, a brave group of pioneers known as the Committee of Ten led by Charles William Eliot, the President of Harvard University then, recommended the mass standardization of the American school curriculum . This would become the cornerstone of the higher education supply chain as we know it today where a highly standardized set of courses is developed by educational institutions and offered to students who physically attend the classes .
Over 100 years later, when the internet and aviation technology have long made the 19th century inventions obsolete, remarkably our higher education supply chain remained much the same. Although considered revolutionary at the time for bringing education to the masses, factory style education is ill suited for today’s dynamic students. First, the students who seek higher education today are a very diverse group with different cultural and biological traits that required tailored approaches. Second, the adoption of social media has led to shorter attention span not suitable for long lectures. Third, the one-way lecturing format leaves professors without any timely student feedback. Last and most importantly, students are still expected to physically travel to their classes when quality teaching and other media content are just clicks away on their devices that are becoming the competing medium for their attention .
In summary, these changes in student behavior are critical to the future success of institutions like Harvard because the part of their educational offering that emphasizes standardized curriculum and mass lecturing is rapidly losing appeal among the millennials. Furthermore, there is a realistic threat that other elite institutions could beat Harvard in the race to embrace digitization.
Is HarvardX the silver bullet?
As steps to embrace technology and cope with the supply chain trends mentioned above, Harvard has taken a number of initiatives to digitalize teaching content in recent years.
HarvardX was launched in 2012 as a university-wide initiative to enable faculty to create online learning experiences and to inspire breakthrough in online pedagogies. To date the platform has created more than 82 courses, generated over 110,000 course certificates, and served 1.5 million course participates . Also in 2012, edX was set up in cooperation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (“MIT”) as a massive open online course platform that featured a diverse set of courses.
These efforts have allowed Harvard to offer students the flexibility to watch the lectures at their pace and leisure. In addition, the massive data generated through these platforms offered faculty a rare window into the studying behavior of its students. However, these online courses also had major drawbacks as the lack of peer / instructor interaction led to low completion rate of only ~4% from time of registration . So in essence, HarvardX might not be the silver bullet but a blended system where online is used to replace the disengaging lectures and the offline is used to provide the critical human interactions could be the real future of the industry.
Looking ahead: The future is already here, but it’s just not evenly distributed.
Given the importance of the online content that offer millennials flexibility and the critical human interactions offline that help them build social skills, a blended learning experience is critical for Harvard to maintain its lead in this new digital age. More specifically, Harvard should consider the following action plan, which has been proven effective at San José State University in terms of boosting class average from 59% to 91% in its Electronic Engineering course .
- Identify a list of underperforming lecture style courses in terms of student performance and feedback as potential grounds for innovation.
- Carefully redesign these courses into blended learning experiences where online content can replace offline lectures and the freed lecture time can be turned into in-class team projects and problem-solving sessions.
- Run controlled test where select sessions of each course can be offered in blended format while the others in traditional offline format. The resulting data can be leveraged to continuously improve these courses.
Overall, Harvard has made meaningful progress to cope with the powerful digitization trends reshaping its industry. However, to repeat the success of the Committee of Ten, the organization still has a long and treacherous journey ahead.
Unanswered question: I-Professor to the rescue?
Given the accelerating speed of technological changes, the wild card is the possibility that breakthroughs in artificial intelligence can just render any newly developed teaching model obsolete again. So in the end, can elite institutions really embrace change as the only constant and prevail for another 100 years?
(Word Count: 755)
 Hertzberg, Hazel W. (Feb 1988). Foundations. The 1892 Committee of Ten. Social Education, v52.
 Groen, Mark (Spring–Summer 2008). “The Whig Party and the Rise of Common Schools”. American Educational History Journal.
 Hicks, S.D. (2011). “Technology in today’s classroom: Are you a tech-savvy teacher?”. The Clearing House.
 Harvard University. “HarvardX Year In Review 2015 – 2016”.
 Tamar Lewin (Dec 2013). “After Setbacks, Online Courses Are Rethought”. The New York Times.
 Khosrow Ghadiri (2013). “The Transformative Potential of Blended Learning Using MIT edX’s 6.002x Online MOOC Content Combined with Student Team-Based Learning in Class”.