Business, universities search for online equilibrium

By Bart Taylor | Jan 14, 2014

Reconciling the competing narratives around higher education can be a challenge. Reports of financial trouble and sweeping change are offset by news of the broad and profound economic impact of America’s institutions of higher learning.

Insolvent or impactful, universities and colleges are accountable to business, their customers, and as well-served as US industry has been there’s worry today that graduates aren’t adequately trained to meet the needs of employers. Pick your report - I’ve referenced McKinsey’s in the past - but there’s general agreement a skills-gap is prevalent; that graduates increasingly lack the skills business requires.

John Miller, COO of Englewood-based HOL, a provider of cloud-based, STEM solutions and learning tools, sums up the alignment conundrum. “Industry believes that students graduates today have about 50% of the skills necessary to succeed. Universities say its 70% - what they both agree on is there’s a gap.”

Miller’s firm has developed a “solution set within the distance learning environment” intended to help universities become better at addressing the missing that the 30-50% of graduates, depending on the number, are lacking. For HOL, this means developing tools that enhance science-based online learning.

“The way students learn today if very different than it used to be”, Miller says. “They want to be able to get information when they want in a format they want it - a laptop, an iPad, or whatever they choose to use.

HOL is essentially making distance learning more hands on than it would be otherwise. “We provide the physical hands-on lab tools, for example, to execute any kinds of experimentation to support the learning objectives of a course at a school”, Miller says. “For (distance) chemistry students, as an example, we provide a box with the beakers, the fetal pig to dissect, and other things to give them the same learning experience they’d get at the lab of a university, but in the environment of their choosing.”

Miller works with both universities and industry to develop sector-specific solutions. “We’re trying to bring business and higher-education together to close the gap of what industry needs. The commodity that industry buys, are graduates. Education still doesn’t really get that, that they’re developing a commodity for a market. I’m bringing the two together so they better understand what the needs are so they can create a better solution.”

Miller says the upside for universities is twofold - revenue for starters. Much of the cost for the solutions HOL develops is underwritten by industry. “Many institutions believe that they are physically at risk - they’re desperate for funding. Government can’t underwrite this, it has to be from the entity that is consuming the product.”

A higher placement-percentage may be the big payoff. “There is one job for every eight graduates that is non-STEM”, Miller says. “There are three jobs for one STEM-graduate.”

For its part higher education seems torn between protecting a legacy of institutional success and methodology, and the reengineering that Miller and others advocate involving a more systemic embrace of distance-learning. Given HOL’s national reach, I ask Miller if the McKinsey report and others are motivating higher-ed to embrace change. “They’re attempting to”, he says, “but those attempts in large part have not gone extremely well.”

A leadership faction at Colorado State University might disagree. In 2007 the university launched the CSU-Global Campus, a fully online university that in 2011 became the first of its kind to be awarded independent accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. But CSU’s not alone. Harvard and MIT teamed-up on a nonprofit initiative in 2012 called edX, significant in part given the brick-and-mortar stature and the high value of a traditional degree from those schools. MOOCs - massive open online courses - are the rage in higher-ed.

Yet to Miller’s point, are these efforts translating into the type of high-quality education that industry expects? Lou Swanson, vice president of engagement in CSU’s Office of Engagement, believes they can. “If you do this right, it can be as good - if not better - than what students get in class on campus. It comes down to the person delivering the class.”

Swanson’s enthusiasm may also reflect the confidence that CSU’s leadership has in the institution’s ability to adapt to a changing higher-ed landscape.

Industry will benefit if that’s the case.