Fundamental institutional transformation rarely comes from within the institutions themselves. It is generally a result of extreme external pressure or disruptive technological innovation. This is perhaps most true of universities, which are inherently among the most conservative institutions in any society.

American universities, especially public universities, are under greater pressure to change than at anytime in the last half century. Much of the pressure, of course, comes from the decline of funding from the various states, which has caused sharp increases in tuition in virtually every state in the nation. This has led, in turn, to a decline in public confidence in the efficacy or even the value of traditional universities. Conversations about whether a college education is “worth it” have gained traction for the first time in many decades. Government officials have called on universities to cut their costs and, in some cases, to create inexpensive degrees – a $10,000 baccalaureate, for example.

Public anxiety about unemployment and student debt lead to calls for more utilitarian educational goals, ones that will assure employability at the end of a course of study. For-profit institutions have proliferated, claiming to provide greater access to career education. Courses in the liberal arts are criticized as unnecessary frills. Accreditors, responding to governmental and public pressure, have demanded that universities demonstrate measurable “learning outcomes” for their students. Governing boards, dominated increasingly by business perspectives, demand cost cutting and threaten the tenure of university presidents they deem insufficiently innovative.

At the same time, massive open-source online courses, MOOCs, have captured the imagination of many educators and the public alike, with several elite universities leading the charge to provide high-quality mass education. The MOOCs are seen by some to be fulfilling the prediction made by Peter Drucker over a decade ago that online education would replace most traditional universities. Stanford President John Hennessy sees the MOOCs as a tsunami headed for higher education, which universities will either “surf” or be engulfed by. While the excitement about the MOOCs may be premature or exaggerated, there is little question that the ubiquity of broadband connectivity will substantially alter the terrain on which higher education operates.

I believe these two forces, external pressure and disruptive technology, will lead to fundamental changes in higher education in the years ahead. The question is how will colleges and universities employ technology effectively to improve both access to, and the quality of, higher education in response to the persistent public criticism? How will we bend the cost curve without sacrificing quality? How will faculty respond constructively to these changes?

Online education has already been employed effectively at several leading institutions, such as Carnegie Mellon and MIT, using a hybrid model of online presentations supplemented by in-class discussions. It is precisely this form of education, blending online courses with in-class discussions that I believe will come to dominate university courses, especially lower-division courses, in the future. Anant Agarwal, the president of the Harvard/MIT launched MOOC, edX, has predicted, “Ten years from now, most of the courses will be blended learning.”

How will this cut the cost curve of spiraling tuition? I believe it can do so in three ways.

  1. More introductory courses can be offered online to students before they enter college. For example, calculus is a gateway mathematics course for majors in all STEM disciplines. Universities could mount both whatever pre-calculus courses most of their students lack, or calculus courses at the level they expect for student proficiency, with high school teachers or university graduate students serving as teaching assistants. Students can be evaluated in a more nuanced and sophisticated manner than can be evaluated by machine-readable multiple-choice exams. The same model can apply to all courses that currently receive advanced-placement credit or other introductory courses.

  2. In a similar fashion, blended teaching can be employed in community colleges or small, remote institutions that have difficulty offering a complete curriculum, with students receiving online lectures from universities, supplemented and assisted by local faculty. In this manner, students can be assured of receiving the level of instruction expected for transfer credit to four-year institutions at a fraction of the cost of attending four-year institutions. Upper division work leading to the baccalaureate degree would then be completed through transfer.

  3. Students taking online or blended courses can move at their own speed through the courses, repeating assignments that prove difficult for them, receiving credit by proving proficiency rather than the number of hours spent in the classroom. In the present discussion about the possibility of three-year baccalaureate degrees, the best hope of cutting time spent, and thus the cost, obtaining a degree is by use of blended education.

There are major obstacles to achieving this transformation of education. One is changing the expectation faculty have of their roles as educators. Blended courses require faculty to cede some of the direction of the course to the online instructors; it requires them to consider the online presentations somewhat in the manner they have viewed textbooks – as the repository of information, which they supplement where needed. They will cease to be the major “presenters” of material and will function more as tutors, assisting students who are working in a more auto-didactic environment. This can, in itself, improve learning outcomes by moving from a one-size-fits all format to more individualized interventions in assisting students.

The second, and even larger obstacle, is the problem of assessing in a sophisticated manner the learning of students. This is the problem already faced by the MOOCS. The peer evaluation method undertaken by some MOOCS, for example, has not proved itself to be satisfactory and will probably never achieve the level of evaluation necessary for granting transfer credit to students enrolled in MOOCS. Machine-readable, multiple-choice exams, as currently practiced by Advanced Placement courses, do not necessarily demonstrate mastery of the material. And the use of machines to evaluate writing is, correctly I believe, meeting substantial criticism and opposition.

What is required is the ability to present complex written exams that can be evaluated by competent evaluators efficiently in a scalable manner. This is where the means of assessment provided by Crowdmark comes in. By scanning complex exams and uploading them to the cloud, with each page uniquely identified and linked to the individual test-taker, Crowdmark can strategically distribute exam grading workload to evaluators, whether high school teachers or university graduate students or faculty, to any and all who need to provide evaluations. Crowdmark can be used by individual instructors to evaluate the work of their own students more quickly and to store a complete portfolio of student performance. Or it can be used in a scalable manner to evaluate student performance in large online courses. Crowdmark has demonstrated that it can assess the work of test-takers more quickly and efficiently than paper-based methods. While using available technology, Crowdmark employs real human evaluators rather than machines to assess student learning. It compiles accessible data about individual student performance as well as collections of data about the quality and difficulty of various examinations. Colleges and universities can thus access the examinations of their applicants to determine for themselves if they warrant transfer credit rather than simply rely on the evaluations of others.

As higher education experiments with various mechanisms of instruction and evaluation, seeking in the process simultaneously to reduce the costs and provide assurances of quality, effective assessment will be essential. Undoubtedly, a number of solutions will be proposed. As an early entry into this space, Crowdmark holds the promise of providing a tool for both efficient and effective assessment of student learning.

Robert Berdahl is President Emeritus of the Association of American Universities, Chancellor Emeritus of the University of California, Berkeley, President Emeritus of the University of Texas, served as Provost at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and recently served as interim President at the University of Oregon. Dr. Berdahl is an advisor to Crowdmark.