University of Colorado leaders discuss future of higher education at retreat

Leaders talked about online, adaptive learning, on last day of retreat

University of Colorado President Mark Kennedy speaks to the system’s board of regents and other university leaders about the future challenges of higher education on Friday, the last day of the system’s retreat in Tabernash.
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Online. Adaptive learning. A shifting society.

These are the things the University of Colorado system will be focusing on as it moves into the future.

President Mark Kennedy and university leaders presented the challenges facing higher education, possible solutions and draft plans to move forward Friday morning, on the last day of the Board of Regents retreat in Tabernash.

“I think this retreat is a real reflection of how we’re going to be doing business differently,” said board Vice Chair Irene Griego, D-Lakewood, at the close of the meeting.

Michael Lightner, vice president for academic affairs, gave a presentation on the ongoing “fourth industrial revolution,” which includes artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics and other technological advances.

CU is most interested in machine and deep learning, he said, which can be used to improve medicine, logistics and financial services.

At the same time, the university will have to learn how to adapt to a society that is expected to automate a significant number of jobs in the future, he said. The gap between the rich and the poor is also expected to increase significantly because of automation, he said, citing a study published by McKinsey Global Institute, the business and economics research arm of a management consulting firm.

Those with advanced degrees will do better in that economy, Lightner said, but the challenge is how to change public perception of higher education to attract more people as the gap widens.

Chief Financial Officer Todd Saliman also gave a presentation, which pointed out that some of the most valuable degrees — those related to STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, fields — are the most expensive for the university to provide.

The enrollment growth in K-12 schools is also posing a challenge, he said. According to Saliman, 65% of the students contributing to that growth are at-risk students who will require more financial aid and student support in college.

Griego said it sounds like it’s a “more critical time than ever” for higher education to work with K-12 so that students are prepared to go to college.

The regents also discussed financial aid, which the four campuses will need to provide more than ever in the coming years as they rely on Pell Grant recipients and underrepresented minorities for enrollment growth.

The University of Texas at Austin was brought up as an example multiple times during the retreat, as it just announced an endowment that will allow it to provide free tuition to students whose family income is $65,000 or less.

“We make these investments with cash toward physical infrastructure,” said Regent Jack Kroll, D-Denver. “What would it mean for the university to set aside that to help fund some of these shortfalls?”

Some of the answers to these issues — declining enrollment, changing workforce and expensive delivery systems — is online learning, according to Kennedy.

“If you look at online, we did not exhibit being on the frontline of adaptive to online,” he said. “We can’t be on the backend of many more waves” and still maintain CU’s reputation.

As the need for Coloradans with college degrees grows, he said, the university will have to target working adults, who would benefit from online programs. Right now, CU’s share of online students is much smaller than its share of traditional, on-campus students.

“If you think of CU’s place a decade from now, our standing could dramatically alter if we don’t have a more substantive approach to online,” Kennedy said.

Adaptive learning systems would be a more advanced method for the system to grow its enrollment and reputation.

These systems would use data to provide personalized learning. It would adapt to the best learning model for the individual student and provide progress data for instructors. While it’s not easy to build, Lightner said, it could be licensed out to other universities.

CU could have an advantage if it led in this area, and it would also make it easier for students to transfer credits to CU, he said.

“This is the technology that can radically disrupt higher education,” he said, adding that it will also “blow out our idea of what a semester is.”

When deciding how to approach the new technology, Lightner said that CU should move from a “waterfall” model to an “agile” model.

“Fail early, fail often, fail cheaply,” he said.

The waterfall model, which CU uses now, requires approval and discussions before a final decision is made on a technology, by which time that technology might already be old news, Lightner said. The agile model would have CU adopt new technology first, in small pieces, to see if it works for the university.

CU also plans to expand its outreach efforts.

“Over the past several years, I would say that we have had some declining and disconnected efforts in our outreach,” CU system spokesman Ken McConnellogue said of the president’s office.

He proposed creating an office of engagement and outreach, which would add about two full-time positions, and beefing up efforts to have the president connect with communities across the state, as well as coordinate the individual campuses’ efforts.

Kennedy also plans to bring a plan to create a strategic plan to the regents’ next board meeting in September. The strategic plan will not be finished for at least a year, he said.

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