Financial TimesTechnology helps an educator achieve his social vision

February 14, 20210
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As the spread of coronavirus forced universities around the world to shut their classrooms and scramble to introduce new ways of teaching last year, Michael Crow and his team were several steps ahead.

Arizona State University was better prepared than most because of its president’s longstanding strategy of applying technology to learning. Despite the constraints of limited public funding, for years Crow has worked to widen access to education through online courses.

“We’ve been pretty overwhelmed by others wanting to learn from us,” says Crow, speaking by telephone from his campus in the southwestern US state. “We have dozens of institutions at all levels talking to us. We’re past learning and into doing.”

Crow took charge in 2002, after studying political science and public administration and holding a variety of senior academic posts, including at Columbia University. He has long advocated digital learning, which has helped his university, with revenues of $2bn a year, expand to teaching 130,000 students — more than double from 20 years ago — from diverse backgrounds at any one time across its five campuses, while keeping tuition fees as low as $11,300 last year compared with an average of about $11,900 among public universities in the US.

Digital learning has also given him the flexibility and expertise to create spin-offs and partnerships for joint degrees and courses with other universities from the UK and Australia to Ghana, as well as programmes such as Education for Humanity to teach refugees.

Such initiatives place ASU in what he calls the “fifth wave” of universities focused on “accelerating social change” by integrating scholarship with technology. By contrast, he argues that more traditional institutions foster “success through exclusion” with little capacity to adapt or scale to meet the growing demand for accessible and life-long education.

“We consider a university is not successful unless it is completely representative of the totality of socio-economic and ethnic diversity,” he says. “We are a public service university living up to egalitarian principles with an inclusive mission of access and excellence.”

Crow does not see a trade-off in quality between in-person and online teaching. Digital lessons can deliver education more efficiently and cheaply to a far larger number of students. He also argues it is possible for a university to produce world-class research and teaching while keeping tuition fees affordable.

Public concern over the spiralling costs of a university education in the US is mounting, with student loan debt totalling $1.7tn in 2020 — a near doubling from a decade ago. Crow’s views resonate with calls for write-offs by President Joe Biden, as well as a fresh push against racial discrimination mobilised by the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

America’s top universities should make greater efforts to increase access to a broader cohort of students, Crow believes. The gaps in public education have been filled in part by private, for-profit education providers, leaving many lower income students to abandon higher education. “Only a tiny proportion of the population gets to college,” says Crow. “We live in a world where post-secondary education has to be available for a broader cross-section of society.”

ASU does not have a large endowment like privately funded Ivy League institutions such as Harvard. While it has some support from Arizona’s state government, funding fell sharply after the 2008-09 financial crisis. That provided a further catalyst for his shift online, raising total fee income while reducing costs per student.

Under Crow’s tenure, ASU has built up its provision of automated, adaptive online materials and tests, for courses such as introductory mathematics. Students work at their own pace, balancing family and employment commitments. Algorithms identify their weaknesses, steer them to relevant resources and liberate faculty for remedial and more advanced courses. It has recently added virtual reality courses.

Three questions for Michael Crow

Who is your leadership hero?
Sir Winston Churchill. He could clearly see that all things are a product of hard decisions and hard choices. He demonstrated on numerous occasions that just accepting one’s fate is not the path to success for anything. Developing yourself . . . [ is] dependent on not only never giving up, but also on understanding that the world is only what we shape it to be.

If you were not a CEO/leader what would you be?
I would be a movie producer of films that paint the pathway to positive non-dystopian futures.

What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?
As a Senior Patrol Leader in Boy Scouts I learnt that kindness works better in building the team than yelling.

Meanwhile, staff have been given training and technical support for their teaching. Crow has invested in equipment, tools and 300 employees who are dedicated to supporting online learning across the university. “They are not a cost centre but a service helping our faculty project their intellectual creativity and uniqueness in fantastic ways,” he says.

For all the technology, Crow has not lost sight of what he describes as the “core role of faculty”. A high standard of scholarship not only enriches the process of learning for students but attracts other top academics and brings research funding. “We recognise faculty as the central asset of the institution and give them the ability to work in the most creative ways,” he says. Crow believes his “inclusive mission” — helped by competitive salaries, benefits and free tuition for the children of staff — has allowed him to recruit and retain some of the best academics in the country.

Stewart Lindsay, director of ASU’s Center for Single Molecule Biophysics, says that on average, teaching students online is the same as in person. It even has advantages. “The biggest frustration as a teacher is standing in a lecture hall, trying to aim at the middle,” he says. “The top is bored and the bottom perplexed. It’s just not a good model of delivery.”

Crow says that technology has helped increase completion rates among students, accelerated study and improved outcomes. First year retention has risen from 78 per cent to 89 per cent since 2002, graduation from 57 per cent to 70 per cent, and research expenditure doubled in the past decade to $640m.

But he admits there is one aspect of university life that is difficult to reproduce digitally: “We can offer everything online except the rich socialisation process of a fully immersive environment. You can’t replicate that,” he says.

Not everyone in academia agrees with his approach, Crow concedes. If he presented his ideas about the power of technology to lower cost, widen access and change the role of the teacher in certain circles, “I would be driven out with tar and feathers”, he says. “There is always resistance.”

Lindsay, who joined ASU before Crow and has become an admirer, says: ASU’s aim is “to take folks who may not have had access to good education and turn them into something excellent. There is a subset for whom this is too much and there are some real gems who flourish and become intellectual leaders. That’s miraculous.”

Crow argues that his community of students, academics and staff on campus “live in a fantastically empowered, unbelievably diversified intellectual, cultural and social crucible. I know the notion is weird for academia, but if you couple that with a technology platform, you can take the energy, creativity, dynamism and work output and connect it to other people in any kind of social and cultural setting.”

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