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Paul S. Edwards: ASU university president innovates, students benefit

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 8 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Governor Gary Herbert's Education Excellence Commission has an ambitious goal that, by the year 2020, two-thirds of Utah's adults should have a college degree or post-secondary certificate suitable for globally competitive employment.

In order to meet this challenge, Utah might wish to learn from Arizona State University (ASU) about how educational innovation can improve student learning for more students at lower cost.

Recently I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Michael Crow, president of ASU. Named one of the top-ten university presidents in the country by Time magazine, Crow is showing how a single-minded focus on improving measurable student achievement can improve public university outcomes at lower cost.

Crow leads with mission. Before he'll talk about the exciting details of how his institution is educating more than 70,000 students on four campuses, he intently clarifies the problem to be solved by the American public university: how to preserve and enhance U.S. global competitiveness.

He plies me with statistics and graphs to show that "We have a country that is underperforming relative to its competitive position for a 21st century economy. We still have the lead. But we're not in a position, over the long run, to maintain the lead."

So given the challenge, what's the mission of the American public university? According to Crow it "is to figure out how it can educate all of our talented citizens (those who have the ability to do university work) to the highest level of learning and creativity possible."

Crow's strategy has three prongs.

"First, the public university needs to be able to educate at a larger scale, faster speed and across more subjects with greater depth.

"The second thing that the public universities have to do is innovate at the fastest possible rate.

"And the third thing the public universities have to do is to lower the cost to the student and to the public for that education by using every technological platform imaginable, by figuring out how to educate at scale."

Reducing the cost of college education should make legislators and parents happy, but it could raise questions about the quality of education.

Crow, however, can point to persuasive external validation of the dramatically improving quality of ASU's education, including a Wall Street Journal ranking last year naming ASU number 5 in the nation among corporate recruiters for producing the best-qualified graduates.

Getting these results has required the institution to question everything.

"For nearly nine years we have been intensely innovating. We have been changing everything: structure, culture, format. We're now an outcome-driven student-centered institution."

Consequently, ASU is discovering how technology can improve student learning. Crow notes that they see in many courses, "better results through the online learning than the traditional course. So in subjects that are amenable to these kinds of innovations, we're shocked ourselves at the better outcomes."

He shares, for example, that an ASU student "can get a better learning-based outcome in freshman math with a computer-driven artificial intelligence based course than with a professor standing in the room." Consequently, more and more ASU students are taking online courses, thereby lowering the university's costs.

Crow relishes the challenge of improving the learning for a large and diverse student population. For many universities, the path to improved outcomes comes through restricting access.

But for Crow, the effort is to improve access and then add value. "The more selective that you become," argues Crow, "the less public you become. So our assignment, self-imposed, is tougher. And the assignment is that we will — through innovation, through technology through cultural change, through the right kind of residence halls — perform at the same level as highly-selective public universities at a lower cost. And that is what we live for."

What also stands out in Crow's approach is his embrace of the student as a total person. "The total person is a person that has to advance intellectually, spiritually, and physically. If you pretend that you can advance the person with only one or two of those — intellectual only — or intellectual and physical only — and not the spiritual — then they are leaving out a big part of many people's developmental process."

Consequently, ASU under Crow has, in his words, "asked faith-based groups to advance in and on and around the campus in every way that they can, faith-oriented educational and spiritual development activities for students that are a part of their faith. Often it's kept as a separate or isolated type of thing and for us we're trying to be as warm and as welcoming and engaging as possible."

Scalable, cost-effective, results-oriented higher education that serves the total person; sounds like a model Utah could emulate.

Paul Edwards is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: pedwards@desnews.com.

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