Here's the centuries-old concept of time in traditional universities: Yoke together students of differing abilities, sit them in lecture halls, teach them at the same speed. After 12 or 15 weeks, whether they pass with an A or a D-minus, give them equal credit.
"We've organized higher education into this factory model where we bring a group of students in post-high school and march them through more or less in lockstep," said Demillo, the Georgia Tech professor, who is also the author of "Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities." "People that don't conform are rejected from the factory and people that make it through are stamped with a degree."
Researchers have long understood students generally do better with customized speed and regular assessment, Demillo said.
Such individualized learning was economically impossible. "But technology is a great multiplier just like in business, and it gives you the ability to do that," he said.
At Arizona State University in Tempe, President Michael Crow is also a believer in innovation's ability to improve and scale up teaching — and make better use of time.
Crow practically punctuates his sentences with the word "innovation," and his giant university feels like a laboratory. As he describes it, five years ago ASU was already tearing down department walls, embracing technology in the classroom and re-engineering research across disciplines.
Then the Great Recession's housing bust crushed Arizona's economy, and ASU took a 50-percent state funding cut. Suddenly, it had to push even harder.
"Innovation doesn't occur when you're lying around on the beach," Crow said.
ASU's challenges mirror the country's and the world's. Amid scarce resources, it's trying to accommodate diverse and growing demand.
Unlikely virtually any other major American university, it grew substantially through the downturn, expanding from 50,000 students to around 72,000 over the last decade. Completion rates are up, too, so the number of graduates has roughly doubled.
Classroom technology is a part of that. On a weekday morning last spring, a handful of students worked through problems in a developmental math course that looks little like the traditional model. There's no lecturer or blackboard; software takes students through the material at their own speed, adjusting to their errors. An instructor is available to answer questions — a model that's proven cheaper and more effective than the traditional class.
Yet what matters most here isn't the technology in the room. It's what isn't here: Most students have mastered the material and moved on ahead of schedule.
ASU has broken up the traditional model of two-semesters-per-year into six parts. Some classes have accelerated versions that run essentially at double-speed: six or 7.5 weeks. So students who quickly finish a flexible-time class don't have to wait up to three months before starting a new one. They can move more quickly and cheaply toward their degree.
Meanwhile, those who need the full 15 weeks for a course, or longer, can take it. But ultimately they will probably save time, too. Because the learning technology won't let students move on until they truly master the material, they're less likely to flunk out of the "downstream" classes they advance into.
"We began to say, 'What are all these sacred cows about time?'" Crow said. "What we're looking for is intensification by freeing up the clock."
Some such "innovations" alarm traditionalists who consider education a "seasoning process" that can't be rushed. Crow agrees, but only for part of the education experience. He wants technology to free up faculty resources for upper-division and critical thinking courses where that kind of seasoning and interaction really matter, and for the other endeavors of a physical university.