Blog Post

My First MOOC: Helping Me Better See Features and Redesign of Higher Education

NOTE: This post was generated in response to Cathy’s N Davidson’s November 23rd HASTAC post and its “Evolving, Collaborative Template of Open-Ended Questions.”   There was posted today (December 3rd) a revised version of these questions, with considerable conceptual distinction.  Nevertheless, I think the response I offer to the first version is instructive, so I have posted it.  I have stopped work in light of the revised focus on credentials, but have managed to cover the following shared topics/headings: 1) About our university/What we value; 2) Comparables; 3) Costs; and 4) Students/Learners.  As for my thoughts on the professional model and credentials please see: 1) The Inmates Should Be Running Higher Education and 2) Badge Movements and the Professional Higher Education Model.


As part of the crowd contributing to an evolving document in Cathy N Davidson’s Coursera MOOC, “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” I offer response to the exploratory questions posed by Cathy - see excerpt below from her November 23rd blog post on HASTAC.


Designing Higher Education From Scratch


Posted by Cathy N. Davidson

November 23, 2013





If you were creating an institution of higher learning from scratch, what would it look like?  Would it be a “fix” or a radical reshaping? U.S. model or other? Research university, liberal arts college, community college, vocational--or are there exciting new ways to erase those distinctions? Publicly funded, private, for profit? Residential? How many of these elements do MOOCs (hailed in the hype as the “future” of higher learning) address? Until we “see” the features of higher education at present, it’s hard to think about change.  Below…are some template questions to get us started on this thought experiment designed to inspire innovation. What are we missing?  Please make additions, suggestions, comments.  (This project will last until May 2014 and maybe beyond.  This is just a start.)


I believe the entrepreneurial higher education models I am developing are viable alternatives to the current institutional model of: 1) university and college principal service providers; 2) public funding and 3) union labour representation.  I refer to this institutional model as the triad.  The response below is restricted to the professional model – though a co-operative model also offers promising response. The headings and numbered questions in italics are Cathy’s, immediately followed by my response.


I have enrolled in the MOOC.  I hope something like this gets assigned as homework…


Evolving, Collaborative Template of Open-Ended Questions


ABOUT OUR UNIVERSITY (Revised: What we value)


Phrases like, “name of our university,” “about our university” and “feature of our institution” are consistent with the entrepreneurial models I am developing.  In part this is because the co-operative and professional models (including their possible integration in a third) define and control service more directly through academic labour, which associates in representation and service at will. In this circumstance academics might elect to offer their services to the public through the co-operatively or professionally formed equivalent of a modern university or college.  In this instance the institution (university or college) truly would be “ours” (understood to refer to the co-operative or professional association of labour and other interested parties according to model design).


At the same time I do not want to be misunderstood.  In the context of this course phrases like, “creating an institution of higher education from scratch” and “designing higher education from scratch,” harbour an ambiguity that affects the scope of creation and design.  Though I offer nothing like a complete analysis of the ambiguity, the following should be sufficient clarification for my response to be properly understood:


Higher education is an agent-directed activity not essentially defined by its particular means of facilitation or by properties of location and technology, but rather by the personal distinct and shared ends of individuals engaged in the activity.  That is to say, universities and colleges are not identical to the academic-student relationship but rather are merely one means of facilitating the ends manifest in that relationship: universities and colleges ≠ higher education.


This is not to ignore the impact facilitation has on action, but rather to emphasize there is a logical distinction in means/ends that must be adhered to if we are to design for either from scratch.


Nevertheless, as an historical accident, to improve the state of higher education its current profile points to triad universities and colleges as institutions in need of design from scratch.  Thankfully this is merely the historical default and Cathy’s course explicitly seeks to re-create or re-design the means of facilitating activity common to the higher education academic-student relationship.  Accordingly, my response does not equate universities and colleges with higher education, allowing me to consider other forms of institution that might be introduced to better serve the academic-student relationship. 


Consequently, my approach is not to re-create or re-design universities and colleges, but rather replace them with an alternative form of social institution – the professions.



1.    Name of our university:


Institutions such as universities or colleges are not required (or recommended) under the professional model and so there are no institutions of this sort to name.  However, the “Professional Society of Academics” might serve as a title for the professional body that is formed through social contract to admit and represent academics in service.  Professions are institutions in the broader sense of the term necessary to discuss a redesign of higher education.  In this context there is no relevant difference between universities/colleges and professional societies - both are founded in the basis of social contracts that establish social institutions. There would likely be names for the multitude of independent private academic practices that the professional model promotes, though these names would be a consequence of individual professional prerogative.


2.    Logo, mascot, or motto:


These might exist for the professional society and for individual private higher education practices.


3.    Drawing or napkin sketch of the university:


With no institutions to operate as middlemen or facilitators of higher education service the professional sketch might look like this when contrasted with the triad:

The triad model is designed with universities and colleges operating as both the employers of academics and service providers of students.


The professional model eliminates institutional middlemen providing a more direct relationship between academics and students, with students employing entrepreneur academics for service.



4.    Our mission is:


There might be such a thing where the service of higher education is offered through a profession, though it would be very broad at the professional society level.  More importantly there will be a formal Code of Ethics and Conduct for the profession that if not subscribed to will result in professional discipline or dismissal.  There might also be varied practice missions based on the prerogative of professional academics in private practice.  The main point is that the professional model is not pigeonholed by a single (even evolving) mission statement, which is a distinct advantage over any attempt to create a single institution and mission to meet the demands of all or specific stakeholders from taxpayers to specific students.  Fundamentally, the professional model is not meant to service niche or demographic neglected by the current triad institutions, but replace the entire triad institutional model (though the two can exist in symbiosis).  As such the mission of the profession model is to provide higher education service to all students and the community.


5.    Our mission remains the same/changes every year because:


See 4 above.  Conceivably there might be as many missions as there are private academic practices.  The missions (as representative of the service) would be determined by a combination of input from the professional society of academics, the professional prerogative of individual academics in private practice, and market forces.


6.    We specialize in:


See 4 above.  Conceivably there might be as many specializations as there are private academic practices.  Like mission statements, specialization represents service and would be even more finely tuned to professional prerogative and market forces.  For example, some professional academics might choose to concentrate their practice in the area of introductory or remedial education while others only offer service to those seeking graduate education – and everything in between.  In this way (and others) the flexibility, responsiveness and innovation offered by the professional model far exceed that of the triad model.


7.    Our Location: (Where would the school be located? Does it need one location?)


“Our location,” does not  refer to a school, but academics who elect to establish practices that provide service in rural, suburban or urban communities.  They are independent educators operating with professional authority and prerogative.  This is unlike the centralization of academic and non-academic services that occurs under the current institutional model for higher education.  An academic profession (like most existing professions) can be integrated with the existing community infrastructure and service profile.  Alternatively, the professional model does not preclude the independent professional formation of departments or even universities or colleges, though they would not operate as existing triad institutions.  This professional service could be integrated with existing community assets, resulting in the formation of a higher education district or more liberal distribution throughout the community.


8.    Would it be in a building, online, take a whole city as its campus, or maybe the whole world?)


See 7 above. It is worth mention that professional academics could rent or lease facilities and services from existing triad campuses, since these public resources are substantially under-utilized, under-funded and ultimately a pubic interest.


9.    Our university is mobile through


Professional academic service is mobile through any and all means available and suitable to individuals in private academic practice and students who seek the service.  The model places technology in its proper place, as an aid to face-to-face education – not as a replacement.


10.  Our students are mobile through


See 9 above.


11.  Our university is part of a network of


It is conceivable that a national profession of academics would be formed with local chapters.  It is also conceivable that groups of academics might “break away” and form their own profession in response to inadequacies they perceive in the existing academic profession.  Finally, the professional model is compatible with the existing triad model and so the two might operate in a symbiotic relationship to provide higher education service.


12.  Our students are networked to one another through


See 9 above.  The plethora of electronic means of communication and networking are at the disposal of the academic profession.


The responses to 8-12 above are not meant to imply that the technology used in higher education is a technicality.  I appreciate the role technology does and has the potential to play in not only how we provide the service of education but the content of education itself.  I leave the details of technology use vague for two reasons: 1) Since I believe that in the current desperate climate technology is being introduced as a saviour of the triad institutional model and the professional model is offered as a replacement that does not require technological salvation, I treat the use of technology as (merely) an additive to the professional model and 2) The professional model conceives of academic prerogative in professional association as a pillar of higher education and so the use of technology is left to decisions yet to be made in professional society and practice.


To treat technology this way is almost sacrilegious, indicating a loss of touch with current responses to the crisis in higher education.  However, this is only true where the triad model is considered sacred and synonymous with higher education.  I happen to believe it is defunct, distinct from higher education and in need of complete replacement, not salvation through technology.  The technological lens needs refocusing when an alternative higher education model is introduced.



COMPARABLES (Purpose: to elicit great innovative and historical comparisons worldwide)


13.  We compare ourselves to these  X institutions (worldwide) that exist now because


The concept of an “institution” entails more than is captured by the university and college of the triad.  For instance, the legal, medical and engineering professions(X) are also institutions of society.  One important common denominator among varieties of institution is the social contract upon which they are formed.  Whether it is the higher education services of the triad or the legal, medical and engineering services of the professions society has arranged for provision of the service through social contract. 


14.  We compare ourselves to X institutions (worldwide) that once existed


See 13 above.  There are also historical roots for the professional model in the apprentice(X) and guild(X) forms of labour organization and service provision.  There is also precedent in the early Greek philosophers who independently offered their services to the general public(X).  In these cases the service was offered and accepted on the basis of “personal contract,” rather than the explicit social contracts of the modern professions or university/college.


15.  We do not believe any feature of our institution resembles any other because


On the contrary, the professional entrepreneurial model is constructed with explicit use of certain features of the triad institutional model.  Notwithstanding this, there are substantial differences between the triad and professional models of higher education.


16.  We believe X feature of our institution is unique because


There is little that is unique or new in the professional model.  Like so many ideas it leans heavily on what has come before.  The model cobbles together elements of existing social institutions and practices to form a unique (original) higher education model.  As a short list I identify as unique: 1) Direct hire of academics by students; 2) No public funding of operations or capital expansion; and 3)  No application to university or college.





17.  Our tuition is


The tuition charged by academics can range according to professional prerogative and quality of service or be fixed by terms of the professional social contract.  However, I have calculated that a professional academic practice in the Humanities, Business, Law and the Formal Sciences can operate on the revenue generated from the current rate of advertised tuition alone.  This means that the professional entrepreneurial model can provide higher education for 50-75% less than the institutional triad model.  This changes everything.


18.  Our tuition is paid by


With the total cost of higher education reduced to the current advertised price of tuition there are possibilities: 1) The service might be offered free of tuition with the public covering the total cost; 2) As is the case now, the public (through aid and allocation) and individual students (through tuition) might share the cost; or 3) Individual students might be responsible for the entire cost of their higher education.


19.  For students who cannot afford our tuition, we offer


Even though reducing the current total cost by 50-75% will enable many more students to pursue studies than is possible in the triad, there might nevertheless be students for whom higher education remains beyond their financial reach.  The professional society can create student bursary and grant programs, alongside professional membership requirement that demands pro bona service to help further close this gap.  However, if the aim is to develop an improved higher education model that (inter alia) makes higher education more affordable, then the professional model achieves this on a scale to possible in the triad.


20.  We do/do not accept philanthropic gifts


Private academic practices are free to accept gifts.


21.  We use/do not use state funds


See 17 and 18 above.  This is an open question with possible responses simply not available to the triad which by definition (and practically) requires public funding for its operations, capital expansion and more.


22.   We use/do not use corporate funding


Private academic practices are free to accept corporate funding.


23.  We do/do not have trustees


There are no trustees in the professional model.  Professions have various oversight bodies populated by members of the profession and various interest groups from the wider community (including laypersons, students and government representatives).  These bodies ensure that the professional end of the social contract is properly maintained.


24.  Our (future) alums will have no role/a role in our future by


Since there are no institutions there are no alums.



STUDENTS (Revised: Learners)


These questions address finer details regarding operation and management of an independent professional academic practice.  As such the responses will be speculative and selective of all those that might be available to members of an academic profession.  Further the questions as posed imply discussion of a single institution (university or college) that needs to identify its portion of the student market within the existing triad model, where multiple types of universities and colleges service the demand.  In short the questions imply the need to identify a service niche among all the other existing institutional service providers.  This is simply not the case when a model like the professional is introduced, because the model applies to all students, as the triad is seen to apply to all students now.  Further, unlike the triad where both academics and students apply to institutions for employ and service (respectively), the professional model eliminates the interference of institutional middlemen and morphs identification/selection into a more direct and informative exchange between academics and students.  In this way both parties are in a position to better identify/select one another in the formation of a mutually beneficial higher education relationship.  By contrast under the triad, institutions operate as clearing houses that identify/select academics and students for hire and admission, in a process that is very restricted and does not necessarily result in pairings that either the individual academic or student would prefer.


25.  Our ideal students are:


As indicated, the professional model applies to all students of higher education, period.  But more can be said.  Under the professional model the ideal is in the eye of the beholder.  Because there is no institutional bottleneck to force high selectivity among academics and students, but rather many more academics to more completely serve all demographics, there can be as many student ideals as there are academics to harbour and service them in professional practice.  In this circumstance the professional society would consider all students ideal though individual academic practices might be more discerning. In turn students would be better empowered to identify/select the academics from who they will receive higher education service.


26.  We identify our ideal student by word-of-mouth from


As with other professions, members of the academic profession would recommend colleagues to students and students to colleagues, based on criteria such as competency, teaching format, talent, price, and more.


27.  We identify our ideal students by/not by test scores


This method might be used by some professionals in the management of their academic practice.


28.  We identify our ideal students by/not by GPA


This method might be used by some professionals in the management of their academic practice.


29.  We identify our ideal students by/not by an open competition


This method might be used by some professionals in the management of their academic practice.


30.   We identify our ideal students by


See 25 above. The entire eligible body of students is identified for service by the professional model.  Of course the private academic practices that emerge will narrow their “ideal students” depending on professional prerogative.  But as should be clear the professional model presents identification/selection as a two-way street where academics are in turn identified by students as suitable service providers – and higher education relationships are struck depending on the needs and preferences of both student and academic. As triad institutions do now, both the professional society and individual practices will advertise their services to the public; plus whatever new systems might emerge where academics must effectively manage a private practice.     


31.  We contact our ideal students by


The standard methods for contacting potential students would be employed by the profession.  However, looking at selection from the student point of view, with the introduction of professional society (at the national and local level) there is opportunity to make public a record of performance for individual academic practices that students can consult (presumably on line) to inform their selection of service provider.  This record would make public information such as: 1) The price of the service; 2) Courses offered and level of study; 3) Pass/fail ratios; 4) Numerical and prose student evaluations of academic service; and more. Additionally, through the profession or other commonly used venues academics could advertise their preference for students (e.g., the growig number of national undergraduate clearinghouse services).


32.  We advertise to our ideal students by


Along with 31 above, the standard methods of advertising would be employed by the profession, subject to society by-laws on advertising.


33.  We recruit our key students by


The profession would use those tools now available to universities and colleges, plus whatever systems emerge where individuals have a real vested interest in the success of their students and academic practice.


34.  We define diversity as


The professional model admits many more academics to higher education service and in so doing opens the door to many more varieties of service in order to facilitate diversity.  The constitutions (and other laws) of the professional and civil societies prevent discrimination on any of the recognized grounds, opening the door to diversity in both the academic and student populations.  


35.  We ensure that diversity by


See 34 above, but also note that equity and diversity are issues the professional society would address through its by-laws, membership and community service.


36.  Our students are all in the age group of X to Y


There are no limits on the age of academics or students.


37.  Our pre-requisites for admission are:


Though the triad notion of admission to a university or college does not apply in the professional model, what pre-requisites there might be are determined by the individual private academic practice and the more general curricular and credential profile of higher education, as determined by the profession (and other interested, authoritative bodies). 


1 comment

Hi Shawn, Thanks so much.  I will link to this on the Google Doc where things keep changing.   That was the point, to put it up early and have others and myself update it with ideas and you've just done a great job of that.  So much to think about and mull over here!