Most conversations in edtech—and higher-education reform more broadly—begin and end with the classroom. And not without good reason. Teaching is a primary function of the university, especially at community colleges. However, what gets lost in teaching-centric conversations is another important, and arguably complementary, end—research.
While skeptical readers can cherry-pick abstruse research projects, university knowledge production benefits plenty of folks who never attend college. Some of the most noteworthy scientific, medical, and cultural breakthroughs in recent memory incubated in university libraries and laboratories, from the detection of gravitational waves to new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease to the discovery of an unfinished fairy tale by Mark Twain. Some of our greatest upward mobility narratives have relied upon these very institutions.
As Bridget Burns, executive director at the University Innovation Alliance, put it, “Even the college dropouts in Silicon Valley got those ideas when they attended research universities.”
When we envision the 21st century university, we need to carve out a space for this kind of knowledge production. But what kinds of institutions should prioritize research, and what kinds of research should they support? Moreover, given decreasing state support for public institutions, what role should the federal government play to safeguard this social good?
To engage these questions, I’ve reconvened the panel of experts I met at NY EdTech Week. With roles inside and outside higher education, these panelists shared nuanced perspectives on knowledge production, especially the distinction between intellectual research and institutional research.
One point of consensus was that universities need to do a better job explaining why their research matters. I personally believe that universities should make that argument through digital projects, which are more legible to and useful for the public than traditional modes of scholarship (that is, monographs and journal articles), despite the fact that they can be just as rigorous (consider Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters). But let’s be honest: a digital project is usually more expensive to build and maintain than a book. And it’s not just a matter of expense. Digital projects require vast sums of time, time that simply isn’t available if you teach four courses a semester.
This kind of intellectual research is valuable, but it’s also increasingly difficult to justify, particularly at public institutions. As Kevin Guthrie, president of Ithaka S+R, put it, “Research institutions see themselves as being engines for creating new knowledge (and their staffs and faculty are motivated to that end), while the public and the legislatures see these institutions as teaching and learning institutions.” Research institutions have historically performed both functions; however, in an era of increasingly scarce public resources, there’s considerably more emphasis on teaching and learning.
That bias, combined with increasingly advanced student information systems and learning management systems, bodes well for institutional research. Peter Smith, professor at University of Maryland University College, anticipated an “extraordinary surge in student learning analytics,” a point echoed by Doug Lederman, one of the founders of Inside Higher Ed. “The biggest way that tech can really improve learning is by improving understanding of how students are learning,” Lederman explained.
In addition to supporting individual students in individual classrooms, data collection could also help institutions circulate best practices. This, in fact, is one of the primary functions of the University Innovation Alliance (UIA). As Bridget Burns explained it, there are a lot of blind spots in the day-to-day operations of universities. She gave the example of UIA member Michigan State University, where administrators targeted issues students faced between when they were admitted and when they showed up on campus.
Administrators found that the typical student received some 400 emails and was asked to log into 90 different portals, something they wouldn’t have known to address without process mapping. Another UIA member, Georgia State University, has gone further still, mapping every interaction between students and the institution to identify roadblocks.
“They have since redesigned their institution to be more analytics-based and student-centric,” Burns said. “In so doing, they’ve eliminated race and income as predictor of outcome and doubled their graduation rate.”
According to Burns, there are many foundational practices in higher education that simply don’t receive substantial research. Even the most common tasks are managed without good data. Burns pointed to academic advising, for which you’d be hard-pressed to find a large-scale study. For its part, the UIA is conducting a random control trial that will track more than 10,000 students to examine the interventions advisors use to support low-income students. Those findings will serve the students of specific campuses, as has traditionally been the case with institutional research, though they could also inform practices across the country.
I suspect that institutional research, which explicitly supports the mission of teaching, will only proliferate in the coming years. And that’s a good thing. I’m eager to see universities questioning institutional structures and sharing best practices through associations and consortia. If there was ever a moment for coalition-building, it’s now.
The forecast for intellectual research, however, is less certain because intellectual research is often only obliquely related to teaching. I’m comfortable with that cleavage, but research universities sometimes overstate how fundamental intellectual research is to the teaching and learning process. As Kevin Guthrie explained it to me, research can support teaching, “but I do know that there are many superb teachers who are not researchers at all, and it seems to me to be a skill that can be divorced from research.”
Stella Flores, associate professor at the NYU Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy, described a reciprocal relation between her intellectual research and teaching. “I’ve found that being in a classroom makes you a stronger researcher,” she said. “I bring my research to the table, students dissect it, identify where it doesn’t translate, and how it might not be reflective to their communities. As a result, my research has only gotten better through that on-the-ground work.” By the same token, she’s found that bringing her research into the classroom makes subject matter more relevant to her students. She explained: “Millennials are more likely to care about social justice and to engage in projects that bear cause/effect relation to those issues. When I bring my research into the classroom, students get excited about its relevance.”
I can speak to merits of Flores’ latter point from personal experience. I recently began collaborating with Kyle Roberts, an assistant professor at Loyola University, and Benjamin Bankhurst, an assistant professor at Shepherd University, who are co-teaching a class on the American Revolution. When Roberts and Bankhurst asked their students to transcribe eighteenth-century letters for my research project, I didn’t expect students to embrace the challenge. To my surprise—and delight—several students became so excited about contributing to this intellectual research that they volunteered to transcribe more manuscripts, write an FAQ for eighteenth-century cursive, and set up a platform through which others can contribute transcriptions. In this delightful (and admittedly rare) instance, introducing research enabled students to both actively learn subject material and actively contribute to knowledge production.
The Cost Issue
Analog or digital, research ain’t cheap. Enumerating the costs of graduate classes, post-grad fellowships, and research incidentals, Peter Smith explained that it’s increasingly difficult to sustain research in the “cost-conscious university.” Where Kevin Guthrie stressed that institutions subsidize research, Wallace Boston, CEO of American Public Education (APE), also emphasized the role of third-party organizations and agencies. “I think you have to differentiate between major institutional research grants which are funded by foundations and government agencies, and research funded by the institution itself,” he said. For example, while APE has invested its own resources into its institutional research—more than $60 million in sum to develop its own IT systems and processes—the 10,000-student random-control trial I described earlier would not be possible without an $8.9 million grant from the federal government.
This raises an important and not-uncontroversial question: can every institution afford to invest in research? That is, although most colleges and universities have a vested interest in institutional research, how should they approach intellectual research?
To this point, Doug Lederman offered a historical view. “There are a lot of institutions for which research is an essential part of its mission, and the country—and the world—are a better place for it,” Lederman explained. “As important as research is, there’s a limit to the number of institutions that can do world-class research at a meaningful scale. Because the top universities do it—and everyone wants to be a top university—a lot of institutions are chasing the research mission.”
It might not be reasonable to expect faculty at a liberal arts school of community college to produce intellectual research. However, if we are to expect public research universities to serve as that engine, we ought to account for research during resource allocation. For example, the City University of New York offers a superb education, one which has propelled six times as many low-income students into the middle class. It’s also a research engine, as evidenced by all the excellent digital humanities projects incubated by the CUNY Graduate Center. Both of those functions ought to be financed by state policymakers.
The uncomfortable truth is that many public research universities have seen state support dwindle over the past two decades. If we are to expect public universities to continue to serve as research laboratories—and not to constrain that social good to students and faculty at private universities—we ought to protect and expand alternative funding streams such as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
Let me close with a word on one of those agencies, the NEH. According to a recent report from The Hill, the current administration plans to eliminate the NEH, NEA, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The annual budget for the NEH is less than $150 million. That might sound like a lot to you and me, but to the federal government, it’s a rounding error. Philip Bump ran the numbers for the Washington Post and found that the NEH, NEA, and Corporation for Public Broadcasting combined comprise 0.02 percent of federal spending. The state of Pennsylvania will spend more money on snow removal this winter.
Through that comparatively modest budget, the NEH has delivered one hell of a return on an investment: it has supported more than 70,000 projects, as well as hundreds of digital projects through the Office of the Digital Humanities. Many of those projects have spawned public platforms that you’ve read about here. Scalar, a free, online publishing platform and PCMag Editors’ Choice pick received NEH support. Neatline, an open-source platform for creating timelines and maps, started with NEH support. The Humanities CORE, a non-profit, interdisciplinary social repository, just launched, thanks to NEH support. Projects like September 11 Digital Archive, Visualizing Emancipation, and the Mapping the Republic of Letters (to which I alluded earlier), each relied upon NEH funding. Even the Digital Public Library of America, which is now making Library of Congress collections accessible online, relied upon an NEH grant.
Even if you never went to college, you’ve benefited from this obscure agency, and, without it, you’re less likely to have access to knowledge produced at colleges and universities. That should concern you even if you have no affinity for higher education. As I’ve written before, edtech startups rely upon free, open-source materials. Those materials are not wished into existence, and we do ourselves a great disservice when we pretend otherwise.