Not a campus but a storefront: A new concept for higher education delivery

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A leading US institution, Georgia Tech, is piloting a new model for local learning centres
  • These scalable centres will support students in online and blended learning programmes, and provide additional ways for remote students to engage with university services, faculty, staff, and peers
  • The model is closer to a storefront than to anything like a satellite campus and it reflects the university’s growing emphasis on online delivery, non-traditional degree options, and lifelong learning

Earlier this year, a special pan-institutional committee at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) released a report on the future of higher education. The group was tasked with exploring innovative approaches to higher education and with making “recommendations on alternative educational models that reduce costs, improve the effectiveness of current methodologies, and increase opportunities and accessibility to serve the needs of the next generation and beyond.”

Given Georgia Tech’s prestigious position and its history of innovation in programme delivery – including offering full graduate degrees online and its participation in the University Learning Store consortium – the report’s findings (and the US institution’s next steps) are likely to draw some attention from educators around the world.

The Georgia Tech report, Deliberate Innovation, Lifetime Education, is underpinned by a number of important changes in how students are approaching higher education. In fact, the findings reflected there have much to do with some of the important trends we have been tracking in recent years, including the rapid growth of online and hybrid learning models as well as the growing importance of non-degree qualifications (often referred to as “alternative credentials”).

The report’s authors propose nothing less than a reimagining of the higher education model. They envision “a future for college not conceived only as a physical place one enters at a particular age and exits when a degree is completed, but rather as a platform for the increasingly diverse – in age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status – population of learners,”…and one where that platform blends “in-person and digital learning experiences.”

The model relies as well on, “Advising and professional coaching that starts much earlier in high school [that] will provide students multiple pathways through the undergraduate and graduate experience and will be sustained for a lifetime by renewable learning with multiple on- and off-ramps beyond degrees and certificates.”

A distributed worldwide presence

Among its five major initiatives, the Georgia Tech proposes a “distributed worldwide presence” for the institution. Changes in student demand and technology play a part here but so too do economics and the idea of shifting the institution away from a solely degree-based experience and toward the lifelong learning orientation described above.

In essence, the report challenges the idea that a university needs a campus to do its work, or at least that all students will need or want a traditional campus. “The physical campus is, however, a fragile model,” it argues. “This is especially evident in public education, where regional colleges and universities that are essentially copies of much larger land-grant and flagship institutions are established in localities that would otherwise not have access to college-level programmes…the high fixed cost of operating a central facility cannot be sustained when there are not enough students interested in the high, fixed-price degrees and programmes offered in that facility. Institutions that have tried to open foreign campuses have also seen this effect.”

As an alternative to such high-cost facilities, the report recommends a pilot for a new model that the institution has already taken the precaution to trademark: the Georgia Tech atrium™. The atrium is a “scalable distributed presence” for the university that would have the effect of creating local storefronts for Georgia Tech in a variety of locations throughout the US and around the world.

The atrium model is a “portal to real and virtual services” at Georgia Tech, but also a marketplace based on two existing services: the Library Store and the University Learning Store. The Library Store is a new model for library services that in part allows students to have remote access to a high-quality research library. The University Learning Store is an on-demand, online training platform offered by Georgia Tech and several other noted US institutions.

Georgia Tech imagines that atriums could be established in a wide range of locations, including co-working spaces, commercial offices, or in retail centres. The idea in each case being to provide students with a way to connect to the university, and its programmes and services. While institutions may rely more on digital delivery, it remains clear that online learning students value opportunities to engage with faculty, peers, staff, and services from their institution. It is clear as well that the more modest local centres anticipated in the atrium model would allow a university to expand its physical footprint with much less expense and risk than is the case for more conventional branch campuses today.

There are many implications of this simplified storefront approach, including that such centres could be an important lever in expanding the international links of prominent institutions and, in an international context, further boosting participation in online learning or other transnational education initiatives. This at least makes the Georgia Tech atrium™ experiment an interesting one to watch, and an opportunity for real innovation in higher education delivery.

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