The Next 20 Years at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

We have a new chancellor at UIUC, Phyllis Wise, and I attended one of her town hall meetings a couple of weeks ago. One of the themes she's talking about in her meetings is what the campus will be like in the future, 10,20, or even 50 years from now. It's an interesting exercise, I've given it some thought from an "internet communications/instructional technology" point of view.

More Employees will Work Remotely. The Social and Intellectual Life of the University will Evolve.

The chancellor conducted the town hall meeting on Dec 6 at Krannert in one of the auditoriums. One of the stories we heard was from a professor who moved to Urbana-Champaign during the 1950s from California. He made a nice remark about Urbana-Champaign: "no mountains, no lakes, no ocean, but nice people". This remark struck me because I'm working with several instructors now who didn't have to make the choice that this professor did then -- they work and teach at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, but make their permanent residence in places like Colorado or California.

The University of Illinois of the future will not require employees to make their homes in Urbana-Champaign. A university is more than a collection of staff and students, it is an environment where we all engage in the intellectual and social life of the university. When we invite people to work or study at Illinois, but they don't live here, and they don't participate in the local life of the community, what will be the consequences?

Our students increasingly participate virtually as well. We're still in the relative infancy of developing online courses for our residential students, and while we have no intention of transforming Illinois into some sort of commuter campus, what will the world be like in 20 years? Students will want to travel the world for their studies, or do internships, or do field research and complete their studies from wherever, whenever. Demand for online courses is already high. How will our future generations of students feel about being liberated from the constraints of having to be someplace at a certain time to complete their degrees? It will be hard for the university to resist.

Network Technology Will Drive Consolidation

Right now, the discussions revolve around the role or place of the Urbana campus vis-a-vis the other two Illinois campuses (Springfield and Chicago). Urbana is the R1, B1G, national reputation campus, and the campus community is anxious about anything that looks like "consolidation". Campus community members worry about maintaining the Urbana campus "identity." Twenty years from now, the "3 campus" issue will look like one decision point in a long list of decision points that the university has been making, and will continue to make over the next few decades.

Truth is, the efforts of the Board of Trustees and the University President to better cooperate among the three campuses is simply a product of the times. We've been marching toward "consolidation" for years, brick-by-brick, but it's not (just) pressure to cooperate among campuses, and it's not (just) our leaders that are driving the process. Times are changing, and communications technology is pushing Illinois into a new world.

Example: Technology Consolidation

I arrived at UIUC in 1989. In 1992, work on some of the earliest graphical browsers for the WWW (Mosaic) was done here at NCSA. In those early days, Illinois, along with other research universities, was the web. All IT services (file storage, email, etc) was provisioned locally. Illinois developed one of the early learning management systems as well (Mallard).

Times are different now, of course. IT services are very often outsourced. Our student emails are provisioned by Google (gmail). Our LMS (learning management system) is outsourced (Blackboard). We outsource cloud storage, we outsource web conferencing facilities, etc. It makes economic sense. But clearly we lose autonomy, flexibility. The cost of getting in and out of an LMS, for example, is absolutely huge. Blackboard owns the Urbana campus in an important way. Some important functionality on the Urbana campus has been "consolidated". This doesn't feel too threatening, since the consensus seems to be that IT (including instructional technology) doesn't feel like the core of the identity of the institution.

"Development of Instructional Materials" Consolidation is Next

This "consolidation/outsourcing" trend will be more and more economically irresistible as technology improves over time. It will spread to other functionalities on campus. Even now, you can find ads in the Chronicle by Pearson touting not just textbooks, but whole courses for sale, that you can load into your learning management system. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doing the same thing, but instead of trying to sell courses, they are offering grant money to universities to develop common course materials and formats that will be shared among institutions.

Network Technology will Enable/Compel the University into Cooperative Instructional Arrangements

Getting back to the "3 campus identity issue": will our university leadership feel compelled to offer online general education courses in common among the three campuses in the University of Illinois system? Why should we have three different versions of SOC100 online? Shouldn't students at UIC (Chicago campus) or UIS (Springfield campus) be able to take courses for credit online from Urbana, and vice versa? This is consolidation, made possible by online education. In 50 years, each campus in the Illinois system will end up specializing and complementing each other by delivering courses online, and the notion of serving a regional audience (Springfield, Chicago, Urbana) will be less important.

At the town hall meeting, Chancellor Wise briefly warned that we must focus on our strengths, and be ready to let some things go -- no institution can do everything, I suppose. Well, those hard choices might not be so hard. Illinois will want to have its cake and eat it too. Say, for example, a small number of people at Illinois need instruction in "less commonly taught languages". Or maybe Illinois has students who are looking for specific training, or methodologies that are not offered locally. In the future, when more of this stuff is online, we'll be entering into more consortia, agreements, partnerships, working with vendors, or partner institutions to deliver these courses to our own students as "Illinois" courses. As technology improves, and the pressures increase, programs like CIC courseshare will grow, and our students will get Illinois credit for taking online courses from CIC partner institutions. If we have odd gaps to fill, departments will outsource to freelancers (hey, there's this guy at Auburn who can teach X, he's pretty good, let's have him do a course for us...). From a pure course perspective, in 20 years, we'll be able to deliver any course we want, and call it "Illinois." One will have to wonder, though, "who or what is the University of Illinois?" a brand?

Conclusion

The next few decades of higher education will be decades of consolidation and outsourcing, decades where institutions increasingly join together in cooperative partnerships. How will Illinois avoid becoming just a "node" in the higher education network? How do we preserve our identity as one of the premier land-grant public universities in the United States?