Massively Big Thinking by Dean Cathy Sandeen

I recently ran across some notes I made when I attended the American Council on Education (ACE) annual meeting earlier this year. ACE is the premier umbrella organization representing all segments of higher education. The organization generally draws well known speakers and big thinkers to its events and its 2012 conference was no exception.


Two talks from the meeting stood out in my mind: Sal Khan, Founder of the Khan Academy and Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University (See slides from their talks here: Khan: The Khan Academy: Empowering People Through Knowledge and Crow: Urgency Required: Institutional Innovation in American Higher Education.)

On the face of it, these two leaders could not be more different. One is at the forefront of the open course movement, focused on tutorials mainly for K-12 students, and the other leads a traditional public research university. I was somewhat surprised to see their messages converged on some common themes, themes I believe are important for those of us thinking about an educational innovation.

Massive scale.  A darling of the news media, The Khan Academy has grown to a massive scale providing open access to various tutorials as a supplement to formal education. As of March 2012, Khan reported his Academy had delivered 125 million lessons to its users.

With over 70,000 students, Crow already leads the largest traditional brick and mortar university in the U.S.

Access. Both see educational success as a means of social justice and mobility and are committed to providing a high level of access.

Student success. Both keep student success at the center of what they do. The Khan Academy began as a way for Sal Khan to help his cousins perform better at math and science. ASU’s organizational goals include at the top of the list quantitative measures of student success, operationalized as persistence and graduation rate.

Data informed. Both measure impact quantitatively and change direction based on data.

New models. The Khan Academy is completely online, open, free, self -directed, and though extremely simple, represents an innovation in tutoring. The Academy has partnered with a school district in Silicon Valley to integrate tutorials into K-12 teaching and learning models.

With its massive scale, ASU naturally provides a high degree of access, including online programs. Despite its scale, the institution also is a leader in assessment and in measuring moving the dial to improve student learning outcomes.

Massive change.  In their own ways both organizations address massive change needed to improve educational attainment. Crow reminded us that goals for improved educational attainment by 2020 for the U.S. population include 100% high school graduation and 50% completion of postsecondary degree or certification.

By way of comparison, according to the National Center for Education Statistics , as of March 2011, 87.6% of the total U.S. population age 25 years or older had completed high school or higher and 30.4% had completed a bachelors degree or higher. The gaps may not seem so large, but increasing completion rates does not occur overnight.

Massive change is needed to achieve goals by 2020. President Crow cautions the U.S. education community against “filiopietism: of or relating to an often excessive veneration of ancestors or tradition (Merriam-Webster)” or (in my words now) a reluctance to innovate.

Any differences?

Yes, a few. For one, The Khan Academy developed its approach and impact in a bottom-up, grassroots, organic way. ASU, as embodied under President Crow’s leadership, developed its approach and impact in a more planned, strategic way.

Two big players. Different student segments. Different methods. Similar conclusions. Important lessons to keep in mind.



3 responses to “Massively Big Thinking by Dean Cathy Sandeen

  1. Websites like Khan Academy and are innovations in how tutoring is conducted.

  2. Pingback: Massively Big Thinking by Dean Cathy Sandeen | InsideTrack Higher Education Blog :: InsideTrack

  3. Pingback: The Other 40% by Dean Cathy Sandeen | Cathy Sandeen

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