Higher Education in the Information Age

The Undergraduate Experience

Douglas Van Houweling


Stanley Chodorow: Thank you very much. Our next speaker is Doug Van Houweling from Michigan, and he's actually been working on a distance learning program in partnership with an employer and a labor union, and he's going to tell us something about how that all works. And it's essentially a practical application of some of the things we've been talking about.

Douglas Van Houweling: It's wonderful to be with you here this afternoon. A lot of my friends are out here in the audience. I've spent time with you talking about the technology that sits underneath our endeavor together, but this afternoon I want to talk about the new kinds of partnerships that I believe will become typical of the way major universities operate in the future. I need to say first of all that I have a lot of envy for the green fields exercise that you're engaged in Monterey. The fact, though, as many of us know, and as I think has been demonstrated quite aptly by many of the discussions so far today, is that most of us live in institutions that believe that they are quite well established, that have a set of operating rules, mainly unwritten, that generate a set of expectations, both on the part of their faculty and on the part of their students, mainly more on the part of their faculty since students in fact turn over on a regular basis. I'll have more to say about that in a moment. And as a consequence, as we look at the task that confronts us in many of our institutions, this notion of sort of rethinking this whole process from the beginning, attractive as it is, is very hard to realize in some type of process that actually operates at the core of our institutions. And that's certainly true at the University of Michigan. We're no different than any other major research university.

So the approach we have taken is not an approach that's focused on the core of our institution, as most of our faculty and leadership thinks of it, but rather it's focused on trying to understand how the capacity of an institution like the University of Michigan can in fact be experimentally and incrementally expanded in such a way as to serve new constituencies, constituencies that we have not traditionally served, and serve them in ways that we think may be appropriate to teach us something about what we need to do as we think about the future of the core of our institution. In that context, of course, we can talk about doing things that we could almost never talk about doing if we were talking about what our faulty perceives to be at the core of our institution. Experiments are something that have a long history and pedigree in academic institutions. It's really quite different to do an experiment than it is to redo the curriculum, even if redoing the curriculum is what's required by an experiment.

Now, what most people think of when they think about the core of a university like the University of Michigan is of the campus community. We have three substantial campuses. The one that's best known, of course, is in Ann Arbor, but we also have campuses in Dearborn and Flint, and I am not going to be talking about those campus communities this afternoon, except in so far as they provide the foundation from which it's possible to do the other things that I will be talking about.

There are two constituencies that exist in some sense because of the campuses, but in some sense quite outside the residential structure of the campuses. First of all the constituencies of individual students, and a lot of us have talked and know about experiments to reach out to individual students, especially as they leave our campuses. And we have things like the University of Michigan on-line to reach out into the network space to individuals. We have a summer program that is residentially focused, but none the less quite unconventional in the way it deals with students. We have a set of programs for K-12 students across the state. And of course we have a set of programs which allow people, especially in the professional areas, to work with us when they're at a distance to gain advanced degrees.

I'm not going to focus on that set of individual student constituencies here this afternoon. Rather I'm going to focus on another new community, that is the community of individuals who are in large organizations. In particular, I want to talk about a program that we are engaged in with a large company, and the union that represents most of the workers in that company, on the one hand, and on the other hand, an effort that is focused on helping the dominant industry in our state, the auto industry, meet its training and education challenges.

Now the fundamental foundation for both of these activities has to do with the fact that if you live in Michigan, as we do, then a fact of your life is that the auto industry permeates the state. Those of you who had the experience recently of driving across the state of Michigan know about what I speak of. Everybody drives more rapidly than the speed limit by some 10 or 15 miles per hour, the trucks are larger than anything you can ever believe, and the roads are, in fact, some of the worst in the country. After all, it's all about the vehicle, and it's very little about anything else, if you live in the state of Michigan.

So there are a set of historic kinds of assumptions about how things operate, and of course the University of Michigan has long historic connections with that industry. There are a set of research institutes that have been built up in support of that, which of course take the best and brightest from our institution and apply them to the research problem of that industry. Our students go on and serve in these companies, which means that a very large proportion of our alumni body as individuals live in the auto industry. And we have through traditional kinds of residential programs in all of our colleges, our engineering college, our business school, and so forth, taken on major responsibilities for providing continuing education in a residential kind of a way for these industries. And quite frankly, you soon realize that a lot of the financial well-being of the university depends on these industries as well.

But as I said, there are two projects I want to talk about this afternoon. The first is what I call a company-specific national degree. We are actually providing a new degree program, which we're in the process of building, that is integrated into the University of Michigan, but in a rather nontraditional way. The process is being managed on a multi-campus basis. The School of Social Work at University of Michigan has a long linkage with the United Auto Workers in providing the United Auto Workers with tools that enables their employees to manage their life-long knowledge environment. As the world of technology change has swept over that, it became clear to the people who were doing that in the UAW that the old way they did it, which was essentially by having career knowledge acquisition counselors spread across all of the locals across the country, was no longer an adequate solution. There was a set of content that now needed to be associated with this, as opposed to just sort of counseling people.

Despite the fact that you think of the United Auto Workers probably as a monolithic organization, it isn't at all. The United Auto Workers that work with Ford Motor Company is really quite different in many ways from the United Auto Workers that work with GM and with Chrysler, and I'm talking about the set of United Auto Workers that in fact are associated with the Ford Motor Company here this afternoon.

So the School of Social Work has had this long relationship, and as the United Auto Workers working for Ford pressed back on this long relationship they said, "This isn't what we need anymore." The School of Social work, which is deeply committed to providing this kind of help to the UAW Ford employees, came to us in the Academic Outreach Program and said, "Now, what are the possibilities? What might we do here?" And we facilitated a linkage between the School of Social Work and our Dearborn campus, which is very closely associated of course with Ford Motor Company, because their home is in the same place that Ford lives, in terms of headquarters. And as a result University of Michigan Dearborn, working together with our School of Social Work, is now in the process of developing about three courses at a time, a new undergraduate degree environment for employees of Ford Motor Company represented by United Auto Workers all over the world. First of all, of course, the United States.

The program therefore is company specific, and it's funded not by the individuals, but by the client. But the client here is an interesting client. The client is the United Auto Workers, who, in union dues, has a regular flow of money from all of the employees to provide this service. So in fact there is a flow of funds that comes from the United Auto Workers and supports this program.

The notion, of course, is to provide a framework and a set of skills to create individuals who work for the auto companies who, in fact, are able to be knowledge workers. The focus is on learning at work and at home, and in fact the notion is a unique national industry degree with some inclusion of Ford Motor Company education and training. The assumptions are that all of this will be done at a standard of academic excellence that's commensurate with what the University of Michigan does in it's regular programs, that the students will primarily be screened for being qualified and many of them will have associates degrees, and in fact, and it's important to say, that there's a major focus on the liberal arts. Because this program is conceived very specifically, not to be about learning the specific skills that these workers need in order to do their job tomorrow, but rather prepares these workers to acquire the knowledge they need to acquire to go through their career. This is a program that is really focused on the long-term learning needs of the individuals involved.

We want, of course, in the long run because it's a University of Michigan degree for it to be highly recognized but portable, and we want it to be a suitable preparation for going on in other learning environments, in graduate work, and as a foundation for life-long learning. Of course, we're working hard to make sure that we work together with the Ford Motor Company so that the actual kinds of experiences we use to motivate learning fit into the experiences that the individuals in the program experience in their lives and that the company finds relevant to what they're doing, so that even though our focus is very much on a long-term knowledge agenda, the short-term applications can be found in the workplace and thereby motivates a set of real learning applications as opposed to just theoretical thinking about it. And so, for instance, a course that we have in our start up here is the sociology of the auto industry. Another course is a course in English composition, focused on the needs of the manufacturing workplace.

Now the notion here of making that kind of progress with a particular set of clients is of course a notion that is extremely different than what we do with our general programs on the University of Michigan campuses, and quite understandably we will see over the next four years the University of Michigan School of Social Work, the University of Michigan Dearborn Campus, the United Auto Workers, and the Ford Motor Company will continually evaluate this experience and try to understand whether it really makes sense. We don't know. It's an experiment.

Another experiment that we're engaged in, also with the auto industry, but quite different in structure, is what we call, and you may have heard about it, we call the Michigan Virtual Automotive College. Now, this one really came not from sort of a historical linkage between some core activity at the University of Michigan, but rather from a perception of broad need in the state. It became clear as you do the cohort analysis of employees of the automotive industry in Michigan that we're going to have to by 2003 hire about 130 thousand new people into the industry in the state of Michigan. If those people aren't available, the incentives are going to be very powerful for the industry to locate those jobs elsewhere. So the Governor and the auto industry together raised that as an issue and as an issue that's critical to the state's future. Furthermore, it's very clear that those 130 thousand new workers will be working in very different environments than has traditionally been the case for the people they are replacing. And the technology in which they are operating is really quite substantially different.

So when we looked at that issue, we took a close look at where it is that we could build a partnership that would support a new response, a new capability to respond to that need. And the partnership that founded this new effort is led by three organizations, three partners much more unlikely you could not find I think in the history of higher education. The first, why I'm standing here, is the University of Michigan. The second is Michigan State University, and for any of you who have lived in either of our environments you'll understand why this partnership is already an unlikely partnership. And the third is a state government agency, the Michigan Jobs Commission, which is the renamed Michigan Department of Commerce. Also involved are the big three auto companies, the major automobile suppliers, and perhaps as interesting as anything else, all of the state universities, four year colleges, and community colleges in the state of Michigan. And I mean here to say all of them.

It's really very different. When the three of us, Michigan, Michigan State, and the Jobs Commission, said, "We are going to establish the Virtual Automotive College," nobody stepped back and said, "I don't want anything to do with that." Everybody stepped forward and said, "I need to understand how it is I can be a part of it." It's not to say they didn't step forward with considerable skepticism and serious questions, but they did step forward. The result now is that we have a new organization, the Virtual Automotive College, which on one side, at the top, serves a set of students, on the one side has a set of content suppliers, universities and colleges in the state, on the other side has a set of consumers and by the way payers, the automotive industry and it's education units, and is built on an infrastructure and a public policy commitment by state government itself.

As we look at that, then, what does that central organization do, the organization that mediates the center of that space, the Michigan Virtual Automotive College? First of all it is a broker of technology enhanced content. The way this really works is that we go and talk extensively with the people in the automotive industry and try to understand what it is they need in their education and training environment. Then we go and talk intensively with the colleges and universities in the state of Michigan and say, "Here's what we've understood as the need. Are you in a position to supply that?" And we get proposals, essentially, flowing back and forth across this boundary, and we facilitate the offering of degrees and certificates from the institutions to the employees. We create in a sense a one-stop shop for the industry for its training and education, and we create an aggregated market for education to the higher education community in the state of Michigan. The long-term direction here, of course, is that if we can do this kind of activity within the state of Michigan, then we are also in a position to provide the same kind of services internationally, because of course the organizations we're serving are global organizations.

Michigan Virtual Automotive College is funded for its first year through money from the various partners at well above a million dollars. We're finishing up the first year as I speak. The next couple of years we'll be operating at a run rate starting here somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three million dollars and ramping pretty rapidly up to a ten million dollar operation. And the long-term strategy here is to create an organization that has physical independence and doesn't really require substantial funding outside of the funding that comes from the sales of its content, the membership fees, and grants it's able to acquire from people who are supporting development.

Now the interesting thing about all of this, having described it to you, is that we also concluded that it wasn't possible to operate such an institution within the space of any of our existing institutions. So we've created a new not-for-profit, a 501-C3, that is dedicated to pulling this partnership together and operating it. The Chairman of the Board right now is the president of the University of Michigan, the chairman of the executive committee is the president of Michigan State University, the executive committee includes the chief executive officers of the big three, each of them, and the head of the Jobs Commission in the state of Michigan, just to mention a few.

So what I wanted to do is provide you very briefly a description of what is really quite a different approach to the impact of technology on undergraduate education, because in fact this is about undergraduate education, just for quite a different clientele in a quite different setting. I look forward to talking to you further about it throughout the afternoon.



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URL: http://www.upenn.edu/heia/proceed/present/vanhouwelingtrans.html
Last modified: 19 January 1998