Vision Council discusses Penn State's future and needed changes

January 21, 2013

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The group tasked with envisioning a path for Penn State in the coming years received a day’s worth of input Jan. 19, as leaders from throughout the University pondered the future and got a glimpse of a changing educational landscape, courtesy of renowned experts.

Titled “Planning for a New Higher Education Ecosystem,” the recently formed Blue and White Vision Council’s seminar at The Nittany Lion Inn included extensive discussion about how the University must be nimble in the area of technology, and how the World Campus has given Penn State a stable foothold amid rapid breakthroughs in online learning, like massive open online courses or MOOCs.

“It’s important that we have an understanding of how technology has already transformed teaching, learning and scholarship at Penn State,” said Karen Peetz, chairwoman of the council and a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. “And how is that likely to change even further in the future? We need to understand the relationship of the advancements in technology, the infrastructure and development of platforms required, as well as the relationship to other pressing issues facing the University, such as sustainability of funding, maintaining and developing our physical plant, and tuition issues. What would a winning digital strategy for Penn State look like and how might it help strengthen Penn State’s academic mission, while also containing costs?”

Formed in November, the 24-member council consists of trustees as well as academic and administrative leaders from the University. The council’s aim is to identify key strategic challenges and opportunities facing Penn State in the next five to 10 years and to assess the implications for the University, including the pending search for a successor to President Rodney Erickson, who will retire in 2014.

Saturday’s seminar included representatives from the University Presidential Search and Screen Committee, the President’s Councilthe Academic Leadership Council and the Penn State MOOC Strategy Group, along with students as well as Outreach and information technology staff members. 

Posed with challenges such as diminished state funding and a significant decrease in Pennsylvania’s high school population, council member and Trustee Joel Myers said the University must transform and be ready to experiment with different approaches in online education.

“Revolutions rarely happen as anyone expects,” he said as he rhetorically asked participants if the University could move fast enough to change its fundamental operations to stay abreast of rapid changes in technology, since every area of higher education from admissions, research and the libraries to teaching and learning, is being impacted.

“We need to be flexible,” he said. “The path we are on is unsustainable and the current model from which we operate will have to change. Alternatives to traditional higher education keep appearing and are rapidly multiplying offering a lower cost alternative. How will we compete?”

Myers called for the integration of digital devices, mobile technology, video, social media, new applications and content, and even game theory in creating a learning experience in the classroom and online that’s more individually tailored and fosters more entrepreneurial spirit. As the University explores options, it has multiple advantages, Myers said, including its beautiful campus, alumni network, strong brand recognition, dedicated and experienced faculty and staff, diversity, clubs and activities, sporting events and the World Campus.

Started in 1998 with five programs, the World Campus now has 90 programs, and the University projects 25,000 students will be enrolled in the online campus by 2020. Enrollment for fall 2012 neared 12,000, a more than 16 percent increase from the previous year.

Wayne Smutz, executive director of the World Campus, said the University’s online initiative is succeeding because it offers an exceptional learning experience, convenience, flexibility and connection to the Penn State family, among other advantages. Professors are receiving positive evaluations from students, Smutz said, and students are making meaningful connections with instructors and classmates in the digital realm. The course completion rate is 90 percent for undergraduates and 95 percent for graduate students.

Even with those successes, Penn State needs to “champion an agile service-oriented university culture,” Smutz said, and continue to improve its online offerings.

“The times demand that we start to do something,” he said, “and we at the World Campus are ready to start moving.” Penn State's World Campus is poised for significant growth with a new strategic plan to advance new programs, marketing and student support, Smutz said.

Cole Camplese, senior director of Teaching and Learning with Technology at Penn State, lauded the University for recent technology achievements. Student and professor blogs are generating increased interest, a new art course offered on iTunes U has 30,000 subscribers worldwide, and his own classes include an additional screen showing real-time input from students sent via Twitter.

“We have to continue our innovative spirit here,” he said.

Guest speakers Michael Horn, executive director of Innosight Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank, and Clay Shirky, an author and instructor on new technologies and social media, said that rapidly changing technologies pose a threat to the traditional model of learning at bricks-and-mortar institutions, and universities should not be resistant to change. (To read more about the guest speakers' presentations, see

According to Horn, 50 percent of all college students will be taking at least one online course by 2015; by 2019, 50 percent of high school courses are expected to have some sort of online learning component.

Frank Mayadas, founder of the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to integrating online education into the mainstream of higher education, said, “The future is determined by what people are doing today.” He encouraged the University to begin looking at how the latest breakthroughs can enhance learning, even if the bugs are still being worked out of some of the tools. Technology will keep improving, he said. The Sloan Consortium has recognized the World Campus with awards for Excellence in Institution-Wide Online Education, Outstanding Achievement in Online Education by an Individual for director Smutz and Outstanding Online Program for the bachelor's degree in energy and sustainability policy.

The day concluded with the formation of smaller groups, tasked with discussing different topics -- “institutional strategy and response,” “positioning Penn State as a leader in the digital revolution” and “technology infrastructure” among them -- and then presenting key thoughts to the entire group.

The council will continue its discussions over the coming year as its members look for strategies that will help Penn State deal with what experts are calling “large and systemic changes” in higher education that will force institutions to adopt new models or become irrelevant.

The Blue and White Vision Council is advised by former University of Illinois President Stan Ikenberry, who is now a senior fellow at Penn State and a leader in higher education. Discussions among a diverse group, like Saturday’s seminar, improve communication, openness and transparency as the University moves forward, he said.

Ikenberry sees the University facing the same challenges posed by technology as other universities; however, the World Campus’ 15-year history positions Penn State to offer “a more sophisticated conversation.”

“Penn State has a strong foundation from which to build,” Ikenberry said.

Last Updated October 13, 2013