March 3, 2019; The Chronicle of Higher Education
Some might assume an institution of higher learning would do its homework before announcing to the world that it was reinventing higher education in five years. After jumping in with both feet, the University of Texas at Austin, a research institution, had to cancel a five-year project only two years in.
The ambitious program was to incorporate state-of-the-art online classes involving studio-recorded sessions, redesigned curricula, short courses, and fractional credit courses for undergraduate degree programs. It was to be “futuristic” and “bold.” College president Gregory L. Fenves announced in 2016 that most of Austin’s students would be enrolled in the overhauled courses in five years. Project 2021 was born.
The first piece of the grand idea came from Professor James W. Pennebaker. He and a colleague had brought software into a class that allowed professors to quiz students during every class, and the data showed that learning disparities between students decreased. They then created an online course, initially livestreamed from a studio using greenscreens. It was called a “synchronous massive online course,” or SMOC, and UT was proud that it was the first.
Online teaching grew five percent between 2015 and 2016; it was becoming more mainstream, and it allowed for less real estate—a studio instead of a lecture hall. Pennebaker thought he could take that interest in online courses as a building block to revamp higher learning, forming a temporary research team to help implement it.
From there, Project 2021 grew, and that might be part of the problem. It seems the initiative didn’t grow from student demand or from research showing a definitive opportunity to serve students better. It grew from one professor who had a success in one course, and from the outside momentum in the education world toward digitized or “reimagined” learning experiences—of which data about learning outcomes is actually pretty shaky.
The administrators chose the Center for Learning Sciences (Faculty Innovation Center) to help revamp courses, the Texas Extended Campus (that includes high school students and courses related to Texas oil-and-gas industry) to raise the funds, the SMOCs studio to churn out new courses, and a research team to oversee it. It sounds like a plan, but there was confusion between the president’s vision and Pennebaker’s ideas.
Only a month after the president’s announcement, while they were still being produced, the description of the SMOCs was removed from the outreach; it was thought to scare people away. The notion of fractional classes to bring students up to speed with abridged prerequisites did not consider all the logistics of the credit system—an example of the larger problem, in which an idea that was innovative and perhaps more efficient on a small scale did not interact well with university bureaucracy. Switching to a three-week, half-credit course would involve updating the students’ information system. Then, there’s financial aid. Federal aid and many scholarships are based on credit hours. The person in charge of leading the innovation project was not aware of how the credit system worked or how it interacted with other systems.
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Some progress was made at the department level and some SMOCs were produced, but the impact on student experience and learning outcomes—which, after all, ought to have been the goal against which progress was measured—seemed inconclusive on any scale bigger than a class or a department.
Along with chaotic direction and the bureaucracy of a university, funding became an issue. Project 2021’s original budget required money from the Texas University system, the extended campus, and the provost’s office, plus tuition and fee revenue—which includes non-matriculated students.
The provost, Maurie Dee McInnis, who began after the launch of Project 2021, was concerned about universities that “pour tens of millions of dollars into the fad of online, of MOOCs [massive online open courses], of a variety of different things,” with “little to show for it.” Her office did not release the promised $16 million because who the money would be spent “was not concretely articulated.”
Meanwhile, it was determined by the chief business officer, Jamie Southerland, that the Extended Campus had been operating about $3 million in the red. The petroleum-education team had been losing non-matriculated students and business when oil prices fell in 2014.
The 2017 budget contained a 40 percent cut for Project 2021, with the project only expected to receive a million dollars. Late 2017 found significant downscaling; the project had lost staff and money as leadership realized they could not restructure a university that serves 50,000 students at a systems level in five years. After considering scaling back further or becoming a consulting group to the president and provost, Project 2021 was shut down completely.
The Faculty Innovation Center director, Hillary Hart, said it was the combination of not enough time, resources, buy-in, and attention that killed Project 2021. Lindsay Ellis at the Chronicle of Higher Education writes,
Data can’t entirely capture many aspects of “those complex ways in which you touch students,” McInnis says. And instructional changes at a decentralized place like Austin should be left to the departments or individual colleges, she said, not a separate program like Project 2021. She does list some positives, such as the SMOCs and departments revitalizing their curricula.
Other research institutions should learn from Project 2021: Incremental changes have a better chance of success and thorough budget preparations are necessary, as is understanding the bureaucracy—the internal and external policies that move higher education along its tracks. Certainly, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, with its “Be Revolutionary,” and Oregon State University with “Transformation, Excellence, and Impact,” both looking at 2023 for implantation, should take a careful look at UT Austin’s Project 2021.—Marian Conway