Digital Campus

What the radical shifts in higher education and online learning mean for Norwich University


This article was written on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the founding of the online College of Graduate and Continuing Studies at Norwich University and first appeared in the Norwich Record, the university's quarterly alumni magazine.

Norwich and Apple share an anniversary. Twenty years ago, both launched radical new tech products. For Norwich, it was a degree-granting online distance learning program. For Apple, it was the iMac, a personal desktop computer about the size of a small microwave. The iMac combined a tower and screen into a single cartoony wedge-shaped monitor. Encased in fruity shades of translucent plastic, it signaled the coming Apple i-revolution, from iPhones to iTunes.

Back in 1998, NU’s first online students likely logged onto the internet via phone-line dialup on 56kbps modems. Some may have even used iMacs. Classes followed a basic read, write, discuss model—a typical campus course minus the lecture. Twenty years on, the underlying technology and market for CGCS programs have changed entirely.

Today CGCS is a vital virtual campus with over 1,600 students in 6 undergraduate degree-completion and 13 master’s programs. It graduates as many or more students each year than NU’s nearly two-century-old traditional campus and does so at a modest profit. The college has contributed $38 million to the university’s bottom line in the last 15 years.

CGCS courses are not the product of a single PhD but a team of subject-matter experts and instructional designers who combine academic content, user-centric platform architecture, and insights from the latest brain science on learning to tailor courses for online success. Data analytics to grade the efficacy of individual lessons are now in reach, as is a near-future when virtual reality and AI will likely play a role in the online campus experience.

Pointing out that Norwich and Apple share a product anniversary is not to equate the university with a tech pioneer whose current $992 billion market valuation makes it the most valuable public company in the world. Rather, it is to highlight how profoundly technology and the market have changed for both since CGCS and the iMac debuted.

Norwich was an early adopter when its first online program went live. Today, the online higher-ed market is beyond saturated. “The question isn’t who has an online MBA today,” says Megan Liptak, a CGCS residency coordinator. “The question is, who doesn’t?” Depending on who you talk to, the changes of the past two decades for CGCS and its peers will pale in comparison to what lies ahead.

For much of its history, CGCS has been led by William Clements. The long-serving vice president and dean began his Norwich career on the traditional campus faculty. Fresh from his PhD studies, the young professor coded HTML web pages to share criminal justice course information with his students. Speaking in his office on a recent Friday afternoon, Clements comes across as a forward-looking thinker and entrepreneur, one more inclined to take his bearings from the writings of Harvard Business School faculty, Silicon Valley, private equity researchers, and his own extensive reading and networking than the sleepier corners of academia. His wall bears a certificate from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Which is to say that when Clements references the powerful market forces upending traditional and online higher education today, he speaks from experience and with insight. The administrator describes a landscape of tectonic shifts driven by new competition, declining enrollments, transforming technology, and the growing student debt crisis.

Clements traces the roots of many of these changes back to the early 2000s. For the first time, the rising cost of a college education outstripped the ability of an average family to pay for it. In the years since, the gap has only grown wider. So wide that colleges facing cuts from other funding sources, such as federal grant funding and state subsidies, can no longer simply raise tuition to cover their own growing expenses. “What is most clear is the business model is broken,” Clements says. “What is less clear is the exact pathway forward.” Seeing opportunity in the demand for new skills in today’s knowledge economy, private equity is investing billions in companies and startups focused on higher education. Investment has also owed in the opposite direction, albeit against the prevailing current.

Purdue University, the flagship campus of the Indiana state university system, recently purchased Kaplan, the for-profit company known for its test prep, tutoring centers, and 32,000-student online university from its former Washington Post parent company. And then there is New York. Last year, its public college system began offering free tuition to state residents, provided they stick around after graduation to work for a while.

One change that vexes Clements more than most relates to the increasing modularization of higher ed. In the same way that food giants such as Sodexo have taken over campus dining facilities, large publishers have encroached on what was once the exclusive domain of faculty, offering ready-made courses and programs practically off the shelf to any university willing to partner up and pay up. By way of example, Clements points to cybersecurity and his recent experience encountering yet another college, this one in West Virginia, offering a new cybersecurity program taught to Department of Homeland Security and National Security Agency national standards.

For Clements, the salient point is less about who than how and what that means. For-profit publishers such as Pearson have effectively moved out of the textbook business and into the knowledge business, he says. They have developed not only textbooks but also lesson plans, curricula, and interactive-learning environments. To offer a new course or even an academic program, universities don’t have to hire a raft of new faculty with hard-won expertise. “That barrier is gone ... eroded by innovation in the private sector,” Clements says. In his view, the shift is a profound one. “No longer does the university have monopoly on knowledge. That is what makes this fundamentally different than simply the introduction of the internet. The whole business model is changing,” he says. In his mind, that raises key questions: “What then, as a university, is your role? Where’s your value? And how do you prove it?”

For answers, it helps to examine some bodies. Specifically, the dead ones that Rosemarie Pelletier, PhD, has kept in her basement for awhile now. You may or may not expect as much from a former lobbyist and self-described “Sicilian from Brooklyn” who keeps a baseball bat in her office. The bodies aren’t real, of course. They’re fakes made of rubbery plastic ordered from, where else, Amazon. But more on the ersatz corpses in a bit

Pelletier is a CGCS professor and program director in both the Master of Public Administration program and the Master of Science in Information Security and Assurance, aka cybersecurity. A sharp, no-nonsense sweetheart who favors pinks and purples, Pelletier has lobbied on Capitol Hill and in Richmond, served on technology advisory boards for two Virginia governors, and built a private consulting business that oversaw a $350 million highway project in Northern Virginia. When it comes to working her Rolodex, Pelletier is an ace. In her five years at CGCS, she has assembled two high-powered advisory boards, recruiting cybersecurity, technology and government experts from NBC Universal, Akamai, General Motors, and local government in the red-hot northern Virginia suburbs. Guided by their insights, Pelletier and her CGCS colleagues have steered academic programming in new directions, rolling out new concentrations in nonprofit management, municipal governance, vulnerability management, and public administration leadership and crisis management. Next year, advisory board members will conduct mock job interviews with graduates and offer resume critiques during Residency Conference.

As for the bodies, they doubled as victims of a fake murder spree staged during Residency, a culminating five-day symposium for CGCS graduates capped by commencement ceremonies. The mock crime was planned for the benefit of students concentrating in digital forensics. Working as a group, they applied their new professional skills in a hands-on workshop to solve the case--hacking digital devices, preserving and gathering additional physical evidence, and analyzing the lot. This year, the mock murders continue. Archer Mayor, the best-selling crime novelist, former cop, and a Vermont State death investigator, wrote the backstory. Northfield police, Vermont State Police, and Vermont Attorney General staff will also participate, lending verisimilitude to the experience.

George Silowash, a CGCS instructor and associate director of the college’s cybersecurity master’s program, has been deeply involved in both exercises. Silowash, who also serves as NU’s chief information security officer, is a CGCS alum. Like many, he entered the MS in information security and assurance program after experiencing a familiar epiphany. “I was sitting at my desk” at a health insurance company in Pittsburgh, he recalls, “and realized I didn’t want to do this anymore.” He saw an online ad from Norwich for what was then called the School of Graduate Studies and applied.

Silowash jokes that his Amazon order history related to the Residency workshops—bleach, latex gloves, plastic baggies, etc.—may one day catch up with him. “I keep expecting that knock on the door.” Joshing aside, the culminating projects are designed to provide graduates door-opening professional experience. MBA candidates, for example, produce case studies for businesses, some in the Fortune 500. (Non-disclosure agreements prevent staff from discussing them in detail.)

Last year, in the wake of reported widespread Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Pelletier and Silowash designed a Residency project for cybersecurity majors to test and exploit the cyber vulnerabilities of voting machines. The pair bought three used Diebold machines on eBay for $50 each, which were put up for sale by a Virginia county. The exercise didn’t last long. “It took about three minutes to hack the machines,” Silowash recalls. “They were full of voter data.”

In his classes, Silowash strives to engage learners. Students in his 11-week computer forensic investigations class used software to probe an ersatz corporate data breach and intellectual property theft at a fictional company called MegaDeal. In another exercise, students reconstructed the virtual trail of a ring of criminals trading in illicit rhinoceros photos.

Given all that, it seems fair to argue that the bodies, which until recently were sitting in Rosemarie Pelletier’s basement, spark a broader story about the value and quality of CGCS as a whole.

One of the business thinkers that CGCS Dean Clements reads is Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor and author. In the late ’90s, Christensen introduced his theory of “disruptive innovation” to describe how dominant industries can be upstaged by newcomers. These upstarts produce cheaper, novel versions of established products that, while initially inferior, reach new markets of previously untapped consumers. Over time, the upstarts continue to innovate until the quality of their own products eclipse those of their once-dominant competitors.

Christensen applied his model to industries such as auto manufacturing and steel to explain how leading companies in those fields were at first dismissive of then outfoxed by new entrants. Consider Detroit’s Big Three and upstart Japanese car maker Toyota in the 1960s and ’70s. Eventually, Christensen applied his theory of disruptive innovation to his own industry, higher education. His work on the subject includes the 2008 book The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, published with coauthor Henry J. Eyring.

In their manifesto, Christensen makes two key points relevant to this story. First, as a result of the disruptive innovation in higher education “focus shifts from a teacher’s credentials or an institution’s prestige to what students actually learn.” He also notes that there are two distinct groups of students: your typical carefree 18- to 22-year-olds and students with jobs and families. This second group, he writes, doesn’t “want to spend time on campus to earn a degree. They want to learn when they have time to learn—often after work, when their children are asleep. New entrants to higher education that focus on these potential students are indeed classic disruptors.”

Norwich was prescient to launch its own disruptive innovator in CGCS. The challenge before the university today is to continue to innovate. “The question is not, should the university expand its vision of what learning is and how it meets its constituents needs?” Clements says. “It’s, how are we going to do it?”

The dean and his CGCS colleagues have no shortage of ideas. Striving to make CGCS programming more flexible and affordable, the college has expanded beyond traditional degree tracks—launching a host of new programs. Many span an array of professional fields and can be completed in a matter of months, weeks, or even days. They range from 40-hour, postgraduate cybersecurity professional certificates that are standard requirements in the industry to a drone-pilot-license program for first-responder search-and-rescue operators to a planned three-week leadership program in international business based in Chengdu, China, as well as current partnerships with the U.S.Army National Guard and Marine Corps to provide mission-specific training for military personnel.

In the future, CGCS will be challenged to take on an even larger role for the university, as Norwich looks to expand its reach, serve more students, and raise revenue to drive further innovation and serve the NU mission. A new 17-year strategic plan, Norwich After Next, envisions new satellite campuses for the university anchored by CGCS programming.

Amid all the Sturm und Drang around the role and influence of online higher education, it can be easy to lose sight of who it’s for and the impact that a college like CGCS has had on the lives and careers of its 8,000 alumni.

The CGCS graduating Class of 2018 includes Olivia Parker, a high school English teacher and track-and-field coach from Seymour, Tenn., who earned a master’s degree in history; Nicole Petker, an environmental engineer at the Water Infrastructure Finance Authority of Arizona in Phoenix, who earned a master’s degree in civil engineering; and Brad Hanson from Milton, Vt., who completed a bachelor degree in criminal justice and is now a cold case investigator with the Vermont State Police.

And then there’s Andrew Duncklee, who began his college career as a Norwich cadet, but dropped out after his sophomore year because he wasn’t quite ready for college. Working in industry for a while, Duncklee earned an associate degree at a New Hampshire community college. There, he was challenged by a mentor, Henry Collier, an Army reservist who now leads the undergraduate degree-completion program in cybersecurity at CGCS, to complete his bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. While still a student at CGCS, Duncklee was hired as an IT security engineer by Dartmouth College. “When I think of success,” Collier says, “I think of Andrew.”

That the list of CGCS graduates is long and growing overall bodes well for the college and for Norwich. “We always like to say the world needs more Norwich graduates,” Clements says.

“The core of the university is our 200-year history as a senior military college. We don’t want to ever lose sight of that contribution,” he says. “We just need to redefine it for the next century, for the next iteration of Norwich.”

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