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The Idea of the Digital University

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digital-universityDr. Frank McCluskey worked for me as Provost at the American Public University System (APUS) for six years before retiring and moving to a new role as Scholar in Residence.  During his tenure as Provost, we spent a lot of time discussing the rapid changes in online higher education.  Frank’s experience as a faculty member in traditional and online courses, interest in technology, and passion for lifelong learning sparked many of these discussions and helped guide our management decisions.  Frank earned his doctorate in philosophy and, perhaps because of his education, has been a fan of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, a compilation of lectures originally published in the 1850’s when Newman was asked to head the Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin).

In The Idea of a University, Cardinal Newman espouses his philosophy of education; in his latest book, The Idea of a Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies, and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education, Dr. McCluskey and co-author, Melanie Winter, espouse their own thoughts about digital higher education.  In the opening chapter, they reveal their thesis: Even though the digital university is different than the traditional university, there are certain well-established philosophies that must live in the digital university if it is to maintain its “heart,” the passion for educating.

One of the many notable points they make in the book is that the digital footprint in the electronic classroom provides impetus for a focused switch on learning rather than teaching.  The electronic records of the classroom can be accessed by those who are not faculty.  McCluskey and Winter argue that the evaluation of learning outcomes and activities inside the electronic classroom should not occur without faculty input and that a continued shared governance should occur in order to keep the university from losing its “heart” and becoming strictly a business.  At the same time, the authors argue that “we treasure what we measure” and that more rigorous evaluations of learning should have begun years before the onset of online learning.

The availability of sophisticated data analysis tools has brought the subject of “Big Data” to the forefront in business and now in higher education.  McCluskey and Winter state that Big Data “gives the modern university the tools to separate what is essential from what is accidental” and yet caution that data will not provide a direction to the university.  Data “will only guide [the university] once we have a concept of what we are trying to accomplish and how we want to get there.”

During his tenure as provost at APUS, Dr. McCluskey and I consistently agreed on two governing principles:  (1) our mission to provide an affordable quality education to our students was sacrosanct and (2) APUS was a university first and foremost.  While Dr. McCluskey and his co-author Ms. Winter have written a more detailed and more elegant argument for embracing the benefits of technology and maintaining the heart and philosophy of higher education, I believe that the two tenets of mission and university first apply to the underlying chapters of this work. Their book is a recommended read for anyone in higher education who is involved with the technological revolution (or evolution).  Hopefully, blending the best of the old with the best of the new will resonate as a sound argument with most.

(note: Dr. McCluskey’s co-author, Ms. Melanie Winter, has worked in higher education for over 30 years with many years of service as a registrar at traditional, online, non-profit, and for-profit institutions.  She was also a colleague of mine at the American Public University System and recently retired from Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.)

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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