The Idea of the Digital University

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.)

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence