The transformation of higher education through digital learning is picking up steam, and major public research universities are increasingly in the mix. The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and Arizona State University (ASU) are among the research universities that have recently generated national attention for their MOOC’s, low-cost online programs, and other digital learning efforts.

Unfortunately, many universities are focusing intensely on technology for reaching off-campus enrollees when the greatest and best use of online learning implies an entirely new learning infrastructure for all students—both on campus and off. UT Austin’s early efforts embrace this reality and have already helped cut failure rates in entry-level STEM courses for on-campus students by nearly half.

Focusing less on the dizzying pace of technological advancements and more on how a redesigned campus infrastructure for learning can advance broader institutional goals means avoiding four common pitfalls.

The first pitfall is a “tech first” mindset. One reason educational technology tends to under-deliver is that it evolves so quickly and soon becomes outdated. But if universities invest in flexible infrastructure, production studios, digital content repositories, and faculty support structure, they can build an innovation engine that recharges. At Indiana University, for example, IU Online, which offers more than 100 online degrees and academic certificate programs, is creating an infrastructure for online course development, including instructional and technical design. And UIUC has set up a Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning that supports faculty in the design, creation, and implementation of online courses.

The second pitfall is failure to differentiate on- and off-campus experiences. Digital learning is blurring the lines. Indeed, some universities advertise dozens of “campus” degrees offered completely online, ASU and Penn State among them. Other campuses are buying online courses from publishers and selling them under their own brands. In the context of rapidly expanding off-campus learning options, the onus will be on institutions that emphasize residential undergraduate programs to specify the value and justify the cost. We need to ask hard questions about the value of our degrees.

Over the past year at UT Austin, we have involved hundreds of faculty and students in this discussion and developed two early takeaways. First, faculty and students are generally open to flexible academic calendars, more efficient degree plans, and alternative modes of delivery that take advantage of digital learning. Second, the ways faculty and students think about the value of an undergraduate education has surprisingly little to do with content knowledge and much more to do with acquiring skills through transformative experiences, such as working in labs, participating in internships, or studying abroad. One of our near-term goals is to leverage digital learning to focus resources on these kinds of high-value activities and outcomes. Over time, research universities may increasingly use technology to extend access to their labs, as in the MIT iLabs, but we are a long way from replacing the dynamics of our physical labs with online environments.

The third pitfall is failure to connect online learning to a university’s overall business model. Here, digital learning offers a partial solution to one factor eroding traditional university economics: transfer credits for entry-level coursework. Historically, lower-cost lecture courses subsidized specialized, upper-division courses. Today, an average university freshman arrives on campus with more than a semester of credit earned in high school, online, or from local community colleges, which shrinks the need for lower-cost entry-level courses. This trend is accelerating as more states guarantee the transfer of courses among public institutions.

To illustrate the challenge, the number of college credit awarded to high-school students in Texas grew from about 100,000 hours in 1999-2000 to more than 1.2 million hours in 2013-2014. Community colleges delivered more than 90 percent of these. At UT Austin, schools transfer in more than 80,000 undergraduate courses annually, including many taken in high school.

New educational technologies can empower faculty and their universities to reengage the curriculum by effectively becoming hubs for digital learning that reaches high-school and community-college students. That’s one goal for UT Austin’s OnRamps initiative. Students can earn credit in blended courses offered in local high schools and community colleges that are specifically designed to align with later expectations at the university. At UT Austin and other universities, students will increasingly be able to use performance in the university’s own hybrid and online courses to demonstrate their competitiveness to admissions officers. Tuition from these online courses can also support more specialized, upper-division courses and unique learning experiences that bring renown to students, faculty, and institutions.

The fourth pitfall is a failure to rethink governance structures, so that faculty and other stakeholders can have substantial input into the institution’s digital-learning strategy and infrastructure. For example, intellectual property policies have not kept up with the pace of online innovation. If universities own faculty-created online intellectual property, and faculty compensation is independent of student participation and online course success, what are the incentives to teach 10,000 students rather than 100, or to participate at all? Policies run the gamut, including university ownership at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; joint rights at Purdue University; and faculty ownership at the University of California, Irvine. 

At UT Austin we have worked closely with our faculty council to augment our governance structures to deal with these issues. We have also taken the position that faculty should own the intellectual property they create for online courses and license it to the university. Our faculty council is actively engaged on related issues, such as revenue-sharing and guidelines for course quality, and has created new structures for recommending policy changes. Although in place for less than a year, this structure is already clarifying lines of responsibility and decision-making authority.

Of course, not all faculty members are optimistic about digital learning. Some professors see digital learning as a strategy to reduce faculty, and assert system or administrative control over students’ learning experiences. Unfavorable scenarios cast faculty as mere contract experts, work for hire, or, worse, talking heads in online videos long after they’ve been let go. We are working hard to take these issues into account (for example, granting faculty members ownership of online courses they create) so that no faculty member feels exploited, and to create incentives for academic units to drive large-scale academic innovation. 

We are still at the dawn of the digital-learning era. Early approaches by these major public research universities are advancing fruitful dialogue around how to accelerate the revolutionary potential of online education and enable even better outcomes for graduates. While the latest technology will always have allure, these institutions’ less-glamorous efforts to rethink their learning infrastructures merit close scrutiny as others seek models to follow.