The Idaho Virtual University: Let’s Follow the Apple Model for Success

If you want a heaping dose of inspiration for the day, view Steve Job’s keynote address at yesterday’s introduction of the new Apple iPad. This revolutionary computer will connect to the Internet through the 3G (cell phone) network and also through WiFI, greatly expanding the availability of Internet access. It is a well-planned and functional tablet computer, with Apple’s marvelous touch-screen technology and new applications built to work with it. Apple didn’t design a device to work with existing applications, but instead built the device first and then designed new applications to work on it.

The Apple engineers seem to think of everything, as usual, which gave me a revelation . . . Apple’s success is closely tied to its willingness or rather its insistence on creating products that people want and then designing applications to work with the product–not building a product that will work with existing applications. When you think about it, much of our current economic woes and difficulties in business are enmeshed in our unwillingness to change and admit that some of our current applications or ways of running businesses just don’t work anymore.

Why am I writing about this? Because I think it is time for Idaho adopt Apple’s model for success and design programs its citizens want–online degree programs they can take from an online university in Idaho. If people from Idaho were given the choice (and the price was right!) they would probably choose an Idaho online university rather than an online university from another state.

How important is online education? Well, read this latest report from the Sloan Consortium, the College Board, and the Babson Survey Research Group, “Learning on Demand: Online Education in the United States, 2009.” In this report you will find out that more than 4.6 million college and university students took at least one course online in 2008, more than a quarter of all post-secondary students in the U.S. This number represents a 17% growth increase over the previous year and outpaces higher education’s overall growth rate of 1.2% in the same period. Two-thirds of the institutions interviewed for this report said that they have experienced increased demand for new programs. NEW PROGRAMS!

“Online education continues to establish itself as demand remains strong and new applications materialize, such as contingency planning for campus emergencies,” said Frank Mayadas, special advisor for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funded the study. “We believe demand will fuel sustained growth especially within public universities and community colleges, raising the need to share research, optimal methods for faculty training, and other best practices to new levels of importance.”

Sustained growth? Who wouldn’t want that in Idaho? How do we get there? Here is my plan:

Create an Idaho Virtual University, created and shared by all Idaho institutions of higher learning. Faculty members can share their expertise and teach at this centralized online university, which can offer needed and innovative degree programs, certificates, and other courses throughout the state and beyond. The revenues from this Idaho Virtual University (I even have a cute title for it: IVU, pronounced “I-View,” which could symbolize a student’s ability to view a bright future and more) could be shared among the state institutions of higher learning, adding to their revenues, while also adding to state revenues in both direct and indirect ways–additional taxes generated, more jobs created in building the infrastructure of the IVU and administration, and more jobs created through a more highly skilled workforce.

But here’s the best part: It would simplify the offering and sharing of courses among universities. No fee sharing, no sharing of student records, no complicated procedures for students to follow, (remember, each institution may have different start/stop dates, different due dates for grades), no additional administrative procedures. It would be simple, geared toward student needs, and move Idaho into the competitive yet promising field of online learning. The State Board of Education could sanction this new online university and it could start immediately, designating degree programs, designing and offering courses, and get Idaho moving forward in online education.

Can universities follow Apple’s business model for innovation, vision, and meeting the customer’s needs? Sure we can, and Idaho Virtual University could be a great start.

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