In Texas, Rethinking Education with New Tech Tools

Shaking up academia’s approach to higher learning with UTx, an ambitious technology initiative that empowers students to shape their own education.

This program was produced by the Marketing Department of WIRED and Ars in collaboration with CA Technologies.

It’s not revolutionary to say that technology is changing education, but it is revolutionary to create a model that enables this change largely from within the slow-moving framework of academia. That’s what the University of Texas is doing with UTx.

UTx is a portfolio of initiatives developed by the Institute for Transformational Learning, an arm of the University of Texas system tasked with increasing residents’ access to quality higher education. Among the key items in the UTx portfolio is TEx (which stands for Total Educational Experience). TEx is a platform that allows students to set their own pace and to receive real-time feedback from faculty following their progress online.

UTx is more aligned with a Netflix model, less like a course-catalog model.

— Phil Komarny, Chief Digital Officer. UTx

TEx debuted as part of a small pilot program at a border campus at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley. The platform served about 130 students and tracked more than 2.3 million data points as students worked their way through courses.

Using the data obtained by TEx and other sources, the UTx initiative is creating an online marketplace for students to help them find the courses and credentials, primarily in the fast-changing health and technology spheres, which will benefit them most in the job market. UTx will be available to students at all 14 campuses of the UT system in the near future.

A Netflix for Higher Learning

“UTx is more aligned with a Netflix model, less like a course-catalog model,” says

Phil Komarny, Chief Digital Officer for UTx. “Netflix is able to make those recommendations because it takes your information to tell you what you want to see. It’s impossible to do that in higher ed right now, because all of the data is dispersed across the vastness of every university’s data systems, and they’re all autonomous and own their own data.”

With UTx, courses are developed to align with in-demand job skills. Students’ own data helps ensure that they’re placed in the right courses, similar to how Netflix recommends a movie or TV show. The aim, says Komarny, is for students to own their own data records. The UTx platform interacts with those records to help students reach whatever goal they want to achieve, whether a full degree or practical certifications and skills.

But having the ability to identify the courses that are best suited to students’ goals is useful only if those courses actually exist, which is another role UTx serves.

Every time I look, there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in cybersecurity in every industry.”

— Kate Purcell, Director of Affiliate Outreach, UTx

Revamping the Traditional Course Catalog

Currently, it takes about a year for a course to be devised and created. Then it takes another year for it to go through the accreditation process, and still another for it to get built and put into the course catalog.

The UTx platform can help shorten the timeline for programs to align with industry changes. Participating schools still offer full degree programs, but those programs can also include “stackable certificates,” so students can collect marketable skills along the way. Additionally, industry certificates will be available to students alongside academic offerings. The platform analyzes education and workforce data, student feedback and administrators' own observations about in-demand skills to ensure those certificates align with industry needs.

UTx will launch the certificate approach with a cyber security program at the University of Texas-San Antonio in 2017. Kate Purcell, director of affiliate outreach for UTx, explains what that means for students who go through the BBA program.

“It’s a full degree, but within that, there'll be 20 to 30 certificates,” she says. “Every time I look, there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in cyber security in every industry.” The certificates, she says, will give students “a real credential [they] can take into the job market.”

Ultimately, UTx suggests a way forward for education that borrows from the technologies people use in their everyday lives and envisions cooperation between academia and industry. All of which leads to an education system that adapts to individual students' needs and even predicts the skills students will require to find work upon graduation. The job market, after all, is bound to look much different than when they first enrolled.

Dan Solomon
By Dan Solomon | January 31, 2017