"But technology is a great multiplier just like in business, and it gives you the ability to do that," Demillo notes.
At Arizona State University in Tempe, President Michael Crow also is a believer in innovation's ability to improve and scale up teaching — and make better use of time.
Five years ago, ASU was already tearing down department walls, embracing technology in the classroom and re-engineering research across disciplines. Then the Great Recession's housing bust crushed Arizona's economy, and ASU's state funding was slashed by half. Suddenly, ASU had to push even harder.
"Innovation doesn't occur when you're lying around on the beach," Crow says.
ASU's challenges mirror the country's — and the world's. Amid scarce resources, the university is trying to accommodate diverse and growing demand.
Unlikely virtually any other major American university, ASU grew substantially through the downturn, expanding from 53,000 students to 72,000 over the last decade. Completion rates are up, too, so the number of graduates has doubled.
Classroom technology is a part of that. On a recent weekday morning, a handful of students work through problems in a developmental math course that looks little like the traditional model. There's no lecturer or blackboard; software takes students through the material at their own speed, adjusting to their errors. An instructor is available to answer questions — a model that's proven cheaper and more effective than the traditional class.
Yet what matters most here isn't the technology in the room. It's this: Most students have mastered the material and moved on ahead of schedule.
ASU has broken the traditional two-semester model into six pieces, which includes accelerated, seven-and-a-half week versions of some classes. So students who finish these flexible introductory courses don't have to wait nearly another two months to start a new class; they can pick up a new one immediately, and move more quickly toward a degree.
"We began to say, 'What are all these sacred cows about time?'" Crow says. "What we're looking for is intensification by freeing up the clock."
Some of these innovations alarm traditionalists who consider education a "seasoning process" that can't be rushed. But Crow says one goal is to free up faculty resources for upper-division and critical thinking courses where that kind of interaction really matters, and for the other endeavors of a physical university.
He says it would be a "fatal error" to totally unbundle the college degree not just from the institution but from the importance of interacting with human faculty.
The factory model definitely has its advantages: Peer pressure — and paying tuition — incentivize students to stick with classes. By contrast, roughly 90 percent of people who sign up for MOOCs don't complete them.
Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller counters that most MOOC enrollees don't want or need a whole class, so the courses help solve academia's problem of wasted time. But she acknowledges that MOOCs can't do everything.
"If you have the opportunity to sit in a classroom with a great lecturer, 12 people around the table having a discussion, then by all means that is the best educational experience you can have," Koller, a former Stanford computer science professor, told a recent conference of education journalists.
"I'm not trying to substitute that with technology," she said. "But even at Stanford I can't make the claim that students spend the majority of their time in classes with less than 20 people."
Changes to concepts of academic time could have far-reaching effects, on both costs and classrooms.