Monday, December 24, 2012

another view on the “future” of higher education

Year's end is, traditionally, a time of reflection, taking stock and then thinking ahead, making predictions, resolutions. Needless to say, these are stock themes in blogging the Janus season, higher ed not excepted. So unless someone throws me a must blog bomb, re-blogging selected posts and, in the case of overflow, ad hoc link collections from the feed reader's bounty will be my holiday break. Time, energy and especially inclination permitting, I'll probably fit in my own reflections and 2013 wish list somewhere along the way here or elsewhere. This view is from orgtheory 

Average folks and higher education researchers have conflicting views of academia. Average folks believe that most college teachers are tenured professors and that most students are residential students who play ultimate Frisbee on the quad. Higher education researchers have a different view. We know that most teachers are actually part time adjuncts and graduate students. Residential college is for the top of the pool. Most students are part time commuters or community college students. The mistake that people make is that the most visible forms of higher education (e.g., elite research universities and liberal arts schools) are the most common.

This split between folk wisdom and what the experts know is evident in David Purcell’s comment:
Higher ed and how students are credentialed (see the recent discussions on badges) are clearly going to evolve. In short, I see higher ed bifurcating into “good schools” and “everything else,” not unlike the labor market.
The common folk wisdom is that the Internet will make this happen. The experts know that this has already happened and it has nothing to do with online courses or other Internet based learning. 

Basically, students want two things from higher education. Some want genuine engagement and learning – and that immersion is hard to replicate on the Internet. But most want job credentials. So what do you get? The research universities and elite liberal arts colleges specialize being places of advanced learning. That’s where you go if you really want to learn science or philosophy, or other serious topics. It also acts as a credential. 

So where does the split into “the best and the rest” come from? The average student doesn’t want or need advanced training in anything. They need a credential and some basic vocational instruction. And you don’t need a fancy research university to do that. Once people realized that, then the natural tendency was to “deskill” colleges. Once the tenured folks retire, replace them with adjuncts and graduate students. Bloat the large lecture classes, and so forth. Administrators soak up the savings.
Why do we need residential colleges? As long as college degrees signal a degree of conformity, they can’t be done online. Remote and online learning is often – justifiably – interpreted as the tool used by people who simply can’t deal with a regular college. As long as that is true, the residential college is here to stay.
From the “future” of higher education + comments... read, join the conversation by add ng your own


  1. On Christmas Eve, with the sun shining brightly through the window on this cold day, I should have hope. But with the world as it is, the state of things, I can only think of Yeats' words, and though he wrote them in the aftermath of WWI, they are reminiscent, drearily so, of today's nightmares: the state of education and the mess we have with adjuncts overbalancing academia, with guns, with government, with immigration... To Yeats, then, I dedicate my reflections of today. I am sure you will have much more to add.
    The Second Coming
    WB Yeats
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.
    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again; but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

  2. September 1, 1939 by W. H. Auden

    I sit in one of the dives
    On Fifty-second Street
    Uncertain and afraid
    As the clever hopes expire
    Of a low dishonest decade:

  3. Well, shit, I can't do this in verse, but I see a slightly different future being forced on us, and also some ways we could possibly respond.

    Vanessa's original post is accurate as far as it goes, but leaves out another factor: privatization of public colleges and eventually universities.

    It has been building steam in community colleges by burying faculty under time-wasting bureaucratic paperwork for "Student Learning Outcomes." The reward for doing al the work on those will be having data collected based on them used to "prove" we are failing, just as standardized testing is in K-12, which will be followed by demands for ever more regimented curriculum, which will lead to more "failure," and the only solution will be turning over our duties to private, for-profit colleges (who will get our public funding).

    We will be left with a couple of possible responses:

    1) Dance between the raindrops and try to give our students a real learning experience as much as we can even though the raindrops will eventually get so close together we'll drown.

    2) Fight the enclosure of this acre of the commons politically, which is tough to do successfully once the hedge fund managers and trust fund babies decide to flex their money and power to buy our elected representatives to get what they want.

    3) Figure out a new way to give the same experience to students, either individually or with a new kind of institution. One clue about what kind of institution that should be is why we have shared governance: to counterbalance the corruption and self-dealing of elected or appointed board members and career administrators. If a democracy of those who actually do the work has a positive effect, giving that democracy more power and maybe even a broader base--run higher ed on a co-op model, and figure out how to marginalize those who see our students as commodities to be bought and sold.

    Ideally, we should make our existing institutions as much like this as possible.

    If we can't do that and have to set up parallel structures the biggest obstacle would be accreditation agencies that seem to be highly attuned to what the business community wants.

    Unless our society decides that the level of corruption in our government that has swamped any consideration of the public good is no longer tolerable and ends it, we have to figure out how to work around or outside of it and still be available to people of all classes.

  4. Prof SmartAss... not really "my post" ... just channeling. I agree about the gap you mention, but it's already here, not just on the way. Google up and give "learning management analytics" a shufti.

    Personally, I'm all for working around it and setting up alternate structures. It may not be our official line, but I have serious doubts about the ultimate efficacy of playing along (aka inside / outside strategy) to cut best deal or at least get along.

    Other than change (safe guess there), I don't know what will happen but thinking about possibilities helps prepare for them. Even disruptive change open the way for others ~ and we realize the system needs to change. We might not (probably won't) like all or maybe not even many of the changes, but that won't prevent them.

    I'd like to see shared governance extend to all stakeholders: students and all employees (not just instructional ones)


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