In the Summer 2008 issue of Innovations, Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists published an article titled “Continuous Improvement in Undergraduate Education: A Possible Dream” in which he argued that a variety of factors, among them growing global demand for higher education and the availability of new technologies for the delivery of educational content were converging in ways that made increased productivity–as measured by learning gains, not by marginal cost per student graduated–a possible dream.
Kelly (no relation) offers a nice summary of the results of the work of cognitive scientists who study how students learn and the impact of teaching on learning (136-137) and posits a world where crowdsourced teaching and learning applications will lead to new models for delivering educational content in ways that are focused on learning rather than pushing content at students (144). While I am a little skeptical that this latter vision will be realized any time soon, given that so much of what we do in teaching in American higher education is hidden in silos of our own design, I do like his call for an increased focus on learning gains and, especially his emphasis on students developing expertise not merely in an abstract sense, but “in situations closely mimicking work environments.” (143)
One other aspect of Kelly’s critique of American higher education that rings true is when he points out that, “Many institutions of higher education lack processes for stimulating ongoing innovation, performance improvement, and organizational change.” (140) I think this is particularly true when it comes to the decisions we make about the acquisition, implementation, and evaluation of technology in teaching and learning.
One simple example from my own institution of what I mean should suffice to make the point. A year or two ago the tech folks at George Mason decided that VHS was over and so, without warning, they removed the VHS players from our classrooms, leaving behind the DVD players that had been installed a few years earlier. While I completely agree that VHS is over, many of our faculty still made extensive use of VHS format film because those VHS tapes were the only copies available. When the player disappeared, their lesson plans were disrupted. You can imagine how that went over.
Given that we aren’t well situated to make systemic change, the ideas I’ve been proposing here over the past few years are not that likely to come about any time soon, but I do think it’s worth thinking carefully about how we might change if we could get it together to try something radical.
This is a topic I seem to come back to every two years. In early 2006 I wrote a series of posts called “The Future of the Course” in which I argued that the iTunesization of higher education wasn’t that far off…that before long we’d see 99 cent lectures appearing on iTunes and other platforms. Then in the spring of 2008 I wrote a series of posts called “The End of Western Civilization as We Know It” in which I argued that the emerging free economy described by Chris Anderson in his book Free was going to transform higher education whether we like it or not. Well, Henry Kelly makes a pretty convincing case that like all industries, higher education must change or wither.
In yesterday’s post I pointed to such low cost options as StraighterLine.com that students can now use to take introductory college courses for less than $100 per course. What I didn’t mention was the single most popular of the cost saving strategies American students pursue, namely community college education. More and more students are deciding that two years of relatively low cost education at a community college followed by a transfer on to a university is the smart way to go. And, of course, we already out source hundreds of thousands of credit hours every year to high schools through the AP and IB programs. So whether we like it or not, colleges and universities are becoming “upper division” institutions.
What does that mean for us? For one thing, I think it means we need to plan long term for the day when only a small fraction of our enrollment will take 120 credits from us. Obviously, the budget implications of such a shift are huge and frightening to contemplate, but contemplate them we must. Second, I think we need to take Henry Kelly’s call for a refocusing on learning outcomes very seriously and decide sooner rather than later what we want our students to know and be able to do when they arrive on our campus and when they complete our courses.
Digital technology is clearly an important, but not the only, part of the transformation we are going to undergo. The way forward is not at all clear, but if we are going to prosper in a world where literally billions of people can access educational content for free or for a small fee on mobile computing devices (also known as smart phones), we have to think through what we think higher education ought to look like in 2020 and then start changing now, rather than waiting until 2019 to realize the world has changed and we haven’t.
Thinking about how to change higher education as an industry makes my brain hurt, so in my next post, I’m going to confine myself to how history might look ten years from now.