March 04, 2010

The Future of Higher Education

Educause Quarterly has just released an entire issue on the Future of Higher Education. I was honored to be asked by Nancy Hays, the EQ editor, to kick off a four part series on the Future of Education with this dedicated issue. The published piece can be found here.

Below is the original, unabridged version. As always, thank you in advance for your comments and feedback.


    Information is not knowledge, Knowledge is not wisdom, Wisdom is not truth, Truth is not beauty, Beauty is not love, Love is not music, and Music is the best. Wisdom is the domain of Wis (which is extinct)

    Frank Zappa – Packard Goose from Joe’s Garage: Act II and III (Tower Records, 1979)

I want to refract on futures. What will the enterprise we call post-secondary education portend for over the next 25 years, the next chapter of the interaction between challenge, discovery, scholarship, learning, teaching, and technology? The four parts of the prism I will exam through this column are student experiences, staff contributions, the role of faculty, and finally the emergence of learning communities.

Ours is an era of abundance. History, until the mid-20th century, has largely been told as a series of philosophies about the human condition in which everything from the mundane to the metaphysical has been constrained by a world and a worldview informed by scarcity. The explosion of data and information catalyzed by Metcalfe’s Law ( positions intelligent search, network affinities, and the prospects for a personalized, customizable semantic web as the conduit for knowledge development and sharing wisdom.

To provide some perspective, writing in the early 1960s, French philosopher, theologian and technology skeptic, Jacques Ellul notes with some evident disdain (The Technological Society, Vintage Books, NY, 1964: pg. 432] the fanciful predictions of American and Russian futurists published in the Paris weekly, L’express regarding science, technology, and society in the year 2000.

    “The most remarkable predictions concerns the transformation of educational methods … Knowledge (according to the Futurists) will be accumulated in “electronic banks” and transmitted directly to the human nervous system by mean of coded electronic messages. There will no longer be any need of reading or learning mountains of useless information; everything will be received and registered according to the needs of the moment.” Ellul shares his skeptical view that “What is needed will pass directly from the machine to the brain without going through consciousness.”

Autonomous thinking machines are no longer purely rhetorical vehicles for futurists. And while one can debate the prescient insights of the collection cited by Ellul, his framing of the challenge facing students foreshadows the single most important issue for the next generation of learners. The learning enterprise for students is changing, most likely forever. A long historical epoch of scarce knowledge and the pursuit of mastery of relevant domains is nearing its final dusk. Competency is less about comprehensive recall, a function that machines and search engines do pretty well. The emerging learning enterprise is about designing and creating experiences that provide opportunities to discover and gain 21st century competencies based on assembly, synthesis, perspective, critique, and inter-connected systems thinking. The mechanisms for certifying competency, along with what I will refer to as emergent learning communities, are the value and brand of traditional universities in the 21st century. Once a near monopoly producer of a certain set of valued and relevant skills in the post-war era, the traditional university’s market role has given way to a growing number of providers of valued and relevant skills and education in the maturing connected learning era.

Four broad categories of student learners and learning approaches occupy the remainder of this column. They face new challenges and opportunities as they embark on their journey of discovery, securing relevant competencies and experiences for the connected learning era.

1. Open Learning

“Open education” refers to the emergence of a growing repository of nonproprietary, structured learning materials and experiences. Most of these open educational resources originate online, but over time student use of this content will blend both synchronous and asynchronous online use along with self-directed learning and a multiplicity of face-to-face learning environments. Today tens of millions of students are experimenting with first-generation open content. Within a relatively short time more than 100 million open educational learners will find compelling motives to access the single largest, dynamic body of student-centered learning materials available. Lest anyone dismiss this renaissance of learning as having down-market value only, MIT President Emeritus Charles Vest noted just four years ago:

    My view is that in the open-access movement, we are seeing the early emergence of a meta-university — a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced. The Internet and the Web will provide the communication infrastructure, and the open-access movement and its derivatives will provide much of the knowledge and information infrastructure.1

2. Global Learning

The Internet enabled a worldwide connected infrastructure that supported acceleration of the global economy and a variously described flat or flat-with-some-bumps world. Scholars from peripheral outposts, far from pre-Internet knowledge clusters, gained equal access to scholarly research materials and near real-time interaction with colleagues at the most prestigious institutions. This dramatic reframing of scholarship has not been accompanied by a parallel transformation in the student experience, represented by scalable, cross-national collaborations between students of diverse backgrounds. Even though a mountain of data extending back to the Peace Corps era suggests the significant impact of cross-cultural exchanges, relatively few global initiatives support sustained student learning about the world around them.

The single most important student-related experience leveraging the Internet in an international context has been keeping in touch with friends and family via e-mail, blogs, Flickr, or Skype. Many students, especially those from the United States, inherit parochial views of the world until and unless they become engaged in structured experiences to expand their horizons. Along with an imperative to give students a better understanding of their role in a highly interdependent, if still significantly uneven, world economy, there is also a tendency to view Internet-based exchanges as supporting a homogenization of learning and culture. As we gain a more nuanced understanding of cultures, politics, gender relations, and the different kinds of impact technology can have on the relationship between peoples and their governments, the time is ripe to develop a more integrated approach to the student experience and the world stage upon which they can and should play an active role. Deans for Global Experiences and the Internet could facilitate structured engagement among international affinity groups. The subject matter of the Global Experience and the Internet curriculum can itself be a long-tail program enabled through thoughtful design leveraging the global Internet. Ongoing, multi-institutional projects that include discovery, data gathering, cross-cultural training, cross-cultural exchanges, and project work represent a unique opportunity to link relevant challenges to the pervasive global resources of the Internet.

3. Lifelong Learning

The breadth and depth of change occasioned by the Internet and the global economy has been profound. Setting aside the question of whether academic disciplines have kept up with the new realities, the dislocation associated with these structural changes has significantly affected higher education. During economic downturns, universities call upon their offices for continuing and professional education to meet increased need with increased capacity in response to a whole new cohort of learners whose jobs, careers, and skills sets have been negatively impacted. The Obama administration places significant emphasis on building capacity to position community colleges to develop 21st century job skills among students. Likewise, education czars in state capitols across the nation realize that economic development and sustainable recovery are intimately connected to the performance of the postsecondary education sector.

Less obvious is how, if at all, the higher education sector is working with the federal and state higher education bureaucracies to leverage the networked economy in educating millions of workers seeking new, high-paying, clean jobs for the 21st century. A distinct risk exists that recovery will come on top of a service economy, with all the economic weaknesses entailed. The challenge is to create a robust, generative digital economy with a well-developed pipeline of talent and clear articulation of relevant skills.

We need a new master plan for educating today’s students, more than 15 percent of whom are single parents and 75 percent of whom are nontraditional students (nearly forty percent over the age of 25),2 that covers the millions of people seriously impacted by the structural collapse of the economy. The new market for university students is significant by its size, demographic profile, and disinclination to physically attend a traditional college, even if there were enough physically available. Nor should a new national plan for 21st century postsecondary education be built on the artificial segmentation imposed by traditional Carnegie classifications. We should also be wary of unfettered market responses that see opportunities to maximize profit with short-term fixes to structural challenges. We need an integrated approach that leverages the scalable platforms harnessing the Internet to create this generation’s 21st Century Higher Education Opportunity Act.

4. Informal Learning

Finally, while demographic trends are shifting away from the traditional, on-campus residential student, the needs of this important group of learners warrants examination. Choosing to live on campus as part of the collegiate experience represents the value placed on student life and informal learning. For many students, the informal learning moments before or after the formal class or lab remain their most vivid memories. In addition, the innovations generated by students in residence shed light on the value and quality of informal learning. Consider, for example, college startups from Facebook to Corkshare, or the dormcubator program called VeloCity at the University of Waterloo, which focuses on a wide range of initiatives from women and entrepreneurship to mobile and gaming startup ventures. Students apply to join the dormcubator to combine their academic studies with their interests and passions in software innovation.

Residential college experiences have often led on-campus learning innovation at the intersection of science and technology, as well. Experimentation with video, virtual worlds, massive online player games, iPhone apps development, and hundreds of other experiences make life in the dorms a beehive of activity. Within the interstices of a relatively slow-moving curriculum, the innovation associated with the Internet and information technology unfolding in the residence halls of college campuses bears witness to the data, information, knowledge, wisdom hierarchy (not to mention love and music).

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH
March 4, 2010

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