Designing Higher Learning

I’ve been thinking a lot about the higher education situation, specifically for-profit universities. One of the things I see is that somehow no one’s really addressing the quality of the learning experience, and it seems like a huge blindspot.

I realize that in many cases they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They want to keep costs down, and they’re heavily scrutinized.  Consequently, they worry very much about having the right content.  It’s vetted by Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), and has to be produced in a way that, increasingly, it can serve face to face (F2F) or online.  And I think there’s a big opportunity missed.  Even if they’re buying content from publishers, they are focused on content, not experience.  Both for the learner, and developing learner’s transferable and long-term skills.

First, SMEs can’t really tell you what learners need to be able to do. One of the side-effects of expertise is that it gets compiled away, inaccessible to conscious access.  Either SMEs make up what they think they do (which has little correlation with reality) or they resort to what they had to learn. Neither’s a likely source to meaningful learning.

Even if you have an instructional designer in the equation, the likelihood that they’re knowledgeable enough and confident enough to work with SMEs to get the real outcomes/objectives is slim.  Then, they also have to get the engagement right.  Social engagement can go a good way to enriching this, but it has to be around meaningful tasks.

And, what with scrutiny, it takes a strong case to argue to the accrediting agencies that you’ve gone beyond what SMEs tell you to what’s really needed. It sounds good, but it’s a hard argument to an organization that’s been doing it in a particular way for a long time.

Yet, these institutions also struggle with retention of students.  The learners don’t find the experience relevant or engaging, and leave.  If you took the real activity, made it meaningful in the right way, learners would be both more engaged and have better outcomes, but it’s a hard story to comprehend, and perhaps harder yet to implement.

Yet I will maintain that it’s both doable, and necessary.  I think that the institution that grasps this, and focused on a killer learning experience, coupled with going the extra mile to learner success (analytics is showing to be a big help here), and developing them as learners (e.g, meta-learning skills) as well as performers, is going to have a defendable differentiator.

But then, I’m an optimist.

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