Higher^2 Education

I have just been at my first WCET conference, which is focused on higher ed distance eLearning. Mostly, it’s focused on those in the trenches, that is those who are charged with making it happen. This is not a bad thing, as these are good folks trying to do good work. What is missing, however, is a way to address the next level, and the one above that, in a systematic and effective way. And, yet, we must.

Let’s start with President Obama’s recent call to raise the level of US higher education.  And, frankly, there are more countries that need to heed the call of reforming post-secondary education.   I’ve talked before about the needed changes in higher ed, but even the short term changes are hard to see happening.

There were some inspiring talks, including Mark Milliron of the Gates Foundation, and a ‘debate’ between Peter Smith of Kaplan (and author of a new book on the topic of higher education) and David Longanecker of WICHE (WCET’s ‘parent’).  What became clear to me is that the goal of seriously raising the number of higher education graduates – whether associate, baccalaureate, or higher degrees – isn’t going to happen through incremental change. The problem is multi-faceted: the degrees available increasingly have little appeal, the pedagogies aren’t aligned to success, and the approaches don’t scale.

While the for-profit schools are providing competition to drive more market-focused courses, the time taken to get a program approved, and an institution accredited, provide barriers to being truly market-driven. That is of course, not the only goal, but things are moving faster than programs can be expected to cope.

I have to admit that I was also somewhat dismayed by a lack of pedagogical focus that mirrors the problems we see in corporate settings.  There seemed to be little leeway to challenge faculty members to raise quality levels of learning experience beyond just the traditional content model.

Finally, the resources dispersed across institutions are not well-aligned with a goal of pervasive quality that can be replicated across the curriculum.  Most institutions, even the big for-profits, seem to have approaches aligned for efficiency at the sake of effectiveness.

I admit big change is hard, but the stated goals are big, the need is big, and the opportunities are likewise.  It would take a massive infusion of resources, however, to make a big change within the system. Which led me, naturally, to think of a big change outside the system.

I started thinking about curricula as a separate thing from the learning activities (content and more), from the products of learning generated, and from the mentoring. In particular, the varied mentoring that would go into vetting the curricula, the choice of learning activities, and the feedback on the products.  The quick question is whether these could be disentangled from the academy.

Could we, in fact, either crowd source curricula or support self-definition and approval? Could the choice of resources and activities be scrutinized separately, both for quality and as an opportunity for lessons in becoming a self-capable learner in a discipline? Even system-selected?  And could the feedback on products come from an appropriate suite of stakeholders?

That’s a relatively radical proposition, I recognize, but when you need transformative outcomes, you may need transformative approaches…

More prosaically, I remain dismayed by the continuing lack of strategic thinking in higher education, particularly the public sector.  Small elements, like recognizing that the overall quality of teaching impacts an institution’s reputation, and that devolving responsibility to domains will undermine a unified effort, that a systemic consideration of learning technology provides efficiencies as well as opportunities for effectiveness, etc. remain as missed opportunities.

What’s missing from what I see is a unified quality approach. What if Steve Job’s took on higher education? My take is that we’d see something like:

•   We will deliver a totally killer learning experience

•   We will not only develop your knowledge and skills, but you as a learner and performer

•   We will be a partner in your success

That, to me, is the value proposition that we can, and should, deliver. If we are not aligned with that, we are not really offering the services that an education provider should be shooting for.  Or an organization, for that matter.

So, are you aiming high enough? The time is now.

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