Monday, August 3, 2015

What's the point of (higher) education?

With Campus Technology behind us, I've got some free time to compose some thoughts on what I experienced this year in Boston.  I like going to Campus Tech each year as I have an opportunity to attend some sessions, see what the EdTech vendors are up to, and meet with new and existing colleagues.  One of the keynotes this year, by SNHU (Southern New Hampshire University) President was really unsettling.

Whereas the keynotes in previous years seemed to be hinting toward innovation in higher education, this particular keynote, under the guise of disruptive innovation in higher education seemed to hint more toward a commodification of higher education, a de-professionalization of many types of jobs in the field, and a process for teaching and learning that reminded me of an industrial age model of education. This was a bit jarring to me, as a regular attendee (and twitter reporter) of campus technology each year.  On the one hand Paul LeBlanc (SNHU President) did sufficiently stir the waters and got enough people to talk about the state of academia, however I am not sure his innovation is really innovative and a sustainable direction for an institution.

LeBlanc has a variety of main points from which he built in. One of his points, and faults of the current system is that Faculty drive the process at traditional schools. Faculty think up of new courses, which go through a governance approval process, which is also time consuming.  SNHU's approach seems to be to disaggregate the faculty, let "SMEs" and IDs take care of the course and curriculum design, hire instructors to teach the same course without variation. This was troubling on a variety of levels.  First, LeBlac seems to be hinting at faculty as not being subject experts.  I disagree with this.  Faculty are hires precisely because they are subject experts.  They, in theory, know their field and keep up with the field.  They are in one of the better positions to think up new curriculum of modifications to the existing curriculum.

I agree that the governance process can take ridiculously long at times (oh, the stories I could share!), but that doesn't mean that we ought to get rid of this system. To me what it means is that we need to look at our current system and see how it can be made more efficient, not completely dismantle it.  LeBlac's rationale for this approach is that faculty don't know what's happening in the walls outside of academia, and therefore the only people who can actually inform the curriculum with what's really needed are Subject Experts (which weren't defined, by the way), from outside the walls of academia.

This narrative isn't something that LeBlanc alone reports. Anant Agarwal, of edx fame, in a recent article on Fortune cites a Deloitte survey  that "found that the overwhelming majority of respondents felt it was on-the-job skills—not what they had learned in college — that got them through their daily workload. The study concluded that there was a significant gap between the skills desired by workplaces and what those polled had actually possessed by graduation." This connects with LeBlanc's comments that CEOs say that graduates from colleges don't have the qualities that their companies are looking for.  I guess the solution is to let the CEOs (companies really) specify what they need. I do call this a bit BS though.  CEOs are often not the best judges to know what skills front-line employees need to have.  To have them have an opinion on what skills undergraduates need for their companies is asking for misinformed opinions.

Another aspect of the presentation was time-to-completion as a key factor.  While I do agree that time-to-completion is important (heck, nowhere is this more evident than the 8-10 year liberal arts PhD!), but I do think that we are diluting learning into cram-and-jam sessions when we advertise 1 year Master degrees (just as an example).  I see this at work.  A number of potential students ask if our degree can be completed in year.  The answer is: no. I suppose that theoretically it could, 4 classes in the fall, 4 in the spring, comprehensive exams in the spring, and 2 electives in the summer and you're done.  But, what have you really learned?  You've crammed just enough to write those papers and take those exams, but have you really learned anything?  Never mind application, because application supposes that you've learned something. In cases like these I suspect that people just want some sheepskin to show that they've "learned" something so that they can get their raise, or change jobs, or whatever.

This argumentation of time-to-degree fits in with the 'adults are busy' narrative.  Adults have lives, jobs, responsibilities, they just don't have time for the "long road" to education.  While I also do hate pedantry in my own educational experiences, I guess what bothers me about this attitude is two things.  First, it treats traditional education as some sort of jail where you must put in your time (while singing nobody knows my sorrow), and it treats these accelerated "for adults" degrees the same way Alan Thicke is presenting Tahiti Village in this ad. Education can be hard, it can take time to acquire, and it needs effort to apply it.  Most else that can be broken down into discreet steps to follow, and are applicable to specific jobs, is really on the job training.

The other thing that bugs me is that there is still an infantilization of the traditional college age goer, the 18-year0old students. These students, according to LeBlanc and other supporters of the difference between "adults" and "kids" believe that traditional college age individuals need an 'incubation' or 'maturation' environment before they hit real life, and college is it. I think that treating 18-year-olds like they need maturation is completely and utter baloney.  As a first generation college graduate I know that my parents (and indeed many friends and family in our circle), didn't go to college to mature. They had jobs, they had family responsibilities, societal responsibilities, at age 18 (some even earlier).  This infantilization is the traditional college demographic does harm to them, and us.
 It only serves as an artificial separation of one group of students - the one who had a break in their education, from the student who went straight from high school to college. Instead of infantilizing one group, how about defining academic supports that are unique to each group?

This keynote reminded me of another, equally ridiculous post, on why MOOCs will fail to displace traditional universities (I was not aware they were competing with one another).  The main theses of the author are that MOOCs aren't dating sites, whereas colleges are - and people apparently attend college to find a mate; and the other is that college is a signal to potential employers that you (a) can get into college, so you must be wicked smaht, and (b) you have the perseverance to make it through, so they should hire you. What a bunch of BS.

The first fault here is the issue of causation vs correlation.   The author cites Assortative Mating [which can basically be boiled down to individuals who are alike pairing up] as a reason why colleges have additional value for people who attend - they provide an environment of other smaht people as potential mates. The issue here is that college isn't the only environment where people pair up. The workplace, and any other place that creates a community is a place where people can meet others with similar interests, hobbies, political thought, education, and whatnot. Could we claim that people search for jobs in order to find mates? Some might, but I don't think this is generalizable.

My own experience - college was that college was really a requirement.  Forget K-12,  K-16 seems to be the new expectation, and one that not everyone can afford!  Someone made it a requirement, but also forgot to make it free. Making college a requirement for many jobs is, as I have said before, sloppy HRM.

So, I'll end this post with the same question I started - What is the point of higher education? Thoughts?

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