Guest Post: Higher Education’s future may not be what you think it is.

The following is a guest post by Steve Newton. (Link to Steve’s page. Lots of great stuff there!)

Back in the 1970s futurists predicted that subliminal advertising and “sleep learning” would revolutionize American society. Our TV shows and movies would hypnotize us into drinking only Coke … right NOW! And when we wanted to learn French, or Physics, we wouldn’t need a college, just some handy tapes by the bedside that would tutor us while we snored. Funny thing, predicting the future: you always miss something basic. Walter Cronkite’s TV show about the world in the year 2000 foresaw self-driving cars (a little early as it turns out), but completely missed the Information Age, cell phones, and social media. Most viewers watching the original Star Trek believed the transporters and the phasers, but thought the handheld communicators were implausible.

So it’s hardly surprising that many of the prognostications about the future of higher education in America over the next couple of decades have been anything but self-fulfilling prophecies. To a large extent, most of the predictions made over the past two decades have been wrong, which you’d think would impose a degree of humility on those peering into their crystal balls, but that hasn’t been the case. The same people convinced in the 1990s that “distance education” (online learning) would spell the death of brick-and-mortar universities within twenty years are now convinced that online learning will kill off brick-and-mortar universities … within the next twenty years.

They’re making just as much money selling this idea to revenue-seeking universities now as they were then … and they’re still wrong. More importantly, they don’t even know why they’re wrong, because their vision of the future of higher education is fatally flawed by what they don’t understand about its present.

Here are four realities about the current state of higher education that the pundits don’t get, and the consultants can’t afford to admit:

Reality #1: Online learning is not going to take over Higher Education.

I know, I know … University of Phoenix. MOOCs. Khan Academy. To listen to university Boards of Trustees or worried academic administrators, online learning is either going to make what they do obsolete, or save them by exposing them to millions of twenty-somethings who are willing to send in their credit card numbers for the chance to learn Biology 101 while sitting at home in their jammies.

But the dirty secret of distance education is that the existing platforms don’t meet the needs of most learners and aren’t sufficiently flexible or immersive enough to deliver high quality content in most disciplines.

Have any form of learning disability, or just need a structured environment to force you to do your work? Distance learning won’t be real effective for you. (Hint: we just lost millions of students right there.)

Interested in any field that is remotely hands-on, like Animal Husbandry, or Nursing, or Music, or Engineering, or Exercise Therapy, or Forensic Biology, or Aviation Science? Distance learning won’t really prepare you for those fields. (There go another few million students.)

Need to connect with a real-life mentor who actually knows who you are, whose office you can visit when you’re really confused, or who can take one look at you in class and know you need to be pulled aside for the “What’s happening with you?” speech? Doesn’t happen in distance learning because two-dimensional people on screens don’t really connect that way. (Which explains why more people start online courses and don’t finish them than do so in real classrooms.)

The online-learning reality: there is a finite subset of courses and degrees that can be offered via this type of platform, and a specific learning style needed to be effective in using that platform. When you put those two limitations together (which is something nobody in the burgeoning “online learning” industry wants you to do), you discover that the market of potential students for more than an occasional class is really quite small compared to the market of students who actually want to go sit in a classroom and learn from a real professor surrounded by other breathing students.

Reality #2: The liberal arts aren’t going anywhere, despite the fact that they are being de-funded, de-emphasized, and dis-respected.

STEM has conquered all, right? The purpose of higher education is now job placement, right? All those liberal arts professors are hopeless ideologues attempting to fill the students’ heads with progressive mush, right?

Wrong. On all three counts.

What we refer to today as the “liberal arts” includes primarily Art, English, Foreign Languages, History, Philosophy, and various Cultural Studies (all those other disciplines lumped in sometimes–Anthropology, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology, etc.–are really “Social Sciences”). These disciplines are in ill repute in the modern world because (a) they don’t help land major grant money; (b) they don’t have too many majors so they get relegated to “service” status; and (c) their professors have an undeserved reputation for being political nut cases.

Let’s deal with “C” first. You can skim social media and discover plenty of examples of radical ideas supposedly promulgated by “leftist,” “elite” professors. To be blunt, while those examples exist, they are almost exclusively confined to a small number of elite universities and a position or two in the departments of larger state and private universities. In the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities across America the people teaching liberal arts courses have to concern themselves–day in and day out–with providing students with the practical preparation to pass licensing exams (Praxis for teachers; Nursing certifications, Social Work exams, etc.), and if they can’t do that, they don’t have long careers. They aren’t stereotypical professors holding forth in small seminars of adoring students, they are teacher overwhelmed by classes of 35-50 students who go home at night with stacks of papers to grade and lectures to prepare.

But what they do is critical–especially in English, Foreign Languages, History, Philosophy, because they’re responsible for teaching students the fundamental elements of close reading, logic, the construction of arguments, critical thinking, grammatically sound writing, and the rudiments of public speaking. Without these skills, Biology majors can’t write lab reports that make sense; Business majors can’t write effective communications; Social Work majors will struggle with case narratives. If the burden of teaching basic language and writing skills is transferred to the specific major disciplines, their focus changes and disaster looms.

More to the point, a greater number of students than ever before are entering colleges and universities with less preparation in reading and writing (and math!) than ever before. We get students in Freshman classes who have not been identified as high-risk, but who cannot dependably write sentences or paragraphs, and who cannot take a short essay and discern its thesis. So, ironically, at a time when that liberal arts component becomes increasingly critical, revenue-minded non-traditional academic administrators are outsourcing that kind of instruction to adjuncts and part-timers, and are resisting paying the dollars necessary to attract the people who know how to teach this material effectively. That’s going to change, because if it doesn’t change higher education will collapse faster from the skills deficit than from the student loan bubble.

But it’s going to be a painful recognition for those administrators that they’ve been penny-wise and pound-foolish. Some aren’t going to understand it before they and their institutions go under because Freshman/Sophomore retention numbers have tanked beyond redemption.

Reality #3: In difficult financial times, the academic core needs to be protected, not scheduled for cutbacks.

This is a surprisingly simple concept that many university administrators miss. Universities do many things, but they have a core mission. Football teams are not part of that core mission. Wellness centers are not part of that core mission. Online education (in 90% of these institutions) is not part of that core mission. The core mission is to retain and educate the students sitting in those often broken classroom desks. If you do that, they will come, they will stay, they will graduate, and more will follow them.

But this requires a rare form of budget and administrative discipline not found in most universities. Vice presidents in most large organizations become vice presidents because they are–among other things–empire builders. Their importance and their dominance is measured by the number of subordinates they have, the size of their budgets, their ability to influence the Board. …

The reality is that without a strong investment in the best professors, the best instructional technology, and the best academic support services for those core academic courses (specifically English, Math, Science), students will not succeed and the university will ultimately fail along with them. Instead of continually looking for ways to deliver English 101/Math 101 cheaper (through less expensive, less well-trained adjuncts or larger classes or no meaningful tech/tutoring support), the successful universities will be those that focus not just their rhetoric but their resources on that area.

A note: that means the primary focus will be in the classroom, and that everything else will be supporting what happens in the classroom. Too many universities invert this equation, with all sorts of bureaucratized support systems collecting multitudinous amounts of barely useful data, replete with too much money spent on administrators and support staffs, and too little actually making it into the classroom. The first priority for successful universities at what is now euphemistically called “the freshman experience” or “the first-year experience” is to put the best teachers possible in contact with those students as immediately as possible and give those teachers everything they need to do their jobs. Those teachers are not the only element in the solution to freshman retention, but they are the critical element. Without them, it won’t happen. …

Reality #4: Students are not a product.

Too many administrative-educational models follow corporate models these days, without realizing that there are stunningly significant differences between education and commercial production. Students are neither products nor consumers of education, even though they are consumers of many university services (financial aid, residence life, etc.) and their diplomas, graduate school admissions, and first jobs feel like a product. So there’s this temptation of boards and seniors administrators to want to play corporate savior and help the poor benighted educators discover how they should redo their organizations and revamp their approaches.

The problem is that higher education is arguably more of a process rather than a product. It is the process of, first, insuring that students have the basic analytical and conceptual tools to learn; then they need to acquire (over time) the skill of independent lifetime learning; and (finally although sometimes simultaneously) the disciplinary skills relevant to their majors. During that process they also learn about themselves from academic and other mentors. It is not–as much as the bean-counting mentality would like to think otherwise–a process that can be successfully quantified in all regards. Despite the confident expectations of many, higher education remains as much an intuitive art as a settled science, and even students walking across the stage to receive their diplomas remain a lifetime work in progress. It’s a value proposition, and not one that often sits well with those on the outside looking in.

Conclusion: you can’t know where you’re going until you understand where you are.

Trendy management practices tend to substitute buzz words for substance. I can remember the first time, during the 1990s, that I encountered the use of the term “wordsmithing” to replace “editing.” Things have only gotten worse since then. I recently sat through a report on a change in administrative procedures in which all the . participants had to be re-educated to refer to what they were already doing in terms of the “as-is state,” and the changes they wanted to make in terms of the “to-be state.” They actually spent an entire meeting on insuring everyone would use the correct terminology before the group was allowed to proceed to an actual consideration of current administrative practices.

This may sound just silly and a little time-wasting, but there is an unintentional (at least I hope it’s unintentional) Orwellian element involved. Language doesn’t just serve as a medium of communication–it both shapes and limits the ideas you can express. When somebody says (usually with a straight and serious face), “Can you reformulate that idea into an ‘as-is’ statement and follow it up with a ‘to-be’ statement?” they are not only asking for rephrasing, they are sculpting the range of possible responses into a narrower framework than the original speaker intended. And they are slowly building up a conversational/organizational world in which only ideas expressed in the right format have value. Eventually the goal is to get the participants not just to speak but to think within format restrictions, which is the ultimate road to “groupthink” and disaster (remember that in part the term “groupthink” was formulated to explain the decision-making process that got the US into the Vietnam War, and you’ll realize what I mean by “disaster” here).

Long-winded? Certainly. But if you’re still here, this is the pay-off: most of what purports to be strategic thinking about the future of higher education isn’t, because it is not based on a thorough understanding of where higher education is today, and the long-term trends that got it here. Additionally, the processes of “reform” or “transformation” are often driven more by the need for administrators to be change agents rather than good stewards. This is among the most worrying trends in higher education today, and–left unchecked–could be the seeds of its ultimate downfall.

3 comments on “Guest Post: Higher Education’s future may not be what you think it is.

  1. Steve, just a couple of points (mostly to echo your points from my experience). I teach at a Community College here in Arizona. I teach CIS subjects. I teach CIS 105 (the introductory computer course) in person, CIS 250 (Management of Information Systems) online and next fall we are rolling out a Information Assurance program where I’ll be teaching Ethical Hacking (in person)
    “just need a structured environment to force you to do your work?”
    You’re absolutely correct. With my CIS 250 class, I have numerous students that just don’t do well in the online environment. They need the human contact, the push from an instructor to do well, maybe even some peer pressure in order to succeed.
    “The first priority for successful universities at what is now euphemistically called “the freshman experience” or “the first-year experience” ”

    That’s what we do here at CGCC (or try to) As most of my students in the 105 class are freshman, I emphasize study habits etc. as I’ve found that when I didn’t, no one turned anything in 🙂

    “Need to connect with a real-life mentor who actually knows who you are, whose office you can visit when you’re really confused, or who can take one look at you in class and know you need to be pulled aside for the “What’s happening with you?” speech?”

    A THOUSAND TIMES THIS!!!!!! A decent amount of the time, when I have discussions with students, it’s not necessarily about their problems in class, but about other things. I’d also add that, in my case anyhow, having someone teaching you hacking or computer networks that actually has work experience in the field is somewhat useful. 🙂

    • Agree with Steve’s post and M’s (don’t want to “out” you by using your first name!) comment. Let me add that my daughter is a sophomore, mech engineering major and she meets everyday with her study groups. These groups are comprised of students she met in her classrooms. She swears by these groups – swears they are an integral part of her education.

  2. Prop Joe

    If I had the sufficient posting privileges, I’d insert a gif of some random person standing and applauding Steve’s post… Excellent work. The conclusions are spot-on, even as I reflect back on my time as a student and then the rest of the intervening decades involved in public education…

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