Monday, July 06, 2015

End of College? But the Start of What?

Having worked in higher education for more than a decade, I've seen first hand the wholesale transformation of the university.  As the jacket explains, in just nine months between 2011 and 2012, the world’s most famous universities and high-powered technology entrepreneurs began a race to "revolutionize" higher education. College courses that had been kept for centuries from all but an elite few have been released to millions of students throughout the world for free in the form of massive open online courses (MOOCs).  But it's not just online learning that is the tipping point of this change.

Coming across a recent book by the American higher education writer and policy analyst Kevin Carey was marvellous timing as many of the ideas from his writing is trending in the university world and offered much food for thought.  End of College offers excellent insight into the world of higher education, particularly its current shortcomings and all.   And here are some points which I find intriguing:

The Luxury Branding of Education - Why does a Rolex watch cost exponentially more than a Timex?   Both tell the same time, and incur essentially the same amount of mechanisms that make it work.    Higher education has subtly become a luxury brand business where everyone strives to emulate the Ivy League elites.  Community colleges become full-degree colleges while colleges become research universities - becoming an ever evolving climb to the top for greatness (and with it higher tuition).  To justify its brand, universities have catered to the lavish tastes of students with the most modern amenities, cafeteria cuisines, residential spaces, top-grade sports facilities, just to name a few to whet your appetites.  But in all of this, where is the learning?  Why are low-cost local college just as effective as these luxury universities?  Why a Rolex when a Timex works just as good?  Why has learning become commodified?

Open Learning - If MOOCs and open badges have shown us anything in the past few years, it's that higher education can no longer be monopolized by institutions.  Learning can occur everywhere and at anytime, and in any platform.  Universities carry prestige as employers trust its credentialing system simply because universities were the only ones in business that offered some sort of measure of how prepared adults were for the workforce.  But this is no longer the case: students aren't obtaining the skills and there have been new methods of imparting the knowledge by new technologies such as MOOCs.  What this means is a great "unbundling" of the college credit system into one where the hands of learning are placed firmly back into the students' (regardless of institution or age of the learner).

Cathedral of Learning -  Which leads us to what Kevin Carey calls the "university of everywhere" - an idea which is analogous to religious institutions where adults return each week without fail to replenish themselves spiritually.  How can we learn from religion where the passion for fulfilment can be replicated in lifelong learning?  Can the spirit for learning be replenished each week for the rest of our lives?   It's a brainteasing thought: learning from the cradle to the grave.   What can universities and colleges learn from adult learning?  If it ever envisions itself not as a short-term diploma mill, then the university can ultimately re-position itself back to its roots as cathedral of learning.

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