This is the third in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system. In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion. Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.
I couldn’t think of a good image to accompany this post, so here’s a monkey with glasses.
In Part 1 of this series, I offered as object lessons service industries that saw significant upheaval in the Age of Electracy. In Part 2, I suggested that universities face significant challenges from “above” because of the changing shape of public opinion. These factors don’t correlate very closely with what happened to travel agents or stock brokers. By contrast, the rising forces of competition certainly analogize closely.
At its heart, the University faces the same problem Travel Agents and Stock Brokers faced — a shift from information scarcity to information abundance and the emergence of technologies that automate (or scale, at least) key parts of our business model. I’ll write a bit about three pressures we face, each of which has emerged significantly because of the digital age and each of which challenges our conception of who we are and what we do for students.
1. Lectures, information, and syllabi
For many subjects and much of the history of university study, college professors imparted knowledge to students via what Paolo Freire famously called the “banking model.” We dispense knowledge via lectures and books, the students store that knowledge in their memory, and deposit it back on tests. Hopefully some of it sticks. This model worked for many reasons — first, knowledge itself was relatively rare, and the means to sort it were difficult to find and not easily copied. Second, the expert who understands and can dispense that knowledge was even more rare, and he (or she, but usually he) could only be reached via classrooms and visits to musty offices.
The internet has, I’m afraid, disrupted that scarcity. Information is no longer rare. It’s getting easier to find and index every moment, and smart agents, search engines, and widely available tools mean that less and less do professors hold monopolies on what information is best nor do we limit how it can be accessed. On top of that, with easy-to-distribute digital recordings, our dispensation of that knowledge need not be rare either. A lecture given once is no longer ephemeral, but can be captured and placed online where it can be viewed in perpetuity.
As a result, the lecture model of instruction in face-to-face classrooms has dropped out of favor as professors and students alike come to recognize that such one-way interaction does not necessarily make the best use of synchronous classroom time. For professors rooted in the older culture, though, this challenges us to think about what we ought to be doing.
It’s become very clear to nearly every professional working in higher education that students want more online offerings available for their study. They like the convenience, the flexible schedule, and perhaps the ability to thrive under their own intrinsic motivations.
Marginal outfits and for profit schools like Phoenix University colonized a lot of this landscape early, and many traditional universities were slow to join the bandwagon. And when they do, they often misunderstand such offerings as an economic boon, a way to eschew the ghastly overhead that makes face-to-face classes expensive to offer.
But as brick and mortar universities work to understand the role online offerings should take in their larger environment, many students are opting for those other institutions, and suddenly there’s competition in the marketplace from these venues.
The one place traditional universities still hold a strong lead is in credentialling, the purpose for which much of the external world understands us to exist. By giving someone a degree, we certify that they know what they’re doing, and our reputation as an educational institution (as well as our certification from the credentialling bodies) means that employers and other interested parties can quickly grasp the value of our offerings and our graduates.
But it would be a mistake to imagine that this monopoly will hold for much longer. As offerings diversify, credentialling will do so as well. Already, formal networks like LinkedIn allow for users to certify other users, a practice that doesn’t carry much weight now but could easily do so in the future. Programs like Badges (the idea of earning a mini-certification in a specific skill based on free or open coursework) and initiatives like MOOCs mean that more and more, people will seek alternate means to certify their competence in many fields of endeavor.
These three factors all heavily influence the reasons students choose (or choose NOT) to attend our institutions. As the costs continue to rise (which they will inevitably do), information abundance, online offerings, and diversified credential schemes will hack away at the underbelly of academia, a surface made weak by our centuries-old monopoly on the training of the middle and upper classes.
In part four, I will explore a bit about what I think we need to do, as educators concerned with the future of higher education, to transition our institutions to meet the needs of the Electrate public.