The IFTF Blog
The Disruptions Facing Higher Education ...
... and How Universities are Beginning to Adapt
At no time in history have there been as many unknowns facing the field of higher education. The cost of college attendance, and the resulting mountains of student debt, loom as possible economic bubbles; the college education inflation rate has risen nearly 500% since 1985- schools that cost $10,000 per year in 1985 now charge an average of $59,000. In the recent economic downturn, students graduating from college or university often find themselves unemployed or underemployed, leading to questions about the return on investment of a college diploma.
To boot, new platforms for deploying learning, particularly over the internet, pose to disrupt higher education by presenting alternative pathways to acquiring knowledge and skill. These range from for-profit online universities like the University of Phoenix to non-profits like the <University of the People. And with the low cost of content distribution and the possibility of quickly reaching massive audiences, innovators and venture capitalists have taken notice, leading to startups like Udemy and Udacity. All these institutions promise learning at a cheaper rate, many of them for free.
The future for traditional universities is by no means grim. Fundamentally, these new challenges may require universities to redefine themselves and their methods. Many universities are exploring options for incorporating online learning into their pedagogy without sacrificing quality in-classroom learning. Carnegie Mellon’s Candace Thille, director of their Online Learning Initiative (OLI) at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that blended learning has the potential to be more effective (and cheaper) than simply on-campus learning.
Many other schools, such as Bryn Mawr College and Wesleyan University, have already begun incorporating online learning solutions, such as CMU’s, such as Carnegie Mellon's OLI into the undergraduate experience- and not simply as a cost-reduction tool. While studies show that blended learning is equal if not superior to in-class learning in terms of effectiveness, it may nevertheless be a means of distinguishing one university from another- in a positive way. By speeding up the process of learning the most basic concepts, Wesleyan professor Lisa Dierker believes newly available time toward the end of the semester can be used to pursue research projects in her Intro to Psychology class. This can, in fact, be highly appealing to potential students when compared to Intro to Psychology classes taught at competing schools.
Transforming the Classroom
If blended learning makes teaching core concepts easier and more efficient, what should professors do with the available classroom time? What role do professors play in a world in which lectures and other learning experiences can be effectively transferred through the Internet? The short answer might be classroom simulations and other interactive, engaging games. Barnard College's Mark Carnes pioneered the Reacting to the Past pedagogy in the 1990’s. The Reacting to the Past consortium now consists of 40 member colleges and universities, who employ that pedagogy to conduct elaborate classroom simulations in which students take on roles informed by historical texts to discuss big ideas in the history of ideas.
These and other simulations offer students the opportunity to apply what they have learned, engage in productive debate, and develop broader intellectual skills.
The examples provided above illustrate but a few of many paths universities may choose to take. But structurally, Universities may be ill-prepared to make the kinds of daring moves necessary to weather the disruptions of the bubble and online learning.
Tracy Mitrano, director of IT policy at Cornell University, recommends an entirely new role among administration, a role that at present does not exist in higher education. As she puts it:
“The main focus of this role would be to design programs, applications and initiatives that fully utilize new teaching, learning, research and revenue models utilizing innovative instruction delivery concepts to lifelong learners, including traditional students.”
Others, such as Robert Brodnick, an associate vice president at the University of the Pacific, see that applying design thinking to the strategic planning process can help universities discover and implement plans for transformation in such uncertain times.
While the future of higher education remains unclear, what is certain is that many colleges and universities are preparing for it; the cost of tuition will continue to be a driving factor for change, and it is likely that blended learning models will factor in the solution.