Monday, October 14, 2013

What Comes Next in Higher Education?

At the end of September I spoke at a convocation at Universidad Autonoma de Aguascalientes, which is a fine public university in Mexico - My talk was called Does Minerva have the Udacity to Change Higher Education?  The title did not translate well - so I had to spend part of my time explaining my title.  My premise was that higher education is in a state of tremendous (Clayton Christensen calls this "disruptive") change.   What is unique about the current situation is the multiplicity of issues facing the sector.   I named five alliterative issues (cost, certification, competency, completions, and computing) and then added a G one - governance.

The cost issue is not worldwide - but the rest are.   Universities around the world are dealing with assuring that their graduates are competent to do what they have been educated to do.  None have been very good at assuring that people who start programs actually finish them in a reasonable period of time and in reasonable numbers.   Institutions both within their realm and outside of it are attempting to figure out which institutions are reliable collaborators - in essence to certify capabilities - that can be done through government (many countries impose a ministry of education to set those standards) or through voluntary or quasi voluntary processes like accreditation.  Universities are ultimately a set of networks - which is one of the reasons I am a skeptic about how many of the for profits work.  (They do not seem to care about that aspect of higher education.)   Finally, there is the big issue of computing - technology according to its most vibrant supporters and the biggest skeptics is changing the way universities deliver their products.  There have been big claims about Multiple Open Online Courses (I am mostly a skeptic here) and some expansive predictions about the role of everything from star professors to cellphones in changing the way courses are delivered - some of which might come true.   The last variable in my matrix was governance - colleges in the US and in many other places around the world have a unique structure for making decisions that often involves faculty, students, administrators and a board of directors - all of whom have overlapping responsibilities.   As the other factors come into play, governance will be an important other consideration.

In the last couple of years I have been involved in some of the innovative efforts, including working on the creation of a regionally accredited university that is online and offers an undergraduate degree for $12,000 and accepts to federal aid.  But I am convinced that a good deal of the rhetoric about change is just that; rhetoric.   But that does not mean that universities will look like they did when I started as an undergraduate in the 1960s.   What is most interesting to me is the parallel tracks of change that are happening - so let me make five predictions about the next few years.

#1 - There will be many paths to an education but most will include some time in a university and much of that will be on a campus.  Thus, while virtual campuses will be important - so too will physical campuses.
#2 - At least in the US, cost will continue to be an important variable - but policy makers will continue to confuse cost and price.   
#3 - The more government gets into the process of requirements and oversight, the less successful universities will be.   The last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act in the US was a horrible piece of legislation - with more than 100 new requirements and very little new financial support.  That is likely to be a pattern which continues and if a reduction in requirements can be substituted for a reduction in funding - that might not be a bad deal.
#4 - Sorting out what constitutes a student, a course, and a degree will take some time and effort.  But each of those concepts is undergoing change at a rapid rate.
#5 - Those institutions that understand that they are (in the words of former USC President Steve Sample) "lifelong and worldwide" and build a model which reflects those visions - will prosper.

None of those predictions is especially novel.

The audience in Aguascalientes was interested - although a lot of the students were especially interested in how they could be in the inaugural class in Minerva University.  But in the end we had a good discussion about all these factors of change.   Mexico has advanced rapidly in the last couple of decades with an increasing percentage of young people beginning and completing degrees.   The old bromide about "living in interesting times" is certainly true for higher education all around the globe.   For institutions that celebrate in attire that was first designed in the Twelfth Century that is pretty amazing.

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