Seeking a Sensible Middle on Creative Destruction in Higher Ed

Cross-posted from See Thru Edu

I often try to temper my colleagues’ enthusiasm for the coming wave of “creative destruction” that is about to hit higher education. Certainly there are going to be big changes, but there are also key aspects of higher education that prove resistant to change. This is especially true about online education: like it or not, some areas of higher education are more like Home Depot than Amazon–you can easily send a book via FedEx, but not a cube of bricks.

As somebody who is currently taking his fourth online course, I’m finding the most crucial part of an education–the explanation of difficult concepts–is more of the Home Depot variety. It is much more efficient for a professor to explain something that a student is having trouble grasping in person. A man with a relatively deep voice speaks at about 115 words per minute; an experienced journalist such as myself who is used to tight deadlines will top out at writing about 500-600 words per hour–a pace that’s hard to sustain when discussing difficult philosophical or scientific concepts. Instead of a single teacher being able to be more efficient by going online, he or she will likely become less efficient when teaching such material to more than a few students. The advantage of personal contact is even more important when a student is confused and fishing for the right question to ask.

And as somebody who is still entranced by the mystical quality of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Guiding Hand,” it seems to me that having a community of learners gathered in one place can be a case in which the sum is somehow magically transformed into something greater than the whole.

But traditional higher education’s defenders–I mean the thoughtful ones, not the shills for the establishment–are also a little too dismissive of its critics. Universities–public and private–are unconscionably wasteful. Higher education is indeed oversold to students who would be better off choosing other paths. Disengaged students abound; Arum and Roksa’s empirical research in the book Academically Adrift about the lack of learning on campus matches much of what I see anecdotally­­­­­. A community of slackers interested primarily in “beer and circuses” is not the same as a community of learners.

But the defenders are right to insist that there is still ample learning going on at many schools; I have also met many recent graduates who demonstrate a considerable grasp of their degree subject and excellent powers of reasoning, far beyond what they possessed directly after high school.

Both sides seem to forget that the effects of creative destruction and the higher education bubble will apply differently to different types of students and to different institutions and will suit different purposes. Harvard, Swarthmore, UNC, and Georgia Tech aren’t going away because of online learning. Should they adopt some facets of online learning and blend it in with what they do now? Certainly. But their residential campuses will be full for quite a long time.

Let’s hope that the ensuing years will see all manner of educational innovations, as well as more truly traditional approaches rather than the current flight to faddism. Higher education is an institution in great need of reform. And we need to rethink the purposes of an education–the current system in which college is an expensive rite of passage is not working. We do indeed have new technologies that can benefit pedagogy. And we must remember that productive work should be the end of an education, and that we can easily prepare young people for adulthood more efficiently than we are currently doing so. Additionally, we should take advantage of the way that online learning can benefit lifelong learning, so that we mix work and education better than we have done in the past.

At the same time, it’s best to remember that online education is primarily a delivery system; a salmonella sandwich tastes the same whether it’s delivered to your front door, whether you get it in the drive-thru window, or whether you sit down and eat it at the restaurant.  One higher education innovation that has received tremendous publicity and financial backing is the Minerva Project. It’s entirely online–but the people involved, including Larry Summers and Bob Kerrey, are straight out of the liberal establishment. As I wrote in this article, “one does not generally look to Harvard administrators if the goal is to move in a fresh intellectual direction.”

On the other hand, another innovative program, called Praxis, which was started on a shoestring by an academic outsider, is truly unique and could initiate further change. I call it a “boot camp” for future professionals: it’s only ten months long and the major component is actually working at a private firm–the student is at the location performing hands-on tasks, much like an apprenticeship (only for white collar work). The educational content, while online, is centered on liberty and free markets–a gourmet snack, rather than the typical buffet of educational swill.

The debate is too often between those who “want to throw the baby out with the bath” and those who want to keep washing the baby in filthy, fetid water.  There seems to be a reasonable third way here–keeping the baby but changing the water once in a while. We might need to be a little more cautious about every “innovative” panacea that comes up the road, but we still need to fight on the traditional campus to preserve the good while putting an end to the excesses and insanity.

Jay Schalin

Jay Schalin researches and writes about higher education policy for the Pope Center.

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