Rethinking Higher Education Delivery in the Modern Age

For the last decade higher education has been in steep decline, even before students were abandoned to fend for themselves and their futures while our so-called elites dithered over what to do about COVID-19. But higher ed was in trouble long before the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Forbes, enrollment is down “more than two million students in this decade.” This appears to be the result of a demographic shift caused by an exodus from Democrat-run states. Another notable change is that colleges are seeing enrollment spikes in professional education. Students are fleeing traditional education pathways, opting for certificates over degrees. Though some educators see what is happening, most remain blinded. If those in charge of colleges and universities wish to save their institutions, they must act.

In January 2020, I was asked to consult on a higher ed project that aimed to bring a new digital learning format for younger generations, especially Generation Z and Millennials. This generation of students is, generally speaking, unsatisfied with its Boomer superiors and predecessors, who have been delivering education as if they are stuck in the late 1960s. Increasingly, students know what many of us really know deep down—higher education, at least in its current form, is largely a scam.

The new generation of students understands that the amount of debt it undertakes is not worth the “learning” it receives. As Arthur Milikh pointed out in National Affairs, higher ed is no longer dedicated to “free inquiry”—today’s colleges and universities are progressive bastions that “undermine learning.”

Even in my consulting position, it was remarkable how academics and administrators rejected innovation. Professional educators know that what they have been trained to believe is the truth; they also know that the manner they deliver instruction is “settled science.” They assure themselves that “quality education” exists on their campus because they make all of their teachers go through formal training—like that of Quality Matters, developed by education school graduates. But do not take my word for it, they will tell you: “But how do you know a course is designed with you in mind? The QM Certification Mark. We don’t create the course, but we create standards for what a quality course should be.” As one provost said to me in defense of spending money on QM training: “you wouldn’t want someone to install a door and not give them the screws,” as if that logic proved anything. This close-minded approach suffocates teachers and places them under the illusion that their training is making students better learners. It most definitely does not make for better teachers.

Provosts and presidents would rather believe everything is fine. Matriculation numbers will rebound in spite of students fleeing for more lucrative opportunities. Higher ed leaders think that strategic marketing and the right placement of sports teams will increase enrollment. But students are not impressed. And why should they be? Students have more vocational opportunities in the digital age than at any other time in history. Simply consider the growing list of new internet entrepreneurs who have left traditional education to strike out on their own. For example, Tim Pool, a high school drop-out, has been most savvy with his impressive business model—he boasts over a million subscribers over all of his platforms.

Higher ed leaders continue to hold on to the fantasy that the institutions they captured in the 1960s are the only means for success. They aren’t. As they cling to their outdated professional training, they are speaking to an increasingly smaller group of students. Many in the younger generation of students do not want to sit through traditional lectures delivered by professors thrice their age who have no interest in adapting to the new realities ushered in by digital media. Why attend a college or university that increasingly expects you to conform to the prevailing groupthink of the day? That’s not real learning. The modern college is not only hostile to liberal education—increasingly, students now believe that they do not need it to find employment or develop their careers.

The younger generation of students grew up in the digital world and were formed by on-demand access. Gaming experiences taught them that entertainment is conducive to learning. Students learn through this yet untapped medium that competition matters. With every level of achievement, they receive badges, points, and are ranked against other players. They take great pride in being the best in their class, and they love to challenge themselves to achieve the next level. Gaming teaches incoming students that self-motivation should be part of the learning experience.

Colleges that see these trends have sought to sidestep accreditation as much as possible. Indeed, most know that accreditation does not guarantee a real education. Some, like e-Cornell or Purdue Global, have set up separate entities inside their institutions apart from their traditional, accredited counterparts that offer reasonably priced certificate [CE] programs. CEs do not require years of propagandized pre-requisites backed by the government’s accrediting imprimatur. The increasingly popular Coursera offers CEs from several colleges. Western Governors University goes further and has explicitly called for future employees who dare to think for themselves while challenging the status quo. Check out this requirement from a recent job posting: “Managerial Courage—Willing to tackle difficult topics and conventional thinking in a respectful and productive manner, doesn’t hold anything back that needs to be said.” Needless to say, none of these offerings require their instructors to go through Quality Matters training.

Though these efforts are only a start, they should make those who want innovation in education hopeful. However, this is not nearly enough. Any education that adapts to digital realities should be on-demand and gamified. If you doubt how effective this can be, look at Duolingo. This style of education gears delivery in small doses of digestible content, which is most conducive to busy families and single parents.

Online delivery of education can work under certain conditions, but it has to be completely rethought. Most colleges and universities will fail if they do not make the necessary changes. A more robust and entertaining vehicle for delivering education is but part of that calculus. These adaptations can lead to a rediscovery of real academic freedom and rational discourse. Institutions that cling to a traditionalist mindset and have not planned for this new reality are already dead. They will not wake up until it’s too late, but this is not something to weep over. Great opportunity awaits those who see clearly what is before them.

A new generation of learning institutions will rise from the rubble. The time for that new reality has been long coming.


Image: Nathan Dumlao, Public Domain

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Erik S. Root

Erik S. Root is an independent political science scholar and author of "All Honor to Jefferson?" and "Sons of the Fathers." His work can be found at eriksroot.com.

9 thoughts on “Rethinking Higher Education Delivery in the Modern Age

  1. I taught a “remote” course in Spring. The students found it very difficult to get used to. I definitely found it difficult, it was the hardest course to teach for me since my first year of teaching long ago. Oddly enough, in terms of academic accomplishment, the class was one of the best at that level (Intro), if not the best, that I have had in recent years. In retrospect, the situation induced me to try to empathize more with the students. Also, they appreciated that I let them know that I was struggling, in addition to acknowledging that I was aware of how difficult it must be for them. It was the most rewarding in terms of appreciative feedback, and also in the sense of helping the students make it through a time that was disorienting for everyone, and traumatic for some.

    I think the author is very wrong about what the students want. At least at large state universities, they want on-campus. They want the “college experience.” Not just the student life, but the teaching too. Apart from lectures, Zoom discussions are difficult and stilted. Zoom office hours even more so. “Remote labs” are only remote. Labs they are not.

    The administrators were desperate to “reopen” the campuses for a lot of reasons — bonds to pay off on some of the dorms — but the biggest was fear of a calamitous enrollment drop if everything remained “remote” past Sprig term.

    The students want the campus educational, social, and career preparation experience.

  2. What the author suggests may be perfectly fine if you’re a political science or communications major, but it won’t work for STEM. Ten years ago you started to see colleges advertising that all incoming students would get a laptop. The implication was professors would cast aside the ways of the old ones and teach with dynamic, animated presentations running on large screen displays while student interactively participated in newly digitized classrooms. Well, what happened? We never hear about any of those things now.

    The reason why is if you have to learn Maxwell’s equations or how to analyze a system’s stability using root-locus methods there are no fun, game-like teaching methods to do that. You have to listen to someone lecture about it using a whiteboard to show derivations and examples. You then have to sit down and study it. You then do lots of exercises to make sure you remember it. And no one has ever come up with a better method of teaching that stuff than the old ways used way back in the previous century.

  3. “…is largely a scam. The new generation of students understands that the amount of debt it undertakes is not worth the “learning” it receives.”

    Oh, these woke students most certainly did learn something: they were largely taught things and ideas no prospective employer cares about.

    In the end, the only thing these students understand is what the phrase “buyer’s remorse” means.

  4. I want to thank Nicholas for his thoughtful comments. However, a few points of clarification:

    1) I never used the word Marxist. My critique of higher ed is broad, that is, it is stuck in a mindset in its entirety—what I call the Boomer mindset. Students are not impressed. The ineffective teaching methods of the present knows no political ideology.

    2) The effects of digital may be learned from Marshall McLuhan who spoke of its effects decades ago. Jordan Hall, and the center for digital life, have written plenty about this as have the fine folks at the Claremont Institute, including James Poulos.

    3) I am not arguing for replacing real human connection with nothing but online learning. Yet, the younger generations are used to it, and like the flexibility of what it provides. I mention only one person in my example, but there are a plethora of others, and they are often wiser and more informative than the boomer counterparts in brick and mortar. The significance of BAP, Razor, and Styx online, not to mention Crowder are all elements of the new wave of digital life that are far more influential than the boomer mindset in college. Students are looking for something delivered like that—on demand, digestible, pithy, and serious about breaking the walls and methods of traditional higher ed. They are interested in real learning as if we were in the agora with Socrates. They are mostly finding that online these days with a handful of exceptions.

  5. “enrollment is down “more than two million students in this decade.” This appears to be the result of a demographic shift caused by an exodus from Democrat-run states.”

    One needs to remember demographics — the Millennials are the children of the Baby Boomers, and they have now aged out of college. Gen Z are the children of the much smaller Gen X generation. The bottom will truly drop out in 2016 when all the children not born in 2008 won’t be turning 18.

    In addition to everything else, there are fewer 18-year-olds.

  6. I agree, but would go a steep deeper — the student of the 1960’s went to college for three reasons: to provide an employment credential, to meet a spouse, and (in some cases) for traditional scholarship.

    These needs still exist, but the “antiversity” is meeting none of them. Before the COVID-aborted Trump recovery, college graduates weren’t getting jobs. The value of the degree has inclined — any degree meant more when less than 10% of job applicants had one, less today when 35% do. And that’s not even getting into how much less college graduates learn today.

    As to finding the (heterosexual) spouse, it ain’t gonna happen today. Starting 30+ years ago with legitimate efforts to abate excessive student drinking, the Student Affairs profession has gone full fascist on all things heterosexual. Long gone are the “freshman mixers” of the 1970’s, let alone the ability to stop by dorms to meet people’s roommates.

    And then as to scholarship — genuine scholarship — it also ain’t happening anymore…

  7. Erik S. Root is conflating two very different matters, the traditional lecture, and Marxist politics.

    I studied with traditional scholars on two continents, who were not Marxists. On the other hand, having taught college for six years, employing everything I’d learned from my best college teachers, while adding a few wrinkles of my own, I am convinced that “digital learning,” whatever that is, cannot hold a candle to the intense human connection between teacher and student in the same classroom.

    Today’s antiversity is largely worthless, and will hopefully fail, but the higher learning must be re-born, albeit for a much smaller audience. However, while an online business model may well reap profits for businessmen, the university will not be re-born online.  

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