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The Education Revolution Opens Up the Path Less Taken

The Chronicle this week published a news analysis questioning whether the current nonstop talk over innovation in higher ed is creating a system for those who can least afford a traditional education but need it the most. The piece generated plenty of reaction in the comments, which I’d group into two opposing camps:

  • Face-to-face education is the established and verified mode of instruction, and any other way depersonalizes education, is uncontrolled, and most of all, is ineffective.
  • Using technology to supplement and, in some cases, replace face-to-face instruction helps personalize learning for students, focuses classroom time on what they haven’t already mastered, and most important, meets students where and how they learn today. As a result, traditional brick-and-mortar colleges are doomed.

As usual with almost any policy debate these days, very few commenters were trying to forge a middle ground, which is desperately needed in an age of rising costs, declining public subsidies, and new ways of delivering courses.

We should be concerned about the impact of changes in higher ed if the outcome is that high-quality traditional colleges are reserved only for the wealthy and gifted. But the tone of many comments was that traditional colleges and face-to-face instruction are of high quality, while everything else is not, or at least is unproven.

Some of the biggest skeptics of online learning see it as the modern equivalent of the correspondence course, a second-rate alternative for students too far from a physical campus.

It’s worth noting, however, that we tend to romanticize what happens on college campuses, including the actual learning that occurs in traditional classrooms. Faculty in the past gathered students in a classroom to either lecture them or lead a discussion because there weren’t many alternatives. And despite the various learning styles of students today and the new tools to reach them, some professors still teach the same way they did 10 or 20 years ago.

Last spring, Ithaca S+R, the research service of the nonprofit group Ithaka, which promotes the use of technology in education, released the results of a study that found students learned just as much in the hybrid format of a statistics course at six public universities as they would have in a traditional version of the course.

In releasing the study’s findings, William G. Bowen, a former president of Princeton University and an architect of the research, said “the most important single result” was that “it calls into question the position of the skeptic who says, ‘I don’t want to try this because it will hurt my students.’”

Such words could carry significant weight, coming from a former president of Princeton. Higher education is organized by prestige, and the relentless drive to move up a level remains one of the biggest barriers to change.

Prestige and quality are often conflated, and the ambiguous definition of exactly what prestige means in higher education leads colleges to focus on the input measures—which students they accept and how much they spend—valued by the various rankings.

What’s more, faculty members and researchers want to work at institutions like the places where they were trained, so the race for prestige leads institutions to spend more of their own dollars on research in the hope of securing more federal dollars or, if they’re really ambitious, snagging an invitation to the exclusive club—the Association of American Universities.

In the end, this race leads institutions to be risk averse, to innovate only on the edges, and for those who can’t afford to compete, to take on large amounts of debt to look like everyone else. After all, who wants to follow a different path than the colleges ahead of them or to look radically different?

Sure, some of what’s talked about as saving higher education in the future is hype and will be abandoned in a few years, as many of the commenters on the Chronicle article noted. But carving a path that diverges from the well-worn route toward prestige doesn’t necessarily mean the new course is of lesser quality.

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