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Finally, a Path Toward Solutions to the Crisis in Higher Ed

Gavin Newsom at UCLA. (Todd Cheney)

You won’t often find the lieutenant governor of a state at a higher-ed conference, but there was Gavin Newsom of California sitting next to me on Tuesday at UCLA for a discussion about how online learning might help the state’s cash-starved public colleges increase access. He wasn’t there just for a photo-op. He stayed basically the entire day and took notes. A lot of them, and on the subject (I looked). He rarely glanced down at his phone.

The meeting was another in a series of what seem like weekly gatherings on the subject of innovation in higher ed. At most of those meetings, I’m struck by some important constituency that is not represented. Most of the time it’s the faculty. Sometimes it’s lawmakers or trustees. And other times it’s students, especially the students who will be arriving on college campuses in the next few years.

But the organizers of this symposium, the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, succeeded more than most at getting all the key voices in the room, from the various innovation movements (MOOCs, competency-based degrees, open learning, prior learning, and new higher-ed providers), the faculty unions, the academic senates, politicians, college presidents, and finally, actual live students.

Now that we have the right players at the table, we just need to get them to talk with one another instead of at one another. At times the discussion on Tuesday reminded me of the fiscal talks in Washington. Everyone acknowledges there is a problem, but no one wants to give one inch on their proposed solution or on their opposition to some other fix. It’s just easier to keep talking and kicking the can down the road for someone else to deal with some day.

That day is quickly coming for higher ed. Six in 10 colleges and universities face balance sheets with flat or declining net-tuition revenue. That’s the cash they have to spend after giving out financial aid.

In California, which enrolls one out of nine American students, the fiscal situation seems to go from bad to worse every month. One of the biggest complaints from students on a panel was that they can’t get the classes they need to graduate or even the prerequisites for other classes that do have room. A student from Sonoma State University said she has friends who are losing their financial aid and housing because they can’t get enough courses to stay enrolled full time. To them online classes are vital.

Among my key takeaways from the day that could form the basis for both sides to come to some agreement:

There is no one solution. Every college is looking for the silver-bullet solution to fix all of its problems. One fear I have about all the press the MOOCs are getting these days is that it is overshadowing good work being done by others who were at the conference, namely Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative and the University of Wisconsin’s new flex-degree option.

Even a leader of the MOOC movement agrees. “The MOOC as the solution for everything is just wrong,” said Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s founder. “People matter, instructors matter. It’s not just a computer system that matters.” That said, faculty members pointed out that they are constantly bombarded with a “dizzying array of options” for the future and no clear path forward. There is no one solution, but there can’t be a hundred solutions either.

We need more research. Many agreed more research is needed on student learning in a digital age. Daphne Koller of Coursera suggested higher ed could take a page from the corporate world and do more A/B testing online to figure out what engages students. The question remains of who will pay for such research.

Perhaps the federal government could revive the original purpose of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, which was intended to scale innovation in higher education. Once that research is done, it needs to get into the hands of the right people, it needs to be believed, and everyone needs to agree that sometimes we should move forward without every last piece of evidence.

What is higher education? We tend to romanticize what happens on a college campus these days to fit a vision of higher ed from a generation ago. Yet today’s students no longer fit that mold, and they are often forgotten in this debate. The rhetoric of both sides (administrator vs. faculty, tech vs. anti-tech) perpetuates the stereotypes of academe.

Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, said the move online was not being driven by the faculty. “We are being invaded by these outside forces,” he said. Perhaps higher ed needs its version of the No Labels group, which is a movement in Congress of Democrats, Republicans, and independents to cross party lines to solve problems.

The UCLA conference was a good start. It got the right people in the room. But enough of the talk at these conferences. Now the two sides need to come to a consensus on a path forward. Maybe they should borrow an idea from Phil Regier of Arizona State University Online. He has forged a pact with his faculty that if professors don’t think their online course is better than the face-to-face version, they can go back to the old way. So far, he said, no one has taken him up on the offer.

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