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The university of the future: Marching toward obsolescence?

A couple weeks ago, Carlos Scolari interviewed me for a project on pedagogical innovation and disruptive practices in higher education at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). The aim of the project is to produce a document on the “university of the future,” including diagnosis, trends, and proposals for moving forward.

With his permission, I am sharing my responses to his questions:

CS: How do you see the situation of the universities from a pedagogical point view? I’m thinking in the situation of teaching-learning processes inside these big institutions.

JM: From a pedagogical viewpoint, universities have invested too much in a monocultural approach to education. Most universities are using the same methods to teach all the same stuff. This is very dangerous as the world is changing so quickly that entire fields and bodies of knowledge risk being outdated/outmoded very quickly.

I believe that we need to start to expand the ecology of options that we have in higher education, including pedagogical approaches. Otherwise, we run the risk of failing universally.

CS: Why do you think it’s so difficult to change the teaching-learning practices in the universities?

JM: I think change is difficult within universities because we rely heavily on academic “traditions” that are built on faulty assumptions of teaching and learning. Some of most troubling assumptions (which are not based on science) include:

  • Motivation: We assume students must be externally motivated to learn, otherwise they would not learn anything. This is akin to assuming the natural state of humans is laziness and non-curious.
  • Age segregation: We assume people learn best when segregated by age or ability. We tend to compartmentalize education into certain discrete levels (i.e., primary, secondary, and tertiary education), and further segregate students by age. There is very little reason to support this practice, and evidence suggests that cross age/ability integration enhances students’ learning.
  • Power structures: We assume that the only “qualified” knowledge generators are the teachers at the head of the classroom, who download knowledge into students’ heads. In today’s world where the magnitude of change is accelerating at an exponential pace, information and knowledge is always in flux. Rather than relying on static “experts,” we need to start recognizing and attending to new power structures where we all serve as co-learners and co-teachers.

The good news is that “traditions” are things that we invent all the time. I am optimistic that we can create new traditions that are relevant to modern society.

CS: How can we improve the teaching-learning processes in the universities?

JM: I think we should look at new uses for software and social technologies to enable all participants at universities to become life-long co-teachers as well as co-learners. This means that students (and teachers) need to stop behaving as consumers of education, but become creators, producers, and prosumers. At the same time, learning needs to become more immersive and personally-meaningful (subjective experiences) to each learner. This means that we are likely to not have one master narrative for learning at universities, but we may have many different ones, enabling students and faculty to express themselves as postdisciplinary knowledge experts (possessing unique knowledge at the individual level).

CS: Could you please indicate three (3) innovative/disruptive teaching-learning experiences? They could be single practices (i.e. flip teaching) or institutional ones (i.e. Coursera).

JM:

  1. Democratic education: Educational institutions tend to run as dictatorships, and are structured to preserve themselves. By horizontalizing our relationships, and making sure to give each stakeholder an equal voice, we could see significant, positive disruption as students and faculty become co-responsible for attending to all aspects of the educational experience.
  2. Quest-based learning: Thieu Besselink wrote an excellent chapter on this in Knowmad Society: http://www.knowmadsociety.com
  3. Co-teaching: This is best expressed by what E-180 and the Shibuya University Network already engage in.

CS: How do you imagine the university of the future? Please indicate three (3) characteristics.

JM: This question is perhaps faulty in that it assumes that we will have universities in the future. Maybe you should start with the question: Does the future need universities?

Let’s assume that the future does need universities. In that case, I envision near-future institutions will operate in an environment where…

  1. Any form of information delivery that can be commodified, will be. We see this today with the emergence of MOOCs, Udemy, Coursera, etc. Any non-unique content delivery (especially through download-style pedagogies) will be provided through these platforms, and through a small group of providers. This is particularly threatening to junior colleges, general education courses at mainstream universities, and perhaps also to secondary education.
  2. The gap between top tier schools and everybody else will widen. The top schools may not have superior educational offerings, but they have powerful brands. Why pay to take a course at the University of Minnesota when you can participate in a free, online experience that is affiliated with a top school, such as Stanford or MIT? My take is that the top-tier schools with powerful brand identities will “own” higher education; and, in many respects, other universities will become subscribers to their products and services.
  3. Smaller, “boutique” programs outside the formal, accredited system will boom in presence and market share. Small, but highly specialized, programs such as KaosPilots, Knowmads, YIP, Hyper Island, and the Shibuya University Network operate outside of formal education, and have each developed their own approaches to teaching and learning. In an era where mainstream society are beginning to question the value of a university degree, these programs offer alternatives, and employers will become much, much more receptive to the “graduates” of these alternative education/credentialing programs.

I think that, apart from the very few elite institutions, universities are marching themselves toward obsolescence, and they may be the last to figure it out. Remember, as Anya Kamentz pointed out in her interview at Education Futures, the Roman Senate continued to meet for several centuries after the collapse of the empire.

The future of education, open accreditation, and DIY U: An interview with Anya Kamenetz

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking with Anya Kamenetz, a senior writer at Fast Company Magazine, and the author of several thought-provoking books on education, including Generation debt and DIY U: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the coming transformation of higher education.

Anya’s most recent projects — two free ebooks Learning, freedom and the Web (Mozilla Foundation) and The Edupunks’ Guide (Gates Foundations) build on her previous work investigating issues of self-directed learning, peer-networks, and access.

Our discussion focused on the future, purposes, and meaning of formal education, as well as alternative accreditation models, Knowmad Society, and academic and institutional change.

Here is a summary of our conversation:

On the purpose of college:
“As I get deeper into the topic of higher education it strikes me all the time that there really is a blind man and the elephant quality to it. That people appear to be discussing the same thing and yet you find that their internal models of what higher education means are very, very different.”

On the mission of educational institutions in our modern economy defined by being post-industrial, highly globalized, and subject to accelerating change:
“We are living in a time of bottomless scrutiny of all of our institutions and education foremost among them and that’s because they are subject to so many structural pressures and the weakest points in their creation are really exposed by the winds of the new society and the world that we are living in…”

On the value of a college degree:
“…at its best, a college degree is a unique kind of currency that was created by human societies to show that someone has been through a process of personal development, of cultural development, that they are a ‘citizen’ in the truest sense of the word. They are able to participate in society intelligently. Ideally they are able to contribute to society…”

On compulsory high school in America:
“The whole idea of compulsory education is a little bit of a strange one in the United States. We’ve never had more, than what we have today which is a three-fourths high school graduation rate. Even though we compel people to attend, we are not that great at getting them to graduate. And for those that do graduate, in many districts, over half need some type of remedial courses to repeat when they get to college, if they get to college.”

On our projection of the demise of formal schooling by 2037:
“I’m not sure that I share the bluntness of a projection like that. It’s very easy to envision a world in which formal education is far demoted down the list in terms of choices that individuals have…”

On how alternative accreditation can benefit Knowmads:
“We are seeing all kinds of exciting developments in alternative accreditation. There are two major trends and they sort of work in complimentary directions. The first one is, this more atomized, very specific skills based orientated kind of accreditation which is best encapsulated by the badge. … On the opposite end of the spectrum, I think in a very intriguing way, you have sort of the person, the whole life, life as certification. The idea of a portfolio based assessment, things that allow you to document your learning that has taken place in various stages and aspects on your life, create a narrative around that learning, reflect on that learning, and develop metacognitive skills and document the learning you’ve done as well.”

On sociotechnical practices that are shaping the future of learning:
“The availability of social networks and peer based social networking is really enabling people to make visible the peer roles in learning that have sort been faded into the background by the last 150 years of formal education which sort of, and really in some sense the last 1000 years which considered of a person at the front of the room talking and the rest of the people are sitting down. And the assumption is that the people who are sitting down are very passive listeners and are not actively involved which each other; and, in fact, we have the phrase “classmates” but necessarily give you the idea that you have something valuable to learn from the person sitting next to you or behind you as much as you do from the person at the front of the room.”

On creating a more accessible and equitable education system:
“I think what is clearly being revealed at the moment is that the structures that we are building don’t necessarily allow for increased social equity or access over an above what we have in the brick and mortar system because merely making things available for free doesn’t necessarily lower the barriers to access and in fact we are actually we are in danger of recreating many of the same privileges that exists in the Ivory Tower world online simplify because people online tend to work through more informal networks that goes back to sort of an idea of an old boys network, it can be more meritocratic in some ways, it can be more open in some ways, but in the bottom line you need to have more onramps, ways to make these structures visible to people who wouldn’t necessarily know how to use them.”

On rising costs in higher education:
“Basic disruption theory tells us disruptive choices rarely come from the inside institutions, they have too much to lose. It’s the new institutions that are finding the ability offer things at radically lower costs. and sort of reframe and question what we mean by higher education.”

On evolution and revolution in education:
“I think that education is a peculiarly resistant to change of any institution because the whole purpose of formalized education is to preserve the past. … I guess I would vote on the side of very radical change happening but it may not take the take the form we expect.”

I also suggest watching two of Anya’s recent talks at Harvard’s Berkman Center and the American Enterprise Institute.