higher education

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Whose crazy idea is it anyway?

As the 21st century digital revolution continues to disrupt the economy, and the traditional knowledge claim held by experts of the 20th century is making way for a global entrepreneurial mindset, (university) education finds itself on the verge of its most radical transformations since the industrial revolution. Whose Crazy Idea Is It Anyway is an academic endeavor that has the ambition to set the agenda in the educational landscape of the coming decade.

The work conference takes a specific angle to tackle the education issue: the (presumed) tension between entrepreneurial and academic values. Where do these values overlap and when do they contradict each other? What kinds of learning environments can start to emerge when both these worlds join forces? And how can these new learning networks be equipped to address urgent societal issues?

Following a “Yes – No – What the F*ck” intermission exercise facilitated by the Knowmads business school in Amsterdam, I gave a keynote talk that centered on invisible learning, and how higher education can contribute toward building Knowmad Society.

Later, I chatted with Andrew Keen on how we might foster entrepreneurship and expressions of innovation in higher education. Unfortunately, the studio lighting couldn’t mask my jet lag and emerging head cold:

Other interesting interviews:

Parag Khanna

Zoltan Acs

Thieu Besselink

Hrobjartur Arnason

Review: The faculty lounges (by Naomi Schaefer Riley)

Book: The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get The College Education You Pay For
Author: Naomi Schaefer Riley
Publisher: Ivan R Dee (2011)

The pot of gold at the end of the tenure review process is still job security, even though powerful forces are working against the continuity of tenure as a higher education fixture. The conventional justification for tenure is dramatized through the Usual Circumstances and Suspects that prey on faculty: Budgets, administrators, unhappy students, and political, religious, or otherwise inspired off-campus harpies, such as present and former writers for the Wall Street Journal.

Naomi Riley is conventionally adequate at disparaging the academic serfdom associated with assignments to introductory classes during the tenure review process. Yes, assistant professors are often sacrificed on the altar of tuition streaming to help finance smaller classes and their ranking faculty. Yes, serfdom in the service of tuition streaming is matched by subject matter serfdom, in which entry level faculty are expected to demonstrate fealty to traditional knowledge production and delivery. And yes, undergraduates are often taught by graduate students, most of whom lust after the pot of gold.

Riley ticks off a laundry list of these and other tenure-related problems, none of which are new and nearly all of which are undocumented. Charges of shallowness are conveniently moot in her case, however, because she is neither an academic nor intellectually oriented in her writing. It goes without saying that she did not undergo the rigors of tenure evaluation. Riley appears to have acquired much of her largely intuitive opinions about higher education through contact with her parents, both academics, and by going to college. Her voice is flat; her style doggedly Wall Street Journal editorial/op-ed.

As former academic guilds speciate into “businesses”, and as business models and associated cultures virally infect otherwise healthy academic hosts, we may indeed find pressing reasons to protect faculty, not only from the Usual Circumstances and Suspects, but from colleagues who have mutated from guild members into competitive, intrapreneurial corporate personnel.

Sporting her largely unexamined defense of the virtues and inevitability of an Academic Rapture based on business values and models, Riley is an ideal flack for the Elimination of Tenure. The CEOs (aka the presidents) of more and more campuses will certainly pay her and others like her increasing heed.

Bottom line (as we say), Naomi Riley should be given kudos for a Contribution by Omission: A prominent, powerful, and evolving justification for tenure lies in the protection of faculty from shape-shifted corporate colleagues. This capability is one that should be taken up as a serious –even a top-drawer– justification for the continuation of tenure.

Note: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.

Matching learning to the real world: Forget the box!

I met up with Ali Hossaini in Amsterdam and Noordwijk earlier this month. In this short interview we made, Ali states that “to think out of the box, you have to start out of the box, and we’re not letting people leave it right now in the current educational institutions.” He advocates for approaches to learning that are collaborative and reflective of real world problem solving that allow people to become experts on the fly (and not just in business, but also in art, academia, etc.). The development of creative thinking, he argues, is one thing that Western educational institutions could develop as their competitive advantage.

Ali does a lot. Read his bio posted at ArtLab.

A plutocratic education

This piece from KQED captured my attention:

a number of authors and high-profile businesspeople and entrepreneurs are debunking the notion that college is the best solution. They’re questioning whether paying tens of thousands of dollars and investing four or five years in an institution should be the default for young people when so many more options exist. With free, high-quality education available to anyone, is college necessary? These folks say no.

Indeed, we have been hearing a lot from the überwealthy lately on what they think of education. Bill Gates thinks the Web will outperform universities (Windows required?); Peter Thiel thinks higher education is in a bubble of false promises; Mark Zuckerberg dabbles by bankrolling Newark’s schools; and, Oprah is waiting for Superman to revolutionize America’s schools.

They might be right. But, that’s not the point.

The problem is that these people have hijacked the entire conversation.

If the ultra wealthy are concerned about America’s competitiveness, the schools aren’t failing. They’re failing the schools. The nation’s ranking on the PISA tables continues to slip, but if we control for poverty, we’re darn near the top.

Maybe the problem doesn’t stem from failing schools and a rotting education system. Maybe the problem is that the number of America’s poor under 18 years of age is rising (21.7% live in poverty as reported by UNICEF in 2007) and wealth among all age groups is being concentrated to a tiny percentage of the population. Given a problem that is rooted in poverty, can we trust the ultra wealthy to “fix” education? …or, can we build a more inclusive conversation and generate more realistic solutions?

The emerging and future roles of academic libraries

Libraries are actively reinventing themselves for the digital age.  Confronted with corrosive budgets, skyrocketing costs, and challenged by a fear of obsolesce resulting from the accelerating rate of technological change; libraries are struggling for their survival.  For the academic library — the “heart” of the modern research university — survival requires demonstrating their value in new ways, embedding themselves deeper into the university’s core functions of teaching, learning, and research.  Although daunting, these challenges are nothing new for academic li-braries.

Within a generation, the signs of change are highly visible.  Gone are the card catalogues, monastic study corrals, and physical books replaced by media labs, new expertise in strategic areas (teaching and learning, information literacy, copyright, data visualization, and media production), and professionally designed collaborative workspaces.  The resonance of these changes has extended beyond the bookends of the library.  Just this week the Atlantic Monthly blog crowned the 2011 South by Southwest Festival “The Year of the Librarian”.

Photo: library cards Creative Commons BY NC SA 2.0 dorywithserifs

Despite radical attempts to meet the changing needs of every generation of scholars critics have argued that the library — in its current form — may have outlived its purpose.  For some change at the library hasn’t come quickly enough.  A recent editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education codifies this position, accusing practitioners of being complicit — spending the last few decades rearranging the books in the Titanic library.  Sullivan, (2011) contends:

“… it is entirely possible that the life of the academic library could have been spared if the last generation of librarians had spent more time plotting a realistic path to the future and less time chasing outdated trends while mindlessly spouting mantras like “There will always be books and libraries” and “People will always need librarians to show them how to use information.” We’ll never know now what kind of treatments might have worked. Librarians planted the seeds of their own destruction and are responsible for their own downfall”.

I disagree.  There is ample evidence that library leaders have in earnest set their sights on the future — most notably, two of the largest American academic library professional organizations (The Association of Research Libraries and the Association of College and Research Libraries), recently produced future oriented reports to catalyze support for the value of academic libraries, and to provide vision for the future.  In my mind, these reports capture the excitement of an institution in transition, and provide insights into the future of higher education as a whole.

Futures Research
The first report, from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), a nonprofit professional organization which represents 126 of the largest college and university research libraries in the United States and Canada, created the ARL 2030 Scenarios project to address their strategic focus:

“How do we transform our organization(s) to create differential value for future users (individuals, institutions, and beyond), given the external dynamics redefining the research environment over the next 20 years?

ARL members were invited to participate in individual interviews, focus groups, and a survey.  Key stakeholders from within and outside the academic library community codified the results into four distinct scenarios.  The results were intentionally distributed inside of a user’s guide to ensure that the scenarios were packaged with an accompanying template for utilizing the scenarios at academic libraries as part of their strategic planning process.

Scenario 1: Research Entrepreneurs
In this future “individual researchers are the stars of the story”.  Academic institutions and disciplinary silos are no longer relevant for entrepreneurial researchers who chase short-to-long term contract work from private and public sources.

Scenario 2: Reuse and Recycle
Scenario 2 outlines a world defined by an “ongoing scarcity of economic resources” which forces the reuse and recycling of research activities, with virtually no public support for research.  Academic institutions persist, but have little to offer scholars.

Scenario 3: Disciplines in Charge
Utilizing advances in information technology “computational approaches to data analysis dominates the research enterprise”, fostering massive research projects aligned around “data-stores”.  Two classes of researchers emerge: those who “control the disciplinary organization and their research infrastructure” and everyone else who “scramble to pick up the piecework”.

Scenario 4: Global Followers
As funding forces dry up in the West academic power shifts to the Middle East and Asia.  Scholars continue to do their research but with new cultural influences from Middle Eastern and Asian funding agencies.

ARL Scenario Space
Figure 1: ARL Scenario Space, Creative Commons BY NC ND

The real strength of ARL’s scenarios is the user guide toolkitScenario planning — and futures research in general — is often criticized for being too empyreal.  ARL addresses this criticism head-on featuring six chapters dedicated to implementing of the scenarios within an academic library.  Also, as part of an ongoing process towards validating and refining each scenario articles, studies, and reports are being collected and coded as they pertain to each of the 4 possible futures.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), another leader in the academic library world, also recently completed a future oriented study presenting 26 possible scenarios for 2025.  ACRL is the largest division of the American Library Association (ALA) with over 12,000 members worldwide.

Research for this study began with an intensive two-month review of quantitative and qualitative literature related to how academic libraries demonstrate their value.  ACRL staff then combined the results into 26 possible scenarios.  ACRL members were surveyed on the probability of each scenario occurring, the impact of each scenario, the speed at which the scenario might unfold, and whether the scenario reflects a threat or opportunity to academic libraries.  The survey results were then visually displayed on a problem space with a number corresponding to each scenario, with green numbers representing opportunities for academic libraries, and red signaling threats (Figure 2).

ACRL Scenario Space
Figure 2: ACRL Scenario Space, Creative Commons NC SA

The survey results concluded nine of the scenarios were highly probable and impactful including: “breaking the textbook monopoly”, “bridging the scholar/practitioners divide”, “everyone is a ‘non-traditional’ student”, “I see what you see” [advancements in IT make collaboration with users easier], “increasing threats of cyberwar, cybercrime, and cyberterrorism”, “meet the new freshman” [librarians help non-traditional student cross the digital divide], “right here with me” [advances in mobile technology for research and publication], “scholarship stultifies”, and “this class brought to you by…” [increased corporate sponsorships of courses and research].

The combined 30 scenarios presented by ARL and ACRL describe the potentially hostile, but promising world for academic libraries in the next 20 years.  The three most common themes throughout all of the scenarios: the impact of technology, the changing informational and infrastructural needs of their users, and the challenges to creating novel funding sources to combat acute budget shortfalls present real opportunities for leadership on the part of library administrators.

Although some have criticized these first attempts at futures research as a waste of time, I argue these reports have been successful because they have forced the debate about the future of the academic library to the forefront of the profession.  Certainly futures research cannot predict the future, however these scenarios provide academic libraries a chance to both strategize for what is most likely to happen, while advocating from an informed position for their most desirable future.

Association Research Libraries. (2010). The ARL 2030 Scenarios: A User?s Guide for Research Libraries. Washington, DC. Retrieved from

Connelly, P. (2011). SXSW 2011: The Year of the Librarian. Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from

Staley, D. J., & Malenfant, K. J. (2010). Futures Thinking For Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025. Retrieved from

Sullivan, B. T. (2011). Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from



Is YouTube bursting higher education's bubble? Not so fast…

Last Sunday, Jeffrey Young wrote about the use of the Internet to deliver lectures in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article centered on the work of Salman Khan, who posts home-made lectures on YouTube:

The lo-fi videos seem to work for students, many of whom have written glowing testimonials or even donated a few bucks via a PayPal link. The free videos have drawn hundreds of thousands of views, making them more popular than the lectures by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, famous for making course materials free, or any other traditional institution online, according to the leaders of YouTube’s education section.


[…] called up one of the donors, Jason Fried, chief executive of 37signals, a hip business-services company, who recently gave an undisclosed amount to Khan Academy, to find out what the attraction was.

“The next bubble to burst is higher education,” he said. “It’s too expensive for people—there’s no reason why parents should have to save up a hundred grand to send their kids to college. I like that there are alternative ways of thinking about teaching.”

A review of the comments appended to the article suggest that many readers agree that higher education faces serious competition from online knowledge repositories. What the article misses however, is consideration of the conversion of information acquisition/collection to personal knowledge. Schools such as MIT, through their support of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, have demonstrated their understanding that the real value of higher education is not the downloading of knowledge through texts and lectures, but rather through the production of new and personal knowledge that their unique environments offer. This tacit, added values provided by the institutions are what define quality higher education.

European colleges and universities are notorious for having embraced lectures over other course formats (i.e., seminars, laboratories). In these environments, student learning does not occur as much within lecture halls as it occurs outside of the classroom — through interactions with other students, individual and informal study groups, independent or directed research, etc.

In the age of YouTube lectures, universities need not worry about their bubbles bursting, but rather, what they should be doing in the classrooms instead of lecturing.

The Education Futures timeline of education

Education Futures celebrates its first five years of exploring new futures in human capital development with a timeline of the history of education from 1657-2045. This timeline provides not only a glimpse into modern education, but plots out a plausible future history for human capital development. The future history presented is intended to be edgy, but also as a conversation starter on futures for education and future thinking in human capital development.

As always, we invite your feedback and suggestions for further development! We expect many enhancements and updates to this resource in the near future.

Summer in review: Part 1

Summer in Oxford

We return from our reduced summer publication schedule — this week, we will focus on some highlights of what others talked about while we were away. Today, we start with a look at higher education:

First: Writing for the New York Times, Jacques Steinberg ponders on whether the standard length for undergraduate programs should be shortened to three years — a move that could put a dent into the cost of higher education. Building from UPenn professor Robert Zemsky’s call for three-year programs, Steinberg writes:

The idea of a three-year degree has already won support. On Monday, The Arizona Republic reported that “Arizona State University wants to develop a network of lower-priced colleges where students could earn bachelor’s degrees in just three years.” The article added that “the plan, which could cut the cost of a degree by about 40 percent, or $11,150, goes before the Arizona Board of Regents on Thursday for discussion, although the board won’t vote until later this year.”

Second: Writing for the SFGate, Carole Lloyd observes that “Online education, long an ugly duckling of the ivory towers of the world, is coming into its swan years.” Of particular interest:

Vicky Phillips, founder of, which rates online education degrees and filters out diploma mills, says that in the past 12 months, she has seen an 18 percent increase in enrollment inquiries for online college degrees on her Web site – with the strongest increase in associate degrees and certificates.

Moreover, Lloyd noted that “the Department of Education released a study suggesting that a mix of online and face-to-face education produces the best learning outcomes. Exclusively online education proved slightly more effective than only face-to-face learning.”

Read more at SFGate and check out the Department of Education’s meta-analysis of the online vs. in-person spectrum.

Postsecondary innovation left behind

Higher education has never been in greater need of innovation. So, why stop fostering it? Today, Inside Higher Ed published a chilling article:

[…] the U.S. Education Department quietly revealed this week that the Fund for the Improvement in Postsecondary Education will forgo its main open grant competition. The main reason: The program’s funds have been drained by “special focus” competitions mandated by the Obama administration and by Congressional appropriators, as well as by pet projects imposed on the agency by members of Congress, for the second time in four fiscal years (it also happened in 2005).


A spokeswoman for the Education Department said on Tuesday that the Web statement about FIPSE had been posted accidentally, and that the cancellation of the competition was a “non-story” because Congressional appropriators, in crafting the department’s budget for the 2009 fiscal year in an omnibus spending bill in February, had essentially left no funds for what is supposed to be FIPSE’s general competition.

Read the full article at Inside Higher Ed…

How higher education wound up in this mess … and how to get out

The March 13 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education has a list of 13 reasons why colleges are hurting in the current economic downturn. They write that colleges managed their investments poorly, failed to show leadership in building quality institutions, ignored their customers’ needs, failed to get the support of state legislatures, and dodged accountability initiatives.

The list is a bit conservative in scope, so I suggest a 14th reason to liven it up a bit:

Colleges have failed to establish a bold strategic focus and direction in reshaping higher education.

Rather than reorienting themselves on becoming institutions centered on innovation and creativity, they have latched onto 19th century production models. In many universities, this is best represented in the growth of central administration regimes, which seek to better manage the products and services that universities produce. How might universities leapfrog their contemporaries to provide meaningful inputs in the 21st century?

Leapfrog institutions relentlessly disrupt themselves to compete successfully in the global knowledge and innovation economy. They work ahead of the competition in teaching, research, innovation, and service. They avoid playing catch-up.

More at the EF Leapfrog memos archive…