Lectures, Credentials, and the Disruption of College

There has been so much written lately about the imminent “disruption” of higher education as we know it. By disruption, pundits seem to mean something akin to the disruption experienced by most media companies over the past 5 years. Technology is the supposed driving force for the inevitable disruption, just as it was in the case of media publishers. As evidence for the disruption, thinkers point to the advent of online resources like Khan Academy, TED-Ed, the YouTube EDU portal, and several recent online courses offered by elite universities. For example, a recent article in Wired put it this way:

Fifty years from now, according to Thrun, there will be only 10 institutions in the whole world that deliver higher education.

As far as I can see, the disruption argument rests on the availability of two new(ish) resources. The first is a readily available source for high quality lecture materials. Many universities have been capturing lecture audio and video and posting them online as podcasts for years. The OpenCourseWare movement has also been working toward this objective for years. We’re now at a point where nearly every core subject has outstanding lecture materials available online for free.

The second pillar of the disruption argument is that a new system of credentials is emerging that circumvents the “college degree” certification and all it signifies to a potential employer. Here is Kevin Carey writing in The New Republic (linked above):

[…] the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.

And again later in the same piece:

But just as people are ultimately interested in buying holes, not drills, higher education consumers aren’t buying courses or degree programs. They’re buying credentials.

The argument here (I think) is that independent students will earn certificates symbolizing their completion of a course through an independent educational entity. These credentials will eventually gain recognition by employers as bona fide indicators of that individual’s competency in a field of study and warrant their consideration for a particular job position. Please excuse my taking liberty with connecting the dots in this way, as I have never actually seen anybody else spell it out.

Is access to information the problem?

First let me state that I do think there is plenty of change coming to higher education, much of it as a consequence of technological disruption. For a variety of reasons, I think the changes will serve to enhance already-existing institutions and not hasten their demise. As for the first argument, free access to educational materials online, I think this is wonderful, but it mostly serves the existing institutional structure far better than it serves the independent learner. I don’t think there is anything magical that will happen with access to recorded lectures because I don’t think this is the limiting step in the educational process. Motivated people have had access to such information as long as we’ve had books and libraries. In my opinion, the limiting step in education is for the individual to know where to focus amidst a sea of information. In this sense, the more information becomes available online, the harder it becomes for the learner to make progress without personal input.

To illustrate this, think of the process of advancing through the current education system. As you progress through the various levels of schooling, you become a more and more self-directed learner. Eventually, if you stick with it long enough, you complete the ultimate in self-directed learning, the Ph.D. This degree does not signify a person’s intellectual capacity, rather it signifies a person’s having become a master over a body of knowledge, fully self-directing and capable of adding to and extending the limits of that knowledge.

As some see impending doom on the horizon for higher ed, the idea of the ‘flipped classroom’ has also received renewed attention. This teaching method eschews the use of class time for traditional lecture, opting instead to discuss and assimilate knowledge. It relies on students coming to class already familiar with the information, ready to think and engage their minds (and not act like a room full of court recorders). This is not a new idea and is based on many years of studies of learning outcomes that support a more active classroom environment. If this discursive, personal, interactive process (and not listening to lectures) is indeed the best way for students to learn, how exactly does the availability of online lectures disrupt existing “delivery methods” in higher education? I argue that such resources serve as a pool of excellent materials for helping students to become familiar with a topic, but their real learning and intellectual formation occurs when they come and interact around those ideas with their peers and an expert in the field (i.e. they come to class).

This is not to say that some small percentage of talented students couldn’t make progress toward competency on their own using only online lectures. But for the vast majority of students, becoming educated requires much more than being exposed to information, it requires struggle and community and questions and other things I’m not qualified to even identify. Maybe someday an online system will exist that allows for those kinds of things, but I’m nearly certain it doesn’t exist now. I also think that one of the main ingredients in effective education is other people. Call me old-fashioned, but when you think about your learning experiences, don’t most of them involve other people? Peers? A favorite teacher? Yeah, mine too.

Is an education all about credentialing?

As for the second argument, that the college diploma will be replaced with some collection of credentials, I think this misconstrues both the meaning and the purpose of education in general, and a college degree in particular. To think of the role of universities as dealing in the “production and sale of higher education credentials” (see quote above) is, in my opinion, a deeply cynical and flawed perspective along the lines of thinking of the role of a family vacation as producing a set of photographs. A credential is the formal recognition of a process of intellectual development and transformation. It is not, in and of itself, the point.

A deep problem with the talk about credentials, badges, and the rise of competency as a measure of qualification lies with the selection of courses: who chooses what to take? I would speculate that most students would choose only those courses they see as important. This is a terrible idea, because the student has no idea what they will need to know. As an academic advisor to mostly science students, I can reveal the stunning news that these students do not relish the opportunity to take courses in the humanities. I know, shocker, right? But they benefit in so many ways from doing so, it’s hard to overstate the importance of these courses in their academic development. They grow in broadened perspective, vocabulary, writing skill, logic, argument, rhetoric, friendship, tolerance, compassion. And once again, these are skills and virtues best acquired in a community.

The bottom line for me is that we’re in the midst of an explosion in the creation of information. The need for a broad education has never been greater. I think this increases the need for guidance, and I think the best guides are other people. I do believe our current colleges and universities need to change and adapt to incorporate new methods for educating people. And maybe we will see the rise of a new kind of educational enterprise that fills a need not met by a four-year college. I do think there are plenty of students enrolled in a four-year degree program with no business being there, but they have no other option. But I don’t think these new enterprises will replace our current colleges, not by a long shot.

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