The Future Of The University: The Internet And Human-Capacity Building

Concurrent Session 2
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Brief Abstract

The academy as the gatekeeper of knowledge, whose traditions of instruction provide the key, has metastasized into a perspective that people are not capable of learning independently of these traditions.  All prior human history leads to a very different conclusion.  In these dramatically changing times, institutions that prosper will be those that establish new traditions and replace the gatekeeper metaphor with a more appropriate metaphor - a bridge. 

Extended Abstract

For the vast majority of our history, humans have evolved and adapted to the environments in which we lived by learning what we needed to learn just in time, just in place and just as needed. Our ability to adapt is predicated on our ability to learn. Yet, national reports about declining SAT scores, dropout rates, retention rates, and national initiatives that focus on student success” 1 imply that we are only willing and able to learn when we receive institutional support to do so. So how is it we have collectively forgotten that all of us are born to learn, and each of us is capable of learning?

Throughout the history of the university, the idea of the academy as gatekeeper and the corollary assumption that only a few are worthy of passing through the gates have been largely unquestioned, because those who matriculated were few, generally wealthy or highly gifted, and were likely to have guaranteed work when they finished. Over time, in order to meet the needs of students and to address the multi-faceted mission of teaching, research, and services, universities were built out to be complex (and eventually multi-billion dollar) operations with huge infrastructures that included, in addition to libraries and classrooms and laboratories, quality of life services such as dormitories and food operations and health centers and fitness facilities and athletics and museums and concert halls and more. Now, just at the moment in history when this infrastructure is straining from its own weight, a complex array of factors have converged to pressure the university as we know it to re-examine mission and reign in operations. These factors include shifting student demographics, shrinking revenues, and calls for greater accountability. As a result, we in higher education are now expected to help more students complete baccalaureate degrees while having fewer resources at our disposal, and to be more transparent about how well we are achieving our mission.

Impact of the Internet

Just at the same moment in history as the massive infrastructure of higher education has begun to strain under its own weight, the Internet is forcing changes to the way we in the academy have generally engaged in teaching and learning.

Education Defined. Many people confuse information with education, but these are two very different things. Information is the decrease in uncertainty, while education is the increase in ability to do things one could not previously achieve. We have the Internet to thank for finally breaking the old paradigm of education as information dissemination, and bringing the truth into our collective consciousness that the purpose of education is not, information dissemination, but rather it is human capacity-building.

Interactivity. Historically, the lecture has been conflated with the larger experience of education. Education, by its very nature, requires learners to be engaged in a variety of practice and feedback activities. The Internet is just beginning to impact higher education because Web 2.0 technologies are just beginning to mature to the point at which they can replicate some of the interactive features of face-to-face classes. We see evidence of this constantly as we read about innovations such as “flipped classrooms” 2 and “naked teaching.”3 Each innovation is a refrain of the constant theme that education occurs through interaction and engagement of learners with their teachers, other learners, and with the knowledge and skills they seek to acquire.

Re-definition of expertise. When the collective body of knowledge is available on the Internet, it strikes at the root of the idea of academy as conservatory. Higher education is literally organized by knowledge domains, and we faculty see ourselves as protectors of our disciplines. The conservatory is now in the cloud, and students no longer must “sit at the feet of the masters” to access knowledge. When information is ubiquitous and there is so much available that no one can know it all, the definition of expertise morphs from “what one knows” to “one’s ability to use what one knows.” The U.S. Department of Education is so committed to finding alternative approaches to prepare students with knowledge, skills and abilities for the 21st century, they ruled in 2013 that federal student financial aid may be awarded for competency-based education4 . When financial aid is linked to such innovations, we can be assured that academic programs organized by skill outcomes are here to stay.

Customization of programs and services. The real revolution in student-centered education begins when we match customization with competency-based programs: students are given outcomes with integrated performance measures of the knowledge and skills they must master to achieve a diploma; they are provided with resources that include learning materials, mentors and advisors (rather than teachers); and they receive credit for prior learning activities. They engage in a community discussion space to connect with other students and use a web-based dashboard to see how well they are progressing as they work their way through project-based assessments that demonstrate they’ve achieved the required competencies. This isn’t futuristic. Elements of such programs already exist on every university campus in some form or fashion.

Disaggregation of infrastructure. These new types of programs require different processes, different systems, and different organization structures than those that exist within the current infrastructure of the academy. The Internet has begun to disaggregate higher education in at least five ways:

  • Disaggregation of teaching from certification,
  • Disaggregation of the elements of instruction,
  • Disaggregation of instructional responsibilities,
  • Disaggregation of faculty roles,
  • Disaggregation of educational services.

In this presentation, we will explore what the disaggregation of the university may look like, and what it may mean for the experience of faculty, staff, and students.

We in the academy have been so certain of the worthiness of our mission and so committed to our work that we have not questioned the assumptions on which higher education has been built, even though working under the conservatory model has led us to protect the knowledge inside our gates at the expense of helping those who desire to pass through them. Our commitment to gatekeeping has metastasized into a perspective that people are not capable of learning, when all prior human history leads to a very different conclusion. We came to believe that a good lecture is the same as good teaching, though the core of good instruction has always been student engagement.

What will be the future of higher education? From the perspective of teaching and learning, the changes that are now occurring may allow us to re-create the kind of education humans experienced very organically for the vast majority of our history. Once again, students may learn just in time, just in place, and just as needed, and they may be evaluated on their mastery of learning objectives. This is surely a dramatic improvement over the lecture-based, time-driven, standard-paced, norm-referenced education that recent generations have experienced – a model which led so many to drop out of school that we have come to expect low retention and completion rates. Worse yet, when these students have “fallen through the cracks”5 we’ve blamed them for this failure, rather than putting the blame where the real cause lies, in the organization systems and infrastructure of the academy that were built for gatekeeping and sorting, rather than to facilitate learning.

The institutions of higher education that will prosper in this period of transformation are the ones that actively work to replace the old metaphor of gatekeeper with what we once understood to be an appropriate metaphor for education – a bridge. In fact, good education really is a bridge. It’s a bridge between what a student hopes to be able to do and their mastery of the skills, knowledge and attitudes of their chosen field of study. It’s a bridge made up of the elements of instruction that help a learner to move from novice to competent performance. It’s a bridge between the academy and the world the academy is trying to improve.      

 1 Complete College America, “Guided Pathways to Success,”, Web, Winter 2013

 2 Salman Khan, “Let’s use video to reinvent education,” Video. TED, Mar. 2011. Web. 2 May 2013.

3 José Antonio Bowen, Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning, San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012. Print.

4 Paul Fain, “Feds give nudge to competency-based education,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 2 May 2013.

 5 J. Luke Wood, “Commentary: Falling Through the Cracks,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education, 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 3 May 2013.