the “future” of higher education

Average folks and higher education researchers have conflicting views of academia. Average folks believe that most college teachers are tenured professors and that most students are residential students who play ultimate Frisbee on the quad. Higher education researchers have a different view. We know that most teachers are actually part time adjuncts and graduate students. Residential college is for the top of the pool. Most students are part time commuters or community college students. The mistake that people make is that the most visible forms of higher education (e.g., elite research unviersities and liberal arts schools) are the most common.

This split between folk wisdom and what the experts know is evident in David Purcell’s comment:

Higher ed and how students are credentialed (see the recent discussions on badges) are clearly going to evolve. In short, I see higher ed bifurcating into “good schools” and “everything else,” not unlike the labor market.

The common folk wisdom is that the Internet will make this happen. The experts know that this has already happened and it has nothing to do with online courses or other Internet based learning.

Basically, students want two things from higher education. Some want genuine engagement and learning – and that immersion is hard to replicate on the Internet. But most want job credentials. So what do you get? The research universities and elite liberal arts colleges specialize being places of advanced learning. That’s where you go if you really want to learn science or philosophy, or other serious topics. It also acts as a credential.

So where does the split into “the best and the rest” come from? The average student doesn’t want or need advanced training in anything. They need a credential and some basic vocational instruction. And you don’t need a fancy research university to do that. Once people realized that, then the natural tendency was to “deskill” colleges. Once the tenured folks retire, replace them with adjuncts and graduate students. Bloat the large lecture classes, and so forth. Administrators soak up the savings.

Why do we need residential colleges? As long as college degrees signal a degree of conformity, they can’t be done online. Remote and online learning is often – justifiably – interpreted as the tool used by people who simply can’t deal with a regular college. As long as that is true, the residential college is here to stay.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 22, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio

5 Responses

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  1. My students, who (as smart and talented as many of them are, definitely fit into the category of “the rest”) tell me all the time that online education is not for them. It’s not just about conformity.



    December 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm

  2. i think another problem is that, how to say it…teaching people how to learn is difficult.

    lots of people like to make the argument that live-person-to-person higher education is obsolete because of the internet and the proliferation of do-it-yourself books out there (“X for Dummies” etc.). But I think that as of yet, the internet does very poorly at getting people to learn how to learn properly.

    what i mean by that is that from my own observation, the problem with the internet as a source of information is the same as that of any other medium – what’s most visible often wins out. I’ve noticed a trend in which some of the most internet-savvy people are also the most misinformed on non-internet topics – see the proliferation of goldbuggery and Peter Schiff worship in the domain of economics, or the widespread belief in conspiracy theories in the domain of politics/history.

    the internet seems to magnify prejudices and biases as much as allow to overcoming them.

    something about person-to-person contact, under the right conditions, forces people to face their prejudices and the possibility that they’re wrong, or to question their assumptions. the internet allows people to troll behind a wall of anonymity

    and what i’ve read of social science research on the internet seems to show that people’s ability to be “empowered” by the internet varies by their social position (socioeconomic status, etc.) anyways.

    the internet seems to be very differently for the OrgTheory or Monkey Cage folks, or Brad DeLong, than for a teen who spends most of his/her time on Reddit or watching Jersey Shore or “Fail!” videos


    Andrew B. Lee

    December 24, 2012 at 7:03 am

  3. Also, to get more concrete: the average person will try to find out about a topic by typing a word into Google.

    people like “us” will do a Google search, but probably also a search on LexisNexis or on a library-provided database (Sociological Abstracts, Academic Search Premiere, etc.).

    who will get better information?


    Andrew B. Lee

    December 24, 2012 at 7:06 am

  4. Nice post. I agree with Andrew’s point too. My field is education. The educators who get educating people will talk about things this…in our jargon-metacognition. I had a personal aha in my mid 30s, realizing that I could not autodidact my way beyond the point I was at with a particular skill. Shortly there after, I changed careers and became an educator, one who’s more interested in learning than educating, and helping people learn how to learn. I think there is great potential for autodidactic learning with the net. I’m convinced of it. But that’s not the same thing as saying online education is great.

    I finished my undergraduate degree at a distance–some online, some old-fashioned correspondence course work. Just a few courses in about a year, in 1999, that was enough. I was living abroad, at the time, older and knew I did not need to experience the classroom to achieve this goal. The rest of my education involved classrooms, intentionally.

    Online learning is a dehydrated learning experience, in my view. It’s not the real juicy thing.



    January 19, 2013 at 10:46 pm

  5. The key is how to blend asynchronous/synchronous, distance/face-to-face. The other, major issue, is whether learning to learn is necessarily an elite activity. That one I’m not sure about.


    Larry Irons

    January 21, 2013 at 4:06 am

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