Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Colleges- soon to be like 8-track tapes?

I work for a small private college in central Kansas. We’ve got two locations in order to reach out to a wide range of students and over the past few years have grown at the traditional, undergrad campus. I’ve recently been hired to create an online Masters degree to widen the institutional reach. In fact, although I started this job in November, I’ve been working remotely for a few months and will be moving my family to Kansas, from California, later this summer. As we go through the transition of packing up after 10 years and selling our house I’m making a big investment in the traditional college.

A new job and moving across the country is why I read with interest the article by Shirky on the end of traditional higher ed.

Having read The Starfish and the Spider by Brafman and Beckstrom  I was familiar with the argument about the demise of the record industry. I agreed with Shirky that Higher Ed institutions could be in danger of following the same path of not recognizing the need for change. When I read this quote,
“Every college provides access to a huge collection of potential readings, and to a tiny collection of potential lectures. We ask students to read the best works we can find, whoever produced them and where, but we only ask them to listen to the best lecture a local employee can produce that morning. Sometimes you’re at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.”
I immediately agreed. With today’s technology we do have a good way of publishing lectures! I’ve listened to lectures from top professors on TED and ITunes-U. Why wouldn’t we want to have the information straight from the expert in the field? Isn’t that the Kahn Academy method? So why have academic institutions at all?

I thought the rebuttal to Shirky by Aaron Bady was adequate. His article and the points he raised encouraged me but I was left with additional questions. For instance, are there any benefits to the traditional college? I’ve been following Jeff Sellingo from the Chronicle of Higher Education and he came out with an article this week that addressed some of my questions.

Sellingo’s points in favor of Higher Education are:

A maturing experience
Jeffery Arnett has recently highlighted the fact that adolescence is extending to the mid-20’s. Young people are taking longer to take on roles and responsibilities that make them adults. College can become a time of growth toward adulthood. (For more on this see my book: Consuming Youth on

Access to Mentors
There is a role, especially in this wired world for teachers who invest in the lives of students. I believe Colleges need to take a new look at the role of mentorship on College campuses. Rather than “sage of the stage” instructors need to become a “guide on the side” and provide real mentoring to students.

Experiential Education
This is another area where schools can step up to help college students find ways to apply what they are learning to real life. Internships, practicums, and practical assignments can contribute to helping students put their learning in to practice.

College and University campuses are great places to make lifelong connections with people who become friends for life. Yes, a person can network on LinkedIn or Facebook, but Universities add the residential, academic component that can make connections grow deeper.

I hope my institution stays around for a number of years. I hope I’m able to bring online learning to the existing structure to add another piece to the overall plan. At the same time, I think our institution needs to take seriously the story of MP3’s and Napster and evaluate carefully what benefits colleges can provide.