Higher Ed: The Next Generation?

Survivors and innovators.


August 1, 2016

Times have changed since we began our multi-author blog, Higher Ed Beta, in December 2013. After a spring-summer hiatus, we've decided to embark on a reboot and a re-title, graduating from beta to gamma. The first three pieces, one authored by each of us, reflect on where we've been, what we've been up to, and where we hope to go with the blog, and more generally, with our own journeys in the higher ed landscape. - Steve, Michael, & Akiba 


Now that the breathlessness/euphoria/panic of the early MOOC days is well behind us, let's use this shared space to figure out what our "beta" will actually look like. And by us, I mean those in higher education and the growing number of not-for-profits, for-profits, and foundations engaged in the space. Yes, it is a far more crowded space than it was a few years ago --- and a space that has always been a reluctant stage sharer.

What's the new normal, now that it's clear that the mass die-off of colleges that many predicted is not taking place? (at least not yet) Belts are very much tightened (for most), classrooms are certainly changing, and the walls dividing our campuses from the world are lowering, but the song remains pretty much the same: educating students, conducting research, and spreading knowledge.

That said, the modes of delivery are being tweaked and tested. The use of data and analytics is on the rise in a place where the ineffable has often been enough if not the end. Vocational and skills-based training is also no longer the work of other institutions, but of all institutions. MOOCs are still in the mix, but schools of all kinds are finding their niches with certificates, new consortia, expanded “adult ed” offerings in person and online, etc. It could be that the new normal is that there no longer is a normal and that business as usual is morphing into normal business (with the kinds of ebbs and flows that corporate HQs have been more concerned with than ivory towers). The two worlds will not become one, but, as I have written before when this blog first started, higher ed will reach and must reach higher heights as more of that business-oriented but still humanistic ethos is allowed to guide our decisions.

With all of that in mind, we will use this space to get beyond the flame-throwing, Molotov-cocktail infused revolutionary hype of three or four years ago to a more measured, departmental barbecue, nice-micro-brew-lager-sipping evolutionary stance.

To fall back onto the more familiar terms of an earlier debate in academia, perhaps we can think of MOOC-mania as the early days after Darwin's theory of evolution was announced. Many were convinced that such an idea would lead to the crumbling of the very foundations of society. Such was not the case. It certainly shook things up, but such a shaking up was sorely needed. Once that sense of a need for major change was accepted, the idea of evolution opened up the door to many changes. A century after Darwin, scholars such as Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould had adapted and refined Darwin's basic idea.  Such refinements included the idea of punctuated equilibrium, which posits that gradual change sometimes speeds up significantly, usually caused by some external force.

We experienced such external -- and very much needed -- shocks to the system inside higher ed---but well before the phrase MOOC was ever uttered.

The economic downturn of 2008 transformed the financial landscape on a myriad of levels that impacted us. We could no longer simply raise tuition at double-digit rates when the budget was out of whack. The shock to the system of that downturn also forced us to recognize the staggering inequality between institutions with massive endowments versus those who stumble from semester to semester. It also provided the impetus needed to address how we really want to spend limited dollars to confront inequality and improve diversity on our campuses.

The changes taking place in the workplace, with more and more jobs relying on very specific sets of technological skills, impacted the distribution of wealth and energy on our campuses. The squeezing of government funding played a very similar role, with an emphasis from state leaders especially on solving very specific workforce-based problems and not on developing deeper skill-sets for our students. All of these and other at least somewhat inter-related temblors exaggerated the potential impact of the additional shock brought about by the creation of MOOCs. In many ways, MOOCs were surfing an existing, long building tsunami, not actually the cause of one.  

What that imperfect storm has left in its wake is what we need to analyze and discuss here. Hundreds of little, agile companies have popped up from beneath the surface offering to help us do what we do, only better, faster, and stronger. Giant corporations, such as the publishers we both love and hate, born of the pre-punctuated era, are the coelacanths gobbling up those little fish and attempting to integrate them without us even knowing it into our classrooms. Our campus leaders, under enormous financial pressures, are too often jumping from one quick fix to the next.

What is the long play here for us? For academia? For our students? For our careers? It is in all of our interests to elucidate that as much as we can.

Let's do it here.  

Akiba J. Covitz, Ph.D., is executive vice president of AFYBA. He previously served as vice president at edX and associate dean at Harvard Law School.

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