The Future of The Future of Higher Education

Thinking about "the next big thing," which may not be higher education.


November 9, 2015

Another commission on the future of higher education has just been formed. I thus sometimes wonder whether we would all be better off and save everyone a lot of time and money and headaches if we instead embraced what should be the standard-issue for any academic administrator in this age of disruption: the Magic 8-Ball.

Should I launch that new graduate program in a competency-based format for added-value? Will MOOCs undermine my traditional undergraduate enrollments? Do I truly need to understand what micro-credentialing really is?

Just shake and you have an answer: “Without a doubt.” “Outlook not so good.” “Reply hazy, try again.”

I am not being snide. Honestly. It’s just that my experience makes me doubtful that we actually know how to envision our real future in higher education. I sat on one such commission a few years back for AAC&U as it developed a vision for general education; I now sit on another commission for MIT that is analyzing the policy implications of online learning for higher education. 

In both cases there are really smart people doing really important work. In both cases, though, I am doubtful that we are talking about the future of higher education.

Here’s the problem. Such “futuring” of higher education usually runs in one of two diametrically opposite ways. Neither of which really work.

One way is to take the “next big thing” and expand the existing structure of higher education from the inside out. This is what the University of Florida tried to do by using online education to scale their bricks-and-mortar enterprise by simply cut-and-pasting the traditional model onto an online platform. That initiative closed last month after two years of minimal enrollment.

The other way is to take the “next big thing” and embed it within the existing structure from the outside in. That’s what Minerva, a for-profit start-up, is trying to do as it takes the seemingly profound idea of a truly “virtual” education to offer a college degree through a student’s globe-hopping experience. My prediction: it won’t last past its second graduating class.

The fundamental problem is that in both cases the vision is all about the “next big thing” and almost never about higher education. It is as if technology is the answer, irrespective of what the question is.

Don’t get me wrong. Higher education is changing dramatically, from the “new student majority” of demographic shifts to the changing nature of faculty work and contingent faculty to the disinvestment of public higher education and the debtification of an entire generation of low- and middle-income students. But these are not problems that have been caused by or will be solved by technology. These changes have been thirty-plus years in the making.

The key is to remember that technology is just a tool. Like a pencil. Or a calculator. Or the Large Hadron Collider. All of these tools help us do something, whether it is to write down an idea, calculate some large numbers, or smash some really small particles into one another. The tool helps us to accomplish our goals; the Large Hadron Collider, it is almost too obvious to state, is useless if our goal is to write down an idea.

So how do we begin to envision a more realistic future for the future of higher education? Let me suggest two implications to the realization that technology is a tool and that it is our goals in higher education, and not technology, which must drive our vision of the future.

The first is to envision how technology can make our present slightly better for a vast majority of our current students. This is an incrementalist approach focused on the biggest bang for the buck. Having a few students hop around the globe getting their undergraduate degree may be novel and cutting-edge, but it won’t help the sixty percent of high school graduates who need some remedial coursework upon entering college or the thirty-seven million Americans with some college credit but no formal degree. But having better access, for example, to high-quality just-in-time advising, academic intervention, and multifaceted and multimodal tutoring may indeed help such students.

Realizing what tools can and can’t do raises the more profound and critical point of the purposes of higher education. I have consistently suggested that we must embrace the limits of digital learning technologies – i.e., their ability to primarily support the teaching and learning of singular, solvable, and stable problems – in order to understand their powerful opportunities for higher education.

Higher education has historically balanced the tensions between being both a public and a private good, but it is our vision of the former that has always seemed to underlie the latter. As DuBois wrote in The Soul of Black Folks, “The true college will ever have one goal—not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes.” Indeed, what we have always claimed is that higher education was about fostering students’ capacities for becoming engaged and thoughtful citizens in a complex and contested pluralistic society; what I have quipped as an apprenticeship into democracy rather than an apprenticeship into Wikipedia.

Well, we can now actually maybe do that.

And so the second way to envision the future of higher education is truly transformational by accepting that digital learning technologies may be better at transmitting information, thus allowing us to do our job of helping students transform knowledge. This would require a fundamental rethinking of what faculty do, of what students learn and how they document such learning, and what goals we want them to accomplish through such learning.

Sure, virtual labs with adaptive tutoring modules and online forums and superstar professors lecturing to millions of MOOC participants may be part of the answer. But so will good old fashion dialogue and debate around a small table or community projects that have real-world significance.

The question should thus not be one of either/or, but of how to combine these two models of education in a meaningful way. Maybe then the answer to the future of higher education will truly be “without a doubt.”

Dan Butin, PhD, is a Full Professor and Founding Dean of the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College and the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Democracy.



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