Taking Stock

Looking backward at a year of transformation.
May 13, 2015

This past academic year did not offer anything as attention grabbing as 2012’s advent of MOOCs. Yet profound transformations, nevertheless, have been underway.

A year ago no one would have imagined:

  • That a name-brand university would award academic credit for MOOCs.
  • That a free college education is poised to become a employer benefit.
  • That for-profit universities would be under siege.
  • That free community college tuition and debt-free college graduation would be widely discussed in political circles.

As the 2014-2015 academic year draws to a close, it is well worth reflecting on the developments we have witnessed.

The nearly 100 posts published on Higher Ed Beta (with much thanks owed to all of our contributors), gave us a perfect way to do just that. Here is some of what we gleaned...

Conversations about teaching have grown more common and more substantive. Topics involving pedagogy and retention and completion, previously the preserve of a small coterie of faculty and administrators, are now widely discussed. A wide range of faculty members debate the pros and cons of mandatory class attendance policies or rules restricting students’ use of computers in class.

Perhaps the most important discussion centers on the use of the classroom. Should it continue to be what it was in the past, a setting for lectures and discussion, or should it instead be a site for active and team-based learning?

At a higher level of abstraction, institutions are now openly discussing the value of a residential education and what it should be like in a context in which fewer and fewer students are willing to sit passively through lectures and more and more are taking introductory courses in high school and community college. How, in short, should institutions respond to students who crave an education that is more experiential, authentic, and relevant than what colleges and universities have previously offered?

Such discussions are particularly intense at research universities, where there is a growing interest not only in engaging students in mentored, hands-on research, but in connecting disciplines, including the arts and humanities, to entrepreneurship, design thinking, and project-based learning.

Nor are discussions about teaching confined to a single department, a teaching center, or even a particular campus. The conversations are nationwide and we are grateful that this very blog has been a forum for this conversation.

We have also seen in our past blog posts and elsewhere, a growing emphasis on educational research. MOOCs, in particular, generated big data about student learning and demonstrated that institutions can do a much more thorough, and more fine-grained, job of monitoring student engagement and confusions. A challenge ahead is to draw upon data to improve pedagogical practice, for example, by developing personalized, adaptive learning pathways, e-tutors, and embedded remediation to address weakness and build on student strengths.

The embrace of learning data might well have unanticipated consequences. At the K-12 level, student data now plays a growing role in teacher evaluation. One must wonder if anything similar might occur at the college level. The heightened value attached to teaching can, in certain circumstances, be a two-edged sword.

But we mustn’t forget the potential upside. As higher education embraces notions of mastery, big data holds out the prospect of devising clearer metrics about learning outcomes and ways that we can help all students achieve proficiency.

Driven, in part, perhaps by such increased complexity (and opportunity), we noticed that teaching is increasingly recognized as a team sport. The first step has been to involve instructional designers and educational technologies into the course development process. Future steps might involve having a department’s identify program-level learning objectives and blueprinting curricular pathways, and using assessment specialists to design assessments that can reliably and accurately evaluate student knowledge and proficiencies.

If teaching is becoming a collaborative activity, what might this mean for the assets produced at great institutional expense? Is there a way to make the interactives, simulations, animations, immersive learning environments, and virtual laboratories available to a broad range of professors and teachers? Will instructors have the opportunity to remix and repurpose educational resources? One potential outcome could be that the sharing economy will extend to the educational realm. If this is to happen, then tough issues involving intellectual property will need to be tackled.

Related to content ownership is yet another key development: Higher ed’s growing effort to reassert control over its core assets. After a prolonged period when for-profit publishers dominated the market for textbooks and controlled many of the most important scholarly journals, foundations, government agencies, professional associations, and universities themselves have fought back, pushing for open textbooks, open source scholarly articles, and Creative Commons licensed teaching resources.

Two key future battlegrounds involve third-party services and job market credentials. Many cash-strapped universities rely on for-profit vendors to provide many services, from student lifecycle management to instructional support, and marketing of online programs.

Meanwhile, companies like LinkedIn provide an alternate, and potentially competitive form of credentialing that may offer real value in the marketplace.

A key arena threatened by such disruption, unbundling, or any one of the many buzzwords portending change, is professional education.

Online delivery of prestigious MBA or computer science programs poses a severe challenge to lesser ranked programs. Meanwhile, programming and coding academies offer an alternative model of content delivery and instruction, and pose a challenge to traditional on-campus and continuing education courses.

Inquiring minds want to know whether other areas of graduate, professional, and continuing education are ripe for disruption.

Today, as all of the authors of this blog have made clear, many public and private universities are at a crossroads. For the publics, in particular, key challenges to raise graduation rates and close achievement gaps, while at the same time identifying new revenue opportunities. For many of less selective private institutions, the challenges include maintaining enrollments without increasing tuition discounts.

Yet for all the challenges that lie ahead, we must not neglect the lessons bubbling up to the surface:

  • That MOOCs, when seen more broadly as the opening up of once private classrooms to the world, have revealed a thirst for knowledge – including rigorous academic knowledge about the arts and humanities – that is global in scope. Even if MOOC mania has abated, enrollment in MOOCs remains high and hundreds of thousands of learners complete these courses, and benefit from them.
  • That talent is not confined to a small number of elite institutions (or to those coming in through the admissions office). MOOCs and related open online learning opportunities have revealed that exceptional students can be found in all corners of the globe.

We are fortunate to live at the dawn of an incredibly exciting period of educational innovation whose contours remain uncertain. Of course, we must recognize that attempts to predict the future are a fool’s errand. Prophecies from even two years ago now look foolish.

Which is why continuous experimentation is, and will remain, the name of the game.

Steven Mintz is Executive Director of the University of Texas System's Institute for Transformational Learning and Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. Harvard University Press just published his latest book, The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood. Michael Patrick Rutter is Communications Director, Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning at Harvard University


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