The Counterfactual Dystopian Higher Ed Narrative

More thoughts from #ELI2016.

February 4, 2016

One narrative thread running through every higher conference seems to be that of the coming end of higher ed.  We are seldom happier or more self-satisfied than when we are predicting our own future demise.

The 2016 ELI Conference has been no exception.

We have serious discussions about how the rise of non-traditional credentials and non-legacy providers are poised to eliminate many of our institutions. We spend an enormous amount of energy worrying about the lack of innovation and risk taking in higher ed. Predictions for a future of a vastly diminished cultural and economic role for our colleges and universities are met with head nodding.

What I find so interesting about the dystopian narratives of the future of higher ed, (a narrative common within some higher ed circles), is how this story runs so directly opposite from what we witness on our actual campuses.

To be clear - I do not want to deny or diminish the very real challenges that higher ed faces. We have critical challenges along almost every dimension of access, costs, and quality. The state level disinvestment from postsecondary education is as damaging as it is economically shortsighted. Completion rates remain too low, and educational debt is too high.  The way that our contingent faculty are treated at many institutions is indefensible.

What is also true is that our colleges and universities are anything but static institutions.

We seldom meet colleagues in higher ed who are committed to defending the status quo.

Almost every conversation that I have the ELI conference is about some new effort, some new experiment or initiative, that is designed to improve student learning and contribute to student success.

The multitude of small innovations and experiments within our colleges and universities seldom get attention.  An active learning classroom redesign here - a new program for first generation students there - these initiatives seldom cohere into a larger narrative. But all these small innovations add up.

The fact is that the experiences of today’s students are far superior than the experiences of their parents (and grandparents).

Today’s students learn amongst a diverse body of fellow students, studying with an increasingly diverse faculty.

Basic principals around effective learning are increasingly being translated into course design and teaching.

Blended and online learning has moved from the margins to the center, resulting in both improved learning and increased educational opportunities.

The lived experience of faculty, staff and students on our campuses bears little resemblance to the story we often hear about higher ed. That story is one of stultifying tradition that inhibits risk taking and change. The reality is that the vast majority of the people who make up our higher ed industry are committed to evolving our practices and improving our methods.

Yes, we want to protect and preserve our core values. But a defense of our fundamental beliefs is not in opposition to an agenda that promotes innovation and change.

What change and innovation projects are you involved in on your campus?

Do you expect that your school will be able to evolve and adapt to meet our 21st century challenges?



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