Dear Kevin: 5 Challenges to “The End of College”

Questioning the University of Everywhere.

March 25, 2015
Dear Kevin,
I just finished The End of College. I’ve been recommending your book everywhere I go. Lots of people seem to be reading it. Just so you know, I bought both the Kindle version and the Audible version. Do you know why your publisher decided not to make your book Whispersync enabled?  
What I love about your book is that it will generate some much needed conversations on our campuses. Your central thesis, that the model of the research-intensive hybrid university is fundamentally problematic given the lack of faculty preparation and incentives for effective teaching, is a discussion that needs to take place. Reading The End of College helped me better understand the deep historical, cultural, and political roots to many of the challenges around costs, access, and quality that postsecondary education faces today. Yours is a book that should be read by both higher ed insiders, and those with a stake in higher ed system. Parents of soon to be college students (my kids go off next year and in 2017), and the students themselves, should also read The End of College.
There are 5 areas of The End of College that I think deserve further conversation. These areas constitute not so much disagreements with your central thesis, but more nuances and extensions.  They are:
1. Experimentation, Innovation, Improvement, and Variation:  
What I didn’t see in The End of College was very much description or analysis of all the experimentation, innovation, and improvement that is occurring today in residential teaching. At every campus that I step foot on there is an amazing amount of conversation about how people learn, and an incredible amount of effort to apply this knowledge to existing residential courses. Learning is hot. We see this trend showing up in the move towards more active and experiential learning across a wide range of courses. Flipped classes, blended learning, and the use of learning platforms for formative assessment are only the start.  Instructional designers, once found mostly in online learning programs, are starting to collaborate closely with faculty on residential courses.  
The real story of postsecondary education is not poor teaching, as The End of College suggests, but variation in course quality.  This variation, far from being hidden, is discussed and debated quite openly.  What I see is concerted effort across the higher education community to identify methods to improve student learning. This huge discussion on teaching and learning, a discussion that I see gain enormous traction both within and across institutions, did not get much analysis in The End of College.
2.  Economic Drivers for Quality Teaching:  
What explains all the excitement around learning science and effective pedagogy on our campuses? I think that there are two explanations, stories again that I did not see very much in The End of College.  
The first explanation is that lots of people on campus are reading the same learning science literature that you read, and are following the same experiments and innovations in teaching and learning that you followed.  
The second reason is that higher ed is a very competitive business. There is an understanding that faculty teaching, and student learning, is an important differentiator. The new climbing walls and lazy rivers are personalized faculty attention and advanced (often digitally enabled) teaching methods. Everyone is looking at what everyone else is doing to improve learning, and doing whatever they can so not to be left behind.  This is a virtuous cycle, and I think helps explain much of the renaissance in college teaching that I’m seeing.
3.  The Real Impact of MOOCs:  
Where my thinking and the arguments in The End of College most diverge is in making sense of the real impact of MOOCs. You seem more enamored with the potential of MOOCs to address fundamental issues of costs, access and quality than anyone that I know who works on these things. None of us are holding our breath for the emergence of the University of Everywhere. In fact, we think that education needs to become more personalized, and more labor intensive, if it is going make real improvements at every level.  All the evidence that I have seen says that authentic learning does not scale, and that what is most important is a skilled educator working closely with the learner as a mentor and guide.  
What I have witnessed as being the real impact of MOOCs, and certainly what we mostly talk about at the edX meetings, is how we can leverage our MOOC experiments to improve residential teaching.  MOOCs are one of the reasons why we are living through a residential course quality renaissance. We know that if we offer classes that are only as good as what can be had for free online that we are in deep trouble.  MOOCs have pushed us all to really think about the affordances of being together in time and space. About what can be done best, and only done, when the educator can work directly with the learner.  
In this way, I think that The End of College makes both too much and too little of MOOCs. MOOCs are changing higher education, just not in the way that you describe.
4.  The Future of Higher Ed Costs:  
In the The End of College you argue that open online education will eventually make higher education more productive. MOOCs will drive down costs as they will eliminate the need for the introductory subjects that everyone teaches to be custom made every time they are taught. This, again, is not what I’m seeing.  
What I’m seeing is MOOCs actually driving up higher ed costs as colleges and universities make the investments to offer a product that is better than MOOCs. I think that this is a great thing.  As an educator and a parent, I’m happy that colleges and universities are incented to make investments in teaching and learning. All the flipped classes, blended learning, and formative assessments however do not come cheap. In teaching and learning you get what you pay for.  
The real challenge will be how do we take costs out of non-mission related activities to find the savings necessary to invest in learning. This is an important organizational change story, one playing out at every campus that I know about, and again this story was missed in The End of College.
5.  The Motivations of Faculty:
My final pushback to The End of College is around faculty motivations. What I did not see in your book is a good feel for how most faculty approach their professions. The vast majority of faculty care greatly about teaching and learning. Yes, there are some faculty who look at teaching as a tax on research - but they are surprisingly few.  In reality,  faculty mostly get into the business because they love their disciplines, and want to share this passion with students. They believe in the power of education to change lives, and they are committed to serving their students.  
The real problem in higher ed is not the faculty, but the structure of support and incentives that the faculty operate within. Even small changes in the structure and incentives that support and reward effective teaching will have enormous results.  This is because faculty are internally motivated to put the effort into improving their courses.   
Please do not take these responses as overly critical. The End of College is a fine fine book.  Beautifully written and powerfully argued. The End of College will spark any number of critical and important conversations. And as an insider, and an insider that works at a liberal arts (if also research intensive) institution - I’m sure that I have my blind spots.
I give The End of College my strongest recommendation. Everyone should read this book and then write a similar letter to Kevin. I’m sure that he will be incredibly happy if his book helps push along this conversation.
Kevin, what are your reading?


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