Developing Self-Driving Cars Will Be Easy Compared to Scaling the Seminar

Why creating access to a quality liberal arts education is the most interesting challenge we face.

September 21, 2016

I’m getting tired of reading about self-driving cars.  The top 5 stories on the NYTimes Technology section this morning were all about about autonomous vehicles.  


The really interesting challenges that we should be talking about are all about learning.

By learning - I am thinking about the sort of learning that takes place in a small seminar.

The learning that can happen when a few (highly motivated and qualified) students are taught by an experienced, skilled, and well-supported educator.  The sort of teaching where students learn by creating new knowledge - actively engaging in the material, as opposed to passively consuming and then being (high stakes) tested on the content.

This is the sort of learning where the goal is to teach students how to think - and how to continuously learn.

This is the sort of education that assumes that today’s students will need to create tomorrow’s jobs. 

That an in age of information abundance and ever-smarter robots, the only hedge against unemployment is the ability to create new things.

This is the sort of learning that happens every day at colleges and universities that offer a liberal arts curriculum.  This is the sort of learning that occurs within the seminar.

So how do we scale the seminar?

How do we extend the gifts of a liberal arts education to the majority of people who don't have the resources to participate in this form of learning?

Our traditional residential institutions do everything well when it comes to the quality teaching and learning - and everything poorly when it comes to increasing the size and lowering the costs of a classical liberal arts education.

Any solution to this challenge of scaling the seminar must start with values.  Amongst of those values is the insistence educators, and the relationship between educators and students, is at the heart of a quality education.

Adhering to this value means investing in faculty.  Violating this value means taking any steps that attempt to remove the educator from the education process, or that attempt to substitute an experienced and skilled educator with someone (or something) less expensive.

Framing the problem of scale within the context of education as a relationship - one that requires investment and support of educators - might change how we approach scaling postsecondary education.  We can and should work to make higher education more productive, but we can’t achieve this productivity by disinvesting in educators.  Long-term gains in postsecondary productivity will not be achieved by de-skilling and displacing our faculty.

If increasing access and driving down costs or a liberal arts education does not involve replacing experienced faculty with instructional freelancers (the Uber approach), or substituting faculty for robots (the future Uber approach), - then where does that leave us?  How do we drive liberal arts productivity without lowering faculty investments?

The reality is that there will be no single answer to this challenge. 

We will find some answers in creating new online and low-residency programs - programs that extend the relational philosophy of our seminars to nontraditional students.  Today, these programs are mostly being created and run at the masters level.  We have seen a proliferation of new online masters degrees.  How many of these programs resemble a classical liberal arts model of emphasizing communication, collaboration, analysis, writing, persuasion, research skills, and leadership is an interesting question. 

Nor is it clear the degree to which we have been able to use online learning to increase access to an undergraduate liberal arts degree.  Creating and teaching quality online courses is no less expensive than creating and teaching quality residential courses.  Online learning can remove the challenges of distance and time - but they do not solve issues of costs.

How do you think we can use online learning to scale the seminar?

We might also find answers to scaling the seminar outside of the seminar - in our introductory and foundational classes.  We want to preserve the seminar - but it is not clear that we need to keep the introductory course as they have been traditionally conceived. 

There is a large-scale (and under-reported) effort occurring across higher ed to redesign introductory courses.  These efforts have been spurred on by the availability of free (or near-free) foundational alternatives such as Khan Academy, adaptive learning platforms, and open online courses. 

Blended learning, flipped classes, and active learning methods within large-enrollment introductory courses are becoming more the norm than the exception.  The physical shape of our large enrollment classrooms is also changing - moving from fixed stadium seating to flat floors and collaborative working spaces.   The intro course is of 2016 looks less and less like the intro course of 1996 - and that is a very good thing.

Can we take savings from introductory / foundational courses an apply those resources to expanding access to higher level seminars?

How else will we scale the seminar? 

We know that the answer to this challenge will not be found at any single institution.  We will need teams of educators and non-faculty educators working together.  Increasingly, this challenge will be addressed by open collaborations between colleges and universities.  Consortiums will become more important.  Cross-institutional experiments will need to be run.  We will need to get more comfortable with failing fast and making quick pivots.

We will see greater collaboration between universities, corporations, foundations, and government to scale seminar-type (high quality learning).  These efforts will be difficult and contested - bound up with challenges of faculty autonomy and funder-driven priorities. Holding on to our core values - particularly around investing in educators - will be critical if we want these collaborations to be successful.

We need to import open and collaborative innovation models to our challenges around learning. It is rare today for one institution to be tackling big issues of energy, climate change, robotics, etc.  Learning should hold a similar place in cross-institutional, and cross-industry, collaboration.  Scaling the seminar is too difficult a problem for one institution, or even perhaps one sector, to solve on its own.  Higher ed needs to work with partners in government, industry, and philanthropy/foundations to tackle this challenge.

How do we get the challenges of learning to gain as much attention as the challenges of creating self-driving cars?

What can we do to move the larger cultural conversation towards challenging the idea that a classical liberal arts education should only be available to the most fortunate, and most privileged, amongst us?

How do we get the idea across that a liberal arts education is the smartest investment an individual can make to future proof their economic viability?

And then how can we use new methods, new technologies, new funding mechanisms, and new structures to extend the benefits of a liberal arts education to a wide range of learners?

Are you also tired of hearing about self-driving cars?

Do you also think that learning is the most interesting challenge of the 21st century?



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