Looking for discontinuous change in higher education.

December 9, 2014
Phil Long taught me a new word at the last event that we both attended: saltatory.  Phil is the Associate Vice Provost for Learning Sciences and Deputy Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas.  
Merriam-Webster defines saltatory as: “proceeding by leaps rather than by gradual transitions : discontinuous”.
Saltatory is my new favorite higher ed word.  I’m hoping that it becomes a buzzword.  Forget disruptive.  Forget personalized.  Forget adaptive.  Forget analytics.  Forget blended.  Forget scale.  Forget competency. Forget open. Forget flipped. Forget platform.  We should all be talking about saltatory change in higher education.
I’d like to propose that we create a Saltatory Higher Education Conference.  Or maybe The Journal of Saltatory Change in Higher Education.  What would a gathering look like where all that we talked about were discontinuous, as opposed to incremental, changes in higher ed?  Changes in costs, access, or quality that were measured in orders of magnitude.  What part of this iron triangle of the postsecondary ecosystem would be most amenable to saltatory change?  
It is probably easier to rule out candidates for discontinuous higher ed change than to figure out actual frontrunners.  We can probably eliminate MOOCs right off the bat.  I don’t know anybody that believes that MOOCs will replace the traditional university.  Open online learning at scale has proved a marvelous lever for incumbents to think about the potential and limits of residential education.  If information delivery is not a what high-intensity / high-expense education is about, then where should we be investing our resources and time?  
We can also probably discard the idea that the big change in the higher education industry will be the implosion of the higher education industry.  We are not like the video rental stores or record shops.  We are not newspapers.  This does not mean that our higher ed status quo is here to stay.  We will see incumbents morph and fail, and new players emerge.  What will not come to pass is Sebastian Thrun’s prediction that in 50 years there will be only 10 universities left in the world.  Christensen is also probably wrong in his assertion that in 15 years “half of US universities may be in bankruptcy”.  
Where is saltatory change in higher ed is likely to emerge?  3 possibilities:
Large-Enrollment Course Teaching and Learning: 
The biggest change that I see in university teaching and learning is the reformulation of large-enrollment courses.  The days of students, parents, and taxpayers funding a commodity education are numbered.  An education based on a transactional model will not survive in a world of abundant online information and open online learning.  The future of paid postsecondary education will be found in a relational model of learning. 
Go to any campus in the U.S. and you will see the large enrollment class being fundamentally re-thought.  There are many different models for new types of teaching methods, including a move to blended courses, emporium teaching models, and an emphasis on active and experiential learning.  Analytics and learning data will inform how these large enrollment classes are re-designed.  We will also see a rapid move to a team-based system of course design and teaching, one where faculty work closely with instructional designers, learning scientists, and media professionals.  This team-based system has been working successfully in the online learning world for years.  Teams are coming to residential education.
Competency-Based Credentialing: 
Will we see the end of seat-time based credentialing in our careers?  What would happen if we measured outputs (learning competencies) rather than inputs (courses and credits) in conferring degrees?  There is huge, and justifiable, excitement about moving towards a system of credentialing based on competencies.  Competency-based systems should invigorate all sorts of innovation in instruction.  Separating teaching from evaluation (assessment) will free up both activities for experimentation.  Long-practiced classroom models of instruction may be replaced by more flexible activities. 
We should not, however, see a shift to competency-based credentialing as a panacea for solving our structural challenges of costs, access and quality in postsecondary education.  The history of evaluating the efficacy and quality of education solely via assessment is not a happy one.  The last thing we want to do in higher education is follow K-12 down the road of high-stakes assessments.  It is also not clear to me exactly how we would assess the competencies most valued in a liberal arts institution.  Can leadership qualities be measured by a test?  How do we judge critical thinking skills in a single rubric?  I’ve become convinced that higher education will transition to a competency-based credentialing model.  What I don’t know is what this shift will mean for institutions that emphasize a broad liberal arts model of teaching and learning.  Ideas?
The Normative Master’s Degree: 
If you had to hypothesize if American’s will spend more time or less time enrolled in postsecondary education in 2025, how would you answer?  This year, U.S. degree granting institutions will confer about 1 million associate’s degrees, 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees, 790,000 master’s degrees, and 177,000 doctoral degrees.  The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that in 2024 the number of master’s degrees conferred will jump to over 1 million.   I think that the Feds may be significantly underestimating the demand for this credential.  Today, more than 16 million Americans, about 8 percent of the population, have a master’s degree.  This is the same percentage of American’s with an advanced degree today who had a bachelor’s degree in 1960.  Since 2002 the number of people receiving a Master’s degree has grown by 43 percent - by far the fastest growth of any postsecondary credential. 
Some may see the growth of the master’s degree as an insidious form credential creep.  Economists seem to love to talk about the cab driver and the barista with a master’s degree.  My take is that a normative master’s degree will be a very good thing for our economy and our society.  A general upswing in educational attainment has always been the surest path to greater economic productivity.  On an individual level, earning a master’s degree results in significantly higher earnings in every profession.  Would the expected degree that every college-goer receives moving from a bachelor’s to a master’s represent a saltatory change in higher education?  

What saltatory changes do you expect to emerge in higher education?


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