• Rethinking Higher Education

    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

Great Teaching and Learning Spaces

America has always had great research institutions. We need great teaching institutions, too, and they are likely to be different places.

February 5, 2020

As I discussed in an earlier blog post, there have been “hangovers” from prior traditional practices when we moved from stage to stage during our extended development since 1945. And one of those hangovers is the assumption that the research university model was the premier academic model when it came to teaching and learning at the undergraduate level.

In my estimation, this hangover came from two sources. First, the early universities in the East were all private and highly selective. And second, when the Morrill Act passed and public higher education went national, the flagship universities in the Midwestern and Western states were modeled after their private Eastern predecessors.

As a result, when it comes to perceived quality in higher education, we have continued to conflate great research universities with great teaching and learning environments, holding them up as the preferred model. And I believe that is a critically inaccurate assumption.

America needs and has great research universities. Their knowledge creation and contributions to science and technology are unparalleled. And it is safe to say they have not only changed the world, they have also been instrumental in creating the society we currently have. Historically, the societal status of a university was directly tied to its graduate and research programs and the quality of student it attracted. And that status “trickled down” to the perceived value of the undergraduate programs.

In fact, the brand of the top 50 to 100 research universities still translates directly to the perceived quality of their undergraduate programs for some people today. The lawsuit against Harvard University by rejected applicants and last spring’s admissions scandals at institutions like USC and Yale underscore the fact that, for some people, the institutional brand is synonymous, at least socially, with academic quality.

There is evidence that graduate schools make undergraduate programs more expensive through “cost-shifting,” in which higher graduate school expenses are spread over lower undergraduate expenses, thus raising tuition for the baccalaureate programs and below. There is, however, little evidence that, beyond admitting previously successful and relatively well-to-do learners, these institutions have a lock on effective teaching and learning practices. In addition to great research universities, America needs to acknowledge and reward great teaching and learning colleges and organizations at the associate and baccalaureate level, where the vast majority of our postsecondary educational work is conducted.

Great research institutions are important and needed for the creation of future scholars and knowledge. Great teaching and learning institutions, however, are needed to protect our future with increased fairness and equal life opportunity through education.

In the upcoming series of blog posts, I will present and examine new services and applications which, among other things:

  • Validate knowledge, skills and abilities, including behaviors, in evidence-based outcomes,
  • Connect job-based and other nonschool learning and certificates to academic credit,
  • Dramatically improve the connection between learning outcomes and work requirements,
  • Track student performance and engagement daily and identify problems and issues before they become insurmountable,
  • Track and improve teacher performance on a weekly basis,
  • Fix ineffective curricula,
  • Create learner-based online support communities for place-based or online students,
  • Create learning pathways for students that tie their progress and outcomes directly to employment, and
  • Allow learners to take their evidence with them as they move and learn throughout life.

The point in this upcoming series is not to be comprehensive or provide an evaluation of new efforts. Rather, it is to give you an idea (to go along with others that you have) of what is happening in the larger world when it comes to reinventing opportunity for previously underserved and marginalized populations.



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