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American postsecondary education has evolved through multiple stages since 1945. Each stage has added a new dimension to our understanding of the ways higher education can contribute to a fairer, stronger, healthier, more creative society. And notably, each new stage and the dimension it introduced has drawn criticism from some of the mainstream actors of the previous stage.

Thus, as criticism of the “free-range learning” stage comes our way, we should not be surprised by nor should we retreat in the face of criticism from more traditional educators. We must, however, maintain our focus on quality and responsiveness to need.

These evolutionary cycles have been consistent as they expanded opportunity and access. Land-grant universities took services to the agricultural community in the field while educating their sons and daughters on campus. The GI Bill brought tens of thousands of veterans to campuses who, it is safe to say, would never have had the money or the opportunity otherwise. And then came the community college movement, leading the more widespread open-access movement -- championing the value and necessity of making higher education available to the many. And then along came Pell Grants and Stafford loans. Finally, in the mid- to late 1990s, we began the last stage of campus-controlled development with the arrival of online courses and degrees.

Each stage and the dimension it introduced had two similarities relative to the past practices that it improved upon.

  • In each case, the new populations served had been previously excluded or, at the least, significantly underserved. Bringing them into the higher education fold led to accusations of lower quality and a general decline of intellectual life in the Western world from defenders of the classical university.
  • Each stage was built on the experience, knowledge and social commitment gained from the previous stage(s). Seen in retrospect, they were logical steps along a path fostering greater access to campuses and the quality of life that a higher education promised.

Now, we stand on the threshold of yet another new stage. This moment of truth, this new stage of development with new dimension(s) of service in postsecondary education, is yet another step along this pathway. It brings the potential to serve previously underserved populations while building on and improving the services that will succeed with those populations.

Having said that, however, there is one significant difference this time. Unlike the earlier stages, this one is neither campus- nor faculty-centric. Hence, rather than presenting as a next step from the past, it represents a fundamental reconceptualization of how learning can best be supported.

Opportunity will be redefined and newly understood through new lenses. And “failure” to complete a postsecondary program will be understood as not a function of lack of talent or capacity in the learner. Rather, we will come to understand that much academic failure has been driven by an educational model that was built, organized and staffed for a different kind of student, someone else with a different lifestyle and different life demands.

Consider health care for a minute.

  • ER doctors do not (generally) tell you to come back for treatment when you are feeling better and ready to be healthy.
  • Telemedicine is getting medical resources to remote areas in ways that were once unimaginable.
  • Nurse practitioners are assuming responsibilities previously assigned to doctors.
  • And mobile vans as well as medical services in national chains like CVS are bringing health care to Main Street.

Higher education is no different. The disruptive forces currently besetting postsecondary education bring with them the capacity to improve pedagogies, relationships and learning support systems so that they respect and adapt to the learner’s situation and needs, wherever and whenever they are.

If there is a fundamental social, civic and economic ROI from making health care and maintenance available to all, the same is true for post-high school education throughout life. And just as we cannot ignore pre-existing conditions or data-driven diagnoses of health problems, using technologically enhanced services, we will no longer be able to ignore and disrespect the lives, backgrounds and talents of previously marginalized learners.

This disruptive stage opens the door to understanding, recognizing, supporting and validating learning whenever and wherever it occurs. It brings a new dimension, enhanced by technology, which has the potential to redefine our understanding of what opportunity is and how to maximize it for all.

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