Technology

The media should cast a more skeptical eye on higher ed reforms (essay)

It’s September and therefore time once again to clear this year’s collection of task force, blue ribbon panel, and conference reports to await the new harvest. Sad. Every one of these efforts was once graced by a newspaper article, often with breathless headline, reporting on another well-intentioned group’s solution to one or another of higher education’s problems.

By now we know that much of this work will have little positive impact on higher education, and realize that some of it might have been harmful. The question in either case is, where was the press?

Where were the challenges, however delicately phrased, asking about evidence, methodology, experimentation or concrete results? Why were press releases taken at face value, and why was there no follow-up to explore whether the various studies had any relevance or import in the real world?

The journalists I know are certainly equal to the task: bright, invested, interesting. But along with the excellent writing, where is the healthy skepticism and the questioning attitude of the scholar and the journalist?

This absence of a critical attitude has consequences. A myth, given voice, can cause untold harm. In one extreme example, the canard that accreditors trooped through schools “counting books” enabled a mindless focus on irrelevant measured learning outcomes, bright lines, metrics, rubrics and the like. This helped erode one of the most effective characteristics of accreditation and gave rise to a host of alternatives, once again unexamined, unreviewed, and unchallenged -- but with enough press space to enable them to take root.

Many of us do apply a healthy dose of constructive skepticism to the new, the untested, and the unverified. But it’s only reporters and journalists who have the ability to voice such concerns in the press.

No doubt it’s more pleasant to write about promising new developments than to express concern and caution. But don’t we have a right to expect this as well? Surely de Tocqueville’s press, whose "eye is always open" and which "forces public men to appear before the tribunal of public opinion" has bequeathed a sense of responsibility to probe and to scrutinize proposals and plans as well as people.

Consider, for example, the attitude of the press to MOOCs. First came the thrilling stories of millions of people studying quantum electrodynamics, as well as the heartwarming tale of the little girl high in the Alps learning Esperanto from a MOOC while guarding the family’s sheep. Or something.

The MOOC ardor has cooled, but it’s not because of a mature, responsible examination by the press.

The mob calling for disruption hasn’t dispersed, only the watchword is now "innovation." Any proposal that claims to teach students more effectively, at a lower cost and a quicker pace, is granted a place in the sun, while faculty and institutions are labeled as obstructionists trying to save their jobs.

That responsible voices don’t get heard often enough might be partially our fault. Even though every journalist went to college, this personal experience was necessarily limited. Higher education is maddeningly diverse, and writers should be invited to observe or participate in a variety of classes, at different levels and in all kinds of schools.

Accrediting agencies should invite more reporters to join site visits. Reality is a powerful teacher and bright journalists would make excellent students.

Reporters who understand higher education would also be more effective in examining proposed legislation. We need a questioning eye placed on unworkable or unrealistic initiatives to ensure that higher education not be harmed – as has been the case so often in the past.

Senator Tom Harkin’s recent Higher Education Act bill has language that would make accreditation totally ineffective. Hopefully it will be removed in further iterations of the legislation.

But wouldn’t we be better off if searching questions came from an independent, informed, and insistent press?

 

Bernard Fryshman is a professor of physics and former accreditor.

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