With the release of his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, journalist Fareed Zakaria became the latest commentator to join the robust debate over whether the purpose of college is to promote professional advancement or personal growth. The debate typically contrasts the self-betterment offered by the liberal arts -- usually meaning the humanities and social sciences -- against the workforce merits of applied disciplines, such as engineering. One side argues that universities ought to nurture educated, complete human beings, while the other calls for marketplace utility. The conversation has long tottered over this line, and there it remains stalled.
But perhaps it’s time finally to advance past the stale juxtaposition of the humanities versus the applied disciplines. After all, is it really the case that one is soft and the other exacting? In many ways, they’re equally complex. And while each proffers distinct rewards, the two sides have much to gain from each other if we move past these entrenchments.
A Common Complexity
Naturally, the study of an applied discipline like engineering is a steep academic challenge. The study of any complex system is difficult. To build a good airplane, biomaterial or computer program, one needs to understand the dizzying intricacies of that object’s composition and context. Materials, environment, the forces of physics, time and logic -- all of these factor into an engineer’s grasp of her subject, and the task of mastering this complexity spurs intellectual development.
Yet the study of human culture and behavior is similarly complex. Just as the hard sciences demand the grasp of intricate systems, so do the liberal arts. In the case of the humanities and social sciences, however, these systems are an elaborate mesh of history, art, geography, biology and economics -- the strands that make up our world’s DNA. Thus, while a civil engineer learns about materials and soil types and local ordinances, a classics student absorbs how the legacy of the Roman Empire shapes everything from the letters we write to the architecture of our buildings and how we structure our water supply systems. This deep contextual understanding weaves through daily life.
To take a concrete example, consider the act of purchasing a gallon of gasoline. An engineer might recognize how the fuel powers her car’s engine, or how oil is extracted from the earth. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, might inform this engineer of the history and meaning of OPEC, the convoluted economics of energy and the context of global warming. She might recall The Nicomachean Ethics and conclude that taking personal responsibility for her actions means she should drive less, or consider how hunger for resources drives civilizations to colonize and conquer. These are obviously not facile mental endeavors.
In terms of rigor, then, it’s certainly the case that the liberal arts can be just as demanding as the applied disciplines. Why, then, is it so commonly believed that an English degree, for example, will leave a graduate trapped in the ivory tower -- or her parents’ basement?
The reason may be that, in many cases, applied studies feature a strong laboratory or workplace experience, while liberal arts classes are often framed by the traditions of the essay and exam paper. This difference in mode, this boundary between the abstract and the real, may largely account for the conceit that a liberal arts education doesn’t equate to a tangible outcome, or a tangible paycheck. However, liberal arts programs can counter this misperception by reproducing the lessons from engineering laboratories or business school co-op programs and adding an experiential component. By practicing the experiential liberal arts, they would better prepare their students to engage in the world.
The Experiential Difference
What would this look like in practice? Experiential liberal arts would combine the rigor of traditional academics with active participation in workplaces, laboratories or volunteer opportunities -- especially ones in a global context. These real-life elements would heighten students’ motivation, promote practice and self-reflection, promote contextual understanding, and encourage self-direction. In other words, the experiential component would be a vehicle that leads to deeper learning.
For instance, an English major might complete a co-op with a national magazine, applying ideas she encountered in a Technology of Text class to the creation of content for new formats in publishing. In doing so, she would cement academic information into owned knowledge. She wouldn’t merely internalize lessons -- she would live them. Likewise, since many students learn by translating theoretical knowledge into generative action, a philosophy major could parlay a co-op at the United Nations Human Rights Council into a research project on how the global economy is changing the sort of moral choices we face -- for example, making us question the ethics of using electronics built with exploited labor.
To be sure, ensuring that liberal arts students have access to high-quality internships that reinforce their classroom learning requires meaningful engagement between universities and employers. Creating substantive partnerships takes work, but the rewards are mutual. At Northeastern University, for example, one of our undergraduate history majors recently completed a co-op with the U.S. Commercial Service in Mexico, where he applied his content knowledge and research skills -- acquired through liberal arts classes -- to compose a report analyzing plans to expand the Port of Veracruz. His employer then used the analysis to determine whether this $19 billion project should move forward as planned, or with changes.
Similarly, another undergraduate applied his learning as an English major to design the customer support system and perform financial analysis for a cloud computing start-up firm. “Doing financial analysis is surprisingly similar to doing literary analysis,” he told us. “When you read a poem or a novel, your professor tells you to look between the text and dig as deep as you can to find out everything the author is trying to say. When you’re looking at a spreadsheet of numbers, you’re doing the same thing: What are these numbers trying to tell me?”
The Rewards of Experiential Liberal Arts
Indeed, the marriage of liberal arts skills with experiential learning yields advanced survival skills for the modern era: creative, critical and analytical thinking, deft communication, and the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, applying knowledge in unexpected situations. We can’t engage effectively with other human beings -- or institutions, or work assignments -- without these talents. Just as importantly, the experiential liberal arts imparts an appetite for ongoing study, training students to adapt their minds to new learning situations throughout their lives. This is invaluable in an economy that demands that workers make multiple career jumps and replenish their skills on a continuing basis.
But experiential liberal arts experiences shouldn’t be for liberal arts students only. Context, communication and a capacity for self-directed lifelong learning -- everyone needs these, including students in the applied disciplines. The most brilliant computer scientist has to thrive in the human milieu or risk irrelevance. The most trailblazing biochemical engineer should learn to weigh the social and cultural context of her work. By enhancing their courses of study with relevant content from the humanities and social sciences, programs in the applied disciplines would also better prepare their graduates to engage with the world and succeed in life.
The New Literacy
In fact, what the worn-out juxtaposition of the liberal arts versus the applied disciplines overlooks is that aspects of each are essential for living a full life, both professionally and personally. We wouldn’t say that grade schoolers should choose between learning how to read or how to add and subtract, so we shouldn’t fall into equivalent false choices in higher education. Both domains have relevance, utility and beauty, and both contain critical components of a new skill set -- a new literacy -- that students need if they’re to flourish in modern life and the global economy.
For example, consider analytics, statistics and coding -- three subjects often cited as vital for students to learn today. In many ways, the robust study of each involves drawing from concepts from both the world of liberal arts and the applied sciences. For example, one might integrate concepts from art and design into a course on analytics, so students can transform sophisticated quantitative analyses into elegant, intuitive data visualizations. Likewise, one might weave lessons from history and concepts in cultural anthropology together with technical instruction in Stata or SPSS to show more deeply how statistics can be used to investigate issues and challenges across a variety of domains.
Imagine how valuable -- and relevant -- an education students would receive if colleges and universities routinely approached the curriculum with this kind of harmonization in mind. Imagine how augmenting it with experiential component would enrich it even further.
Every scientist needs to ponder the context of her work and communicate its meaning; every liberal arts student should wrangle with the revelations of big data. Both applied disciplines and the liberal arts have much to share between them. By bleeding a little into each other, these two approaches to higher education would give every graduate a powerful, marketable education for today’s economy.
So let’s move past the false dichotomy that characterizes the current debate over the liberal arts and applied disciplines. Better to draw lessons from both, and agree that the most valuable education is one that works.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.
College and university faculty are expected to be excellent teachers. In public, college leaders emphasize to potential students and their parents that at their institution, teaching matters above all else. Colleges seem to unabashedly promote that the teaching done by their faculty is markedly better than at peer institutions -- or that the opportunities for close working relationships between students and faculty are unique to their campus.
Many small colleges rest their laurels on the value they place on teaching excellence. From day one faculty members know that they will primarily be evaluated for tenure and promotion based on their role as teachers. Colleges and universities have Centers for Teaching Excellence to further demonstrate that they value teaching and provide support to faculty. Promotion and tenure committees scrutinize faculty dossiers -- syllabuses, assignments, exams and ubiquitous teaching evaluations -- looking for evidence that faculty members are indeed excellent teachers. Faculty attend workshops and conferences about teaching. Most academic disciplines have professional societies committed to improving the teaching and learning process; some even publish peer-reviewed pedagogical journals where scholars report on the effectiveness of teaching methods and assessment as well as sharing innovative ideas for classroom demonstrations and assignments.
There is no shortage of lip service from various academic ranks on the value of teaching excellence. Faculty and administrators alike -- particularly at small liberal arts colleges and comprehensive universities -- make concerted efforts through programming and institutional investments with the aim of improving teaching.
But what exactly is teaching excellence? Institutional commitments, workshops, conferences and journals, all sharing the intent of improving teaching and content delivery, do not necessarily translate to a universal agreement on exactly what it is we are improving.
I suspect that, at most colleges and universities, teaching excellence is primarily defined by how a subject is taught. Notwithstanding the fact that the value and weight placed on teaching vary across institutional type, for promotion and tenure most faculty likely collate the same sorts of artifacts -- collections of materials such as students’ course evaluations, teaching philosophies, syllabuses, assignments, exams, letters detailing classroom observations and so on. These items along with a faculty member’s own narrative often are the primary metrics promotion and tenure committees use to gauge a candidate’s competency as a teacher.
But all these measures share a common focus on the delivery of a course’s content. A heavy burden is placed upon the faculty member at promotion time to document that he or she effectively communicates the information to students, that students appreciate a faculty member’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, that students enjoy how a course is structured, that the faculty member participates in professional development related to teaching and implements innovative pedagogy, and that faculty members provide evidence of growth and improvement during the pretenure years, most often targeting content delivery.
What I see as a fundamental problem in defining teaching excellence within the academy today is a flawed assumption that evaluating course materials (assignments, exams, etc.) and instructor habits (shows up on time, seems prepared for class, effectively uses technology, etc.) automatically translates into an evaluation of what students truly receive from instructors. Much emphasis is placed on what the instructor does but very little is placed on asking students what they actually learn -- very rarely are students pointedly asked about their growth and intellectual maturation over the semester, as opposed to whether they enjoyed the experience.
I find it absurd that decisions about teaching excellence in promotion and tenure cases can come down to generic questions that ask students to rate the quality of the instructor (excellent good, fair, etc.) and possibly the quality of the course. How can students decide what is excellent when no operational definition of excellence is ever given to them?
But this essay is not so much about lamenting the shortcomings of course evaluations as it is about challenging colleges and their faculty to recalibrate how they think about teaching excellence. Is there really any measurable difference between teaching at deep-pocketed prestigious colleges like those found near the top of U.S. News & World Report rankings and the many second- and third-tier colleges and universities? Sure, colleges with more resources and expendable revenue can offer students more than cash-strapped, tuition-dependent institutions. More financially stable institutions can ratchet up the quality of teaching facilities, laboratories and libraries; they can offer higher salaries and start-up packages, which could do more to recruit and retain faculty; and they can do more to provide in-house funding to both faculty and students for undergraduate research. But do these factors that seemingly advantage the wealthier and often more selective institutions really matter?
Some scholars cluster elements of excellent teaching into one of three categories: teaching, communication and attitudes toward students. Probably most would agree that being a good teacher requires having expertise in the subject matter as well as a willingness to actively involve students in the learning process. And faculty should not only effectively communicate information in the classroom but also provide consistent and timely feedback to students on assignments. Respecting students as adults and having a good rapport with them fosters an environment conducive to learning, which in turn helps students to become effective problem solvers and to take ownership over their own learning. Regardless of institutional setting, one will find faculty members who excel on these very attributes. Note that not one of these is tied to metrics of an institution’s wealth, retention rate or selectivity.
Possibly most important of the three categories is the last: faculty attitudes toward students. Being an excellent teacher means more than designing and delivering an effective lecture or being able to foster thought-provoking classroom discussions. Effective teaching extends beyond the classroom; faculty should take a sincere interest in their students and make an effort to get to know them on a personal level. Students really want to get to know their professors, too, and when they develop meaningful relationships with us, it can have a positive effect on their work ethic and increase confidence in their ability. I think students who enjoy being around their professors are more likely to go to class, are more active in class and are generally more apt to seek help from faculty outside of class.
Colleges promote these very ideals by attempting to sway parents and potential students with their student-faculty ratios, their small class sizes, their sense of community and their approachable faculty -- all of which are meant to nurture students’ intellectual growth and provide them the quintessential college experience. And these are all qualities that may foster a culture of excellent teaching, but they do not guarantee one. As faculty members, we should be interested in and concerned about the student as a whole individual. No matter the institutional type, when faculty show a sincere interest in their students both on personal and academic levels, it can have transformative results in their habits, their success in our classes, their growth as students and most importantly, their social and emotional development as young adults.
Despite the diversity of institutional missions, surely all colleges and universities purport that their students leave with the knowledge and skills needed to be active and engaged citizens who will make a difference in the places they live, work and serve. Most would agree that faculty members -- and in particular professors in their role as teachers -- exert tremendous influence on their students' maturation during the college years. Maybe discussions about what is or what is not excellent teaching need to be rethought to actually capture the impact faculty have on their students’ lives. This is not to discount the summative and formative value of teaching evaluations -- faculty must be competent teachers and while current metrics likely do little to discriminate excellent from merely good teachers, they reliably identify dismal ones.
Yet it seems that colleges continue to define teaching excellence primarily based on what students say on course evaluations. But the extent of our influence upon students goes beyond how we may inform, inspire, motivate or challenge them in a course. How we connect with particular students, the mentorship we may provide them in a variety of contexts, our role as their advisers and generally the myriad of other ways we positively affect them -- these all contribute to excellent teaching. Though documenting these activities is challenging and impossible to quantify, their exposition would nicely augment the formal metrics so common to the academy.
In short, course evaluations are so entrenched in the fabric of the modern university that their use is certain to continue. Maybe colleges and universities could encourage and enact more flexible ways to define teaching excellence, so that when collated with student evaluations and other evidence, they would provide a much richer and more exhaustive characterization of the impact faculty truly have on their students.
Alan Hughes is a professor of psychology at Berry College.
Defenders of higher education are on the ramparts. Again. This time, the ivory tower is under assault from a pitchfork-carrying crowd marching under the banner of reducing the cost of baccalaureate degree programs via the use of new technologies, especially online learning.
Predictions of the demise of the traditional baccalaureate program, especially at residential liberal arts colleges, have resonated through a spate of books and articles over the past few months. The planned closure of Sweet Briar College amplified the message that our institutions of higher learning are on the brink (and this at the height of the college acceptance/rejection season).
But are things really so dire for traditional undergraduate education? Are we really looking at The End of College, as Kevin Carey insists? As we consider the impact of new technologies on higher education, must college be “unbound,” “disrupted” or “unbundled” in order to best serve this generation of students?
It will be several years before we are able to assess the long-term viability and validity of an unbundled college program, but I believe unbundling is a fatally flawed approach. Rebundling is my rallying cry.
Many proposals to unbundle traditional higher education advocate a complete reinvention of the undergraduate experience. These proposals often dismiss or fail to make best use of excellent resources within existing institutions. Moreover, those wishing to unbundle the traditional baccalaureate degree program haven’t adequately considered the way teenagers entering college would experience an unbundled education. They overlook the fact that achieving success in an unbundled degree program requires a level of cognitive and developmental maturity that teenagers often don’t possess. (Adult learners, on the other hand, more often have the level of executive functioning necessary to successfully complete an online program, which is one reason why online learning has become such a useful option for this demographic.)
Finally, advocates of unbundling have not solved the dilemma of accreditation. For employers and graduate schools, established colleges and universities have long played an important role in certifying the meaning and value of the degrees they confer. In my opinion, there are two inviolable tenets of American higher education: to make students smarter and to recognize them as “certified smart.” What institution or agency will provide comparable certification for a degree from the “university of everywhere” (to use Kevin Carey’s term), a degree that is the aggregate of course components from diverse sources?
Under the leadership of Senator Lamar Alexander, a congressional committee is considering this issue. However, if a push to embrace unbundled degree programs results in a number of new agencies to accredit those programs, such a proliferation will likely diminish the current value of accreditation. Second, even if the number of new accrediting bodies is limited, any newly created agencies will have to establish track records of reliability over time in order to be viewed as comparable to the certification offered by existing colleges and universities.
As a response to these challenges, my proposal to rebundle college preserves the primacy, integrity and identity of existing institutions. Rebundling college will benefit students, reduce costs and provide the necessary certification of a given program of study by a college or university faculty.
This model will require many existing institutions to reorganize so that they, in effect, become the curators of an education for each enrolled student.
Individualized degree programs will be culled and created from many sources, much in the way an art exhibit is curated so that separate pieces come together to form a coherent, integrated whole. With oversight from their enrolling institutions, students will select from a variety of traditional and emerging pedagogies as well as other academic and co-curricular resources that existing institutions provide.
My model for rebundling college has three parts:
Part One: Educational and Financial Commitment
The first part involves the student and family making a commitment to planning a course for an individual’s education from (ideally) middle school through college. Planning could be initiated and overseen at the school district or the state level, perhaps through a mechanism similar to the Achievement Compacts developed by the Oregon Education Investment Board. Trust me: I do not underestimate this challenge given the current cultural patterns of limited or no forethought to developing a plan for postsecondary education among scores of families. Financial planning support must be made available to families through guided online learning modules, or where resources permit, group or individual counseling sessions that begin (again, ideally) in middle school, with special incentives for the lowest-income families.
And the individual plans -- digitized and kept within the control of the student and family -- can be updated periodically.
Part Two: Curriculum
The second part involves customizing a curriculum required for a student to complete a degree program. The institution at which the student eventually enrolls will support and oversee this process, curating a student’s education according to its own distinctive mission and goals.
The courses needed to complete the degree program may be taken at a home campus, or, where necessary, outside classes (reviewed and approved in advance by the home campus) would be purchased for the student. This process, similar to cross-registration protocols currently employed by collaborating institutions, would also encompass the purchase and delivery of online course content. This model reduces the need for a single campus to provide highly specialized but low-enrollment courses, thereby improving efficiency and reducing costs.
Part Three: Co-curricular Experiences
The third part focuses on co-curricular educational experiences. Participation in study abroad programs, intercollegiate athletics, or work with a faculty member on a specific research project, for example, can be layered into this model according to individual student interests and aspirations. These options would be priced separately and reviewed with an eye toward the overall financial strategy in place for the student. While these opportunities add significantly to the educational experience of each student, this model accepts that institutions may not be able to provide all opportunities for all enrolled students. Therefore, great care must be taken in order to avoid exacerbating the equity divide in higher education. This will require additional financial aid to low-income students, aid that is likely to be campus based. Moreover, it is not expected that students coming from wealthy families will uniformly engage in all options for high-impact co-curricular experiences.
This tripartite model for rebundling college has distinct advantages when compared to models of an unbundled education.
First, this model specifically addresses issues of student readiness for, and access to, higher education. Most importantly, this model directly engages students and their families in a beneficial, comprehensive academic and financial planning process that is currently lacking among students of traditional college-bound age, but is so critical for student persistence and success in a degree program.
Second, the curated, individualized educational program provides necessary structure and guidance for students as they develop the cognitive, personal and technological skills needed to earn a degree. This model integrates new technology and online learning opportunities as appropriate for individual students -- opportunities that are brokered, reviewed and recommended by faculty at the home campus. Ultimately, the curated educational program will reflect the distinctive ethos of a specific college or university faculty dedicated to a complete and cohesive vision of what a graduating student should know and have experienced. This model for rebundling college, therefore, offers a means of quality control and reliable certification of all degrees granted. The degrees earned by students retain an institutional imprimatur, which is significant for employers and graduate schools.
While this model addresses issues of equity and access in higher education, it does not assume public investment in a full residential college experience for every traditional student. Instead, this model advocates that institutions do as much as they can for as many as can afford the opportunity, while still being cost-effective.
These evolving dynamics and demands on institutional leadership and faculty will lead to changes to our traditional models, and debate about the effect of disruptive technology on higher education is in the early stages. Those on the ramparts of the ivory tower and those carrying pitchforks are set for a long battle. The best way forward is the détente proposed for rebundling college.
Larry D. Large is president of the Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities.
Kevin Carey has written a book called The End of College -- by which he means the end of college as we know it… and he feels fine. At least we assume he does, because The End of College is a celebration, not a lament. The traditional college education is dying, he says. As it should, he adds. No more buildings, no more exclusively face-to-face classes, no more libraries, no more graduation ceremonies. Everything will fall by the wayside, Carey predicts. The good news, he posits, is that it will all be replaced by what he calls the University of Everywhere.
Carey's book comes at a time of rising college costs, swelling student debt and cuts to university courses, faculty and majors. From students to parents to taxpayers, everyone is alarmed about higher education’s most pressing challenges. As an education technology writer and scholar of higher education policy, we are, too. Unfortunately, many people will find false hope in TheEnd of College and its fantastical promises of the University of Everywhere.
“The University of Everywhere is where students of the future will go to college,” Carey writes. “The University of Everywhere will span the earth. The students will come from towns, cities and countries in all cultures and societies, members of a growing global middle class who will transform the experience of higher education.”
How will such a thing be possible? The Internet, of course: the University of Everywhere, says Carey, will be digital, personalized, networked, virtual, intellectually rigorous, hybrid, cheap if not free and lifelong.
Parents of future undergraduates will be understandably relieved to know that someone finally has figured it out. To know they will not need to mortgage their home or take that second job. To know that technology is coming to save them. Like Netflix or Amazon, like Uber or Fitbit, the University of Everywhere will soon emerge from the cloud, ready to disrupt the status quo with its flexible, accessible tools. Or so we're told.
The University of Everywhere is the response, led by venture capitalists and ed-tech entrepreneurs, to “ancient institutions in their last days of decadence,” Carey writes. And we are to believe that an end will come soon for the oppressive regime created by colleges and universities, as he personally has numbered the days until they either “adapt” or become extinct.
In the book and with his platform with the New York Times's Upshot blog and in various essays on the subject written from a perch at New America, Carey professes to possess a deep understanding of higher education. He genuinely believes his plan for online degrees will disrupt recalcitrant institutions, unleash individual ingenuity and power the jobs of the 21st century. He is “angry” about the “chronic neglect of undergraduate education” that he assures us he has witnessed in personal meetings and read about in a single volume with hotlycontested findings, and he isn’t going to take it anymore. This book is his response.
One of Carey’s strongest objections is to the way in which higher education confers enormous benefits on the privileged and powerful (an issue that we agree is a major problem and have each written abouttime and again). And so, in this age of extreme inequality, Carey declares that the University of Everywhere will serve to flatten and erase hierarchies of social status and socioeconomic privilege. The future of education in his vision will be, as edX C.E.O. Anant Agarwal has also pronounced, “borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind.” It will be, in other words, the ultimate meritocracy.
This vision of the University of Everywhere is endowed with such grandeur that it can leave one breathless; it is so hopeful about the future that any doubt or critique may seem unkind, even inappropriate. Why ask questions about how or why or who or what? Carey and his University of Everywhere want you simply to believe. And if you do have questions, you must be a defender of the status quo, an insufficiently “careful reader,” or, worse yet, a professor in a traditional institution.
Indeed objections seem to offend Carey, as they would any true believer. He promotes the online and hybrid future of higher education and extols the innovations that have spun out of Stanford’s artificial intelligence lab -- startups like Coursera and Udacity -- with a fanatical sustained passion that sets aside the far more conflicted reality of these initiatives. While the University of Everywhere purports to be a meritocracy that will save us all from social inequities, it's worth noting that it is being built and promoted by three of the most elite of America’s universities: Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T.
These universities are at the center of the recent push for massive open online courses (better known as MOOCs), which are the cornerstone of Carey’s University of Everywhere. In his telling of their history, the Golden Three and their new MOOC initiatives can do no wrong.
Except they have already done much wrong. Take the experience of San Jose State University with MOOC-like instruction provided by Udacity. Beginning in early 2013, this experimental effort at one of the most racially diverse universities in the country was promised to “end college as we know it.” Yet the data show that the pilot was an unmitigated disaster. The students in the Udacity-run classes -- remedial algebra, college algebra and statistics -- did far worse than students in traditional, face-to-face classes. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun blamed the students, whom he said “were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives… [For them] this medium is not a good fit."
Here is Thrun in a Silicon Valley tech blog: “If you’re a student who can’t afford the service layer, you can take the MOOC on demand at your own pace. If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.” Incredibly, as Tressie McMillan Cottom has noted, the University of Everywhere is also magically postracial. No wonder, since, as the data from MOOCs around the country clearly show, this university is for the highly educated, not the underserved.
Given the sheer vehemence of his argument and a professed lack of responsibility to warn off “careless misinterpretation,” perhaps it is unsurprising that Carey omits the evidence about the real and disturbing flaws of online and even hybrid education. To support his contentions that information technology can lift all boats, he turns to William Bowen, author of a study using a randomized experiment to assess the effects of online versus face-to-face instruction. He reports that Bowen found no differences when it came to the outcomes he measured: course completion rates, scores on final exam questions and a standardized test.
“Bowen had previously been skeptical of the idea that technology could fundamentally change higher learning. Based on his new research, he wrote, 'I am today a convert. I have come to believe that now is the time.'” Rather than question the wisdom of sudden conversions based on single studies, Carey wonders, why didn’t colleges immediately hop on board and begin embracing what he calls “a golden opportunity to charge students less money without sacrificing the quality of instruction”?
The answer, of course, lies in empirical research and respect for the scientific process, both of which Carey has little time for. Bowen’s 2012 study was then and remains today one of only a tiny number of such studies producing these sorts of results. Despite efforts, including those of Ithaka S&R, where Bowen works, to suggest that instructional format does not affect outcomes, there are just four rigorous yet also stylized and idiosyncratic studies that even somewhat support the conclusions that Carey promotes. And the most robust of them, a study of 700 students at the City University of New York, identifies negative impacts for lower-achieving students placed into online-only courses.
Moreover, none of the studies examine the outcomes commonly used to assess the utility of educational interventions -- for example, year-to-year retention and graduation rates. A thoughtful reader of the research might ask: What responsible educator, and indeed, what responsible educational policy expert, would recommend wholesale changes in higher education based on such a paltry body of knowledge? When a long and detailed body of scientific evidence (the most recent example is the evaluation of ASAP at CUNY) details the intensive attention required to bring first-generation and low-income students from college entry to graduation, why run in the opposite direction, offering less personal contact and coaching?
Carey's book invokes education research only when it serves his narrative. Otherwise, education research -- indeed all manner of research -- is framed as one of the many flaws that weigh down certain elements of our current higher education system.
Carey does not ask questions of experts who are unlikely to agree with what he is arguing, including noted economist David Figlio. “When I look at the weight of the evidence, it looks like online education might come at some sacrifice to student learning,” said Figlio in a recent article. “Thoughtful administrators will need to weigh those sacrifices against the cost savings. You can see a situation where schools for the haves will continue with face-to-face instruction, perhaps enhancing it with technology. And the have-nots will get this mass online instruction. That can be potentially problematic from an equity perspective.” Of course, Figlio works at one of those “traditional” institutions that Carey abhors and thus he can be ignored.
Of course, credentials like those held by Figlio will not matter in the future, thanks to the University of Everywhere. The prestige associated with certain institutions will be flattened. Opportunity, access, biases -- all swept away by the Internet.
The University of Everywhere, in Carey’s telling of it, will be free of racists, trolls, harassers or stalkers. Despite all empirical evidence that the single greatest change in higher education over the last 50 years is a remarkably diverse and diversifying student population, Carey’s vision for U.S. higher education also has no race, class or gender. These are unexplored and unmentioned in his book. In his version of the future, the Internet, site of the University of Everywhere, is open equally and safely to everyone. Who cares that M.I.T. emeritus professor Walter Lewin, once the star of YouTube for his videos demonstrating various physics experiments and featured by Carey in The End of College,has been accused of sexually harassing female students in his MOOC? M.I.T. has scrubbed much of Lewin's course materials from the Web. But the University of Everywhere remains unscathed.
The University of Everywhere that Carey promotes cares not for intellectual property, neither the professors’ nor the students’. He writes, “We can already, today, replicate much of what colleges are charging a great deal of money for and distribute that information electronically at almost no marginal cost.” Students can hand over their content and data to technology companies to mine, with the promise of more efficient personalized learning. By transferring their data to technology companies and not to universities, “people will control their personal educational identities instead of leaving that crucial information in the hands of organizations acting from selfish interests,” he writes. Universities, not the tech sector, are the ones with selfish interests here, according to Carey. Similarly, faculty will manage their classrooms, including their syllabuses, lectures, lessons and course design via those same companies.
As for research, it will happen elsewhere, beyond the University of Everywhere, as Carey argues that existing universities have erred by trying to fulfill a mission of both research and teaching. The University of Everywhere is “unbundled.” That is because the "roaming autodidacts" of the University of Everywhere do not need these services. The learners of the University of Everywhere need their MacBooks and Wi-Fi, and the world is theirs. As such, they don't look much like today's students in community colleges. Nor will their experiences look like the experiences of undergraduates working with faculty in university laboratories today -- experiences that studies show are demonstrably effective at creating cadres of scientists from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Without an explicit attention to diversity, the University of Everywhere will ignore it -- much like Silicon Valley has already proven to do with the demographics of its employees and investment portfolio and much like Carey's history of the development of higher education does as well.
Echoing Silicon Valley, the University of Everywhere envisions a meritocratic labor market, just waiting to be filled by those with badges and certificates, though not necessarily by those with bachelor’s degrees. The person with the right badges and MOOC certificates will get the job and the promotions, and there will be no discrimination based on prestigious universities; indeed there will also be no discrimination based on race or gender or sexual identity. These are the proclamations and promises made over and over in the book despite their direct contradiction to rigorous studies of how employers treat job candidates with nontraditional credentials from new or no-name institutions.
Such facts matter little as Carey sweeps his readers through the book into this magical world and takes them into a new age of higher education in a text that makes no mention, offers no analysis of race or gender or sexual identity. These facets of today’s life simply do not exist in his dream. This is a story told by a white man about other white men -- indeed, all other voices, with the exception of Daphne Koller's, are mute. [Editor's Note: Subsequent to publication of this essay, commenters have noted other voices quoted in Carey's book from people who are not white men.] The story is set entirely in an America that isn’t part of global communities. Despite the nod to "Everywhere," there are apparently no universities in the rest of the world that might respond to the technological imperialism of MOOCs or to the cultural imperialism of standardized general education classes.
As should be clear by now, this entertaining narrative about higher education is an inch deep in shallow waters. It zooms past debates of history with barely a note of documentation for its claims (indeed a total of 21 endnotes are provided for 5 entire chapters of text, with some supporting statistics about "achievements," such as those about the new "elite" online college Minerva, provided by unverifiable sources including the founder of the school himself). Research findings that fit the storyline are termed “shocking” and “mind-boggling,” while those that contradict the tale are simply left out.
Certainly, Carey is not alone in constructing such accounts. There is a plethora of higher education prescriptions funded by respectable think tanks and nonprofit organizations. They are issued nearly weekly, many hopping onto the excitement and hype (and hefty venture capital funding) for MOOCs and other education technology efforts. Carey references very few of these even when his arguments are clearly influenced by them (think of the formative DIY U by Anya Kamenetz and the forward-thinking prescriptions offered by Andrew Kelly and Rick Hess). Many in this space value “outsider” takes on higher education for their supposed unbiased clarity. They also seem to value the gravitas of wealthy technologists and data scientists who pose as being too serious for identity politics or culture wars.
In this political economy, the experts on education are rarely experts in education, and that is just the way an increasing number of powerful people seem to like it. Books like these and the speeches and essays accompanying them eat up the landscape of popular discourse. With the microphone, these voices have the gravitas of maleness and whiteness and wealth. They are so loud they must be expert. They look like, walk like and talk like leaders.
And the story that they tell is quite comforting for many who look at the rising cost of college and the fragile economy and hope that their children will be able to follow the right path toward a more secure future. As such the University of Everywhere is a consumer fantasy of the future of higher education, a fantasy that purports to be about freedom for learners, about more personalized learning, but that is traced through the history, at least in Carey’s book, of programmed instruction. Machines will teach. Artificial intelligence will replace teachers and tutors.
Swept away by the mystical magic of technology, Carey sees a world of possibility. That is the moral and the lesson of The End of College, his prescription far more than his analysis. Carey promises, as the title of the opening chapter suggests, a new "secret of life." It's a secret that, once unleashed and fulfilled, will disrupt institutions -- much like Uber, which Carey describes with fascination and glee when he visits Silicon Valley. Designed to replace the taxi service -- like higher education, a service that's deemed outmoded -- all you need to summon an Uber is a mobile app. Like the future of higher education that Carey predicts, Uber is always on, always on demand. It is also unregulated, well funded by venture capitalists, collecting personal data not simply for efficiency and algorithms but for dubious purposes, and based on a precarious labor force. But we're not supposed to ask questions. No one should ask questions when the end is nigh.
Audrey Watters is a journalist specializing in education technology news and analysis. Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Among all the seemingly intractable crises Americans face in the world today, none is so serious as their utter unfamiliarity with that world. It makes every specific overseas problem virtually impossible for us to deal with confidently or competently.
Whether motivated by exceptionalism, isolationism, triumphalism or sheer indifference -- probably some of each over time -- the United States has somehow failed to equip a significant percentage of its citizenry with the basic information necessary to follow international events, let alone participate in formulating and executing the foreign policy that is an essential component of self-government in a healthy modern democracy.
This condition reflects the basic inadequacy of the educational system at every level, when it comes to understanding the world we live in. Americans of all ages have long scored lower than citizens of other countries on geography and current-events awareness quizzes and shown a stunning inability even to locate major countries on the map, let alone develop an appreciation for their cultures or their roles in global affairs.
As we know, Americans do not tend to appreciate the importance of learning foreign languages, and that indifference is only increasing. According to a recent report from the Modern Language Association, college students in the United States are actually studying languages 6.7 percent less now than they did five years ago. Even enrollments in Spanish, America's second language, declined 8.2 percent in that period, in Arabic 7.5 percent and in Russian 17.9 percent. Admittedly, English is in ascendance as the international language of business and trade, but needless to say, Americans will not get away with waiting for all the world to learn it.
There was a period, not all that long ago, when, at least in “peacetime,” it seemed as if international issues could be left to a small cadre of experts in government and educational institutions. As the pundits told us, such matters played virtually no role in routine political discourse or in local and national elections -- and certainly not in the daily lives of most members of Congress or much of the public they represented. Indeed, for many years slots on the House Foreign Affairs Committee were difficult to fill; congressmen did not want to have to go home and explain why they were wasting their time in Washington on such matters.
One might have expected a shift in recent decades, if only out of a national desire to avoid repeating critical mistakes. But in the years following the end of the Cold War, the foreign affairs account in the federal budget was cut drastically and some news organizations proudly announced that they were closing overseas bureaus because of a lack of interest among their subscribers or viewers, not to mention their own financial adversities.
Today, incredibly, the situation seems worse. Thirteen and a half years after the shock of Sept. 11, a complex international environment feels ever more distant, unknowable and strange. Only a third of Americans are thought to hold passports -- compared to about 50 percent in Australia, more than 60 percent in Canada and some 80 percent in the United Kingdom. Study-abroad rates at American colleges and universities are, on average, stuck in the low single digits.
It is no wonder, then, that Americans find themselves easily and frequently bewildered by phenomena that spin quickly out of control -- the various ongoing crises in the Middle East; the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, among other former Soviet republics; the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa; China’s recent public showdown with dissidents in Hong Kong and quieter ones in other regions; the catastrophic symptoms of climate change; and separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia, to name a few. A basic lack of awareness and understanding among the public makes it even harder for policy makers to formulate positions that will attract widespread domestic support and perhaps influence the outcomes.
One of the recent manifestations of Americans’ confusion over world affairs was the wild fluctuation in public opinion with regard to whether the United States should intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war or become reinvolved in Iraq. The data are confusing, at best:
In May 2013, 68 percent of Americans surveyed told Gallup they felt the United States should not use force to attempt to end the conflict in Syria if diplomatic and economic efforts failed. Thirteen months later, in June 2014, 54 percent still said they opposed using military means to help the Iraqi government fend off the insurgents from the newly discovered Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL), which was threatening to take over that country, while 45 percent now favored American air strikes there.
By August of last year, after the Islamic State had received substantial media coverage and begun to replace Al Qaeda in the public mind as the principal U.S. adversary in the region, support for air strikes had risen to 54 percent in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. In September, after the widespread circulation of grotesque videos of the beheading of American journalists, that number reached an astonishing level of 71 percent in the same poll -- hence, President Obama’s recent willingness and political capacity to take bolder steps.
It is difficult to know how much faith to place in any of those numbers, because in some of the surveys fewer than half of the respondents said they had actually been following the situation in the Middle East closely when they were interviewed. And for a time there was speculation that perhaps government spokespeople and media sources had it wrong -- that the Nusra Front or the Khorasan Group (even less familiar names) might actually be the worst actor in the mix, from an American perspective. What if we were fighting the wrong enemy or, worse, did not really know whom we were fighting?
Should we become more frightened, more resolute -- or, as many seem to do, just tune out?
There is, alas, no quick or easy cure for this fundamental problem. No number of urgent adult-education courses, live or online, will catch the country up anytime soon. And it is not as if a wave of American tourists or students should be encouraged to drop in on Syria or Iraq for impromptu fact-finding missions.
That is not the point. It is, rather, a broader familiarity with the world that is needed. It will take decades -- a generation or two -- for the United States as a nation to develop a deeper appreciation of the complex forces at work, such that popular attitudes are no longer subject to crass manipulation.
It may not be easy to persuade Americans, legitimately worried as they are over other matters at home, that every field of endeavor and every issue of public concern will soon have an international dimension, if it does not already -- or that continued ignorance of, or indifference toward, how other people see the world is a concrete threat to our own security and safety.
This will require nothing less than a national call to action. We are not dealing here with a partisan issue, and the concern is relevant for all economic strata and all social groupings in the United States. For a start, we will have to send many more young people to study abroad -- in high school, in college and in graduate and professional school -- and make sure that a significant number of them go farther afield than the traditional destinations in Europe. When they get wherever they are going, it is crucial that they live and study not just with other Americans, but also with local people of their own generation.
Meanwhile, back at home, more students will have to learn about the wider world from every perspective -- political, economic, anthropological and scientific -- whatever their intended careers. The attainment of an international sensibility should be on any list of liberal education requirements.
And yes, we should bring back old-fashioned language requirements, but teach those languages in a practical manner that assumes we will all use them in our daily work and social lives, not necessarily become foreign-literature scholars.
Above all, we must value the experiences and listen to the insights that young Americans bring home from overseas. They, in turn, will have to push their professors, their families and everyone else they encounter to be willing to learn from the way other societies and cultures conduct their lives and govern themselves.
Sanford J. Ungar, distinguished scholar in residence at Georgetown University, recently stepped down after 13 years as president of Goucher College in Baltimore, where every undergraduate is now required to study abroad.
Reed student creates stir by saying that he was banned from class after disputing statistic on sexual assault. The college, though, says he had a pattern of behavior that was disruptive for reasons unrelated to what he was arguing.
You’ve probably heard about the distracted seaman in California who was secretly caught on camera. Sitting on a boat floating near Redondo Beach, the seaman was staring blankly at his cell phone when he failed to see or hear a giant humpback whale rising up dramatically from the sea just a few feet away from his boat.
Pundits joined eyewitnesses and other observers to poke fun at the clueless man who was in fact left entirely alone by the surprise beauty -- too dull a person, it would seem, too boring a catch for the huntress craving more than a voracious textual appetite.
Sadly, the case of the distracted seaman is merely the tip of the texting iceberg. Nationwide something far more costly and dangerous is happening to civilization (I mean something besides Brian Williams’s lie and 50 Shades of Grey) -- that is, the whale of a problem surfacing daily in today’s college classrooms: texting during class.
From New York to California -- and with a frequency of up to 11 or more times per class period, researchers find -- today’s college student is texting off with wild -- and sometimes wildly erotic -- abandon. And thus they are missing out on -- and blatantly reducing the quality of -- their own classroom education and opportunity to learn and contribute.
These are not the students of Howard Becker’s Outsiders, just a few eccentric misfits dressed in black and stretching the boundaries of social deviance. No. Texter-offers are all the way in, vanilla as can be, and that’s the problem.
Texting off in class means just as it sounds. It begins when a texter-offer has the urge to text off or when he feels in his pants the vibration of incoming text or data, which might, in fact, have been delivered by a classmate seated close by to him. Even in courses strictly prohibiting texting during class, today’s texter-offer can hardly resist, and many give in to the temptation.
Texting off begins when he or she surreptitiously leans back a little in his or her seat, and removes from her or his pants the urgent object of desire. Next thing you know the head drops down low, the chin heads for the chest and hands are held close, facing inward on the lap. Breathing is sometimes halted or hesitant at this stage, as the new text is read and replied to.
There then emerge two at first very wide and then increasingly narrow and squinting eyeballs staring fixedly at the little glowing object (or the big one, so to speak: iPhone 6 Plus).
The student with long experience texting off is frequently touching and stroking with their fingers so quickly -- and with such determined concentration -- it looks from the outside as if they can’t tell that their classmates, and especially their irritated professor, are staring back at them, interrupting class for everyone.
Theirs is a practiced and deliberate lack of cognition. The texter-offer only pretends to be invisible. He uses game face, strategically, to unsee what is seen. In this she is sort of like the celebrity on Main Street who stares mainly into the far middle distance, a technique she uses to avoid speaking or making actual eye contact. Post-Facebook, the pretense of hiding while being watched is probably a big part of getting off on texting off.
Sometimes the head of a texter-offer pops up immediately, a text-off quickie, before tucking the thing back inside his pants. You can always tell when the texter-offer has completed a nice session because seconds later a little blush arises in the cheeks, a wry smile, a frown or a faraway look might ensue.
Other times, the texting-off activity can last for many minutes in a row. Intense texting off produces many strong feelings causing such symptoms as more blushing, rapidly blinking eyes, those “I can’t believe it”-type head shakes (well, that’s what they get for texting Mom and Dad during class, or the toxic boyfriend or girlfriend), and those audible grunts of frustration or relief.
Put simply, if you’re texting off in class you can’t contribute to the conversation of learning. You’re not even trying to learn. Imagine the dialogues of Galileo or Plato in today’s texting-off culture:
Gorgias: Click click. Click click click. Arg! [Types into phone]: OMG u r kidding. [Sighs to himself, but audibly. Says aloud]: Huh? What?
Socrates: I said, “Gorgias, I wonder if your rhetoric is a science, such as medicine is a science?”
And texting off is a social problem in other regards. For example, if you text off in class, that tempts others sitting nearby to text off, reducing further everyone’s understanding of the invisible hand, statistical significance or another topic of the day.
I’ve noticed that even the tiniest sidewise glance at someone else texting off can cause other students to text off. Texting off is contagious. One observes rows and rows of students texting off together, like a team of synchronized swimmers going furiously nowhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t agree with those hypocritical moralists who waltz around like drunk monks claiming that texting off is a shameful act in and of itself, a sin to be managed and limited by church and state. As the old saying goes, there’s a time and a place for everything, and texting off can be a perfectly healthy supplement to actual human intercourse. I myself have texted off with great abandon. But I wouldn’t dream of doing it in a church or classroom, God forbid.
Recent research is consistent with another fact I observe: today’s college student does not want to be caught texting off. Texting off is a private activity, surveys and common observation suggest, or anyway it is something that is reserved for a special friend and time and place (at home on a Saturday).
In fact, a study of the in-class texting behavior of more than 1,000 students at the University of New Hampshire showed that about one-half of the students (49 percent) confess feeling guilty for texting in a class with a strict no-texting policy.
It’s helpful to recall what Adam Smith observed long ago in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1790): that perfect knowledge of the “awful” and “amiable” virtues is not sufficient for virtue. To be great, to be virtuous, one must marry the knowledge of virtue with what Smith called after the Stoics “perfect self-command.”
“The man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, of strict justice, and of proper benevolence, may be said to be perfectly virtuous. But the most perfect knowledge of those rules will not alone enable him to act in this manner: his own passions are very apt to mislead him; sometimes to drive him and sometimes to seduce him to violate all the rules which he himself, in all his sober and cool hours, approves of. The most perfect knowledge, if it is not supported by the most perfect self-command, will not always enable him to do his duty.”
“Easier said than done,” today’s texter-offer replies (via text message). True.
In the same 2011 University of New Hampshire survey, two of every three students (65 percent) surveyed admitted to texting during class -- a figure that, while disturbing enough, might turn out to be below average. A similar survey was conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Their data suggest that about 9 of every 10 students (86 percent) are texting during class.
Until recently my own students showed enough self-command to abstain from texting in class. I’ve been teaching device-free or what I call hands-free classes for 19 years -- ever since my first job as an assistant professor of economics. For 19 years the moral economy has sufficed. No longer. A new cohort of students is texting off to the point of finger blisters, and moral shaming in front of others is not powerful enough to stop them. The damaging digital indulgence is dumbing them down, they need to know.
They’re silently asking now to learn it the hard way, the decadent way. In a prescient book, The Culture We Deserve, Jacques Barzun offered an essay titled “Look it Up! Check it Out!” Barzun lamented the postmodern decline to “decadence” he saw in what passes for education today. He called the newly educated person Alexandrian, in mock homage to the Alexandrian decline of dialectics and replacement with idealization of reference books and handbooks, knowledge as factoids to be looked up and checked as necessary.
Barzun was understandably worried about a culture educated in the idea that knowledge could be acquired by looking up facts or names or book titles in “handbooks” and “reference works” that Barzun, a Columbia University professor and polyglot scholar, found crowding bookstores and library stacks. Strange thing is, Barzun’s lament was issued in 1989 -- at least 5 years before Google and the Internet first appeared in the computer laboratories of major university campuses, and around 15 years before the birth of texting in mainstream America. Barzun would have an Alexandrian cow if he could see the look-it-up-check-it-out culture of the Smartphonean Era.
If a professor is a mere conveyor of information, a talking head at the pulpit (and yes, some professors we know are) one could have more sympathy for students who text off in class.
I’m a professor of economics who also teaches history, statistics, rhetoric and theories of justice to economics and social justice studies majors. My teaching style is dialogical, Socratic, pluralistic and rhetorical. A simple social rule follows: each student enrolled in the course has an equal right to speak, and each in turn has an equal duty to listen and reply. The professor plays the role of Socrates and any other characters -- from Shakespeare to Rihanna -- he deems necessary to fill in the blanks, reveal a truth or falsehood, or otherwise advance the conversation. Texting, I find in the classroom, not shyness; texting, not sloth or ignorance, is the main obstacle to advancement.
When I was in graduate school in 1994 at the University of Iowa, I was made an unusual offer from the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry (POROI) that ought, I realize now, to be copied elsewhere: I could work 24-7 on my research in a quiet, monastic-like environment -- a private, big and beautiful office located in one of the old academic halls -- so long as I agreed to two restrictions: no Internet, no telephone. In other words, no outside distractions.
I did it, I accepted the offer. And it paid dividends. During the next three years I earned a Ph.D. in economics and a Ph.D. certificate in rhetoric, I published two papers (one of them is now a seminal paper of econometrics), and meantime raised two children under the age of eight. The discipline I started in grad school is now strong enough to beat today’s biggest distractions -- cracking out on e-mail, Internet searching and, yes, mindless texting off.
We need to recover again the value of concentrated thought. Rilke took a house in Rome to create the best environment he could imagine for the flowering of his own creativity and innovation: writing poetry and criticism. Rilke’s Letters shine with the illumination of one who’s logged some time concentrating on the words and thoughts and feelings of others, and especially on the conditions for the full flowering of his own creative genius. The result of his experiments in concentrated thought? Rilke’s poetry.
Think of National Football League player Marshawn Lynch, who recently grabbed national headlines when at the close of a pre-Super Bowl press conference, and with all cameras pointed at him, he grabbed his crotch. Even with the ball in play, Lynch has acted like a comfort-loving baby, or the compulsive texter-offer.
It wasn’t Lynch’s first time testing the mainstream limit of tolerance for public fondling or whatever you’re comfortable calling it. For previous crotch grabs, the NFL had already tagged Lynch twice with a fine (most recently, a $20,000 fine) and the professional football organization threatened further to levy a 15-yard penalty against Lynch’s own team (the Seattle Seahawks) during Super Bowl XLIX should Lynch feel himself up even once.
Texting during class and crotch grabbing are not the same thing, true. Texting off is worse, much, much worse: its losses are large and widely distributed to others, including innocent classmates.
The larger economic fines seem to be working for the impulsive crotch grabbers. For example, during Super Bowl XLIX not one player grabbed his crotch in the big game.
That’s why I’ve decided to join the NFL and make useful my own science, economics, to get the incentives right in the classroom.
From now on I will fine any student who texts off in class. I don’t care if you’re texting the pope or Janet Yellen. No free pass, no exception to the rule. From now on if students text off in class they’re going to pay for it on a sliding scale of taxes. First violation: lose 10 percent from your final exam or project grade. Second violation: lose 20 percent. Third violation: lose everything, that is, 100 percent of your final exam or project grade. Consider this first, and then do the right thing and turn off your phone. Vibrators included.
Stephen T. Ziliak is professor of economics at Roosevelt University.
While touring a factory in northern Wisconsin that makes millions of aluminum cans on a daily basis, we asked the plant manager whether he thought regional colleges and universities were meeting his company’s needs. He looked surprised by the question and answered, “You can’t teach [in a classroom] the way we make cans here.” If he had employees with basic skill sets in the field, he said, his company could train new hires to use their machinery and learn their procedures.
Similarly, the human resources director of a large plastics manufacturer told us, “As long as [employees] have the basic knowledge and certain abilities, we can typically teach them the skills that they need on the job -- that’s the bottom line.”
Such responses beg the question: What are these fundamental, even nonnegotiable skill sets that employers seek in their employees? This is a question that our research group is investigating within the biotechnology and advanced manufacturing industries in Wisconsin. As part of a three-year study, we have interviewed over 150 C.E.O.s, plant managers and human resource directors in companies large and small, as well as educators and administrators at two- and four-year colleges and universities across the state, asking them about the skills and aptitudes required to succeed.
The Dominant Narrative of the Skills Gap
Throughout Wisconsin, we have found that the answer to this question is more complicated and nuanced than the dominant narrative of the skills gap suggests.
That narrative is rather simple: employers need certain skills, usually said to be occupation-specific technical aptitudes. The nation’s high schools, colleges and universities, which should be preparing students for entry into the workforce, are failing to provide these skills. Because of the lack of technically skilled workers, the argument goes, many companies reportedly cannot take on new accounts or hire new workers.
The oft-reported notion that employers are unable to find appropriately skilled workers has become intertwined with the sentiment that the liberal education model and the broader College for All movement have produced too many students with poor career prospects and massive student debts. Stories abound of Starbucks baristas and parking lot attendants with expensive baccalaureate degrees in the humanities, while 70 percent of the new jobs created through 2020 in states like Wisconsin will require less than a four-year degree.
How big of a problem is this? Instead of being part of the normal ebb and flow of the labor market, some suggest that, when coupled with demographic shifts that include mass retirements of the baby boomer generation, a perfect storm may be brewing that spells disaster for certain sectors of the economy in Wisconsin and the nation -- even the White House is rushing to figure out how to solve the nation’s skills gap.
The Skills Gap and Public Policy
The solution to this state of affairs has been to continue pushing the educational sector to align its aims more closely with the supposed needs of employers.
In Wisconsin, the ascendancy of this viewpoint has manifested itself most directly in Governor Scott Walker’s approach to higher education policy. While the administration has recommended $300 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin System, a network of two- and four-year public colleges and universities across the state, it has proposed language to the system’s charter about meeting workforce needs and directed over $35 million to develop new training programs in the state’s technical college system -- all with the explicit goal of recalibrating public education to meet the skills-related needs of the state’s employers.
This emphasis on tailoring education to fit industry needs has also taken root at the national level. In the 2015 State of the Union, President Obama underlined his intention to connect “community colleges with local employers to train workers to fill high-paying jobs like coding, nursing and robotics.”
As part of this effort, the president has also articulated a national goal of finding “faster pathways” for students to get “the best skills possible at the cheapest cost,” while in the past he famously poked fun at art history degrees.
At the state and national level, the policy response to the skills gap idea has been to focus almost exclusively on training students in the so-called hard skills, or the technical knowledge and ability to perform tasks like welding or computer-aided design programming in two-year technical colleges. This focus is also marked by an attendant de-emphasis on general education and the liberal arts across the entire postsecondary spectrum, but especially in the nation’s four-year colleges and universities.
Even if we grant the first (mostly unexamined) assumption of the skills gap narrative -- that institutions of higher education should be geared toward training students with the kinds of skills that industry leaders demand in the short term -- we are still faced with two important questions. First, do employers want new hires with solely technical skills? Second, do our current education policy choices actually reflect the desires of industry? The answer to both questions -- based on our extensive work in the field -- is no.
Employers Want More
While our research indicates that business leaders certainly need employees who have basic knowledge and technical expertise appropriate to their job type and industry, the evidence clearly indicates that they place a high premium on other qualities as well. These skill sets, often denigrated as soft skills, are not viewed as optional competencies but are indispensable complements to technical expertise.
Our data reveal that the skill that is in most demand among employers in Wisconsin is a strong work ethic. Employers spoke of work ethic not only in basic terms such as showing up to work on time but also in terms of being persistent and sticking with a problem until it is solved. Both employers and educators alike underscored the challenges that one person termed “the work ethic problem,” as it implicates not only formal education but also parenting, social norms and company-specific traditions and expectations.
Interestingly, a strong work ethic implicates another attribute that is rarely discussed in the skills gap debate -- the desire to continually learn throughout one’s working life, or what some call lifelong learning. This aptitude is particularly important given the rapidly evolving nature of technology and the subsequent changes in the workplace. “A diesel technician 10 years ago would work on the same pump every day for years and become experts in it,” one employer told us. “Now we're flowing employees to different product, so... we're really looking for people that can handle change and can adapt.”
Businesses are also searching for employees who can effectively work well in teams. For instance, the C.E.O. of a biotechnology firm spoke of the importance of collaboration in their team-based contract work. “We have an example here... a tremendous scientist, but virtually impossible to work with in a team,” he said. “That's just not conducive to the work we do.” An integral part of working in teams is also being an effective communicator, both in writing and in everyday conversation.
Employers also perceived critical thinking, or the ability to problem solve and think on one’s feet, as an important quality in new hires. An executive at a manufacturing company explained, “To be able to think analytically and problem solve... is a critical skill.”
A growing body of evidence supports these findings. A 2011 survey of manufacturing executives revealed that the most serious skills deficiencies were in the areas of problem solving, basic technical training, fundamental employability skills such as work ethic and technology skills. Along similar lines, the National Research Council, the industry-supported Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Department of Labor are beginning to conceptualize skills in ways that extend beyond the traditional focus on hard skills alone.
Thus, the issues facing our workforce are much more complicated than a shortage of technically skilled employees that can be addressed through more fast-track programming in our nation’s two-year technical colleges. Indeed, what employers are seeking is not simply a cadre of workers who are technically proficient, but engineers who can work easily with customers, chemists who can write clear, succinct prose and CNC operators who can collaborate with coworkers.
While contemporary policy and rhetoric suppose an either/or dichotomy between technical training and liberal or general education, it is evident that employers want to see skills and aptitudes that are associated with both models of education. “To meld the creative side with the practical side,” as one manufacturer told us, should be the ideal. Instead, he and others found few job applicants who represented this ideal -- which is what we argue is the true skills gap.
Integrating Education and Training
Beyond a reconceptualization of which skills and attributes are needed to fuel the 21st-century economy, what is missing in the national debate is a clear plan of action for the nation’s business and postsecondary leaders.
In Wisconsin we have found numerous examples of educators and corporate trainers who have created education and training programs that focus on the entire skills spectrum. The key ingredients in these programs can be distilled to the following three components.
1. Appreciate the role of liberal and general education in preparing students for the workforce.
The thinking on essential workplace skills needs to shift from the traditional focus on technical training to a more comprehensive view that acknowledges liberal and general education’s role in cultivating these varied skill sets. This is not necessarily an argument for more art history majors or that cultivating varied skill sets is impossible in shorter-term programs, but that the modern workplace demands adaptability, broad-mindedness and creativity -- competencies that are well developed in programs based on a liberal or general education model. This is true for all postsecondary programs, from one-year certificates to baccalaureate degrees.
2. Support educators in using active learning techniques in all postsecondary classrooms.
A striking aspect of the skills gap debate is the lack of attention paid to issues of curriculum and instruction, especially approaches specifically designed to integrate technical, content-based instruction with other skill sets such as critical thinking and collaboration. These techniques, broadly known as active learning, are grounded in research from the learning sciences and include techniques such as problem-based learning, Socratic lecturing and peer instruction. Fortuitously, active learning is being actively promoted in colleges and universities across the country, particularly in the STEM disciplines.
But one thing is clear -- asking educators to teach the skill sets that employers need requires substantial resources, since few postsecondary teachers are trained in these instructional techniques. Yet the looming budget cuts to higher education in states such as Wisconsin, Louisiana and Arizona will likely translate into fewer resources to support professional development, and will ultimately mean that one of the principal tools for providing employers with the skilled workforce they so desire -- education -- is being rapidly undermined across the nation.
Other promising approaches include internships and apprenticeships, where the blending of academic training with real world experience frequently results in students who are highly sought after by employers. And as several of our study participants from industry have reminded us, the responsibility for cultivating these valued skill sets lies not only in the hands of our nation’s educational system, but also in corporate training programs that should also strive to integrate education in basic concepts with more hands-on training.
3. Create opportunities for partnerships between educators and employers.
While it was not uncommon to hear our study participants say lines of communication between local colleges and industry “do not exist,” we found that education-industry relationships are critical for both sharing of information about job opportunities and as a platform from which collaborative initiatives that leverage the respective strengths of each partner can emerge. Whether the result is an online corporate training program designed by local technical college educators or advisory councils where local business leaders have a voice in shaping the curriculum -- promising collaborations in Wisconsin usually depend on policy mandates or visionary leadership to bridge the gap between education and industry.
What Is the Purpose of Higher Education?
Ultimately, the skills gap debate raises questions about fundamental issues facing society, many of which are overlooked when the discussion devolves to a focus on what employers need or do not need from graduates. What is the purpose of higher education? Is the current effort to frame this purpose of higher education as primarily vocational in nature beneficial to our economy, our democracy and the long-term success of our population? These questions need to play a more central role in policy making and debates about education-industry relations. As the University of Wisconsin at Madison military historian and native Wisconsinite Lieutenant Colonel John Hall recently wrote, “I understand and respect the notion that the purpose of an education is to prepare students for a ‘good job,’” but “this is not the only purpose of an education.”
Matthew T. Hora is an assistant professor of adult teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Ross J. Benbow is an associate researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at Madison. Amanda K. Oleson is an assistant researcher at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.