Wi-Fier Education

A brief article on the changing nature of higher education as touted by a theoretical expert on the subject.  

Having worked in and around higher education for over 20 years, there’s much to be said for Clayton Christensen’s recommendation that universities need to look hard at their business model.  Of course, this should hardly be a shocked recommendation.  Having been in on the ground floor of online education for nearly 15 years, it was clear from the very beginning that the Internet (and the corollary necessity of increasing bandwidth capacity) was going to change higher education significantly.  The fact that a Harvard professor is just now arguing for this is rather humorous.
What this article doesn’t address, and hopefully Christensen’s book does – is that what he’s eyeing is more than just a renovation in how universities offer their coursework.  What this would seem to lead towards is a split in paths for different universities, depending on what their resources and emphases are.  
For schools that are heavily invested in sports programs, it makes sense that they continue to build on that draw.  Schools that are heavily invested in research and development will continue to draw students interested in those particular things.  And smaller schools that don’t have heavy investments in either of these directions might think long and hard about offering their courses more exclusively online.
The difficulty is that if a majority of schools offer their programs online, distinguishing between the various schools will get more difficult.  If prices become somewhat level, key distinctions will focus on the faculty, driving schools to invest more heavily in star faculty, while at the same time pushing those star faculty for greater interaction with the undergraduate student body.  That’s a significant shift away from the typical large university environment where tenured professors spend their time primarily on authoring, teaching a limited number of courses and many of those at the graduate level leaving undergraduate coursework to be handled to a large extent by graduate student teaching assistants.  Other problems evolve around large sports or research-based universities supporting their costly programs if enrollment begins to decline because of less expensive, better focused educational opportunities online.  
Another interesting aspect is the program touted towards the end of page one, from Western Governors University, that has “no full-time instructors,…no curriculum, no grades, no campus.”  The shift away from full-time faculty, curriculum, and grades is hardly a necessity of online education, and seem to denote more fundamental shifts in pedagogy than just online versus a traditional classroom.  I can argue from experience that eliminating grading and curriculum is *not* a valid or helpful solution in terms of better equipping students.  Greater levels of personal accountability and responsibility are what are more important – but those need to start in the home and in earlier school settings, not just when students reach university.
Education (higher or otherwise) is at an interesting series of junctures these days.  Studies are coming out saying that few high school graduates are able to handle collegiate-level coursework (something I can more than vouch for in my decade+ teaching in a university setting).  Colleges are raising tuition by stunning amounts, while at the same time cutting back on classes and services to try and deal with declining public funding.  Graduates are finding a job market so bleak that record numbers are moving back in with their parents.  
Online education may be a way of reducing costs to students, if it doesn’t further sacrifice the educational quality that has already been declining in many university settings dealing with poorly-prepared high school graduates.  But there are likely bigger questions to be thought through.  What is the advantage of a college degree in today’s employment market?  Are there ways other than a classical college education to prepare our young people not just for employment, but for life?  And what ought the role of families and churches and other institutions be in contributing towards the preparedness and well-roundedness of future graduates?  
Lots of questions these days.  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s