Carving a New Path for Postsecondary Education
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In the United States, fast food restaurants offer meals for children. These kids meals usually come with a toy. At one restaurant the toys became so popular that the meals were purchased for the premium and the food ended up in the trash bin. With the resultant negative publicity, the meal and the premium were decoupled and could be purchased separately. In postsecondary systems with graduation requirements, distribution credits often take the same position as premiums. Students pick and choose the most cost effective manner to meet requirements, often choosing distributional value over the nutritional value.
Universities, at both the institutional and faculty levels, have not been immune from carrying out similar analyses. Freshman and sophomore core courses, particularly in the humanities, provide the cash flow required to support smaller, specialized, courses. This is particularly true when they arent conducted by senior faculty. One can argue for the intellectually nutritional value of the content. But like the childrens meal, both the customers and the institutions recognize the value afforded by the distributional nature of the courses.
Similarly, university faculty, particularly in research driven institutions, decry the growing need or demand for remedial education. These programs, designed to repair skills deficient students, draw scarce capital from already taxed resource pools, particularly in public institutions, committed to leveling the playing field for the disenfranchised.
Even with these support programs in place, the academic and social value of the distribution courses become more problematic as standards come under increasing pressure from many directions. This is particularly true when students and the public see the degree as the principal goal while the major becomes secondary, as long as its not liberal studies, an area seen as a concentration of distribution credits with little value in securing a viable economic return on the investment in college.
The phenomenon becomes real when high school graduates choose to take as many low cost courses in the local community colleges to fill distribution requirements and then transfer to the more prestigious graduate level university to obtain their major and diploma. Recent global trends to build catalogues of interchangeable courses on the Internet and even the willingness of one consortium of universities to co-brand a degree speak eloquently of the deconstruction of the university experience. At minimum, it asks one to define more carefully, what a student receives when they enroll in an undergraduate, campus based, program.
In addition to the interchangeability and co-branding of programs, a third option is emerging. Several institutions are now offering to become depositories where students record their educational experiences (e.g., identify one or two and provide their URLs). The institution not only weighs and evaluates the materials to award degrees, but they will also recast an academic profile to represent an individual's experience in the most favorable light for a potential employer.[can you insert a concrete example here?]
In order to thrive in the global world of postsecondary education, institutions are going to have to revisit their entire program on certification. They must realize that totaling of the credits and exchanging them for a diploma may not be a survival trait, particularly in a world rapidly becoming a combination of clicks and bricks, or virtual and physical campuses. In the future, when a student needs the academic record assessed for employment in industries that didnt exist when the degree was issued, a university will have to know more than what appears when an ancient microfiche or computer file is exhumed and turned into hard copy.
While most people look at the Internet as impacting on the faculty who will teach in or be displaced by the emerging technology, no one has seriously engaged with the significant transformation that will occur in the administrative overhead. These individuals have largely seen themselves as immune from the concerns raised by the academics.
Someone once estimated that it takes about US$ 7,000 to recruit each matriculating freshman. That cost might double if one calculated this for each graduate. In addition to the competition from the decoupling of credits from content with increasing interchangeability of courses between institutions and the global competition from the world of clicks, we are seeing the market opening up. Community colleges are now offering undergraduate degrees; private, for profits, corporate universities and other institutions are offering courses and certification. Independent third parties who provide certification can also broker courses. Internally, courses in virtual space compete with the world of bricks and mortar. And, more interestingly, we are now seeing K-16 institutions that keep students within a previously defined environment. This is coupled with dual credit programs and similar college/high school cooperative efforts.
What is an Office of Admissions in this emerging world, a world made visible by the click of a mouse? Similarly, what is the role of an alumni office? When a student graduates, he or she receives the diploma, a tassel and a welcome letter and a business reply envelope from the alumni office. In a world of life long learning, how will these sinecures evolve? Without changes here, the institution and its infrastructure may no longer be able to decouple the core, the faculty, from responsibilities now covered in the overhead.
A similar issue arises with regards to the infrastructure that supports the students while part of the campus. The first issue that needs redefinition is the role and value of an on campus experience. With the cost of living on campus equal to or even greater than the tuition, one needs to seriously consider what is really being provided on campus. Already, living quarters are being privatized. Isnt it time one thought about a sale/lease-back of Old Main. When faculty decry the world of clicks by pointing out the benefits of bricks, benefits with which they often have little involvement, there is need to seriously review what the overhead of a campus really provides and whether there is a lack of congruence between the rhetoric and the reality, particularly where the academics interface.
This becomes more interesting when one confronts the changes that are occurring in the classroom. Several universities have developed New Media Centers. Some of these have the task of converting classes from yellowed lecture notes to multimedia delivery. This parallels the models developed by the British Open University and others developing professionally produced materials for both K-12 and the corporate world. These work in both worlds, clicks and bricks.
Additionally, faculty are developing applets in all disciplines, placing them on the Web and making them available to colleagues. In essence, the faculty is beginning to differentiate roles in the classroom by coupling particular content/performance skills with that of others to begin the production of student learning experiences.
If we return to our original perspective where the intellectual content is decoupled from the certification, we can begin to understand that a student can expect to find a total learning experience from the moment of contact with the institution, starting at the high school level or earlier and carrying through life. The core relationship is to build the learning opportunities to meet the program of the student and adjust the experience against life changes, growth and development. This implies reintegration of content specialists in the recruitment, counseling and support process.
It also implies a second process of evaluation based on competencies and skill demonstration that allow students to assess their career paths. It implies a combination of virtual and on-campus activities, tailored to the student needs.
How universities carry this out depends on the institution, its
faculty and student population and the world outside of the institution. When states in
the US place a catalogue of all the courses of each of their institutions online and we
see a half dozen anthropology 101 courses, accepted for academic equivalency, and yet
price differentiated, we start to understand the problems of "brand". One might
compare these to Pepsi and Coke, McDonald's and Burger King, or, perhaps worse,
"designer and "generic" jeans. Thus, it will be difficult for institutions
to not only evaluate a student's portfolio, but even harder to explain what a particular
institutional imprimatur provides.
Technology asks the hard questions. Putting courses on the Internet, creating a marketing presence via web pages or forming relationships, both virtual and physical, with other institutions is mapping the current world onto a surface that is vastly different from the world prior to the global electronic "Noosphere". The rush to this medium is an avoidance of looking beyond the horizon, at least one to two iterations. What lies in that haze that is obscuring this brave new world? What happens when the institution has built its "electronic field of dreams"?
I have read the article and find it provocative. The issues raised are important and give pause for academics to consider where they are going with technology, distance learning, recruitment, management, and qualifications for graduation. This is a lot to include in one brief article. The concern I have is that there is almost too much offered and the reader is asked to consider a host of contemporary issues that rise from various parts of the academy--from recruitment to graduation and placement. There are even a few issues dealing with the applications of technology in higher education.
Publishable needs revision.
The issues raised by the
author of Carving a New Path for Postsecondary Education are numerous and
complex. I suggest that the author re-think the presentation of his/her thoughts with the
goal of presenting more focused information (perhaps in multiple articles) with concrete
data and logical arguments. Competition for this readership is stiff as there are already
a number of excellent publications dealing with these issues, e.g., by Richard Katz