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 aren’t conducted by senior faculty. One can argue for the intellectually nutritional value of the content. But like the children’s 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 didn’t 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. Isn’t 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"?

Critical Reviews

Critic M

When I began reading this piece, I wondered what role technology was going to have in this article.  The author raises interesting points from an administrative perspective but the author did not tie his assessment of funding policies discussed in the first third of the article with a technology thread so I was unclear where he was going.  (Just an aside - the funding of specialty classes through enrollments in "distribution" classes has been a problem in higher ed for some time without regard to technology changes.  As a parent who put a son through college, I myself found it more economical and my son found the smaller class sizes of community college more qualitative when taking English 101 at a local community college instead of a four-year university where classes average 350 students and are often taught by adjuncts or GTFs.)
I also think the author's reference to an academic record being evaluated by a prospective employer naive.  Most employers I have known ask whether an applicant has a college degree or not and may ask for the degree date and institutiton.  To assume employers are actually going to review an academic record borders on ludicrous unless the candidate has applied for a teaching position.  I have always found it humorous that academics' vitas detail each achievement in their professional career so a mature faculty member's vita often consumes reams of paper.  In the public marketplace, recruiters advise candidates to limit their resumes to two pages or less.  You are usually given a little extra leeway if you are a mature professional but commercial businesses are much more interested in your most recent accomplishments - not your life history or your academic record.
How the role of admissions and alumni relations differ when considering an online student relationship would be interesting to explore but the author only raises the issue.
Again, he points out another problem with the "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."  But, he does not explore this topic either (I think I addressed some of this lack of congruence in my article "Back to the Future or Back to the Past" (September/October 99).
So overall, I agree with the critics that say he has raised a number of interesting issues but does not explore any of them in depth.

Critic TT

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.

  I wish there were specific examples rather than veiled opinions. Name names; only the British Open University appears in full dress. One has to come up with examples for the generic issues presented. Food for thought? Yes...but where does one begin to deal with these concerns that are, for the most part, quite valid but dispersed.

  I was confused by the comment regarding the $7,000 cost of recruitment for each student enrolled. "This" (what is the referent?) doubles for each graduate. Something is wrong with that sentence but I cannot reword it without more information.

  I think that there are several kernels of important concerns here but any one of them could serve as the substance of one article.

  I would advise you NOT to publish this article as is.  If it is resubmitted, it should have a better focus of the issues and please, provide a few subtitles for each new idea or cluster of ideas.

Critic I

Publishable needs revision.

  This is a very good commentary. The article needs to be organised in logical segments and titles used to orient the readers. A research framework should be provided in the introduction to orient and situate the discussion/commentary. Then, a grouping of the discussion into logical segments could be provided. At this time, it appears that the discussion goes from financial considerations, to certification considerations, to administrative, to distribution issues, and then to evaluation and qualitative content issues. A more logical flow may be provided and followed, explained in this article.

  There are many valid interrogations made in this article. These arguments are all appropriate at this time, yet to have all of them in the same article may actually belittle some of them. It is suggested that this commentary be divided in two commentaries with a more detailed discussion of three or four arguments per article. As well, other scholarly reports could be used to support and substantiate the argumentation of this worthwhile series of thought provoking points about the electronic Noosphere .

Critic JJJ

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 (EDUCAUSE).

  Future article(s) would be strengthened by starting with a clear thesis. “Carving’s” thesis is most clearly stated for the first time at the end of the fifth paragraph — “deconstructing of the ‘university experience.’” A new article might begin with the last four paragraphs of “Carving,” which clearly addresses the “decoupling of intellectual content and certification.”

  Although the opening comments about fast food restaurants are engaging, the author should be cautious about disparate analogies, strings of statements without tight logical argument, references to undefined “similar issues,” and loose transitions in the text.

  Readers expect information to be substantiated, e.g., the cost of recruitment. The author’s opinions are strongly stated and might offend readers in the absence of data, e.g., “These individuals (which individuals? ‘most people’ as defined in the previous sentence?) have largely seen themselves as immune from the concerns raised by the academics.” Worse: “remedial education…. Designed to repair skills deficient students, draw scarce capital….” The students were not broken; they may be underprepared and require skills enhancement (as do most lifelong learners).

  The author’s vision about the response to the final question: “What happens when the institution has built its ‘electronic field of dreams?’” could make for wonderful reading.