Terry O'Banion
Executive Director
League for Innovation in the Community College

For centuries, educators have cited Chaucer’s description of his scholar as the ultimate motto of our profession: “Gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Unfortunately, the emphasis has been selective, underscoring, for the most part, “gladly teach” as indicative of what educators most value.

For example, in community colleges, the value placed on teaching is clearly reflected in their mission statements. Robert Barr, director of institutional research and planning at Palomar College in California, says:

It is revealing that virtually every mission statement contained in the catalogs in California’s 107 community colleges fails to use the word learning in a statement of purpose. When it is used, it is almost always bundled in the phrase teaching and learning as if to say that, while learning may indeed have something to do with community colleges, it is only present as an aspect of teaching [1994, p. 2].

There is nothing inherently wrong with placing great value on teaching except that it has led to placing more value on teachers than on learners. As a result, educational institutions accommodate the needs, interests, and values of teachers more often than learners. This accommodation created an embedded time and place- bound architecture of education--so many minutes in class, so many classes a day, so many days a term, so many units a diploma or degree, and so on--that restricts students and faculty to a learning environment designed for an earlier agricultural and industrial society. Schooling today is no different from schooling a hundred years ago. “For better or worse, the book, blackboard, and lecture continue to dominate education” (Green and Gilbert, 1995, p. 10).

Some critics suggest that education as we know it is doomed. In The Monster under the Bed (1994), Davis and Botkin declare that “Over the next few decades the private sector will eclipse the public sector and become the major institution responsible for learning” (p. 16). Lewis J. Perelman (1992) observes, “Contrary to what the reformers have been claiming, the central failure of our education system is not inadequacy but excess: our economy is being crippled by too much spending on too much schooling.... The principal barrier to economic progress today is a mind- set that seeks to perfect education when it needs only to be abandoned” (p. 24).

The Wingspread Group on Higher Education, in an open letter to every president of an institution of higher education in America, urged a “redesign of our learning systems to align our entire education enterprise with the personal, civic, and workplace needs of the 21st Century” (1993, p. 19). The reengineering and TQM movements are attempts by educators to redesign and overhaul the current educational system. Paul Privateer finds American education in general “at a strategic anxiety point in its evolution. We’re at a very odd midpoint between the death of one kind of paradigm of learning and the yet-undefined formation of an entirely new way of learning” (Gales, 1994, p. 22).

A great many high schools, community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities are struggling to operate within established paradigms that are dying while they explore yet-undefined new ways of learning. These institutions are working hard to adapt new technologies, to incorporate collaborative learning models, to implement assessment and outcome measures, to realign organizational structures, and to make “learning organizations” of their institutions in the process.

These leading-edge institutions may survive into the twenty-first century, but even they are caught, as Robert Frost said, “Betwixt and between the forest brown and the forest green.” Saddled with old paradigms and insecure and reluctant faculty, how are these institutions to ride into the sunset of the twentieth century well-equipped for the new adventures promised just over the hill in the next century? The truth is, most institutions will not be part of this future if they continue to tweak the old paradigm for incremental changes; only those institutions that are capable of swift and radical change will see the promised land.

Toward One Model of Radical Change

We need dozens of models of radical change in education today to encourage experimentation by all sectors of education. This brief article outlines the basic elements of one model, based on the assumption that educational experiences should be designed for learners rather than for teachers. The term the learning college is used throughout as a generic reference for all educational institutions, including secondary schools.

Learners Engage the Learning College.

For the next decade at least, there will be formal institutions--high schools, community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities, owned and operated by many entities--that will attract learners to participate in their activities on established campuses and other locations through technological links. At the point of engagement (first day of tenth grade, summer admission to fall freshman year, beginning graduate school, in-plant six-week training module) the learning college will initiate a series of services to prepare the learner for the experiences and opportunities to come. (In a later version, in a seamless educational system, learners will begin this preparation as early as age four or five and continue it throughout their lives.)

In the learning college, services will include assessing the learner’s abilities, achievements, values, needs, goals, expectations, resources, and environmental or situational limitations. A personal profile will be constructed by the learner in consultation with an expert assessor, to illustrate what this learner knows, wants to know, and needs to know. A personal learning plan constructed from this personal profile will enable the learner to negotiate a contract that outlines responsibilities of both the learner and the learning college.

As part of the negotiated contract, the learner will purchase learning vouchers to be used in selecting from among the learning options provided by the learning college. The assessment information, the terms of the contract, historical records from previous learning experiences, and all pertinent information will be recorded on the learner’s personal disk which serves as a portfolio of information, a lifelong record of lifelong educational experiences. The disk will belong to the learner, who will be responsible for keeping it current with assistance from specialists in the learning college. The disk will contain information on learning outcomes and skill levels achieved, work experience, and external evaluations; other learning colleges and employers will develop their own systems to verify what they need to know about the learner.

As an additional service, the learning college will provide orientation and experimentation for learners unfamiliar with the learning environment of the learning college. Some learners will need training in using the technology, in developing collaborations, in locating resources, and in navigating the learning systems. Specialists will monitor these services carefully and will be responsible for approving a learner’s readiness to fully engage the learning opportunities provided.

Learners Select Learning Options.

The learner will review and experiment with options regarding time, place, structure, and methodology. Entry vouchers will be exchanged for the selected options and exit vouchers will be held for completion.

Each learning option will include specific goals and competency levels needed for entry as well as specific outcome measures of competency levels achieved. Learning colleges will constantly create additional learning options, including:

  • Prescribed, preshrunk portable modules in such areas as general education core courses or specific skills training. These will be universally recognized packages developed by national knowledge organizations such as the American Chemical Association or major companies such as AT&T.
  • Stand-alone technological expert systems that respond to the idiosyncrasies of a specific learner, guiding and challenging the learner through a rich maze of information and experiences. IBM’s Ulysses and Philips Interactive Media of America’s The World of Impressionism are prototypes of the potential of such systems.
  • Opportunities for collaboration with other learners in small groups and through technological links. Learning communities developed in the state of Washington and the Electronic Forum in the Maricopa Community Colleges are early pioneers.
  • Tutor-led groups, individual reading programs, project-based activities, service learning, lectures, and laboratories—all of the established learning options, since many of these work well for many learners. These established learning options will not be constrained by the limits of time and place, but will be designed for the needs of learners.

A major goal of the learning college will be to create as many learning options as possible in order to provide successful learning experiences for all learners. If the learner’s goal is to become competent in English as a second language, there should be a dozen or so learning options available to achieve the goal. If the learner’s goal is to become competent in welding a joint, there should be a dozen or so learning options available to achieve that goal.

To manage the activities and progress of thousands of learners engaged in hundreds of learning options at many different times, at many different levels, in many different locations, the learning college will rely on expert systems based on early developments such as the General Motors Computer Aided Maintenance System or the Miami-Dade Community College’s Synergy. Without these complex systems, the learning college cannot function. These systems reflect the breakthrough that will free education from the time-bound, place-bound, and role-bound systems that currently manage the educational enterprise.

Learners' Needs Define the Roles of Education Providers.

The learning college will contract with many specialists to provide services to learners. Specialists will be employed on a contract basis to produce specific products or deliver specific services; many will work part time, often from their homes, linked to learners through technology. Learners will assist other learners. Teachers and administrators will be of use in the learning college only if they can deliver special skills and abilities required by learners. Learners in the learning college will need specialists who can:

  • Assess learner abilities, achievements, values, needs, goals, expectations, resources, and environmental/situational limitations; create personal profiles and personal learning plans; and assist in developing a personal portfolio on a disk
  • Design and create learning options in a variety of formats based upon the latest learning theories
  • Design and create expert systems to manage and track the activities of learners
  • Train learners in the use of a variety of technologies and systems
  • Update, repair, and select software and hardware
  • Assist in creating and convening collaborative networks of other learners
  • Access, synthesize, and update constantly expanding databases of knowledge
  • Establish and clarify skill levels, competencies, goals, and outcomes
  • Establish and maintain a clean and attractive environment for learning for those who elect to participate in learning “on location”
  • Guide and coach learners needing individual assistance
  • Arrange new options for new needs
  • Challenge learner assumptions, question their values, and encourage their explorations

These basic skills and abilities will be indispensable to creating optimal conditions for learning. (Learners will also benefit if many of the individuals with these skills and abilities exhibit characteristics of intelligence, compassion, integrity, humor, and patience.)

In this briefly sketched ideal of the learning college, there is, not quite by accident, little mention of teaching or of teachers. Perhaps it is possible after all to place learning first, to make Chaucer’s “gladly would he learn” the dictum of a future system of education. The obstacles to creating a learning college similar to that outlined here are overwhelming and familiar to all who desire change. Several years ago, however, it was inconceivable that Russian communism would crash or that Republicans would reign in the U.S. Congress. The surprise of change these days comes about fairly regularly; maybe education is next on the list.


Barr, R. B. A New Paradigm for Community Colleges. San Marcos, Calif.: R. P. Group News: The Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges, 1994.

Davis, S., and Botkin, J. The Monster under the Bed: How Business Is Mastering the Opportunity of Knowledge for Profit. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Gales, R. “Can Colleges Be Reengineered?” Across the Board: The Conference Board Magazine, Mar. 1994, 31, 16–22.

Green, K. C., and Gilbert, S. W. “Great Expectations: Content, Communications, Productivity, and the Role of Information Technology in Higher Education,” Change, Mar./Apr. 1995, 7(2), 8–18.

Perelman, L. J. School’s Out: A Radical New Formula for the Revitalization of America’s Educational System. New York: Avon Books, 1992.

Wingspread Group on Higher Education. An American Imperative: Higher Expectations for Higher Education. Racine, Wis.: An American Foundation, 1993.

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