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Monday, October 7, 2013

The (Needed) Revolution Emerging in Higher Education

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Higher education is just the latest in a long line of labor-intensive industries with enormous fixed costs that now faces competition from new technologies and new far more efficient systemic processes.

There is a revolution underway in education being driven by digital technology.  Like all technologically fueled upheavals, this revolution requires creative destruction of the current industry, which is resisting the revolution even as it attempts to embrace the parts that might preserve the status quo.

This is an old story:  Huge labor-intensive industries with enormous fixed costs face competition from new technologies and new systemic processes.  Those earning a living within the old industries resist the destruction of the institutions and cost structures that have supported them, but resistance is futile, for the new technologies and processes are faster, better, and cheaper, often by an order of magnitude.

Though the entire spectrum of education from preschool to doctoral studies is being revolutionized, I will focus on higher education, which is already being creatively disrupted by digital technologies.  All that is needed to fulfill the revolution is a parallel advance in systemic processes.

The Old System: Systemic Scarcity of Media and Knowledge
To understand the revolution, we need to start with the historical roots of the current system, which arose from a profound scarcity of knowledge and instruction.  In the ancient world, storing information was extremely expensive.  Even after Gutenberg’s printing press made mass-produced books available, books remained expensive.  Only a wealthy household could afford to buy more than a few books.

Informed instruction was similarly limited.  Instruction in universities was often one person reading a text aloud to a classroom of students; this is the source of Cambridge University’s longstanding academic rank of “Reader.”

The scarcity and high cost of written media led to the primacy of the oral lecture, as the only way to share knowledge was to concentrate students in one small geographic area to hear these lectures.

Despite the ubiquity of relatively inexpensive books, higher education in the 20th century remained essentially unchanged from the medieval model of students gathering to hear lectures drawn from large libraries. This high-cost structure kept universities elite institutions, offering finishing schools for the upper-class and a narrow channel of meritocracy for the best and brightest of the lower classes.
World War II and the Advent of the Factory Model
The advent of global war required a rapid expansion of industry and managerial skills on an unprecedented scale.  Unlike previous wars, oil, technology, industrial production, advanced research, and management of these complex systems became paramount in World War II.  In response, the U.S. Federal Government ramped up the nation’s small elitist institution of higher education into a vast factory of universities and colleges producing millions of educated workers to serve the emerging knowledge economy.

This Factory Model was based on the principles of mass production.  College students attended the same lectures as hundreds of others and studied the same textbooks as thousands of others.  The system of accrediting each college created an illusion of parity between institutions.  While an Ivy League diploma was recognized as being worth more than a standard-issue diploma, any bachelor’s degree was deemed adequate proof of academic achievement.

This Factory Model yielded a three-part system: the traditional elite of academia, research, and the professional schools (i.e. graduate and doctoral programs), mass-produced four-year bachelor’s degrees, and a two-year community college system that served two roles: as preparation for a bachelor’s degree and as a vocational school.

The need for white-collar managerial workers exceeded the output of college graduates in the 1950s and 1960s, so supply and demand favored college graduates, who found good-paying jobs relatively quickly and opportunities for advancement relatively expansive.

Colleges expanded quickly, using federal and state funds to construct campus buildings. Costs were held down by modest salaries for non-tenured instructors and flat management structures.

In effect, a hodge-podge system tossed together in a national crisis became institutionalized. This is best revealed by this question: If we could start from scratch now, how would we design an effective, responsive, accountable, low-cost higher education?

Answers vary, but it certainly wouldn’t resemble today’s failing, costly, obsolete system.
Expensive, Obsolete, Failing
Though it pains its advocates to hear, the reality is that America’s system of higher education is expensive, obsolete, and failing. Though proponents finger reduced state-level spending as the cause of higher tuition and fees, this claim ignores the many structural causes of higher costs, including bloated layers of management, soaring salaries and benefits, costly building projects, and so on.

Consider this chart of one University of California campus's employment of professors and administration. If we extrapolate the lines, there will be more highly-compensated administrators than there will be professors teaching in the classrooms.

Federally backed student loans are skyrocketing by hundreds of billions of dollars.  U.S. government-issued student loans ($560 billion) now exceed the entire gross domestic product of entire nations; for example, Sweden ($538 billion).  Non-Federal student loans total another $500 billion, bringing the total to over $1 trillion
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