So, if Kevin Carey is pretty much dead on about the weaknesses of current universities, and mostly wrong about where things go from here, how else might universities change over the next couple of decades?
Let’s start with the key points:
- Money pressures aren’t going to ease up. The cost disease will always be with us;
- Professors want to research, and they don’t want to do it in soviet-style academies, divorced from teaching. They’ll fight hard for present system;
- Higher education is, to a significant extent, a Veblen Good. It is thus, to a considerable degree, impervious to disruption;
- Students don’t go to school just for the teaching. They go for the experience. And the networks. And the personal contact. And occasional piece of praise. Some of this can be had online; but it tends to be more meaningful and lasting if accompanied by something face-to-face;
- The value of an established credential is that it relieves employers of the need to think too hard about the worth of an applicant. For this reason, it’s really hard for a new credential to displace an established credential;
- Employers are looking for universities to produce graduates who have more soft skills – mainly relating to teamwork and customer-facing skills. Students know this – and they want an education that will help provide this.
Any future one can imagine will need to meet these parameters. So, let’s extrapolate a little bit from here.
- Students will pay more for university if asked. They may not like it, but they will do it. This will eventually ease some of the cost pressure. As a result, the status quo re: day-to-day practices will be easier to maintain. A blow-out event;
- That said, absent a frontal assault by government (which I think unlikely), tenured research track faculty are likely to hang around and get more expensive. So there will still be cost-pressure for change;
- Professional pressures around research output means professors by and large will abandon lower-year courses (to the extent they already haven’t). Something has to replace them;
- MOOCs – or something like them – are an obvious way to cut costs here. Carey notes that although there are hundreds of thousands of different courses offered across the United States, the majority of credits actually awarded come from just 5,000 or so courses, which are pretty standard across institutions (e.g. American History 100, Accounting 200, etc.). To some significant degree, these can be standardized. That’s not to say there need only be a single course in each of these 5,000 areas: monocultures are bad. But in the words of one Harvard professor Carey interviewed, there probably doesn’t need to be more than half a dozen, either. Delivered at sufficient volume, these future-MOOCs will not just feature top lecturers, but also will have massively better support packages and learning design. Institutions could still localize and personalize them by offering their own tutorial support and testing of the material covered in these future-MOOCs, and then award their own credit for them. It’s not obvious the outcomes of this kind of arrangements would be worse than they are now: the lectures will likely be better, the scope for improvements for inter-institutional mobility and credit transfer are enormous, and the more nightmarish scenarios around MOOCS could be avoided;
- Pressure from students and employers is going to lead to significant re-designs of programs around learning outcomes – and specifically around issues of teamwork and problem-solving. The key change is going to come around how to integrate credible assessments of these qualities into existing structures of courses and degrees. There will likely be a lot of experimentation; certainly, I think we’re on the verge of the most serious re-think of the structure of credits and degrees since the 1960s;
- In tandem, various forms of work-based learning are going to keep expanding. Co-ops and internships will grow. Practical upper-year courses where students get to tackle real-world problems will become much more common. Some new types of validation – maybe not badges but something different from a simple diploma – will arise to help document achievement in these areas.
In other words, there will likely some big changes in undergraduate programming, some due to technology, some due to cost pressures, and some due to demands from students and employers. These changes will weaken the importance of the credit hour and reduce the centrality of academic discipline in academic life. It will make university-based learning less reliant on classroom teaching as we currently know it.
But it will not be the End of College.
*Note: I’ll be in South Africa next week, and to keep myself sane, I’ll be taking a one-week hiatus from the blog. See you all again on March 23rd.