(Editor's Note: New guest post by Dr. Joseph Ganem about MOOCs and higher education. Do check out The Daily Riff's new tab labeled Higher Ed - Inside & Out - let us know what you think --- - C.J. Westerberg)
in the human experience."
-Dr. Joseph Ganem
By Joseph Ganem, Ph D.
In recent years, there has been a flood of articles in high-profile publications - TIME, Newsweek (now merged The Daily Beast), The New York Times,
to name a few - questioning the financial and educational value of the traditional four-year undergraduate college degree. In the judgment of many people, a confluence of economic and technological trends appears to be rendering the educational experience most colleges provide obsolete. The trends are: rising college costs, stagnant middle class wages, a depressed job market for new graduates, and the migration of most stored human knowledge to the Internet where it is available, if not for free, at a greatly reduced price.
For the past several decades, the cost of college has increased faster than the rate of inflation. During this time middle class wages have not kept pace with inflation. Because the majority of college students come from middle class backgrounds, these students and/or their families have borrowed heavily to finance college educations. A depressed job market has lowered entry-level wages to the point that many new college graduates cannot earn enough money to meet their debt obligations. At the same time, some of the best universities - such as Stanford, MIT, Penn State - are offering colleges courses, taught by some the world's most renowned professors, online for free.
Some of these universities now offer what are called "massively open online courses" (MOOCs) that enroll tens of thousands of students from around the globe. A free MOOC on artificial intelligence offered at Stanford in the fall of 2011 attracted 58,000 students. The issue of whether students should be able to earn credit towards a degree from an MOOC is under study by the American Council on Education. Some have even speculated that in as few as 10 years a college education might be totally free.
So is the "higher-education bubble" on the verge of bursting as many in the media allege?
I don't believe that colleges are going to vanish anytime soon. If anything, for reasons that I will explain, the confluence of trends that I've cited will make a college education, especially the much-maligned liberal arts education, more valuable in the future.
However, I do think that for colleges to remain sustainable and relevant, the actions of all parties - students, teachers, and administrators - need to be re-thought and re-aligned with 21st century realities. I fear that unless substantive changes are made, there will be a crisis in higher education with ripple effects that will exacerbate our current economic malaise. In this article post I will give the reasons for my beliefs. In subsequent articles post, I will give advice to each of the major players at the table - the students,
the faculty, and the administrators - on how they should re-think their roles.
Over the past few decades the value of a college education has risen steadily during the same period of time that the Internet has revolutionized the availability and acquisition of knowledge. How is this possible? The reason is that what college-educated "knowledge workers" do today has become less and less about knowledge. What it means to be an"expert" today is very different than what it meant to be an expert 30 years ago. A generation ago experts either possessed or had access to specialized knowledge that was not readily available to the general public. Experts could leverage their information monopolies to earn comfortable livings filling apparently secure jobs.
Today ubiquitous, portable, handheld smartphones provide instant portals to a large fraction of humanity's accumulated knowledge. Computer programs can now perform routine tasks that in the past required paying experts thousands of dollars. Tax preparers, travel agents, stockbrokers, publishers, and attorneys- just to name a few professions -- have had the economics of their industries upended by the wide distribution of specialized knowledge on the Internet, combined with readily available, user-friendly, software packages that automate many of the services these professionals provide.
To survive in the modern economy, professionals must spend less time using their specialized knowledge, and more time managing relationships across multiple dimensions. How different areas of knowledge relate to each other, how different people relate to each other, how different people relate to different knowledge areas, are the issues modern professionals face each workday. In many industries, managing relationships and coordinating activities among diverse groups of people spans the globe.
Colleges are the places where most professionals began, and learned to nurture, the relationships that their livelihoods depend on. It was in college that they learned to work in groups, received mentoring from experienced professors, became exposed to diverse people and cultures, and developed networking skills.
I challenge college graduates to reflect on the narrative of their life stories. How much specific content do they remember from their courses? I'm guessing not much. But the people they met, the teachers who taught them to think rather than just what to know, the mistakes and misjudgments they made, and the successful struggles to understand difficult new concepts -- these are the experiences that guide them today.
Students will not get these kinds of life experiences from online courses. But students won't get these experiences from going to college if their entire focus is on acquiring knowledge that will either be soon forgotten or quickly obsolete. In fact, the short half-life in memory and/or usefulness of most technical knowledge is the reason that I think that the traditional liberal arts curriculum, with it emphasis on developing the meta-skills necessary to become a lifelong learner, is more valuable in the long run than
many people realize.
It is not necessary to go to college to prepare for existing jobs. If a job already exists, it is easy to find out what duties it entails and what skills are needed. Online research combined with online courses can probably provide sufficient training. College is the place to acquire the skill set for the jobs that have not yet been imagined. Consider, for example, the innumerable jobs associated with the Internet, none of which were imaginable a generation ago. I could not have taken courses about the Web when I went to college, because the idea of the Web did not exist. But my college degree provided me the meta-skills necessary for adapting when the Web came into being.
History will not stop. In fact history is on fast forward. Yet to be imagined jobs, in yet to be imagined industries, will arrive faster than they have in the past. The only way to educate for the unknown is with a solid foundation in the timeless core subjects of the liberal arts. It is the only hope for gaining insights into the unity of knowledge, and the unity of human experience that will allow future workers to discern and manage the relationships that their livelihoods will depend on.
I believe that we are in the midst of a major transformation in the human experience. Akin to the invention of the printing press over 500 years ago, and the invention of writing systems thousands of years earlier, the Internet is transforming humanity's relationship to its stored knowledge base. In our ancient and ongoing quest for meaning, it appears that in the future, meaning will arise from understanding relationships between disparate knowledge areas and diverse groups of people. For college to remain relevant, the participant groups' students, faculty, and administrators - all need to rethink their educational priorities. A college education needs to be as much about preparing for an unimagined future as it is learning about the present and the past.
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