Help Wanted: Change Agents in Academe

The stars seem to be aligning behind a strong push towards online learning in the world of American higher education.  Today’s lead op-ed piece in The New York Times, by Jeff Selingo, editorial director of the Chronicle of Higher Education, echoes the Chronicle’s recent interview with educational philanthropist Bill Gates, who has been funding innovative approaches to maximizing the potential of technology in higher ed, without sacrificing educational quality.

Bill Gates

Both Gates and Selingo are focused on interventions that can improve outcomes for students, and thus for American employers down the line.  Even the best universities, Gates says, “often only have a 60-percent completion rate. And the average university will have something like a 30-percent completion rate. So you have an immense amount of wasted resource, and students who end up with a big loan and sort of a negative experience in terms of their own self-confidence.”

Gates wants to see how technology can be used to improve completion rates for students, as well as to improve their academic experience while going through the educational process, and his foundation is searching for “change agents” to accomplish this mission.

Innovators are sorely needed, because it certainly is true, as Selingo points out, that “higher education is a conservative, risk-averse industry,” which has been putting far more attention into capital campaigns for physical improvements than into serious efforts to develop and integrate new technologies.  Even my own graduate alma mater, New York University, known in many ways as an innovator, is persisting in its focus on bricks and mortar expansion with its hotly debated NYU2031 plan.

“We bet on the change agents within the universities,” Gates says. “And so, various universities come to us and say, We have some ideas about completion rates, here are some things we want to try out, it’s actually budget that holds us back from being able to do that. People come to us and say, We want to try a hybrid course where some piece is online, some piece is not, and we’re aiming this at the students that are in the most need, not just the most elite. So that’s who we’re giving grants to, people who are trying out new things in universities.”

I hope the Gates Foundation is also interested in supporting smaller liberal arts colleges like my current employer, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, which was founded as an innovative early college for high school students ready to accelerate past the last two years of high school, right into the college experience.

As someone who did just that myself, leaving the prestigious Hunter College High School in Manhattan after 10th grade to earn my B.A. in four years at Simon’s Rock, I know this is a model that works. It also worked for my son, who also earned his B.A. in four years at Simon’s Rock after completing 10th grade at our local high school.

It was good to hear Gates affirm the continuing importance of small-group discussions as a method of learning, because that is the pedagogical style we value highly and do so well at Simon’s Rock.

“Having a lot of kids sit in the lecture class will be viewed at some point as an antiquated thing,” he said. “On the other hand, having a bunch of kids come into a small study group where peers help each other, where you can explain why you’re learning these various topics, that will be even more important.”

With the advent of giant open-source lectures made widely available by the most prominent universities, Gates predicts that higher education will have to form consortia to consolidate lecture offerings, rather than having the same courses taught hundreds of times across the country (and the world) by different professors, some of whom may not be the greatest of lecturers.

But I don’t believe we will ever find a substitute for the excitement of small group learning, sitting in a circle and sharing ideas with a skilled, knowledgeable and enthusiastic facilitator.

It’s possible that some of that small-group learning may be able to transition to online video chat rooms, and this is something I’d love the Gates Foundation to fund me and other collaborators to explore!

I can imagine a hybrid learning environment, in the not-too-distant future, in which a student living at home can take a lecture from a Harvard professor in the morning, meet in an online chat room with another instructor in the afternoon to discuss the lecture topic (as I used to do in person with undergraduates when I worked as a graduate teaching assistant at NYU), and perhaps come to campus twice a semester for intensive face-to-face classes culminating in final projects that would be shared and evaluated, leading to the awarding of course credit.

Already there are consortia forming to discuss how to begin to allow students to earn degrees by patching together courses from various institutions, something most colleges and universities currently permit in a limited way.

Gates is right that this kind of innovation is threatening to the status quo of higher ed, where each college and university sees itself in competition with the others for the best students, and administrators tend to be more focused on admissions and tuition than on completion rates and outcomes.

Collaboration and sharing of resources may mean that some of the weaker institutions will fall by the wayside—but this is already happening as it becomes increasingly apparent that the old residential, four-year, very expensive approach is unsustainable for any but the most heavily endowed institutions, who continue to attract students from the wealthiest families in the world.

I agree with Bill Gates that if we faculty and administrators dig in our heels and refuse to roll with the oncoming waves of technological innovation, we’ll be bowled over and blown away.

But the techies can’t make this educational revolution work without the expertise of seasoned faculty and administrators, so it’s our responsibility to insist on pedagogical quality while encouraging innovation, in order to accomplish our mission of giving the most possible students the best possible education at the lowest possible cost, in a sustainable model that will allow our students—and our institutions—to thrive and grow into the 21st century.

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  1. If you love Monsanto, you have to love The Gates Foundation. And if you think, the privatizing education is a good thing, Bill Gates is just the right guy to push privatization further. And if you like more corporate influence in academia, you will be more than pleased with recent developments.

    Education has the purpose to train, condition, indoctrinate the pupils for being well functioning workers for the industry and uncritical consumers and supporters of the present social and political system.

    Online courses, electronic textbooks, online materials in addition to a traditional classroom or small academic group can benefit education but this is not the plan. What conservative education reformers have in mind is factory education, similar to factory farming.

    A few low paid teachers serving knowledge mush to hundreds of pupils glued to their screens and switching back and forth between school, Facebook, World of Warcraft, Twitter, etc.

    The techies can make this educational revolution work without you.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  June 30, 2012

      Yes, I am afraid you are right as usual, Mato; I pointed to “factory education” a few posts back in “Welcome to the Knowledge Factory.” But I was heartened by Gates’ affirmation that small group, face to face learning is still important–a concession I did not expect him to make. The Gates Fdn is such a huge player in education, those of us in the trenches can’t afford to ignore what they’re doing. We have a responsibility as caring teachers to try to humanize the educational process wherever and however we can. Given how incredibly plugged in kids are today, it often seems like they wouldn’t even notice if their teacher were replaced by an online avatar or a robot. Still, I am not giving up.


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