Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Future of Higher Ed

I think I'm going to start a new series of blog posts relating to a subject that's important to me - the future of higher education. We spend a lot of time at work talking about the state of higher education and how it is changing as we enter the 21st century. There are tons of people online giving their two cents - I figure I'll start keeping track of people whose opinions I like or don't like.

Its worth noting that a number of people are worried that higher education is at risk of becoming a bursting bubble, like real estate or internet stocks. The rationale is that students are vastly overpaying for degrees that don't guarantee them middle class wages, and that sooner or later these people are going to start defaulting on their loans or stop coming to college or start looking for alternatives to college education. The other fear is that universities are the next newspaper industry in that they are not adapting fast enough to the changing realities of the world. Sooner or later some disrupting technology will revolutionize how students become educated and many traditional universities will become obsolete basically overnight.

My personal opinion fluctuates, often depending on what kind of a day I have at work. Universities are full of bright engaged faculty who have students best wishes in mind and who work hard to provide a quality education. On the flip side, universities are also giant bureaucracies which often react slowly or poorly to change. Tenured faculty often act in their self interest to protect the status quo, and there is very little means to realistically incentivize bad or ineffective tenured instructors to adapt. Then there's the problem of leadership... its hard to get effective leaders, particularly at mid-level universities where administrators often come to burnish their credentials in the hopes of landing a bigger job in a few years.

Well, there are a host of other issues - I guess I can talk about them in due course.

Here is a brief list of some links I've been enjoying recently on this topic.

  • David Brooks at the NYTimes (paywalled content) thinks that universities should let MOOCs and other internet-based sources provide technical content, while the university itself should focus on practical content. Practical content is things like solving problems, critiquing designs, discussing ideas, etc. I think he's right on the money.
  • Minerva University is a new for-profit university being started by Snapfish founder Ben Nelson. Instead of trying to get existing universities to adapt, Minerva is building the university of the future from the ground up. I like a lot of what I see on the website, including a focus on using the internet to deliver lectures, followed by practical hands-on training in class. Instead of tenure they are offering renewable three year contracts. This is almost certainly going to be the wave of the future in many universities, whether faculty like it or not. One important point: Minerva is trying to be as good as an Ivy League school. To some extent, you can expect an enterprise like this to succeed because to a large extent its easy to teach excellent students. I think a much more relevant and challenging problem is how the university of the future will educate the mid-tier students.
  • Mark Cuban advises students to pick a university based on whether it'll still be in business before you graduate. It's a bit hyperbolic but his point is well taken. He relates universities to the newspaper industry and wonders what the business model will be like in a few years time.
What would the ideal university of the future look like? How much would it cost? Who would teach? Who would attend? What would be the role of research? of faculty scholarship? of tenure? The only thing I'm sure about is that whatever it is, it won't resemble much of what you see today in higher ed.

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