Crystal Ball Blogging: “Next Generation HigherEd”

Tom Vander Ark has a book called “Getting Smart: How Digital Learning is Changing the World.” He also has a website, Getting Smart. Vander Ark also knows the future of higher education:

Next-generation higher education systems will share ten elements:

  1. States replacing accreditation with performance contracting around outcomes (including real writing and math standards).

  2. Learners bundling from multiple providers; stackable credits and credentials (WA policy is better than most).

  3. Free access to a wide variety of online courses: synchronous online courses (e.g., Coursera) and open courses/content (e.g., Saylor).

  4. Very low cost credentialing: verification of completion and achievement (e.g., StraighterLinePropero,UniversityNow and free CLEP prep courses).

  5. Broad access to low cost high-support environments (e.g., community colleges wrapping MOOCs in student services).

  6. Broad access to college credit opportunities in secondary schools: AP, dual enrollment, and MOOCs.

  7. Broad access to low-cost competency-based job certificate programs (also the best entry point for standards in postsecondary).

  8. Alternative market signaling strategies including badging, certification, portfolio, and references augment or replacing degrees in dynamic job categories (e.g., web design/development).

  9. Traditional colleges will reduce costs and boost completion rates with blended and adaptive learning.

  10. Colleges, companies, and associations focused on powering lifelong learning relationships.

I find the predictions all very darling…and complicated.

I cannot make highered predictions but I can tell you that any promise about the future of higher education that does not consider, seriously and soberly, the reality of the labor market is more spin than analysis. I have talked before about “working one side of the equal sign” and this is a good example of that phenomenon in higher education reform-disruption-analysis.

As I once told a Very Important Person, if I have a credential worth something and you try to convince me to go into the business of verifying “completion and achievement” — effectively granting my institutional legitimacy while giving away all of my authority and autonomy — I’m going to introduce you to a little catchphrase from The Wire. Which isn’t to say overwhelmed university leaders, pulled by a dozen competing pressures — won’t do it. But they shouldn’t.

There is no clear aggregate market for badges and alternative credentialing. A higher education system that produces a credential the labor market did not request and is not organizationally suited to reward will be (further) marginalized.

I do not know how a “low cost high support” learning environment isn’t an oxymoron. Support equals resources equals money in a capitalistic market economy. The students going to college are more resource intensive than almost any previous generation of college students. The idea that we can support them well on the cheap is a bit of magic I’ve not yet figured out.

I may not be able to predict the future of higher education but there is some evidence about the future of the other side of that equal sign. Our labor market continues to pull jobs like salt water taffy, i.e. along opposing, unequal ends of a pole. Competition for the jobs at the top of that pole will drive the demand for any kind of edge, including all manner of credentials. But that demand should not be confused for quality, value or associated occupational and social rewards.

Those falling from the middle and towards the bottom of that pole will seek out credentials as insurance. That will continue to create some short term demand for credentials. But, unless the labor market starts providing some evidence that a credential is the insurance against job insecurity within the fast growing bottom tier of low-wage jobs, a lot of people are going to become quite disillusioned with the education gospel.

Technology will continue to be proffered as a solution to anything caught in the last seen outfit of a problem. At best, technology is an evolutionary phase of pedagogy but it does not challenge a single trend in the labor market that is acting back on the pressures constraining higher education.

I do not do predictions but if I did, I’d say the trend of over-promising on technology and ignoring the other side of the equal sign is likely to go unchanged in 2014.

5 thoughts on “Crystal Ball Blogging: “Next Generation HigherEd”

  1. “… any promise about the future of higher education that does not consider, seriously and soberly, the reality of the labor market is more spin than analysis.”

    Amen to that.

    The book sounds like it would be an interesting read, but it also sounds like it echos the refrains sounded in Jeff Selingo’s book College [Un]bound, which was also published this year. Have you read it?

    1. Thanks to PhDing I’m just getting around to skimming Selingo’s book. Look, the conceptual frameworks aren’t unsound, they just don’t consider the greater social context. I think Selingo et al think they are considering that context because they do appeal to labor market changes but they really only treat a small sector of the labor market. Basically, its great for primary labor market occupations, of which there are fewer and fewer. So, even when I’m intrigued by the proposal I am attending to what conditions would make the proposals possible and likely, something the authors rarely consider.

  2. Also .. something Selingo doesn’t touch on in his book (and I’m wondering if Vander Ark is also avoiding it) has to do with the future of research universities (in light of federal funding issues, a shift toward more “applied” research vs basic or theoretical, the influence of corporate entities on research funding, etc.).

  3. “A higher education system that produces a credential the labor market did not request and is not organizationally suited to reward will be (further) marginalized.”

    I couldn’t have said it better. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the point is of providing a greater number of “college” students with lowly credentials at a low cost, especially if there aren’t new jobs being created in correlation with those “credentials.” I’m worried about the proliferation of MOOCs and other such educational systems that I highly doubt can equal in scope, rigor, or training what more traditional colleges can provide.

  4. The EdTech bubble in 2013 feels a lot like the bubble in 2000. It is already showing signs of collapse, as venture capital support wanes. Ultimately, blended learning models that help students succeed will be the norm.

    All the technology investements in software, hardware (IPADS, etc.) and unique learning platforms and communities has been mistaken as the solution to improve education. They may help – But, in many ways, they are more valuable to students who who have already suceeded with or without them.

    Until we build systems that help the at risk, under-performing students move ahead and succeed we are not really progressing. This is hard work that should be our priority

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