June 13, 2024

Cynics, Skeptics, and Pollyannas

Author: Michael Patrick Rutter
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What a difference a decade makes.
Consider some of the words and phrases that have become part of higher education’s parlance: The student debt crisis. The student mental health crisis. Learning analytics and learning outcomes. The learning sciences. Open educational resources. Flipped classrooms and hybrid courses. High impact practices. 
A decade ago, few would have imagined that a third of undergrads and an even higher proportion of graduate students would take at least one course online.
The biggest revolutions are so complete that when they’re over, it’s hard to recall how different the world was just ten years before.
In today’s populist environment, we are acutely conscious of inequities that were largely invisible a decade ago:  The unfairness of legacy admissions.  The extreme stratification of resources among institutions. Gaps of all kinds: in access, achievement, and outcomes.
So what has changed?
  1. Awareness of the challenges higher education faces is now widespread. These include the cost challenge, the business model challenge, the demographic challenge, the equity challenge, and, above all, the political challenge as a significant share of the public questions the value of higher education.
  2. Standards of care have risen. Expectations about the services and facilities that colleges and universities should provide have climbed, to include wellness centers, learning support centers, disabilities centers, LGBTQ centers, Veterans centers, lactation rooms, childcare facilities.
  3. An outcomes focus — on learning outcomes, retention and completion rates, and employment and earning outcomes — now matches the earlier emphasis on inputs — library resources, student-faculty ratios, and average class size.
  4. Awareness of the science of learning — and its emphasis on the importance of active learning, experiential learning, and collaborative learning — has spread.
  5. Online teaching and learning has achieved a grudging acceptance, thanks largely to the flexibility and convenience it offers.
  6. The student body has changed profoundly. More students transfer, balance academics with work and family responsibilities, speak English as a second language, and have disabilities.
If much has already changed, other aspects of higher education are changing apace.
  1. In a reaction to the growth in the number of adjuncts, new faculty models are emerging, including full-time teaching intensive positions offering benefits and multi-year contracts.
  2. The fastest job growth in the academy is occurring among non-teaching professionals who work in learning centers, teaching centers, disabilities centers, study abroad offices, psychological services, instructional technology units, and other support services.
  3. Competition for students and revenue is intensifying, with students more willing to attend institutions further from home or to swirl among multiple colleges and universities.
  4. Reliance on third party vendors is accelerating in a host of new areas, including student housing, online learning and continuing education, consulting, and student success.
  5. New programs continue to proliferate. Partly this reflects the growth of knowledge (for example, the growth of neuroscience or women, gender, and sexuality studies) or shifting student interests (evident in the staggering growth of Computer Science and emerging media) but also in areas more closely aligned with the job market (e.e. data science), and in hybrid areas (e.g. Human Biology, sustainability, and digital studies).
What’s stands out are the areas that aren’t changing.
Stratification within higher education continues to increase without much pushback. Class sizes at underfunded institutions continue to rise — even as faculty at elite institutions increasingly receive 1-1 teaching “loads.” Instead of admitting community college transfers, well funded universities poach students from urban publics.
It’s easy, in retrospect, to view many of the past decade’s attempts at disruption as a waste of time and money. But such cynicism is, I think, mistaken.
As my colleague Michael Rutter has pointed out, many of the disrupters were themselves academics frustrated by the academy’s failure to provide an education that is more accessible, more learner- and learning-focused, and more affordable, efficient and effective — and that better meets the needs of today’s non-traditional and post-traditional students.
At the University of Texas System, I had an unmatched opportunity to partner with faculty on remarkable experiments: competency-based medical school curricula, integrated, synergistic degree pathways, interactive courseware, mega synchronous online classes with a host of embedded activities, and courses paired across the state or even continents.
Might the funds spent on technology infrastructure and technology-enhanced education been better spent on financial aid and student support services? I honestly don’t know.
But when I look at what Tim McKay and the University of Michigan are doing — creating autograding software to integrate writing into large STEM classes, for example — I feel the same excitement I did in seeing TEx or Clio, our LMS overlays that give students an integrated learning experience including simulations, animations, a host of interactives, autofeedback, personalized learning pathways, adaptive and bilingual content, and rich multimedia.
Or take UT Instapoll, which allows students to use their phones to take polls, answer multiple choice questions, or respond to prompts with short answers in class in real time — and share or compare their responses with others. I feel that my students were taking part in a next generation learning experience.
If colleges and universities don’t invest some of their resources in educational R&D, they aren’t doing their job. 
I remain convinced that our current model of higher education isn’t sustainable at the broad access institutions that serve the bulk of our students. Slowly but inexorably quality is diminishing. Humanities programs, in particular, are deteriorating. These institutions’ students are receiving a second class education. 
Part of the answer, of course, lies in greater public investment, which may or may not come. But waiting for a savior or a deus ex machina is no better than hoping to win the lottery. 
Let’s take charge of our own future. Experiment, yes. Invest in innovation, certainly.  And share the fruits of your investments.
Steven Mintz is senior advisor to the President of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.
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