MOOCS and beyond.
Are you prepared?
Some revolutions take place with all the stealth and subtlety of 4th of July fireworks. But others take place silently, and when they’re over, their triumph is so invisible and so complete it’s as if they never happened.
In retrospect, these revolutions seem inevitable, inexorable, and irreversible.
That latter kind of revolution is transforming higher education. We’re all aware of certain aspects of that revolution, but it’s full scope and implications rarely draws the attention that it deserves.
The revolution that is currently transforming higher education isn’t, of course, the first. During the 20th century, we witnessed several:
What makes today’s revolution fundamentally different from its predecessors is that it is taking place across multiple dimensions – demographic, organizational, curricular, pedagogical, staffing, and more – and it’s contributing to a deepening stratification in institutional missions, student preparation, resources, and outcomes.
That a revolution is occurring is not a secret. Just think of the various ways authors discuss the contemporary university:
Then there are those changes in the student body, the professoriate, institutional staffing, and cost that we all recognize:
Taken together, these developments need to be understood as parts of a far broader revolution that is creating a higher education ecosystem that is highly stratified and highly differentiated, with institutions targeting distinct student demographics.
What, then, is the nature of this revolutionary transformation?
It’s all too easy to complain about the changes that are taking place:
But such complaints have no more impact than King Canute’s command that the tide recede. I, perhaps like you, enjoy reading books decrying the “managerial” or the “neo-liberal” or the “instrumental” university. But what’s missing is a path forward.
So what then needs to be done?
1. Academics need to speak out more strongly for equity.
Whatever the impact of the revolution is upon “us” (the faculty), its consequences are far greater for students from low-income backgrounds who deserve access to the kind of education best aligned with their interests and aspirations. Cost of tuition and living expenses should not be a barrier.\
2. The faculty needs to understand that their personal interests and their students’ learning needs aren’t identical.|Many, perhaps most, faculty prefer to teach squarely (I’d say “narrowly”) within their areas of disciplinary specialization and research. But many undergraduates would benefit much more from an education that is broader, more skills-focused, more experiential, more interdisciplinary, more project-based, and, yes, more relevant and responsive.
3. Accountability isn’t a four-letter word.
Irrespective of a higher education’s mounting economic and opportunity costs, the academy owes its consumers an accurate and transparent accounting of an institution’s mission, its programs’ outcomes, and the steps institutions are taking to improve these outcomes. It also needs to conduct regular reviews of faculty teaching, research, and service not to undercut tenure protections but to encourage improvement and ensure that faculty members are contributing equitably to the university’s functioning and mission. This strikes me as the least we can do given the very substantial public investment in the college and university enterprise.
4. Faculty members in the humanities, in particular, need to better adapt to students shifting interests.
Why can’t we better align our courses to students’ professional interests, in business, engineering, health care, and technology? That’s certainly not to say that every history class ought to focus on business history, environmental history, legal history, the history of medicine and public health, or the history of technology – or on topics of high student interest, including climate change or the history of race or sexuality. But I do believe that those of us granted the great privilege of conducting research in the humanities should focus less on cloning ourselves than on nurturing the skills, knowledge, and literacies that students who do not become academics will benefit from in later life.
5. Let’s liberate access to advanced education and make it more broadly available to non-students.
Shortly after I left Columbia, several Core Curriculum preceptors established the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. Modeled, in part, on Britain’s Britain’s Open University, History Workshop, and Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the institute remains dedicated to community-based education, often offered at neighborhood bars.
Now ten years old, it seeks to integrate rigorous but accessible scholarly study into adult lives, with courses (or roundtables) on everything from Proust and Dr. Seuss to Musical Romanticism and Gender, Culture, and Geopolitics in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union.
Somewhat similar is New York City’s Institute for Retired Professionals. Founded in 1962 by a group of New York City schoolteachers seeking an opportunity to learn from one another, it is a cooperative learning program offering peer-taught classes and study groups on topics ranging from the Bauhaus to cabaret music, manhood, and adultery in literature.
Everyone as old as me no doubt recalls hearing stories of cigar workers who took part in lessons about Kant or Marx even as they rolled tobacco leaves. The most radical of all revolutions would be to ensure that access to advanced education isn’t confined to the academy. Not through MOOCs or MasterClass or public television documentaries, with their lack of interpersonal interaction, but in other ways.
Higher education is too valuable to be monopolized by the young — and post-bacc education shouldn’t simply be limited to retraining and upskilling. I believe that learning should be lifelong. But that doesn’t mean that it should be merely technical, practical, and vocational.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.
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