TIME: Reinventing College

“Reinventing College” is the featured topic in the October 29, 2012 issue of TIME. It is made up of several articles (some short, some long) where viewpoints and ideas are shared. It pulls together multiple current and thought-provoking elements such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), affordability and purpose (my variation on TIME managing editor Richard Stengel’s identification of “access, cost and quality” as being the “three interrelated problems” in the foreword.)

In my view, the problem is actually over-dilution of traditional college education – not access and quality. I think that cost/affordability is a side-effect of the problems in access and quality. While I was reading the article on MOOCs (titled “College is dead. Long Live College!” and authored by Amanda Ripley), I am reminded of the example of a college graduate who ends up working for a rental car company as a customer service representative, sometimes simply sitting for hours in the booth that checks cars out. This is obviously a position where soft skills are suited – and not the knowledge from a college education. This is a mismatch between the argument that employers are seeking college graduates, and the argument that employers are looking for soft skill talent (see “Hard Unemployment Truths About ‘Soft’ Skills'” by Nick Shulz in the September 19, 2012 issue of the WSJ). In his TED talk on creativity, Ken Robinson identifies this as a “process of academic inflation” where degrees have to become less of a credential over time.

Let’s frame some things about traditional college:
(1) a relatively small proportion of entering college freshmen know what they really want to do after college (let alone, in college),
(2)  a relatively small proportion of entering college freshmen today are adequately prepared for rigorous scholarly thinking in college (eg, skill in expository writing),
(3)  a relatively small proportion of entering college freshmen will find careers that exactly match the knowledge they gain in college,
(4)  relatively few graduating college students can remember even half the knowledge they “learned” in college – at the time of graduation (less so later),
(5) relatively little knowledge gained or work done  in college will be re-used in a career.

Undergraduate education has been and still is an opportunity to solidify a passion for lifelong learning. It is also a time to tier students into achievement and skill levels – based on their ability to integrate their existing knowledge with new knowledge from other disciplines (some distantly connected, others possibly close – hence, the depth and breadth requirements in the undergraduate degree requirements). University education is about going through phased development of thinking, interpretation and ideation skills; these phases are roughly segmented into undergraduate, masters graduate, doctoral graduate, and post-doctoral. The scope is largely limited to a research basis where a successful outcome would be a graduate who goes on to conduct high-impact research that stretches the domain of knowledge and information – a Professor (or as Ken Robinson figuratively describes as people who “look upon their body as a form of transport for their heads…”) Branching is possible but usually the trunk is research; the branches are the deviations from staying in a university for life.

Here, a short comment on the article by Amanda Ripley on MOOCs (the best article of this feature by far): I very much enjoyed reading this article because it persuasively raises numerous ponderous issues and hints at a solution to the over-dilution problem that I earlier mentioned. I position MOOCs in the evolution line of the continuing education branch where perhaps 40 years ago, people relied on compact self-help books (that’s when I read a book on Automaton Theory) and more recently, people are learning from YouTube (where I have been trying to teach myself to play a ukelele) – and not to forget textbooks becoming e-textbooks or supplemented online texts. The relationship I perceived from Ripley’s description of the Udacity Physics course video featuring Andy Brown was that between fundamental knowledge and an excellent PBS documentary (aren’t they all great?) such as NOVA. It’s accessible, understandable and caters to how the “brain learns” through casual attentiveness. As Ripley put it, it was “like Rick Steves’ Physics.” With this in mind, MOOCs do not replace traditional college education – they create another layer positioned for accessibility to those learners not able to enter traditional college. We know people have different learning methods – the bulk of whom are not suited to a rigorous college challenge. MOOCs thus provide hugely lateral branches for learning but offer little in vertical progression as required in academia. MOOCs should become globally popular for the breadth and accessibility, but users will likely remain in the “proof” level of the YCISL Leadership Objectives schema. If learners begin to select MOOCs as their alternative (note: not substitute) to entering college, then I would hope the over-dilution will ease and the sense of purpose will return.

Overall, this TIME feature has made me more aware of what some thought leaders are thinking, and I appreciate that. However, I firmly believe that the problem is primarily in secondary education where education reform is far more urgent – think about it… are the problems of “access, cost and quality” more dire in secondary or tertiary education?

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