Is higher education more than the sum of its parts?

Higher education is in the midst of a revolution, even if the majority of higher education faculty are unaware of this.  What are the signs of this revolution?

  • The growing emphasis in higher education on outcomes assessment,
  • The decline in public funding for higher education,
  • The growth in the for-profit sector,
  • The growth in on-line learning,
  • The increased availability of open courseware/content.

These trends have led me to ponder what higher education is at its most fundamental level.  What is a college course?  What is university-level learning?  What constitutes a university education?  Is it merely a degree, a signal to employers, or is it more than that?

Let’s start with a tentative list of the components of a university education.  Feel free to suggest additions.  A university education includes:

  • Lectures by content experts,
  • Instruction in skills by skilled practitioners,
  • Instruction to a certain high level of expertise (higher ed. vs secondary ed.)
  • Opportunities for self-actualization: learning to think bigger than yourself; learning to see and begin to understand the world at large.
  • Opportunities for learning to behave as and to be an independent adult.
  • Receiving a degree, ideally from an accredited institution.

Now, except for the degree, university is not the only place one can obtain these things.  One can go to lectures at local venues.  One can listen to expert lectures though the Open Courseware initiative at MIT and other universities.  One can take courses in writing, speaking, computing, etc. from non-universities.  One can read textbooks oneself.  Opportunities for self-actualization can be obtained my entering military service, or simply by living independently.  So what do universities provide that one can’t do through other means?

Why does one shop at the supermarket instead of going to the butcher, the baker, the green grocer, etc.?  Because the supermarket has everything you need—it’s a one stop shopping experience.  Universities are supermarkets of higher education.  In some contexts, there’s only a slight advantage to going the ‘all-included’ route.  For example, one can enjoy a perfectly fine meal dining a la carte instead of selecting a fixed price meal.  But for most people, university is more like a supermarket than a fixed price dinner.  Neeru Paharia points out that a university

provides you a clear path from A to B, provides social infrastructure of teachers and other students, and accreditation so you actually get credit for what you do.

Similarly, aAtos (in a comment on Kevin Carey’s “College on $99 a month” says:

Well why does anyone hire a personal trainer? You can eat less, walk, run, jump, squat, bend, sit up, push up, pull up and lift heavy objects for free. All the moves are available online.  The answer is that most people don’t have the self discipline to do it themselves. Most people need an authority figure to give orders, and/or a large group of similar people doing the same kinds of things. Traditional schools provide both.

In other words, there are efficiencies in obtaining higher education from a university.  Having a cohort of students studying roughly in parallel allows a school to efficiently provide an expert teacher to guide them, as well as an appropriate educational infrastructure.

Additionally, as Anna Kamenetz mentions, there’s the whole question of accreditation which at present is only available through universities.  Paul states (in a comment on Carey’s article)

Colleges and universities aren’t in the information business – they’re in the certification business. The value of individual degrees lies in the perceived value of the certification.

JM continues (in another comment on Carey’s article):

Accreditation exists because the outcome of education is highly probabilistic, so society needs market controls to ensure that what you the employer get when you shop for a worker is what you pay for. Otherwise you would have thousands of unscrupulous degree mills just selling pieces of paper.

Inside Higher Education recently reported on an initiative of the Midwest Education Compact to create a Credential Repository for Education, Skills and Training , kind of a decentralized online university aggregator, where students could combine courses from different sources to be certified as an accredited college degree.

This is just one example of a larger trend in higher education: to disaggregate the components in an attempt to provide each more efficiently.  Western Governor’s University explicitly designed its program to do this, and they seem to be achieving that goal. (Their annual tuition is only $5780.)  But this approach raises a bigger question:  Can you slice and dice the various components of higher education without losing anything?  Is higher education no more than the sum of its parts?

What’s clearly missing from the list of the components of higher education above is that extra something that differentiates higher education from training.  In short, education is more than content acquisition.

Zephyr Teachout  points this out when she says:

Quality education is much more than a sum of college credits. At its best, a third element is involved – a leavening agent that enables the experience to rise above a mere accumulation of completed courses. That element may vary from campus to campus, but it almost always involves intense personal interactions and critical discourse among students and among students and their professors.

As Yale Wood Shoppe notes (in another  comment on Carey’s article):

You are not being educated if your ideas are never challenged and you are not in a social environment where you will learn to think in ways you have never considered before. A fast-food degree online would be useless.

JM continues (Comment):

Education is NOT content. Content is the medium through which education flows. Nearly all of the content introduced to a typical student at a typical university is in the public domain. What a university sells then, which is markedly different from a newspaper or a car factory, is *perspective* on content. Education not only tells us which articles to read, but how to read them, what the key thing to take away is, and gives a relative probabilistic indicator of how well the student actually learned the concept. And this isn’t an easy thing to do.

(Notice that this *perspective* is provided by the instructor.  I’ll be exploring the role of  the instructor in a future post.)

There’s a tendency among those who don’t understand higher education to think of this ‘leavening agent’ as a frill or something “touchy-feelie” which can be dispensed with.  But it’s not; it’s essential.  This “leavening agent” is like technology in a production process.  Technology is critical in production, and yet it’s implicit rather than explicit.  (Firms don’t spend money on ‘technology’ per se, but on equipment and employees who embody the technology.)  We don’t see technology directly so it’s easy to ignore, but if you do so you will not be able to explain a great deal of the productivity that occurs.

So where does that leave us?  The missing piece, or at least the piece which seems to be least developed in online courses or programs is the social/community piece where interaction takes place.  That is the difference between self study and study at a traditional university.  It’s not that online courses can’t have interaction, but that at present they don’t have it to the degree we see in good traditional face-to-face courses.  And that makes online courses inferior in at least this important dimension.

The pressures to provide higher education more efficiently are not going away.  In response, we should expect to see many schools moving to develop online programs, even though it’s not clear that there is a cost-effective model for grafting online programs onto a traditional university.  The greatest potential, at present, for online programs is to reach geographically diverse students or under-served students who can’t afford traditional university.  Non-traditional online universities will have the advantage here, since they are organized for this purpose and don’t have the overhead of traditional institutions.

Where will the greatest threat to traditional universities exist?  The answer is in programs where the interaction piece is least present, since less will be lost by going online.  Think about the lower level courses at research universities and other (non-liberal arts oriented) universities.  These courses tend to have large numbers of students, so the opportunities for interaction in the classroom are limited.  They also are more likely to be taught by graduate assistants rather than experienced professors.

Small liberal arts colleges and Ivy League schools have a comparative advantage in interaction so at one level they are the least at risk.  But at least for the SLACs, the pressures for more efficiency will be strong.  Schools like Mary Washington will need to do two things to survive in the future:  First, we need to make publicly clear to our stakeholders the quality education students receive at a small liberal arts institution, which is not available at other types of schools.  In the language of economics, we need to differentiate our product by highlighting the type of interactive, reflective, thoughtful education our students receive.  (And we need to do this is new and creative ways.  Simply describing our program as “liberal arts” isn’t enough.)

Second, it behooves us to explore ways of providing online courses which are every bit as interactive and social/communal as face-to-face courses are now, which I believe is possible.  (UMW is in well placed to for such an exploration, if we just have the will and the leadership.)  Schools that don’t do that, especially non-liberal arts institutions, are going to find themselves increasingly between a rock and a hard place.

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4 Responses to Is higher education more than the sum of its parts?

  1. Great post, Steve.

    Or at least the first 1,152 words were great. You seemed to take some kind of crazy detour during the last 442. And when you turned left, your logic fell off the wagon.

    I agree 100% that a university education is more than the sum of its parts. I would suggest one addition to the list of components of a university education, being in the presence of a scholar. As you aver, communication between professor and student is one crucial part of the university experience. I am so grateful to have had a professor in my past who tempered my enthusiasm for online education by pointing out that it is possible to be a great teacher without using technology in the classroom at all.

    Now back to the craziness.

    You start by listing (only five) signs of the apocalypse: outcomes assessment, decreased public funding, for-profit education, online learning, and open course-ware. Surely you could come up with two more! 😉

    Here are some specific observations:

    You say, “It’s not that online courses can’t have interaction, but that at present they don’t have it to the degree we see in good traditional face-to-face courses. And that makes online courses inferior in at least this important dimension.”

    Are you saying ALL online classes lack adequate communication? I know you well enough to doubt you meant it that way. From the phrase “good … f2f classes,” I assume you would admit that there are some poor ones.

    Therefore your logic seems to go this way:

    Some online classes are poor.
    Some f2f classes are poor.
    All online classes are inferior.
    All f2f classes are superior.

    That’s just nuts.

    There are excellent online classes. There are good online classes. There are adequate online classes. There are dreadful online classes. The same can be said for f2f classes.

    Is communication a problem in SOME online classes. Yes. Is communication a problem in some f2f classes. Yes.

    From my undergraduate days at a large state university, I can remember (f2f) classes in which I never spoke, classes in which the professor never spoke to me, classes in which exams were not returned for weeks and weeks and then only with a number attached (hardly formative assessment).

    You say, “it’s not clear that there is a cost-effective model for grafting online programs onto a traditional university.” I disagree. Many traditional universities are using online classes to alleviate classroom overcrowding and scheduling concerns. Others are using it to grow enrollment (and tuition dollars, particularly out-of-state tuition dollars). Cost effectiveness is one of the primary reasons online classes are becoming more numerous. (NOTE: I didn’t just say I agree with cost effectiveness being an appropriate reason to offer online classes.)

    You say, “The greatest potential, at present, for online programs is to reach geographically diverse students or under-served students who can’t afford traditional university.” Not true. Numerous studies (citations available upon request) show students taking online courses prefer to attend universities to which they have some connection or allegiance, usually local universities so they can visit administrative and faculty offices when necessary. It is not just the geographically dispersed student that needs an online education, it is the temporally displaced student also.

    You say, “First, we need to make publicly clear to our stakeholders the quality education students receive at a small liberal arts institution, which is not available at other types of schools.” Agreed – to a point. The university is also committed to professional educational opportunities for non-traditional students in the region.

    You say, “In the language of economics, we need to differentiate our product by highlighting the type of interactive, reflective, thoughtful education our students receive.” Agreed – but more. I think our online classes for non-traditional students can achieve this superior level of interactive, reflective, thoughtful education as well.

    You say, “it behooves us to explore ways of providing online courses which are every bit as interactive and social/communal as face-to-face courses are now.” Agreed – except for the “are now” part. (See logic section above.)

    Despite my picking on some of your logic, I do agree in principle. Online classes need to have a sense of community in which there is a common experience – a community of learners that has easy access to exchange ideas. Professor presence is vitally important in establishing a culture of learning in an online class. Online learning is student-centered, but should never be teacher-absent. And, I have no doubt, the online classes at UMW are superior in this regard.

  2. Leslie M-B says:

    The missing piece, or at least the piece which seems to be least developed in online courses or programs is the social/community piece where interaction takes place.

    Agreed. As someone who attended three undergraduate institutions, I can tell you what finally sold me on the last one, aside from the ridiculously stellar teaching and the quirky student body: a narrative about my liberal arts education.

    That narrative promised me that:

    – By pursuing an interdisciplinary liberal arts education at that particular institution, I was getting a better interdisciplinary liberal arts education than I would at other institutions because

    (a) I was playing a part in a story that had both historical and contemporary significance. This narrative stretched back 150 years.

    (b) the players in this narrative to date included significant thinkers, ranging from several top New Deal administrators to a co-inventor of the microchip. Lesson: My major didn’t matter–the ability to think and innovate did, and I was being prepared to do exactly that kind of thinking.

    – I was participating in a long tradition of public service, which was a nobler pursuit than what I would be getting had a pursued a more career-oriented major (say, journalism instead of literature) at a different institution.

    This particular liberal arts education, from this particular institution, would allow me to effect positive change in the world–indeed, changing the world was a responsibility that came with having a degree from this institution.

    – General education requirements are for losers. Seriously. The narrative held that students at this college were smart and curious enough, with light advising, to choose their own paths. And it worked–almost all of us took math and literature and all of us emerged with incredibly rich interdisciplinary experiences.

    Does this narrative sound like BS to some people? Certainly. Should I have been less credulous in buying into it? Perhaps. But it’s what made my liberal arts education special to me. Community mattered. The quality of instruction mattered. But what really held it all together for me–and this was something I didn’t get at MWC or at community college (or in any of my three graduate programs, for that matter)–was a strong, driving narrative in which I could be a protagonist.

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