Friday, August 10, 2012

How would we figure out if Higher Education was sustainable?

This is the first in a series of contributions I have been asked to make to the ETC journal, a blog on Educational Technology and Change.

Constructing a Sustainable Model for Higher Education: Part 1 – Disaggregation of Teaching

You can learn virtually anything online. So why go to college? It does seem that more and more people are asking that question, the most famous (or infamous) recently being Peter Thiel in his description of a higher education bubble. There are, of course, plenty who disagree, particularly those with “skin in the game.” So who is right? Is higher education too expensive? Does it represent a good Return On Investment for students and the country? Is it sustainable in the long run?

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, making predictions is difficult, especially about the future. That has not stopped the many, including myself, who are making predictions on the future of higher education. A particularly dramatic example of such predictions is on the site. Amara’s Law states “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” So it may be some time before we see these predictions coming true, but when they do, they may well be as dramatic as some have predicted.

So, is higher education, as it currently exists, sustainable in the long run? How would we go about answering that question? Those of us of an analytical bent would probably look at this as a design problem. We might define what we are trying to achieve, list all the tools and techniques available to us, and then try to come up with the best solution. To be honest, we’d probably start again from scratch. In a truly competitive world, anyone who did this would win “customers” from the less efficient and this model would win out very quickly. But higher education is much messier than this. The objectives we are trying to achieve are not fully clear and seem to be the subject of much debate. Competition is hindered by bureaucracy, regulations, and cartels. The “product” is complex, and even if you offer the best value, you can’t be sure the customer will recognise it. It may even be unclear who your customer is. The student? The employer? Or even the government, who in most countries picks up the tab for a very significant part of the cost?

Now, having stated that higher education is complex, it is my opinion that it is still worthwhile taking the first approach of designing a system from scratch, if even only to see how much different it would be from the existing system and also to specifically identify the barriers that keep us from moving towards such a system. Taking such an analytical approach seems to be in line with those who speak of the “disaggregation” of education (the separation of current activities into different organisations). At this point I am not suggesting that disaggregation will occur, but it is useful to split up the problem along these lines.

Let’s get started with a first-shot list at the main activities higher education is currently involved in. I am presuming that these line up with the main objectives of higher education. In my institution we do have three major categories of activities: research, teaching and external engagement. External engagement is a mix of many activities, including business incubation, which also overlaps with teaching and research. For the purpose of this analysis I will exclude this. The links between research and teaching is a debate in itself, and one I’d like to get into at some point, but for the moment, for the purpose of simplification, I will leave it out and concentrate simply on teaching.

Let’s divide teaching as follows:
  • Curriculum design
  • Accreditation
  • Information sourcing/creation
  • Information Delivery
  • Learning process design
  • Learning supervision and support
  • Assessment (and awarding of credentials)
I’d now like to open this up to the floor. Is this an adequate break-down of the teaching operations of higher education? Is this approach to solving the problem useful? At this point I have not planned where this series will go (other than to suggest that the current model is unsustainable and in the longer term will change radically) so I need your help to both clarify my analysis and my communication. I’m looking forward to the discussion.