Why Go To College?

2010 June 20
by Dave

Mike Caulfield is one of a growing group of educators and education technologists trying to get five to ten years in front of coming changes to education. Their aim is to influence policy and technological choices in the present so as to carry forward the best outcomes of the current higher education system into a future of distributed technical certification as the main form of post-secondary education.

Such a system will be primarily focused on detailed enumeration of an individual’s skill set and verification of said skills. As instruction becomes unbundled from this certification process and both are subjected to market forces with divergent goals a problem will appear. How to convince students to participate in traditional liberal arts coursework and how to convince highly specific certifying authorities to recognize such broadly focused educational achievement.

The most important thing in all of this is that once the educational transition has gotten under full steam it will be too late to talk people into eating their vegetables. The forward thinkers in the liberal arts realm of higher education are correct to recognize that they need to have all of their answers in place so that they can start pushing them at the first stages of these structural changes.

There are three central questions that need to be answered. Caulfield et al. seem to be asking the right questions, but I worry that their initial thrusts aren’t quite on target. I will be the first to admit that I have not exhaustively plumbed the current thinking in this field and am thus quite likely to repeat things already said elsewhere. However, as an individual who has benefited from a technologically focused degree with a strong liberal arts component and who is not currently engaged with the inward focus of forward movement in academia, I feel that my two cents are worthwhile.

Three questions. What are the core benefits of liberal arts instruction? What form should this instruction take in a distributed learning environment? How to draw students other than by shouting out the answer to question one until you go hoarse.

So, core benefits. Creation of well rounded individuals who are strong communicators and capable of thinking big thoughts would be the top of my list. These core benefits will strongly benefit from a refocusing of liberal arts assessment from the subject matter to the outcome.

That is a part of the answer to the second question that I can not emphasize enough. You are already very good at imparting crucial skills. The focus of the evolution of instructional technology should be on replicating current success. There is no need to abstract current instruction to make it more relevant. It is already relevant. The necessary abstraction is on the assessment side. Networked learning will make assessment of liberal arts coursework much more challenging. It will be very easy for rubrics to become entrenched that are focused on form and content rather than on the personal development that lies behind these things. I have no idea how the implementation of this will look, but I do know that developing the right tools for this is the most urgent task  for the ed-tech crowd.

How to draw students and get the market to demand liberal arts education? Get in front of the technical certificate as a replacement for a college degree that you are worried about. Be first. You need to implement a set of ala cart “Well Rounded Individual” credentials that are recognized by the business community as a valid metric of an individual’s ability to function as a member of a team. Job ads ask for those skills but proving that you have them is tough other than giving a good impression in your interview. Not so useful when hiring a solo contractor to work remotely from India.

Throw a University of California humanities certificate onto that contractor that tells me that he is able to convincingly participate in group discussions on Casmus and Voltaire as well as write something comprehensible about Frankenstein and I’d probably be inclined to give him a shot.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Mary permalink
    July 1, 2010

    Perhaps this is not on point, but with networked learning on either the liberal arts or the certificate track, I have no idea how to ensure that the information is actually being absorbed. We all have heard stories about the control F function to pass traffic school online course so it doesn’t really take 8 hours. Frankly, there is only so much “herding” a teacher or a course can do when he is 500 or 5,000 miles away. It will be interesting to see how Stanford’s correspondence high school program is doing, or if it has quietly fizzled out.

  2. Dave permalink*
    July 2, 2010

    There are definitely challenges still to be overcome, but most of the people working on this sort of stuff seem to be operating on the expectation that they will be successful and are trying to figure out what that means and what will come next.

    It will be indeed be very interesting to see how an online educational experience that is functionally equivalent to a classroom experience ends up being implemented, or if it even can or should be implemented.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS