David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Building a Better Casket

July 11, 2013:  Building a Better Casket

Whenever I hear that, as was the case on Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Education and the Workforce holds a hearing on innovation in higher education, my stomach immediately goes into knots.  Even an infrequent reader of this website knows I passionately believe higher education is an industry in desperate need of overhauling, but these spotlights on innovation (labelled so regularly as "disruptive innovation" that disruption is banal) usually illuminate innovations that undermine the essential education that produced me and millions of educated adults. 

Daily, I feel like the penultimate line from XTC's "Funk Pop A Roll," a scathing attack of the music industry:  "But please don't listen to me/I've already been poisoned by this industry."  On the one hand, for the life of me, I can't imagine anyone truly succeeding in life without the general broad-based education that historically higher education has provided me; on the other hand, I do understand that this historical model is an ill-fit for a society that needs a differently defined educational attainment for its populace.

When we end up discussing "disruptive innovation" in higher education, then, the focus tends to be on delivery methods and models (competency-based learning, prior learning assessment, online education, the kinds of topics discussed by the expert witnesses at this hearing) and the possibilities of technology.  All of these "disruptions" (and frankly they are actually alternatives) sound great, but what's the clearly defined goal?  If someone preaches to get educated people out into the workforce, I question whether that is clearly defined.  If "educated" is defined as meeting some external measurement (see the Western Governor's testimony from the hearings), that also seems equally ill-defined.  Isn't the whole point that skill sets in almost every job are changing dramatically fast?  How does one have a set-point-in-time assessment?

Tom Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams' brilliant The Glass Menagerie, marvels at a magician's trick.  "It don’t take much intelligence to get yourself into a nailed-up coffin," he says.  Most of us who have been in higher education for several decades have easily boxed ourselves into this potential coffin.  The dilemma, as Tom asserts, is how to get "out of one without removing one nail."  Without the aid of trickery (some public officials may believe that's what we employ), we are left to ponder what nails to remove.

Do we pull out the huge nail that holds together the foundation of our decaying box: the credit hour?  You'll see that at least one of the experts testifying at the hearing suggests that.  It has a lot of merit.  The credit hour resembles the time-of-possession statistic in football.  On paper, time-of-possession sounds good, but in actuality, it is often an indicator of nothing related to winning and losing football games.  Has the credit hour ever been a true indicator of learning?

Do we pull out another large nail, the one that apparently runs along the entire bottom of the box:  the accreditation process?  That, too, sounds extremely logical.  To use the convenience of sports metaphor, again, does the NCAA seem to be the best organization to govern over the industry that basically justifies its existence (and lines the pockets of its members)?  We don't have to look far to see the folly of that belief.

Do we yank at all the little nails, the various components of curriculum that in whole establish the structure of every coffin?  We've been doing this for years anyway, ripping away general education components and adding in more technical and industry-specific content.  With secondary schools in essence doing the same, can we really say that the general results for our adult population are positive?

Do we ramp up or ramp down our economies of scale, changing one or two big nails for a series of smaller ones, or vice versa?  The singular truth about higher education is that it may finally be too expensive.  So, we tinker our teaching models, whether it is with adjunct replacing full-timers or with courses that can hold large quantities of students with one professor.  In a recent conversation I had about course efficiencies and the idea of adding students beyond the seat count (based on the expectations that some students will drop) I vocally shuddered at the notion that we were modeling ourselves after the airline industry.  However, that may be the right analogy.  Talk about another group that wants to tinker its way through tough times as opposed to completely overhaul.

As I say, I am torn.  College taught my generation how to think (to quote a good friend), and in doing so taught us how to see.  Everything we do now seems to suggest that College is either teaching a generation to drink (to also quote this fri however, college nurtured that in me too, so I am less cynical in that way), or more than likely teaching students how to wink, not really see.