Creating life in higher ed: steps toward a better world*

by reestheskin on 22/05/2016

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A couple of comments and events I heard about in the Re:learning Podcast series got me re:thinking about ideas that I have tossed around before. The session with Christine Ortiz, currently a MIT graduate dean, was about her attempt to set up a new university / college. This is very much a bricks and mortar place. By contrast, Tyler Cowan, he of Marginal Revolution, is setting up a university of the air. Cowan argues that the distinction between what is a university and what is not a university is breaking down. His ‘institution’ is an outgrowth from the distinctive Marginal Revolution blog. He is not giving up the day job, unlike Christine Ortiz. There are lots of interesting things, here.

First, barriers to entry are getting lower. Of course, barriers are higher for bricks and mortar places, but many modern universities are in danger of losing the power — and failing to appreciate the value — of residential institutions. If you keep piling students into lectures theatres and student staff co-knowledge is poor, you have to ask why online might not be a better value proposition. Awhile back I was chatting to a physics professor from Holland, who was talking about their attempts to build liberal arts colleges within a larger university framework. I have no idea how well it is working, but the idea is interesting. Many medical schools, it seems to me, are largely places where student placements are organised, rather then delivered.

Second, there really is a sense of experimentation, that was not there 20 years ago. This is why being in higher education is so much more interesting now that it was even just 10 years ago. MOOCs, hype or not, doesn’t really matter. Change is in the air.

Third, universities are multisided markets or platforms, in which students have limited power. This will have to change. Cross subsidies between teaching and learning, research, ‘wealth creation’ are all going to come up for scrutiny. If we imagine university accreditation like we would APIs, we might see real change. If we were really serious about ‘competency’ (self evidently, we are not) we might free up the ways in which students can master whatever it is that is judged important. Or what they want to achieve, with or without my flavour of libertarian paternalism (no happy chart feedback here!).

But I have to pinch myself at how exciting this all could be. I think we have to protect and nurture the academic ideal, but not at the expense of all that is outside it. Nor our students. Things really are different.

* Part of Marginal revolution’s, byline