Friday, June 19, 2009

Does demographic change = demand for tech-driven education?

Yesterday I participated in a webinar called The Future of Non-Traditional Higher Education in the US (white paper version of the webinar available here.) The presenter, Nick Allen (provost emeritus and university professor at Univ. MD--University College) reiterated a common argument. It goes like this:
  • higher ed faces huge demographic changes--more hispanic, first-generation, immigrant, and adult learners will be seeking higher education than ever before.
  • higher ed in the US won't work for many of them because of cost and poor fit
  • Web 2.0 and open learning initiatives make online or tech enabled education much simpler
  • Therefore, the solution to the educational challenges raised by demographic change is providing tech-driven (as opposed to "bricks and mortar") education.

I agree that demographic and economic trends portend major changes in higher education. And I agree that Web 2.0 and open learning can do a good job of providing online educational opportunities. But I am not sure that the two will meet up. Put another way, I'm not sure that the millions of new degree seekers, be they young Hispanics or baby boomers looking for new careers, will seek that education from the purveyors of Web 2.0 learning.

Two reasons for my skepticism. The first is oft-noted: none of the major new college-bound demographic groups, as a whole, show a predilection for or success at tech-driven ed. (This of course does not hold true for individual members of these groups, and may change in the future.)

The second is that Web 2.0 and open learning folks, in my view, haven't thought about their efforts in a way that will engage those groups of students.

Among the insights of Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is that social change is driven by people playing certain roles. Mavens provide expertise, salesmen convince people to join movements for social change, and connectors build the social networks that unite mavens and salesmen on one hand, with potential joiners on the other.

The tech and open learning movements aren't thinking about themselves as part of a social movement. So they use mavens to share information in the hopes that education-seekers will find them.

If I was trying to engage potential college-goers in Web 2.0 education I would be looking for the connectors--people with on-the-ground influence and networks among members of the targeted demographic groups. And I would find ways to get my product--education--into the hands of real people so they could use it for real needs. Planning a party? Here is a way to use open learning sources to make it better. Facing a business problem? Here are cases to help you think about it. Have broader educational needs? Maybe UMUC (or any of the hundreds of other options) can work for you.

Doing it this way accomplishes two things: it meets people where they are, and it doesn't assume that huge swaths of human society will flock to open learning because of its technological cool.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I wonder about this from a slightly different point of view (not backed by any data). I wonder if these new demographics will not engage with HE , even with web 2.0 tools, because they have not seen HE as necessary.
For example, where I live in Park City, there is a considerably larger and larger Hispanic population who are becoming influential and affluent. This is due to hard work on their part. They get lots of construction and other jobs in this area because they work hard, do good work and charge a reasonable price. Something the more local population struggles with because for years they had the monopoly and did not have to work hard.
So, if these opportunities exist (without a HE degree) and you may or may not have found a higher degree as being "worth it", you might choose other options- regardless of how it is delivered.
Not a great explanation of what I am thinking but I hope you get the point.