Sunday, August 28, 2011

Reflections as America's dullest higher education blog reaches 5000 page views

Learning at Westminster has reached a milestone of sorts--5000 page views.  Of course for the big league blogs 5000 page views come before breakfast.  For me it has taken since July 2009.

This is no surprise--I've mostly used this blog as a place to reflect on trends in education, make connections between my work and the non-education stuff I'm reading, and try to figure out what my future (and the future of higher education) looks like.  Over two years I've posted nearly 200 mini-essays, and written over 100,000 words.  Here is what I have learned:

1. Learning is in danger. Most of the major forces shaping higher education--technology, the cost debate, questions about access, funding danger, and the political climate--are focused on delivering information more efficiently, more effectively, or in a more relevant way.  And the force that has the closest link to learning--assessment--is in danger of becoming so rigidly focused on measuring a pre-determined set of outcomes that it overlooks both the importance of growth and the possibility that important things will happen to learners that cannot be predicted.

Fortunately, while learning seems to be slipping out of education, there are more and more ways to learn outside of school.  Blogs, mash-ups, the growth in social networks, the re-emergence of home-based manufacturing, the ease with which you can record your own music are all things that support learning and do it in a much more open, student-directed, verifiable way than what happens in schools.  What is happening in religion may be what is happening in schooling as well.  More and more people are spiritual seekers, fewer are going to church, so churches are in decline.  More and more people are learners; is the future of schools like the recent past of churches?

2. Schooling needs a metaphor that works.  A great deal of talk about education is built around explicit or implicit metaphors--schools are like newspapers, or factories, or businesses or price bubbles.  I'm not sure that any of them fit.  But without a way of thinking of ourselves that inspires some confidence and gives some direction, schools will be swallowed by their metaphors.

3. There is lots of room for innovation.  Technology isn't the savior, but it does make it possible to start or re-shape schools so that they focus on what the school does best.  I expect that the next major trend in higher education and high schools will be specialized schools where students complete general education online and the classroom focused learning is all about the school's specialty--the humanities or music or entrepreneurship or whatever.  Schools like that can be cheap, fast, and excellent.  And they can be started by subject-matter experts.  I'm not necessarily sanguine about this future, since I care deeply about the civic role of schools and about general education.  But I would love to start a school focused on innovation and creativity (which I think are two of the four  key civic virtues, along with contemplation and humility)

4. The barriers to entry for higher education are falling.  There are really only two that matter any more--the certification of learning (that is, proving that the learning that takes place in some new schooling venture is real), and the matter of accreditation.  These barriers are two aspects of the same characteristic of higher education--social prestige.  That is, the diploma and accreditation bear weight because they have social standing.  It is assumed that a diploma from the University of (insert your preferred state or private institution here) is better than a diploma from Bob's Start-Up University; and that regional accreditation guarantees that fact.  I am not suggesting that that is not the case.  I am saying, though, that if I were a registrar or an accreditor I would be pushing for my peers to do more to show evidence that those things are true, because I predict that the social status on which diplomas and accreditation rest will crumble in the coming years.

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