An Economic Transformation, A Shift in Our Educational Focus

A little more than two centuries ago, America began the transition from a local agrarian economy to a national industrial economy. As the time, The nation's colleges which had changed relatively little since the founding of Harvard in 1636, were designed for a sectarian agricultural society. The curriculum was rooted in the trivium and quadrivium of the medieval European universities, where students studied Bible, the languages of Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic rhetoric, math, and the history of plants. The methods of instruction were recitation-repetition of assignments orally and verbatim and disputation -- formulaic debate using Aristotelian syllogisms on themes such as "we sin while we sleep."

Then came the industrial revolution and the rise of canals, steamboats, water-powered factories, railroads, mechanized farm equipment and the telegraph. These changes in transportation, communication and production caused a massive migration of the population from farms to cities, east to west, from abroad to the United States. They knit the country of localities into regions, and ultimately into a fledgling nation.

Following the Civil War, the pace and scope of the industrial revolution accelerated, driven by oil, steel, the booming of railroads and cities, the invention of electric lights, telephone, automobiles and the like. America became an industrial giant. And universities adapted to catch up to the economy.

Higher education changed dramatically powered to a great extent by the founding of new institutions. Johns Hopkins, Cornell, and Chicago offered advanced studies, professional education in industrial era fields like engineering and business, carried out research on vital social and industrial issues and organized as business did by specialization. Industrial-era technology schools, like MIT, emerged. Land grant colleges straddled the old agrarian and new industrial worlds.

The curriculum changed to reflect both the times and the new institutions. There were courses, specialized and advanced studies beyond the baccalaureate, majors and academic departments and electives. In 1869 there was one elective course at Harvard College. By 1909, there were two required courses.

Think about the implications of these innovations. Courses required breaking the curriculum into smaller units. Majors required specialized studies, hierarchies among courses and variation between students in what they studied. Electives required choice and individualized course selection for each student.

These necessitated new degrees for the host of new specializations and professional studies that universities offered. These included the associate degree, a panoply of baccalaureate degrees, including the B.S., and earned graduate degrees which turned into a slew of masters and doctoral degrees.

It also required a new course based assessment and academic accounting system. Harvard introduced A-E/later F grading for each course and a fixed number of courses required for graduation, and in 1906, the Carnegie Foundation established the norm for academic accounting -- the Carnegie Unit -- a time and course based accounting system which defined a unit as 15 recitations per week in a subject for a year. Fourteen high school units were to be required for college admission. Seat time became the currency of the academy.

Using these new degrees, new methods of assessments and the new accounting system, a new model of education was established based upon one of the dominant and most successful technologies of the industrial era -- the assembly line. Education would entail 12 years of schooling, 180 days a year with 4-5 major courses of lengths prescribed by the Carnegie Foundation. College graduation would be tied to the accumulation of requisite number of credits or courses. The modern industrial era system of education was established.

Jump forward to the present. Once again the United States is undergoing an economic transformation, the second in our history. This time the shift is from a national, analog, industrial economy to a global, digital, information economy.

The difference between the two is clear. Industrial economies focus on common processes -- time and process are fixed, outcomes are variable. In contrast, information economies focus on fixed outcomes and process and time are variable.

In terms of education, the industrial system focuses on the time students are taught -- seat time. The information economy focuses on learning. Time is variable, mastery is the key. This is a revolutionary change.

It means that the current degree, assessment, and accounting systems won't work any longer. Despite their extraordinary success for more than a century, they have become obsolete, based on time, not student learning. In a 2015 report, the Carnegie Foundation put it this way -- "The Carnegie Unit sought to standardize student exposure to subject matter by ensuring they received consistent amounts of instructional time. It was never intended to function as a measure of what students learned."

This puts us in the place of our industrial era predecessors -- having to invent a new model of credentialing degrees/certifications, assessment and accounting systems. It likely means a new model focused on competencies, where schooling is time variable, both in the awarding of degrees and microcredentials.

We can expect the process for accomplishing this to be comparable to that of the industrial era transformation -- having the following stages. Continued embrace of the current model by most colleges and universities and rejection of the need for change. Experimentation, first small, then increasingly widespread inside and outside the academy. Establishment of models -- such as those developed by Western Governors, Alverno, and Southern New Hampshire -- will grow stronger by successive approximations. Elite institutions of higher education with the exception of pioneers such as MIT will legitimate, not invent, these new models. Establishment of a multiplicity of different practices for outcomes, assessments and accounting. And debate and discussion at every stage of standardization.

Today, we have largely continued the embrace of current practice, experimentation, models, and debate/discussion. We are also witnessing the simultaneous imposition of both the industrial and information economy models in schools -- the industrial era's fixed times and fixed process as well as the information economy's fixed outcomes, which doesn't work.

As we move to an information economy model of credentialing, we must go beyond words like competencies and outcomes, which are the learning based units comparable to industrial era courses and credits to reach common definitions of these competencies -- the equivalent of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disabilities which offers a common language and standard criteria for classification of mental diseases. We must develop assessment that measure student progress and attainment of standards or outcomes. Over time, build upon current initiatives in analytics and student learning to embed assessment into curricula to function much like a GPS, discovering student misunderstandings in real time and getting them back on track.

And we must create common credentials -- microcredentials or badges -- to recognize student mastery in competencies or learning outcomes. Degrees are insufficient for this purpose. They are macrocredentials rooted in just in case learning. We are already seeing a demand for in-time learning in more specialized areas obtained through experience, self-instruction and education offered by a host of university and non-university providers. This will occur throughout a lifetime, necessitating a lifelong transcript to record those competencies and one or a more organizations to house, curate, secure and distribute them a lifelong registrar.

Shifting education's focus from teaching to learning does not mean vocationalizing, diluting, or diminishing it, much as the new industrial universities did not reduce the quality of the agrarian colleges. The revitalized and enriched them. Higher education succeeds best when it has one foot in the library, our heritage, and one foot in the street/the realities and needs of the real world. In times of dramatic change, higher education tends to lose its hold on the street.

Today, we are talking about reestablishing higher education's footing in the street. In doing so, we should not abandon the library -- those functions and activities that should be cherished and preserved in higher education, not casually or carelessly unbundled and dispensed with.