Reform Comes to Higher Education

Both online and in-person learning experiences should maximize the time students are applying new knowledge and skills, and minimize the time students are passively receiving knowledge.
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A few weeks ago I was privileged to speak in Malatya, Turkey on higher education in the United States. I began by sharing my definition of the purpose of higher education: to provide opportunity. It is with this deeply held conviction I made this very personal statement, education has made all things possible for me.

People all over the world -- young and old -- yearn for educational opportunity. This is their path for social mobility, paving the way to a better life and a brighter future for themselves, their children and generations to come. The commitment to educational opportunity is deeply rooted in the American Dream as it creates upward mobility for millions to live their own versions of this dream. Today, we are at a perilous crossroads: Our core commitment to educational opportunity for all has shifted in truth to education for only a few. Educational access has diminished, as the cost of education rises, while spending to offset these costs declines.

For those of us privileged to work in higher education, it is a great honor to seek innovative ways to still ensure educational opportunity for all. This means confronting new realities. As the number of working, non-traditional adult learners (age 25 and older) become the majority, traditional higher education models that cater to young adults (ages 18-24) no longer suit large numbers of students. Add to this that most traditional models require multiple years of college credit and class hours (or "seat time") to earn degrees, often resulting in hefty student loans, making postsecondary education unobtainable for too many in this country.

In his 2012 State of The Union speech, President Obama placed higher education institutions on notice: improve college accessibility, affordability and student outcomes, or lose significant federal dollars. Meanwhile, Bill Gates predicts that "place-based" education -- i.e. going to a college campus to take classes -- will become increasingly less necessary over the next decade, and recently the Gates Foundation announced $9 million in grant for "breakthrough education models."

The take-away: It is no longer just K-12 education systems that need reform; higher education is desperately in need of change as well. But what should higher education institutions do?

While there are no quick, simple solutions, part of the answer lies in understanding how current -- and future -- generations of college bound students will acquire usable knowledge and skills. In particular, there are two key elements to consider. First, students favor more control of their learning experiences as "self-directed" learners. Rather than having instruction directed at them in a lecture format, they prefer to control how and when they learn. The opportunity to review information at their own pace and interact with faculty and peers as students work through topics and ideas are advantages of this model. For this and other reasons, online learning programs have grown rapidly. A recent example of this trend is the Harvard and MIT announcement of a joint $60 million effort to offer hundreds of free online college courses.

But are online, self-directed learning approaches effective? In fact, as education technology advances, online learning is increasing a viable option for thousands of students. Comparative studies point to online and blended learning as both providing opportunities for self-paced learning, and resulting in equivalent -- and in increasingly more cases, greater -- learning outcomes than face-to-face learning.

Another key element that higher education institutions must consider is based on a core principle of adult learning theory: adults learn by observing and doing. Thus, both online and in-person learning experiences should maximize the time students are applying new knowledge and skills, and minimize the time students are passively receiving knowledge.

For higher education institutions, these two elements imply a balance between traditional the professor-as-expert in front of the classroom as the dominant instructional mode towards other course delivery models, such as online and blended learning approaches. Students, for example, can review content knowledge independently online and then spend time practicing and reflecting what they have learned in a seminar or field placement. With this model also should come more of a focus on skill-based, experiential programs, and shorter career certification programs to engage students in industry specific training. At Wheelock College, where I serve as President, a core value of the integration between teaching practice and scholarship has been at the core of our pedagogy and approach to education. All Wheelock College students begin their college with a practicum experience coupled with rigorous course content. Recently, we have been a leader in the development of dynamic models to better prepare teachers of elementary-age students for teaching STEM.

I am not suggesting that current higher education models should or will just fade away. There will always be large numbers of students benefiting from the transformative social and academic environments that campuses often provide. The adopting of these additional approaches to teaching and learning requires front-end planning and transition; however, in the long-run they have the promise of reducing costs for many students, by shortening the course of study. Moreover, the federal government has signaled its interest and willingness to support many of these transitions costs through job development and education reform initiatives. Thus, I encourage higher education leaders to view these types of changes as an extraordinary opportunity to re-image our colleges and universities, while making a successful education experience attainable for more Americans. Let us continue our long-standing American value of education as opportunity!

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