The Future of Higher Education? Ask the Magic-8 Ball!

Want to know the future of higher education in this age of disruption? Forget all those committees, commissions, and "futurists." Just ask the Magic-8 Ball!

Is competency-based education the real disruption we have all been waiting for? Will MOOCs undermine traditional undergraduate enrollments? Do I truly need to understand what micro-credentialing really is? Just shake and you have an answer: "Without a doubt." "Outlook not so good." "Reply hazy, try again."

I think I'm just burned out on the future. Call it future-fatigue. I sat on a commission a few years back for AAC&U as it developed a vision for general education; I now sit on another commission for MIT that is analyzing the policy implications of online learning for higher education; just last month another commission on the future of higher education was formed.

I have a longer and more detailed version of this op-ed at InsideHigherEd, but the short story is that we are taking the wrong approach, always thinking of technology as the answer, irrespective of what the question is. The problem is that such "futuring" of higher education confuses our infatuation with the "next big thing" over the real question of what is the purpose and vision of higher education.

The key is to remember that technology is just a tool. Like a pencil. Or a calculator. Or the Large Hadron Collider. All of these tools help us do something, whether it is to write down an idea, calculate some large numbers, or smash some really small particles into one another. The tool helps us to accomplish our goals; the Large Hadron Collider, it is almost too obvious to state, is useless if our goal is to write down an idea.

So how do we begin to envision a more realistic future for the future of higher education?

The first option is to envision how technology can incrementally make our present slightly better for a vast majority of our current students, such as the sixty percent of high school graduates who need some remedial coursework upon entering college or the thirty-seven million Americans with some college credit but no formal degree. Digital learning technologies, I have consistently suggested, are becoming better and better at supporting the teaching and learning of singular, solvable, and stable problems.

The second option, though, is to embrace the transformational notion of the purpose of education as a public good; as DuBois wrote in The Soul of Black Folks, "The true college will ever have one goal -- not to earn meat, but to know the end and aim of that life which meat nourishes." Indeed, what we have always claimed is that higher education was about fostering students' capacities for becoming engaged and thoughtful citizens in a complex and contested pluralistic society; what I have quipped as an apprenticeship into democracy rather than an apprenticeship into Wikipedia.

What this means is to accept that digital learning technologies may be better at transmitting information, thus allowing us to do our job of helping students transform knowledge. This would require a fundamental rethinking of what faculty do, of what students learn and how they document such learning, and what goals we want them to accomplish through such learning.

Sure, virtual labs with adaptive tutoring modules and online forums and superstar professors lecturing to millions of MOOC participants may be part of the answer. But so will good old fashion dialogue and debate around a small table or community projects that have real-world significance.

The question should thus not be one of either/or, but of how to combine these two models of education in a meaningful way. Maybe then the answer to the future of higher education will truly be "without a doubt."