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Chief Penguin
Musings from the Academy’s Global Ambassador

July 2, 2013

Darwin’s Idea: Competition Drives Evolution. Education, It’s Your Turn.

Part 1 of a three-part essay on technology and higher education…

By now, you may know of my fascination with the power of the Internet and digital technologies to change the opportunities students will have to learn, and to unleash competition and innovation into the world of education, particularly higher education. It’s a world long buffered—even isolated—from significant competition. Well, the same forces that have washed like a tidal wave over business, governments, and social interaction over the past couple of decades—the forces of change driven by fast, inexpensive digital communications—are now impacting the world of higher education. The future began some time ago.

All that said, it’s tempting to be so beguiled by the MOOCs (massive open online courses) on the screen that you slip into believing learning is just another form of downloading. It’s not. Being in the presence of information is not the same as learning. If it were, then just sitting in the library would be a great way to prepare for an exam. Listening to Horowitz recordings won’t make you into a great pianist either.

Learning and Carnegie Hall have a lot in common. Success at both takes practice. Having access to a great MOOC about history won’t make you into an historian. To really learn, you must do, and active doing—which generally means investigating, thinking, writing, and “working out the math”—tends to be hard work, particularly at the start. Success takes discipline, motivation, and determination. I’ve yet to see a website where they are on offer.

Though there is much to explore in the new fascinating world of education on screen and online, the fundamentals will remain the same, since people have a stubborn tendency to remain the same. Learning is not downloading. Learning takes doing. Doing takes discipline. So, show up for class with your assignment done—wherever class may be. There’s no shortcut.

New Technology, New Competition
Colleges and universities have long competed on the basis of faculty quality, brand-name recognition, price, and programs. But there has been almost no competitive market based on the methods of teaching and learning. For centuries, higher education has been rooted in secure notions of how faculty should teach and students should learn. Professors have been the holders and transmitters of knowledge. Students have been required to visit professors and attend lectures or seminars or recitations or laboratories at set times. Virtually all colleges and universities, the old and venerable and those established just yesterday, will teach the same way this fall because it’s the way they taught last fall.

Now the climate is ripe for innovation: costs are high enough to drive it, and new tools make it possible. We have the technological ability to provide learning environments anywhere and anytime. Unconstrained by bricks and mortar, new competitors can enter the worldwide educational marketplace, and established institutions can compete with each other in new ways. The driving forces, as in the rest of the economy, are income and competitive edge.

Of course, just because income beckons and innovation is technically possible doesn’t mean that new methods will be accepted enthusiastically, will be adopted quickly, or will be implemented well. What is inevitable is a great deal of experimentation. Innovation is coming to higher education, and it is gaining speed at a pace that most faculty curriculum committees find dizzying.

Stanford has done much to accelerate the pace of innovation. While many colleges and universities have been offering online programs for the past decade or so, Stanford has made it “socially acceptable” among the truly elite. Stanford has raised the bar and sent a message to its peers, in polite academese of course, that simply doing things the same way year after year is not the future Stanford has chosen. Pay attention, peers. Change and innovation are coming.

The Virtual Football Team?
Will residential higher education be replaced by websites? I certainly hope not. The residential undergraduate experience is a marvelous invention, a relatively safe halfway house between home and independence. Living away from home, students grow up, learn to work with others, find out about the world from their faculty and peers, are exposed to intellectual, cultural, and human diversity, are challenged to explore beyond their familiar and comfortable worlds, and yes, even attend classes and earn degrees. They seek out peers, professors, and staff to talk, debate, and work through what at times seem like (and may be) life crises. In most cases, they bloom, both intellectually and socially. Their parents marvel at them, and they come to marvel at their parents. In short, the process works, and it works very well indeed. It’s not the only way to bridge home and career, but it’s a very good way. It’s also expensive.

To be continued…Part 2: Enriching the Traditional Residential Curriculum.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 11:05 am

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