Let me begin by stipulating that I do not consider myself an authority on the future of higher education. I have been too long absent from the field to have insights derived from recent experience. I retain, nevertheless, a keen interest in the topic. Following are some thoughts about the what I would like the higher education of the future to look like.
Who is served by higher education?
Fundamentally, higher education, like all socialization, serves both the greater society and the individual: society by increasing its cadre of specialized experts in maintaining and advancing society’s technology and life experience; the individual by further defining and securing his/her role in society.
Humankind are all herd animals. We are born with the need to belong to a group of our fellow humans. Sociologists describe those groups as family, clan and tribe, depending on the size and intimacy of the group. “Family” is composed of those we are closest to and is the smallest of the groups. “Clan” denotes a larger, less intimate group, such as our cultural or religious or political associations. “Tribe” is the largest and least intimate of our associations, but equally important to the individual’s well-being, including nation, language, and history.
All humans are also curious. Our search for new knowledge and understanding never ceases, although the range and perspective of inquiry varies considerably from individual to individual, often from time to time for the same person over a lifetime.
Within this framework, higher (and all) education primarily serves the tribe by expanding the individual’s scope and perspective of inquiry or curiosity. Life itself is constantly providing the same service, but in a random and unpredictable fashion. Education is supposed to provide perspective and order to the individual’s ability to interpret these experiences in a meaningful context.
What are the criteria for evaluating whether or not higher education is providing a valuable experience?
The criteria are easy to identify, if difficult to evaluate. They are: Does higher education fulfill its obligation to society? And to the individual?
Higher education’s obligations to the greater society are twofold: cultural and technological. The knowledge and skills pertaining to an expansion of the individual’s understanding of his/her culture include the history, language and ideals of the society in which one lives. The second criterion is the same obligation in the realm of the society’s technology base, in the broader sense of “technology”, namely the “techniques” by which the society copes with the various challenges of its existence: food, heat, light, communication, transportation, lodging, water, to name a few of the obvious. The technology requirement presumes specialization in some aspect of these social needs.
Higher education’s obligation to enhance the individual’s well-being and success in his/her society include more personal knowledge and skills. Included here are topics such as religion, a practical understanding of how society is organized and functions, how government works, problem-solving skills such as logic, research, factual versus false data, appreciation of the arts, including painting, architectural, music, and the like.
These are areas frequently of controversy. How to deal with dissent, to weave one’s own way though the thicket of varying opinions, false claims and disputed facts represents a valuable but illusive skill which should be part of every college experience.
We have now set the stage for a discussion of the future of higher education:
Higher education exists to serve society and the individual by expanding his/her knowledge and skills of
- Society’s culture and technology
- Individual’s personal well-being
In this manner, higher education seeks to expand the individual’s success in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
I have always been intrigued by the concept of “Individual Educational Plans” (IEP), defined as “a written plan/program [which]… specifies the student’s academic goals and the method to obtain these goals.” Originally signed by President Reagan in 1986 and enhanced periodically since, the IED is required for all handicapped children.
What if IEP’s were specified for ALL children? The practical implementation of such an idea was beyond our capabilities until the introduction into education of the digital age. Unfortunately, computers were confined to two areas of education, teaching content (a problematic application) and administration. It has not been used extensively for the application which it would be most fruitfully applied, namely, implementation of complex scheduling. Elsewhere I have designed the way in which computers could be used to implement IED’s for ALL children. Needless to say, I was ahead of my time (where I spent most of my later years in education!).
However, I believe such a plan could now be implemented for higher education with today’s technology. After all, we were able to execute a form of this pedagogy in the 1970’s before computers were even introduced, as I explain the accompanying essay (see “The Fiddler and Me” attached).
The system would draw heavily from several sources: the Oxford University tutorial method of instruction, computer-based scheduling (which I helped introduce in my post-Crown Center career with Control Data Corporation) and doctoral degree programs, as well as the credit-for-experience, Portfolio Plan, which I pioneered in Kansas City’s Crown Center campus (details in accompanying essay). A very significant addition would be the computer-based courseware now available as well as the internet with its nearly unlimited research resources.
Briefly, the system would look like this:
- Each student would be assigned an individual carrel (as in graduate student libraries), equipped with desktop computer, software, headphones and webcam. (Fits nicely with social distancing.)
- Academic Plan – the first exercise would be a class which introduced the students to the system with the following components:
Development of his/her IEP based on each student’s individual interests and guided by a personal academic advisor. “What do you know now? (Portfolio optional) What don’t you know now that you would like to know? How will you acquire that expertise? How will we measure what you have learned? (Thesis required.)” Content could be achieved at the student’s discretion by seminar, tutorial or digitally. Benchmark endorsements from faculty required.
- A basic curriculum, to be attended by all students, addressing the commonly accepted cultural competences required by society, and graded on a Pass/Fail basis, with the requirement of an in-depth essay on a topic of the student’s choice.
- During each noon break a lecture would be given in the dining room by a professor on his/her chosen topic (attendance optional) addressing some aspect of culture or technology.
- Live instruction would take place in seminars attended by students whose interests were common to all, scheduled by computer as sorted by the common interests of the designated students. Individual tutorials, noon lectures and online courseware also provided as stipulated in the academic plan (IEP).
- Graduation – a thesis fulfilling the pre-arranged metrics for successful achievement would be published and presented in an oral defense to a panel of experts. Upon acceptance, the student would be graduated with the appropriate degree.
Many details are left undeveloped here because of space limitations. However, I hope this vision will be achieved somewhere down the road as higher education continues to evolve.