Summary: Higher education is in a season of change driven by costs, online technology and increasing concerns about competency and return on investment. Craig proposes a model of “unbundled” education that responds to and leverages these factors.
MOOCs, STEM, flipped classrooms, debt loads, for-profits and return on investment are among the “hot topics” in discussions of trends in higher education. What Ryan Craig, a venture capitalist with education services companies, proposes is that it is time to “unbundle” the traditional model of higher education — the four year degree on a residential campus with major investments in a variety of student services and amenities and an educational program focused around seat time with unclear learning outcomes.
The first chapters of his book argue that this model is increasingly costly and accessible to fewer students, it reflects a laissez faire model of academic governance, and a paucity of data measuring the effectiveness of the educational experience in preparing people for employment.
While MOOCs have already peaked and declined, what they point up is a need to shift from seat-time based to competency-based learning that identifies competencies needed for a particular area of education, and to clear and simple assessments and curriculum. He argues that the best curricula will involve a variety of immersive experiences with constant feedback that result in mastery of a competency. He proposes that “competency management platforms” will be the key technology that will connect students, educational institutions and employers more seamlessly providing online portfolios and “competency badges” to employers, ongoing assessments and educational recommendations based on career goals.
Craig recommends that institutions take the following steps to prepare for what he sees as “the great unbundling”:
- Refocus academic programs on competencies employers care about.
- Avoid the pause (students withdrawing to work or for other reasons).
- Improve rigor (one study by Arum and Roksa indicates students devote only 27 hours a week to academic work).
- Make better connections with employers.
- End isomorphism (all following the same formulas to achieve higher rankings)
Another factor that can drive these changes are the increasing interest in American education by students from China and other countries and the answer may be exporting the education rather than importing the students. Craig points to Arizona State as an institution which has made the shift by reorganizing the university from the traditional departmental model, raising both enrollments (including minority enrollment) and quality, working with outside private vendors to provide core courses and non-academic online technology resources. All this came at a time of declining state support.
I think Craig is raising important questions and proposing interesting models. Rising college costs are making a college education out of reach for many students, even while a college education still makes a huge difference in lifetime incomes for most graduates. Also, the studies showing that in many degree programs students show no improvement in critical thinking or other competencies suggest that the current educational model may at time be delivering questionable value.
I still wonder if what Craig is proposing is simply a new version of trade schools with enhanced efficiencies. Also, he is not a disinterested observer. His business is funding the education companies providing the educational technologies and competency management tools he is recommending.
This approach also seems utterly contemptuous for any place in the university of exploring the good, the true, and the beautiful. College was once a place that explored the great questions and the best of what humanity has thought, written and created. Now it seems college is being conceived primarily in terms of training “human resources” for our economic machine.
It seems that one of the legitimate challenges in our STEM-oriented education is that there is precious little space for courses outside degree requirements.. I wonder whether some of the approaches Craig proposes might more effectively use the time devoted to education to both train more effectively for desired work and to provide the opportunity to explore the larger questions that answer why we work and what constitutes a life well-lived.
That would be a good educational outcome.