Review: College Disrupted

College DisruptedSummary: 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”:

  1. Refocus academic programs on competencies employers care about.
  2. Avoid the pause (students withdrawing to work or for other reasons).
  3. Improve rigor (one study by Arum and Roksa indicates students devote only 27 hours a week to academic work).
  4. Make better connections with employers.
  5. 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.

6 thoughts on “Review: College Disrupted

  1. Thanks for the review Bob. It seems like the cost of education and increase in student debt is getting out of hand and will create a crisis for future generations if not addressed. I’m a graduate of Purdue University and an adjunct professor in the Purdue College of Technology. Our university president, Mitch Daniels, is leading initiatives that are very similar to those that you mentioned above. While Mitch isn’t love by educators, I believe that for the most part he’s leading us on a path that really needs to be taken.

    • Thanks for your comments. I am most concerned that with the cost of education, the result will be a permanent underclass in our society. However, I grew up working class when education was affordable and it not only gave me competencies but also opened up my world–something I fear the very career and employment oriented education models I’m seeing will not. I’d be curious what you are seeing at Purdue.

      • In the College of Technology, here’s an example, the curriculum is such that instead of having (3) separate 3 hour classes, they are combined together into one 9 hour class that integrates different subjects together such as a technical subject, a technical writing class, and a communication class. It includes profs from each area. Then they work with local businesses to solve real life challenges, write up technical papers of the solutions, and then do a presentation to the company. The idea is also to educate the students to work in a team to solve real world problems. As a result, some of the students may make the connections for future employment.

        This is the first year for it so I’m sure there will be modifications made to improve it’s effectiveness.

      • Thanks for this tangible example–it sounds like it integrates a lot of skills that are integrated in the work place but often not on campus.

      • The hopes though are to incorporate the college experience as well. That may not happen quite as much at the regional campuses but should at the main campus in West Lafayette. Purdue Pres. Daniels is promoting that students spend at least part of their college time at the main campus. I believe that he share your concern that there is much to learn from the college experience.

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2015 « Bob on Books

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