Tag: Higher Education

Educational institutions are at a crossroads of relevance

One of the things that attracted me to the world of Open Badges and digital credentialing back in 2011 was the question of relevance. As a Philosophy graduate, I’m absolutely down with the idea of a broad, balanced education, and learning as a means of human flourishing.

However, in a world where we measure schools, colleges, and universities through an economic lens, it’s inevitable that learners do so too. As I’ve said in presentations and to clients many times, I want my children to choose to go to university because it’s the right choice for them, not because they have to.

In an article in Forbes, Brandon Busteed notes that we’re on the verge of a huge change in Higher Education:

This shift will go down as the biggest disruption in higher education whereby colleges and universities will be disintermediated by employers and job seekers going direct. Higher education won’t be eliminated from the model; degrees and other credentials will remain valuable and desired, but for a growing number of young people they’ll be part of getting a job as opposed to college as its own discrete experience. This is already happening in the case of working adults and employers that offer college education as a benefit. But it will soon be true among traditional age students. Based on a Kaplan University Partners-QuestResearch study I led and which was released today, I predict as many as one-third of all traditional students in the next decade will “Go Pro Early” in work directly out of high school with the chance to earn a college degree as part of the package.

This is true to some degree in the UK as well, through Higher Apprenticeships. University study becomes a part-time deal with the ‘job’ paying for fees. It’s easy to see how this could quickly become a two-tier system for rich and poor.

A “job-first, college included model” could well become one of the biggest drivers of both increasing college completion rates in the U.S. and reducing the cost of college. In the examples of employers offering college degrees as benefits, a portion of the college expense will shift to the employer, who sees it as a valuable talent development and retention strategy with measurable return on investment benefits. This is further enhanced through bulk-rate tuition discounts offered by the higher educational institutions partnering with these employers. Students would still be eligible for federal financial aid, and they’d be making an income while going to college. To one degree or another, this model has the potential to make college more affordable for more people, while lowering or eliminating student loan debt and increasing college enrollments. It would certainly help bridge the career readiness gap that many of today’s college graduates encounter.

The ‘career readiness’ that Busteed discusses here is an interesting concept, and one that I think has been invented by employers who don’t want to foot the bill for training. Certainly, my parents’ generation weren’t supposed to be immediately ready for employment straight after their education — and, of course, they weren’t saddled with student debt, either.

Related, in my mind, is the way that we treat young people as data to be entered on a spreadsheet. This is managerialism at its worst. Back when I was a teacher and a form tutor, I remember how sorry I felt for the young people in my charge, who were effectively moved around a machine for ‘processing’ them.

Now, in an article for The Guardian, Jeremy Hannay tells it like it is for those who don’t have an insight into the Kafkaesque world of schools:

Let me clear up this edu-mess for you. It’s not Sats. It’s not workload. The elephant in the room is high-stakes accountability. And I’m calling bullshit. Our education system actively promotes holding schools, leaders and teachers at gunpoint for a very narrow set of test outcomes. This has long been proven to be one of the worst ways to bring about sustainable change. It is time to change this educational paradigm before we have no one left in the classroom except the children.

Just like our dog-eat-dog society in the UK could be much more collaborative, so our education system badly needs remodelling. We’ve deprofessionalised teaching, and introduced a managerial culture. Things could be different, as they are elsewhere in the world.

In such systems – and they do exist in some countries, such as Finland and Canada, and even in some brave schools in this country – development isn’t centred on inspection, but rather professional collaboration. These schools don’t perform regular observations and monitoring, or fire out over-prescriptive performance policies. Instead, they discuss and design pedagogy, engage in action research, and regularly perform activities such as learning and lesson study. Everyone understands that growing great educators involves moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem.

That’s the key: “moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem”. Ironically, bureaucratic, hierarchical systems cannot cope with amazing teachers, because they’re to some extent unpredictable. You can’t put them in a box (on a spreadsheet).

Actually, perhaps it’s not the hierarchy per se, but the power dynamics, as Richard D. Bartlett points out in this post.

Yes, when a hierarchical shape is applied to a human group, it tends to encourage coercive power dynamics. Usually the people at the top are given more importance than the rest. But the problem is the power, not the shape. 

What we’re doing is retro-fitting the worst forms of corporate power dynamics onto education and expecting everything to be fine. Newsflash: learning is different to work, and always will be.

Interestingly, Bartlett defines three different forms of power dynamics, which I think is enlightening:

Follett coined the terms “power-over” and “power-with” in 1924. Starhawk adds a third category “power-from-within”. These labels provide three useful lenses for analysing the power dynamics of an organisation. With apologies to the original authors, here’s my definitions:

  • power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
  • power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
  • power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another

The problem with educational institutions, I feel, is that we’ve largely done away with empowerment and social power, and put all of our eggs in the basket of coercion.


Also check out:

  • Working collaboratively and learning cooperatively (Harold Jarche) — “Two types of behaviours are necessary in the network era workplace — collaboration and cooperation. Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, though they are complementary.”
  • Learning Alignment Model (Tom Barrett) – “It is not a step by step process to design learning, but more of a high-level thinking model to engage with that uncovers some interesting potential tensions in our classroom work.”
  • A Definition of Academic Innovation (Inside Higher Ed) – “What if academic innovation was built upon the research and theory of our field, incorporating social constructivist, constructionist and activity theory?”

Is the unbundling and rebundling of Higher Education actually a bad thing?

Until I received my doctorate and joined the Mozilla Foundation in 2012, I’d spent fully 27 years in formal education. Either as a student, a teacher, or a researcher, I was invested in the Way Things Currently Are®.

Over the past six years, I’ve come to realise that a lot of the scaremongering about education is exactly that — fears about what might happen, based on not a lot of evidence. Look around; there are lot of doom-mongers about.

It was surprising, therefore, to read a remarkably balanced article in EDUCAUSE Review. Laura Czerniewicz, Director of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT), at the University of Cape Town, looks at the current state of play around the ‘unbundling’ and ‘rebundling’ of Higher Education.

Very simply, I’m using the term unbundling to mean the process of disaggregating educational provision into its component parts, very often with external actors. And I’m using the term rebundling to mean the reaggregation of those parts into new components and models. Both are happening in different parts of college and university education, and in different parts of the degree path, in every dimension and aspect—creating an extraordinarily complicated environment in an educational sector that is already in a state of disequilibrium.

Unbundling doesn’t simply happen. Aspects of the higher education experience disaggregate and fragment, and then they get re-created—rebundled—in different forms. And it’s the re-creating that is especially of interest.

Although it’s largely true that the increasing marketisation is a stimulus for the unbundling of Higher Education, I’m of the opinion that what we’re seeing has been accelerated primarily because of the internet. The end of capitalism wouldn’t necessarily remove the drive towards this unbundling and rebundling. In fact, I wonder what it would look like if it were solely non-profits, charities, and co-operatives doing this?

Czerniewicz identifies seven main aspects of Higher Education that are being unbundled:

  1. Curriculum
  2. Resources
  3. Flexible pathways
  4. Academic expertise
  5. Opportunities
    • Support
    • Credentials
    • Networks
  6. Graduateness (i.e. ‘the status of being a graduate’)
  7. Experience
    • Mode (e.g. online, blended)
    • Place

As a white male with a terminal degree sitting outside academia, I guess I have a great deal of privilege to check. That being said, I do (as ever) have some opinions about all of this.

As Czerniewicz points out, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with unbundling and rebundling. It’s potentially a form of creative destruction, followed by some Hegelian synthesis.

But I’d like to conclude on a hopeful note. Unbundling and rebundling can be part of the solution and can offer opportunities for reasonable and affordable access and education for all. Unbundling and rebundling are opening spaces, relationships, and opportunities that did not exist even five years ago. These processes can be harnessed and utilized for the good. We need to critically engage with these issues to ensure that the new possibilities of provision for teaching and learning can be fully exploited for democratic ends for all.

Goodness knows that, as a sector, Higher Education can do a much better job of the three main things I’d say we’d want of universities in 2018:

  • Developing well-rounded citizens ready to participate fully in democratic society.
  • Sending granular signals to the job market about the talents and competencies of individuals.
  • Enabling extremely flexible provision for those in work, or who want to take different learning pathways.

That’s not even to mention universities as places of academic freedom and resistance to forms of oppression (including the State).

I think the main reason I’m interested in all of this is mainly through the lens of new forms of credentialing. Czerniewicz writes:

Certification is an equity issue. For most people, getting verifiable accreditation and certification right is at the heart of why they are invested in higher education. Credentials may prove to be the real equalizers in the world of work, but they do raise critical questions about the function and the reputation of the higher education institution. They also raise questions about value, stigma, and legitimacy. A key question is, how can new forms of credentials increase access both to formal education and to working opportunities?

I agree. So the main reason I got involved in Open Badges was that I saw the inequity as a teacher. I want, by the time our eldest child reaches the age where he’s got the choice to go to university (2025), to be able to make an informed choice not to go — and still be OK. Credentialing is an arms race that I’ve done alright at, but which I don’t really want him to be involved in escalating.

So, to conclude, I’m actually all for the unbundling and rebundling of education. As Audrey Watters has commented many times before, it all depends who is doing the rebundling. Is it solely for a profit motive? Is it improving things for the individual? For society? Who gains? Who loses?

Ultimately, this isn’t something that be particularly ‘controlled’, only observed and critiqued. No-one is secretly controlling how this is playing out worldwide. That’s not to say, though, that we shouldn’t call out and resist the worst excesses (I’m looking at you, Facebook). There’s plenty of pedagogical process we can make as this all unfolds.

Source: Educause