Re:Booting CA Higher Education: My First Thoughts

As expected, the 20 Million Minds-sponsored event was fascinating and information-packed. Kudos to the foundation for setting up such a rich and, I think, important meeting. In fact, I’m still digesting it, and may need to write several posts to lay out my thoughts once the dust settles. But I do want to get my initial thoughts down while they are fresh. In particular, underneath all the head nodding and apparent agreement, there were some strikingly divergent ideas about the future of higher education that are worth spelling out in some detail.

At What Cost?

It’s pretty clear that the original impetus for the meeting was, in large part, a concern about rising costs. It’s worth requoting Jerry Brown from the Los Angeles Times article I quoted a few posts ago:

“In order to meet the needs going forward without constant large tuition increases, there will have to be different ways in which people learn and people teach,” Brown said.

He told the regents — and they quickly agreed — to invite industry leaders in free online education, such as the Udacity website, to the January meeting to discuss how UC can more aggressively get into the digital classroom.

Brown said he wanted those talks to be “not in the gilded tones of academia but in the harsh reality of the marketplace and technologies.”

On the one hand, there is a real potential opportunity to bring down cost through course redesign and technology. There are examples of this all over the place, but a good place to start is at the NCAT web site, which has lots of case studies, including reports of both successful and unsuccessful redesigns (none of which required MOOCs, by the way). On the other hand, as both Phil and I have pointed out in recent blog posts, there is no evidence that the cost of instruction is at the heart of college and university budget problems. Bob Samuels, President of the AFT University Council, made this argument forcefully at the meeting. (Samuels has an interesting perspective on the real causes of the university budget crisis and is publishing a book on the topic, due to come out this summer. I hope to do a book review and interview with him at some point.)

Even worse than the fact that California may try to fix the part of the budget that isn’t broken, it is possible that making changes without fully understanding the university’s cost structures could do more harm than good to the overall fiscal health of the institutions. Burck Smith, founder and CEO of Straighter Line, made no bones about the fact that his company’s entire business model is in cutting out the cross-subsidization within college courses. He pointed out that the big survey courses are, in fact, already profit centers. Colleges use the money they make on those courses to subsidize less popular upper-level courses like epistemology or Irish literature. Schools also charge the same amount of money for online courses as they do for face-to-face courses despite the fact that online courses cost less which, again, enables them to use the profits from these courses to subsidize other university activities. Straighter Line’s business model is to carve out this cross-subsidization and offer just the profitable courses at a lower cost.

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with this. Straighter Line has found a way to offer a valuable service at a lower cost by cutting out some of the costs that traditional providers have. This is one of the things that businesses do. But to the degree that you think that the services that are cross-subsidized by these courses in the traditional university are valuable, then messing around with university business models without fully understanding how they work can have serious unintended consequences.

And this is where we get to the seriously divergent views of the future of higher education that were on display throughout the day.

The Importance of Teaching “Earnest”

When a few of us went out for beers after the conference, Audrey Watters told me that Sebastian Thrun’s wife is an adjunct at Stanford who teaches comparative literature and is an Oscar Wilde scholar. What happens to her classes in the post-Re:Boot world? I think we got a range of different answers. At Western Governor’s University, there apparently isn’t much of a place for them. Steve Klinger said electives aren’t offered at WGU because they “don’t add value.” And Audrey reported the following Twitter exchange with @StraighterLine during the conference:

So there is one view of the future of higher education, promoted at the conference by both WGU and Straighter Line, that sees the college degree as a vocational certification. Whether it’s basket weaving or Oscar Wilde, there just isn’t a place for it in this view. I happen to believe that a post-secondary vocational track has been sorely missing in the American educational scene and that its absence has been one reason for the growth of the economic underclass. We need to have skilled labor that fills the space between Walmart greeters and Google software engineers. Right now, we don’t have an education system that enables us to create those jobs. But at the same time, I don’t believe that all post-secondary education should be reduced to purely vocational education. And if those survey courses are, in fact, subsidizing a liberal arts education, then we need to think very carefully before we allow commercial providers to cannibalize all the profitable courses and destroy the business model of the university as we know it—even if those providers can offer quality courses at a lower cost. There is value in the no-frills vocational model, but we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Of course, you don’t have to believe in abandoning the liberal arts model to believe in putting more emphasis on vocational value and giving credit for competencies. Chari Leader Kelley of Learning Counts and California State Legislature Senate President Darrell Steinberg both argued for bringing education and the workplace closer together through something closer to an apprenticeship model. I have argued in these posts that we could benefit from digital apprenticeship and a modern guild system. I also believe these approaches could be compatible with a modern vision of the liberal arts education, if we are careful in how we construct them. (I’ll have more to say about liberal arts in the 21st Century later in this post.) Interestingly, one of the most robust defenses of residential liberal arts education came from Chancellor of University of Wisconsin Colleges Ray Cross, who also made the most emphatic assertion of the day that the future of higher education is in certifying competencies rather than credit hours. He argued that the future university will look like the tutorial systems at places like Oxford and Cambridge, where students meet and get supported in small groups by teachers separate from the large lectures they may attend and independent study paths that they may pursue. Ironically, this is also fairly close to the Western Governors University model in some ways. 

The Picture of Professor Dorian Gray

But Ray Cross’ comments aside, the robust and explicit defense of the concept of a liberal arts education I was expecting was largely missing from the day’s conversation. The closest we came was from Phil Regier, who said that we’re not doing our jobs as educators unless students occasionally “take classes that they hate.” While I wouldn’t put it that way—I prefer to think in terms of the zone of proximal curiosity—I agree with the idea that one of the values of a liberal arts education is to stretch the intellectual horizons of the students. To return to the Twitter snark war between Audrey and Straighter Line, what does the fact that an employee took a course on Irish literature do for an employer? There should be a good answer to this question. I majored in philosophy, and I like to say that my philosophy major was excellent preparation for me to get a job in any field except philosophy. But the faculty representatives in particular were strangely mute on this subject. Does a broader education make for a better employee? A better entrepreneur? A better citizen? A better person? What is the value of a liberal arts education, and why is it worth subsidizing?

I was surprised that none of the faculty representatives seemed to pick up on the fact that the notion of a liberal arts education itself was being challenged, at times quite explicitly. At one point, one of the panelists bizarrely struck out instead with an argument against distance education circa 1995, saying that students learn something by being on campus with different people and struggle to find their way in the system. Now, first of all, this argument ignored the student on the previous panel who said that being able to get a distance learning course was, in fact, the way that she found her way through the system. It enabled her to maintain her full-time status (and thus her financial aid) and prevented her from having to stay in school an extra year just because one of her required classes what not available to her. Second, it betrays an astonishing lack of understanding of what distance learning students have to go through in order to succeed. But perhaps worst of all, it’s a pathetically feeble argument for value. Is that the most robust defense we have of a residential liberal arts education? Because if so, then it deserves to die.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we have grafted modern ideals onto what is essentially still an aristocratic model for education. If you were John Adams or Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin, then you could show how a broad education could lead to powerful results. But most 18th-Century college-educated men (and they were mostly men) were not John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or Benjamin Franklin. Their knowledge of art or literature or history were mostly markers of privilege. They could afford to spend time studying that stuff. Part of the social value of a university liberal arts degree was exactly that it was practically unnecessary. It was literally a luxury. In the ensuing centuries, we have tinkered with the model a bit to support the idea that it has value to everyone. With core curriculum, and more recently core competencies, we have made some effort to graft a process to encourage an undergraduate career that led the students to experiences of real value. But it’s still just a graft. That is no longer sufficient. We must articulate the values and value of a broad education. We must engineer a system that ensures students benefit from those values and that value. And we must come up with a plan to scale that system so that students everywhere can receive the benefits of it broadly. If we do not, then the liberal arts education will likely die off in public education and go back to being what it was—a marker of the privileged class that is only accessible to people who can afford to go to Harvard. And it is not at all clear to me that xMOOCs like edX and Coursera, by themselves, solve this problem.

Now What?

As I said at the top of my post, I’m still digesting what I learned from the day and will likely have more thoughts on what all this means as time goes by. But I do have some initial ideas about what could be done to build on the day:

  1. Develop an aggressive program of experimentation and evaluation: Despite my focus in this post on the differences and omissions, I think there was a lot of agreement in the group, including, most importantly, that we need to experiment and try different approaches that have the potential to improve both quality and access (including cost). California should encourage a broad range of pilots to be developed quickly with as much peer review and cross-fertilization as possible. The various stakeholder groups need to build some common ground of experience that they can work from, as well as some assurance that they will have the support they need to both conduct the experiments and drive broader implementation of successful pilots.
  2. Have a data-driven and public conversation about the cost and sustainability models of these institutions and systems: The people of California need to have a clearer understanding of what they are paying for and how the money flows. Otherwise, they run the danger of trying to solve the wrong problem. There needs to be an effort at better transparency, and it can’t require years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars in ERP re-engineering to get done.
  3. Develop personas and use cases that help the stakeholder groups have focused and productive conversations about their visions for the future of post-secondary education in California: It’s easy to get into abstract conversations about values that go nowhere. A better approach would be to develop models of types of students with specific goals and then have a conversation about the best ways to serve those students and support those goals.

With an aggressive approach, I think substantial progress could be made on all three goals within 12 months and real solid results that could help build the knowledge base and coalition necessary for good reform legislation within 24.

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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5 Responses to Re:Booting CA Higher Education: My First Thoughts

  1. Nick DiNardo says:

    Well said Michael. Your take on the future of the liberal arts education specifically interests me. I too am a product of a liberal arts undergraduate education (Wesleyan University) where I received a degree in economics. When I talk about my profession, I often get the question, “what did you major in?”. When I give my response, the rebuttal is always filled with confusion as to how a person with an economics degree end up in the education industry.

    It is a part of modern human behavior (or perception) I have always found fascinating…and I think it points to the almost laser focus on functionality in a degree. If you major in education you must become a teacher, etc. It is obvious that in the current marketplace it is important to focus on degree function. However, in my gut I just think that students may be losing some of the fun, creativity, and open minded conversation that comes from a liberal arts education.

    I look forward to hearing more about potential action from the conference. Do you know if there is a video archive available of the day’s events? I was not able to live stream.

    Thanks for your continued great content.


  2. Clay says:

    The trouble with aggressive programs of experimentation is that they cost a great deal, and the sort of cost that has the political optics of a lot of waste.

    It’s more likely that a single course of action will be focused on, and the rhetoric of experimentation will be used to paper over concerns and uncertainty about that course of action.

    I think this is precisely what we’re seeing.

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  4. Fred M Beshears says:

    Michael, I worked at UC Berkeley for twenty years (1987 – 2007), first as the assistant director of the Instructional Technology Program and latter as a senior strategist for Educational Technology Services (which resulted from a merger of ITP and the Office of Media Services). Also, as part of my role in ITP, I initiated the first campus wide Learning Management System service on the Berkeley campus. Finally, for about eight years I staffed the Chancellor’s Computing and Communications Policy Board’s Instructional Technology subcommittee (the CCCPB-IT). So, I have a fair amount of experience with Instructional Technology at the Berkeley campus.

    So, for those who claim that the University has done all it can to find ways to reduce the cost of instruction through the use of information technology, I have one question: Who, if anyone, has the authority and the mandate to be in charge of this effort.

    Some might think that units that provide services related to Instructional Technology and Education Technology might have some mandate and authority to persue the goal of cost reduction, but they would be very wrong if they belived this to be the case. We could look for ways to improve the quality of instruction, but I know from personal experience that we would run into stiff resistance if we explicity started even talking about ways to reduce the cost of instruction.

    Also, it’s very unlikely that faculty would look for ways to “innovate themselves out of a job” as one instructor put it to me.

    So, if IT support staff are not mandated to look for ways to reduce cost ,and faculty do not see it as being in their interests to do so, is it credible for representatives from the university to suggest that anyone is seriously trying to find ways to reduce the cost of instruction through the use of technology?

    Fred M Beshears

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