Innovation

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu

It is widely accepted that creativity and innovation are more than ever before the key resource for individuals and societies. Innovation is now the main avenue towards job creation and economic growth and the only route to a sustainable future. International studies (e.g. OECD) document the fact that the most successful economies are those capable to nurture creativity and support innovative research and quality education. However, the attraction of innovation for investment returns represents just the most visible part of a variety of benefits.

In the uncertainty marking the present and the future of higher education it became clear that the successful modern universities will be only those capable to create knowledge and innovative solutions for the multitude of economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges. Universities must find ways to adapt, change and build on the power of their imaginations.

The effect of global economic crisis and the vulnerability of economic growth, the unprecedented youth marginalization, unemployment and underemployment, the impact of ecological and social crises require the power to imagine new approaches and design new possibilities. Creativity and innovation represent the fuel and the engine capable to provide new solutions for a sustainable future. The only certainty for universities is that days ahead will be filled with uncertainty, with serious risks and some opportunities. Only those able to change and use their creativity to generate new ideas and solutions for these fast changing contexts will be able to grow.

This is why we shouldn’t be surprised that “innovative research” is included now in the “aims and goals” of all universities and their departments, faculties and various centres. This is one of the few points where we find in higher education a widespread consensus over a goal: we need to have innovation! However, very few get any at all. This is because innovation requires most of all the courage to nurture free thinking, relax hierarchies and power structures, emphasize collaboration and refuse tokenism. These are some very uncomfortable decisions. The fact is that university leaders and administrators have the power to change direction for a sustainable future for their institutions, but this requires vision, intelligence and courage. 

Innovation requires courage and vision.

A widely known example is provided by Steve Jobs. Although he wasn’t a great innovator (all great innovations promoted by Steve Jobs are invented by other people and companies), he had the tremendous courage and vision to build on (and promote) innovations rejected or ignored by others. When he returned to Apple he had the courage to reduce the number of products offered by his company from 350 to 10! Against all he said that immediate profit was not all that matters and it proved to be right! The result was that those 10 products saved the company. Later, when Nokia refused to use the touch screen (because customers will never want that, right?) he had the courage to change entirely the face of a phone and Apple created the first iPhone. He had the vision and courage to launch an iPad when all experts said that this is a silly mistake. He changed the world with courage and vision!

There is no need to be a great inventor to build a culture of innovation.

This is something that many can contemplate in higher education. Universities have a modest record for innovation, especially in the last years (and many universities register a total failure in innovative research). What goes today as “innovation” in higher education can be reduced to an obsessive repetition of few slogans, some commercial leitmotifs and a small list of mantra-like sentences that failed to advance anything for a long time. The uncertain future and fast changing contexts call to see what goes wrong and seriously rethink our solutions.

Vision and a genuine commitment to nurture imagination and creativity, build engagement and stir the passion of all involved is what a leader must have. A genuine distaste for tokenism and mediocrity, a commitment for meritocracy and flexibility are crucial for innovation in higher education. 

There is no need to be an inventor to build a culture of innovation and excellence in a team or across a university. 

Innovation is a matter of strategic choices and decisions – it is better to contemplate them before! Hanging slogans on the walls comes with a price.

It is much better to think about the call for innovation before the rhetoric is visibly and enthusiastically announcing a strong commitment to go in search of it. Innovative research involves much more than a buzzword looking good in organizational documents. If the call for innovation is doubled with micromanagement, control and a rule for all to “salute the flag”, the effect is more insidious and damaging than it looks.

We can imagine that adopters of the paradigm of bureaucratic control and the strong emphasis on hierarchies enjoy to believe their own rhetoric, count useless research projects published in sham scientific journals while listening in pseudo-academic events the sweet tones of self-congratulatory chorus. However, the price of denial is devastating: promoting an inwards oriented incremental existence and hindering flexibility, these rituals severely undermine engagement, morale, trust and stifle innovation. This model leaves the university incapable to adapt to the fast changing realities that determine its existence and future. Masked as “commitment for innovation” this is a way to secure a future of slow and painful dissolution for a university.

“I put a dollar in one of those change machines. Nothing changed.” George Carlin

How can we stir the imagination of so many experts involved in teaching and research in a wide variety of specialized fields of science and humanities to produce innovative research? What can be fixed to turn innovation from an empty buzzword into a vibrant reality across the campus? What can we learn from those universities capable to “get it right” in nurturing and securing innovation? How can we take creative ideas and apply them in universities stuck on the wrong alleys?

The bad news is that there is no magic solution to have innovation next Tuesday. The good news is that answers to these problems can be found in history, practice and a vast literature available to those who are interested to build a culture of creativity, maintain excellence in research and add innovation as an integral part of their universities*.

We explored in a book the mentality captured so well by George Carlin. In the ubiquitous call for innovation in higher education it became soon evident again that all rhetoric, effort and investments turn into a void exercise when “innovation” is accepted only when it stays in line with bureaucratic arrangements and reinforce hierarchies. Change - various bureaucrats and administrators say - but maintain status quo! Critique… but only if what you challenge is not involving us! Explore… but keep in mind that any exploration challenging status quo can cost your job! Innovate… but only in line with what we already know that we want!

This approach will never work. Innovation arises from a complex mix of factors in a certain type of culture, involving the skills and passion of those involved. It is not simply solved by pouring more money into it and assign a convenient ‘director’ to control and punish.

We can build a culture where creativity is nurtured, but innovation cannot be timetabled! 

The idea that “dropping a dollar in the machine” leads to innovation is constantly challenged by specialists (e.g. see here). Experts argue that innovation is much more determined by policies rather than pouring investments in research (eg. Allott, S.). Prioritising cash and control over the engagement of faculty and informed policies for innovation is in the current context a potentially disastrous decision for the future of any university.

Conspicuously rejecting any views and approaches that clash with their own world views, many administrators (include here Presidents, Deans, directors etc.) manage not only to turn the call for innovation into ridiculous examples of tokenism and failure, but further disengage and demotivate the faculty. The dollar dropped in the machine is wasted: indeed, nothing changes! Moreover, this poorly spent dollar is severely damaging morale and engagement.

Innovative research and academic freedom

In 1948, just few years before he was elected The President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower became the President of Columbia University. Eisenhower, a former army general used to military hierarchy and the chain of command, was addressing the faculty of this prestigious university starting by calling them “employees of the university”. A professor interrupted Eisenhower, saying “Mr. President, we are not employees of the university. We are the university.

This may seem idealistic, but the message is worth contemplating. In very few words, we can admit that a university is just the sum of professional qualities and engagement of its faculty and students. The walls are nothing without this genuine commitment for quality learning and teaching, research and their contribution to the world.

Bureaucratic hierarchy and ‘directed research’ stifle engagement and hinder change and innovation.

A modern university is facing very different demands from the audience that was familiar to the former American general. This institution is not a sum of disciplined “soldiers” working on the assembly line designed to deliver skills for a set of jobs (that may be gone when students graduate). A university is responsible to develop the whole thinking person, to expand horizons and instill the love for learning in individuals and build democratic citizenship with engaged and informed citizens who have the power to make democracy work. A university is also asked to cultivate imagination and creativity, defend civilization and create new knowledge, act as a forum where free and responsible minds can “question the unquestionable” for the benefit of our societies. Universities have the power to provide innovative solutions, but when tools of a successful army are used in this institution results are equal to those imagined if we promote debate groups for soldiers when they are in the line of fire. 

Dogmatism, control and fear are hostile to innovation.

Unfortunately, the risk to believe that administrative power is automatically synonymous to knowledge, vision and informed decisions is endemic. It is also a devastating belief for an institution. This – along with a strange managerial approach based on fear, which is viewed as a strong motivator and source of results – push ahead a misconception on the academic life and the nature of work in pursue of innovation. This approach involves serious risks for sustainability within and outside the walls of academia.

The lesson of this anecdote is that an obvious fact at the core of academic work is often missed by policy makers, administrators of universities and institutions of research: a university is fundamentally different from military! It is fair to say that both institutions deserve respect, but they have different roles, histories and demands from society. Military have to secure ironclad discipline as a key to secure the chain of command and execution, which stays at the basis of its power and efficiency. Control, fear and intimidation are important tools to train soldiers and maintain discipline, but for a university they spell disaster.

Imagine a small European city in 15th century, the size of a modern small neighbourhood (roughly 45,000 people), ruled by a wealthy family. Now imagine that in this city was possible to meet (often in the same days) some of the brightest minds of humanity, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Sandro Botticelli (unfortunately a nut like Savonarola was also there, but this is another interesting and significant part of the story). How was this possible? What was in the water? One detail is that the ruler of this city comes from a family famous for love of arts and culture, education and progress. His family protected important philosophers such as Tommaso Campanella or Galileo Galilei, the father of the Scientific Revolution. His grandfather spent a fortune to support arts, architecture, scholarly learning, establishing the Platonic Academy for the study of ancient works. This ruler, Lorenzo de Medici, known as “Il Magnifico” (The Magnificent), shares the values of his family. The enlightened leader is doing something unthinkable for those times: he protects different minds and encourages new ideas. He knew that Caravaggio is a drunk and a troublemaker, but a unique artist. He knew that Michelangelo is secretly conducting dissections on human bodies to learn anatomy, which was at that time securing a death sentence, but he was an innovator who deserved protection and encouragement.

A Cypriot crisis or a Renaissance Florence?

Lorenzo de Medici ignored the sacrilege (with some risks for himself) just because he knew that Michelangelo is a unique artist that will change humanity through his creations. He was a protector of culture and the lower class enjoyed a greater level of comfort, freedom and protection than it had before. In effect, that small town named Florence became one of the most important city-states in Europe and (arguably) the most beautiful city in the world at that time. What today is called “academic freedom” was secured for the first time in centuries and the culture and suppressed creativity exploded, opening for a period of great innovations and change. The administrator of Florence understood that “lower classes” need freedom to stay engaged and that creative individuals are not always comfortable to power. In our times we can look at this through what Michael Fullan notes as an important key to secure secure innovation:

Policy makers will have to design policy levers which give them less control than they would like [...] in exchange for the potential of higher yield innovation and commitment on the ground

A relaxed approach on hierarchy, power and control is crucial if we aim to develop a reality of creativity and innovation. Great results do not come in this field if we constantly tell people what to do and what they should expect if they do not do it as indicated.

The contemporary story of the European economic crisis should be a valuable source of lessons for universities on the price of self-comforting denial, suppression of meritocracy and silencing voices speaking “truth to power”. This is a tragic story where self-absorbed local groups and a stunning lack of vision and care for the future clashed in the end with reality. The Greek and Cypriot crisis show that countries can pay a terrible price and we can agree that a university can fall faster than a country from the same reasons!

Encourage in-depth thinking and create the means to detect and address pseudo-innovations and tokenism

Looking once over a “faculty innovation report” it became visible the the only note about innovation was related to the use of iPads in classrooms. It should be obvious that using a tablet or a laptop is not innovative. Using an iPad in classroom is not making a lecturer “innovative”, but a good customer of Apple. If you like to believe that the shiny new tablet turns you into an innovator this is just great, but it will not create knowledge or solutions.

Academic freedom** is not a luxury or an ideological stand, but a necessary precondition to creativity and innovation. This is a matter of strategic choices that can enable a university to make the most of new opportunities and find the best responses to challenges as well as threats.

“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something” Thomas A. Edison

Suppression of academic freedom turns de facto a university and the academic life into a farce. A travesty like this works for a while, but inevitably comes with devastating consequences on the long term.

Salt

We analysed in a previous article why universities should be much more concerned – and socially engaged – about the fast changing social, cultural and economic context. It is highly relevant for their future that unemployment and underemployment is increasingly affecting college and university graduates. In USA more than 40 percent of unemployed have been out of work for more than six months, almost double the previous post-World War Two record. Moreover, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that five million college and university graduates are in jobs that require less than a high-school education. The BLS statistics reveal that 48 percent of employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that require less than a four-year university education. 

The proportion of overeducated workers exponentially increased in various jobs in the last decades. It is worth to observe that in 1970’s less than 1% of taxi drivers and 2% percent of firefighters had college degrees in US, while in 2012 over 15% percent do in both jobs.

This is a common situation across the world. In China, graduate unemployment is an official concern for The Ministry of Education, with millions unemployed after graduation. College educated find more difficult to land a job than those who have little formal education: “those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education” (source here)

Unemployment and underemployment register a constant rise across European Union. According to Eurostat, in 2012 there were 9.2 million part-time workers in the EU27 who wished to work more hours and are officially considered to be underemployed. The situation is close to get out of control (and we have reasons to expect a tumultuous 2013). In Italy, unemployed workers (700,000) despair over the future as it was announced that the redundancy budget runs dry.

A report published by Credit Suisse in February 2013 indicates: “The rising trend of youth unemployment around the world threatens not just current economic growth but also political stability and the potential demographic dividend“.

In the unstable global economy innovation stays as the key factor of difference for the future of local economies, communities and countries. Our future depends on our knowledge and capacity to innovate. Too many administrators in higher education go ahead as self-proclaimed masters of innovation and astute management, wasting the time and resources of their universities on expensive tokenism able just to exhibit grave misconceptions, narcissism and mediocrity. It is vital to stop this and engage in efforts aiming to lead to a genuine change, and adapt to this new context affecting students and graduates.

Some institutions are still floating in a parallel reality where clicks and tricks are seen capable to solve systemic problems without a touch of the status quo. Too many university administrators are still sedated by the vision of eternal positions of power and control where they indicate what research is wanted and when innovation should happen. This state of facts in a general climate of economic and social instability is the recipe for disaster. In UK, today universities seek to explain a severe drop on student enrolments despite cutbacks (see here). Universities find that the new context requires new ideas, new approaches to attract students and contribute to their societies and economies. Imagining efficient and innovative solutions for student engagement becomes vital for the future of the university. Moreover, the fact that unprecedented levels of unemployment involve an increasing risk of social unrest is not only a problem of social responsibility for universities. It is also a problem for their future.

Innovation and creativity will be key for a sustainable future.

There is a known biblical story about Lot’s wife, who was punished to turn into a pillar of salt because she looked back at a burning city. This old story is a metaphor with multiple meanings and interpretations, but some details are based on facts of those times. Why turned into pillar of salt as punishment? Why not stone or sand? An explanation is that salt was used as a preservative for thousands of years. This was the most visible symbol for conservation – and it was used as a warning. Those failing to change are punished by turning into lifeless forms of salt.  

Higher education is at crossroads. It is the time for a serious reflection about the strategic decisions and choices for the road ahead for universities. Some prefer to maintain strong hierarchies, mimic change and glue the label of “innovation” on trivial and useless things just to maintain status quo. The “pillars of salt” of higher education are more fragile than it seems. It will become clearer soon that many will end up where they are heading.

*

** Resources on academic freedom:

1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure

Declaration of Academic Freedom (Scientific Human Rights)

The Magna Charta Observatory of Fundamental University Values and Rights

Network for Education and Academic Rights

Academics for Academic Freedom (UK)

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Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1997 “The End of History and The Last Man”, a book that became soon extremely popular and so influential that some say that international policies were shaped at that time by the strange vision promoted by the author. Fukuyama is a former official of the US State Department’s policy planning staff and his ideas were at that time widely adopted as facts and vision of a certain future. In very few words, the theory advanced by the book is that all nations are or aim to become capitalist democracies. Therefore, history “has ended” as ideological conflicts are things of the past. One vision prevailed – that of neoliberal capitalism and democracy – and institutional revolution reached an end. As economic and ideological major issues have been settled in one final perfect vision of neoliberal capitalism, the future is just peace, trade and consumption within universally accepted principles of democracy and free trade. The vision adopted in late 90’s in most centers of power proved soon to be just a superficial utopia. It became clear that taking this as a vision for the future was a colossal mistake. The history offered a painful succesion of unpredictable events, various conflicts caused by ideological differences, new crises and a rise to power of countries openly against democratic ideals (yes, China is here one notable example). The End of History and The Last Man is not only one of the most influential books of a decade, but stays as a source of some of the most reckless ideas that made the democratic world more vulnerable to crises and attacks. However, universities seems oblivious that this has happened just few years ago and fail to lern an important lesson.

The current discourse and most visible debates in education currently take the same dangerous path of shallow analysis, tendentiousness, twist of facts to fit an agenda and stay relaxed with the suppression of alternative perspectives. Higher education proudly promotes nowadays that the end of its history was reached and MOOCs – as “revolutionary change” – finally came to solve the problems of Academia, leaving behind the ivory tower.

This narrative states that students across the world will have (online) equal access to higher education, university administrators have a way to secure continuous growth, profits and expansion, while profits, peace and harmony became the only foreseeable future of new online universities. Oblivious to the complexity of current problems facing higher education and youth, these voices focus on the single problem seen on their horizon: some brick-and-mortar universities still fail to understand that this is the only path to survival. We hear that their hesitation to fully adopt MOOCs and for-profit solutions ineluctably lead to a future of suffering and painful dissolution.

In “An Avalanche is Coming. Higher education and the revolution ahead” – a widely publicized new report with a title in line with the already old “tsunami of change”, “disruptive innovation” etc. – the authors announce that even elite universities could struggle to survive if they don’t adopt a for-profit model and MOOCs. The little detail that this analysis is provided by Pearson, one of the biggest corporations in education with a set of investments and interests that stand against an objective analysis is vastly ignored. Facts seems to matter only if they serve a well funded and professionally promoted agenda.

Groupthink

Vested interest are not the only explanation for this phenomenon characterized by a focus on (not even new) technological solutions and utter disregard of pedagogical, cultural and even economic issues at the core of higher education. Facts such as that typically less than 10% of students in these courses “graduate”, that even in non-marked courses with no credits plagiarism is widespread and quality assurance is a worrying and recurrent issue escapes in the avalanche of these biased reports. It is clear that this is not the place to repeat the long list of concerns and issues related to MOOCs as analysed in the recent book “What Undermines Higher Education”. However, there are some additional concerns to this online solution that seems to be at the heart of a tunnel vision on education.

In 1972 the sociologist William H. Whyte coined the term “groupthink” to describe how a group converge to normatively “correct” ideas and interpretations while becoming impervious to alternative perspectives and criticism. Symptoms of groupthink were presented in 1972 by Irving L. Janis in the influential “Victims of Groupthink”. They are important to keep in perspective when we find ubiquitously that the current debate in higher education is reduced to MOOCs.

We find often that the “group” within and around Academia seems mesmerized by the new hype and insists to remain unaware of important challenges facing our students and unchartered implications of MOOCs, a solution used since 2008 (!) by Dave Cormier, Manager of Web Communication and Innovations at the Canadian University of Prince Edward Island, also the author of this term.

Summarizing, the inventory of groupthink symptoms includes “discounting warnings that might challenge assumptions”, “unquestioned belief in group’s morality”, “shutting down of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus”, “illusion of unanimity” or “mindguards – self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting opinions”. Many organizations became extremely vulnerable to ‘groupthink’ as internal mechanisms of freedom of thinking, dialogue and critique for progress and sustainable evolution were sacrificed for immediate profits. A top-down management style – with a limited focus on profitability justifying the ruthless approach to work-relations and employment – came with this corrosive and ultimately fatal effect.

Too often “mindguards” are lecturing now about the use of MOOCs even if it stays clear that they have no expertise in massive open online courses, use of learning management systems and online solutions for learning. The “group” insists to ignore the obvious consequences of following the advice of dilettantes in shaping the future of their institutions.

Even if we assume that most MOOCs will step beyond the reality of a simple reading list, some video /audio files and a vast discussion forum (hoping that we agree that this cannot be considered higher education), the question remains if the place of MOOCs on the agenda of most institutions of higher education coincides with the real agenda of our students. After decades of “student-centered” approaches we see that the voice of students is the least important factor in the current conversation.

There is no sign of alarm when it is widely accepted that a corporation with a revenue of over £5 billion in 2012 is telling universities that “the next 50 years could see a golden age for higher education, but only if all the players in the system, from students to governments, seize the initiative and act ambitiously”. Of course, “ambitiously” is translated in a convenient agenda for the company listed on the London and New York Stock Exchange, including MOOCs (with no clarification of solutions for their pedagogical challenges), “niches or market segments” that universities “want to serve”.

The context of the “golden age”

Universities are at the center of our economic, cultural and social life. Determined by the economy, political decisions and cultural preferences, their performance impacts directly on the future of the social fabric, culture and economies. This interdependence is important to be grasped when we talk about the present and future of higher education. Their importance explains why we have to look at the promise of a possible “golden age” with great care. 

Young people – those between 15 and 24 years old, who are the key group for higher education – felt the most the effects of the economic downturn through the GFC. Currently, the situation is truly dramatic. In Ireland, Greece, Italy, UK or Spain staggering numbers of young people stay unemployed or join the increasingly massive group of NEETs (youth not in employment, education or training). Societe Generale is warning in a recent note that:

“Economic crisis in developed countries have reinforced unemployment, especially with the youth… With lower population support, large upheavals could threaten government stability. Social unrest is also looming in many emerging markets, where income inequality has increased or remained high since the 1980s”.

It also notes that this should be a source of concern around the world and rise of inequality is a general trend: “Distribution inequalities and corruption are among the main concerns of the Chinese population according to recent surveys”. Poverty affects the lives of millions of people not only in developing countries, but across the European Union. The International Red Cross announced that that the amount of food aid distributed to people in Europe by their institution has reached levels not seen since World War II.

In the US, unemployment among 18-29 year olds is above 12% (and we can add 1.7 million young people who have just given up looking for work entirely – with this figures included the effective unemployment rate for youth is over 16%). Muhtar Kent the Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company, publicly expressed the concern that youth unemployment “has a chance of cracking the social fabric“.

The fact is that inequality across the world reached unthinkable proportions and youth are one of the most disadvantaged groups. A recent report released by the Urban Institute reflects: “Despite the Great Recession and slow recovery, the American dream of working hard, saving more, and becoming wealthier than one’s parents holds true for many. Unless you’re under 40. Stagnant wages, diminishing job opportunities, and lost home values may be painting a vastly different future for Gen X and Gen Y.”

Youth, including prospective students and graduates, find that their future is bleak and a diploma is not dramatically changing what they can expect. The Urban Institute study documents that youth is facing a decline in opportunities with a clear impact on all aspects of their (and our) future.

In the last years, the most important international organizations - from OECD and UN to Eurostat and Oxfam – release severe warnings to politicians and governments around the world on the risks involved by the record inequality between rich and poor, youth marginalization and social injustice.  However, academics and universities (and loud voices of all mindguards of academic dialogue) insist to believe that higher education is looking at “golden age” if MOOCs are adopted and markets are served. It may come as a surprise that most students don’t care if they are part of a class of 100,000 and do what they already do on their own Twitter and Facebook accounts. If we continue our parallel dialogue about technology and ignore their interests and concerns students see just that they don’t find educational solutions to feel engaged and effectively learn for their future.

Before this ‘golden age’ universities will see – providing MOOCs or not – that prospective student find harder and harder to go into insurmontable debts and social tensions are on the rise. Online chats and the illusion of higher learning in massive crowds with resources that are most of the time already accesible may be insufficient to deal with daily realities. There are too many cases in history when the mistake to believe an utopian “golden age” turned into a nightmare. The next 50 years definitely require much more from higher education than an online platform solution and old neoliberal ideas packaged as serious visionary analysis.

The last MOOCs

MOOCs are one solution for an area of higher education. Online education opened decades ago new opportunities and possibilities for students and educators. Nevertheless, this is already part of learning in all modern universities. There is a time to take a look if we are not contaminated by groupthinking and shift to seriously explore wider implications of the future of higher education. We can start by seriously questioning the strident voice of those mimicking academic analysis for their vested interests. Adopting the long forgotten academic skepticism may prove once again the solution for our common progress.

If higher education reached the point of simple delivery of various reading lists, different resources, standardized tests and formal processes then it may be that the history of education really ended and we reached the days to accept it. If universities find the idea that they are responsible to their societies to provide alternative and courageous solutions, unaffected by corporate interests and short-term profit perspectives, to contribute to the world by making of higher civilization, then we have to admit that the entire discussion should be reduced to the packaging and technological solutions. We just have to provide pre-packaged education to all who can pay a small price. If it works for cheap hamburgers, it should work for junk education. Moreover, the idealistic perspective of alternative thinking as solution for flexibility, creative and new ideas for our crises may be just a futile and dangerous exercise for consumers and amenable employees.

The last MOOCs will most probably serve independently as academic ATMs for delivery of resources, tests and “academic credits”, charging just few cents per transaction. Creativity, imagination and the aristocracy of the intellect will be part of a MOOC course on ancient history. 

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Even if universities may look well on the surface there is an increasing (and justified) concern that all will change soon. New data and analysis increase the anxiety that the current monopoly of higher education will be lost and just few universities will survive. No one knows which, how many or even if any university will have the chance to celebrate the middle of this century. Deafened by the noise of various bureaucrats and mediocre academics interested to say only what their masters like to hear, some universities and academic groups struggle to see beyond fads and slogans what is shaping the future that will change their existence. This hidden uneasiness is justified. An increasing number of disruptive factors – adding to the obvious and massive impact of Internet and online education – already are changing the landscape for higher education: the significant increase of youth isolation and marginalization, graduate unemployment and persistent underemployment, a concerning economic forecast of a constant slowdown of global growth (with implications for numbers of international students) and issues evolving from the global ageing population (and implications on lifelong learning strategies and numbers of local students). There is even more on the horizon and – while teaching and learning are still organized within university walls by models designed in early 1960s – the pace of change is accelerating.

We will succinctly look here at some of these factors and see how they build a perfect storm that will change the landscape for universities and our future. Higher education is at the crossroads and tremendous changes are now starting to unravel.

Euro crisis and higher education

There is an important warning for universities in the recent street protests of millions of Europeans. This is not only because Europe’s Budget Crisis Hits Universities, but they are bearing the cost of stubbornly staying in denial and avoiding inconvenient truths. There was a time when an honest and direct dealing with those inconvenient facts about dysfunctional policies, corruption or structural issues was the key to avoid the current turmoil. Soon it will be clear if similar problems will drive universities, which are displaying a confidence and arrogance very similar with what was common in Brussels in the last decade, to the same path. In Europe it has become tragically clear that this was a recipe for disaster. These problems cannot be solved as long as EU elites are proving to be incapable of dealing realistically with their own problems, making the disastrous choice of supporting and protecting its financial centres while leaving youth with no hope for a decent future. Youth unemployment and marginalization in Europe has reached in a very short time proportions that were just unimaginable less than ten years ago. This will have immense implications for the long-term. Only 34% of Europeans aged between 15 and 29 were employed in 2011, this being the lowest figure ever recorded by the Eurostat. Since 2009 all projected economic outlooks for Europe have proved to be too optimistic for a dysfunctional union living in a state of delusion.

Scenes seen in the last months of 2012 with riot police at the front door of the European Commission is a rich metaphor, but troops cannot be sufficient for the increasing frustration and indignation of citizens ruined by a model of governance based on the constant refusal of an elite to deal with reality. Arrogance, a love for simplistic answers and the habit to promote self-deceptive fantasies against complex solutions for real challenges are responsible for the current crisis. The intense sense of frustration among “the lost generation” – now a common phrase used by the media to describe European youth – and the panic of those who see that after a life of work there is no security for tomorrow is adding pressure to hold the decision-makers responsible for their failures.

To understand why Europe is a possible source of inspiration for those still uncertain that in higher education it is the time to replace rhetoric with structural and fundamental changes we can also look at the extraordinary remarks of Georges Haddad, Director of the Education Research and Foresight branch of UNESCO. Talking about UNESCO’s work on higher education, he bravely approached some facts that look equally valid for most universities:

The most important thing to UNESCO is just the appearance. We say ‘Education for All’ and ‘lifelong learning’ and the ministers are happy because they listen to what they want to hear […] UNESCO used to be a laboratory of ideas, and look what it produced in the 1960s and 1970s. Now it’s conservative. They are completely scared of political sanctions.

Universities are scared of these and many other things – the truth is that they have to fight hard to become again laboratories of ideas. The pressure of these factors may irritate again those use to listening only “to what they want to hear”, but ignoring them will not make anything disappear.

Marco Mancini, the president of the Conference of Italian University Rectors, said this year that Italian universities are facing “the risk of the collapse of the system”. In the same month, students protesting across UK summarized in just three words what is now affecting now university graduates: dis-empowerment, marginalization and unemployment. Their frustration may come from the fact that education is blocked by obsolete models of teaching, structured under a business model of a for-profit industry clashing with the ideals of quality education.  Graduates cannot cope with contemplating the prospect of unemployment or underemployment.

A crisis of higher education (that we cannot longer ignore)

It is widely accepted that we already have a serious crisis in higher education. For example, we can see this reflected by results on a US national poll sponsored by TIME and Carnegie Corporation and conducted by GfK Custom Research North America in October 2012. This national research used a sample of 1,000 U.S. adults and 540 senior administrators at public and private two- and four-year colleges and universities. Results revealed that 89% of U.S. adults and 96% of senior administrators at colleges and universities said higher education is in crisis, and almost half of both groups considered the crisis to be “severe”. We can just hope that this time, data and evidence will not be ignored just because they are not aligned with the commonly accepted mantras.

This situation should require at least some answers from those who said for the last decade that “academia should learn from business” and that efficiency and (financial) surplus is all that matters. Most probably in time the same voices will lecture the same audiences how obviously silly it was to accept as viable the abdication and abandonment of principles of academic freedom and intellectual autonomy. They will note that eroding the core of academic life for the enthusiastic adoption of the principles of market mechanisms was the central cause of the cataclysmic landscape of higher education that they face.

Michael Sandel, professor of Government at Harvard University and one of the best known intellectuals around the world recently noted:

The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don’t belong.”

Universities are set to learn that this is not only true, but see the serious consequences of ignoring implications of this on their sustainability.

Unfortunately, the hegemony of a unique paradigm based on a neo-liberal policy and management framework still restricts the collective imagination to look for and apply alternative solutions. The marketization and McDonaldization of higher education came with a great price for universities, economies and the future of our economic growth. The most important part may be that this unique model – aggressively promoted by conservatives as the only sane solution for higher education – suppressed a genuine debate on a variety of issues of crucial importance for universities in the 21st century.

An obsolete model of teaching and a parallel way of learning

In “Leisure College, USA: The Decline in Student Study Time”, a study published in 2010, Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks summarized the research on the changes in the last four decades of study time allocated by students enrolled in US universities:

In 1961, the average full-time student at a four-year college in the United States studied about twenty-four hours per week, while his modern counterpart puts in only fourteen hours per week. Students now study less than half as much as universities claim to require. This dramatic decline in study time occurred for students from all demographic subgroups, for students who worked and those who did not, within every major, and at four-year colleges of every type, degree structure, and level of selectivity. Most of the decline predates the innovations in technology that are most relevant to education and thus was not driven by such changes. The most plausible explanation for these findings, we conclude, is that standards have fallen at post-secondary institutions in the United States.”

Research also indicates that time allocated toward leisure increased on average with nine hours per week between 1961 and the 2000s. It will be naive to consider this just a North American situation as similar studies around the world are in line with Babcock’s findings. The change is substantial, constant and globalized. In “The first year experience in Australian universities. Findings from 1994 to 2009” we find data reflecting a very similar evolution in Australia: “…it is apparent that first year students time spend less time in private study compared with five years ago: 10.6 hours on average per week in 2009 compared with 11 hours in 2004”

Along with a constant decrease of time spent in campus, in class and in private study it is also documented an increasing number of students reporting the intention of deferring university enrollment “because they dislike study”.

The most interesting part is that this constant decrease allocated to study is doubled by a constant increase in grades. The increasing average of students’ grades is proportionally aligned with the constant decrease of time, work and interest on studying at university. Moreover, the enthusiasm of the first year of study in the university – documented as being crucial for the academic evolution of students – is affected by other factors as documented by the Australian study.

It is more evident these days that the simple increase of student numbers is not related to a better quality or academic rigor of university standards.

We cannot simplistically consider that most students today are not interested in study or refuse to make the effort to build an educated mind: another recent report suggests that students spend more time preparing for class than their instructors think they do and – even if “research has shown that today’s students spend fewer hours hitting the books than their parents did [...] faculty also appear to expect less from students than they have in the past“. Here we can see that expectations and standards are not set by students.

The constant decline of time devoted to study can also be analyzed taking into consideration the simple fact that students these days learn differently. Consistent research has already proven that learning has been profoundly changed by the Internet and new technologies. A current fad is simply to move courses to online mediums using learning taxonomies, which are intellectually simplistic and philosophically naive ways to organize content. There is no reason to think that these forms can answer the current learning needs of the contemporary student. 

Designing learning in line with models developed for the middle of the last century when iPads were not even imagined by science-fiction writers is simply absurd and should be a major concern for modern universities.

“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”

This well-known quote from “The Wizard of Oz” sums up the feelings of dismay and confusion of decision-makers of universities globally.

In 2005 a survey from the University of California which polled American undergraduates over 30 years found that 71 percent of students said that making more money was a very important reason for them to go to college. In 1976, the same survey found that only 49 percent of students found making money an important reason to go to college. This shift in motivation was summarized by PBS by quoting Devon Brown, a 16-year-old from Washington, D.C.: “I’m not just going to college for myself to learn something new [...] I could do that on my own without paying for a degree. I’m going to college because it’s not easy to get by financially today and you need a college degree to get a well-paying job. It’s definitely the investment, not an intellectual experience that I’m going for.”

The problem is that this investment is not as simple as it used to be and many prospective students confront the prospect of serious debts and unemployment. In the US, media reports 1 in 2 new graduates are jobless or underemployed. In the UK it is officially reported that over 40% of graduates cannot find graduate-level jobs and that their job prospects continue to decline. There is no doubt that it is still very important to be educated, but the uncertainty of this investment is documented and reported across Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.

This uncertainty is a major factor of change for higher education. Students now question the wisdom of taking out a significant loan no longer seeing that a university degree will set them up for life. Universities are seeing their model crushing before their eyes. Regrettably, many universities have treated their students for a long time as faceless cash-cows held hostage to their market of information, skills, certification and qualifications. To undo this may be harder than it seems. However, economic forecasts and the impact of mostly disastrous governmental policies on higher education (reduced to the stunningly simplistic ideas of “cuts”, “efficiency” and “austerity”) we can expect to see an acceleration in the current drop in enrollments. What problems can we now expect when in Europe fourteen million young people are at home disconnected from education, training and work?

In May 2012, Time published an interesting analysis of possible causes of college enrolment decline, it started by noting:

“Harvard, Yale and a few other selective universities may be announcing record numbers of applications for the semester beginning in the fall, but higher-education officials are fretting about ominous signs that overall college enrolment is starting to drop.”

Higher education monopoly on accreditation can also change relatively fast with the emergence of new forms of vocational accreditation and study. The validity of this monopoly is further eroded by the increasing numbers of underemployed and unemployed graduates.

Universities need to be aware that by avoiding unpleasant realities and choosing to listen to the reaffirming voices, they are not preparing for the perfect storm. As educators, it is imperative that we respond in such a way to intrinsically motivate and engage students’ imaginations, nurture their critical thinking, creativity and capacity for knowledge creation.

New challenges

Statistical data reveals that there is another tornado approaching higher education and economic growth. This is represented by youth marginalization. An entire generation is now discovering that the long held belief that education is the way to find a decent job is just a lie or, at the best, overrated. Around the world, an increasing number of graduates are realising that very few jobs are available to young people and that most of those available do not require a university degree. The impact on the medium and long-term economic sustainability and social costs are already worrying governments, placing education at the center of an intense debate.

Since 2008 youth unemployment has risen in Europe by 1.5 million, to 21% in 2011. Data collected by Eurostat reveals the terrifying reality of 7.5 million young people aged 15–24 and the additional 6.5 million young people aged 25–29 excluded from the labour market and education in Europe. The so-called “NEETs” – youth Not in Employment, Education or Training – come with almost incalculable costs and risks for the future of Europe. The United Nations’ International Labour Office report released this year exposed the fact that youth unemployment is mostly unchanged since the peak registered in 2009. With a worrying 12.6 per cent in 2011 and a projected increase for 2012, global youth unemployment is already affecting over 75 million people. The report states: “In comparison to other groups on the labour market, youth face a particularly difficult situation, as is captured by the ratio of youth-to-adult unemployment rates. Globally, this ratio was 2.8 in 2011 and is projected at 2.7 in 2012. This means that, in comparison with adults, youth continue to be almost three times as likely to be unemployed, and elevated unemployment rates continue to hit them disproportionally.” No one should be surprised that youth take the streets to express their fury and frustration.

Untitled.001Recent reports reveal that in The United States “about 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years [...] Broken down by occupation, young college graduates were heavily represented in jobs that require a high school diploma or less. In the last year, they were more likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined“.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, tuition costs have increased an average of 15% in just two years and student debt is now over $1 trillion dollars. With only one in two young people finding a job it is also important to note that 54% of all new jobs across all sectors of the US economy have been temporary positions since June 2009. Of course, the vast majority of these temporary positions are occupied by young people. Emergent economies, like China, register the same problem with masses of graduates (articles available here and here)

OECD_2The European Union registered an unprecedented youth unemployment rate of 22.8% in September 2012. In Greece and Spain the rate was over 50%. Furthermore, the UK is now registering 40% of graduates cannot find graduate-level work after two years from gaining their degrees. In a recent article on this topic Andrew Sum, Director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in the US, summed the situation: “simply put, we’re failing kids coming out of college“.

These “kids coming out of college” without jobs carry with them a huge debt that is “nondischargeable”, which means that is that type of debt that cannot be eliminated through bankruptcy proceedings. In November this year The Federal Reserve Bank presented in its latest ‘Quarterly Report on Household Debt in US’ a glimpse on this reality:

“in the third quarter, non-real estate household debt jumped 2.3 percent to $2.7 trillion. The increase was due to a boost in student loans ($42 billion), auto loans ($18 billion) and credit card balances ($2 billion)”

The most significant source of this increase is represented by student loans and these are affecting now more than one in five households in the U.S. The report continues:

Outstanding student loan debt now stands at $956 billion, an increase of $42 billion since last quarter [...] the percent of student loan balances 90+ days delinquent increased to 11 percent this quarter.”

In simple words, there is a stunning amount of debt and a significant increase of graduates incapable to pay it back.

The OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría recently noted at the launch of the OECD study “Divided We Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising”:

The social contract is starting to unravel in many countries. This study dispels the assumptions that the benefits of economic growth will automatically trickle down to the disadvantaged and that greater inequality fosters greater social mobility. Without a comprehensive strategy for inclusive growth, inequality will continue to rise.

The effects from breaking the social contract are still mostly unnoticed by universities. External pressures will change this. One source will be the increasing difficulty to find students willing to go into debt with no guarantee that a diploma will secure a better future or even the possibility to pay back tens of thousands of dollars spent on tuition fees and associated costs. Another is that the student population will reduce in time as a result of a global change in demographics, such as ageing population and reduced birth rates in the West. Moreover, the long-term effects of youth underemployment and unemployment will impact directly on companies and economies: in the “knowledge society” retired workers will hardly have replacements.

Universities were comfortable to stay aligned with popular dogmas and no voices were heard from the ivory towers to warn the citizens that the pillars were rotten, the bubbles would burst and the global financial crisis was inevitable. It is more than ever vital to revitalize academic life with parts that can genuinely engage students and have the potential to bring answers to current and future crises. A perfect example in this direction is provided by what was indicated in 1975 by the Yale University Committee on Freedom of Expression as the way to achieve the main functions of a university:

“The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within its walls but with the world beyond as well. It follows that a university must do everything possible to ensure within it the fullest degree of intellectual freedom. The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable.

In the middle of this storm, universities that continue to glorify mediocrity and impose compliant thinking are condemned to perish. These victims of the storm may still consider that is safer to shut their eyes and stay comfortable within the limits of the status quo. After all, this is what has worked well for the last century. However, on the day after the storm, higher education will be anything but comfortable. The era of compliance and contentment is over!

……

*This article is based on my public presentation at the Rotary Club of Sydney CBD, Australia, on the 3rd of December, 2012.

Many universities slowly implode nowadays without even knowing it. Going ahead in denial with a lethal combination of old models and practices, decrepit ideas, illusory solutions and their self-confirming coteries, many universities are still playing around a stubborn refusal to change. This is based on the ingrained belief that higher education can go ahead as it was in the last decades and some institutions of great tradition are suffocated by internal political games and insidious forms of nepotism. Unfortunately the context is all changed and there is no doubt that higher education is under unprecedented pressure these days. The increasing gap between expectations and reality of is reflected here by the level interest gained by opinions or initiatives against the idea of University. This is interesting to note especially when they differ from the common primitive instrumentalism and aggressive anti-intellectualism promoted by conservatives around the world. Some get a lot of attention questioning the value of any university as this is just a terrible investment. Others launch interesting initiatives such as the UnCollege Movement while some eccentric billionaires get their headlines in international media by paying students to drop out university studies and do something more “productive”, such as opening a new business. The already old discussion about the “higher education bubble” is placing academic endeavors in the same register with the speculative boom that was leading to the current global financial crisis.

Costs for higher education rise with unprecedented pace and public education spending in most Western countries is ‘falling fastest since 1950s‘. In fact, anti-intellectualism and global economic crisis created an environment where public investment in higher education is largely perceived as an irresponsible and wasteful luxury, some adding here the potential of higher education to ruin personal budgets, lives or societies. Times Higher Education recently published – available here – an excellent article on the tremendous impact of anti-intellectualism on the academic life and The Chronicle of Higher Education – article available here – is also exploring the dream world with opinions and no experts or intellectuals. Neoliberals around the world compete in the same time to produce the most shocking public attacks on universities, as this perplexing example offered by one of the candidates for the office of President of the United States.

This growing trend of opposing demands and intense disregard for scholarship itself is profoundly undermining the role and place of Academia in the contemporary public life. Funding cuts, new expectations from students, employers and society and the fundamental shift produced by new technologies turn by force the entire system towards a radical change in the role, structure and function of universities. While academics have their own major responsibility for this state of facts – or seek an escape route when they are sacked as inconvenient voices of dissent – many universities ignoring the importance and responsibilities of academic freedom and active involvement in society will just implode waiting to be saved by MOOCs or by the next silver bullet. Most universities will be forced to accept their new marginal existence and change their role and function within the scene. Just a few will stay near to what we understand now by a University.

A wrong model and a monopoly falling apart

We can see that beyond ridiculous accusations higher education is scrutinized today for a shocking lack of academic rigor, resistance to change and resistance on the part of academics to view research as a complex exercise that have to involve and engage students and the outside world. This may be more important than is currently accepted and is adding to a depressing lack of imagination in thinking about new alternative models for the future of universities in 21st century. The pressure for an illusory efficiency based on a model of economic Darwinism promoted by evangelists of the utopian promises of market fundamentalism eroded to the extreme the pillars of University. Within University walls we have too often an epic display of denial and self-preservation of various groups and elites self-absorbed on the old game of mutual confirmation and their resistance to fundamentally change what worked well enough for the last decades.

Recent studies (such as this in UK) reveal that academics and academic-related staff are the most stressed workers. Increased workloads and a quantitative understanding of “delivering courses” efficiently and producing research by number of publications rather than quality and relevance for community, industry or society is turning the process into a factory-like institution where academics feel more like that worker depicted by Chaplin at the conveyor-belt in “Modern Times”. If we take the example of Australian higher education we can see that the government expenditure on universities as a share of GDP fell between 1995 to 2004 by 4 per cent while student numbers increased by 45 per cent. Add to this the often mentioned problem of increasing casualisation and it becomes clear that the significant rise in the staff-student ratio and structure of academic staff impact on the quality of teaching, academic rigor and student engagement and learning.

Financial rationales and profit efficiency

Simplistic and profoundly destructive staff policies ignoring the fact that academics are the most important capital any university can have and the weirdly damaging and unsustainable global trend of casualization in universities create an incoherent reality. The general call for a socially engaged university is naive when the uncertainty for disposable staff and fear is promoted along with conformity and convenient mediocrity, inhibiting creativity and individual development and expression of staff and students. There is no surprise to read that an academic can say this today: “we just click our heels and carry out management orders. The threats of forced redundancies are part of a pattern of saving money by getting rid of permanent academic staff and casualising the rest. Morale is rock bottom“.

Universities aim today to act as successful corporations and get only a strange and unsustainable hybrid: they are not as flexible as successful corporations, keep the administrative ‘bloat’ and bureaucratic Kafkaesque maze, accept old hierarchies and established groups while using a primitive managerial mindset unadapted for their specific field with a unique and shocking contempt for own human resources. Risk-taking by students and academics in challenging ideas, practices and current approaches is most often perceived as a foolish career-end and the surge of disenchantment for what education at this level used to stand for is globally widespread. This is not a discussion about the private sector involvement in education, but the ideological and economic model used to organize nowadays universities. It may be too late to have now a discussion about a managerial model for institutions of learning and production of knowledge that is similar in essence with that used to run an industrial farm.

The irony is that many business leaders do not share this view of an instrumental role of education and understand that the goal to design education for the modern workforce is much wider and complex than the simple engine producing “work-ready graduates” in factory-like arrangements. Charles Kolb, president of the nonpartisan, business-led United States Committee on Economic Development, notes: “In addition to the obvious labor-force needs, having more Americans with higher levels of post-secondary achievement is vital to our civic health. The heart of a vibrant democracy is educated, engaged citizens who are able to make choices for themselves, their families, their communities, and their country. In this respect, the success of American post-secondary education is critical to the success of American democracy

The overused argument of change based on a parallel of higher education evolution with the Internet revolution on printed press and music industry is here well placed. Not that higher education can be so simplified to be understood as similar with music or printed media industry – which is another reflex to understand complex realities through the only lens of the industrial models – but is valid in indicating that present models and policies will soon be changed forever.

Outsourcing academic life

The most surprising development of the last decade is an obvious push of Academic life outside our universities. Universities refuse to even have a serious look at their own culture of orthodoxies and compliance, cultivated fear and “efficiency” that is weaving a reality where the idea of a critique is withered by the specter of casualisation and critical thinking remains a dusted slogan on some old walls. This is why the public life is influenced by forums outside universities, such as TED or Aspen Ideas Festival, Big Ideas and its Australian version or the interesting but less known Festival of Dangerous Ideas – if we review fast some of the most influential and well known forums and idea-generators. These forums of ideas and debate have no equivalent initiative organized by an academic institution in the last decade. This used to be an integral part of any university mission, but the culture of debate, inquiry, exploration and public conversation crumbled under the pressure of efficiency. Universities are not capable nor even interested to have something similar and most academic conferences are now paper-presentation-marathons with little if any discussion about what goes today as serious research. Moreover, any visitor of a modern university may be surprised to see that academics cannot be seen in universities today reading a book: some are just a product of the new reality and see no use in reading an entire book, but many understand that this will label you as a slacking, relaxed and inefficient member of the factory. Academic exercise, discussions and thinking itself were pushed out of our corporate-inspired structures that provide educational services in higher education.

Universities lost in this shift what was in reality the most valuable and efficient part of their existence: knowledge authority, status and influence in intellectual debates and public life. It is too easy to blame only outsiders for this evolution and many academics are responsible for this. The “bean-counting culture” was overtaking academic life years ago and soon we will see effects and implications of this model.

The promise of MOOCs

Traditional institutions see now how for-profit universities aggressively target students that used to be the captive audience of public universities by offering them various deals to get degrees with an ease that was not possible until now. This ease is also opening an important discussion on the sustainability of this questionable model. In the same time, various entrepreneurs and corporations launch into costly and well advertised enterprises to provide cheap online higher education courses and degrees. It is obvious that policy-makers and managers in the “industry of higher education” know that the added pressure and their questionable models are not sustainable. The reaction of many public universities and systems of higher education is to turn to a for-profit model, but this cannot work for a long time and there are signs that the pressure will increase. The problem is that very few have any idea where to go from here, what new model can be applied to survive in the current context. With little imagination and paying the price for stifling imagination and creativity within their walls, universities found an experimental approach labeled as MOOC – massive open online courses – as the possible salvation.

With “The Fear of Missing Out” syndrome, universities run with an unclear vision and rationale to join this trend, just because “We can’t fall behind. We can’t be left out” and with the hope that this is the new ‘gold rush’ in higher education. It is amazing to see how little attention is paid in the general noise to some implications of this move. The first detail is that MOOCs are not that new. Apple’s iTunes U is one very popular platform for a variety of free online materials and courses since 2007 and universities and high schools from all over the world use it.

We are sharing the belief that this can be an excellent solution for some courses and some institutions. However, this experimental approach is not a panacea and should be adopted with great care as an educational solution. Saying that all “massive open online courses” are good is just absurd as it is to think that a university can solve the variety of financial, academic and cultural problems just by launching MOOCs.

The naive belief that any university offering a MOOC will automatically gain a vast audience will be soon dispelled. If we look at Facebook as an example of “free” online platform we can see that there are thousands of other versions, but none of them reach Facebook’s number of users. In fact, some online platform live a short life and die unknown. The second expectation – that a percentage of the vast audience of MOOCs will run to pay for other courses in the same university – will offer a grim surprise to many policy makers and managers around the world.

To understand these expectations is important to clarify what we see often as a source of confusion: “Open” – found in the first “O” in “MOOC” is taken as synonymous with “free” and this is the source of a potentially dangerous error of judgment. Open means more that anyone can access it, it is open to all. However, here we see a perfect fit for the old saying ‘if you don’t buy a product online, then you are the product. The associated costs for the time and work spent to create the online course, to administer and distribute it, reveal a significant cost for the “free” course. Here everything is monetized in various forms and corporations presented as humanitarian endeavors will soon discuss their substantial revenues from ‘open courses’. If we are using again the Facebook example we can see that it took ten months to achieve the number of users earned by Coursera in only seven months. Both Coursera and Facebook are open and both provide “free” services online: Facebook has no a capitalized value of US$41 billion. Coursera may reach in 5 years a double value in cash.

Without a clear plan to convert MOOCs into a sustainable model and a fast conversion of unclear expectations to strategic actions aligned by a coherent vision this solution may be the bullet hitting the heart of many universities. A recent Moody’s Report already says that MOOC’s could hurt smaller universities. The ingrained belief that universities can go ahead with minor adjustments and no modern university can disappear is debunked by reality: a recent analysis is exploring The Slow Death of California Higher education. The lesson here is that universities can die and higher education in entire regions and countries may live the experience of a slow death. The other important lesson is that – as University of California proves these days – online education is not a silver bullet (an interesting article in this story can be found here)

Looking at other important implications we need to take note of some very good arguments about uniformization and cultural imperialism promoted by MOOCs, such is the recent article published by Chronicle of Higher Education, MOOC’s and the McDonaldization of Global Higher Education:

But, let’s be clear what this means: thousands of students across the world taking the same course, with the same content, from the same instructor. And that is the problem. MOOC’s are now at the forefront of the McDonaldization of higher education.

In an era when higher education is making significant advances in becoming global and helping to build educational capacity within developing nations, MOOC’s play the center against the periphery. They strengthen the ivory towers by enabling a few elite institutions to broadcast their star courses to the masses from the comfort of their protected perches

A compelling analysis published (available here) by Inside Higher Education provides an important glimpse into some major implications of MOOCs as a model for higher education:

If the partnership with Coursera works out well, we may soon become dependent on their good will. We may, in other words, need to take very seriously their thoughts about the kinds of courses we should teach and make available online. At Virginia, and at all the schools that begin teaching online, the distribution companies may come to have a consequential say in the way that professors teach and students learn.

What influence will the corporations have? What will they want? The immediate answer isn’t hard to come by. They will want to increase financial returns as much as possible. They will want to make as much money as they can without breaking the law.

And to do so, they will begin demanding the sort of courses that will sell best, not only in America but around the world. What sort of courses will these be? I think that they will be the most standardized, solid, predictable and sound courses that the university can produce.

Faculty members will have to submit their syllabuses in advance. They will have to cover precisely the ground that they say they will: there will be no swerving from the original plan. Digressions and jokes will be at a minimum, assuming that they are allowed at all [...] courses will also have to be radically inoffensive. They will have to be palatable to as many people across the world as possible so as to increase market possibilities to the maximum point. The course designers will have to think about whether they are offending the sensibilities of, say, Chinese students and also of the Chinese government when they put a political science course up for sale.

During ‘gold rush’ many adventurers lost their lives while others had the same fate that may be soon shared by some universities looking at MOOCs as a silver bullet: they were left broke with fool’s gold in their hands.

The Next Divide

Higher Education is a great investment and OECD produced already a great number of excellent studies with data in support of this statement, such as this here. The question is not if this is a good investment but if higher education in its current forms is relevant and sustainable on a long-term. The future can bring major divides and many universities with no vision and strategy for the future may be already lost for the new competition.

Moreover, the great online shift is leaving behind the model of a University where experts that are teaching classes organize access to universal knowledge. Knowledge will be even more easily available for students and few remaining dynamic universities will focus on research and advancement of knowledge. These will actively seek to create alliances and networks of collaboration for research and production of knowledge rather than teaching and mass production. This will be a platform for dialogue and innovation, in socially and regionally engaged and globally embedded forms of collaboration and generation of knowledge. Most institutions of higher education will follow their current course and accept the mission to offer professional certificates in a new form of vocational higher education, competing with professional organizations that will give bespoke intense courses for present and future employees.

The current focus on MOOCs has nothing to do with the future of higher education: the shift already happened before this current fascination with a new tool. The future cannot be changed by a tool, but by a new vision.

Thomas Friedman is writing in ‘New Rules’, a widely quoted article recently published by The New York Times “It’s fascinating to read about all this while visiting Shanghai, whose public school system in 2010 beat the rest of the world in math, science and reading in the global PISA exam of 15-year-olds.” Shanghai is used here as en example for America to invest more in “vocational-training classes” to follow an instrumental model where education is preparing workers to take the “new jobs”. It happens that I also visited recently Shanghai, the source of fascination and admiration for so many Westerners, and the most impressive part of my experience there was the ubiquitous sense of mutual distrust and absence of civic values and behaviors in the public life.

I am a curious traveler and I take the risk to explore non-touristic areas of cities and places I visit. I seek all possible opportunities to experience what locals experience every day. I am not interested to see what a tourist in invited to see. Using public transport is an important part of Shanghai’s realities and here you see how many locals have troubles to read maps and even letters. Not Western letters, of course, but Chinese. It is also surprising to see the dynamic of daily travelers who seem to be very motivated in this secret competition to take a seat in the train or bus and push each other violently to be the first. I often noticed that a pregnant woman was among the last in the train and I wasn’t able to see anyone offering a seat. Civic culture is just disastrous.

Spitting – basically everywhere – making grotesque noises, pushing to make way to unknown important destinations, the complete absence of smiles or friendly conduct and the obsessive impulse to install metal bars over windows, and too many fences and padlocks in a country where crime rate is very low left me feeling that that this immense city got the worst from both systems, communism and capitalism. I also had discussions with some tourists and I remember the dull expression on the face of a European visitor saying how wonderful is this city. I guess is easy to be confused if you are the tourist interested just to take a break. It may be even easier to be confused if you are at the center of interest of those who invited you in Shanghai, knowing that you will write a nice op-ed in one of the most important newspapers in the world.

Having the benefit of a very different status and using the curse to be curious and uneasy with simple and (too) obvious answers I have a different reading of Shanghai. This may be an excellent city to study mathematics, but what I have seen is very far from the image of a new center for learning and enlightenment. I admire Chinese culture, but I wasn’t able to see much left in Shanghai this year. Here is my problem: Shanghai, “whose public school system in 2010 beat the rest of the world in math, science and reading” in the new global “learning games” is not benefiting much from this admirable position in the everyday life of the city. Something is missing there, and it may be.. a genuine civic culture.

Friedman article came as I received a petition that may be very important for Australia, the place where I currently live: “On September 11 the New South Wales government announced that it would stop funding art education in TAFE (vocational education), leaving 4000 students without access to finishing their courses in 2013. TAFE Art courses are the main provider of art education in NSW, with many prominent artists getting their first ‘hands on’ training in TAFE. The withdrawal of funding will mean that only the wealthy will be able to afford private art education and NSW will suddenly find it no longer has emerging artists with skills coming through.”

This is speaking about the current fashionable fixation to favor mathematics, engineering and sciences against liberal arts. I think this is both wrong and dangerous.

Looking at mathematics and engineering as a top priority for education is nothing new. As it is not new at all to see in an era of aggressive anti-intellectualism a hierarchy of funding where humanities have the lower places. Public investment in humanities is declining fast as the criteria of productivity, efficiency, consumer satisfaction do not serve at all the perceived waste of money in these fields. It seems that STEM are now the only key for a happy and prosperous future. STEM is the most commonly used acronym for the fields of study in the categories of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As it seems that we live a time of simplistic solutions, the bipolar oppositions are used here to make sense of this dilemma. Therefore, this complex problem is solved in very simple terms by decision makers around the world: if STEM fields are important in education, humanities are less important and funds will be allocated to what is important. There is a very dangerous logic here and – with no intention to question the importance of STEM fields – we argue that this is presenting serious dangers for the future.

US President Obama has identified STEM education as (see President Obama’s National Educational Technology Plan 2010, Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology): “the key to America’s economic growth and prosperity and to our ability to compete in the global economy… the path to good jobs and higher earning power for Americans, necessary for our democracy to work. It fosters the cross-border, cross-cultural collaboration required to solve the most challenging problems of our time.” The problem is that we may need to admit very soon that the most challenging problems of our times are a bit more complex: science,  technology, engineering and mathematics have to be completed by civic values, ethical behavior, social and ecological responsibility. Democracy is protected by intellectual energy and critical thinking, the capacity to make informed decisions about public life and the use of these technologies. The most obvious example is that of Germany in 1940′s and no one can argue that their problem at that time was a lack of excellent engineering or poor schools of mathematics and sciences. But civic and human values were a disaster. President Obama should know that arts and humanities programs are getting the axe in many universities in US and this is a real and serious threat for democracy, as it is in many other parts of the world.

The risk of all sorts of fundamentalism is real and too obvious to be ignored. STEM alone cannot solve these challenges. If we take just few recent examples we can see why humanities can bring a vital contribution with their potential to cultivate and strengthen critical thinking, to bring a greater understanding of the world, of the “other”, of various cultures and people, as a real panacea against hate and intolerance. The simple criteria of efficiency can be dangerously twisted. For example, The Telegraph is presenting the surprising case of Hitler’s popularity in India:

“…sales of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s autobiography and apologia for his anti-semitism, are soaring in India where business students regard the dictator as a management guru[...] Sales of the book over the last six months topped 10,000 in New Delhi alone, according to leading stores, who said it appeared to be becoming more popular with every year. Several said the surge in sales was due to demand from students who see it as a self-improvement and management strategy guide for aspiring business leaders, and who were happy to cite it as an inspiration [...] Jaico Publishing House, one of the publishers in India, said it reprints a new edition of the book at least twice a year to meet growing demand.”

The stunning rise on Neo-Nazi groups in Greece in also presented in a recent and disturbing article: “Actual fascists in actual black shirts are waving swastikas and murdering ethnic minorities in Athens”. It is an unsettling story about dissolution of civic values and humanity in the heart of Europe. Socrates left as part of his invaluable legacy the need to think critically about tradition and authority, about our humanity and about what we want to stand for. This seems to be lost now in his homeland.

Why should an American politician care about those disciplines able to nurture the (almost extinct) spirit of respectful and courageous critical inquiry? One strong set of reasons is the state of civic knowledge in United States: in the the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment, more than two-thirds of all students in US scored below proficient and less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

In an excellent review of a book about the rise of far right groups in UK, The Guardian is ending an interesting article published this September by saying:

“Societies that promise equality, freedom and democracy, yet preside over massive inequalities of wealth, are breeding grounds for racism and other vicious resentments. And wherever these resentments exist, the far right will try to exploit them. The fascism of the 20s and 30s succeeded because it played on wider fears, winning the support of those who would never have thought of themselves as extremists. The Nazis used antisemitism because it already existed in German society.”

Funding only marketable skills against the complex effort to educate responsible citizens, nurture critical and independent minds capable to understand what policies mean is just dangerous in a time when we see all sorts of fundamentalisms emerging violently from Norway to Middle East, from US to Australia. We already have the seeds of hate and it is the time to use STEM in a comprehensive paradigm where humanities will place their power in the context of responsible citizenship. Humanities enhance and improve our culture. This is the crucial challenge ahead.

If we have to insist on the simplistic logic currently used and economically justify liberal arts we can ignore for a moment the fact that heretics and counter-cultural poets, philosophers, dreamers and citizens pushed the entire society to progress. We can try to follow this instrumental logic of immediate efficiency. However, even this is leading to the the importance of humanities for mathematics, science and engineering. In How the Arts Unlock the Door to Learning we find the fascinating recent example Maryland’s Bates Middle School. Here arts integration has helped raise student achievement:

“Since arts integration was first implemented at Bates, the percentage of students achieving or surpassing standards for reading has grown from 73 percent in 2009 to 81 percent in 2012, and from 62 percent to 77 percent for math during the same period, while disciplinary problems decreased 23 percent from 2009 to 2011″

Several evidence-based research studies reveal that arts significantly increase student engagement and achievement among youth from both low and high socioeconomic backgrounds. Data consistently shows that we improve results in STEM if we offer the intellectual background of humanities. This can be simply explained by the fact that we learn as humans, not like machines.

We all have ahead unprecedented challenges for our democracies and we are asked to imagine a sustainable future for our economies, societies and our planet. Education is changing fast and it is the time to work on new models for universities, able to properly answer these new demands. Obsolete blue-prints, artificial rankings and false oppositions inspired by the industrial revolution have to be redesigned. We just cannot afford a new historical nightmare.

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