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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.

Some people change their ways when they see the light, others when they feel the heat” – Caroline Schoeder

Mirror, mirror…

This post was delayed by a trip to a conference on creativity in education in Shanghai, China. It was not only a good opportunity to explore new ideas and hear about various projects developed in different parts of the world, but also a valuable chance to think about education in Asia in one of the most vibrant Asian cities. I had to place my presentation there in the context of a plenary session revolving around a story about a perfect world of universities. An American team of scholars presented their university as a mythical place where students and faculty engagement is harmoniously interwoven with civic involvement, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. The “inconvenient truth” of decline in study time, of realities revealed by research such as “Academically Adrift” or the worrying decline of civic values. To give just one example, “A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future” – a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and released in early 2012 – is offering a challenging set of “indicators of anemic US civic health”:

  1. US ranked 139th in voter participation of 172 world democracies in 2007.
  2. Only 10 percent of US citizens contacted a public official in 2009‐10.
  3. Only 24 percent of graduating high school seniors scored at the proficient or advanced level in civics in 2010, fewer than in 2006 or 1998.
  4. Less than one‐half of 12th graders reported studying international topics as part of a civic education.
  5. Half of US states no longer require civics education for high school graduation.
  6. Among 14,000 college seniors tested in 2006 and 2007, the average score on a civic literacy exam was just over 50 percent, an “F.”
  7. Opportunities to develop civic skills in high school through community service, school government, or service clubs are available disproportionately to wealthier students.
  8. Just over one‐third of college faculty surveyed in 2007 strongly agreed that their campus actively promotes awareness of US or global social, political, and economic issues.
  9. A similar percentage (35.8 percent) of college students surveyed strongly agreed that faculty publicly advocate the need for students to become active and involved citizens.
  10. One‐third of college students surveyed strongly agreed that their college education resulted in increased civic capacities.

My paper and presentation there was more focused on new ways to approach the “inconvenient truth” than solutions to feed a “reassuring lie” and this is not too often a wise approach. Therefore, this was another good opportunity to reflect on the tension between unpleasant facts and unfortunate factors affecting universities and the pressure to be cheerfully “positive” as a good messenger of encouraging news from our “industry”. My problem is that I find this insidious form of delusional reassurance as one of the most dangerous approaches for what is at the core of my passion, interests and efforts: higher education. No space to reflect here on arguments supporting the idea that the current European debacle is caused by the same adversity to face inconvenient facts as the immediately gratifying denial seemed to work so well for decades. However, this conference in China offered new reasons to think that soon will be impossible to blame an honest look at “what we all know about our education, but don’t have the courage to speak out loud about it” – as one colleague said passionately in a panel discussion. The change is already unavoidable and the still-inflating bubble is under tremendous pressure. It is a time when Academia will have no other choice but to have a serious and honest look in a clearer mirror. At that point we have to do our best to ensure that the increasing noise of glorified ignorance and anti-intellectualism will not be taken as a serious alternative. Education is already called to provide solutions for crucial social, economic, cultural and ecological crises and a failure masked again as a profitable success can be devastating.

In this second part we briefly explore some of the most important tensions for universities in the Western world.

The foreseeable change of commercialization of higher education

The dispute on higher education as a common good or commodity is in a sense almost obsolete since GATS and WTO transformed decisively education into a tradable service. The adoption in 1995 in Marrakesh of General Agreement of Trades and Services was the moment to include “educational services” as part of commercial agreements. Just a year later in Seattle, the World Trade Organization included educational services in discussions under “Millennium Round” of multilateral trade negotiations. The new market was officially organizing higher education and new legal, commercial and ideological mechanisms gained control over universities. The impact is extensive and profound and it seems to escape the logic of too many experts that these policies and systems are less than a decade old in a field known (as a curse) to show results on a long term.

In this new context, a logic shaped by concepts and procedures alien to the very nature of education and educational institutions turned aggressively as the only possible solution for universities. Unfortunately, the well known conservatism and resistance to change mixed rapidly with a simplistic one-dimensional obsession with profit and return on investment. Students became “customers” and the value of education was measured only in simple quantitative terms, such as number of students getting a job (not clear for how long, anyway.. and the financial meltdown proved fast and clear that this was/is a misleading indicator). The aim to nurture educated minds was completely lost or ridiculed in the context of a commercial rationale where students turned into customers that must be pleased and offered tangible and immediate deliverable, such as jobs and careers. A genuine focus on sustainability was left for trees and somehow esoteric ecological studies placed at the periphery of academic life (and funding).

Frank Donoghue, a professor in the department of English at Ohio State and the author of The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (2008) recently said that poorly paid adjuncts with heavy teaching loads “don’t have a reason to be loyal to the universities they work for and not much reason to be loyal to the students.” Jeffrey Bowman, professor of history at Kenyon College, thinks the debate over whether tenure is good or bad misses the point. “No single system of tenure is going to be right for all institutions.” I agree with this point, but it seems obvious that this logic of immediate profit and thinking about education and the extremely difficult job of nurturing an informed, critical, flexible and adaptable mind in the same terms we think of making cars and organizing universities in the same way we managed car factories is immediately destructive and devastating on a long-term.

It is extremely important and equally difficult to create a system able to replace the stubbornly mediocre and arrogant with dynamic and intellectually productive scholars, able to cope with new and serious challenges of a fast changing reality. However, taking into consideration immediately quantifiable results and simplistic measures doubled with a strange understanding of profitability in managing universities’ human capital is just a source of dissolution of loyalty, effort and commitment for the institution, for students and for the shared values. Working in an environment of immediate uncertainty where people are tempted to see colleagues mainly as potential impediments to get a new contract than as comrades-in-arms united in the difficult task of teaching, learning and research cannot be productive or sustainable for students and academic community. It is for sure profoundly damaging the fabric of our humanity.

Since the obsession of profit gained ground in universities with substantial changes involved by the GATS and WTO agreements, the neoliberal position is undoubtedly the ideological winner and education is finally a saleable commodity. University is now an integrated part of a service industry based on commercial trade. Ironically, vast implications of the global financial crisis seriously question the… profitability of this model. It also questions its sustainability. Moreover, less than a decade after these important changes (including the obsessive and methodologically scandalous international rankings of universities) it became clear that – to paraphrase a discussion with a scholar I profoundly respect – universities are becoming more like businesses of the past, while businesses are changing more in line with classical university ideals: opened to courageous explorations, focused on giving stability for “out-of-the-box” teams and researchers, blurring boundaries and actively interested to create and use wide networks of collaboration and knowledge to advance science and innovation. It became clearer in recent days that this predominance of pre-crisis corporate model was driving higher education in a wrong direction.

University in search of identity and… financial troubles

As GFC painfully revealed that the promise of neoliberal capitalism is a mirage and the road to sustainable prosperity is much more difficult and complex (and the “invisible hand” of the market is just an irrational myth), commercial groups turned their attention, many for the first time, to their core values and asked themselves “what do we stand for?” This shift in focus was much more profound than the old corporate exercise to promote “organizational values” to customers. Most universities are in this sense very much behind the business world: it is not clear how sustainable is their profitability priority, not clear anymore what are the core values and the shift in focus causing a serious introspection on “what are we standing for” is still limited to some (elite) institutions.

There are strong arguments to support the idea that universities rapidly increase the price while the quality of what “customers” get is declining. Student debt reach unprecedented levels  in many countries; in US, student debts are counted in trillions (see graph below), higher education in UK is under unprecedented financial pressure and Australia is on the same trend with $22 billion in HECS debts and student loans. This is why scholars like Glenn Harlan Reynolds write that there is a higher education bubble created by similar reasons with those causing the housing bubble. In The Higher Education Bubble, Reynolds explains that tuition and fees in United States have risen more than 440% in 30 years and schools lowered standards to have more satisfied “customers”.

Is unclear (and worrying) where the current model and embraced market ideology is leading the university, but seems to be already clear that it is the time to reconsider the direction. The most powerful argument can be that the financial implications of this model have no sustainability for institutions, graduates and society.

When the commendable call “universities should learn from business” is repeated by an academic with a serious face I am amazed to see that what follows is just a dull recitation of the old mantra on profits and customers, with some depressingly simplistic variations. It is true that universities can learn a lot from business and markets: it can learn from GFC that obsessive greed was devastating, that markets don’t have any “invisible hands” to balance excesses and fix errors, that profit as the single most important priority is leading to profound crises on a long-term. It can also learn from the European financial crisis, from Wall Street and use a bit more imagination in thinking seriously about possibilities and traps of the future. It can learn from a business like Apple what is the courage to innovate or from Google why is so important to have secure, satisfied and loyal employees in a culture where genuine critical thinking and creativity is awarded. It can learn from Nokia what is the price of being rigid and afraid to change… and many other lessons. However, the only obvious reference in these mantra-like mentions of business for academia is a simplistic model of factory-profit too similar with what was the solution for the industrial revolution… over a century ago.

Valuing education

Unfortunately, these hazards add to a dangerous view shared by many citizens, politicians and media. This perception was synthesized for me by a nice Canadian woman who asked in one of those inescapable long flight discussions what I am doing and when I answered that I work in education she smiled and said that this is not a respected field of work: “teachers are now just glorified babysitters”. In this view it makes perfect sense to talk about casualisation in higher education. Teaching is across the Western world (with the notable exception of Finland) a job under tremendous pressure: a low social status, very high demands and responsibilities and low incomes. Add to this that all think that since we all went through school for a while, we all know how to do education – here you find the largest number of “experts” in the world. To take just one example on the pressure on the teaching job we can see that the 28th annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, released in March this year, teacher job satisfaction to its lowest point in more than two decades, to less than half. We tend to value education – as parents, students and citizens – just in discourse.

The consequence is that education is left to often at the hand of dilettantes, passionless amateurs with too many answers and no questions or doubts, and to equally ignorant politicians. Influential groups promote education in two binary opposite forms: either a profitable business or as a parasite institution that is wasting too many resources. Another recent and interesting example is offered by the US presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he publicly derided President Obama: “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” Then he declared, “It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.” This reflects clearly that citizens must be helped by getting rid of all these wasters, such as teachers. The fact that a politician seeking votes reflects on teachers as a waste going to be solved if he is elected in office speaks on itself about the current environment. It is a (too) long chapter here to reflect on the constant decline of importance and respect for education, but we stop just by saying that this is one of the most serious dangers facing education today.

The challenge of innovation and change

Students – instrumental customers – are prepared now for jobs that change very fast. Moreover, many of these jobs will not exist at all at the time of their graduation due to economic pressures or simply as a result of advance of technology and globalization (outsourcing). Thomas Friedman noted “Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait” and Sir Ken Robinson writes in “Out of Our Minds” that “rebuilding the communities that have been left bereft by the recession will depend on imagination, creativity and innovation.” The problem is that engaging imagination to cultivate genuine creativity and innovation is much more complex and far from the current arrangements governing universities.

If European universities have to find a solution for the ongoing problem of dying meritocracy and nepotism, of insidious forms of corruption, mediocrity and political bureaucracy, Anglo-Saxon institutions have to balance the neoliberal dogma with the civic and social responsibility of academia in the knowledge economy.  Higher education may be soon forced to move focus from immediate profit and investments, from the obsessive ‘bean-counting’ culture, to long-term benefits of equity in education and flexible collaborations with commercial entities for the common good. A serious and genuine concern for high quality and relevant in-depth knowledge have to be followed by a constant effort to create learning environments capable to nurture creativity and innovation. The specter of ecological, social, economic, political and cultural (see the recent rise of extreme right/left in many European countries) may challenge universities and politicians to rethink priorities and the paradigm for what can be the source of real solutions for the future. A first step is an honest and serious discussion about the inconvenient truths.

The trip in China offered me many arguments to think that this set of innovative solutions will not come from this increasingly important power… (but more on this topic on later posts)

 

In a recent article (with a surprisingly extensive coverage in the media), Jeff Selingo starts continues a discussion about recent trends in higher education with the promising sentence: “The “disruption” of the higher-ed market is a popular refrain these days.” The expectation for a serious analysis of the recent mantra in higher education is fueled when he continues in the same note: “What exactly those innovations will look like remains a matter of debate.” Unfortunately, the “matter of debate” is closed when we read realize that we have to read again an article to praise the digital revolution and some old promises:  “a potential future of higher ed that’s more collaborative, social, virtual, and peer-to-peer—and where introductory courses are commodities offered free or close to free.“ This article is very interesting for being not only amazingly present on influential publications (eg. Chronicle of Higher Education or The Huffington Post), but for its capacity to coagulate some concerning slogans able just to reveal some blurred sides of this promise of “disruptive innovation”. There is no point to stop here to scrutinize the semantics of “disruptive innovation” as a label attached to new technologies in education. The fact is that new technologies in education are presented as the solution for an educational revolution for at least two decades and no “disruptions” are yet recorded (if we understand disruption as something able to drastically alter or destroy the structure of [something]). It is more important to have a look at some important, but shadowed parts touched by this “popular refrain”.

It is important to note that the idea to reject or ignore the importance of new technologies in education is not only naïve, but unrealistic. Facebook and Twitter, e-books and e-textbooks, apps and computer/online games, LMS options and online education already have a tremendous impact on the way we learn and have the potential to expand as never before the way we learn and teach. This blog post starts with the hope that expressing some concerns about what looks to be the miraculous solution is not interpreted as a conservative rejection of Internet as a magical source of knowledge and open access or the educational potential of some new technologies. It is just a call for a more in-depth analysis of some implications before we relax thinking that the solution was finally found for most important problems confronting now our universities. It is also a challenge to look if the promise to revolutionize education with these tools presented as solutions is not just another utopian project linked with some perilous effects.

There are too many aspects of learning overlooked by the increasing chorus chanting what Selingo calls to be the “popular refrain”. In Finland – with its impressive results in education nowadays – some schools reported that sometimes students’ interest concentrated on computer instead of the assimilation of content. I admit to the guilt to believe that we have to assimilate a bit more that pop songs in our memory if we want to have creative and flexible minds able to adapt and productively work in the knowledge economy. However, being confused by software and losing interest on content in favor of a gadget may be a minor thing to fix, but brings the interesting example of “disruptive educational reform and innovation” in this country. In 1970s, Finland had an underperforming education system, a somehow primitive agrarian economy based on chopping trees and selling them as brute wood – obviously, not a long-term solution for a country with very limited resources. The change came with an impressive reform in preparation and selection of future teachers. Education for all, every teacher immersed in intensive preparation (all have at least a masters degree now) and strict selection. The other important ingredient: an impressive social esteem for the teaching profession and it all turned to be keys in the Finnish innovation’s success. There is an important lesson here for a genuine revolution in education: the success came not by increasing the control and punishments, standardization and numbers of tests, not with a massive investment on software, tablets and computers, but by a genuine focus on quality, selection and social esteem for this difficult job. The focus on lowering costs and increasing immediate profits was overcome by a long-term vision for results – this proves to be now a wise decision. In Finland only one out of every 10 people who apply to become teachers will ultimately make it to the classroom – competition is very high because in this country you can be proud for having this respectable and beautiful profession. Results show that students see this and serious benefits came with this form of “disruptive innovation”.

It may be argued that we live different times and things are different now for our universities, but there are no reasons to claim that the current focus on cutting costs and looking at knowledge and teaching staff just as “commodities” is sustainable for the knowledge economy. There is a different type of change happening now in universities: focus on commoditization, driving down cost and increasing profits (and number of for-profit universities), the syndrome dubbed as “cash cow disease” ravaging universities and what was so well and worryingly documented in “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press, 2011) – that we are losing student learning at an alarming pace. This book is providing extensive research data to sustain the argument that the attributes we consider to be the pillars of higher learning – such as critical thinking, writing skills, complex reasoning and acquisition of academic knowledge – are not being achieved at institutions of higher education. There seems to be an astonishing lack of vision and concern for the future, a twisted and simplistic understanding of the term “sustainability” with implications for the future of our culture, civic values and democracy. This part of “disruptive innovation” is not following the popular refrain and it seems as being completely left out of the song.

There is also the recent report on e-schools in Ohio (Ohio’S E-Schools: Funding Failure; Coddling Contributors). The report reveals appalling results of these innovative e-schools able to attract an increasing number of students: “e-schools have grown significantly in enrollment since their inception in the 2000-2001 school year when the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) enrolled nearly 2,200 students. Since then, enrollment in E-schools has grown about twice as fast as enrollment in brick and mortar charter schools”. However, we find here some concerning results associated with this indubitable popularity:

“23 E-schools rated by the Ohio Department of Education for the 2009-2010 school year, only three rated “effective” or better on the state report card. In other words, only 8 percent of all E-School enrolled children are in schools that rate B or better. By contrast, more than 75 percent of traditional public school students attend school in buildings rated B or better. In short, children are nearly 10 times more likely to receive an “effective” education in traditional public school than they are in Eschools.”

I imagine how some may read this with the reaction of that biologist looking for the first time in his life at a giraffe shaking his head in disbelief while repeating “This animal doesn’t exist!”. Sometimes it seems that common sense of some simple facts such as that popularity is not equal with efficiency and substance or that knowledge is not equal with web-surfing was lost in the genuine euphoria of seeing “disruptive innovation” at work. The re is a possibility to see online learning is passing the state of lab experiments and isolated showcases of prestigious universities and is applied more generally as a panacea for old problems approached with the same old paradigm… it may lead to the same old appalling results. This is one concern: massification of online solutions can just replicate and intensify current problems if we do not rethink our current educational paradigms.

The other foggy side of disruptive innovation in higher education is about the promise: it is even more unclear how technology will change other than opening access (we agree here for the sake of saving readers’ time to ignore the complex facets of digital divide and increasing debts of students choosing online courses/universities), increasing profits (this is already happening) and making “introductory courses [as] commodities offered free or close to free”. Where is the increasing accent on cultivating innovation and creativity for students, attributes and qualities that are vital for individuals and societies in the knowledge economy? To claim that the simple use of new and innovative products is making students innovative and creative is like claiming that a pair of Air Jordan Shoes makes you a unique athlete. So where is this part? It may be good to consider also data of recent research showing how we learn differently in online environments with a very interesting impact on memory (see here “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips”). The equation of our cortex reaction to new technologies is far from being solved and it may be important to have a broader look at all these changes before we jump with joy and dull enthusiasm seeing videos posted online while most are just replicating the same old process in a bit more contemporary (and fashionable) form.

There is a genuine change in education starting from new technologies, but it may be not enough. We cannot afford the naïveté to think that our economic, social, ecological and cultural crises can be solved by the simple introduction of learning management systems and access to Internet. This may be just another dangerous bubble – the problem is that recent bubbles come with increasingly dangerous and serious costs for real lives. We have to hope that we will read soon articles embraced by all these powerful media outlets with less enthusiasm and more substance in looking at those obscured faces of “disruptive innovation of higher ed.”