Rearranging Our Sense of What’s Possible

In his recent post titled Napster, Udacity, and the Academy, Clay Shirky writes a few very important things about the future of higher education that I believe we need to pay attention to. This paragraph sums up why:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

MOOCs, I believe, are currently a place-holder for Big Changes A’ Comin’. I actually don’t think MOOCs as we know them now (in all of their various forms) will BE the change; I think they are instead indicators that change is happening now. And Shirky says why:

The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system …

I, for one, do want change to come to higher education — I deeply want improved access to meaningful and significant learning experiences. But I don’t think of students as an “audience for education.” This implies a somewhat passive, receiving role for learners. (And thus the MOOCs that are recordings of superstar professors giving their lectures aren’t that exciting for me.)

Change – Thank you zacklur on Flickr for allowing this image to be used.

The change I want to see is focused not on how content is delivered because content delivery is not learning (though this will surely be part of it), but in how we engage learners in processing that content, integrating it with their own learning and experience and other ideas from other sources, and making some sense of it all. I want to see changes in how we help our learners and ourselves develop our capabilities to be able to work and communicate effectively with others, to be creative in solving our world’s significant social and environmental challenges, to deeply value diversity and experience and wisdom, and to excel at critical self-reflection and ongoing learning. As I’ve written before, enough with the ivory tower that privileges obtaining certain kinds of knowledge and privileges who gets to obtain it. More and more, our non-ivory towers are doing this same thing, and not even realizing it.

My biggest fear right now is actually not that higher education is changing;  I fear that if we’re not careful with how it’s changing — not careful and super-intentional as we lead these changes — that more people, not fewer, will be shut out of significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences.  MOOCs might solve part of the access problem for delivering content and perhaps even being able to work through that content with others; MOOCs aren’t going to solve the access problem to significant, meaningful, transformative learning experiences. For one thing, MOOCs do not at all address the digital divide, which I believe is still an issue in our world.

Furthermore, problematically, we still are attached this construct called a degree that is supposed to represent learning and ability. This is evidenced in Shirky’s post:

In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as songs came unbundled from CDs.

I think it’s ok if learning becomes unbundled from the pursuit of a degree if by offering degrees we are really only aiming for students just getting degrees. Unless we can focus on ensuring meaningful, engaging processes and experiences of learning, then why bother? I am as compelled by the piece of paper as I am by the archaic representations of learning such as seat time. I am thus also compelled to lead change in particular ways — with learning and access to it at the center of decision-making and innovation and resourcing — because I  actually believe in the value of rearranging our sense of what’s possible. When we rearrange our sense of what’s possible, we can ensure that our students can, too.

And THAT changes everything.

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