“The Future of Education in America: the Conversation Continues”

Over the past month, I’ve attended the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) conference in Washington, D.C., participated in a conference on campus about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and the liberal arts, and engaged various colleagues and friends at the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) International Forum in Los Angeles. All three events focused on the future of education, the rise of technology-enhanced learning, and the needs of an emerging global community—and provided an opportunity for me to visit with friends.

Recognizing the huge drag on the human community when people are unable to find work and express their gifts and abilities in ways that bring meaning and provide value, our conversations inevitably turned to the role and responsibility of colleges and universities. How can we best produce an educated citizenry capable of self-governing and able to enter our democracy with skill and intelligence? I’m particularly drawn to these conversations because higher education is one of the most important and essential ingredients of a vibrant democracy.

Alexander W. Astin, Allan M. Cartter Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and Founding Director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, spoke at the Gaede Institute's 13th Annual Conversation, "MOOCing the Liberal Arts?"

Alexander W. Astin, Allan M. Cartter Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and Founding Director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, spoke at the Gaede Institute’s 13th Annual Conversation, “MOOCing the Liberal Arts?”

One of my favorite presenters at these conferences was Dr. Alexander (Sandy) Astin, professor emeritus at UCLA and a legendary researcher and writer in the field of higher education. His talk at our Gaede Institute conference focused on whether or not MOOCs could provide an education that research has repeatedly shown to be the most effective. He highlighted the elements of an effective education:

  • Frequent contact with faculty
  • A common, core curriculum that forms the basis for civil interaction and debate on campus
  • Strong student-to-student interaction typical of a residential experience
  • A robust co-curricular program that works in partnership with the academic program
  • A service-learning component
  • Writing-intensive courses
  • A significant study-abroad experience
  • A capstone project that incorporates independent research under the tutelage of core faculty.

He identified a series of outcomes that result from such an education:

  • Enhanced capacities for leadership
  • Developed capabilities for citizenship
  • Self-understanding
  • Increased empathy and understanding of difference
  • Heightened ability for critical analysis and deep commitment to intellectual honesty
  • An existential intelligence able to make critical judgments in the moment based on a developed understanding and approach to life.

Dr. Astin then asked, “If this is what our research demonstrates is the most effective education possible, are MOOCs able to equal these outcomes?” His answer was predictable but insufficient. There is no doubt that MOOCs are here to stay, and their role and value will become clear over time. Their current value is quickly evaporating as the latest studies demonstrate a completion rate less than 5 percent, an average age of 26, and students who’ve already graduated from college. This is hardly the profile touted as the target audience: the 14 year-old girl in Pakistan, etc.

The common reasons given for the rise of MOOCs is the confidence that:

  1. Technology will provide ubiquitous access to the best minds from around the world
  2. MOOCs make education not only available but desirable to the masses
  3. Their emergence will help colleges and universities contain costs so their overall contribution is more affordable.

As the larger conversation on technology-enhanced learning continues, a new area of research will doubtless emerge to help us understand how we can learn and develop in ways compatible with these new realities. But what will be lost? That remains unclear. The engine of American democracy is our higher education system. Studies continue to pour in demonstrating the intellectual capital that higher education generates in all sectors of society.

Then there is our democracy. How do people develop the capacity to be self-governing? During the period of our founding, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote 85 different essays collected into a single volume, “The Federalist Papers,” addressing issues of great interest and concern to our young democracy. One of the most interesting letters is the importance of giving new immigrants an appropriate amount of time to understand how to operate in a democracy. Madison wrote this entry, and his caution is noteworthy: Those coming from a country ruled by a despot or a king need time to learn how to balance the competing commitments of taking an appropriate level of initiative while limiting their influence to let all citizens have a voice. This is just the sort of intellectual and personal formation that happens in a residential, liberal arts education.

As we look to the future and the continued growth of a global community, the need for an educated populace will only grow. Developing the right solutions without destroying some of the best options will be a key challenge.

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