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Education 3.0: Change

by Jeff Borden
06 August 2012

Is higher education failing?  Could technology transform education into something better?  Do we need to find a better way? 

Having spoken to educators in more than 30 countries, 49 out of 50 of the United States, and after watching hundreds of conference speakers and webinars around higher education, I have come to a conclusion.  It depends who you ask.

See, it seems to me that the answer depends very much on the perspective of the speaker.  For instance, last week a dozen of my colleagues from the U.S. forwarded me an editorial piece from the New York Times.  The writer was a professor of English and he asked (and answered) the question, "Can online education ever be education of the very best sort?"

He then filled the piece with fallacy after fallacy in reasoning, an extremely uninformed opinion on the potential efficacy of online teaching, with no research at all on the matter, and in a round-about way, he also suggested that there is nothing in education that needs fixing.  (Or at least if there are things that need to be fixed, online education certainly cannot be a solution.)

What made his particular pontification and bias even harder to read for me was that I had recently reviewed, "Academically Adrift" by Arum and Roksa.  This serious look at what is wrong with higher education starts with a simple question, "Are undergraduates really learning anything in college / university?"

From survey responses, transcript data, and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (a standardized test administered to students in their first semester and then again at the end of their second year to look for critical thinking, analytic growth, etc.) they would argue soundly that students are NOT learning much of anything.

45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. Students reported studying went down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981 to twelve today. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.

And as troubling as their student findings are, Arum and Roksa argue that for many faculty and administrators all of this is an expected result of a student body distracted by socializing or working and an institutional culture that does not prioritize learning.   Think about what is not only praised, but rewarded in higher education.  Great research which brings in money to the school rewards the researcher / professor with what?  Typically with teaching exemption.  When was the last time you heard of a professor being terminated, suspended, or even reprimanded for the results of their teaching evaluations?  (When was the last time you heard of ANYTHING being done with those documents?)

And these critiques are becoming more and more pervasive in every country I visit.  Simon Head writes in, "The Grim Threat to British Universities" that teachers in university departments are subject to mechanical standards of productivity that are much resented.  Asian bloggers and reporters write about problems from corruption to decentralization issues to too few graduates and much more.  Australian critics are suggesting that classrooms as so low-tech, students are well behind in their ability to compete for global jobs.  Higher education is in need of some help.

So with all of this in mind, I think about the promise of Education 3.0.  I have experienced both of the mentioned perspectives in every country, and at almost every institution I have attended.  I have listened to fellow teachers in Europe, Australia, and Asia say that THEIR education systems are not in question.  THEIR universities are always relevant.  Nobody doubts the value of THEIR higher education institutions.  Then, often within minutes, I will hear a completely contrary viewpoint from another instructor at the same institution.  I hear from a professor who will acknowledge that the system is failing students; or an administrator who will testify to attacks from the public, politicians, parents, etc. 

So I am left with what I do and what I believe.  Unfortunately, I no longer believe that we have time to waste on educators who accept all is well with the status quo.  I watched my 30's fly by with very little movement trying to convince the established to give up what is comfortable and known to them for what is better to students.  So instead, I am simply waiting them out while I demonstrate to anyone who will listen how to fix, transform, and change education for the better.  I'm helping the neo-educator grow, use data, create richer content, and fix problems.  Education 3.0 is all about the infusion of technology into the system.  This infusion can bring about efficiency, it can help with age-old problems like retention and attrition, and it can allow us to teach people in ways that are truly meaningful (aka personalized) to the learner. 

Education 3.0 is here and the foundations are being set as you read this.  As the father of a 5 year old, I do have a sense of urgency with regard to fixing some of the problems in education.  As a college professor I have a sense of pride in knowing that I am part of a solution for people's lives.  And as an education consultant who happens to have a sense of how technology can benefit our industry, I have a sense of duty to share it.   How about you?

Good luck and good teaching.