An article in yesterday’s New York Times called “Saying No to College” nicely summarizes arguments against the traditional full diploma, and current efforts to unbundle or “hack” the enterprise for learners who want more focused learning, or simple flexibility, than higher ed usually offers.
The potential advantages are significant: as we overcome the structural assumption that our students will clear the decks for four years to get a degree, we make college available to more who could use it — the students, but also their families, neighborhoods, and employers, who all benefit from the boost in individual development.
The article reminded me of the public university system in Wisconsin, and its recently unveiled degree program called Flexible Option, for working adults. In the rest of the country, Distance and Extended Education operations have been “hacking” like this for a while, but I imagine California isn’t the only other state paying close attention to the latest push in Wisconsin.
What gets lost with these developments is context. By definition, a more modular or interchangeable approach to college-level learning puts the burden on students to make sense of the different pieces. (I’m not the first to observe that the momentum around Massively Open Online Courses began with highly selective private institutions, whose students need less than the usual help with way-finding.)
Students in Wisconsin’s Flexible Option may not hail from the same socio-economic strata as the undergraduates at MIT or Stanford, but nor are they 22. Learners past the traditional age are likelier to come in knowing what college can do for them, and how the different components should add up.
So the hacking action seems hottest at the selective privates, and in the less selective publics — but in our extension and on-line wings, which have a nearly private-sector business model.
What about the rest? From my vantage here on the creaky, traditional side of public higher ed, I believe this is action we want a bigger piece of. How do we take what’s good about hacking — the improved access, the learner-centered customization — and scale it for everyone, the way we did with the traditional baccalaureate?
How do we tailor college to what people need and want, without letting our students deselect the good stuff?
No nineteen-year old with a D in his last high-school math class would opt in to trig. Few would want critical thinking, which doesn’t sound like a job, and 90% would choose defenestration over speaking in public. Yet we know that these proficiencies — however difficult and unpopular — are key outcomes of a college education. So how do we unbundle responsibly?
We’d better figure out the answer. Hacking is here, in Wisconsin, in MOOCs, in Mozilla’s experiment in open badges. The mainstream public universities may be the only ones in a position to make sure the benefits reach everyone.