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Karen Hitchcock : Higher Education at a Crossroads - Will Innovation Trump Tradition?

Let me start today’s commentary on innovation in higher education with a brief scenario.  A college professor, along with a group of teaching assistants and upper-level undergraduate students, organized his freshman physics section of some 200 students into multiple small groups to discuss the lecture they all had  already heard on-line by a Nobel Laureate who was not only an exceptional physicist, but also an exceptionally engaging teacher .   The two-hour class flew by as each small group discussed the concepts presented by the Nobel Laureate, and developed experiments to demonstrate their application in real-world situations.  No precious class-time was needed to simply present the new material  –  the students had already had that done by one of the world’s most esteemed and talented teachers of physics.  Rather, the students and teaching team of lead professor, teaching assistants and peer tutors had the time to use this material in creative ways in order to enhance the learning experience.   The students were engaged and extremely appreciative of the interactive, high-quality educational experience their professor was providing.  In fact, this hands-on, dynamic teaching approach convinced many of the freshmen to continue their studies in one of the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering and mathematics   -  a tremendous need in this country.

Is this scenario technically possible?  Most definitely.  Is it realistic given the more traditional approaches to the teaching of freshmen prevalent across many of our nation’s universities?   Here, the answer is more equivocal, even at a time when U.S. higher education is facing a constellation of risks which could easily undermine our global competitiveness. The costs of higher education are increasing, public support is disappearing, tuition is rising leading to ever-larger student debt loads even as our students face extremely high unemployment rates, to name but a few.  I would submit that the time for equivocation is past.   Technologic advances have given us the means to innovate, and we in higher education must accept the fact that there is a need to challenge old paradigms and develop new approaches to learning which better reflect the ways our technology-savvy students are acquiring new information,  and more effectively and economically utilize our many institutional assets. 

As an example, much has been written of late regarding the involvement of some of our most prestigious – and well-funded  -  universities in what is known as massively, open online courses  -  or  MOOC.   Indeed, this issue was central to recent events surrounding the forced resignation and subsequent reinstatement of President Theresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia, an institution which is also actively involved in educational innovation through technology, albeit in different ways.  While institutions like M.I.T., Berkeley and Yale have offered free course materials on-line for many years, recent initiatives such as the new interactive online education company, Coursera, which will provide a platform to host courses offered by Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania, will also provide a system for testing, grading and peer-tutoring.  Harvard and M.I.T. have also announced a platform for free online courses.  And, under a new interactive e-learning initiative know as MITx, individuals taking M.I.T.  open online courses can receive certificates of completion, a credentialing approach also being considered by some of the other major universities engaged in open, online course initiatives.

It is clear that some of our most elite institutions consider such alternative instructional delivery modes as central to the future of higher education in this country.    They have put a stake in the ground by investing millions of dollars to test the ability of such online courses to not only enhance the education of their own, resident students, but also to extend their institutional reach world-wide to hundreds of thousands of new registrants.  And, if the certification of these courses by the involved universities becomes an acceptable “credential” for future employers, we are looking at a sea-change in higher education.  Many issues will command our attention, issues as critical – and basic  - as the meaning and value of a traditional college degree in the face of possible alternative models of credentialing,  the role of faculty themselves, and whether some colleges and universities will actually survive as technology transforms the educational experience.  How to ensure the quality and rigor of the courses of study we provide with such new paradigms for learning and credentialing is our challenge, our opportunity, and our responsibility as educators.  To paraphrase Thomas Friedman, “Let the [change] begin!”

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge” .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.