America’s higher education is undergoing a transformation as the nation shifts from a national analog industrial economy to a global digital knowledge economy. The Industrial Revolution was the only other period in American history when the country and its colleges experienced change of this magnitude, duration, and magnitude. Looking back reveals how our colleges and universities are likely to change in the near future. It will be through a seven step process that will reveal how far we need to go to ensure that academia keeps pace with the changes happening in our society. This step-by-step framework gives us the ability to keep score and determine what may happen in the years to come.
Societies change faster than their social institutions, built for the passage of time. In the emerging world, institutions are functioning less well than before and are often seen as failing. They must be rearranged to meet the realities of the new society. Times of profound social change like the present and the Industrial Revolution demand equally significant changes in their social institutions. The redevelopment takes the form of a transformation.
During the Industrial Revolution, transformation occurred in seven chaotic, overlapping stages that are repeated today.
First, the government, media and the public began to criticize institutions of higher learning, which had changed little since the founding of Harvard University in 1636 and continued to offer a curriculum anchored in the trivium and quadrivium of the medieval university. They accused colleges and universities of having outdated, overpriced, elitist, and slow or unwilling to change programs.
Second, most colleges and universities have denied the charges and have resisted all but the smallest changes.
Third, a number of institutions have experimented and adopted reform initiatives focused on updating the classical college by modernizing their curricula and adding new subjects like modern science and languages, trying new methods of teaching. teaching that deviate from rote memorization, by introducing new study programs and admitting more diverse students. Before the Civil War, most of these efforts failed.
Fourth, new institutions were created after the war. They adopted and modeled pre-war experiences. Cornell University offered “any student, any study. “The Massachusetts Institute of Technology pioneering efforts in applied science and technology. Johns Hopkins University was mainly a graduate and professional school that championed research. Unlike previous experiences, which aimed to reform existing colleges, these new institutions were replacements.
Fifth, the missions and practices of these institutions have spread to mainstream higher education with a prestigious institution, Harvard, and eminent President Charles Eliot leading the effort. Each institution has embraced the variety of innovations in its own way, resulting in a set of higher education practices. There was no agreement on matters as fundamental as what constitutes a course.
Sixth, higher education has taken on the aura of the Old West. The next agenda was the standardization of practices. This was accomplished by establishing a self-checking mechanism called accreditation and a common university accounting standard, which took the form of the Carnegie Unit or Credit Hour.
The seventh and final step was to expand and integrate the various elements of standard practices and policies to create the industrial age higher education system, filled with universities, colleges and community colleges.
So where are we today?
We are now in the early stages of the global digital knowledge transformation, somewhere between stages three and four. If this new transformation was a baseball game, we would still be at the top of the third inning. Once again, government, business, funders, families and the media are voicing demands for change. The issues are familiar: cost, inability to meet current needs, and reluctance to keep up with the times. What used to be called elitism and the need for democratization in the industrial revolution has now become a call for fairness and access.
Most colleges and universities today think the criticisms are overblown. But now as then, we have seen a cornucopia of experiments and reforms. Once again, institutions are introducing curriculum changes in the form of competency-based or outcome-based education, 24/7 access to content, and refresher education and training. recycling. There are new teaching methods like online education and anytime, anywhere delivery. There are new benchmarks such as badges and certificates, new funding schemes such as membership fees and free college, and a growing number of non-traditional providers and distributors of higher education content, ranging from media and high tech companies to libraries and museums.
It is too early to speak definitively about models or diffusion – the fourth and fifth stages. Only historians can identify them. But candidates are emerging who could be role models, like University of Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors University for online and competency-based training; People’s University, which offers degree programs at very low prices; and Coursera, which combines all of these elements.
If I were asked to make a bet on how we might reach the fifth stage – when a prestigious institution adopts and disseminates new and timely practices – I would choose the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a world-class university at the forefront of research and innovation, and its visionary president, Rafael Reif, to lead traditional higher education into the future. It has already put its course materials online for the public, launched initiatives such as EdX and micromaster degrees, and made a major commitment to artificial intelligence. A central figure who could also be influential is Richard Levin, who, as CEO of Yale University and later Coursera, is the only person to have been a leader in both mainstream higher education and in the emerging order and can speak knowledgeably to both.
To date, there is nothing to standardize practices (step six) or to integrate or extend them (step seven).
We still have a long way to go, as higher education is more likely to adapt to changes in society. But a review of the history of higher education shows us what is likely to happen to complete the transformation.
It is a moment that colleges and universities must not let pass. We must not and cannot wait for the future to come to us. Leaders must play a role in shaping the future – a future that focuses on standardizing higher education outcomes rather than process, emphasizes learning rather than teaching and cares more about the student than the teacher. The future will be driven by digital technology, the demands of a knowledge-based economy, and the continued growth of non-traditional providers who can offer low-cost education anytime, anywhere and award both degrees and certificates.
We now have the opportunity to shape the future that awaits our country’s colleges and universities. Since the industrial revolution, no generation has been offered this opportunity.