Friday, August 14, 2009

Disruptive and Dislodging Events in Higher Education (1)

Yesterday's blog discussed three linked issues:

• A step change in availability, awareness and use of free courses,

• Open Educational Resources become the new mainstream, and

• Major talent meltdown ahead, affecting job-creating sectors most.

The end result: building pressure for new approaches to higher education and job training, using open resources and Web 2.o practices, among other things.

These issues provide background to better appreciate recent observations by Dr. Robert Zemsky, who on August 7 posted a Commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Will Higher Education Ever Change as it Should?” This is taken from his new book, Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming Higher Education.

Dr. Zemsky looks favorably on Europe's Bologna Process, which resulted in greater coordination and cooperation and commonality and interchangeability among Europe’s competing systems of higher education. This impressive endeavor succeeded for several reasons, in Zemsky’s view: 1) it was a multi-year undertaking, 2) which linked the insights and perspectives from the key actors (ministers of education, university administrators, student leaders, heads of international organizations, European Union bureaucrats, and policy wonks), and 3) focused on a limited set of goals and clear benchmarks.

Would such an approach work in the United States? Dr. Zemsky thinks the 50 states would have great difficulty working together to create a Bologna-like solution. And private education would argue that the higher education marketplace should be allowed to sort things out – even though the marketplace is distorted in many ways. Looking at past reform, he posits that previous reform efforts have taught us that:

• Strong rhetoric changes nothing;

• Demand for reform must be internal – faculty must at least see the reform as a means to a desired end;

• Like outside reformers, state agencies cannot prescribe change unless they are prepared for long exhausting battles, but must create the conditions that makes change possible; and

• It’s best to focus on systemic change – the nature of the academy makes it possible to suck the air out of piecemeal reforms.

Zemsky makes the point that for true reform we need events that will change institutions, simultaneously. What is needed is what he calls “dislodging events” – powerful disruptions that catalyze change because our institutions are linked together, even if they have the capacity to act independently (for example, to resist change if coerced, but to imitate others if they see a practice they like – and copy). He asked friends and colleague to envision several such dislodging events, and they suggested three:

Dislodging Event #1: Congress could dramatically change today’s federal student aid program, turning the experts loose to create a system that supports participation, invests in motivation, and rewards institutions that use money effectively. Such a system would link K-20 more effectively and get students and parents involved in college saving, earlier. Jonathon Grayer, former CEO of Kaplan Inc has suggested giving every sixth grader a $10,000 stake in a 529 plan, to provoke early and sustained interest in saving and preparing for a college education.

Dislodging Event #2: Congress could require college endowments to pay the same taxes on their endowments as other hedge funds – unless the proceeds are used for education and research. This would encourage wealthy institutions to spend far more on educational and research endeavors, which would certainly favor those institutions, but could indirectly disadvantage other parts of higher education.

Dislodging Event #3: What would happen if a Bologna-like process concluded that the standard undergraduate degree should be three years in the United States, as in Europe. This would require devoting the senior year, much of which is now a waste, to developing college-ready skills. The new three-year option would require all teaching and learning issues to be on the table and would engage all faculty in reconstructing practices to fit the new model. Performance measures would be needed to assure that the three-year degree was delivering the goods, and technology would be an instrument of change rather than an add-on cost.

An interesting list, this. Makes one anticipate Dr. Zemsky’s book, in full.

But rather than suggest these hypotheticals, what if we examine a portfolio of some of the actual disruptive forces of today, which may have the potential to dislodge current practices across clusters of institutions and learning providers?

In my next blog, I will describe five other dislodging events, relating to analytics and lifting out of recession that are disrupting education today and will potentially dislodge resistance to change, in the future. Many of these disruptors are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

Dislodging Event #1: A multi-faceted injection of federal assistance in the community colleges, contingent on innovation and changing practices;

• Dislodging event #2: Federal K-12 investment and transformation initiatives spark innovation and change practices, in ways that span K-20;

• Dislodging Event #3: Declining affordability and disruptive shifts in college attendance patterns, plus continued weakness in state funding for higher education and growing awareness that the current model for public funding of four-year public universities is broken;

• Dislodging Event #4: Open educational resources couple with Web 2.0 tools and practices to create alternatives to traditional approaches to higher education and job creation;

• Dislodging event #5: Stimulus money in weatherization and energy projects catalyzes the evolution of a new, flexible network of green careers pathways and competence building opportunities.

Watch for descriptions of these disruptive dislodgers in the next blog.

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