Thursday, August 13, 2009

Who Needs Traditional Higher Education or Traditional Job Training?

This week three meteors of illuminating insight flashed across my virtual sky. They suggest how transformative alternatives to traditional higher education and traditional job training are gathering pace, in ways that we can all build upon and certainly all need to recognize.

Meteor #1. A step change in availability, awareness and use of free courses

The Chronicle of Higher Education came out with an article on “Obama’s Great Course Give Away”. It described the possibility of the Obama administration directing $500 million of its community college initiative funding toward supporting a free library of online course materials, and resources, ready to deploy and available free to colleges nationwide. These materials would come from the trove of Open Educational Resources (OERs) that have been funded by the Hewlett Foundation and developed by others, such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare Initiative and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative.

Such materials could be used to address a variety of needs:

• Serving people of high school and college age who are not able to pay for college courses but would like to learn in their own time, and others who can experiment with learning and build competence independent of institutions;

• Upgrading the quality and value of offerings for international and emerging institutions through sharing and development;

• Providing lower cost and more flexible versions of existing course offerings in many institutions – especially community colleges, four-year public institutions, and some proprietary schools, and even in private schools wishing to control costs – an outcome especially attractive to skeptics like Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, who sees this as a rare example of using technology in education to reduce costs rather than raise them; and

• Furnishing the protoplasm for the gestation and evolution of free-range, Web 2.0 approaches to learning, using social networks, wikis, and other 2.0 media to create sustainable learning environments. Such alternatives may compete with traditional institutions for learners at some point in the not-too-distant future.

This is not just about reinventing content. It’s also about reinventing patterns of engagement and interaction. And means of assessment. And means of demonstrating competence, directly. It’s that open processes lead to viable alternatives to existing academic patterns and practices, deconstructing the traditional roles of individual faculty as content expert, instructor, evaluator, and certifier, all in one. Moreover, it’s that technology can be used to reinvent educational practices in ways that can dramatically less expensive and more flexible and open than traditional education.

Meteor #2. Open Educational Resources become the new mainstream

Fast Company published a gem of an article by Anya Kamenentz, “Who NEEDS Harvard?” that outdid Meteor #1. Ms Kamenentz describes in even greater detail the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement and its capacity to begin the creation of alternative, Web 2.0 paths to education and competence building.

She refers to the innovators in the metaphorical garage workshops of open education as “edupunks” and describes how the pieces of alternative learning and competence building environments are coming together. She introduces us to innovators such as David Wiley at Brigham Young University, Neeru Paharia, CEO of Peer2Peer University, Jose Feireira, CEO and founder of education startup Knewton Education, and Thomas Mendenhall of Western Governors University. All are part of the new mainstream (the next big thing) in education: Web 2.0-based structures and practices that deconstruct and reconstruct the elements of content, social networking and engagement, and assessment and certification to suit the patterns and cadences of the 21st century economy and the need to use technology to improve the value and reduce the cost of learning and competence.

The point of this article is that over time, innovators will “hack together” and “mash up” combinations of open content, social networking platforms, open and community assessment, and other tools that will form the basis for tomorrow’s perpetual learning environments will come together to create viable alternative to traditional colleges and universities. These combinations will evolve in an expeditionary manner, creating flexible structures, processes, and practices. Three to five years from now, models will have evolved, mutated, and mutated again in ways that cannot be accurately described today.

“If universities can’t find the will to innovate and adapt to changes in the world around them, universities will be irrelevant by 2020,” says professor David Wiley of Brigham Young University. More than ten years ago, the late Peter Drucker anticipated the rise of corporate and online alternatives, when he made similar comments about the need for universities to rethink their face-to-face model and to stop building classrooms, which he felt were not appropriate for the 21st century.

Western Governors University is mentioned favorably in this article for its contributions in assessment and accreditation, in which it is today’s gold standard. WGU offers online learning to 12,000 students in 50 states running entirely on tuition of $2,890 for a six-month term. WGU uses technology to disaggregate the traditional faculty functions - convey information, mentor, evaluate. WGU faculty fulfill the mentor role; they are there to guide, direct, coach, counsel, encourage, motivate, and keep on track. Content and evaluation/assessment are handled automatically.

Robert Mendenhall, President of WGU, is impatient with those who argue that what he’s doing with technology is unworkable. “Technology has changed the productivity equation of every industry except education,” he says. “We’re simply trying to demonstrate that it can do it in education – if you change the way you do education as opposed to just adding technology on top.”

Keep an eye on the companies and edupunks cited in this article.

Meteor #3: Major talent meltdown ahead, affecting job-creating sectors most

In an article in The Futurist, “The Global Talent Crisis” Edward Gordon contends that even in the midst of the global recession, there is a global talent shortage, especially in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) specialties. When growth resumes, this situation will worsen, exacerbated by the demographic declines in many nations.

Gordon contends, “Without drastic talent creation changes between 2010 and 2020, the United States will experience a major talent meltdown with 12 to 14 million vacant jobs stretching across the U.S. economy. Businesses will leave the U.S. searching for scarce talent wherever they can find it. The U.S. Economy will stagnate or shrink. For example in the late 1990s, Advanced Micro Devices wanted to build a new high-tech plant. They looked in Texas and California, but company officials felt the communities they investigated could not produce enough entry-level technicians for their needs. The company went to Germany.”

As that example shows, signs of talent shortages were apparent years ago but were largely ignored. There is still time to avoid the 2010-20 talent shortage, for example colleges can use the stimulus funding to begin to fill the gaps and if we all take account of key factors:

• Global demographics. The workforces in many developed countries will decline in coming years.

• The skills gap. American education has been under fire since publication of A Nation at Risk. As has been demonstrated in earlier blogs, America is suffering a skills gap in comparison with our competitors.

• A cultural bias. Gordon contends that the bias seems to be not against technology itself, but the training needed for science and technology jobs.

Gordon asserts that “Advancing technologies are transforming the nature of occupations, including the skilled trades. The number of new technologies introduced over the next decade will likely be equal to those invented over the past 50 years. Yet the current breakdown in the global talent-creation systems does not bode well for the future.” Across America, the education-to-employment system needs to be retooled. Gordon reports that community based organizations (CBOs) and non-government organizations (NGOs) have been working to expand business-education partnerships to address the talent gap and rebuild talent pipelines in their communities.

These three meteors come together for me. Rebuilding America’s talent pipelines will require flexible, organic networks that enable individuals to engage in active, learning experiences early in their learning careers. Traditional approaches to learning and training and workforce development too easily become misaligned with workforce and personal needs. For tomorrow’s talent pipeline, we need competence building communities that display the characteristics being invented by the edupunks.

Tomorrow’s blog will explore the impact of Dislodging and Disrupting Events in Higher Education.

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