Most curricula, teaching modalities, and even the educational environments themselves have failed to keep up with many crucial advances in technology. The entire landscape of higher education is beginning to change. It’s no small wonder that many of the bigger, more expensive traditional colleges and universities are getting nervous.
Any parent with a child in college can tell you how outrageously expensive it has become to secure a bachelor’s degree these days. And any college graduate struggling to find a job providing income sufficient to survive, possibly raise a family, and retire the mountain of debt accumulated while they were in school can tell you how questionable it is that their sheepskin yielded a reasonable “bang for the buck.” While it has become almost a prerequisite for seekers of decent jobs, the true value of an undergraduate education has been steadily decreasing. For these and a variety of other reasons, many are beginning to seriously question our traditional institution-based models of higher education.
While classrooms have certainly made use of computers in recent years, most curricula, teaching modalities, and even the educational environments themselves have failed to keep up with many crucial advances in technology. And many of these advances have the potential not only to change the face of education but also to provide more effective, and more importantly, more cost-effective skills training for those about to enter the workforce. Technology, and the exponentially increasing pace of technological development, might well be the principal driving forces of educational reform.
Some experts point to textbooks as one example of the many dinosaur relics of an antiquated teaching model. In many fields, especially the sciences, advances take place so quickly that it’s impossible for textbooks to keep up. In fact, by the time it takes a typical science textbook to pass through the editing process and go to press, much of what’s in it is already out of date. And digital versions of books don’t really solve that problem, either. So, some professors and learning centers are replacing textbooks with online libraries of articles that are easily archived as well as continuously updated and accessed from anywhere.
Perhaps the most hallowed institution to be getting a strong second-look in recent years is the physical college campus itself. The costs of maintaining and modernizing aging physical structures, keeping up the grounds, and providing the energy to power the system have soared in recent years. And many colleges have been rightfully criticized for their inefficiency of operation, often reflected in the vast expansion of their support staff and the unprecedented absence of professors on campus, a disproportionate number of whom are tenured, highly-compensated, but all-too-often are simply unavailable to students or out on various types of leave.
The traditional formats of instruction — lectures, labs, required readings and papers, and examinations — are also coming under scrutiny, primarily because of their inability to adequately accommodate the various learning styles of students. As a result, more programs are adopting a “learning by seeing and doing” method as opposed to approaches based primarily upon reading and listening. Hands-on experience, along with guided mentoring, appears a much more effective mode of preparing students for the work they will someday do.
In recent years there’s been an explosion of online colleges and universities. At one time, online education was looked at with much disfavor not only because of the questionable educational standards adopted by some online institutions but also because most graduate schools did not accept credits from such organizations. But as these enterprises have evolved and earned accreditation from reputable agencies, and as credits for their course offerings have become more widely accepted, the entire landscape of higher education is beginning to change. And many employers have been complaining that applicants for entry-level jobs lack the skills necessary for those jobs, despite graduating with high marks from fairly well-known and reputed four-year colleges. As a result, according to a recent article on online course startups in The Washington Post, some of the more innovative online institutions have worked closely with major employers to fashion programs that incorporate both the content and the experience necessary to more adequately prepare a young applicant for the career opportunities they seek. And when one considers how much more cost effectively many online enterprises operate and how affordable they make their programs to students, it’s no small wonder that many of the bigger, more expensive traditional colleges and universities are getting nervous.
Despite the almost unimaginable amount of money poured into them, one fact is becoming too clear to deny: traditional models of higher education are in crisis. They’re also facing unprecedented challenges from a wide range of alternatives. And although there are some questionable entrepreneurial enterprises among these alternatives to be sure, it’s probably a good thing that there’s some fresh competition in the marketplace of ideas about how best to prepare our young folks for the jobs and careers of the future. All systems are subject to a life cycle. And if they don’t adapt to changing circumstances, they’re destined to die. As with all things, increased awareness and an altered landscape are pressing for an educational paradigm shift. And in the long run, if an institution is really to survive, it will not be because it secured sufficient grants, alumni contributions, tuition, and fees to maintain itself but rather because it provided its students with an effective, affordable path to a prosperous and rewarding future.