the future of universities

One element that has been largely missing from my ongoing rambling analysis of economies, corporations, co-ops, and institutions has been higher education and universities. Of course Universities are institutions, and function in many ways like large corporations, but, nostalgia notwithstanding, I don't think it's really possible to exempt Universities or dismiss them from this conversation.

Oh, and, there was this rather interesting--but remarkably mundane--article that I clipped recently about that addressed where universities are "going" in the next decade or two. I say mundane, because I think the "look there's new technology that's changing the rules game" is crappy futurism, and really fails to get at the core of what kinds of developments we may expect to see in the coming years.

Nevertheless... Shall we begin? I think so:

  • The expansion of university in the last 60 years, or so, has been fueled by the GI-Bill and the expansion of the student-loan industry. With the "population bubble" changing, and the credit market changing, universities will have to change. How they change is of course up in the air.
  • There aren't many alternatives to "liberal arts/general education" post-secondary education for people who don't want, need, or have the preparation for that kind of education at age 18. While I'm a big proponent (and product of) a liberal arts education, there are many paths to becoming a well rounded and well educated adult, and they don't all lead through traditional-four-year college educations (or equivalents, particularly at age 18.)
  • Technology is changing higher education and scholarship, already, with all likelihood faster than technology has been and is changing other aspects of our culture (publishing, media production, civic engagement, etc.). Like all of these developments of culture, however, the changes in higher education are probably not as revolutionary as the article suggests.
  • There will probably always be a way in which degree granting institutions will be a "useful" part of our society, but I think "The College," will probably change significantly, but I think forthcoming changes probably have less to do with education and the classroom, and more to do with the evolving role of the faculty.
  • As part of the decline of tenure-systems, I expect that eventually we'll see a greater separation (but not total disconnect) between the institutions which employ and sponsor scholarship, and the institutions that educate students.
  • It strikes me that most of the systems that universities use to convey education online (Blackboard, moodle, etc.,) are hopelessly flawed. Either by virtue of being difficult and "gawky" to use, or because they're proprietary systems, or that they're not designed for the task at hand, all of the systems that I'm aware of are as much roadblocks to the adoption of new technology in education as anything else.
  • Although quality information (effectively presented, even) is increasingly available online for free, what makes this information valuable in the university setting, including interactivity, feedback on progress, individual attention, validation and certification of mastery, are all of the things that universities (particularly "research"-grade institutions) perform least successfully at.
  • We've been seeing research and popular press stuff on the phenomena of "prolonged adolescence," where young people tend to have a period of several years post-graduation where they have to figure out "what next," sometimes there's graduate school, sometimes there's odd jobs. I've become convinced that in an effort to help fill the gap between "vocational education" and "liberal arts/gen ed." we've gotten to the point where we ask people who are 18 (and don't have a clue what they want to do with their lives, for the most part) to make decisions about their careers that are pretty absurd. Other kinds of educational options should exist, that might help resolve this issue.

Interestingly these thoughts didn't have very much to do with technology. I guess I mostly feel that the changes in technology are secondary to the larger economic forces likely to affect universities in the coming years. Unless the singularity comes first.

Your thoughts, as always, are more than welcome.

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