The peak education conversation

a peakAre we experiencing peak higher education?  That’s what yesterday’s post contemplated.  Various responses trickled in via Twitter, Google+, email, comments on my blog post, Facebook, elsewhere in the blogosphere (one awesome post), and by still other means.

Discussion raised a number of new twists, along with developments on some from the post.  There were dark thoughts, and ambitious visions.  Let me try to summarize them here, before I create a different post about life after peak.

The US versus the rest: I described peak higher education as an American thing, but some form of it seems to be occurring elsewhere.  Mike Caulfield notes a traditional-age demographic trough settling in for Canada and Europe.  Funding mechanisms are very different, of course – America having gone far down the privatization route, for example – but the European economy is, overall, not exactly booming.  It might be interesting, even useful, to do some comparisons.

Transnational education: Mark Vickers considers my American focus to be too limited.  More international students will take classes offered by US institutions, some “without ever setting foot in the U.S.”, while increasing numbers of Yanks will study abroad.  I think he’s dead to right on the former, and might be right on the latter, although Americans have been slow to look abroad.  Perhaps OECD nations can help their individual education sectors survive, even grow through transnational exchanges.  On the other hand, if they all face similar demographic pressures and none enjoy economic good times, this might be rearranging the proverbial deck chairs.

Student ages: Caulfield also notes that the American adult learning population isn’t taking off.  My post was aimed largely at traditional-age undergraduates (albeit plus grad students), and I should have been more clear about that.  Better yet, I should have distinguished adult learners.  But it might not matter.

Technology: perversely, I left it out of that blog post.  That’s partly because I wanted to focus on other factors, and partly because I’m not sure how digital tech will shape student enrollment.  Will Richardson brings back the tech.  He suggests that we should extend our view beyond the United States to the millions of students coming on-line in the developing world, and realize that they might want something other than a bricks-and-mortar residential education:

[N]ew opportunities for a “higher education” that look nothing like the traditonal bricks and mortar, 4-years to a degree experience…

Self-organized, “informal” learning will increase in both scale and value whether the institution accepts that or not. Different forms of accredidation will evolve. Mastery will be achieveable in a number of non-traditional paths.

That’s a powerful vision of a bifurcated future.  If Will’s right, we’ll see higher education split between the classic model circa 1995, and this new, emergent alternative.

Jan Herder offers a third vision, one where academics self-organize along with students, along the lines of Black Mountain:

a hybrid model. Project based. similar to Sterling College: working hands, working minds. The trend towards more professionalism in staffing and Admin instead of hands on student centric ‘management’ is driving the costs up and robbing the students of real world experience. I’m leaning towards the Self Organizing Learning Eenvironments model of the Hole in the Wall project…

learner’s decide the staff and expertise they require for the task at hand.

Joe Corneli offers still another vision, one where technology empowers better learning for a greater number of people.  He ponders:

If access is greatly expanded… and if certification is greatly expanded (example: based where relevant on testing or real-world experience rather than degrees), then I think the class-based aspects of our society will diminish.  In order for this to work out, “access” can’t just mean access to a top-down feed of information (as with MOOCs, even where taught by ‘top’ professors) but full access to participation in the knowledge process.  The implications go far beyond the sphere of “education” – but to sum up, the “dam bursting” could mean the end of education as a separate activity, and the integration of educative experience into everyday life.

These imaginings of a new world for higher education move me deeply.  I admire their positive visions, wrested from a dark discussion during very stressful times.  We need this kind of bold thinking.

At the same time I notice that few people strongly debunk my peak higher ed hypothesis (if you haven’t taken a shot, please do!).  This might be due to our national (sometimes global) mood, or because demographics and economics are such enormous forces, or because our discussion about technology is now, post-xMOOCs, so fraught with concerns about exploitation.  As I said, I hope this hypothesis doesn’t bear out.  But I’m glad I put it out there, and far gladder that so many bright people have contributed their thoughts.

Next up: what does life look like after peak higher education?

Thanks to more folks on Twitter who contributed their thoughts: John Robertson, D. Christopher Brooks, Mike Caulfield.  Thanks to patient Lanny Arvan on Facebook.

(photo by Tony Fisher)

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3 Responses to The peak education conversation

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