Bill Gates at the Techonomy conference discussed the future of education based on technological innovation and suggested that the prevalence of place-based education will significantly decrease within the next five years, with a shift towards online / distance learning. You can read MG Siegler’s TechCrunch post here or jump to Techonomy’s blog post for a YouTube video of Gates speaking.
Overall, I agree with Gates’ hypothesis and wanted to spend just a few minutes fleshing out some thoughts on how this will effect higher education institutions and how higher education institutions can and should take advantage of this trend. I have a vested interest in this arena as a low-level peon at Philadelphia Biblical University where I work as a Systems Administrator / Senior Systems Support Specialist. That said, my opinions expressed herein are entirely my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.
Effects of Online Learning Transition:
- Refocusing of Faculty – I don’t see an entire transition to online education overwhelming us in the next several years, but the use of online education to acquire inexpensively general education credits is likely to increase. Whereas, previously, one oftentimes had to compromise quality in gen. ed. courses, now one will be able to ensure the highest quality at a lower price. This will result in shrinking classroom sizes for gen. ed. courses and the eventual untenability of maintaining some, if not many, general education courses / departments.
- Lower Costs – For both the student and the institution costs will decrease. Institutions will experience reduced costs due to reductions in personnel (custodial, maintenance, security, administrative) and facilities (classrooms, libraries, gyms, cafeterias).
- Increased Competition – In the past institutions could rely to some extent on their geographical location to provide students, this ability will decrease with time as students have the option to remain geographically local while educationally global.
- Consolidation – This is not a necessary corollary, but I expect a significant number of institutions will fail to make the necessary changes to remain relevant in the future educational landscape as such such will close or consolidate with other schools due to lack of finances, students, etc.
Recommendations for the Transition:
- Refocus on Core Areas – Institutions need to begin considering what areas of the educational curriculum to continue to expand in-house and which portions to “out-source” – the distinctive aspects of an institution will become key as time progresses. An institution focused on medicine, electronics, or biblical studies will need to seriously consider whether it can offer a similar quality of education through out-sourced courses.I do not mean to discount the importance of the liberal arts. I love the liberal arts, but I am attempting to reflect an economic reality. Furthermore, institutions will need to invest additional resources into those core emphases. Finances regained by not expanding one department must be reinvested in expanding those departments which will serve as the heart of the future institution.
- Refocus Holistically – Academic institutions have been good at educating but not always at growing students. Knowledge about a specialty, even including liberal arts, does not result in a well-balanced individual. Especially for religious institutions, a focus on the holistic health of the individual student should be an increased emphasis. In our post-modern society the importance of furthering one’s career has taken a backseat and we are more concerned about living a holistic life (of being happy). This might occur in an institution by more closely pairing students with faculty mentors, by increasing holistic emphases within the institution (e.g. how do we eat?, how do we communicate?, how do we exercise?, how do we worship?) – not primarily through courses either – but through less formal/rigorous methods.
- Focus on Community – As Gates’ humorously points out, one aspect of higher education that online education will not be able to replicate (at least in the near future) are the parties. I would go a step beyond this and suggest that it is not simply the parties but the community that online education cannot replicate. Thus, the importance of providing a stable and welcoming community will increase. This will include the necessity of intentionally fostering relationships between students, providing ample opportunities and outlets for student energies, and increasing connections between faculty/staff and students.
- Focus on Service – Institutions must consider the peripheral services they offer to students and seek ways to simplify their lives while also keeping costs low. Institutions will need to pay more attention to providing quality service to students. Student / Institution relationships are symbiotic in nature. An institution must always remember that the institution wields power only as long as the students allow it do so. Peripheral services might include aggressive intern / post-graduation placement, deeper relationships with faculty/staff, on-site medical (physical / psychological) health facilities, and unique opportunities.
- Focus on Technology – You probably saw this one coming, right? Being an Information Technologies worker, I have to say this, right? However true that may be – it doesn’t belie the underlying truth – technology is integrally connected to the future of higher education. Since this is my area of expertise I’m going to take a little extra time to discuss this arena and break it out into its own discussion, so see below.
Focus on Technology (Expanded):
Any institution which hopes to survive in our technological future must understand and embrace technology. Let me explain a few practical ways in which this must occur:
- Listening – Administrators and Faculty need to listen to their IT workers. I don’t meant take every suggestion they make as gospel – I mean take the time to understand what they are saying. Doesn’t matter who I’m talking to, when I start to talk technology (unless it is another geek) their eyes almost immediately glaze over. This leaves IT folks in a bind. When someone asks us, “How does this work?” or “Why didn’t this work?” We can reply with a technical explanation which results in glossy eyes and the waste of both of our time or we can reply with a unsatisfactory summary answer which saves us both time but which leaves those we spoke with no better equipped to interact with the technology or us in the future.
- Learning – There is a reasonable fear of listening to IT folks too heavily. We quasi-believe we can fix everything with the right line of code or technological solution. We see things through a certain filter – and this isn’t always the filter that is needed in a situation. That said, a lack of understanding by faculty / administrators of technological concepts / processes is a sure way to sink an institution. Thus, I suggest that faculty / administrators make a significant and ongoing commitment to familiarizing / learning technology. What is a competent level to expect of administrators / faculty? Try this little quiz on for size. If you can’t say, “hey, I can do this really well” – you need to put on your learning cap:
- Search the web using a search engine for information – and not just simple queries like, “honda accord” or “john wayne”.
- Write a document, format it, print it, email it, save it, convert it (to another file format) without contacting an IT person.
- Import pictures from your digital camera, a scanner, or a cell phone to your computer and upload them to web via services such as Facebook, Flickr, or PicasaWeb.
- Install / remove applications without the necessity of IT assistance
- Avoid getting a virus or being phished in any given year.
- Understand the basics of antivirus / malware / spyware spotting and removal.
- Understand how to utilize and perform basic troubleshooting in a smart classroom (equipped with a laptop, projector, etc.).
- Understand open source / free software philosophy (the difference between the two, and why these matter).
- Have and understand how to utilize social media accounts such as Facebook and MySpace.
- Have and understand how to utilize a non-school email address – such as Gmail or Hotmail.
- Familiar with the touchstone applications and websites that are availability within your educational / administrative arena.
- Discussing – Looking for individuals in the IT sector who are willing to discuss topics with you.I would suggest this is applicable across sectors and is simply good business practice. Take time to understand why its taking so long for custodial to accomplish x…or why financial aid always seems to run out of money at x…, etc. Spend time helping them understand what you do, what you care about, what worldview and philosophy drives you, and spend time listening to them discuss the same. For example, if you are reading Neil Postman and worshiping at his feet, you better be spending some serious time discussing Postman’s observations and philosophies with a techie.
Pahh. That took a lot longer to write than I would have liked – and is still only first draft quality, but take a look. I’ll respond to any questions / comments / criticisms as I can. Take care!
-  I can’t remember the institution, but I nearly went somewhere else instead of PBU. I received attractive financial support from a secular institution. I knew I wanted to be in ministry – but this institution offered a year of educational credit by backpacking throughout Europe with your classmates and professors. Wow. Having read Louis L’Amour’s Education of a Wandering Man this was almost too much to resist…but I did. =) ↩
-  I understand that IT workers are not known as the most socially adept. We hang out with computers all day for a reason – many of us have problems relating to you scary humanoids. I also understand that we aren’t the best at speaking in plain English – but part of this is a trained response. We’ve become so used to people glazing over we don’t even try… ↩
-  On the opposite side of the spectrum, it might be worthwhile to push IT individuals to better understand certain aspects of faculty / administrator jobs. We do our best work when we fully understand what you are trying to accomplish and then match technological solutions to optimize that purpose. ↩
-  Though we may require you to speak to us. ↩
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