Education, Innovation, Quality and “Disruption”

George Siemens first gained prominence in 2008 when he helped invent the massive, open, online course, better known by its acronym, the MOOC.  MOOCs quickly evolved into something rather different from what Siemens had imagined, but that didn’t stop him from agreeing to head up the Gates-funded MOOC Research Initiative, which seeks to bring hard data to bear on specific questions about how this online format might actually be useful.  It should come as no surprise then that Siemens was one of an unknown number of anonymous invitees to an apparently secret U.S. Department of Education meeting to discuss “quality and innovation” in higher education.  To prepare for the conversation attendees at the meeting were provided in advance with a link to a (frankly pretty trite) post by Ted Mitchell, Undersecretary of Education, on Innovation and Quality in Higher Education.

But what may surprise some is that Siemens not only revealed his invitation publicly, but also blogged about the meeting (carefully avoiding identifying participants), in a series of comments that raise profound questions about some of the most important assumptions of the so-called educational “reformers’ and “disrupters” attending, whose shallow critique of our present education system has become something of an orthodoxy with the Arne Duncan crowd.

I want to share some of what Siemens wrote, because it is thought-provoking and intelligent, but first let me ask the obvious question: What on earth is our federal Department of Education doing holding secret sessions on educational quality with unnamed attendees?  How was the invitation list determined; who was invited and who attended this meeting?  Were any actual teachers present?  Were there any representatives of faculty organizations, like the AAUP (well, here I can say with authority that no such invitation was proffered), education unions, or disciplinary organizations present?  Readers will forgive me if my guess is that no such groups were represented and that the attendees came mainly from the ranks of private for-profit educational “service providers,” know-it-all reformers (and the foundations who shower them with funding), bombastic tech “geeks,” and perhaps some college and university tech administrators, CFOs and campus presidents.  In this context, it would seem, Siemens may have provided a small breath of fresh air.

Siemens’s blog post enumerates twelve specific comments that he describes as “my personal reactions to the conversation.”  Here are some of them:

2. Higher education generally has no clue about what’s brewing in the marketplace as a whole. The change pressures that exist now are not ones that the existing higher education model can ignore. The trends – competency-based learning, unbundling, startups & capital inflow, new pedagogical models, technology, etc – will change higher education dramatically.

3. No one knows what HE is becoming. Forget the think tanks and the consultants and the keynote speakers. No one knows how these trends will track or what the university will look like in the future. This unknowability stems from HE being a complex system with many interacting elements. We can’t yet see how these will connect and inter-relate going forward. The best strategy in a time of uncertainty is not to seek or force the way forward, but to enter a cycle of experimentation. . . .

4. I was struck by how antagonistic some for-profits are toward public higher education. I sat in one session where a startup spent much of the time expressing intense dislike for higher education in today’s form “my tax dollars are going to bad actors”, ironically to be followed up with “I loved my time in university. It shaped me and made me”. It reminds me of Peter Thiel’s drop out of school and start a company. But what does Thiel expect when his money and his life is at stake? He expects, for his hedge fund: “High GPA from top-tier university; preferably in computer science, mathematics, statistics, econometrics, physics, engineering or other highly quantitative.”  I’m worried that the future will have an education system where the wealthy continue to receive high quality education on campuses, but the poor receive some second-tier alternative system that prepares them mainly to work but not to be change agents in the world. This gets at the heart of a challenge in higher education.  HE is a system that is deeply embedded in societal realities, including equity and justice.  It’s not an ROI [return on investment] equation.  It’s a quality of life equation. A startup or corporate entity has a primary purpose of doing what makes sense economically. It’s their job. But it conflicts with the most dominant needs of our society today: how to educate individuals from low socio-economic status. The bottom income quartile of society has seen zero increase in degree completion over the past 50 years. Any meaningful redesign of higher education, for the benefit of individuals and society broadly, has to be primarily focused on helping to move this population toward success [emphasis in original] . . . .

6. Expect a future of universities being more things to more people. A future of broadening scope regionally and of greater engagement in the lives of individuals. . . .  Higher Education is moving from a 4 year relationship to students to a 40 year relationship.

7. Expect a future of far greater corporate involvement in HE.  VC [Venture Capital] funds are flowing aggressively and these funders are also targeting policy change at local, state, and national levels. We aren’t used to this level of lobbying and faculty is unprepared to respond to this. Expect it. Your next faculty meeting will involve a new student success system, a personalized learning system, an analytics system, a new integrated bootcamp model, new competency software, new cloud-based computing systems, and so on. Expect it. It’s coming. . . .

11. I was stunned and disappointed at the lack of focus on data, analytics, and evidence. In spite of the data available, decision making is still happening on rhetoric. We don’t understand the higher education market analytically – i.e. scope, fund flows, student flows, policy directives, long term impact, – well nationally and internationally. I want to hold both universities and corporate sectors to accountability in their claims of impact. We can’t do that without a far better data infrastructure and greater analytics focus.

And, lastly, Siemens’ concluding and perhaps most telling comment about the whole “reform” effort:

12. I’m getting exceptionally irritated with the narrative of higher education is broken and universities haven’t changed. This is one of the most inaccurate pieces of @#%$ floating around in the “disrupt and transform” learning crowd. Universities are exceptional at innovating and changing. Explore any campus today. It’s a new world on most campuses, never mind the online, competency, and related systems. And if your slide deck includes an image of desks and argues that nothing has changed, you’re being dishonest and disingenuous. Repent. Healing is possible for you, but first you must see the falseness of your words.

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