The Future of Higher Education?

So first off (if it matters) an apology: I have not been very good at meeting my schedule of blog postings. Blame, if any, rests solely with me–and I will work to be more on schedule.

That said, as we approach Commencement here at my University (William Paterson, where we are pleased to announce that we will be having two ceremonies this year, with Graduate Commencement on campus on May 18 and Undergraduate Commencement at the Prudential Center in Newark on May 20–with Senator Cory Booker as our Commencement speaker) and all across the country, perhaps it is a time to reflect on what we do and what our future may hold.

To be clear–the following is in no way an endorsement. But this is an issue that keeps popping up over and over again. There are significant cultural, structural and economic forces at play (and yes–there are ALWAYS significant cultural, structural and economic forces at play–but I would offer that we appear to be in a time and place where change is coming more rapidly than it has for some time–perhaps more akin to the Industrial Revolution or even to the rise of Modernity).

The digitization of information and knowledge is advancing at breakneck pace. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge to Google’s project to scan and digitize printed material for which Google has no copyright. The University of California system libraries are partners in this project. Here at William Paterson, we have significantly increased our use of e-books, continue to use more digital than print sources, and are increasing our own digitization efforts.

As libraries move to more digital offerings, what about the university itself? Online courses and online programs have been around so long that they have moved from new to “of course we offer online courses and programs.” But we here at William Paterson, and still the great majority of all other colleges and universities, continue to offer campus-based educational programs as the standard approach to teaching and learning.

There are other models out there. Southern New Hampshire University, a fully-accredited regional university with a campus and many “traditional” students, is expanding rapidly into the world of digital education. But this growth is still in the tradition of an educational model that most of us in higher education readily recognize.

What happens when someone (or something that is getting to be as influential as traditional higher education–if not more so) comes to play with us?

Amazon U anyone?

A somewhat provocative and imaginative article came out a few months back–a blend of what is already taking place and a vision (you can consider the plausibility) of a potential future.

As noted above–not in any way an endorsement. Reading this article, however, does get me thinking about the not-so-distant future. We are living in a time where major industries (bookstore chains have just about died–wondering how long Barnes and Noble will hang on) have disappeared or or altering their company DNA so much that they bear little resemblance to what came before (traditional print journalism is something that is more part of history than it is of the current or the future). So what about higher education?

My perspective? Traditional face to face education will continue. We are still people, and we still like to get together with each other and share–and that is an important element of education. Knowledge (defined as information) will continue to be digitized. Understanding seems a little less amenable to digitization and a lot more dependent on the shared construction that takes place with learning. So perhaps less a paradigm shift (and yes I have read my Thomas Kuhn) and more a chance to think a little bit more about what we do. Education can be less about the transmission of information and more about understanding.