Monday, April 27, 2009

"End the University as We Know It" ... or not

The New York Times has an overheated op-ed today by Mark Taylor titled "End the University as We Know It" that ignores much that is understood about the sociology of knowledge creation. (See e.g. the many contributions of Ron Burt. Short version: End academic departments? Old & bad idea. Bridge disciplines? Old & good idea. Innovation comes from integrated diversity.) Nonetheless the piece offers a sensible thoughts on ways forward with graduate education. Best proposal is:
Create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed... Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges.
(By the way, when John Holdren, Iqbal Quadir and I started Innovations three years ago, the idea was to create a similarly problem-focused, or really, solution-focused, academic journal. We saw this as one small step toward increasing the fraction of the effort in universities directed toward developing solutions to global challenges.)

Talk of change in university education is not new. However, there are significant drivers of change today that did not exist in the past--even a decade ago. A number of these are wonderfully summarized in the "Did You Know?" video that has been making the rounds.

Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists, has a very compelling vision for a technologically-enriched future of undergraduate education, offered in an essay recently published in Innovations:
Pressures for change [in undergraduate education] are mounting, as administrators struggle to find ways to meet ... new demands in the face of constrained public funding and growing public concern over increasing tuition prices..

By applying new technologies and re-engineering methods, significant improvements have been demonstrated in higher educational settings. National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT) has worked with 30 two- and four-year colleges to demonstrate that a course redesign methodology could achieve significant improvements in quality while reducing costs in higher education. Large-enrollment introductory courses were redesigned and supported with online tutorials and course management; automated assessment of exercises, quizzes, and tests; continuous computer-based assessment and feedback; course delivery via the Internet; and the replacement of duplicative lectures, homework, and tests with collaboratively developed online material.

The NCAT approaches reduced the time faculty and instructional personnel spent on non-academic tasks. According to NCAT, 25 of 30 course redesign projects showed significant increases in student learning while the other five showed learning outcomes equivalent to traditional formats. Among the 30 institutions, costs were reduced by 37 percent on average, with cost savings ranging from 20 percent to 70 percent.

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