Comment and Review


The “Year of the MOOC” is really over. Now that 2012 is behind us, many seem to be hoping that the hype about MOOCs has faded. The reality of coping with producing new kinds of courseware has set in across many campuses. Coursera — already the grand elder — is holding a partners conference this spring that will attract hundreds. The major MOOC providers already have stakeholders. It is a sign that things are calming down.

Other signs are more tangible. I have heard from presidents who are returning to their comfort zones:

I want to raise the rankings of all my programs to Top 20

Or, the even more popular,

My faculty is too focused on its research to…[insert almost anything not directly related to research]

In fact, the more prestigious  the research program the louder is the sigh of relief that things will quickly return to normal.

The specter of immediate budget cuts has faded, so extreme measures are no longer necessary to guard us from the dangers that seemed to be looming just offshore six months ago.

This year’s reports on the financial health of public and private institutions show that the failure rate has ether plateaued or entered a kind of emotional stasis in which it is possible to believe:

The world will always need [insert the name of any of the 1,000 schools that offer unrealistically discounted tuition to keep its enrollments stable].

Fueled by tuition increases and the benefits of prior cost-cutting, hiring has picked up.  Private donations are also on the rise some places. Long-delayed capital improvement projects have restarted.  Most importantly, faculty members have simply stopped worrying about it.

I’m feeling like Jaws’  Captain Quint warning all the Fourth of July beach-goers,

This shark he swallow you whole.

There are are many more Mayor Vaughns who take at the ups and downs of academic fortunes in stride and look for ways to sooth the worried townsfolk:

…it’s all psychological.  You yell barracuda, everybody says “Huh?  What?” You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands….

I guess we overreacted.  It’s safe to go back in the water.

That’s why Moody’s 2013 outlook report on the future of higher education should be such a shock to the system:

The 2013 outlook for the entire US higher education sector is negative, including the market-leading, research-driven colleges and universities, says Moody’s Investors Service in its annual industry outlook. Previously Moody’s had a stable outlook for these leading institutions and a negative outlook for the rest of the sector since 2009. Moody’s perceives mounting fiscal pressure on all key university revenue sources.

It’s not safe to go back in the water. This shark he swallow you whole:

Even market-leading universities with diversified revenue streams are facing diminished prospects for revenue growth

Almost everyone else will see declining enrollments as prospective students become more price sensitive.  A Huffington Post article reports on a separate survey of 300 colleges and universities that shows a dramatic drop in the number of institutions expecting to see rising revenues.

In addition to concerns about student debt, revenue uncertainties and the public perception of value, Moody’s sees the potential for disruption by technologies like MOOCs. Chaos has not left the scene, and as Moody’s points out, structural changes — whether technology-enabled or not — are necessary in order to survive. Far too few leaders are willing to even discuss what structural changes might look like.

I spoke to a gathering of presidents and provosts about this last week.  Presidents of research universities were noticeable absent, although they sent a few worried deans who see the coming challenges. Presidents are the only ones who can make the scale of changes that are needed, but they must believe in their hearts that “it’s all psychological”

The John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (logo)

Today’s commentary at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy leads off with my article about where accreditation is heading.

Accreditation is an idea that makes sense if you think of universities as factories:

Accreditors were supposed to be the quality control department of the factory.

That factory model is crumbling, however, shaken by new technology. This is the “Year of the Massive Open Online Course” in which technology-enabled teaching to global classrooms of 100,000 students has been the subject of feverish coverage by virtually everyone with an interest in the dire condition of American higher education.

MOOCs may be an over-hyped fad, but the educational landscape has been forever changed.

Change will revolve around outsized characters like Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun and Daphne Koller. They are the whiz-kids whose weekly inventions incite great thoughts about what college might become.

Accreditation is, well, boring. Accreditors are the green eye shade players in the drama of higher education.  It’s hard to get excited about green eye shades, buttoday—improbably—I  find myself  excited by accreditation. To bemore exact, I am excited about what will replace it.

This is an era in which the value of credentials is being reexamined, and the focus of quality assurance is shifting from institutions and programs to individuals and personalized, lifelong educational experiences.  Traditional accreditation — costly and largely ineffective — must certainly adapt or risk being marginalized.

Time for the 2013 Edition of ACTA’s What Will They Learn?™ report.

In last year’s edition, ACTA followed the curricula at over 1,000 undergraduate institutions to see whether there was any correlation between desired learning outcomes in liberal arts programs and topics actually covered in the classroom.

Last year’s results were shocking enough.

Most high-tuition institutions — including the Ivies — failed to provide even the most basic coverage of topics promised in published course descriptions.  You would think, for example, that a humanities curriculum that promises courses in the sciences and mathematics would design courses in which students could actually learn both science and math. No so, for a shocking percentage of the institutions who ask students to pony up $40,000 per year for the experience of bypassing pretty much every useful mention of physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, and computer science.

This year’s survey results were no more encouraging: From the report’s Executive Summary:

What Will They Learn?™ evaluates every four-year public university with a stated liberal arts mission as well as hundreds of private colleges and universities selected on the basis of size, mission, and regional representation. All schools in the What Will Will They Learn™ study are regionally-accredited, non-profit institutions. Combined, the 1,070 institutions in the What Will They Learn?™ study enroll over seven million students, more than two-thirds of all students enrolled in four-year liberal arts schools nationwide.

Overall, the results are troubling. The grade tally tells the story:

A 21 (2.0%)

B 393 (36.7%)

C 338 (31.6%)

D 229 (21.4%)

F 89 (8.3 %)

Less than half of the schools studied require:

Literature – 37.9%

Foreign Language – 13.7%

U.S. Government or History – 18.3 %

Economics – 3.4 %

The Seinfeld Show

Most discouraging to me is the F grade that Amherst earned this year by requiring literally nothing. Sacrificing at the altar of curriculum flexibility, Amherst has no core requirements. This leads to an extremely high completion rate with no guarantee that a  student knows anything at all about math, reading, history, or composition.  It doesn’t have to be that way; you can dispense with a core curriculum and not sink into the academic version Jerry Seinfeld’s “show about nothing.” [See, for example, my chapter on the Threads curriculum in Abelard to Apple].

I wrote about my first reaction to Taylor Walsh’s book “Unlocking the Gates: How and why leading universities are opening up access to their courses” way back in early January:

It’s a deep and compelling companion to Abelard to Apple, and it’s one that I plan to assign as required reading to Georgia Tech’s newly chartered Educational Technology Council.

Today the Pope Center published my full review of Unlocking the Gates. The comparisons to the birth of the web are too obvious to ignore.  My message is directed to universities who want to join the open courseware movement:  what you are grappling with today is all too familiar to those of us who lived through the media revolution  of 1995:

You do not get the feeling from most of the main characters in Walsh’s drama—many of whom lead institutions whose prices continue to spiral out control as their value is systematically hollowed out by the very technologies they once championed—that they lived through any of the events of 1995. They clearly know that a 21st century revolution is under way, but they think that their institutions are at the center of it. In reality, they are bystanders.

I am not above false equivalencies. I know that the “liberal” in “liberal arts” has nothing to do political liberals as in “Don’t vote for that tax-and-spend liberal”. But it is ironic  that virtually all of the negative comments that  Jeff Selingo’s article about giving engineers a chance to innovate in higher education came from my colleagues in the liberal arts and humanities.  That’s also been my experience with Abelard to Apple reviews and comments on this blog. The general form of the rebuke is

Ewww! We don’t want engineers running things.  Engineers are [insert your favorite stereotypical character flaw here]

I imagine that conjured images of pocket-protected geeks, possibly wearing glasses that have been recently repaired with white adhesive tape, making decisions in isolation of every true human emotion are supposed to rise from the printed page:

Engineers indeed have experience and skills solving problems, engineering problems, that is. These are the identical, limited skills that can make them exceptionally poor organizational leaders.  “Turn the crank and out will pop the solution” is good engineering but is not leadership.

Academics are deadly serious about this sort of stuff, and it infects decision-making at all levels of a university. It is a meme that pushes search committees away from candidates with technical credentials, for example.  The conversation that takes place out of earshot ends something like this:

I have to admit that this strategy is efficient .  It lets you separate the good ideas from the bad ideas before even hearing them. What about the pesky counter-examples? “Never mind the success of Silicon Valley.  Engineering leaders and their innovations probably played no role at all.”

There are some on my side of the fence who have a similar reaction to the humanities. I was in a Silicon Valley meeting a few weeks ago when an engineer went nearly apoplectic over the idea that the liberal arts would claim any academic legitimacy: “What do they do that’s useful?” he demanded to know.  “They’re trained circus performers!”

But this kind of reaction is relatively rare — perhaps because so many of us had liberal arts backgrounds before we became engineers. I wish the reverse were true for the humanities and the liberal arts, where it is frequently a badge of honor to proclaim ignorance of technical matters.

Back to my false equivalency. It is not worthy of the  “liberal” in “liberal arts” to pick this kind of fight. It is certainly not worthy of John Kennedy’s famous definition of a “liberal”

Someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions,

On the other hand, false equivalencies abound on the the other side, too.  Here’s my favorite: “The value of the liberal arts is self-evident and, since we are the only ones who know how to teach this stuff, so is the value of our liberal arts curricula self-evident.”  If you think I’m kidding, you might want to watch Stanley Fish defend exactly that position in the video above.

I can understand a certain amount of  defensive wagon-circling when the conversation veers toward value. Especially when a first-rate liberal arts education costs $200,000. I don’t think it’s a smart fight for the humanities faculty to pick.


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