Higher education is more varied than we know

KCDC organizers pay attention when people start talking about new ideas in education. A group of us attended the Reboot Education event at 1776, a newly-opened startup incubator in downtown DC.

Some notable talks

I appreciated a talk by Jake Schwartz, who started General Assembly, which matches online and in-person classes. Fred Singer spoke about the work that Echo 360 is doing to use electronic tools to support classroom learning.

Richard Culatta, of the U.S. Department of Education, gave a whirlwind talk about the need to make sure that we’re using tools purposefully and in ways that produce success rather than noise. “Can’t just use data to make ourselves feel bad,” he said.

Jennifer Shoop of the Saylor Foundation talked about her organization’s work to create genuinely open educational materials.

150 years?

Yet something about the frame of the event bothered me. The phrase “last 150 years of higher education” turned up at least two or three times. Similar language crept into talks by most of the speakers. (Not the people I’ve mentioned above, mind.)

Hang about – colleges and universities have been operating the same way for 150 years? That’s a sloppy notion, and one that reflects poorly on the speakers’ knowledge about, well, higher education.

When we talk about large lectures, mass-production testing, and sprawling campuses, we’re probably talking about big research universities. The research university, as we know it, dates to the postwar era, shaped by student veterans on the GI Bill, a rising middle class, and burgeoning government/defense research funding.

There’s no single experience

Higher education in the U.S. is a more diverse creature. There is no unitary college experience, not even in the United States. There are special programs like Williams-Mystic and outliers like Antioch. There’s also the entirety of the liberal arts, with classes built around discussions.

One should never forget America’s extraordinary community colleges and their travails - the 1950s answer to educational accessibility and variable career paths. The California community college system is the largest system of higher education in the world. Nor should we ignore lessons from the for-profit schools, which despite their controversy, flow from early 20th century institutions like secretarial schools.

Our higher education system is indeed struggling to meet the needs of 21st century American society. It’s troubled by funding problems, student success rates, and a misalignment with the skills that students need for the workplace. (It does much better at providing skills that students need to become good citizens, and at training future researchers and college teachers.) There is indeed space for innovation – but ideas risk irrelevance if they aren’t founded on a solid understanding of what higher ed is, in its breadth and variety.

Back to design education

I’ll wager that design teaching offers ideas that could improve all of higher ed. Many of the themes for innovation sounded like “every day at design school.” Ideas like project-based learning, real-world questions, collaboration, a curiosity about both techniques and meaning – these are essential to how we teach art and design.

I’m interested, also, in technology and education. The role of technology in design education is an uneasy one. I have colleagues who are delighted to send students to Lynda.com to get background on software, but who value classroom time. Yet I’ve spoken to friends, and we can’t even imagine a solid design education that doesn’t involve in-person critiques.

Big questions.

I’m putting together a KCDC class on the subject, for the September session. More later.