Higher Education At A Crossroads

crossroads3The President of MIT, Rafael Reif, said recently in the Wall Street Journal, that because of the “upheaval today coming from the technological change posed by online education,” we find  “higher education . . . at a crossroads not seen since the introduction of the printing press.”

That is quite a claim! If true, it is remarkable news we must absorb.

But that is just half the challenge: As online-learning platforms “are beginning to offer the teaching of great universities at low or no cost, residential education’s long-simmering financial problem is reaching a crisis point.” (WSJ, October 3, 2012)

There is a lot to digest here, but these statements, I believe, are right on target.

Take yet another angle. Kim Clark, the President of BYU Boise, formerly the Dean of the Harvard Business School, said recently “if the history of business is any indicator of what’s ahead, there is someone out there inventing a new way to do our business, with better results, and at dramatically reduced cost” (this is a paraphrase of comments President Clark made to a group of us in Scottsdale).

These two comments come together to press my own thinking about the necessary changes out ahead for higher education. Change is coming. Like a tsunami. It must come. And technology may be both the driver for dramatic change and the solution. There is both a threat here and exciting new opportunity. We must remember Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction: If there is no innovation, whole industries can die, only to be replaced by those on the front edge of something new.

We are now in what I call Phase II of technology and learning. Phase I was a flop. Dire predictions were put forward about the demise of the university (by none other, for example, than the great management guru Peter Drucker), but revolutionary change did not materialize.

But something new is happening, something big in my opinion. Breakthrough technology like we have never seen before is bursting on the education scene at exactly the moment we realize our broken economic model cannot be sustained. This is the moment of creative destruction.

The big players—MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, with others who sign on almost daily—are defining a new landscape for higher education. And they are leveraging these powerful tools in remarkable ways, offering education free, for example The new tools are all being tested. The trends are settling in.

Try going out and watching some of what is happening? It is incredible! The learning model of the Kahn Academy is just dazzling. I went out and took a physics class (well, just one lecture) on MITx, and was delighted by the power and effectiveness of the learning. MITx is offering courses world-wide, virtually free? Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun taught a course to 160,000 students from around the world, quite effectively (he has since left Stanford to form his own business).

Listen, I have given my life to the notion that small classes are the key to great learning, that the encounter between professor and student is essential, that there is tremendous value in the residential campus, that spiritual and character formation are essential to great education. I get all of that, and I will defend it vigorously. We must preserve something out of this model of education we have mastered over the last nine hundred years.

But the economics of that model are clearly broken. Something must give. More than that, if we open our minds to the possibilities that lie ahead, through this new technology, imagine the reach we might have by spreading around what we value most. This will require of us, especially for Christian universities, examining wisely what we value. We need not replace or destroy that value.

But this is what true innovation means. Innovators will ask the question about what to keep, but then ask how to spread the good news of our value across the globe in new ways.

In keeping with my discussion of the numbers in Christian higher education, here’s my question: Why not see the Christian university out on the front edge of all of this new and necessary innovation? Why not take strong leadership in showing the way forward? Why not spread our value across the globe, as the gospel calls us to do?

 

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