Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Why Universities aren't Dead....and Won't Be


Libraries, or at least the open stacks libraries of my youth and middle age, may well disappear over the next decade.  The space of the library will be reconfigured for different activities, even if these activities are ultimately serving the same purposes as the libraries of my undergraduate and graduate years.  I'm very interested to see what Jim O'Donnell, a well-known classicist and transformative thinker, does as the new head of libraries at Arizona State University.  I was lucky enough to write my dissertation with Jim and to have him as a mentor for all these years.  He has some fascinating, truly innovative ideas.  I'm excited to see what sticks.  What Jim and other university librarians have concluded--from traffic and usage patterns over the past several years--is that the open stacks library on the university campus has become an inefficient use of space when space is at a premium.  Many faculty, even in the humanities, rarely browse stacks anymore, and most of our students venture into them even less often and only under compulsion.  In some cases, faculty barely set foot in the library--most of what we need for our teaching and research is available online or, at least in my case, so essential that I purchase my own copy of the book.  The same has become increasingly true for our students.  Something essential is lost when stacks are moved into storage, to be sure, but it seems to be a growing inevitability as libraries re-think their function in the university.

Libraries as repositories of books may well go the way of the typewriter over the next decades, as their space is reconfigured to support faculty-student interaction and collaboration.  The space itself will continue to nurture curiosity and support learning, but will do so in a way that reflects the 21st century realities of college/university usage patterns and learning practices.  For instance, it's not difficult to imagine a transition to storing most books off campus (or otherwise out of sight) and allowing users to request them electronically with a 24 hour turnaround.  In place of bookshelves, we will find things like 3-D printers, Digital Studies Institutes, and expansive spaces for collaborative work between students and between faculty and students.

In the same way that the campus library is undergoing transformation, so is the university itself.  It is increasingly apparent that we are living in a period of expansive change to higher education, some of it necessitated by state defunding of public education; and some of it the result of deliberate choices by high-level administrators to shrink the size of the tenure-track faculty,  The focus the shifts to small seminars for lower-division students; upper division courses for majors; and graduate education.  It is more and more clear that public universities, even flagships, can no longer afford to educate students for a full four years.  The first two years of college--"grades" 13-14--are being grouped with the last two years of high school (grades 11-12) to form a unit that, currently, falls into a gap.

The private sector, in particular, is racing to fill this gap as students respond by cobbling together credits from AP exams, credit by exam, online courses from a wide range of sources (including 2 and 4 year schools), and f2f classes from community colleges as well as 4 year universities and colleges.  When I was a college student in the 90s, we had AP exams and, rarely, we might transfer in credit from community college; but I took more than 128 credit hours during my 3.5 years (plus summers) in college.  When I first began to teach at UT Austin, the general pattern of my own college experience continued to hold.  Students might take some required courses over the summer at a school near their home, but many also remained on campus to take classes during summer sessions.

I have not seen enough internal data to know exactly when things changed; but the change became very noticeable about 4 years ago, not long after the Great Crash of 2007.  Summer enrollments on campus plummeted.  Now we struggle to get even 15 students for classical civilization courses that used to enroll 50+.  Our first year Latin classes have not run for at least three years.  It's not that students aren't taking courses during the summer--it's that they are doing it while living at home and working.  They need flexibility.  Courses scheduled in the middle of the day; or are scheduled to take up most of the day (with morning and afternoon sessions) aren't going to cut it.  Many current college students can't afford to remain in Austin, so they take courses at schools near their homes or online.  Increasingly, more of them are doing this during the semester as well, so that they are taking their major courses on campus but anything that they can take elsewhere, they are (either because we can't offer enough sections of courses to meet demand or because they need the flexibility of an evening or online course).

Many universities have been very slow to recognize and respond to this troubling trend.  As a result, we continue to, in effect, outsource the instruction of many of our lower-division courses.  This has a wide range of consequences for students as well as for the university.  For students, it means that they are not necessarily being prepared for subsequent courses in that field (though this is often a non-issue since many courses are "one-offs" and are taken to fulfill some core curriculum requirement).  For the university, it means that we are losing a significant number of credit hours.  This is especially troublesome for colleges of arts and sciences/liberal arts.  These colleges have long depended on the high enrollments of their "service" courses to subsidize the smaller courses for majors. As our semester credit hours shrink, we lose funding for new tenure-track positions as well as lecturers.  This then means that we cannot offer enough sections of courses to meet student demand, thus shrinking credit hours and driving students to other "providers."  It is a vicious circle.

The death of the (public) university has nevertheless been greatly exaggerated.  It's not dying, even if it sometimes feels that way.  But it *is* transforming.  This transformation was enabled by the massive disinvestment of states over the past 7-8 years.

As this map illustrates, the disinvestment was almost universal and on a huge scale.  Even as students have taken on higher debt loads because of rising tuition, it has been impossible for universities to make up the losses in state funding.  There is general agreement that things are never going to return to "normal," and that the days of viewing an education as a public good are in the past.  As a result, it is imperative for universities to find new ways of fulfilling their missions.  This presents a significant and, at times, nearly overwhelming challenge. 

One result of state disinvestment, I suspect, is that we will see public universities increasingly directing resources away from the traditional large lecture courses that tend to dominate the first two years of college for most students.  For one thing, the large lecture class is not a very effective way for students to learn.  For another, we are learning how to deliver those classes more efficiently but also in ways that produce better learning outcomes.  If ASU has gone to one extreme with the creation of the Global Freshman Academy, in which students take MOOCs from EdX for credit, most public universities will likely resort to some variation of this.  Some freshmen may do an entire year from home, via online courses and MOOCs (though one hopes that this spurs improvements to the design and student support in MOOCs).  This isn't a disaster--in many cases, a well-designed and well taught online class can easily outpace what we can do in a campus classroom (this is certainly the case with my Online Rome class).

Most residential freshmen, however, will likely be taking a mix of hybrid courses (which have a significant online component but also involve f2f interactions with the teaching team on campus); and small seminars that emphasize experiential learning.  Online courses are not going to kill the university, as many before me have observed.  Rather, they will highlight the value proposition of the residential college experience.  Specifically, they will require faculty to develop learning experiences that can ONLY be done in a f2f classroom, that leverage the f2f.  Experiential learning will play a big role in the university of the future.  This article on the future of college makes a similar point.

Liberal arts won't be eliminated (though we may need to get a lot better at being able to talk about the value of our courses beyond "teaching critical thinking.")  Regional public universities may move more towards emphasizing pre-professional subjects and "trades" instead of liberal arts, to be sure; but liberal arts should continue to have some place in this 21st century university.  Still, it will require a lot of hard work to reconceptualize what that place looks like and how it works with other disciplines. We will need to be creative and collaborative.  We will need to accept that we have to teach in ways that we ourselves were never taught.  We will have to work on shifting from a model of content delivery to a serious emphasis on mentoring students on how to learn.  Our students live in a world in which content is available in seconds, at all times.  It is no longer enough to fill their heads with content and send them on their way.  We have to do the hard work of teaching them how to work with that content, how to develop a set of learning behaviors that are transferable to everything they do.

Robots are great at making widgets.  Students are not widgets, and learning is not linear.  By necessity, all learning is to some degree personalized and adaptive.   Sophisticated student learning requires the support of skilled experts aka professors.  It also requires well-designed courses and, ideally, substantial interaction with a teaching team.  The kinds of courses, like large lectures, that do not support this kind of learning will go away--not least because they can be done at least as effectively online (and, I suspect, with time and the insights of the learning sciences, they can be done far better than what is currently on offer).  But the kinds of courses that privilege face to face interaction, like hybrid courses or courses built around experiential learning, will thrive on our campuses.

I imagine that this transition and transformation will be rocky for everyone.  At the same time, it's difficult to see any other future (generally speaking) for public institutions.  Most important is that, as institutions, we are able to articulate our value proposition, articulate to students what it is that they will get from the time they spend on campus--besides parties and football.

For more on the current enrollment declines and budget deficits in colleges of liberal arts/arts and sciences, see IHE's "Arts and Sciences Deficit"  (h/t Phil Hill)


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