Drivers of changes in higher ed

I watched PBS Frontline's College Inc. yesterday. I was delighted with the quality of their inside look at the for-profit colleges. All the issues raised by the documentary got me thinking again about what will drive the significant changes in post secondary education. Here's a summary of the change drivers I'm anticipating:

  • Students' inability to pay attention: An increasing number of college students will realize that it no longer pays to pay attention to lectures, textbooks and required reading. Some will have become incapable of paying focused attention and others will find it more rewarding to pay attention elsewhere. Unchanging institutions will blame the students for this problem, as if they are easily distracted, lacking in self discipline or deluding themselves with a presumed ability to multitask. There will be little consideration of how students are getting paid attention, reciprocating the favor and setting up ongoing sources of satisfying attention for themselves.
  • Migration from print to spatial literacy: Marshal McLuhan foresaw a cultural shift to acoustic sensibilities as electronic media took effect on our senses. He saw how immersive, non-linear and global television had become in the sixties. He compared that to the tribal cultures that thrived on oral and ritual communication. McLuhan did not foresee online, console, computer and handheld games, though his characterization of electric media fits them as well. As I've used his lenses for looking at recent cultural shifts, I foresee us becoming spatially literate instead of acoustically sensible. Our situations and experiences are getting read in terms of locations, proximities and travels. So much is getting articulated about storytelling and narrative structures because we're migrating into spatial sensibilities. The more we relate to "going there" and "coming from there", the less we'll be able to handle reading linear sentences in long paragraphs as you're doing right now.
  • There's an app for that: When tools are big and expensive, we maintain hierarchies for control and centralization for efficiency. When tools become small and inexpensive, they become democratized and distributed. The proliferation of handheld devices and accessible social platforms changes how we imagine learning to happen. Acquiring information synchronously en masse seems pretty clueless. Learning is being redefined as: "Getting what we need when we want it so we can play around with it and getting it to work for us". We're changing metaphors from getting informed to getting new apps. We're expecting the convenience and functionality of apps, not the inconvenience and uselessness of academic knowledge.
  • Cheating works: When we facing a challenge with using new software, facing new challenges in games or expressing ourselves with new media, we get help easily nowadays. Within the frame of reference of academic rigor, testing and grading, we're cheating. We're copying our neighbor's paper, plagiarizing authors' intellectual property and failing to work independently. But the frame of reference has changed to apply standards of pragmatism instead of academia. We're doing what works for us, helps others out and gets those potentially useful things serving us ASAP.
  • Breakthroughs in baggage handling: It appears we are all hard wired to internalize uncontrollable, negative experiences as impairments. When higher ed dishes out dreadful experience to students, it functions as part of the problem, continuing to burden students with emotional baggage. The more cognitive neuroscience advances, the easier it's becoming to reverse this process. We can undo what the negative experiences did to our brains and rewire our circuitry for efficacy. 

All these change drivers alter the value proposition of undergraduate college educations. They give an increasing number of applicants, enrolled students and college dropouts a different outlook. The "bang for the buck" will appear to decline or disappear. It will seem to them that increasing tuition amounts to "paying more for less quantity and quality of service". The difference that college makes will no longer make a difference to those experiencing these change drivers first hand. The result will be declining enrollments, increasing dropout rates and a proliferation of alternative sources for post-secondary learning.

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