The Road Ahead: Evolutionary or Revolutionary?

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The Road Ahead – Evolutionary or Revolutionary

NOTE: This is the second installment in a series of essays reflecting on the future of liberal arts colleges. Some speculate all liberal arts institutions are destined for failure. I disagree. We will explore the current dynamics and set the context for the future of Central College.

The pace of development for internet technology has been nothing short of breathtaking. In 1993, I remember sitting at a computer terminal using one of the earliest email programs called Jove, and exploring a crude version of a web browser known as Mosaic. For those who remember as I do, these programs were as primitive to web-based technologies as Pong was to video games. These systems predated Windows and the use of a mouse was a whole new concept. So, on a plain screen with a flashing cursor, I browsed the entire store of information in Mosaic in a text-only format. At that time, the web probably had less content than the email now sitting in my inbox. I have a lot of nostalgia for those days.

Speculation about the future of our society raced with imagination, even with such rudimentary tools at our disposal. Some forecasts seemed incredible – far too futuristic – almost science fiction. Twenty years later, I think we can say we seriously underestimated the pace and power of advances in internet technology.

Just prior to the unleashing of this wave of technological change, a book about education appeared on the scene in 1992 and became a best seller. The author was Lewis J. Perelman, who has pursued a career as a policy analyst, researcher, management consultant and author. The provocative title for his analysis on the future of education was, School’s Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education. A year later the book was released by a new publisher with the kinder, gentler title, School’s Out: A Radical New Formula for the Revitalization of America’s Educational School System.

The book served an important purpose. Its aggressive tone was merciless, but not in the way you would have expected. Critics of American education have abounded for more than a century. Perelman’s point, however, was not that that our schools and colleges were failing. In fact, he was quick to note the educational system in the U.S. at that time was, in his view, the best in the world given the purpose of a “pluralistic and egalitarian society.” His assertion was different. Traditional models of education were no longer relevant and would soon be rejected by society. Why? Technology was about to supplant education at every level. It would be a revolution, not an evolution, driven by dramatic shifts in market forces responding to sweeping advances in learning technology. While his analysis of emerging societal change was ahead of its time, his conclusions and predictions regarding the impacts of change on education have so far proven to be wrong, or perhaps just premature.

The following excerpts come from a section of Perelman’s book with the heading The End of “Education.” (Please note “telecosm” was an early term used to describe what we now know as the internet).

The imminent hyperlearning world, where learning and expertise are diffused everyplace and where people of any age and status may be engaged in learning anytime, makes the infrastructure of “schooling” irrelevant and even obstructive…

In the seventies it was trendy to define schools, colleges, or universities “without walls” to suggest a variant academic institution that was open to the real world. Like “distance learning” or “distance education” – which imply that the telecosm is a mere adjunct to academia rather than a time bomb destined to blow it up – other mongrel platitudes will burden us for a while with a vocabulary contrived to portray revolution as mere evolution: electronic classroom, embedded training, campus-free college, and a term I find particularly idiotic, “technology-based” teaching (as if talk and chalk, books and pencils and such are not technology). Bolder editorialists may begin to speak of classrooms without teachers, schools without classrooms, or ultimately even education without schools. But eventually it will become clear that the system break I identify with hyperlearning represents not merely a new form of “education” freed of this or that encumbrance, but a world freed from the encumbrance of education all together.

Perelman went on to suggest hyperlearning would “simply replace tweaked variations on the vocabulary of ‘education’” by the early years of the 21st century.

So here we are in the early years of the 21st century and School’s Out has faded from memory. Yet the spirit of the idea lives on in a newer concept called, disruptive innovation. The origins of the idea are credited to Harvard business professor, Clayton Christiansen, and refer to an innovation that creates a new market that eventually replaces an existing market. The parallel is obvious. Perelman’s idea that the combination of technological innovation and new market forces would eventually supplant our existing educational systems is echoed in the patterns described in disruptive innovation. The old adage, “everything old is new again,” appears to be true for theorists, as well as markets.

Given the vast changes in society related to technological innovation, why hasn’t fundamental, systemic change occurred in our models of education? To be sure, schools, colleges and universities have adapted significantly to changing technology environments, along with an openness to emerging academic disciplines and professional fields of study. Yet these adaptations have been evolutionary, not revolutionary. They have been sustaining, not disruptive. Why?

For some the answer is one of timing – “Just you wait. Your day will come.” OK. Maybe. Others explain this as the intransigence of the system – “The bureaucracy is simply killing innovation!” Perhaps. But I think there is something much deeper behind this resistance to change, and it’s not the bureaucracy – it’s the market. The difference for the market is a distinction between models of learning that are primarily relational vs. transactional; models of learning that are formative vs. summative; and models of learning that pursue knowledge vs. certify credentials.

Prospective undergraduate students seeking an education at a residential liberal arts college are not buying a credential by simply checking boxes to record the accumulation of credits and courses in order to qualify them for first jobs on their way to careers. They are buying a thoughtfully integrated learning experience carefully designed (in fact, customized) for personal and professional development. It’s an experience rooted in relationship set in the context of academic community. This is considered by some to be nothing more than prolonged adolescence. Others describe this as a luxury society can no longer afford. Yet this is the fundamental question we will ask ourselves related to education in the next decade. Will society reject an undergraduate residential learning environment dedicated to the development of the whole person?

Next time: How will MOOCs, online courses, competency-based education and for-profit institutions change the landscape of higher education in general and liberal arts education in particular?

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5 responses to “The Road Ahead: Evolutionary or Revolutionary?”

  1. Ross Vermeer '88 says:

    Thanks so much for this series — it’s pertinent and important.

    The really important questions you’ve raised here have to do with conditions in the market. You outline the reasons behind the demand for a four-year, residential, liberal arts college education, and you seem to be assuming that this demand will not flag. In fact, I agree. But unfortunately I don’t think this is the getting to the heart of the matter.

    I’d therefore like to address another of your questions, i.e. why have innovations in higher ed so far been sustaining this traditional model? I think the answer is simple: because, via a combination of unsustainable practices, the money to pay for it has been there. Middle and upper-middle class students and parents have dutifully ponied up their savings as tuition rates have risen on a steep curve, with many of them also taking on heavy, potentially life-changing, debt. The federal government has fueled this inflationary fire by offering students cheap loans with few questions asked, and with the taxpayers now taking on the debt burden instead of banks.

    The essence of the higher ed bubble is plain old boring money. There’s been plenty of money so far, just as there was in the recent housing bubble — until suddenly that easy money was gone.

    If the higher ed bubble bursts, many people will still want very much for their children to have a ‘thoughtfully integrated learning experience carefully designed (in fact, customized) for personal and professional development’, but if they can’t pay for it, they won’t. And then what?

    I’d also like to take issue with one statement you’ve made in the preamble to this essay. You say that ‘Some speculate all liberal arts institutions are destined to failure.’ This is a straw man — you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at all who believes this. Some liberal arts institutions are so well-known and prestigious, and so effective in launching their students into high-profile careers, that their market value is very high indeed. That won’t change, no matter what technologies or market conditions prevail (save perhaps for a total meltdown of the economy). But then there are thousands of other institutions, like Central, that aren’t in this select group. Their market value is quite different.

    In any case, I’ll look forward to your next installment.

  2. Don Huffman says:

    I must confess that explanations based mostly on market value and models of education,while interesting to consider, are not very convincing to me, and not areas where I possess much competency. However, the distinction between revolution and evolution is a concept that does interest me, and it is one in which I feel comfortable.
    Revolution suggests to me an ultimate chaotic overthrow and demise of current and past systems, and I doubt whether proponents of effective liberal arts education will find this very appealing.
    Evolution seems more likely to have always been involved in educational change and likely will continue to be useful. In this sense “cultural evolution,” or changes that occur by selection and adaptation of one or some positive cultural factors and elimination of others, usually occurs without destruction of the entire system. Cultural evolution may occur rapidly, but it does not usually leave a “corpse”. Instead, it weighs the possible changes, adapts those that are sustainable, and continues to produce within a system that meets the changing market demands.
    Liberal arts education has been challenged repeatedly in the past, but in most cases has evolved an even more effective system than before it was challenged by technological changes, etc. Naturally, those educators who are committed to the liberal arts model prefer evolution rather than revolution as new challenges arise.

    • Vernon Kooy says:

      Well said Don, but I think additionally one has to look to the fundamental difference between “Liberal Arts” and specialized technical education to truly find an answer to the “dead” question. Fundamentally technology and specialization in narrow fields enhances one’s career choices, but also confines one to those preliminary choices. Ultimately “Liberal Arts” enables one to live a good life. The evolution model of education is of course preferred under this notion. Liberal Arts are arts which liberate a person from confinement whether it be one’s prejudices (preferential pre-judgments)and ignorance (ignoring of what is of intrinsic value) or one’s narrow career choice. So the “Liberal Arts” liberate one to enhance oneself in a mutiple disciplined way to enable one to re-invent oneself based on needs and interests at any given time in life. That’s evolution plain and simple – the ability to change given changing conditions. And what is needed for that ability is a multi-disciplined approach to learning, so that the evolutionary path can be followed. “Two paths diverged in a yellow wood… and I took the one less traveled by.”

  3. Rick Johnson (71) says:

    The references to “the marketplace” prompt me to think in terms of how the marketplace has evolved over the last two generations: industries were founded and run by industrialists; today they are run by investment bankers. It is a very different way of thinking. The product is not the thing produced, but the profit one derives from it.
    Now this is just fine, as long as the product is not virtually abandoned in search of greater profit.
    I attended Central to expand my mind, not to find a career. Learning was the product; career followed after. I still believe that this is the purpose of a liberal arts education.
    However, today many young people see higher education in terms of career first. They want the skills necessary to complete tasks. Bottome line has superceded product.
    How does a liberal arts college, and Central specifically, address these new mindsets?

  4. Ray Lomax says:

    Thought you might be interested in article in Star Ledger in NJ as to what is going on in elementary schools this fall….