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Mass Drivers in Higher Education – How a Pun Became An Analogy

I was struck as I read the UNESCO document by the references to massification . I see the need to increase capacity and educate more people as the primary driver of higher education change.

For a long time, higher education was the province of the few.  Remembering that liberal arts back to the time of Martianus Capella  meant arts for free people (as in free, not slave) who owned enough property that they did not need a profession. For a very long time, higher education was designed to be accessed by those for whom it had not all that much to do with what kind of livelihood they would have. Of course that has changed considerably over the last century and a half.  Most justifications of higher education one hears these days focus on education as economic engine.  Once that leap is made, several things happen.

The employer who hires graduates becomes as important a consumer of the college or university’s output as the learners who attend.

The focus of curriculum design has a great potential to narrow, as it shifts from what an educated person in a broad sense ought to be able to do to the specific knowledge, skills, and abilities employers want their employees to have.

As the primary force encouraging persons to pursue education becomes economic, efficiency, previously not associated with education providers, becomes a watchword.  The notion so prevalent in modern higher ed that we can measure success in large aggregates (like the percentage of the adult population with a certain level of education) makes it seems like graduates are a commodity of which we must raise the production and lower the marginal cost.

Connected to this is the shift noted in the UNESCO report from education as a public good to education as a private good.  That change makes the cost-benefit analysis even more stark. How much will this degree cost me in tuition and lost income now?  How much more will I earn later because of it? (a tough question to answer, just ask a recent law-school graduate or most PhD’s in the humanities) I’m probably sounding quite a bit like the author of “How the American University was Killed….” I hope things aren’t that dire.

Here’s where the mass driver pun became an analogy. At first it was a catchy turn of phrase for a post title, but as I thought about it, I realized that higher education is becoming more and more a mass driver, trying to accelerate large numbers of learners at lower cost than previous methods.

I have mixed feelings about this. As someone who works at an institution (a US community  college) which exists only because of massification, I recognize that massification has allowed me to do work about which I truly care.  I’ve also seen individual students’ lives transformed by learning.  However, it seems inevitable that we will soon be calculating a “cost per transformation” and making it a key performance indicator.

ICT, the most likely mechanism by which change will come, may lead us in two directions. It may, via automated grading and the replacement of physical learning spaces with virtual ones, crush Baumol’s cost disease in education as thoroughly as the compact disc did for Beethoven string quartets. It may free learners everywhere to direct their own learning and collaborate outside of formal contexts.  It may do both, and either scenario could radically alter the higher ed sector.

I’m not sure how either of these scenarios would play out in my context, but I think the second is less likely.  Many learners who enroll in a community college do so because they aren’t quite ready to be active managers of their own learning.  How to learn is one of the things they come to college to learn.  Going large scale seems a more plausible scenario, although most two year colleges identify their comprehensive support services and individual attention to students as key differentiators.  It’s debatable whether that approach is sustainable given current and future economic pressures