by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ September 15, 2020
Times are hard and getting harder. While 2020 is a landmark in planetary, regional, and local level disasters, none of these disasters are without long term trends and antecedents. All are complex and, often, nonlinear making simple or straightforward solutions not only unavailable but dangerous to attempt. There are too many conflicting forces and too many variables to make useful generalizations.
Accelerating automation, economic stagnation for the mass of the population, and radical privatization has turned American, and other university systems into corporate entities focused on profit in the form of student outcomes, if not dollars. In many cases, the difference between corporate dollars and university students has faded into obscurity for those systems.
From the perspective of fundamental or paradigmatic change, the broad concept of education, specifically adult education, no longer fits within the structures built from the 19th to 20th centuries. This structural failure is typical in institutional evolution. The 20th-century sentinel changes of this were, in fact, the creation of the community colleges from the older liberal arts and vocational schools. Blending traditional liberal arts lower-division courses with Career and Technical Education allowed a cheaper and more diverse path for students while still focusing on the goal of a baccalaureate degree.
Expanding the number of institutions providing lower-division liberal arts courses to cover allowed expansion to older students seeking to return for a degree as well as working people seeking to change careers, allowed correction of many adult education problems. But change is continuous, and the explosion of technology-driven change in the last decade of the 20th century began the disruption of planetary economics, social communication, politics, and education.
The higher education convoy is under attack. The well-armed research universities are pulling away from the slower teaching universities, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges. Faster and more agile smaller schools are jettisoning superstructure and redefining their mission to keep up. This slimming may keep them going with good imagination and innovation if they abandon what is no longer considered valuable but, primarily, if they dump traditional and inefficient teaching styles.
The pandemic shock as an early disaster in the climate crisis has amplified disruption through all of the human social structures. After six months, the full scope of change is only now beginning to be acknowledged by the majority of the population. Those tending to reject change are having trouble getting turned around as they refuse to abandon old rules and social structures, but everyone is facing this, and nothing is certain.
For education, this shock has been the forced move to online course delivery and teaching. Based on my years of developing and teaching online both for designated online courses and in migrating traditional courses to a hybrid online format, the best approach is online content delivery with a combined online and scheduled in class discussions. That balance is specific to the course material, objectives and dynamic of the students in that course.
My experience is that a majority of students come to prefer online education, dependent on the nature of the subject matter and the quality of the course content and pedagogy. The transition is a process that takes time and consistency in course tools and delivery. In this, I am describing community college courses.
The key is quality content and delivery. As has become very clear since March 2020, these qualities are not easily attainable by existing community college faculty. The reasons for that are not hard to identify.
Given the current reality of continuing online education as we face a growing number of zoonotic pandemics with the concomitant increase in governmental failure, and the inevitable increase in chaos from climate disasters in diverse forms, online education is the safest form. The question is not whether that is the best method of instruction, but how to make it the best available distributed and efficient way of education.
All of the factors in the paragraphs gain strength through the financial problems that public and private colleges face in the current convergence of crises. Educational inefficiencies producing mediocre educational outcomes in a world with a declining range of traditional careers are not a recipe for business as usual. It may not be a recipe for any business at all.
While I hate to say it, that’s not all. Career and technical education have been diverging from higher education steadily over the last twenty years. The corporatization of higher education in the US has escalated tuition, fees, and living expense beyond the means of most students resulting in the explosion of debt on students if they manage to graduate. Alternatives are now more common and will win against the rigid and formalized degree programmings locked into educational institutions.
None of this is new, but all could be ignored from the management perspective of the colleges and universities, not in the first tier of research universities. The pandemic has killed the campus as the only grove of knowledge. It was already looking thin and barren for smaller public colleges, but the death of many colleges will accelerate over the next two years.
The changes required are a full focus on building combined virtual campuses consolidating liberal arts and CTE courses that can be done online or with limited labs, workshops, and in-person sessions. For public institutions, this will still require neighborhood facilities for science labs and CTE courses to provide hands-on training and workshop learning. But that will be reduced by the accelerated development of VR and augmented reality.
The nature of community colleges as feeder institutions for those students seeking degrees and professional training will allow their expansion as full online institutions. The Career and Technical Education programs are migrating to industry, union, and worker coop based training facilitated by the community college as a district educational center. Much of this is on line already, and more will be with full immersion for introductory training.
For a public university community college system, the logical development is the centralization of online courses with IT and content development support consolidated for the remaining faculty. The inefficiency and inconsistent quality of the current model with endless duplication of courses in each neighborhood campus developed and taught by lecturers in the gig economy is now unsustainable.
By consolidating faculty based on quality, a touchy issue, academic freedom can be maintained restored, by training in technical course development, subject matter presentation, and the provisioning of professional graphic, video, and web design staff, raising the professional levels of the combined programs and the members’ physical campuses.
With work, this could make basic higher education both more consistent and better delivered online while allowing greater diversity on each component college campus. These would no longer be the site of most old-fashioned classroom education, but common areas with labs, facilities, and enhanced group technical and IT resources not only to study but for free exploration by community members and visitors.
Behind the scenes, the cost savings of reduced duplication would allow retraining unneeded faculty and staff for technical and content support positions in content design, video production, and VR/AR customization and development. This consolidation would help crossfeed to other local businesses and institutions as all communication and knowledge distribution now uses the same media with the exact requirements.
Benefits are a broader online distribution of education, cultural specific courses, or local cultural interest. All of this would improve with better production and less mindless duplication. It will happen anyway but could be done in line with community interests and not corporate profit motives.