Six (Truly) Radical Ideas for Reinventing Higher Ed

By Cathy Davidson|October 4, 2014|Reflection|0 comments

Before we can radically reinvent college, we need to add at least two more structural, material changes to the four in this month’s Wired magazine article by writer Martha Rhodes, “4 Radical Ideas for Reinventing College, Drawn From Stanford Research.”   The four changes advocated in Wired come from the famous design school, the d.school, at Stanford and one of its leading lights, Professor Sarah Stein Greenberg.  I like these a lot–and readers of the Cat in the Stack posts at hastac.org will recognize all of them from many of my past posts.

BUT, in some ways, they are rearranging the deck chairs.  If we want this ship called Higher Education to sail safely and happily into the future, we need to, yes, rearrange these four chairs, but we also need to be looking out for those treacherous icebers.   So, below, the four derived from Professor Stein Greenberg’s research and then the REAL, radical ideas that could change higher ed in the U.S.

The four advocated in Wired  are:
1.  Lose the 4-year degree    I agree.  Some times college might be two years, three years, six years, or a returning and recycling fifth year (suggested here) that is life long.  I personally think every college graduation certificate needs to come with a passport to a year’s more free courses over a lifetime, online or face to face.  Returning students make education better for everyone and remind us all, lifelong, of how supporting public education is a life long and society-wide social investment.
2.  Lose the High School to College Model  I agree.  The ideas for this are murky in the Wired article but I agree that college should not simply mirror the freshman, sophomore, junior, senior divisions of high school.  I also think gap years and other time spent in other occupations (travel or work or anything) before entering college should be rewarded not penalized.
3.  Lose the Transcript  Professor Stein Greenberg advocates competencies and skills rather than a transcript and an individualized skills portfolio.   YES!   Needless to say, we’ve been advocating badging and ePortfolios as a real workable system to augment the bogus metrics of standardized testing, the quantitative measures for what should be qualitative skills (that are crucial in every and any field but rarely quantifiable by current algorithms), and a far wider array of skills and competencies than a “final grade in a class” ever documents or that the letter of recommendation (another outmoded form) ever really touches upon.
4.  Lose the College Major   Stein Greenberg advocates “mission not major” and, needless to say, that is what HASTAC has advocated for over a decade.  Currently to be “interdisciplinary” requires moving across bureaucratic and intellectual obstacles that never quite go away.   Mission-driven, problem-based, project driven learning creates new pathways and better motivations to creativity, on the one hand, and to mastery on another.   I agree.
But 1-4 will all be changes at the elite end and will not change real thinking or the whole systemic institutional and social structures that undergird higher education in the U.S. until you also address the material conditions of being a student and being a professor in 2014.  So I’d add these two true game changers, that also get us past the insulting “really excellent sheep” mantra of bestselling author William Deresiewicz.  If you really want to improve  the sheep, you need to change what is growing in the pasture —and the shepherd tending the flock.
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And now the TRULY RADICAL game changers for the future of higher ed:
5.  Lose the Tuition.  Germany did it.  The U.S. could too, for public higher education, if it wanted to.   And many of the big private universities could use their endowments on open tuition and still be richer than most national economies worldwide.  (I’ve heard it said that if Harvard were a nation, it would rank 18 in the world in GDP).   If you truly had an educational system based on excellence not on cost, you would be rethinking everything from SAT’s to the central place of football and fraternities on a college campus.
6.  Pay the Profs.   If you were serious about education reform, you wouldn’t be concentrating so much on an existing faculty and existing students, but how to create the best possible future professors.   In a situation where adjunct and contingent labor is the fate of most professors–except the most elite at the most elite universities–then you are not rewarding and incentivizing (to use d.school language) visionary professors, the most creative and committee teachers and researchers, but those who make it through the system unscathed. Big, big question:  Why isn’t Deresiewicz focusing on elite professors as “really excellent sheep?”
If we are going to be visionary about reinventing college, let’s start with the socio-economic conditions of higher education that support the status quo, not only of pedagogy and institutional structures but of the society for which those are training grounds.   Until we alter the material conditions, we will replicate the present, not reinvision a better future.

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