Ways to Study

czaja_talkThe doom and gloom of Steven Strahler’s predictions regarding Illinois’ public universities in Crain’s is real. Universities in Illinois must change. Politicians, unions, campus leaders, faculty and boards have watched a precipitous decline in effectiveness as they cling to the status quo. Students flee.

The traditional university campus experience is being challenged by online study, a single step in a series of transformations facing higher education in the coming decade. Another intrusion is the development of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), free for anyone who chooses to take them; anytime, anyplace, under any circumstances. Student isolation at the dining room table, or in one’s bedroom, staring at a computer screen, without peer and professional mentoring support leaves many people cold, especially traditionalists. However, increasingly fewer people flinch as citizens of the internet culture “friend” people they have never met. Don’t believe that? According to Pew, one in ten Americans has used online dating services.

Hybrid offerings allowing distance education courses to be supplemented with face-to-face meetings grow in popularity and effectiveness. Conventional on-campus instruction augmented by online instruction is the norm: Chat rooms and other share-spaces between students and faculty members are ubiquitous.

Innovative institutions offer three-year bachelor’s degrees placing graduates into the workplace or graduate programs in a less costly, more time effective manner. In addition “weekend only” programs are growing in popularity creating accessibility for working adults, an increasing portion of the college student population. Almost every one of these options, especially when offered in concert with established universities, provides a lower cost, more accessible, educationally sound alternative to a traditional on-campus experience.

To be sure, there are fly-by-nighters frequently for-profits that must be thoroughly investigated before enrolling. Thankfully swindlers are being forced to shutter by the same marketplace that spawned them. The detritus of the scams are indebted, embittered students. These “bad apple” enterprises fuel fears of faculty and leaders who shun any alternative to the status quo as inferior.

Of special import is the growing number of nontraditional programs at the graduate level. Opportunities for certification experiences that enhance earning potential provide educational exposure, and are responsive to the complex and changing needs of students and employers are on the rise, but often come at high cost. “One-quarter of the increase in student debt since 1989 can be directly attributed to Americans obtaining more education, especially graduate degrees” according to Brookings.

Reputable universities can become partners in opportunity for positive impact to new audiences in new ways. Without such a transformation campus enrollments will shrink except at the elite private schools and the top one hundred public campuses. The other 4,000 campuses will sacrifice purpose, clutching a costly dying tradition.

Master’s degrees in applied arts and science, natural resources, mathematics and statistics, information systems technology, homeland security, healthcare and public safety, are highly valued in the marketplace.   Jobs are plentiful and specialized preparation is needed beyond what is provided in many bachelor’s degree programs. As a consequence, concentrated opportunities for study increase. On the horizon and already offering non-traditional learning opportunities through diverse means are Kahn Academy, General Assembly, Skillshare, and Coursera, and according to The Washington Post.

DevBootcamp presents courses in a 19 week immersion experience: This is not your father’s Oldsmobile. Programs are of pronounced importance for graduate study in high demand areas. Traditional universities that do not address changing expectations will under serve growing populations.

Would it be possible to engage the learning of literature, history, or archaeology in these new frameworks? I don’t know for sure. But I do know this: As the cost efficacy of nearly all degree programs are called into question it is time for thoughtful experimentation by committed educators and leadership for academically sound, employment responsive, curriculums.

Experience with an online Master of Architecture degree confirms the potential for effective, focused graduate education. What started around a conference table by a group of skeptical traditionalists — I was the chief cynic — is now one of the top two or three online programs in the field, at the lowest cost of any public or private offering, on campus or online, in the nation.

Universities will succumb to Strahler’s prophecy if they don’t change. The flywheel of security, longing for the past, confortable retirements, and the traditions of study at private and flagship public universities may work for those institutions, but nowhere else.

Photo Credit — my.umbc.edu

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