by Mike Meyer
Education is one of the most important products of modern Western civilization. What we are and what we have today is the result of mass education enabling the understanding of science, research, and our rich cultural heritage. An educated society is the substrate that has and will support our improved wellbeing and our future survival in the face of the climate crisis and fundamental paradigmatic change.
With the redefinition of our universe by scientific methodology the greatest value is now scientific and technical education. That has created distortions and has devalued classical liberal arts education. As rapid automation and Machine Learning replace many occupations we have an alternative economy emerging that values technically trained skills for income but actually needs greater education in soft skills and general knowledge for creativity.
Our Western world’s Aristotelian heritage defaults to either/ or categorizations forcing us to choose one or the other as a perspective. As a result we tend to think of science versus liberal arts or ‘hard’ science versus ‘social’ science but these are all shaped and validated by scientific logic and analysis. This cultural dictate also separates occupational skills and abstract knowledge. This must be rebalanced.
The accelerating growth of wealth and education planet wide over the last century and, specifically, the last sixty years, has been a human shift to the more difficult ‘slow thought’ versus our instinctive ‘fast thought’ mode as so brilliantly articulated by Daniel Kahneman in 2012. The growing facility and understanding of ‘slow thought’ is, I think, a major factor in the widening split between our more educated populations and the more traditional, i.e. conservative, portions of those populations.
It is the growing conflict produced by this split that is, in one aspect, exacerbating a crisis in higher education. This crisis is seen in the growing questioning of the traditional model of higher education with financial, political, and cultural issues resulting in declining enrollments and the collapse of private colleges and universities in the US.
Some forecasters, including famed Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, predict as many as half of all universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade. [The Higher Education Apocalypse]
The Paradigmatic Problems
At the most obvious level this can be seen in the steady reduction of public support for all education with higher education in the US now based on massive debt born by each student. The increasingly narrow ideological attacks made on public services and higher education are made without thought of any future implications or larger commitment to human advancement. That is an indication of a culture in decline.
Given technology driven paradigmatic disruption of Western civilization combined with the planetary climate crisis we have a perfect storm shaking our higher education foundations. It has been anticipated for years that education was institutionally petrified and in need of major disruption yet this disruption has been continuously delayed by growing confusion and the failure to define both a new standard of education and recognize the inertia of a vast, conservative, higher education industry.
The assumption has been that reductions in enrollments are just cyclical demographic changes that will reverse and traditional college degrees will remain as the guarantee of a better life and higher income. This assumes the current loss of enrollment is exclusively the result of the Great Recession’s incidental drop in birth rates. But the population in general is questioning these assumptions and both paradigmatic change and immanence of growing climate crisis disasters is making those questions more strident.
Knowledge is always a survival benefit but the nature of knowledge that is needed and how it can be used changes this formula. Rapid ML based automation will eliminate most ordinary jobs with that timing dependent on the rate of improvement of ML systems. Hard skills and soft creative skills are already clear as the interim employment slot for Homo sapiens. The emphasis is on the word ‘interim’. And that brings us back to the need for new kinds of higher or adult education.
The most important form of higher education in the US for broad population needs and job training is the community colleges where I have worked for nearly forty years. The problems faced by these institutions have been consistent for a number of years and slowly become worse despite the best efforts to restore these schools to their past, mythical, golden age:
- A majority of high school graduates unable to meet minimum university standards in math and English
- Pending automation of many jobs
- An arbitrary need for college level credentials to qualify for a living wage
- Steady decline in the value of traditional degrees in anything other than science and math
- Shift of cost from state to student for post secondary education
- Decline in community college enrollments
- Early conversion of college faculty to the gig economy (50% adjunct, i.e. part time, temporary, no benefits)
Notice that many of these would seem to be indications of serious structural problems. Also notice how many of these are contradictory. To make a living wage requires something beyond a high school diploma but the perceived value of the traditional college credential has been falling for years. In the US, the steady disinvestment in education, particularly post secondary education, reinforces the general perception of low value. Combine this with the fear of robots and AI automation and all of this appears to be openly demeaning of the mass of the population not able to qualify for high level, four year degrees in engineering and science.
The time for change has come and it is no longer a choice. Something has to give and it is already beginning. Post high school students, whether directly from high school or several years into a community college interregnum disappear as soon as they find some opportunity that leads to a job. This may be traditional trade apprenticeship, on the job training, military, or self study leading to a technical gig, i.e. coding or IT support as one of the few growth areas. Students remaining in community college are often simply killing time in an acceptable activity until something comes up.
A growing percentage mine the system for income through financial aid and student employment. This is a real value to the students and the community but is not an ‘appropriate’ use of the system. Yet this often shows student creativity and tenacity providing a somewhat ironic and penalized educational outcome.
There are students using these institutions as originally intended to take a somewhat cheaper and more flexible route to a traditional four year degree. These students are fairly easy to identify and are the most cherished by the community college administration. They fit the goals and objectives of the administration. But these students are also slowly disappearing, probably not as a percentage of the student population but as the drop in births from the Great Recession and other reasons reduces the demographic. They cannot be forgotten but they are not a majority of the population.
The largest impediment to true change in the community college environment is the community college institution itself. This is particularly true of those that are part of a state university system. Their official goal is to generate more revenue by moving as many full time students through the system as quickly as possible to traditional degrees and certifications with full college credit. This is the traditional means to show positive cost benefit ratios and correct outcomes for the tax dollars provided by local government.
But the reality is that community college students are almost all part time and, for a variety of reasons, struggling to meet their goals as well as the goals set for them by the college system. Multiple employers, children and family issue, personal challenges and the difficulty of living in an economy with almost no upside or way to build wealth commonly exhausts the students.
Because community college administrators are given incentives for formal certificate and degree completing students they spend all of their time focused on the shrinking number of students in that category. There is no reward for students who take classes for two or three or more years and then disappear although those students probably managed to find either a job or specific employment training. But that outcome may but is usually not related to a “program” they were enrolled in in college.
We are all familiar with stories of baccalaureate degree holders or even graduate degree holders in liberal arts or social sciences in minimum wage or barely higher clerical positions. The highest praise for community college administrations is to move people into the very pipe that produces this category of the underemployed or unemployed. There is no reward for assisting the students who manage to find functional training and employment unless they are part of a formal college certification program in a technical trade. Yet even that does not earn the college incentives from their parent organization so there is little reason to focus on it.
The most successful technical trade programs in community colleges are those tied to unions and their formal apprenticeship programs or to technical industries with formal certification systems. These often use community colleges as centers for their training. The most successful seem to be those that are not administered by the college. Administration by the college usually means that the students are in overly complicated, two year programs with the full helping of ‘college’ that necessitates remedial education or much additional tutoring in English and math to meet university general requirements.
That often means they either get tired or use up all of their financial aid without completing the remedial part of the program. If they are lucky they learn basic skills well enough to hustle a job. Unfortunately the other problem is that state community colleges don’t bother to fund their own technical programs and the equipment for training is as much as twenty years out of date. And we all know the value of training on twenty year old technology.
So where does that lead us? As usual in our rapidly changing bureaucratic world the future is hiding in plain sight. We just aren’t allowed to see it. So let’s take a look at a possible form of an evolved community college system in ten years.
The Community Educational Center in 2030
The Community Education Centers have replaced many community colleges, for-profit colleges and the last two years of high school as well as libraries and various community group services. The mission of the Community Education Center consolidates support for all of the older community adult education services with community economic development. The physical facility houses, collaborative learning environments, theaters, and maker spaces both virtual and physical. All physical spaces are fully integrated into mixed reality. Most training, collaboration, and entertainment equipment is virtual with headsets and sensory wearables available for those who do not have their own. This is the primary purpose of the physical center as the great majority of community participants are only occasionally physically present.
The exception to this are new mixed reality systems that are commonly introduced at Community Education Centers by corporations, kickstarter groups or university research programs. Rental of facility resources for these projects by community groups, corporation and research programs is a significant revenue generator for the more popular Community Education Centers.
A newer primary service provided by each center is official information and support of a resident’s block chain credentialing. While the CECs may or may not issue certificates or credentials themselves, they act as optional testing and certification centers for the growing range of career and safety credentials as well training and credentialing sites for physical skills. The steady replacement of low value and overly complex associate degrees and official program certificates with a much broader range of generic knowledge and skill certifications made up of combinations of microcredentials provides a shareable record owned by each resident.
Because blockchain is fully personalized and secure the CEC is not a repository or gateway for a student’s credentials but an advising and support center specifically for those new to credentials, microcredentials, and blockchain services.
The new diverse range of professional degrees and certifications offer a broader range of pathways to university specific criteria as well as long and short term positions. A general movement away from traditional course hours and assessment techniques to project based assessment using virtual reality emulation has opened educational opportunities to a large population increasingly dependent on Community Educational Centers for credentialing support. This includes the general growth of basic skill and knowledge training created by community members in their own areas of expertise or interest. Anyone can offer classes in a variety of forms.
The Academic Tradition
Based on the steady decrease in full time, traditional faculty positions the nature of those positions has changed to mentoring, tutoring, and social support. Rather than modeled on traditional professor/scholars creating full blown courses or programs, these centers provide a variety of personal and group access to professionally produced informational and training materials.
Rather than college as a community of scholars who also teach these campuses are communities of students. The presence of all information and expertise online shifts the need for educational staff to facilitation and expert guidance in finding materials needed and successfully using those materials including local cultural relevance and interpretation.
The presence of all information online has allowed the transformation of all learning into personal learning. The added value of the Community Educational Center is the professional support in finding and organizing a specific program of information acquisition and the opportunity to join interest groups both casual and formal. In short the institution is a community of individual students, mentors and professional support staff not a community of scholars as is the traditional research university.
The primary external focus of the Center staff would be outreach to community organizations, businesses, and governmental agencies that need to offer, obtain, or delivery educational content for groups or individuals in the community in any area. Rather than creation of complete courses or programs the vast range of human knowledge online would become available with the addition of interstitial linking materials for specific individuals and local groups, whatever their needs, provided as value adds.
Within online pedagogy the problem of Massive Online Open Courses was very low completion rates but increased diversity of personalized outcomes has made that less relevant with the addition of better, more personalized support. Hybrid personal courses with online content always available to the student solves these problems for smaller courses. For some students the presence of similar students in the same course is supportive and encouraging. For others this is too competitive. And for many others the need for complete time and day flexibility make working with mentors or groups very difficult.
These situations can now be addressed with very personal technical support. Early efforts at improving completion in MOOCs were successful with course based Chatbots using AI/ML personalization. These systems can learn from each student there preferred mode of use and specific areas that they find challenging. By being available at any time and fully personalized many students prefer conversations with these Chatbot tutors rather than people. The early success of Microsoft’s Xiaoice in China showed the way in combining technology for people’s conversational needs.
All of the pieces described above are appearing on their own but without formal support. For a new community centered system of higher education to provide the services now needed the focus and the preferred methodologies must change. It’s time to make that change now.