By Doug Ward

The criticism of liberal education often carries a vicious sting. For instance, listen to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor:

“Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great. It’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-fil-A.’”

Examples of posters created during the workshop.

Or Gov. Matthew Bevin of Kentucky as he describes his budget priorities for higher education:

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than to French literature majors. All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so. They are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer like engineers.”

Those sorts of disparaging comments certainly demonstrate an ignorance of higher education, but they also reflect the use of higher education as a political foil as the cost of college – and student debt – rises. Those simplistic characterizations have power. They stick in people’s minds and play into stereotypes of academia as an ivory tower separate from society at large and out of touch with the vast majority of Americans. They also reflect a growing emphasis on college as a job factory rather than a place to help citizens learn to think more deeply and more critically, and to expand their understanding of a complex and ever-changing world.

Higher education has done a poor job of pushing back against those criticisms, as I wrote earlier this week. Faculty members and administrators are eager to do better, though, as I found last week in a workshop I led at the annual meeting of the Association of American College and Universities in Washington. I gave participants a handout in which I had categorized common criticisms of liberal education and provided examples like the ones above. After a brief discussion, I asked them to identify an audience and create their own messages to address one or more of the criticisms. The results were excellent, showing a steely resolve to reclaim the reputation of higher education.

Categorizing criticisms

I generally see six types of criticisms of liberal education. Most come from outside the academy, but some come from inside. There are overlapping aspects among all of them, and no doubt there are others. (For instance, one workshop participant pointed out the complaint that the liberal arts focuses heavily on the ideas of long-dead white men.) These are the common ones that I’ve identified, though, and that I shared in the workshop:

  • College costs too much to waste on “impractical” subjects
  • The study of the liberal arts has become an anachronism
  • Liberal education is out of touch with the “real world”
  • Liberal education isn’t keeping up with a changing world
  • Liberal education has lost its meaning
  • Identity consciousness has tainted liberal education

I asked workshop participants to work in pairs or groups, choose one or more of those criticisms, and create both a soundbite and more substantial messages that highlight the strengths of liberal education. Some rejected the idea of soundbites. That’s understandable. Matching soundbite to soundbite can easily devolve into the equivalent of a playground brawl rather than a meaningful conversation. Nonetheless, I think it is important that we distill the importance of liberal education into key elements to use when talking with students, parents, donors, community members, politicians, and even colleagues.

Here are examples of how workshop participants rose to that challenge:

  • Change is a constant. Liberal education provides the means to create and navigate that change.
  • Liberal education is a pedagogy and an ethos, not a set of disciplines.
  • Finding a path and a voice in the world.
  • Your life is better when we think better together.
  • Get a career, get a purpose, get a life, get a college education.
  • Build a team that knows how to think.
  • Liberal arts will get your promotion.
  • Pivot for your next opportunity.
  • Invest in the long run.
  • We teach essential skills for living fully and freely, everything you need for citizenship and prosperity, self-fulfillment and self-determination.

Two groups focused specifically on Republican donors, drawing on the language of business to make a connection:

  • Liberal education builds workplace skills: adaptability, flexibility, communication skills, evaluation and analytical skills, interpersonal skills in diverse populations. It also instills ethics and fosters curiosity.
  • The liberal arts yields effective communication skills in multiple modes, which is core to successful messaging, interaction, negotiation, innovation, collaboration, creative problem-solving, sales and marketing, global perspective, diverse audiences and cultures.

As I said, there are dangers in trying to compress the complexities of liberal education into soundbites or even more substantial talking points. We will never do it justice. By thinking in those terms, though, we can better identify the components of higher education we want to emphasize and better prepare ourselves for conversations with a broad range of constituencies.

So let’s keep talking.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

American higher education has taken a beating over the last 40-plus years.

Many of those blows came from the outside. Many others were self-inflicted. I won’t rehash those here, other than to say that higher education has done a poor job of fighting back. Much of the time, it has seen itself as above the fray. Its arrogance not only blinded it to its own shortcomings but let critics paint an unflattering portrait that has lingered in the minds of millions of Americans.

A board at the AAC&U meeting asked participants to share their thoughts about higher education. The theme of the meeting was “Can Higher Education Recapture the Elusive American Dream?”

Thankfully, colleges and universities have awakened from their slumber and started to realize that they must live within the broader society, not separate from it, and that they must make a case that higher education plays a vital role in democracy and the American dream. Yes, that sounds lofty. But it is crucial if we hope to maintain our colleges and universities as places of knowledge, aspiration, and above all, hope.

That sentiment was clearly evident last week in Washington, D.C., at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Speakers were alternately determined, defiant, pragmatic, searching, and hopeful. Like so many others, I came away energized by conversations with colleagues who are determined to reinvigorate higher education, and by sessions that focused on the core elements of AAC&U’s new strategic plan:

  • Championing sustainable models for high-quality undergraduate education
  • Advancing equity
  • Articulating the value of liberal education
  • Pushing for innovative approaches to change higher education

Speakers at the conference’s opening plenary were blunt about the problems that higher education faces. The United States used to be the world leader in degree holders, Lynn Pasquerella, president of AAC&U, told participants. It now ranks 15th. Public higher education was once a truly public venture financed mostly by taxpayer dollars. Now it is public in name only as colleges and universities rely increasingly on private fundraising, tuition dollars, and grants to pay the bills. That, in turn, pushes institutions to obsess about rankings, which pushes them to seek students with higher test scores, which pushes them to build luxury facilities, which forces universities to seek private financing and push up tuition costs, which puts college further out of reach for more and more families.

That chain of events has led to both a financial and moral crisis in higher education, said Linda Martin Alcoff, a professor at City University of New York. Privatization has turned students and faculty into “human capital,” she said. Rankings have “infected” every faculty search as departments seek out stars who can improve rankings, Alcoff said. Faculty achieve star status by attracting private grant money, which has deteriorated the civic nature of higher education, she said.

“We’ve become beggars at the table,” Alcoff said. “Every time there’s a search, our chairs are beggars at the table with deans and provosts for positions that are ultimately decided by corporate boards of trustees and ranking mechanisms. … We’re all quite aware of the problem, but we have been lulled into quietude.”

New pressures on a college degree

Tamara Draut, a vice president at the public policy organization Demos, said that we in higher education must work to “unleash that era of possibility” that allowed so many people to get through college without enormous debt. Debt has poisoned higher education by creating an obsession with rankings and a need to recruit increasing numbers of out-of-state and international students, who pay higher tuition.

“There’s a lot of perversion that has happened in the academy because it has become connected to debt,” Draut said. “It has put pressure on a college degree to do something it was never supposed to do, which is show some ROI for the degree you get.”

She gave the example of a young woman who called in to an NPR show that Draut participated in. The young woman, who had an art degree and was working at a community center teaching art to children, was having a difficult time paying off her college debt. The next caller ranted about the young woman for “daring to get an art degree” rather than an engineering or technical degree.

Debt, Draut said, is “putting all kinds of burdens on institutions and on degrees that they were never meant to carry. And it’s making us devalue the learning and the doing that are the high marks of civilization: art, music, philosophy, education, doing good for others. That is what we should be lifting up. But the reality is, if you get an art degree and can’t pay back your student loans, we are saying to people that you did something bad and you should have studied something different.”

AAC&U members clearly took an inclusive view of higher education, as they should. College was once only the purview of the elite, and the rising cost of attending is clearly pushing it that way again.

“What happens is a lot of working class and poor people hear us saying you need to go to college,” Draut said. “The reason you are struggling is because you didn’t go to college. You made bad choices.”

That either/or narrative only sours people on higher education, she said. College is important, she said, but it is not a solution to poverty, prejudice or the growing gap between the ultrawealthy and everyone else.

“Higher ed is great, but it’s not all we have to do to fix society’s economic and racial inequality,” Draut said.

The importance of access

Panelists throughout the conference issued a call for educators to push for policies that provide broader access to higher education but also help re-establish a broad middle class.

“Teaching the poor should not be a niche market in higher education, but that’s what it has become,” Alcoff said.

She added: “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in any kind of labor can have financial security.”

Wes Moore of the Robin Hood Foundation urged educators and alumni to tell their stories about the importance of higher education. Statistics can be helpful, he said, but they can also be manipulated.

“Make sure people understand the human implications of what we do,” Moore said. “It’s important to remind people not just what we are talking about but who we are talking about.”

Alcoff offered a similar point, saying that we must espouse the importance of higher education without alienating those who choose not to – or can’t – get a degree. By linking a college education to social mobility, we leave out a large portion of the American population.

“The goal of social mobility is the wrong goal in the United States today,” she said. “The goal should be social justice for all so that those who engage in manual labor – or any kind of labor – can have lives of dignity, can own a home, can send their kids to a good state university, and can have financial security.”

We must also make room for less-than-perfect students who aspire to the intellectual challenges of college, Alcoff said. With what she described as a “checkered past,” she never would have made it through college in today’s environment, she said. She was on her own financially at age 16, earned a GED, dropped out of college, found her way back, and eventually graduated. College is no longer forgiving for such students, she said, especially with costs that weigh on students for years.

Naomi Barry-Pérez, director of the civil rights center for the Justice Department, tied decreased funding of higher education and many social programs to a backlash against the civil rights and women’s movements in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Government programs aimed at making society fairer were demonized once women and people of color gained more power, she said. We are the richest nation on earth, she said, but we life in a perpetual state of austerity.

“We have to be champions of reinvesting in ourselves,” she said.

Conflicting ideals

As passionate as the speakers were, they offered few solutions to entrenched problems that have been exacerbated by polarized politics. In most cases, there are no clear answers.

In the closing plenary, the author William Deresiewicz told conference-goers that higher education had been in crisis “since the beginning, perhaps since 1636.” The problems have changed, though, with the biggest today being the decline in education funding.

He said, though, that academics needed to delve more deeply into their own beliefs and actions. We talk about freedom, equality and justice, he said, but rarely think about the conflicts inherent in them. Equality often demands the diminishment of freedom, he said. We want to encourage creative expression, but at the same time, we have a need for all people to feel safe. That, in turn, often requires restrictions. Dealing with those conflicts is difficult and troubling, he said. Nobody wants to think about their own beliefs, values, and assumptions. At colleges and universities, that inaction silences voices and distances academia from the rest of society, he said.

“We live at a time when progressive opinion, which dominates most campuses, has hardened into something approaching religious dogma,” Deresiewicz said. “There’s a right way to think, and a right way to talk, and a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity occupy the center of discourse.”

There really is nothing to debate, he said, saying that he shared those beliefs, but “the fact that it’s inconceivable to think otherwise is precisely the problem.”

“The assumption on the left is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth,” Deresiewicz said. “We already know what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right, what’s wrong. There really is nothing to discuss, except how to put a belief into practice. Dogma makes for ideological consensus, and consensus is enforced through social means.”

He told of a recent experience in teaching a writing class for college juniors and seniors. All of the students were ill-prepared to read deeply, analyze others’ work, or to make strong arguments. These were smart students, he said, but they had learned only a technocratic form, one in which difficult question could be worked out in predictable ways. They also thought of writing as “something that just happened,” rather than as a process that requires persistent revision and questioning.

He pointed to several things he said were at the heart of the problem: social media and its fast-paced, anything goes mentality; grade inflation; adjunct instructors who can’t afford to spend time with student papers; and professors who lack incentives to take the time. If we spend all our time focusing on skills that can be scaffolded and measured, he said, we miss opportunities to delve into bigger questions like values, purpose and meaning that can transform students during their time in college. All too often, the humanities converts open-ended questions into things that can be assessed and tested, he said. As a result, students think fundamental questions about life and meaning have been settled. They learn to spout opinions, but recoil at the idea of public argument. They talk about things like patriarchy, intersectionality, trigger warnings, and microaggressions, but they are lost when they have to think outside those categories or are asked to examine what they mean or how others might feel differently.

“Big questions are big questions because no one has the answers,” Deresiewicz said.

What he failed to mention is that the dogma that afflicts the left also afflicts the right, making meaningful conversation and compromise even more difficult. Like other speakers at AAC&U, though, he was spot-on in calling for higher education to take a deep look inside itself. That’s the only way we will find a way forward.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A provision in the tax bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday has the potential to upend graduate education.

The bill would force graduate students to pay taxes on tuition waivers they routinely receive as part of their appointments. That would raise the cost of graduate education substantially and could easily drive away potential students.

Erin Rousseau, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, estimated that she would pay an additional $10,000 in taxes if the House bill became law. The cost would certainly be lower for students at a public university like KU, but a change in the tax law would add a few thousand dollars a year in expenses. Low pay and the costs of insurance, health care and housing already make graduate education a struggle for many students. Additional costs could certainly put graduate education out of reach for many others.

In a column in The New York Times, Rousseau wrote:

“It would make meeting living expenses nearly impossible, barring all but the wealthiest students from pursuing a Ph.D.”

The number of graduate students at public universities grew 17 percent between 2000 and 2010 but has remained relatively unchanged since then, according the National Center for Education Statistics. That could easily change, though, if the cost of degrees becomes too burdensome.

American students are already shying away from graduate degrees in STEM fields, largely because they can get good jobs with just a bachelor’s degree, The Times reports. International students have filled the void, but immigration restrictions and the political storm surrounding them have created unease among international graduate students and pushed many of them away.

The House tax plan could be yet another blow to graduate education. Let’s hope that more a thoughtful plan prevails as the Senate debates tax legislation.

Another challenge to education in Wisconsin

Wisconsin continued its throttling of higher education last week as the state’s regents voted to merge the state’s 13 two-year colleges with its seven universities, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. The change will take place in the summer.

Under the plan, the two-year colleges will become branches of the universities, although students will continue to pay lower tuition rates at the two-year institutions. The regents said the plan would save money and would eventually result in job cuts, though they provided no specifics. The regents president, Ray Cross, said the initiative was not “a fully developed plan with all the details worked out,” according to the State Journal.

The regents pushed the plan forward with little consultation of the colleges or universities involved. Seven former college leaders implored the regents to reconsider the plan, saying it was being shoved through so hastily that the ramifications had not been considered. They expressed concern about the financial model – or lack of one – and said the plan could threaten the future of the two-year colleges. Two experts interviewed by the State Journal said the move was a politically inspired plan to consolidate a top-down power structure.

The consolidation vote was the latest move in a political battle that has left the university system severely diminished. The Wisconsin governor and legislature have been at odds with the universities for years, weakening tenure, cutting funding, and even restricting protests on campus.

Education Dive, a publication that reports on higher education, said the actions in Wisconsin should be a warning to other states. “Letting lawmakers know that a lack of stability could have a potentially negative long-term impact on enrollment rates, making it harder for the system to thrive, is key,” Education Dive says.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that other university systems could be brought to their knees as easily as Wisconsin’s has.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The amount of debt that colleges and universities are taking on is rising even as the number of students in higher education is declining, The Hechinger Report says. It offered these sobering statistics:

Public universities have taken on 18 percent more debt in the last five years, and now owe a collective $145 billion. When you add in private universities, the amount rises to $240 billion. On average, 9 percent of college and university budgets go toward debt payments. At public universities, that amounts to $750 per student. At private universities, $1,289 per student. 

KU has certainly followed this borrowing trend. Since 2012, the university has issued $467 million in bond debt, according to Moody’s, the financial ratings company. That includes $350 million in 2015 for work on the Lawrence campus. According to the university budget office, KU paid $22,250,321 toward principal and interest on its outstanding bonds during the last fiscal year. That amounts to $782.17 for every student on the Lawrence, Edwards and medical center campuses, or 4.3 percent more than the average for public universities.

Graphic by Dave McHenry, The Hechinger Report, with data from Thomson Reuters

I’ve had a difficult time finding measures comparable to those that Hechinger cited, but budget office figures show that debt service accounted for 2.5 percent to 3 percent of total expenditures at KU in Fiscal 2016.  

Debt isn’t necessarily a cause for concern. When used for construction, it becomes a bet on the future, much as investment in a house is. KU desperately needed to update its science facilities and some of its aging residence halls. It still desperately needs to modernize hundreds of classrooms and create additional spaces for collaborative learning. The sad reality is that it’s easier to raise money for new buildings than it is to raise money to renovate existing ones. 

Hechinger’s point is that increased borrowing has put some universities on shaky financial ground, especially as the number of students enrolled in college has fallen by 2.4 million since 2011. Rising levels of debt increase overall expenses, often contributing to higher tuition rates.  

Universities face a conundrum, though. States have drastically cut back on the amount they have contributed to universities and have done a poor job of providing adequate money for upkeep of existing buildings. At the same time, universities feel pressure to keep up with their peers, especially at a time when recruiting students often involves wowing them with campus amenities. This is all part of a commercialization of higher education, with the product and image of education overshadowing the importance of learning.

Moody’s has raised concern about KU’s accumulation of debt, listing the university’s outlook as negative for the last two years. That means the university’s bond rating could be downgraded, raising the cost of borrowing. Moody’s said the “negative outlook reflects the challenge of growing revenue and cash flow to support increasing operating and capital expenses associated with a large campus expansion.”

Whether that expansion will pay off, either financially or in terms of learning, remains to be seen.

Alternative credentials gain momentum

The approach makes sense even if the names don’t.  

EdSurge reports that EdX, which offers massive open online courses from Harvard and MIT, has begun what it calls “micromasters” degrees. These involve five courses that cover about 30 percent of a traditional degree. It received a $900,000 grant last year from the Lumia Foundation to develop 30 such programs. Another MOOC provider, Udacity, has created what it calls “nanodegrees” in mostly technology-related areas, EdSurge says.

The names are certainly a marketing ploy, but the move to offer alternative credentials follows a growing trend. If colleges and universities are truly about lifelong education, they need to do better at providing options beyond traditional degrees. Many, including KU, have been increasing the number of certificates they offer, and some organizations have been experimenting with badges. Demand for education at the master’s level has been growing, generating much-needed revenue for universities. 

EdSurge quotes Michael DiPietro, chief marketing officer of ExtensionEngine, which creates online course components. He says educators need to move beyond the idea of shifting in-person classes online and start thinking of microcredentials as a business venture. He says: 

“Start with a business plan—one that outlines the market, learner personas, competition, revenue and cost projections, team and operational resources, ecommerce, positioning, differentiators, and more. Your product — the program, course, certificate, or degree — has to be unique and very specific to what your market wants.”

The idea of a degree or certificate as a business plan is certainly off-putting to those of us who see education as a public service, but he’s right that education must change as the needs of potential students change. That doesn’t diminish the importance of a liberal education. It just means we need to think in new ways about the types of courses, degrees and certificates we offer. 

Briefly …

Drexel University gave incoming students backpacks made with a new fabric that can store digital information, CBS News reports. Students used the backpacks and an accompanying app to share their social media profiles at the beginning of the school year. … University instructors have become so paranoid about cheating that they are hampering learning, Bruce Macfarlane argues in Times Higher Education. … The New York Times Magazine delves into the causes and implications of an epidemic of anxiety afflicting students in high school and college.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.


By Doug Ward

Add another lock to the ivory tower.

A majority of college students say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker they disagree with, and 20 percent accept the idea of resorting to violence to keep an undesirable speaker from campus, a poll from the Brookings Institution finds.

John Villasenor, a senior fellow at Brookings, conducted the poll to gauge students’ understanding of the First Amendment. The survey contained responses from 1,500 students in 49 states and the District of Columbia. It has a margin of error of 2 to 6 percentage points.

elements of bill of rights on a tablet screen
The Blue Diamond Gallery

The results are disturbing, although not surprising given the recent campus reactions to controversial speakers:

  • More than 40 percent of students say that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech. (It does.) Women (49 percent) are considerably more likely than men (38 percent) to believe that.
  • Male students (57 percent) are considerably more likely than female students (47 percent) to say that shouting down a speaker is acceptable. Democrats (62 percent) are far more likely than Republicans (39 percent) to agree.
  • Men (30 percent) are more likely than women (10 percent) to say that violence is acceptable to keep a speaker away from campus.
  • Nearly two-thirds of students say that the First Amendment requires that a campus provide an opposing view to a controversial speaker. (It doesn’t.)
  • A majority of students (53 percent) say they would prefer a campus environment that prohibits offensive viewpoints to one that exposes them to many different viewpoints, including offensive ones. Democrats (61 percent) are more likely than Republicans (49 percent) to choose the prohibitive environment.

Villasenor issues a pessimistic assessment of the results.

“Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses,” he wrote.

Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist, sees this as part of a fraying of liberal education, which he says isn’t vigorously promoting the idea of discussion and dissent to hone thinking.

“Our disagreements may frequently hoarsen our voices, but they rarely sharpen our thinking, much less change our minds,” he said in a recent speech.

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, sees this lack of willingness to engage with opposing viewpoints as part of a “rise of identity consciousness.” A movement that started in the 1980s has led to a “pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities,” he writes.

Lilla says this approach has been helpful in improving inclusiveness on campuses and on exploring ideas of neglected groups. “But it also has encouraged a single-minded fascination with group differences and the social margins,” he says, “so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present — a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.”

Any discussion of how to rekindle the ability to engage in reasoned debate and dissent must include an understanding of the First Amendment. That understanding needs to start in middle school and high school, Villasenor argues. At colleges and universities, he said, professors and administrators need to do a better job of creating an environment that values free and open speech. He was pessimistic about that, though, saying he thought faculty responses to his survey would probably be similar to students’.

Students’ ignorance of the First Amendment not only diminishes an open airing of ideas, he said, but foreshadows changes in society as students’ understanding of free speech will “inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers.”

In other words, we need to help students learn to listen to many views and embrace disagreement as a natural process of improving themselves and society. It we don’t, they will find that an ivory tower isn’t just a place of safety. It can easily become a place of intellectual imprisonment.

Budget cuts and the imperilment of public universities

State budget cuts and reductions in federal funding have clouded the future of public research universities, especially those in the Midwest, Jon Marcus writes in Washington Monthly.

Not only have university budgets become shaky, he says, but many faculty members have left Midwestern universities for better jobs, public research universities in the Midwest have fallen in national rankings, and spending on research and development has fallen. These universities are “experiencing a pattern of relative decline,” Marcus writes. (He uses a definition of “Midwest” that encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.)

He cites some startling statistics that put his premise into context:

“The endowments of the universities of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois and Ohio State, which together enroll nearly 190,000 students, add up to about $11 billion—less than a third of Harvard’s $37.6 billion. Together, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, which enroll about 50,000 students combined, have more than $73 billion in the bank to help during lean times.”

Additionally, a decline in federal research spending comes at a time when other countries have put additional money into research activities at their universities.

“This ominous reality could widen economic inequality,” he says, in part because students with higher degrees who stay in a state after receiving their degrees bolster that state’s economy. It could also threaten communities in which universities are the primary employer and ultimately threaten the national economy, he says.

The tone of the article seems overly alarmist at times, but the financial challenges at public research universities is very real.

“These schools are desperately needed to diversify economies that rely disproportionately on manufacturing and agriculture and lack the wealthy private institutions that fuel the knowledge industries found in Silicon Valley or along Boston’s 128/I-95 corridor,” he says.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Randy Bass sees a struggle taking place in higher education.

On one side are those who see the future as “unbundled,” a model in which students pursue discrete skills at their own pace and mostly under their own direction. On the other side are those who see the future as bundled, much as a university is now with classes and programs and a physical environment that draws everything together.

Randy Bass during a breakout session at the 2017 Teaching Summit

This is not a clash of right vs. wrong or good vs. evil, Bass, a professor and administrator at Georgetown University, said in his keynote address at KU’s annual Teaching Summit this month. The bundled model needs the skills, flexibility and other elements of the unbundled side, he says, although he contends that those pursuing the unbundled model “are working with a diminished vision of education.”

Let’s tease those elements apart a bit.

The unbundled model that Bass describes has been embraced by many entrepreneurs and authors who see the traditional model of higher education failing. Under this model, classes have little or no ties to each other and learning is detached from physical spaces. Students focus on particular skills when they need them, work at their own pace and learn on their own, often online. Bass describes this approach as “granular, targeted, modular.” Competency-based education lives on this side of the spectrum. So do MOOCs and online organizations like and Kahn Academy. It is driven by analytics and takes what Bass calls a “disintegrated” approach to learning, one that its advocates say will help underserved populations.

The bundled model approaches higher education as a community. Classes, at least in theory, build on and integrate with each other, helping students accumulate expertise that leads toward completion of a degree. This approach works toward whole-person education, Bass said, providing interaction with other students and with instructors. It builds in skills like critical thinking, creativity, empathy and ethical judgment. All of this is integrated into a larger learning community located in a particular physical space: classrooms, living spaces, informal spaces, and a physical campus. It involves things like student organizations, sports, and arts and entertainment.

Bass said universities should work toward an integrative, inclusive model

He called on universities to work at “rebundling” education in more meaningful ways, finding opportunities to integrate skills and to allow students to work on difficult, authentic questions from the beginning of their studies. The future of higher education, he said, depends on our ability to bring together the components of the unbundled and bundled models of education.

“These two discourses have largely been separate and at war and talking past each other until the last few years,” Bass said. “The great challenge of the next decade or more is to move toward a new synthesis.”

This new synthesis is crucial, Bass says, because higher education will undergo big changes in the next couple of decades. He drew on the biological theory of punctuated equilibrium, which suggests that evolution doesn’t take place in a steady progression. Rather, it goes through long periods of stability punctuated by big leaps in changes of life forms.

“I think we’re in that period of time in higher education,” Bass said. “I think the last 15 to 20 years have been building to it. … It’s creating a shift in what we consider the species of how we deliver higher education. Over the next 15 years, there’s going to be a jump, a shift in the landscape.”

He made a case that the future lies at the intersection of inclusiveness and integration. It involves integrating the skills promoted by those who want to unbundle education but integrates what Bass called “hard skills”: learning to learn, critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, resilience, empathy, humility, ethical judgment.

“We also know that we can’t teach most of those things directly,” Bass said. “We can’t teach these as direct instruction. But we can design environments where they are more likely rather than less likely to be cultivated.”

Where various forms of education fit into that quadrant now

Universities were founded on the idea of exclusive excellence, he said, and much of higher education still operates on this model. The future, though, depends on our ability to provide inclusive excellence, he said, to find ways to draw in more people into high-quality, integrative education.

To help with that, he urged adoption of high-impact practices, which have been shown to improve student success. These practices help create unscripted environments that provide hands-on learning, push students outside their comfort zone, help them learn more about themselves, and allow disparate components of education to come together. (What’s the opposite of high-impact practices? That would be low-impact practices, he joked, “otherwise known as the curriculum.”)

The future depends on helping students accept uncertainty and to learn to think like experts in their disciplines. It also depends on instructors, disciplines and universities identifying what they want students to take away from classes, curricula and a university education.

“If it matters, you have to make it integral,” Bass said.

We also need to redesign and expand what we mean by rigor, Bass said. One thing that draws people into a discipline, he said, is that they fall in love with what’s difficult about that field.

Bass argues that the future of higher education depends on a “new synthesis” of unbundled and bundled models

“The most important thing we can do, as early as possible and with as many people as possible, is to introduce them to how to navigate difficulties and appreciate difficulty and uncertainty.”

Bass offered examples of what that might look like. One involved a student project from a class he teaches on the future of the university. That model envisions education as a community of peers working to gain experience, expertise and independence as students’ thinking grows in complexity. It emphasizes a “profound sense that college should build to something that makes you really capable,” Bass said.

Another, in which he went into more depth, was a biology class his wife taught that involved at-risk students in a project that analyzed the soil and environment of a Virginia winery. The project humanized learning by having students take on a challenge that involved real-world problems in a location that students got to know well.

Both of those models follow his ideal of education as inclusive and integrative. There are many ways of moving into that realm, he said, and we must keep experimenting. Bass said a biologist reminded him that in a period of punctuated equilibrium, 99 percent of all lifeforms die. In the case of higher education, those “lifeforms” are colleges, universities, departments, programs and individual faculty members.

“There will be institutions to whom change is done, and there will be institutions in control of that change,” Bass said.

Throughout his talk and in workshops that followed, Bass pushed instructors, staff members and administrators to think about ways of staying in front of potentially destructive change.

“The question is,” he said, “how do we as higher ed institutions survive and thrive during this shift?”

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

BOULDER, Colo. – Noah Finkelstein rarely minces words, and the words he offers to public universities carry a lofty challenge.

Society can make no better investment in its future than by promoting higher education, he said. It is perhaps the most fundamental form of infrastructure we have – institutions designed to influence the lives of students and build the core components of society. Pressures on these institutions have pushed them toward priorities that run counter to their founding missions, though, and overlook the very aspect that makes them special: in-person education grounded in a particular region.

Finkelstein is a physics professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and co-director of the Center for STEM Learning at CU. He was one of the hosts for the semiannual meeting of the Bay View Alliance steering committee in June in Boulder. KU is among the nine member universities of the Bay View Alliance, which works toward changing university culture in ways that improve teaching and learning. I wrote earlier about Emily Miller of the Association of American Universities and the update she provided about the AAU STEM Initiative. While she focused on the challenges of gaining internal support for changes in teaching culture, Finkelstein spoke more broadly about the way universities have responded to external pressures.

Noah Finkelstein works on a poster at a strategy session for member universities of the Bay View Alliance

One of the biggest problems, he said, is that universities, responding to concerns from legislators, parents and students, have focused on higher education as a driver of the economy rather than as a means of empowering individuals and investing in the future of democratic society.

“We have those roles inverted,” Finkelstein said. “We’re leading with economic and workforce development. The problem with that as a leading goal is that it does not ensure that benefits flow to individuals or to our society as a whole. It’s possible, but if we start with these other two – if we empower individuals, if we invest in our society writ large – workforce and economic development do come along for the ride in time.”

Universities have taken on the vernacular of business, he said, promoting ill-defined goals of innovation and entrepreneurship, and putting economic drivers ahead of individuals. And like publicly traded businesses, they have pursued a goal of “short-term profit over long-term welfare within our institutions.” That type of thinking must stop, he said.

“We have the privilege of being long term,” Finkelstein said. “We have that opportunity and we must not forgo using that tremendous lever we possess to improve society.”

Short-term thinking has helped drive a wedge between the essential functions of teaching and research at public universities, he said. As states have drastically cut funding to universities, universities have grown increasingly dependent on undergraduate tuition to pay the bills.

“The role of teaching is essential at our institutions,” Finkelstein said, “but it matters to consider the question: to what end? Right now it’s being seen as the main financial driver of our institutions by those who are making decisions. And it’s true that our campuses are driven by undergraduate tuition. But there is – or ought to be – more to it than that. How do we couple that to undergraduate development and learning, or student development and learning, rather than follow the easy, destructive path of hiring adjunct faculty and decouple our core missions of research and teaching?”

He pointed to three ways the BVA could help lead universities toward a better model.

Promote evidence-based teaching. BVA is already engaged in this by creating tools, policies and practices that promote evidence-based teaching. Subgroups of the BVA have been working on models, some financed by grants, to show how teaching specialists can help improve teaching and learning; to create tools for analysis of data about teaching and learning; to use university data to answer questions about teaching and learning; to promote means of assessing teaching that reach beyond student evaluations; and to explore ways to help teaching centers better reach faculty members.

Empower all those engaged in education. Finkelstein said the professional development of chairs was a “key lever” in spreading evidence-based teaching. Another is changing the rewards system so that instructors who use evidence-based teaching stand a fair chance in the promotion and tenure system and in merit raises.

“There seems to be a stronger and stronger discontinuity between what is recognized and rewarded and the core value systems for which our institutions were established,” Finkelstein said. “And that’s something that we can really take on within the BVA.”

The challenge is bigger than that, though, he said. Universities must do a better job of involving everyone in building community.

“This is a way of connecting people, from the parking staff to the faculty to the students to the chancellor to advisors on our campus, that we are engaged in collective vision making. That creates a community. It stitches people together in what have been historically different enterprises. It also allows for essential forms of inclusion and belonging that historically have not been our strength at these kinds of institutions.”

Create vision and identity. Universities create mission statements and value statements that often change when leaders change, and fail to resonate with the individuals on campus, Finkelstein said. Similarly, setting goals like increasing retention and graduation rates is important, but those goals are so general that they don’t provide a means of connecting people or of defining specific roles.

“The students don’t understand what this means,” Finkelstein said. “The faculty don’t understand what this means. Certainly the staff within many of our campus efforts don’t know what this means.”

BVA can be instrumental in sharing and modeling for universities what compelling and comprehensive visions might look like, he said. He also offered his vision for what public universities are and should be.

“We are about knowledge at our institutions,” he said. “We’re about the generation of knowledge and need to be proud of that mantle.”

Not only that, but a college education enculturates students into knowledge systems, he said.

“That’s what education is about,” Finkelstein said. “Not only are we generators of knowledge but we’re generators of those people who are the leaders of these knowledge systems. These things must essentially be coupled, and we are better for having that happen.”

Public universities must also embrace their regional identities, he argued. They must have an international scope grounded in a regional identity.

“We have the particular privilege of being residence-based and committed to human interactions,” Finkelstein said. “We are about people interacting with other people. But we are also still geographically, temporally and spatially located systems. We are essentially regionally based and should recognize that.”

Universities can’t be shy about explaining who they are and where they fit into society.

“We need to put a stake in the ground for what we are as social institutions and enterprises,” Finkelstein said. “Make it very clear and shout this from rooftops.”

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

A recent study about reading on mobile phones surprised even the researchers.

The study, by the digital consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, found that reading comprehension on mobile phones matched that of reading on larger computer screens. The results were the same with shorter, easier articles (400 words at an eighth-grade level) and longer, more difficult articles (990 words at a 12-grade level).

A similar study six years earlier found lower comprehension when people read on mobile devices rather than larger computer screens, so Nielsen Norman researchers started with that premise. Pretests showed no difference in comprehension levels, though, and the researchers scrutinized their tests for flaws. They found the same result in larger studies, though: Participants who read articles on phones had slightly higher, though not statistically significant, comprehension levels than when they read on larger computer screens.

woman reading magazine with phone and coffee on table beside her
Hoai Anh Bino, Unsplash

The researchers suggested several possible explanations for their findings. First, the quality of phone screens has improved considerably since the initial test was conducted in 2010. As mobile phones have proliferated, users have also gained considerable experience reading on those devices. Some participants in the Nielsen Norman study said they preferred reading on their phones because those devices helped blocked out distractions.

The study did find one downside of reading on mobile: speed. Those who read on phone screens did so at a slightly slower pace than those who read on larger screens, even though comprehension was virtually the same.

I bring up this study because it focuses on something we need to consider in college classes. I’ve heard colleagues speak disdainfully of students’ reading on their phones. This study suggests no reason for that. For articles up to about 1,000 words, there seems to be little difference on what size screen people read.

This study compared digital to digital, though, and did not include reading on paper. Many previous studies have found that not only do people prefer reading paper texts but that they also have slightly better comprehension with print. They also report feeling more in control of their reading when they have print books, which allow them to flip through material more easily and to annotate in the margins. Other recent research suggests no difference in comprehension between print and digital, with a majority of students saying they prefer digital texts.

I’m not suggesting that college work shift to mobile phones. We must pay attention to the way our students consume information, though, and adapt where we can. If nothing else, the Nielsen Norman study points to a need for an open mind with technology.

Skills for the future

I do a lot of thinking about the future of education, and this observation from Andrew McAfee, research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, rings true:

“Our educational system is well suited to turn out the kinds of workers the economy needed 50 years ago: those that could read, write, and do some math, and also were trained to follow the voice of authority. Computers are much better than us at math, are learning to read and write very quickly, and are unbeatable at following instructions consistently.

“We need an educational system now that excels at producing people to do the things that computers can’t do: figure out what problem to tackle next, work as part of a team to solve it, and have compassion for others and the ability to coordinate, motivate, persuade, and negotiate.”

Others, including Daniel Pink, and Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby make similar cases: That is, technology, computer learning and automation are constantly changing the landscape of work, although education isn’t keeping up.

Davenport and Kirby argue that educators need to emphasize how students can “augment their strengths with machines,” how they can become better decision-makers, and how they can continue to learn and adapt as the world changes and computers take on new roles. That’s a real challenge for colleges and universities, whose teaching generally emphasizes delivery of content and whose instructors and administrators often look for reasons to resist change.

Higher education still has time to adapt, but that time keeps growing shorter.

Briefly …

Universities in the United States aren’t the only ones struggling with how to handle weapons on campus. A security guard writes in The Guardian that in the UK, “some students go around with enough firepower to blow a hole in the walls of Alcatraz.” … The Next Web explores ways that companies are using artificial intelligence in products for education, including AI tutoring, machine learning tied to social networks, and customized content. … Universities in the UK report a growing number of cases of cheating, The Guardian reports, with many of those cases involving electronic devices.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.