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The narrowness of thought in higher education reform

When I first started my phd, I wanted to research the future of higher education – what is changing in the world that will impact education. I spent a fair bit of looking at university models around the world, change pressures they were facing, and the (potentially significant) peripheral trends that had the potential to drive systemic change. It’s a rich area of inquiry and one that I somewhat regret shifting away from.

I’m concerned about the narrowness of thought in higher education reform today. The southern California ideology of “software is the answer” is now being applied to education. Startups, personal control, freedom, and openness, in the wrapper of entrepreneurship and the pursuit of venture capital funding, now defines much of the higher education conversation. I’m not yet fully convinced that this trend is significant. I am, however, very confident that the integrative systems being created now by Pearson Ed, McGraw Hill (new motto: earn AA+ grades with us!), and Blackboard are significant.

Articles like Get out while you can are myopic. Proclamations by folks like Gross and Thiel misrepresent the complex systemic nature of higher education. If you have one solution to the problem of education, you have missed the true nature of the problem. Many, many stakeholders have a vested interest in what goes on with our universities. Doing a better job of giving learners control and better tools for creating and accessing content is not enough. Most of reform suggestions are at best additive to the current model. None that I’ve seen have the prospect of replacing it. This is especially true as emerging economies are investing enormous resources in creating a higher education infrastructure.

I’m in Pretoria, South Africa for the next week presenting on how higher education is changing…and perhaps ought to change. Both the problem and the solutions are complex and evolving rapidly as new systemic shocks and change pressures arise. The slides for my opening keynote are below. I’ll post my workshop slides over the next week.

UNISA: South Africa


  1. Frances Bell wrote:

    Thanks for this George (I also made a comment over at your slideshow). One of the reasons that I came into the field of Learning Technology (if indeed it is a field) was to play a part in letting lessons learned in earlier organisational applications of technology benefit what is happening in education. This requires us to reference disciplines such as Information Systems (my home discipline), Business and Management, as well as Computer Science and Education.
    Last year I was the commissioning editor, facilitating a Special Issue edited by 3 significant figures in education and you can see the articles here
    You could say that the articles mainly cover additive change but that issue and the whole wealth of research into transforming institutions within a huge business and societal sector like education is a huge challenge. I agree, we need to broaden our thought (and read around), but also ‘go canny’ as they say in Scotland. Whatever the future will be, we are unlikely to predict it with accuracy, and will need to nudge our visions along the way.

    Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 1:41 am | Permalink
  2. gsiemens wrote:

    Thanks Frances for your comments!

    Your point about referencing related disciplines resonates strongly with me. I think advanced degrees (maybe some masters, definitely phd’s) should require no coursework and focus only on reading broadly in other fields. There is a bit too much in-breeding in the educational field :) . Thanks as well for sharing the article. I’ll have a look…

    Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 6:50 am | Permalink
  3. Pamela Ryan wrote:

    Love the phrase ‘nudge our visions along the way’ from Frances. The tentative hunch may be more useful than the proclaimed certainty.

    Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink
  4. Vanessa Vaile wrote:

    Lovely article ~ sharing it widely among academics whose narrowness is the fallacy that all ed tech / online ed practitioners and innovators share the SoCal mindset you criticize. Neither holds a monopoly on narrowness

    Sunday, September 4, 2011 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  5. Howard wrote:

    Just my opinion. I think that preparation for high level STEM jobs is served well by the current university and professional community structure. Post-secondary vocational training and re-training will continue to expand for lower level technology jobs. The missing component is serving the large remaining population whose jobs are more socially oriented. I don’t think there is a good structure to help people create and seize future opportunities.

    Monday, September 5, 2011 at 10:56 am | Permalink