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A New Ecology of Learning

DR. PETER SMITH, Senior Vice President, Kaplan Higher Education

February 26, 2010

America is face-to-face with a new ecology of learning when it comes to access and quality in higher education. As described in The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christiansen, we are now surrounded by circumstances and technology which are “disruptive” to traditional forms of higher education. They lie outside the status quo and offer entirely new possibilities to successfully educate under-served populations to high standards.  With these new possibilities, and with the continued improvement in the traditional sector, America can meet President Obama’s goal of doubling the number of college graduates by 2020. Without them, it simply will not happen.

The new ecology includes at least nine elements that, taken collectively, define the necessity and the inevitability of dramatically new approaches to teaching and learning in American higher education.

America — Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Part of the new ecology is a changing external environment in which both the President and employers are looking for many more people with at least one year of college, if not an associate degree. 

The Rock. President Obama has challenged us to double our graduates by 2020. The record shows, however, that our existing institutions have been capable only of incremental gains in graduation rates over the last thirty years. Despite increased appropriations, the model seems caught by the law of diminishing returns. I know of no equation that foresees long term investments in campus infrastructures, faculty and related student services sufficient to come close to meeting the President’s goals through increased effectiveness and efficiency with previously marginalized learners. If we do not amend our practices with new practices and innovations, we will perpetuate the Law of Thirds, dictating that for every ninth grader that has some success in higher education, there will be two who do not, one of whom will not even have a high school diploma.

The Hard Place. At the same time, BLS data shows unequivocally that over 80 percent of new jobs created in the will require at least an associate degree for entry. And the children we would count on to fill these requirements are already in the pipeline while competitors oversees are building up a bow wave of success.  So, as a practical matter, if we do not succeed in educating the middle third successfully, the relentless increase in job entry qualifications stands as a clear and present danger to our future economic and social success. And, we must look to our adult populations for the success we need.

My Way or the Highway
Despite this changing external environment, most colleges continue old practices that are unfriendly to adult lifelong learners (now more than 75% of the college population) and reduce their chances of success. Here are three examples.

  1. The pre-dominant teaching-learning model is largely “one size fits all “, ignoring diagnostic information that can customize and personalize learning to the needs and the style of the learner.
  2. Adult learners find that assessing their experiential learning for credit towards the degree is difficult if not impossible.  
  3. The “Transfer Tax” deducts an average of one term’s work every time a learner shifts institutions or majors. . With more than 60% of all students attending more than one college, the loss of earned credits to the “transfer tax” is staggering.

Drivers of Disruptive Innovation
The potential to support learning anyplace, anytime has exploded. And, for the first time, the solutions to dramatically increasing success rates lie beyond the span and control of our colleges as they are structured. Here are three examples.

  1. We are witnessing the “end of scarcity” as a defining characteristic of higher education. Web 2.0 has reframed the roles of expertise and curriculum. With the global OpenCourseWare Consortium now posting over ten thousand courses and iTunesU doing the same, we can safely say that access to great curriculum is abundant through this emerging “Long Tail”. Experts who are not traditional faculty are available to mentor and teach and the “classroom” can be anywhere, anytime. Except for community colleges, our colleges and universities have been characterized as much by whom they exclude as who they admit and graduate. Indeed, the concept of meritocracy is based on the need to separate the more qualified from the less qualified. Today, however, we need to create more merit, not winnow out those with less to meet workforce goals and remain globally competitive. Organized to separate the “winners” from the “losers”, our institutions are helpless in the face of these new demands.  Yet, this is exactly what President Obama’s challenge and the workforce imperatives require.
  2. At the same time Web 2.0 and social networking give us the tools to personalize teaching and learning to the needs of each person while customizing curriculum to their circumstances. Indeed, the new media have created an unprecedented capacity to determine academic quality, generating consistent, valid and reliable outcomes assessments that have been heretofore impossible to achieve on an institution-wide basis.
  3. And the same technology allows for learning recognition and portability on a previously unimaginable scale. So, in the new ecology of learning, lifelong learners will be able to carry their learning with them throughout life, confident that the quality of that learning will be recognized by employers and other institutions of education alike.

Supported by the new ecology of learning, the organizing architecture for higher education will be the learning platform, and networking will describe and define the learning processes, wherever they occur. And quality assurance will be achieved by a rigorous and consistent assessment of learning outcomes. Colleges for the 21st Century (C21Cs) will emerge to harness the strength of this new ecology and add vitality and new, successful graduates to American social, civic, and economic life.  

Extracted from Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (Jossey-Bass, 2010 for the Educational Policy Institute..

DR. PETER P. SMITH is the Senior Vice President of Academic Strategies and Development for Kaplan Higher Education. He is a former Congressman from Vermont, and has served as President of California State University Monterey Bay and at the Community College of Vermont. Prior to joining Kaplan Higher Education, he served as Assistant Director of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris. He holds a Doctor of Education from Harvard University.


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