The Real Open University

Volume VIII, #11

It’s now clear that the 12-year-old boy living in my house is either my son, or has been reading the UV Letter. Last weekend Leo tried to convince me to let him buy a new Playstation game called Detroit: Become Human about androids and the future of Detroit, because the game was “about workforce development.” And for the past few months, perhaps inspired by my college stories, he’s been engaged in an elaborate trolling exercise around his school play. The play is Alice in Wonderland, and after the casting was complete, I was told by various parents and teachers that Leo had been selected for the part of the Caterpillar. But when I asked Leo, he told me he was cast as Leland the Lobster. I said I doubted that very much. So he’d make a point of leaving his script on the kitchen counter, open to the lobster scene. And when he knew I was within earshot, he would loudly rehearse the lobster lines. After a few weeks, knowing we’d have to buy a costume, I asked to see a cast list. He said sure, and a day later proudly handed over a cast list with all the characters, starting with Alice and the White Rabbit, and at the very bottom: “Leland the Lobster……. Leo Craig.”

I recognize I’m far from the only parent whose teen or pre-teen isn’t completely open. And a closed approach can work if executed well. But Leo’s lobster plan was frustrated by the fact that the cast list he handed me was obviously typed by him and printed on his classroom printer.

The history of higher education demonstrates the success and longevity of a closed approach. The forerunners of universities were monastic schools where monks and nuns taught classes. Nearly a thousand years ago, Bologna, Paris, and Oxford emerged as closed communities of learning where students were taught Aristotelian logic, primarily to prove the literal truth of the Bible. In many cases, universities were closed for the same reason as monasteries: because the outside world was dangerous.

This closed tradition gave rise to the view of the university as a place of refuge where young minds are formed, to four-year bachelor’s degree with the first two years dedicated to general education closed off from career considerations, to requirements that faculty have advanced degrees, and to career services as the sole – and often obscure – point of connection to the outside world.

Until this century, the closed tradition continued to pay off – producing graduates with both breadth and depth who had little difficulty finding good first jobs. Today, universities remain a place of refuge. Tenured faculty (but not adjunct faculty) enjoy a refuge from the modern economy with months of vacation time, sabbaticals, and pensions. But for students, the refuge has broken down due to the twin crises of affordability and employability. Students take refuge from the outside world for three years, but then most – and particularly students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds – face a rude awakening.

On a long, four-year journey, it’s easy to forget that education needs to connect back to work. But the massive dislocations we’re seeing in the so-called “healthy, full-employment” labor market (decline in labor market participation, wage stagnation, unfilled jobs, and underemployment) demonstrate that today’s postsecondary students need external feedback to figure out who and what they can be. That is, feedback from more sources than other students and faculty. They need feedback from the market.

This need to open the university is a common thread among our most innovative leaders and thinkers. At Arizona State, Michael Crow has pioneered transdisciplinary structures and algorithm-driven apps to help students hone in on a college and career path. Crow says colleges and universities are too “fixed” and “rigid” and must figure out a way to “be very broadly engaged with society.” At Northeastern, Joseph Aoun is attempting to supplement the traditional “human literacy” curriculum with “technological literacy” and “data literacy,” and to power this via experiential education – “the most powerful way to learn”: internships, co-ops, work study. According to Aoun, integrating learning with real world experiences results in “unexpected connections… [students] flex their creative muscles, and stretch their mental flexibility. They test and refine their knowledge, improving their mastery. They better understand the world, and they better understand themselves.” And last week, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo argued for the elimination of majors as we’ve known them. New “knowledge pathways” need to be much more interdisciplinary and relevant to work, and students shouldn’t be asked to choose until they’ve had some real world input and experience.

The closed university made sense before digital technology changed virtually every job that a college graduate might want, and before careers were so path-dependent (as shown in last week’s groundbreaking Strada-Burning Glass study). It made more sense when college was entirely or even primarily for students seeking their first job (whereas today most enrolled students are adults, already in and getting feedback from the labor market). But it doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t make sense that many students progress through four years, taught by faculty who’ve never had any employer besides a higher education institution. It doesn’t make any sense that the only option for upskilling millions of workers who are increasingly out of position in the labor market is the inside of a college classroom that has little apparent connection to the work they hope to attain. It doesn’t make sense that career services acts more as a chokepoint than a gateway, eschewing initiatives that might jeopardize its primacy as the university’s connector to the world beyond. And it doesn’t make sense when the research function at colleges and universities is necessarily and successfully open to the outside world. If research has figured out the right balance, why can’t teaching?

What Mike Crow calls our “global, high-speed, high-tech, knowledge-driven economy,” is unquestionably dangerous: as dangerous for ideas as the medieval world was for physical safety. But we can’t be afraid of opening the university to employers, industry associations, software vendors, unions, staffing companies, outsourced service providers – any entity or individual who can provide valuable market feedback to students.

No place in the digital world is as dangerous as Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the Internet” consisting of more than a million community discussion boards that span the important, the trivial, and the incredibly offensive. On April Fool’s Day 2017, Reddit launched a social experiment called r/Place: a blank square measuring 1,000 pixels by 1,000 pixels. Any Reddit user could change any single pixel anywhere on the grid to any one of 16 colors, but only once every five minutes. The question was what the open Internet would create. As described in the New Yorker, r/Place was touch-and-go for a while. Users teamed up to add sexual imagery, conspiracy theories (“9/11 was an inside job”), and swastikas. But then other users found the emerging swastikas, told others where to find them, and modified them; one was modified to become a Windows 95 logo. An American flag caught on fire, but was quickly stamped out. The final product is a not-unbeautiful collection of images representing allegiances and interests: football and hockey teams, rock bands, videogames, a monologue from Star Wars, He-Man, David Bowie, the Mona Lisa, a former Prime Minister of Finland, and a large American flag in the center: worn and torn, but still intact.

Like r/Place, higher education can survive an opening to the real economy. While the impetus to close off education remains understandable, a cloistered approach to educating workers and citizens is no longer responsible. It is no longer responsible to offer academic programs that fail to train students to use software and manipulate and analyze data, particularly when global competitors like China are focusing all incremental higher education investment around new technologies. American college and university leaders need to undertake the very hard work of reengineering every degree and credential with as much real world feedback and involvement as possible.

Higher education’s historical closed approach – typified by the 19th century Oxford experience of Lewis Carroll – can lead to unparalleled delight. But as we’ve seen in the past few years, it is increasingly leading to some very Alice in Wonderland “off with her head” outcomes.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

1. The Permanent Detour: Quantifying Underemployment Strada Education Network’s Institute for the Future of Work and Burning Glass report reveals the pernicious and lasting effects of underemployment in the first job after college. For the four in 10 college graduates underemployed in their first job, the cycle of underemployment becomes progressively more difficult to escape. Workers who were initially underemployed were five times more likely to remain so after five years than those who were not underemployed in their first job. Even at the 10-year mark, three-quarters of workers who were underemployed at year five remained underemployed. Read more 2. Millennials: the Lost Generation Business Insider commentary article on how Millennials lost ground in the financial crisis of a decade ago relative to older generations and may never catch up, by Hillary Hoffower. As of 2016, people born in [the 1980s] had wealth levels 34% below where they would most likely have been if the financial crisis hadn't occurred, the report found. Those born in the 1970s had wealth levels 18% under where they would have been, and the wealth levels of people born in the 1960s were down by 11%... And they've been scrambling to catch up ever since. The 1980s cohort was the slowest to recover from the Great Recession, according to the St. Louis Fed. Read more 3. Innovating Out of Student Debt Progressive Policy Institute whitepaper on two innovative solutions to the student debt crisis – income share agreements and work colleges – by Anne Kim. Innovations such as income share agreements and the work college model show that grants and traditional loans need not be the only ways to pay for college, and that financing higher education need not be a one-way transfer of funds from student to college with no reciprocal obligation for outcomes. Read more