Dean's Blog

Lifelong Learning

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Much is currently written about the state of higher education and the impending disruption of the system toward a new model. The nature of that model and how soon the face of higher education will change depends upon one’s perspective, and there are no shortage of perspectives expressed in the popular media, higher education circles and politics. One thing is clear: the higher education is evolving from the pressure of rapidly developing technology and increasingly inefficient cost structures. The significant number of students enrolled in distance education is an example since about one in four students are educated this way, and almost one half of those in higher education are now adults.

Technological innovation provides what might be thought of as plateaus that provide a new vista into the possible. Many of the innovations we see in current smart phone technology were not envisioned when the disruptive concept of a “smart phone” became a reality, but since that time whole industries and our concept of technological possibilities has evolved in areas like the “app.”  Surely there is an “app” to do most everything available in an “app store,” concepts far from our vocabulary when we began the 21st century. I can guarantee entrepreneurs are constantly scouring the fringes of technology and consumer needs to find the next business opportunity, however fleeting.

Underlying the growing technological web is an exponentially growing and often invisible foundation of data generated in ways previously not envisioned. The concept of “big data” and analytics is not new in one sense, but what we consider big data now is a far cry from how it was defined even a decade ago. The data collection I did for my doctoral dissertation and statistical analysis on a mainframe computer looks anemic by comparison to the tools and volume of data available today. And the volume is growing ever more as the “internet of things” joins the cyber universe with our devices communicating with each other in addition to us, and the nature of our existence and electronic fingerprint is fertile ground for understanding on several dimensions.

Higher education has not been immune to these forces and is evolving, although perhaps more incrementally than technology in other parts of our lives. Some of the concepts that are often portrayed as new and part of this trend are often not so new but instead enhanced by technological possibilities that provide new applications. Competency-based education (CBE), for example, has actually existed in various forms for decades and in my view presents opportunities to enhance the education process but not completely disrupt it.  As many of our students can attest, the process of learning, reflection (this is important), and application is a bit more complex than some of the ways CBE is portrayed today.

At the core of the discussion of the future of higher education, however, is implicit recognition that people are constantly learning, do so at different rates, and can learn from experiences outside of the traditional university course structure. Greater recognition is also now being paid to the need for learning across our lives and careers since the world (particularly the economy) is constantly changing and requires new perspectives and knowledge to navigate. As young people we cannot possibly envision what we might be doing in thirty years or the knowledge and skills needed in the future. I could never have envisioned leading a large online education program during my first days teaching from handwritten and typed lecture notes 35 years ago (most of us didn’t have personal computers).

The economic and life satisfaction value of a bachelor’s or master’s degree is still strong for many reasons and recent evidence continues to affirm this finding. The credential of a degree is not dead as some media portrayals would have us believe. However, the need for continuing education beyond that degree is also clear and this is where innovations in various less-than-degree offerings such as certificates, continuing education courses, MOOCs, webinars and the like provide relevance and substance. 

You’ll be hearing from me in coming months about how the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies will add opportunities beyond your degree and graduation date to support your career and intellectual development. And I want to hear from you about what would be useful. Feel free to contact me or your program staff and let us know what you think would be helpful in this effort. Our alumni will receive a survey soon asking about this as well so keep your eyes open if you are reading this column.

OK, I’ve rambled on a bit too much today and it’s time to get back to other work. Let’s hit those books, write those papers and finish our projects!