A Very Different Place

I recently came across an article I had saved from 2013. It is a set of social and economic changes predicted by 2020 and was written by Rob Rawson of Staff.com. The most startling item, from my perspective, is his prediction that most of the world’s universities have gone out of business.  Now, I do think he was being dramatic, and I do not think this is happening as he predicted, but his rationale for the prediction is frighteningly sound: competition from free online resources and lack of appreciation for formal education.   

We do know that the internet can tell you everything, even things many of us do not want to know, like which celebrities are aging badly (Age shaming?) and what is the recipe for haggis (Yuk. Look it up.)  So, anything that is knowable can be known easily and virtually for free.  Rawson cites as examples of resources:  Khan Academy, MOOCs (massive open online courses), and other free academic resources and also notes the move toward low-cost, competency-based offerings by educational or corporate entities for which one can earn credits and certificates.  What colleges have to “sell” then, is not information or skills, but credentials, and even those are becoming more flexible, faster, and less costly online.

As to public support of higher education, lots of polls and surveys tell us traditional higher education is losing support every year.  A recent survey for New America on perceptions of higher education shows a growing number of Americans, some 57%, do not believe it is necessary to go to college to get a good job.  Workforce development and economic forecasters say otherwise.

Employers, especially younger ones, do not care about credentials as evidence of skills (which any educators worth their salt will acknowledge has always been a false equivalency); they do care about the potential employee’s demonstrated skills, however they were obtained. I heard that from a panel of young entrepreneurs.

Enlightened employers do understand that the skill set needed today includes “essential skills” or those things you learn to do as part of a liberal arts education for the 21st century, like communication, managing interpersonal relationships, critical thinking and problem solving, being responsible and accountable, working efficiently, financial responsibility, etc. These are sometimes called “soft skills” to distinguish from “hard skills,” which are those needed for specific jobs. So where does that leave colleges and universities and the educators who love them?

We have to make the case for the value of our efforts to educate and train, to help create good workers and good citizens.  We believe, among other things, that:

  1. Both essential skills and job-specific knowledge and skills are necessary in today’s economy.
  2. Participating in communities of learning helps students understand and exist in a diverse world and global economy.
  3. Socializing young people to accept responsibility in a supportive environment will help them be successful.
  4. A functioning democracy needs an educated citizenry.
  5. Students need ways to get “credit” and “credentials” (and colleges need to provide assessments) that acknowledge a wide variety of ways of learning and acquiring skills, such as in the military and on the job.

And mostly, we educators need to update and change attitudes and methods that served in the 19th and 20th centuries but are woefully inadequate for the 21st century which is quickly turning into a very different place.