Published on 2012/10/05

Most Colleges and Universities Heading for Irrelevance

An online learning expert speaking at last week’s IdeaFestival in Lexington, Kentucky said that colleges and universities that are not among the 60 most prestigious research and Ivy League institutions will soon become irrelevant and marginalized.

Richard DeMillo, the Director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the gathering that the major competitive advantage traditional institutions hold over emerging forms of non-traditional higher education—grading—is becoming less trusted as an evaluation mechanism for student achievement.

“Two thirds of college students earn A’s and B’s. We live in `Lake Woebegone,’ ” DeMillo said, remind the crowd about the fictitious town from Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” where all the children are high-achieving.

This is leading, he said, to the decline of the perception that a college or university education is essential to finding a place in today’s workforce.

“The cost of a college degree has far outstripped any value that people assign to it,” DeMillo said.

Furthermore, the traditional testing mechanisms used by universities are becoming irrelevant with the progress of technology. Using the example of the written test to evaluate learning, DeMillo points out that new online features that—for example—give universities the opportunity to assess how long students dwell on a particular subject or idea in an online learning program provides an instructor far more information that a test that relies on immediate recall and an ability to handle pressure.

“You can watch students as they are learning,” said DeMillo. “When you start analyzing data on that level, you can make very specific predictions about what works.”

He also hit back against a common critique of online learning, which is that students cannot learn without a connection to their class and instructor.

“The data does not show you need in-person interaction or emotional intelligence to learn,” DeMillo said. “We are seeing today the absolute first level of experimentation.”

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