Disruption On The Horizon

Margaret Wente says competency-based and online learning models will completely transform the higher education industry.

The following Q&A is conducted with journalist Margaret Wente, a columnist who has been writing in the Globe and Mail since 1992. Wente, a two-time winner of the Canadian National Newspaper Award for column-writing, has written at length about issues facing higher education today. Sitting down with The EvoLLLution, she discusses the medieval model that higher education follows today, how it is providing a disservice to non-traditional students and explains how competency-based and online models are the wave of the future.

  1. In your opinion, what value does higher education—and do higher education institutions—provide to society?

Higher education has typically been a training ground for the –let’s call them—ruling elites of society and also for the scholars, the academics, the historians and the keepers of society’s values. Typically, higher education has been confined to a very small number of people until quite recently. … Even as late as post-World War II, only about well under 10 percent of the population in North America has access to higher education so the whole concept of mass higher education is an extremely recent phenomenon. …

Now we’ve changed our sense of access to higher education and now we accept that higher education should be available to anyone who is qualified and that money shouldn’t be a barrier—people should have help with tuition if they need it in the form of loans and grants and so on. We’ve also recognized that higher education provides access to a broad range of careers and professions—that’s the way in! Increasingly, that’s the way into a whole number of professions including teaching, law, medicine, business and a whole range of other things that typically you didn’t need a higher degree for but you do now.

  1. You mentioned in your February column, “We’re ripe for a great disruption in higher education”, that higher education is still reliant on a medieval model. How does this impact its value proposition that it pushes people into careers?

The value of proposition of higher education is changing very quickly. Let me give you one really, really graphic example. In the United States today, of current university graduates… only one out of two of them is finding a job that’s utilizing his or her skills or education level. The other 50% either can’t find work or are taking work that doesn’t need their qualifications. …

It used to be that if you got that piece of paper—that certificate, that degree, whatever it was—you were pretty certain that your lifelong earnings would be considerably higher than somebody without that degree, and that’s still true. But it’s less true, it’s less true than ever before. Not only that, the differences in what you will be able to earn with your degree are quite sharp. … The differentiation between the hard sciences and the hard skills and the people who can offer hard skills, and the old line liberal arts degrees, is growing pretty fast. Especially in an age where employers increasingly demand hard skills before they’re going to hire you. …

Universities and colleges, generally, have not been very good at all in coming clean with their students—who are after all their customers, they have to attract students in order to get their grants, they have to put bums in seats—they’ve been pretty bad at telling the truth about job prospects and job expectations.

We also, of course, have an idea… that university education should not be geared toward any job outcome, it shouldn’t be practical, it should just prepare you to think critically, whatever that means. But in the name of thinking critically, an awful lot of people… wind up with a piece of paper that’s really not very useful. …

There have been devastating, devastating studies recently about what value university does or doesn’t add, and the findings are pretty rough. They show, for example, that universities in fact don’t teach students, on the whole, to think more critically. Don’t teach them to become better writers and thinkers. And that value everybody assumes gets added really doesn’t get added at all. So there’s, again, another instance where the value proposition is breaking down.

  1. How do you think the competency-based model can improve the desirability of higher education for adult students who may be looking to return, or complete the degrees they started?

Competency-based education makes complete sense for later learners and adult learners. The reason why is that it’s not based on inputs—and by inputs I’m talking about things like the number of hours you glue your bottom to a seat in the classroom, the number of credits that you get, the number of years or semesters that you spend in university. Basically, time input. … That really doesn’t do very much to qualify you for many practical things. …

In a competency-based model, you get your degree, your certificate—you get your ticket stamped—based on what you know and what you do, rather than the amount of time you spent studying it. … Some people have the very radical notion that “Why should we make people go to university at all? Maybe we should just say, ‘okay, show up and write the test and do the qualifying exams—and you can teach yourself if you want—and we’ll certify you! We don’t care how you get there.’” Which is of course a completely different model than the model that we have now, which is completely input-based. …

You focus on outcomes rather than process. Now this really makes sense for… the purposes for which adult learners go back to school. They have a very specific goal in mind, they’re practical and they want to get there in the most efficient way possible.

They also are not pursuing higher education for many of the reasons that younger people are pursuing it. They don’t need the social environment. They don’t need the extra-curricular life which is such a big part of university life for so many people. They don’t need the sports teams, they don’t need to go to the pub on Saturday night. They’re really not interested in that kind of stuff. What they want is the learning part.

  1. Building on that idea of getting away from the brick-and-mortar, pep-rally-on-Friday approach to higher education, you’ve discussed online learning in the past and how eLearning will affect the traditional approach to higher education. How do you think online education will improve the desirability of higher education for adult students?

Online education and eLearning are going to sweep through higher education and revolutionize it in ways that we cannot even begin to foresee. There are a lot of reasons why.

One reason why is the brick-and-mortar model, as it exists now, is increasingly costly. …The costs of university, just operating the place, are growing faster than the economy is. Especially in a world where public dollars are in scarcer and scarcer supply—universities have to compete increasingly with healthcare—anything that will help make university education, higher education more efficient, more effective and cheaper to deliver is going to be in very, very high demand. And the world of online education is, of course, beginning to make that possible.

The possibilities are absolutely stupendous. For example, Stanford University, last fall, decided to offer a very high level course in artificial intelligence, taught by the two professors who are the leading minds in AI in the whole world. … What they said was, “we’re going to open this up to anybody who wants to register for this course, in the world. You don’t have to have any pre-requisites for this course, you don’t have to write an exam to get into the course. We don’t care what your math level is. You can just sign up and if you can pass it, then we’ll give you a certificate that says you passed it.” …

There’s an example of the democratization of learning that I think we’re going to see increasingly as a model that can work. Think of the possibilities of having the best professors in the world lecturing on a subject like AI, supported by lots of teachers and helpers and tutors who can supply hands-on help—that changes the whole model of university completely, just sets it on its ear. And of course it’s very threatening to the current model so it’s going to be very, very interesting to see how it’s introduced. …

Western Governor’s University; here’s another model of how to democratize education and make it really, really good for adult learners. These are online courses, in a very narrow range of practical subjects. You sign up for the university, which is offered now in four states… the model is non-profit, here’s the way it works. There’s no classrooms, no bricks and mortar. All the courses are offered online, and you proceed at your own pace. So if you want to cram and get through the material in a big hurry and load yourself up with courses, and get a degree in three years, you can do that. And in fact, most people who do the online learning at this university get their degree not in four years, but in three or even less. … They’re taking these courses to get to where they want in life efficiently. The degrees are cheap, the quality of instruction is really, really good and the model so far seems to be working really well and is a whole lot more effective than the for-profit institutions like Phoenix, for example, who are packing them in as well. That’s just another example of how online instruction is going to be revolutionizing the bricks-and-mortar model.

  1. What is holding back change in higher education, and when do you think disruptive models are going to become more prevalent?

The disruptive models will become more prevalent because the universities will be driven by having to find lower cost methods of delivery. … They don’t have the money to sustain what they’re doing now. The universities are also based on… a kind of medieval model where the wise man stands up in front of the class and delivers. …

We have a caste system in universities with the full professors at the top, who do a whole lot of research and maybe not very much teaching at all—their teaching loads are very light. The teaching function is filled by very low-paid TAs who may not have had any background in teaching at all. …

In this model, promotion up to a full professor is based on the research that you do, not on the teaching that you do. And the research model, for a whole lot of what’s churned out… is really, really broken. Especially in the humanities—sociology and psychology—where scholars churn out more and more research, which nobody reads, about less and less stuff.

This is obviously not true, or not so true, in the sciences and other so-called hard disciplines. But the system is very, very broken in the humanities and so-called soft areas because society simply is not getting value for money. And we need good teachers, and instead we get people turning out research papers that are published in journals that people can no longer afford and certainly no one reads. So that model needs to change too. It’s rapidly—I hope!—coming to an end, but there are huge protectionist forces at work.

Universities are essentially run by the professors, and do they want to change this model? Of course not, no. Because in a more efficient and effective model, you’d have a whole lot fewer full professors, and a whole lot more teaching professors who mainly teach and interact with people.

That essentially blows up the current model, and you can imagine that the current university establishment is deeply, deeply opposed to that kind of change and people who run universities, have in many cases very limited ability to change the current structure.

  1. Is there anything you’d like to add on where disruptive education is taking higher education and how adults could find their way back to the academy with a new model?

We have a big advantage in this country, in Canada, because we do have the college model which I think serves adult learners very well. The colleges offer focused instruction and they tend to be pretty close to the job market, pretty in tune with the job market, pretty in touch with the job market and what the job market needs in the way of skills. …

Over time, though, I’d like to see people get through the system faster. It shouldn’t take four to five or six years to get you where you want to go. And if you’re an adult, going back, I think the next few decades are going to offer increasing flexibility and much better value for money. Because the new technologies will unleash a host of possibilities that we cannot even begin to imagine now. And not everything will work, … but on the whole it’s going to be a much easier environment for adult learners and it can’t come soon enough!

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Readers Comments

Paul Maurice 2012/05/10 at 7:57 am

I can’t say I agree with your idea that professors are the ones running the universities… I think the entire system is structured in such a way that everyone is very well-cushioned and no one wants to break with status quo.

As you say though, these new models are going to sweep through higher education and change it in ways we can’t even imagine. Tomorrow can’t come soon enough.

E. A. Harewood 2012/05/10 at 11:02 am

There are some pointed issues raised in this interview, some of which have are deeply entrenched in the ethos of the higher educational institutions and has been difficult to altered.

There is a kind of stubbornness that pervades every aspect of higher education, whether it is on the legislative end, the internal governance, the oversight entities, faculty, staff and sometimes students who are seldom heard. This creates all kind of resistance to change in an era when the decider of the change is the environment and its inner working.

The thing to note is that higher educational leaders are not the ones deciding whether to change – they are commanded to change – whether they like it or not. We are operating in a different era where globalization drives everything and if higher educational leaders don’t get a handle on this reality, some of them might be driven out of existence. The thing is that education realities as we knew them must change so that they are inclusive, fresh, agile, aligned with workplace KSA needs, have built-in quality checks, include systems for continuous improvement and have a clear regard for people, place, process and practice alignment with the global realities. Institution must redefine themselves, know who they and operate with a clear sense of their unique mission. This requires leadership because it includes risk-taking and invasive change to this sitting elephant to move forward. This is a time to leaders to stop asking who will do it. It is time to move forward and do some that give the institution a sustainable future; it is only way forward.

With regard to how distance education will improve the desirability of higher education for adult students, Margaret is spot-on that it will “revolutionize it in ways that we cannot even begin to foresee.” The recent announce of a $60 million Harvard, MIT partnership to offer free online classes, is a great example of how the higher education business model can be disrupted. Here’s another:


Zandra Thomas 2012/05/10 at 3:03 pm

MOOCs are probably the most obvious way that online learning has revolutionized education, but the potential for online goes well beyond simple ease of teaching and learning.

We can take our student services online. We can hold face-to-face advising meetings with students from thousands of miles away.

I think one of the more salient points from this is the but on competency based education. A little while ago, there was an article published here called “Those Who Can, Do – Those Who Can’t, Teach” (obviously, we’ve all heard the expression). This might sound a little harsh… but if this is true (and let’s be honest, these expressions don’t come from nothing), would professors have any interest in shifting to competency-based models? Because I think that would lead to a reduction in the imagined expertise we think our educators hold

Rick Poston 2012/05/11 at 10:17 am

Comptency-based learning needs to be rolled out at every single college and university across North America, regardless of whether it caters to adults, 18 year olds or mechanics-to-be.

It makes absolutely no difference to anyone how long you spent in school. In fact, I’d reiterate Ms. Wente’s assertion that four years is too long to begin with.

How can we assume that “you spent X amount of time in class” is equivalent to “you can functionally complete X task”? We can’t, and higher education institutions can no longer hang their hat on this promise.

As Wente says, HEI’s are lying, but not just to students. They’re lying to students, employers and society in general. It’s time we made the system fit the promise.

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