As Steve Kolowich recently wrote for Inside Higher Ed, “One of higher education’s biggest exports is skepticism.” It is certainly ironic, then, that skepticism is also the leading threat to American higher education: skepticism about the value of a college degree, skepticism about what students are really learning, skepticism surrounding the amount of classroom effort put forth by faculty and students, and skepticism from all sides as to whether vocational degrees or liberal arts degrees benefit society more.
As this skepticism emanates from college and universities, Capitol Hill, and millions of American households, leaders in American higher education must ask themselves and their constituencies what can be done to prove the process and product of are both currently effective and continuously improving. In other words, what steps may be taken to alleviate the skepticism?
Two steps may be taken to help show skeptics that America’s colleges and universities, which so much of the world has admired and modeled for so long, remain dynamic laboratories of learning committed to evolving as quickly as our world community:
- Universal emphasis on quality instruction and instructional development for all teaching faculty, and
- A data standards movement.
While human beings are certainly capable of learning alone, we know that good teachers contribute to learning through their ability to place students in situations that promote critical thought. To teachers, I add the qualifier good because the great educational theorists such as Knowles and Skinner tell us that learners, particularly adult learners (college students), need to be active – as opposed to passive – in the learning process. In short, the traditional college lecture is a poor and ineffective teaching practice, yet it is commonplace at many if not most American institutions of higher learning. If colleges and universities whose faculty focus more on teaching than research shift focus to quality classroom instruction for both the face-to-face and online classrooms, student outcomes and experience will improve.
When student outcomes improve and (here’s the hard part) colleges and universities figure out a way to ensure all their data repositories begin to talk to one another, full data transparency is a next step toward alleviating public doubt. Currently, online education faces an even more uphill battle than brick-and-mortar institutions, on top of the need to navigate the following conundrum: Increasing skepticism about the effectiveness of online learning and increasing public demand for online learning opportunities. There is ample data that show well-designed online classes can be at least as effective, if not more so, than face-to-face learning, but – because of its youth – online learning is not fully accepted. Once today’s children, who grew up surrounded by screens, begin to populate tomorrow’s academy, all that will change. In the meantime, however, outcomes transparency and better faculty development will help build public trust.
Colleges and universities can take a cue from our K-12 schools by improving how we communicate with the public exactly what and how students are learning. It is then that employers, parents, and elected officials will more clearly understand – and trust – that the degrees which represent our intellectual growth do mean something important. And they always have.