American universities: the Detroit of higher learning?

Category: Health, Science & Education
Published on Sep 02, 2010

Are we seeing the end of university as we know it? On the surface the claim sounds ludicrous. After all, university enrolment is at an all-time high and the competition to get into the most prestigious universities has never been fiercer. But scratch beneath the surface and the picture doesn’t seem so rosy.

A little over a year ago Mark C. Taylor caused fury in academia with his pronouncement that graduate education today “is the Detroit of higher learning.” “Most graduate programs in American universities,” he argued, “produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).”

More recently, the Economist suggested that America’s universities could do the way of its car companies, citing high drop-out rates, bloated administrations and soaring costs as leading indicators of decline. “The most plausible explanation [for the apparent decline]” it claims, “is that professors are not particularly interested in students’ welfare. Promotion and tenure depend on published research, not good teaching. Professors strike an implicit bargain with their students: we will give you light workloads and inflated grades so long as you leave us alone to do our research.”

Imbalance between research and teaching is a plausible factor, but I’d argue that the ultimate causes of the malaise are deeper rooted. The fact is that the whole value proposition and operating model for traditional universities is looks vulnerable in face increasingly vigorous competition from Web-based alternatives that can offer top-notch lectures (e.g., TED), coaching, and peer-to-peer collaboration and networking, with greater flexibilty and radically lower costs for students.

So what’s the solution for incumbents? In my forthcoming book macrowikinomics with Don Tapscott, we argue that innovation is required in two vast and interwoven aspects of education (for a sneak peak, see this previous post Rebooting the University):

First, predominant model of teaching and learning is completely anachronistic. Education should not revolve around the act of absorbing static content and then recalling it on exams. Instead, teachers, students and content providers should exploit the interactive power of the Web to build rich educational experiences and communities, thereby addressing the unique learning needs and styles of a new generation of digital natives.

We also need an entirely new modus operandi for how the content of higher education–the subject matter, course materials, texts, written and spoken word and other media — is created. Rather than the old textbook publishing model, I see an opportunity for universities, professors, publishers and other participants to build a Global Network for Higher Learning: a digital platform of world-class educational resources that students and teachers everywhere can access throughout their lifetimes.

Universities that  embrace collaborative learning and collaborative knowledge production have a chance of surviving and even thriving in the networked, global economy.

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