Abundance model | Viewpoint
IT: A Turbocharger for Mass Higher Education
- By Peter S. Smith
In The Long Tail (NY: Hyperion 2006, 2008), Chris Anderson identified
and evaluated the World Wide Web's capacity to store unlimited amounts of data,
only for the cost of entering it. The term "long tail" implies the explosion in
widespread availability of items that have not, historically, been available
due to insufficient demand and limited inventory space. Although his main
example was the recording industry, the long tail message has major
implications for other sectors, including higher education. The long tail
signals the end of information scarcity and changes the rules that govern the
relationships among individuals and institutions. In higher education, the end
of information scarcity is a core driver in the generation of a new ecology of
learning that makes the scale of operations for supporting high-quality mass
higher education achievable for the first time. When coupled with the
consistency and flexibility of Web-based programming, abundant information
heralds a new age of learning opportunities. In this new age, technology
enables us to serve millions of additional people with consistent and high
Several recent books,
including DIY U (VT: Chelsea Green 2010)
and Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent (CA: Jossey-Bass 2010), explore the impact of this new ecology of
learning on the traditional practices and assumptions of higher education.
Technology's value in the new ecology of learning has expanded beyond providing
more access, to rewriting the rules governing the traditional value proposition
that is higher education. This "rewrite" includes assuring academic quality
more consistently and reliably, more personalization and customization, better
student diagnostics, and better learning support in mass higher education.
This is indeed a new
frontier of learning. And it makes possible new approaches to delivering
academic quality and quality assurance in teaching and learning. Traditionally,
the hierarchy of quality in higher education has been defined by accreditation,
institutional reputation, and the quality of incoming students. The classroom
and the curriculum have largely remained the private sanctum of the faculty
member, as has the evaluation of learning. From an institutional perspective,
assessing the quality of what is actually learned by each student at the course
level is effectively impossible because the content as well as the standards
and the evaluation of learning are interpreted by each faculty member
individually, rendering comparison meaningless.
When we look at the
alternative pathways to mass, high-quality postsecondary education, it is clear
that technology encourages and supports learning operations at a scale and
scope that were unthinkable 10 years ago. New media is changing the way
learners behave, and learning is accessible to many millions more people than
ever before. With the advent of mass higher education, the "learning platform"
(or its future derivatives) will become the organizing architecture of college,
not the campus. And, correspondingly, learning networks (or their future
derivatives) will be the defining process for much of learning, not faculty
governance. Although campuses and governance will remain in place, they will
not be sufficient to assure external expectations for academic quality,
effectiveness, efficiency, and success.
Higher education is in the
early stages of a seismic shift away from curriculum and teaching and towards
learning outcomes, learning support, and assessment as quality differentiators.
For-profit education and other private-sector interests will play a significant
role in defining and developing the potential in this migration. The sector
will lead the way not because it is more virtuous, per se, but because it is
not tied down politically to state funding traditions or organizationally to
restrictive traditional academic processes and practices. My experience in both
sectors tells me that the sector will drive innovation, spawning change and
improvement, because it is able and motivated to do so, responding to the new
markets, new learners, and new opportunities generated by technology.
These factors--the shift
towards learning outcomes and assessment, an increasing interest and capacity
for effectiveness and efficiency in learning, the new understanding of
educational quality and technology’s role in supporting it at scale, and the
sector’s ability to drive innovation and change--suggest the implications of
this new ecology of learning.
Higher education's greatest
strength, as it has been designed, built, and developed, is a great weakness
when it comes to addressing many of the new challenges facing America today.
Although we have redefined and extended higher education opportunity
dramatically over the past 60 years, our system of higher education is still
organized around the principle of scarcity. The scarcity principle assumes two
things: First, that the resources needed to provide an education must be
collected in one place, a campus, because there is an insufficient supply of
those resources in the general community. And second, that there is a scarcity
of jobs in the larger society requiring more than a high school education,
creating the need for a meritocracy to decide who would compete for them.
As successful as higher
education has been in so many ways, this natural scarcity has generated
perverse parallel effects. It has become part of our cultural mythology that
says to those who cannot attend college as it is positioned, "There is a reason
for this scarcity of opportunity. Opportunity is not for you. It's for the 'smart' people, those who can benefit from college." The 'scarcity' model
leaves out otherwise capable people who, for whatever set of reasons, find
themselves on the margins of social, economic, and educational activity,
struggling to get a seat at the American table of opportunity. That works for
institutions that are filled with students who fit their mold. And it works in
societies where there are a limited number of 'knowledge-based'. But it
doesn’t work for the capable learners who are left on the outside or for the
larger society with significant vacancy rates in many higher skill jobs.
Now, however, all this has
been flipped upside down. Scarcity has become a trap. Stalled by diminishing
returns and soaring costs and surrounded by information abundance,
traditionally organized institutions are no longer the only source of
solutions. Concurrent with the emergence of abundant content, there is a
significant and growing need not only for more higher education opportunity,
but for more attainment and completion as well.
In the age of abundance, we
have the ability as well as the need to make mass higher education achievable.
Today we are faced with a significant challenge to improve and recognize the
learning that millions of Americans do, strengthen our society, and create a
more educated workforce to fill the jobs of the future. Conditions in society,
beyond our campuses, are aligning to create an abundance of learning
opportunities, using new tools and knowledge to change the rules, reinterpret
the higher education world, and create higher education opportunities for
previously under-served populations.
The underlying capacity that
enables this change is technology's capacity to provide not only the abundance,
but also the efficiency and effectiveness required to support educational services
with consistent, clear, and rigorous standards to additional millions of
people. This is the key to quality-assured mass higher education.
[Excerpted by the author
with permission: Smith, P.S. "From Scarcity to Abundance: IT’s Role in
Achieving Quality-Assured Mass Higher Education." Journal of Asynchronous
Learning Networks (JALN) 15:2 2011]