Abundance model | Viewpoint

IT: A Turbocharger for Mass Higher Education

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 quality.

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]

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