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Towards a Sustainable Approach to Higher Education

The Internet has become the most used, and useful, source for information in our society. During the 2008 Vice Presidential debate Google Inc. tracked searches on a minute-to-minute basis, showing that viewers were using that popular search engine to research and fact check the statements of each candidate. And the most exciting and cutting edge discussions about genetic engineering, particle physics, global warming, evolution, computer science, cosmology, social change, and a host of other knowledge areas, are now occurring--not on physical university campuses--but in online forums attended by participants from around the globe.

Like it or not, the entire landscape of higher education is about to change. Until now "higher education" has been a function performed at academic institutions by education specialists. But new communication technologies are driving that model toward a much more distributed and egalitarian network of knowledge providers with varying missions and goals.

If universities are going to survive in the new millennium they will need to reassess their own mission to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world. Unless they do, chances are that their role will continue to evolve toward a more limited one in a rapidly expanding world of digital knowledge providers and informed learners who are seeking both practical and quality learning experiences.

The movement we’re seeing now is from a campus-based model to a distributed system. This movement is driven in large part by the practical needs of a sobering economic reality. Yet the current economic and environmental crises offer us a unique opportunity for change.

The Degree Completion Challenge

In 2008 about 29 percent of the U.S. adult population had attained a higher degree. This is a remarkable achievement that puts the United States near the top of the list internationally. Unfortunately this figure is misleading as an indicator of success. In fact, this number of degrees has been achieved by recruiting millions of students, nearly half of whom never complete their degrees. Among U.S. colleges the dropout rate is staggering. In 2006 just 54 percent of those entering four-year colleges had a degree six years later. In almost any other enterprise this would be recognized as a disturbing failure rate.

The traditional residential university program has been a very good venue for middle and upper class students. But to meet the coming challenge we need also to target the broader population both here and worldwide. This is not only a moral imperative; it may also be the survival strategy that offers hope for a sustainable education system.

As this country faces massive challenges in economics, global warming, and the environmental and social upheaval that these challenges will surely create, our educational system must rise to the task of providing an educated population of citizens and leaders who understand the challenges and who can envision the solutions we must implement. The students of today will become those leaders. We need to turn to new models of higher education to meet the needs of this emerging student population.

Next Steps

Our task is to design a model for a new educational system that does not throw away the good parts of the old and traditional, but that can evolve to serve the needs of both students and our society, even as the very structures of that society--and education itself--are rapidly changing. In the old model we taught students to adopt careers that we ourselves were involved in. As the speed of change accellerates we will need to prepare our students for careers that do not even exist yet. In many cases, we will have no idea what those careers will even look like.

As we move toward a more distributed and open network of educational providers the role of defining the standards of scholarship and insuring some valid system of certification for educated learners will also become more distributed.

What will the new education landscape look like? We cannot be sure. We've never been there before. There are however some very basic things we should consider as we begin to design a new global system of education:

  • The design process should be inclusive, with all participants and stakeholders taking part. The students themselves must play a central role in developing the design.

  • The design needs to start at square one, with a problem statement. What problem(s) are we facing that need to be addressed?

  • Define the terms. We cannot use a 20th century vocabulary. Many terms such as "professor," "student," "university," and many others may have altered meanings. We need to be clear on what we are talking about.

  • Define the mission. What problems can, or should, we address within the realm of education?

  • Then, we need to determine what kinds of institutions and systems will be needed. Universities are likely to have some role in that new landscape. But we should be careful not to make too many assumptions about exactly what that role is. What will the role of community colleges be in the 21st century (thinking globally--working locally)?

Obviously, with an increasing number of stakeholders scattered across the globe, the Internet presents itself as the most logical place for these discussions to take place. Faculty, legislators, administrators, students, employers, and the public need to come together to forge a new model for generating new ideas, distributing those ideas, and passing the accumulated knowledge on to future generations. Today we find ourselves in a very different economic situation than the one that spawned our current educational system. Our society is struggling to adapt to the new paradigm. Educators too will have to struggle with what role we will play in the future and how we will play it.

[Editor's note: John Ittelson will attend Campus Technology's College Graduation Virtual Summit on October 29, 2009, and plans to join colleagues for informal discussions in the "networking lounge" at 3:00pm Eastern daylight time. For more on the College Graduation Virtual Summit, which is a full-day virtual event accessible via the Web, and to register for free, visit]

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