Higher Education

competing narratives of #futureEd

It’s week 3 of Cathy Davidson’s MOOC on the Future of Higher Education. I’m not sure where we are going. Though obviously there are far too many forum topics and posts for any one person to follow, from my vantage there are a couple consistent themes which are echoed in the course video lectures and related materials.

  1. Higher education is (too) expensive, especially in the US.
  2. Getting a degree is a pathway to better pay and job security over a lifetime, so it’s a good investment.
  3. The higher education system cannot handle the vast number of people seeking an education. This is true in the US but even more so on a global scale.
  4. Higher education is doomed. People don’t want to go to college because it’s too expensive and it doesn’t lead to good paying jobs. They are all going to go online and get badges instead.

How can all these things be true at the same time? Wait, I know. It’s a trick question. It has something to do with the contradictory nature of capitalism, or something?. Maybe not. It’s more about point of view. College is more expensive than it used to be, and that expense is a barrier to some people, though there are more college students now in the US than ever before. Though statistically college remains a good investment on average, with more people getting degrees than ever before, the value of the degree is less than it used to be (we can’t all have above average incomes). On the other hand, the demand side is also misleading because the 450000 students on the wait list for community colleges in California (a statistic to which Davidson often refers) are perhaps not so much seeking an education as they are seeking what correlates to that education: a better-paying job. And who could blame them for wanting that? What that means though is that if there was an alternate route to that job, then the demand would disappear. With a quick Google search, you can find plenty of journalistic reports about “talent shortages” and the need for more, better-educated workers. But how real is this demand? For example, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists elementary school teachers as one of the areas with the largest job growth in the next decade, but if you talk to professors who teach education you will discover that the numbers of students entering the field of have dropped off. In addition, we hear about layoffs of teachers, states busting unions, and the increasingly poor environment of the teaching profession. Who would want to be a teacher? If we need teachers so desperately then how come the pay isn’t getting better?  Of course you could say that about a lot of the jobs on the BLS list like home health aid, maid, childcare worker, and so on. Maybe there’s a projected need in these areas because these are low-paying jobs that no one really wants if they can avoid them. Teacher isn’t in that category but it shares a common characteristic in that teachers perform a necessary function than no one really wants to pay for.

Now, do you see how that paragraph just spun off like crazy? If “the problem” is something like the neoliberal, transnational capitalistic, privatization of society, then in what possible way do we envision that changing the way people get certified for jobs makes a difference? And what, if anything, does this have to do with higher education, except that we are as caught up in this snafu the same as everyone else? Is the question here “what should higher education look like in 10 years?” or is it “how do we go about changing the ethics of the planet?” Because as ridiculous as that second question is, I’m not sure we are even asking that so much as we are each asking “how do I get to be on the not-sharp end of the stick?” In short, there are too many stories and too many different problems and trying to see them all as related just produces aporias as far as I can tell.

That’s why I prefer more localized versions of this question of higher ed’s future. For example, how can one university shift its curriculum and priorities to prepare its undergraduates to be effective communicators in a digital media/network and increasingly global context as both professionals and citizens? I’m asking for a friend. Riddle me that one, my fellow MOOCcupants.

I suppose my point is that I recognize the serious problem that many people face trying to make their way and that higher education at least appears to be a solution to the challenges they face. However, in the end, these are not problems caused by higher education and unfortunately I believe that higher education has only a minor role to play in solving them. That said, higher education does have many problems of its own to face. I don’t know that confusing the two is all that helpful.


One reply on “competing narratives of #futureEd”

These are good, provocative questions, Alex.

If those with their hand on the tiller really wanted to ensure that young people could land a satisfying well-paid job, why are they so busy exporting jobs through “free” trade deals? Should we believe the technorati when they tell us that nirvana is just around the corner from “disruptive innovation” (it’s a right hand turn, I believe) when we are hearing contradicting stories from people in the ground (“I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave” @MotherJones & @democracynow)? What price are we really paying in order to get stuff (10%) cheaper from Amazon? What would the powers-that-be do with a MOOC if they had (control over) one? From what country would they source the invisible wage slaves? In theory, the internet and related digital technologies could be used to enhance the access, reach and quality of higher education. But how likely is it that these are the first three bullet points in the Mission Statements of the companies that will be unleashed to bring about this promised revolution?


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