Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Lessons for Public Education from a US For-profit University

"The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education" by Frank Bryce McCluskey and Melanie Lynn Winter (2012) is a book which is thought provoking, but does not quite live up to the subtitle's promise of "Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education".

The authors describe the traditional university, with the professor as a sole practitioner, with no formal training in education, teaching in an isolated classroom of students, year in year out. They discuss the push for on-line education and performance indicators threating this professor. The author's solution appears to be some sort of hybrid system, where the professor accepts a form of team teaching with their colleagues and some  monitoring by professional administrators, but with the academics retaining control of the curriculum.

While the authors start with the idea of a university in ancient Greece, the Library of Alexandra and medieval universities of Europe, the quickly jump to higher education in the USA. The point that the US university is strongly influenced by the German model of 200 years ago is well made. But much has happened with universities in Europe and elsewhere outside of the USA in the last 200 years, which the authors do not address.

The book is from a very narrow perspective: academics involved in a US for-profit US university, suggesting how the US university system can be improved . This book is really about what the "American Public University System" (which is a for-profit company, not a public system), can teach the US state based non-profit universities. The book has some points which may be of global interest, but with insufficient detail.

The description of the European universities of pure centers of learning uninterested in profit seems to not accord with reality. Institutions such as Cambridge University have been making money from their intellectual output and inventions for hundreds of years. Also tutoring was a private for-profit business at Oxbridge for hundreds of years.

The authors also seem to have skipped over significant non-US distance education institutions, such as the UK Open University, which has adapted its techniques from paper and post, through TV to the Internet.

The issue of inclusiveness is an important one covered by the authors. They point out that the metrics on student completion used to measure the effectiveness of universities assume students enroll, study and complete at one institution. Universities which cater for students who would not previously been able to attend university, such as military personnel who are moved so often they can't maintain a program at one physical campus, either rate badly on the conventional measures or are excluded from them.

While an interesting read, there are some problems with the structure of The Idea of the Digital University". The very short chapters are written in a style which reminds me of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (which is also about the nature of education in the USA). The numerous summaries are repetitive (I am sure I read some sentence at least three times). There also appear to be some problems with the Index, referring to incorrect page numbers.

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