Monday, March 16, 2015


Scaling Student Support

(This post was co-written with Susanna Williams.)

In the Wild West future of unbundled higher education that has been proposed in various forms by Kevin Carey, Anya Kamenetz, and Jeff Selingo, the targeted student seems to be a solo outlaw, a confident autodidact who hungers for the unbound autonomy of a “DIY” bespoke education. Those of us who have actually taught students and worked on campuses know how this kind of student is lovely to find but exceedingly rare. Most of our students are more like townspeople-- good citizens of various backgrounds who have other demands on their time and need a community to support their success. In an era of educational disinvestment, however, that kind of support is extremely expensive and difficult to scale beyond individual institutions. In the spirit of Mr. Carey’s latest book, however, we thought we’d take a turn at reimagining higher education-- beyond unbundling.

This is very much a “think piece,” working towards a goal of scaling up educational services at sustainable cost that would improve upon what we have now.  In a sense, it’s the next step of evolution from the current state of online instruction; in that way, it is a practical step in the world as it is, not a fanciful leap into a world that has not yet come.

Right now, many colleges offer online credit-bearing classes, usually paralleling their in-class offerings.  The academic part of college has moved online with some success, bringing with it the considerable benefits of convenience, asynchronous interaction, and greater demographic inclusion.  

But the rest of college hasn’t made the leap.  Online education is mostly confined to the academic piece of college.  The rest of the student experience -- the stuff that colleges usually put under “Student Affairs” divisions -- remains largely absent.  What would it look like if we took seriously the goal of bringing the connective tissue of student life online?  Even better, could we develop distinctively new forms that would draw on the best of what migrates online, in much the same way that filmed plays evolved into movies?  What might that new form look like?

What if communities invested in institution-agnostic learning spaces that provided access to high-speed internet, video conferencing tools, and learning coordinators who kept tabs on students’ goals and progress. What if those learning spaces utilized a student information database that facilitated communication between faculty, institutions, and the learning centers? If enough sites adopted a common ERP, it could create market pressure towards a single open standard.  That, alone, would do wonders for inter-institutional coordination and data analytics. (Yes, that would require an independent student unit record system.)  If we tie course completion to demonstration of competencies, rather than set amounts of time, and then those competencies were mapped to set curricula with Open Educational Resources linked to each, then students could move at their own pace without regard to the differing academic calendars of various institutions.  

Learning coordinators would also be able to serve as “educational guides,” connecting students with similar interests or backgrounds (single mothers interested in marketing, say) and setting up mentorship opportunities.  They could work with organizations like Single Stop USA to help connect students to the social services for which they’re eligible.  They would also be conversant in the local social support options, so students who needed them would have access.

These locations wouldn’t provide direct instruction, so they wouldn’t need separate accreditation any more than the local Starbucks does.  But they would allow students attending different institutions, taking many of the same classes, to interact with each other and compare notes.  And they would be open and staffed far later than traditional campus centers-- if we offer 24/7 learning, we owe it to students to offer the same kind of learning support.

Students would still be “in residence” at their “home” institutions: a Bunker Hill Community College student might be sitting next to a UMass/Boston student, but they would still have their respective affiliations.  The home institutions would provide the actual instruction, and would be responsible for faculty hiring, tracking of credits, outcomes assessment, and the like.

The management of the learning spaces may require its own organization, presumably some sort of consortium supported by the host institutions.  They should be relatively low-cost, and scaled at a level that makes sense for the local environment. The space really isn’t the point; the possibility of community is.

What does this do for students? To give them the best of both worlds, the flexibility of online learning and the “end of the university” with the support of a residential campus experience-- tailored to their needs. While not every student needs the coming of age experience, every student wants a sense of belonging and support. And that, truly, signals not the end of the university, but a radical return to its original purposes, retooled for a new age.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Are we basically on the right track, or is there a better way to bring some sort of “Student Affairs” experience to the online student?

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