David Brooks of The New York Times described MOOCs, massive open online courses, as the impending “tsunami” of higher education. He warned that when elite universities such as Harvard and MIT offer free online courses, those of us in publicly funded institutions should consider catching the wave, or at a minimum, look for a life boat while riding out the storm.

Online courses and degrees are nothing new in the for-profit world of post-secondary education from institutions like University of Phoenix, Broadview University, and others. For students, online education can reduce or eliminate some of the constraints of place, time and, to some extent, cost involved in getting a degree. Those advantages serve as powerful catalysts to rethink many of the foundational assumptions of the academy.

Technology’s “disruptive innovation” comes at a time when state funding for public colleges and universities is at an all time low. In response to decreased state support, colleges reluctantly turn to students and families to make up the difference. The increase in tuition and fees comes at a time when families are least able to afford the additional expense. The choice between a free course from MIT or a super-sized classroom at a nearby public university poses a dilemma for students as well as administrators and legislators. As many experts predict, the elite private universities will always have a market. Public institutions, without the benefits of large endowments and global stature, do not have the luxury of not responding to the current crisis.

In this issue of The Blue Review we turn our attention to one of the most debated issues of the day: education reform and reinvention. It is a timely theme for our second special issue, in partnership with Boise Weekly. The topic requires broad participation from stakeholders, as well as evidence-based research and informed dialogue.

There is no debate about the importance of education reform. What is controversial, however, is how to achieve the goal of greater educational attainment, and what specific strategies should be employed. Briefly, here are the salient issues:

  • Aligning technological tools with advances in the research on learning to match pedagogy with learning goals.

Earlier in the development of distance education, scholars questioned how the virtual instructor compared with the live version. With repeated investigation, we now know that there is basically little or no difference in the efficacy of delivery methods. Students in live and virtual classes are both able to master new content and achieve desired learning outcomes.

In fact, research suggests that the answer to “Which is better,” is far more nuanced. Our current challenge is to better match pedagogy to the desired learning goals. For example, for learning new content or skills, no one is more patient than the online virtual teacher who doesn’t mind endless sequences of pause and repeat. Students do not have to feel embarrassed, nor do instructors become frustrated, by different rates of learning.

More to the point, questions regarding the use of technology are really questions of match. Instructors must align pedagogy, delivery method (online, live, or hybrid) and desired learning outcome.

  • Evolving with changing demographics of current and future students, including low-income, first-generation college students.

In addition to matching how we teach with the desired learning objective (defining concepts, critical analysis, creation of new knowledge), the other challenge in the current debate pertains to whom we teach. Given the changing demographics of today’s student, educators are called upon to engage groups that have not traditionally fared well in our institutions of higher learning. For example, low income first generation students are nearly four times more likely to leave college after their first year than are students who have neither risk factor. If we are to meet the ambitious education goals for the state and for the country, we must do a better job reaching and engaging ethnic minority students, first generation college students, particularly those from lower socioeconomic groups, and older, non-traditional learners who want to return to college.

A related and complicated challenge occurs at the intersection of technology and our changing enrollment patterns. More disruptive than technology, the demographic profile of entering students could pose the greatest challenge to our educational system.  Students from families or communities that are less familiar with higher education, or those who arrive less academically prepared, are also the students who benefit most from a connection with a live and caring instructor. Think about the online, seemingly inaccessible professor, or the large auditorium-sized class with almost 300 students. How do we provide both a high tech and high touch experience for students particularly in light of our mediocre graduation rates? Students who are newer to higher education need help navigating academic culture in virtual and actual campuses. Research tells us that students who are at risk for dropping out are most likely to get help and stay on track for graduation when they interact with a real person who cares about their success.

  • Adapting degree offerings for jobs and careers, anticipating future needs in emerging fields.

In addition to addressing how we teach and whom we teach, the debate must also reckon with what we teach. Academic majors and programs are, by design, slow to change. This makes good sense when one considers the rich intellectual history and tradition reflected in a degree. Universities create departments, hire faculty, and populate course catalogs with an eye toward the future. Universities and state boards of education make long-term investments in an institution’s talent and expertise. This made good sense for decades; however, we are no longer certain that our model is viable from a financial perspective, or from the perspective of anticipating and meeting future workforce needs. At a public institution in particular, we have an obligation to prepare graduates for jobs that currently exist, thereby supplying the necessary human capital for economic prosperity. We also need to anticipate future workforce needs in emerging fields that may not exist yet.   For example, jobs in science, technology and engineering have well documented shortages. Newer interdisciplinary areas such as human computer interaction (HCI) require artists and social scientists in addition to software engineers to ensure that technology is an accessible and helpful tool across cultures, work environments, and levels of expertise. How can we educate students for future jobs that may be outside of our awareness, and therefore beyond our current catalog of offerings?

Questions regarding educational reform are complex, and it is important to encourage and leverage the involvement of various interest groups: K-12, higher ed, business leaders, elected officials, families, communities and, of course, students.

The education reform debate provides us an opportunity as teachers, scholars and public servants to apply our methods of inquiry and analysis to these issues. You will see evidence of that in these pages, from Tad Conner’s overview of research on merit pay for teachers to Seth Ashley’s study on high school students and media literacy, to my fellow Boise State Dean Diane Boothe’s look at national education trends toward revitalization.

This special issue reminds us that the mission of public higher education is to serve all of our constituent groups: in class, in the halls of the Capitol and out in the community.

Welcome to the conversation.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.