The American higher education system was born in revolution—the Industrial Revolution that reshaped the world in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Today, the system is in the midst of another revolution—the Global Information Revolution—that has implications as great, if not greater, than its counterpart. The question before us is fundamental: What is the role of the public university in this new environment?
The original American college was dedicated to the classical curriculum of the Enlightenment. Students were drawn from the social and economic elite of the new country. Its purpose, as the famous Yale Report of 1829 described, was “the discipline and furniture of the mind.” However, as the Industrial Revolution matured in mid-century, it became clear that a new kind of educational vision was needed if the United States was to make the most of industrial innovations. State governments began to fund public colleges and universities in order to prepare young people to take on new careers in engineering, science, and business; to create professionals in the new social science fields that had arisen due to urbanization; to train teachers who were needed to educate the children of immigrants who were flooding into the new industrial cities to work in the mills; and, not the least, to improve life in rural America and help farmers improve agricultural production desperately needed to feed the new urban populations. The combination of new professional education needs and the emerging research mission re-organized the academy around disciplines, and that, in turn, re-defined the curriculum.
The first half of the twentieth century saw the fulfillment of the Industrial Revolution as nations mobilized industry to fight two world wars. The period also saw the beginnings of the Information Revolution. Radio and television revolutionized communications and World War II saw the birth of the computer age that dramatically changed how we relate to information and to each other. The wars also transformed society, bringing longstanding political and cultural assumptions to an end and setting the stage for new global relationships and social identities. The development—and use—of the atomic bomb challenged traditional international relations and ushered in a new age. In response, higher education institutions launched a number of curricular innovations in the general undergraduate curriculum.
After the Second World War, President Truman, concerned about the stability of democratic society in the new age, created a Commission on Higher Education. In its 1947 report, the Commission noted the global disruption caused by the World Wars and the rise of atomic weapons. “It is essential today,” wrote the Commission, “that education come decisively to grips with the world-wide crisis of mankind. This is no careless or uncritical use of words. No thinking person doubts that we are living in a decisive moment of human history” (p. 6). One result of the wars, the Commission maintained, was growing internationalism. “In speed of transportation and communication and in economic interdependence the nations of the globe already are one world; the task is to secure recognition and acceptance of this oneness in the thinking of the people, so that the concept of one world may be realized psychologically, socially, and in good time politically” (p. 16).
The Commission recommended several major steps to increase the number of citizens who receive higher education and to ensure that their education prepared them to live in this dangerous new world. Over the next few decades, the Commission’s ideas influenced the development of the nation’s community college system, along with the GI-Bill and state and federal scholarship and loan programs that greatly expanded the number of high school graduates able to attend college. It also stimulated “area studies” programs that increased understanding of the emerging global economy. The Commission’s emphasis on adult education stimulated the development of continuing education programs and adult degree programs. Several states developed new colleges—Empire State College in New York, the University of Maryland University College, and Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey are examples—devoted entirely to educating adults.
The decades that followed the Truman Commission report saw dramatic changes. Some—the space race and the war in Vietnam, for instance—reflected a long-term cold war between western democracies and communist nations. The Middle East emerged as a continuing cultural, economic, and military hot spot. The period also saw the youth movement, the fight for civil rights and equal rights, and the invention of the Internet and personal computing.
In 1995, the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (now the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities) received grants from the Kellogg Foundation to fund another commission to examine the future of public higher education in this new environment. Over the next four years, the Kellogg Commission produced six reports designed to help public institutions revitalize their public missions. The first five reports focused on the student experience, student access, engagement with the public, creating a learning society, and the campus culture.
The final report explored the need to reinvigorate the partnership—the “covenant”—between the public and its universities “in a new and dangerous world.” It noted that, as the nation entered a new century, “the promise of American higher education must be made in a new era and a completely different world.” It noted the growing financial inequality in society, the breakdown of old disciplinary identities, blurring of distinctions between secondary and undergraduate education, and the surge of new technologies that “may erase the boundaries between the university and the nation and, indeed the world.” (Restoring the Covenant, p.33)
These ideas have become global imperatives. In May 2017, the European Commission issued a “renewed EU agenda for higher education” that noted:
Higher education plays a unique role. Demand for highly skilled, socially engaged people is both increasing and changing. In the period up to 2025, half of all jobs are projected to require high-level qualifications. High-level skills gaps already exist. Driven by digital technology, jobs are becoming more flexible and complex. People’s capacities to be entrepreneurial, manage complex information, think autonomously and creatively, use resources, including digital ones, smartly, communicate effectively and be resilient are more crucial than ever. Europe also needs more high achievers who can develop the cutting edge technologies and solutions on which our future prosperity depends. In parallel, countering the growing polarisation of our societies and distrust of democratic institutions calls on everyone — including higher education staff and students — to engage more actively with the communities around them and promote social inclusion and mobility (p.2).
The EU agenda reflects some of the same concerns as the Kellogg Commission. It listed four “priorities for action”:
1. Tackling future skills mismatches and promoting excellence in skills development;
2. Building inclusive and connected higher education systems;
3. Ensuring higher education institutions contribute to innovation;
4. Supporting effective and efficient higher education systems.
What do these reports, spanning seven decades from the transition from the Industrial Revolution to the maturation of the global information society, suggest in terms of next steps for public higher education? The following possibilities reflect some recent innovations that have not yet been mainstreamed. Many of them assume that universities will fully embrace information technology to meet the need. They are, at minimum, a starting point for transforming higher education to meet the needs of the new society that has emerged since World War II.
A New Relationship between Schooling and Higher Education
The Truman Commission was very clear in its proposal to extend universal high school from 12 to 14 years, thus encompassing the first two years of the baccalaureate degree. The result would be a great equalizing of educational benefit as suggested by the Kellogg Commission and ensuring that more citizens leave education with the higher level of qualifications needed by today’s economy. The rise of online learning over the past two decades has begun to provide a pathway to this goal. The following examples suggest the potential:
1. The use of college and university Open Educational Resources (OERs)—in many cases drawn from online higher education courses—to empower high school teachers to deepen and enrich important subjects in their high school classrooms.
2. The use of undergraduate online (and traditional) courses as “dual enrollment” courses that allow high school students to simultaneously earn high school and university credit, helping students make the transition to college more quickly and less expensively.
New Approaches to the Curriculum
A basic truth of the Information Revolution is that education is no longer about the transfer of knowledge from the instructor to the student. Knowledge— in the sense of “content”—is everywhere. The educational challenge is not simply knowledge transfer. Instead, the challenge in the Information Age is to help students learn how to find and evaluate information, turn it into useful knowledge, apply that knowledge to solve problems, and evaluate the results.
A key innovation in this area has been the Community of Inquiry approach. Developed at Athabasca University, it builds on foundational ideas of Charles Peirce and John Dewey. As the Athabasca innovators describe it, a Community of Inquiry is “a group of individuals who collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding.”
The educational experience is the interaction of three “presences”: teaching, cognition, and social interaction. While the model is certainly facilitated by technology, it can be implemented in any group learning environment.
New Inter-Institutional Partnerships
When the model for our public universities was developed in the 19th century, physical isolation was a problem. Faculty expertise at all levels had to be on-site for teaching and for community engagement, if not always for research. This ensured that each institution did its best to attract faculty who were experts in content areas and research that mattered most to the local community. But it also left gaps where faculty expertise was not readily available. Today, we are beginning to see institutions use information technology to create new relationships across institutions and across state boundaries to ensure that institutions can bring the best resources to bear to meet local needs. One example is the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance (IDEA). http://www.gpidea.org/ This consortium of 19 public universities in 18 U.S. states works to develop graduate degree programs that are delivered at a distance and that include courses taught by faculty from multiple member institutions. Students enroll at the institution of their choice and receive their degree from that institution, but take courses from several different institutions. The goal is to ensure that, regardless of location, the student will have the benefit of specialized knowledge and experience from faculty at multiple universities. The program has operated since 1994 and has become a model for institutional cooperation in this arena.
Another innovation is the Big Ten Alliance’s CourseShare, which allows students at member universities to take courses through technology from other member universities. The advantages are described as follows:
Faculty enjoy the CourseShare program for the chance to collaborate with respected peers at Big Ten Academic Alliance universities, expand course enrollments with talented students, employ new technologies, fill curricular gaps, preserve specialized courses, and strengthen student recruitment efforts. Students enjoy the opportunity to take specialized courses offered at other Big Ten Academic Alliance institutions from a distance, eliminating the need to temporarily relocate.
Such partnerships, be they within a family of institutions or across sectors, offer institutions opportunities to prepare students for work in areas that may be new to their home economy.
Similar partnerships are emerging between public universities and other sectors, especially employers, to ensure that key employee groups have access to technical and professional education. Examples of these partnerships date back to the 1980s, when National Technological University (NTU) brought together a network of universities and engineering companies to offer professional graduate education to company employees via satellite. NTU was eventually sold and later integrated into Walden University, a for-profit educational provider. A more recent example is the Energy Providers Coalitionfor Education (EPCE), a collaborative of 2,500 energy-related companies, government offices, unions, and suppliers whose employees receive online educational services from four public universities around the country.
As these examples suggest, information technology makes it possible for sustainable, long-term cross-sector partnerships that bring sometimes very specialized expertise to working professionals over a wide range of companies and geographic locations.
One obvious facet of the global information society is that it is, in fact, global. The underlying challenge for higher education is to prepare students to work as professionals in a global community. However, another facet is that we need to prepare our international students to be successful in their home communities. Too often, especially at the graduate level, higher education serves to encourage the brain drain that takes talented people away from developing countries. Here, again, we are seeing models designed to reverse brain drain. A good example is the “sandwich” doctorate. In this approach, a faculty member from an international university who wants to earn a U.S. doctorate will (1) take initial courses at her home institution, (2) move to the U.S. institution for the second year of course work, and (3) return the home institution to conduct her research. The result is that the person is able to grow within her home institution, while creating new research partnerships between the two institutions.
The information revolution has matured considerably over the past two decades. As this posting suggests, there have been many innovations designed to help institutions be more effective in the new environment. However, if these are to help guide the system as a whole in this new environment, they need to become mainstreamed. We need, for instance, accreditation standards for multi-institution degree programs, standards for the mountain of informal credentials—“badges,” etc.—that are being offered by institutions. We need agreements between universities and employers for lifelong learning programs that employees take on new responsibilities. And so forth. The challenge to regional and professional accrediting associations, higher education institutional membership associations, and other bodies is to derive from these innovations standards that will encourage institutions to move innovation into the mainstream of their educational, research, and service missions.
A New Societal Engagement
As we consider these changes, we must also consider a broader, more fundamental change issue: the nature of the community in which students are being prepared to live. Many of the early engagement innovations of the industrial period were designed either to integrate immigrants into growing urban communities or to “keep’em down on the farm” by making rural life more appealing in a time when electrification and other services were attracting people to cities. Today, we are seeing a dramatic change in our sense of cultural identity. Increasingly, education is not geared to send young people back to the family farm, the family business, or to take their place in their home community; instead, the goal is to prepare them for professions that may require them to move away. As Wendell Berry wrote in a 1988 essay, “According to the new norm, the child’s destiny is not to succeed the parents, but to outmode them; succession has given way to supersession. . . The child is not educated to return home and be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.” (What are People For, p. 162). In essence, many small communities across the nation are experiencing their own brain drain in the new economy. The three reports described above emphasize that our public institutions must not only prepare individuals for professions, but, in the process, prepare them as citizens for life in a new global society. This requires a fresh commitment to the community service mission—a mission that interacts with the teaching and research functions. Our definition of “community” is evolving as a global culture takes root. Our public institutions must not only prepare individual students for new professions, but also help local communities find their way in this new environment and help students develop their sense of citizenship, both in their home communities and in the broader geographic and economic communities in which local success is increasingly tied. This is central to the social purpose of public higher education. It should be part of the context in which many of the recent innovations are mainstreamed.