An uncertain future for higher ed (Pew/Elon 2016)


Last month I wrote about the Pew/Elon experts survey on the future of the Internet. I included comments on the ubiquitous use of algorithms and the costs that entails. That was one of five questions on the 2016 survey. I answered two others: one on the future of education (#2) and the other on the effects of ever-increasing connectedness (#5).

My views on the future of higher education – especially in the liberal arts – have grown more pessimistic over the last year and a half. They’ve been shaped by the research and interviews I’ve done while working on a book proposal aimed at the uses and misuses of technology in the classroom. The working title, Turned off Tech, reflects the long-ago inciting incident: confiscating student phones and all other digital devices, the better to make the classroom a place to learn again.


Students adjust nicely to the idea that paying attention is a good way to find out how digital technologies work – as opposed to staring into a screen and expecting some miracle of osmosis. These days they’re much more concerned about what happens after they leave class and graduate. Many tell me that their 4-year degree was a painful necessity that will bring nothing by itself.

The uncertainty roiling career planning among undergrads seeped into the Pew/Elon question on education:

In the next ten years, do you think we will see the emergence of new educational and training programs that can successfully train large numbers of workers in the skills they will need to perform the jobs of the future?

I answered this question with a “yes, but.” The survey added several further probes, as follows:

What are the most important skills needed to succeed in the workforce of the future? Which of these skills can be taught effectively via online systems –especially those that are self-directed – and other non-traditional settings? Which skills will be most difficult to teach at scale? Will employers be accepting of applicants who rely on these new types of credentialing systems, or will they be viewed as less-qualified than those who have attended traditional four-year and graduate programs?

And my survey response, echoing some of the views highlighted in the book proposal:

YES we’ll see new educational programs – but only if we also see major reforms to post-secondary education in North America.

A polarized debate is raging over just what skills are needed to succeed in the workforce of the future. On one side, some say students need to turn away from soft liberal arts subjects in favor of the more job-oriented skills typical of 1- and 2-year college programs. On the other side, critics claim that the most important skills – problem-solving, creative thinking, group collaboration – can only be learned by immersion in the traditional arts programs taught at universities for decades. My classroom experience suggests neither alternative is paving the road to success. Many students complain getting their BA is a frustrating struggle since having one means nothing on the market, yet not having one is still seen as a serious disadvantage. An increasingly common strategy is to plan for both: a 4-year degree to gain credibility and a college diploma to acquire actual skills.

A major reason for the loss of faith in BA degrees is the crisis in traditional liberal arts programs. Exposure to Plato, Shakepeare and Marx is still important. Yet millions of students continue to graduate without basic numeracy skills, a grasp of empirical methods, or any practical familiarity with how the digital world works – the very world in which students spend most of their lives. That lack of awareness means university grads aren’t acquiring the skills necessary to be informed consumers or good cyber-citizens, a poor preparation for dealing with the ever-growing issues of online privacy and security.

Two popular strategies are i) mandatory science courses in arts curricula and ii) bold investments in MOOCs and other online learning formulas. Both have serious limitations. Many arts students see isolated science courses as a nuisance to get past, not a learning opportunity. MOOCs on the other hand are an expensive experiment that faces issues related to accreditation, language skills, dropout rates and coordination with traditional on-campus programs. These will not work well as solutions to the challenge of long-term, large-scale skills training. What’s needed instead is a commitment to making courses about the Internet and everday technology a core part of liberal arts programs rather than a novelty or afterthought.

c-_p-_snowBack in 1959, C.P. Snow complained in his famous “Two Cultures” lecture that most people who considered themselves highly educated in the liberal arts were completely devoid of learning in the sciences. It’s well over half a century later and we’ve made little progress. Instead of unabashed ignorance about the concepts of mass and acceleration, arts graduates today suffer from unabashed ignorance about what’s meant by a megabit per second or virtual private network. Before we jump into new educational and training programs for the workforce of the future, let’s rehabilitate existing liberal arts programs – not to make them “job-oriented” so much as to prepare students for the very future they’ve helped create.