Reinventing higher education is a hot topic these days. In faculty lounges and university board rooms the debate rages on about what a university education will look like a decade from now. There are some tough realities facing both educational institutions and college-bound students and their families.
Spiking tuition has lead to crippling debt for many U.S. college students, and finding a formula that delivers quality education at an affordable price point is a priority of college administrators and policy makers. Even the most traditional of U.S. colleges and universities are embracing a greater role of technology in the classroom and lecture hall. When Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology partnered with the edX program, it sent a powerful signal to the academic community that MOOCs - a/k/a massive online open courses - have gone mainstream.
The annual conference of the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), currently underway in Los Angeles, is an established arena for educators who advocate shaking up post-secondary education. This year’s keynote speaker, Hunter Lovins, has been touted by Newsweek Magazine as a "green business icon" and was tapped as a millennium "Hero of the Planet" by Time Magazine. Lovins is a published author, educator and well-known spokesperson for the sustainability movement, and in her AASHE speech she waded right into the world of academic reinvention -- and the response was less than enthusiastic.
She began by giving an overview of environmental/sustainability issues that was home turf to her audience, including climate change, renewable energy, and the lack of visionary government and corporate leadership in these areas. Then she drilled down on higher education.
"I think universities are at some risk of becoming irrelevant," Lovins told the assembled crowd. "Is TED the new Harvard?...Fast Company thinks so."
The central core of Lovins’ pitch drew from a YouTube video, “The Future of Education: Epic 2020,” that opens with the following titles:
Using examples like the Khan Academy, MOOCs, adaptive learning programs and the ‘each one, teach one’ theory, Lovins asked the audience, "How about a world in which you don't pay tuition?"
This drew a spirited reaction from the audience, especially the students in attendance. However, Lovins’ remarks soon went from theoretical to commercial when she unveiled her solution to the current problems in higher education: an online app designed as a delivery service of video lectures. But as many attendees noticed, the development and production of this product are all either organizations or corporations with whom Lovins has a direct relationship. According to one report, this caused an audience member to dismiss Lovins’ keynote as merely “an infomercial.”
And while the expectation may be that the younger members of the audience might be more receptive to Lovins’ ideas, a post-speech Q & A revealed some misgivings and out-right criticisms.
"You talk about integrating the curriculum, bringing sustainability into all subjects, but how are kids going to do that when they are watching modules and videos?" challenged one undergraduate. "How are you going to replace late-night dorm-room chats? We don't go to school to sit through lectures. Would we have our kids of the future learning through reading and typing and, like, developing no verbal skills?"
Listening carefully, Lovins walked back some of her earlier remarks. She went out of her way to say she was not advocating an ‘either/or’ scenario regarding traditional education and online video coursework. But she still remains skeptical about the survival of traditional bricks and mortar educational institutions.
"They say that universities are going away soon, that they will be warehouses for the children of the rich, specializing primarily in entertainment, good food, and athletics," Lovins said. "This is what we are up against."