You Don’t Need a Weatherman

By Dr. Peter Smith

As the old Bob Dylan song lyrics told us back in the ‘60’s, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowin’”. And, as I listen in on the policy conversations and read the blogs and chats today about disruptive forces in higher education, I get that feeling all over again. Too many people, good and earnest people, think the future of higher education and change is negotiable.

My strong belief, stated bluntly, is that when it comes to disruptive change in American society generally and higher education more specifically, it is not negotiable. Or, referencing Dylan, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

The denial can be comprehensive. For example, some people ask, somewhat defensively, whether disrupters can meet all of the market’s needs. Respectfully, in an environment when we need to increase the college attainment rate by 75-100% over the next 10 years, that is the wrong question. It will take years for the value proposition behind the traditional model to be significantly compromised. And it will probably never happen completely. Other innovations will allow traditional colleges and universities to adapt and change and survive. Having said that, the challenge of educating those who have been failed by the system to date, will not be met by the traditional sectors and models alone. In short, what got us where we are won’t get us where we need to go.

As new inventions emerge to shape and support learning in unforeseen ways, however, a new balance between old and new will emerge. And the collective impact of these disruptive activities on the academic value proposition among “alternative providers” is impossible to predict. In short, cannot predict the future shape of learning and learning support any more than Justin Morrill could have predicted the shape of land grant universities in America today. I do believe, however, that it is practical and possible to predict that, over the next 10-15 years, good, then better, and then best practices will emerge and be embraced. Quality will be defined and embraced. I also believe that cost/price structures will change while users’ behaviors will continue to evolve based on further IT and software developments in the broad society. Ultimately that is a chilly north wind for the traditional higher education model.

Then comes the tornado. There is a traditional response in the academy to change: hunker down and out-wait it. Hide in the cellar. The problem this time is that the academy, collectively and individually, does not control the change than the family in the storm shelter controls the tornado. So the traditional academic and economic model is not in charge of and does not control in fundamental ways the future in which they will live. This is unprecedented. And the consequences include that “waiting it out” will only lead to a bigger gap between practice and promise down the line. We cannot channel disruption, but if we are adroit and tenacious, we just might be able to surf it the way board riders catch wave after wave.

And finally comes the soft summer breeze. What technology and disruption will give us is unparalleled consistency and personalization in a multi-dimensional and mobile environment. We will be able to customize, adapt, and respond to the expressed needs of learners in a learning-centric environment. On-line seminars and self-paced instructional models will be two of many choices, not the main stream. And consistent learning outcomes will allow multiple forms of pedagogy towards the same end.

As an educator, what excites me about this trend, however unknowable the ultimate “destination” remains, is the potential it contains. The potential, among other things, to combine liberal with career-oriented learning, to integrate knowing a lot about selected areas of knowledge with refined higher order intellectual capacities like team-work, ethical thinking, problem-solving, critical thinking, to focus on learning, not teaching. So, consistency of learning outcomes actually can permit far more comprehensive reflection about what is being learned if we are smart about it.

These are just a few of the myriad possibilities that are available in the emerging “learning” space of high education, enabled by disruptive forces. My core point, however, is that the direction is set, the wind is blowing.