Universities as pupae

We’re told that holometabolous insects experience a metamorphosis comprising four distinct stages: embryo, larva, pupa, and imago. Take Lepidoptera. Let’s get past the pointy-headed nomenclature and think of the caterpillar building a chrysalis (its pupal stage) and then emerging as a butterfly.

Wow. Our own adolescence offers nothing to compare. The ugly duckling growing up to be a swan? Nowhere close.

But maybe, just maybe, at this moment in history, universities are in a pupal stage.

[Alert! What follows is not fact, not based on evidence. It’s a conjecture, a what if? But please read on. See what you make of it.]

This thought came when I perhaps should have been paying a little more attention to, and tracking a bit more closely, an interesting workshop from a few days ago. [The workshop might well have been dedicated to a colleague I admire, who’s investigated, and written a little, on current employment prospects for meteorological graduates.] Participants were addressing, inter alia, the development of curricula that would prepare Earth scientists for the jobs of the future at a local level – jobs as, say, emergency managers, or jobs dealing with climate adaptation strategies at a local or city level. Discussion was pretty lively. A couple of evenings earlier, those same  folks had heard from Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, one of the most thoughtful, articulate university presidents on the national scene.

He’d fired imaginations.

Anyway, listening to the discussion made me wonder, what might the knowledge work of the future look like?

If you’ve been reading the blog over the past several months, you can guess which way those thoughts headed. The problems we face, the problems that matter – feeding and slaking the thirst of a hungry, parched world, protecting the land, water, air, and ecosystems on which we depend, and hunkering down under the force of nature’s extremes – have grown so comprehensive, interconnected and intractable, as to defy our individual understanding. Even the brightest of us can grasp only the smallest bits and pieces of these challenges. And they’re coming fast and furious.

To cope, to live well on the real world, we’re going to have to solve our problems as teams. And with today’s social networking, and the even greater connectedness likely to come, each of us will be working in small bits. We’ll be solving problems as collectives. Our thought process will be more like that of an anthill or beehive. Don’t think so? Then why is an upsurge of scholars exploring such concepts (using terminology like swarm intelligence, swarm robotics, hive minds, etc.) and looking for clues about how to analyze work, describe the revolution underway?

Ask yourself, how well are universities preparing students to enter such a work environment?

So much for the output side of universities. Now look at the input side.

Have you heard of Salman Khan and the Khan Academy? No? Chances are good that you will soon. Salman Khan is working with support from Bill and Melinda Gates and others to transform public education, improving quality while making it accessible to all.

Remember your schooling? The teacher taught you in the classroom and you did homework at night.

Now turn that around. Picture yourself watching teacher videos at home, then doing your “homework,” your active learning, in the school classroom. Picture you and your fellow students working your homework at individual computers at school.

What’s your teacher doing in this new configuration? He/she is monitoring your progress from a console at the desk up front, watching you succeed, watching you get hung up. Get truly stymied? He/she will magically come around, and help you over the rough spot. Then the teacher can turn to identifying, then tutoring the next pupil, while your computer makes sure you’ve really mastered the new concept. Picture thousands of lectures to choose from. Picture the very best teachers captured on the videos. Picture independent learning as rapid and so long as you’re capable, and tailored instruction as needed and not before.

You can see Salman Khan explain his ideas at TED 2011 here.

The best part? These aren’t just ideas. This is happening. This experiment is underway.


Now…ask yourself what happens when students who’ve been taught in this refreshing way reach college? Are they going to be satisfied with the present approach? Or are they going to desire, maybe even demand, something closer to the challenge and freedom of their K-12 experience?

And remember, those thousands of lectures that make up the learning modules will be bite-sized –  rather like those demands placed on workers on the other side of college. Maybe in that workplace there’ll be a lot of similar just-in-time, zero-inventory learning where workers will see the need to brush up on or master a specific topic or two to meet their needs of the moment, and be in a kind of continual learning mode even as they’re working.

And in between these two 21st century experiences of learning and the career? A several-century-old master-apprentice guild kind of model for university teaching and graduate work.

But there’s a third pressure working on universities.

The escalating cost.

Inflation, demand, the limited supply of the very best classroom opportunities, and the enhanced career opportunities awaiting those graduating from the best schools? They’ve combined to raise costs for in-state tuition and fees by 35% over the past five years, after accounting for inflation. Costs are rising faster than personal income, consumer prices more generally, and even health insurance.

Even health insurance.

If we agree that the rise in health costs is unsustainable, then surely the trend in costs for higher education can’t continue.

So, universities are being squeezed…by changes in what is being demanded from their graduates, by changes in the education and expectations of the entering students, and by cost pressures.

Squeezed? My first metaphor.

Those mental ramblings didn’t start out with pupae in mind.

But then there was a metamorphosis in my thinking.

Squeezed implies an outside forcing. But really, it has been the success, not any failure,  of the (largely) American university over the past six decades that has brought about this world transformation.  This pivotal moment is not something that has happened to universities. It’s something they’ve brought about.

Think of the American university as a caterpillar now working on that chrysalis.

And with no more idea than that caterpillar about what will happen next.

Exciting stuff.

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