(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)
I have ONE very subjective and utopian proposal for how we could adapt the system of higher education in the US to more effectively achieve these outcomes. The nice thing is, this particular proposal could be implemented by one university at a time. It is totally based on my own dream – a system that I think would have been VERY COOL had it been in place 20 years ago when I started college – and a system that I could still see myself taking advantage of NOW for getting even more education.
It is the EMERGENT UNIVERSITY DEGREE concept.
(Note that I haven’t vetted this idea against business plans, cash flows, faculty load balancing, or other peoples’ opinions. Just a dream that hopefully will stimulate ideas for those who read this. This is 100% stream of consciousness rambling for fun!)
Imagine this kind of world: You decide you want to “go to college”. There is no “admissions” process because you don’t have to commit to a particular path or a particular major or a particular institution. You just get to start taking a class or two (on a first-come-first-serve or space-available basis) and see where it leads. Or maybe you take one or two of those online courses with a zillion students in them, just to see if you can do it and if you LIKE it. A gateway drug, if you will, to getting more education.
You don’t take any classes you don’t want to take, but some classes might require prerequisites, and so you will need to complete those before completing the classes with material you really want to learn. You take a class as many times as it takes you to achieve a particular minimum performance level… or not. You could also take a class a second or third time to qualify at a higher level of performance (same idea as getting a Six Sigma Green Belt, then moving on to get the Black Belt). If you are having a hard time achieving the required performance, then you have a choice: stop taking the class, and start exploring OTHER paths that would get you a degree, or keep taking the class as many times as you need to in order to learn the stuff. (Yes, that could get costly… but that’s reality. In an organization that’s trying to innovate, it might take a multitude of tries to get somewhere… and that organization will need to decide exactly how much time and effort it wants to spend on that innovation process.)
You log in to your “educational management dashboard” that shows you what courses you’ve taken, where you can rank which ones you really enjoyed and have been able to develop a level of proficiency or a level of mastery. Every time you complete a course, the system examines your performance and provides you with a roadmap for 1) what “degrees” you could hop out of the system and claim NOW, and 2) what paths of varying lengths are available to you to complete other degrees. Some degrees might require 30 credits. Some might require 150 credits. You get to pick how much time and effort you want to invest.
Maybe you have no clue what you want to do with your life. Excellent – this system is just for you! You can start taking classes that you think you’ll enjoy, find out whether you do or not, and then your educational management dashboard will help you analyze what you liked and what you’re good at – and get you through the system with an appropriate degree.
You can also forget about worrying about grades, because there’s no penalty for failure other than you get more information about what you’re not good at, or what you might not like. Once you “pass” a class, the instructor is basically saying “yeah, I think they figured out how to do this stuff and I’m confident that they could move forward into something else that requires this as a foundation”. Because the degree program itself is emergent, your “failure” just steers you into another direction that fits you better.
But no, NO!!! you say. I REALLY REALLY REALLY want to be a dentist. My family expects me to be a dentist, and if I don’t pass these classes and become a dentist, I am done with!! OK, if you want it that badly, then do what you need to do to develop a minimum proficiency and move forward. Or, use the additional information as ammo to show everyone else “look – my dashboard advised me that this is not where I need to go – and since I care about stimulating innovation and enhancing our country’s competitiveness, then I’ll pursue my recommended calling according to the dashboard…” or something like that.
This kind of system would also encourage education just for the sake of education. Say you “start college” but then find out it’s not for you. There’s no stigma in “dropping out” because you have your portfolio of past performances that you might still be able to use to convince an employer that you’re capable of certain skills that they need! Want to complete general education courses? Great, you can get a general education degree in addition to your specialization degree – but you get to make the choice whether you want to be “well rounded” or not.
Student loan debt also becomes less of a problem this way – because you get to choose just how much you invest and over what time horizon. You can stop at any time, and still get to carry your work with you. Want the social, cultural and networking benefits of a traditional university? Then go that route, and do what’s being done today.
I think the underlying concept of this emergent university degree is that YOU get to decide how much you want to learn, and you are not penalized for changing your mind at any time – for pursuing what your developing skills and interests direct you towards, rather than what is prescribed at the beginning of a very long multi-year process.
A kind of educational system like this would train us to be perpetually open to opportunities and possibilities – and celebrate failure or lack-of-interest in a subject as gaining a very important piece of new knowledge, that will bring us to the opportunities we are most aligned with more quickly.