Monday, 22 October 2012

Seeking Context: Different Learning Opportunities for Different Educational Needs

Following-up from the last posting and the comments, I want to look past all of the exciting stuff happening in higher education. It is hard to do because so much of what is going on is interesting. I am guessing that it is the same for all of us. Every time an article from the Chronicle, or Inside Higher Education, or the NY Times, or the Economist, or wherever is published about the most recent thing it gets passed around the Office, tweeted, and shared in all sorts of ways resulting in a lot of interesting discussion.

Again, like most of us, I listen to the opinions of others, which are frequently interesting. In addition,  I am occasionally asked about my thoughts and I frequently find myself trying to contextualize what I have read and make sense of it and think beyond what I am told about its potential to revolutionize higher education and kill traditional universities (these seem to be commonly cited outcomes). I am as excited about a revolution as the next person, but still, I am left empty and feel that I am disappointing others as I think hard about the topic under discussion. Although full of ideas and opinions, I feel compelled to relate them to something meaningful - and I fall silent, or more likely say something like “Well, we’ll see.  This is all pretty complex.”  

Of course it’s complex.  Learning is a personal and value laden activity and I am thinking that this is a reason for the incredible diversity among higher education providers. In the US alone
according to IPEDS there were 7,021 Title IV institutions in 2010 that had written agreements with the Secretary of Education, representing a wide range of missions, funding structures, capacities, and so forth. I am thinking that there would not be so much institutional diversity if needs were not also diverse. Particularly if we consider the needs of funders, society, and businesses in addition to the needs of learners. Right? One might argue that the recent interest in MOOCs, competency-based education, and prior learning, represent needs so diverse that they demand a different kind of education provider rather than just a different type of provider.  If this is the case, it might follow that there is a watershed of individuals who have been seeking to meet their unique educational needs in institutions designed to meet other needs, because there were few well recognized and accessible educational options other than traditional colleges and universities. But there are now, and many of them are free to the learner, are learner focused, and promise to improve in quality.

For example, if you want to tune-up your math skills, just access the Saylor Foundation Beginning Algebra course and work through it. After which, if successful, you will have earned a certificate and know something about algebra. If that is your style, then you will have another 266 options to pick from through Saylor alone. The same goes for the offerings at Coursera, Udacity, edX, and so forth.  If you want something a little different, perhaps with a more personal and traditional touch there is the OERu Regional Relations in Asia and the Pacific offering by the University of Southern Queensland, which is also for free. All of these offerings seem to be excellent ways to access knowledge and learn stuff. They are all for free, at least to the learner, many are developing ways to formally recognize the learning through certification, and some have developed paths to college credit.

These activities are great. Really they are more than great - they are amazing and really do represent something important. That said, I am left wondering if taking and successfully completing a suite of undergraduate courses through the Saylor Foundation site or a collection of MOOCs through Coursera meets the same educational needs for the learner (and society) as participating in a traditional university degree program, in residence, online, or in some sort of blended or extended format?

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