Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Would a universty by any other name smell as sweet?


I am suggesting that we impose some rigour about what types of education organizations that include “University” in their names. I believe that there is a valid argument for creating some clarity around what is and what is not a University and a University Education. The argument might be stilted, but I think that where it leads us is worth pursing.

I mentioned in my first post about this “project” that I wanted to use Latent Pattern Transmission as a way to write down and expose some of thinking on a variety of topics and hopefully generate some feedback. The topics would principally be about higher education and the nature of the University. I also mentioned that some topics would likely “fall flat,” and I think this might be one of those. That said, I want to get it out there, even if it lacks coherence and produces the affect of pettiness, which I began to feel as I started writing. I am happy to be school on the topic.

In short, I am suggesting that we impose some discipline (rules) about what types of education organizations can include “University” in their names.

Yeah, I know that on the surface this is not the biggest problem we are confronting, but I believe that it would be helpful if we could all be much more clear about what is and what is not a University and a University Education. It is hard to do in part because so many different types of higher education providers call themselves “Universities.” I have been thinking about this a lot lately. It has always gotten a bit under my skin that the University of Phoenix and American Public University share names with the University of Massachusetts and Penn State University. I do not mean to be calling out these 4 institutions and have no intention to offend. In fact I named these four institutions because I feel that they are among the very best of their kind that have also exhibited a commitment to serving adult learners studying at a distance. That said, I have always felt that the grouping does not convey the general differences and similarities among the institutions. The source of my agitation is not because I honestly believe one group is better than another, but because I believe they are fundamentally different.

My smoldering feelings were re-stirred a few weeks ago when I read Alison Byerly’s Formerly Known as Students in Inside Higher Ed. Byerly provides what I think is an eloquent treatment of some of the qualities, relationships, and dynamics that make for being a teacher and a student, which are terms that Byerly thinks are important and should not be misused. She makes her point by examining how these terms are used in MOOCs and provides a call for clarity and rigour in the use of terms.
Finally, it is important to recognize that what distinguishes a "course" from a set of lectures -- regardless of which is face-to-face and which is online -- is the difference between a mere broadcast of information, and a mutual commitment by teacher and student to a pedagogical relationship that is supported by a larger curricular structure and institutional mission.

It seems clear that the spaces, formats, and media in which higher education is offered may change radically in the coming years. We will certainly need to adjust our terminology to keep pace with these changes. We must not lose sight, however, of the central axis around which all education revolves. Classroom walls may disappear as predicted, lectures may go the way of the dodo bird, but what will still define education is the presence of (a) a teacher, (b) students, and (c) a set of agreed-upon goals that they work toward together.

As stated above, I am sympathetic with the sentiments Byerly is expressing. I do think that we need to maintain some clarity and some rigour in how we refer to important parts of the educational and academic enterprise. Along the lines of Byerly’s quote above, terms like teacher and students are important. Are the roles that participants referred to as students and teachers similar enough in MOOCs and traditional courses to share the same name without qualification? For example, should we adopt a parallel nomenclature that refers to MOOC Students and MOOC Teachers? Perhaps they are called something else entirely, like Student = Participant and Teacher = Facilitator. Perhaps changing the language we use to describe the teaching and learning roles will get us to a more focused and productive discussion. Also along the lines of Byerly, clear use of important terms does not imply that the terms are static, it just implies that they are consistent and accurate.

I offer the same question about about the nature of the large bucket of organizations that we call “University.” I recognize that the sector is quite broad, and that organizational diversity is a strength, but it feels as if the term has become so vague that it is meaningless. In fact, I think that it has become worse than meaningless and has created the possibility of misrepresentation.

I am going to offer up a few thoughts about why we might want to be more rigorous with how we apply the term University and name education institutions.

What’s in a Name

Unless the point is to be deceptive, the name of a thing should accurately communicate what it is. It should serve to clarify meaning rather than create ambiguity. As different types of educational organizations are designed to meet different needs and have different capacities, it is important to communicate something meaningful in the name.

Education is a Complex Topic

Learning is an intensely personal and value laden pursuit. It is important that learners have every opportunity to identify and select education organizations that best fit their needs. Different types of organizations will meet those needs differently. Many prospective learners are unclear about the nature of different types of education organizations and what they have to offer. This may be particularly true as the education access agenda grows and millions of under-served and first-generation learners are gaining access to higher education. This coupled with the fact that educational options have grown dramatically during the past few years provides too many opportunities for confusion without calling different options by the same name.

Clarity for Prospective Students

Identifying and selecting a way to achieve educational and learning goals can be really hard. In addition to the thousands of accredited colleges, institutes, academies, centers, and universities in the US, there are international options, non-accredited providers, alternatives that guide self-study like MOOCs, and unsupported learning projects. In addition, prospective learners have an array of needs and desires that different institutions have different capacities to meet. To the extent to which it is helpful to know the difference between what a University will offer and a career college will offer it is a good idea to name them accurately. For example, if a learner is interested in the straightest path from registration to employment, they may be disappointed with the typical university curriculum and may not take advantage of undergraduate research options and the like - while a career college is likely to do the trick. That said, if the student is looking for a more broadly conceived education that perhaps has less emphasis on learning purely for utility, than an institution that is a university, in more than just name, may be a better choice.

Clarity for Policy Makers

It is equally important for policy makers to understand the differences between what different types of education providers produce. The more clarity, the more likely that smart policy will be developed, funding will get where it needs to go, with the outcomes most desired. Based on my discussions with various policy makers and policy influencers, I would suggest that there is a lot of confusion caused by grouping traditional universities like UMass, with other types of universities like the University of Phoenix. With this pairing, the unique purposes and strengths of each tend to be lost. UMass becomes a bloated academic bureaucracy that has more interest in responding to “academic questions” than producing graduates that contribute to the work force, while the University of Phoenix becomes a diploma mill that harvests unsuspecting students and cheats the government out of financial aid dollars. Neither of which are entirely accurate or fair characterizations. Appropriately framed, named, and understood, they are institutions pursuing their missions supported and regulated within a realistic policy regime.

Clarity for News Providers

News providers, particularly from traditional establishments, have influence over public perception and opinion. A more defined use of the term “university” would create less confusion about the subjects that are being treated. Many reporters, writers, and editors, who have not covered higher education for an extended period of time or been an active part of the sector as a practitioner are not fully acquainted with the difference between institutional types and do not spell out their assumptions or definitions in the stories that they write and news that they report. I think that a good starting point is to ensure that when we refer to something in the formal media, there is some clarity about what is being referenced.

Once again, as I was writing this I started to reflect on what I was saying and thinking and felt that perhaps it sounded like I was being overly protectionist and resistant to change. After all, what does it hurt if we don’t worry too much about the distinctions between liberal arts schools and trade schools, or Cousera and universities, or universities and seminaries, after all they all provide education, right? I started questioning my motives and started wondering if this topic deserves any attention (or the time that it takes to read this). Was this just a personal peeve? After some thought, I am still a little undecided, but I think that if the discussion helps create some definition of what we expect of institutions that call themselves universities (and by extension education organizations that call themselves other things) we may be able to provide clarity in ways that rankings, catalogues, and lead aggregators do not - even if we all still share the same name.

Will changing names really address the issues we face? Probably not, but if we decided to pursue this we are forced to ask ourselves, What is a university and what should we expect from one? In doing so, I think that we will start addressing some of our most challenging issues.

So how might we proceed?

Formally Known as Students

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