Either Change, or We’re Goners

From Cathy Davidson:

OK, profs, what say you?

There are at least four reasons why, now, a lot of attention is being paid to replacing profs with computer screens.

(1)  Too many students worldwide want to go to college to be able to accommodate them all.  This is one of the valid and important reasons for Massive Online Open Education.   There is simply no way that existing institutions of higher education are designed to meet the needs of millions of people worldwide who need the advanced skills, training, and complex thinking that higher education offers.

(2)  College in the U.S. costs too much.   There is some truth and then a lot of hype about how MOOCs will “solve” the problem of education in the U.S. costing too much…. College in the U.S. costs too much for many people–and sometimes it is well worth it, and sometimes not: 

(3) Online education promises to be lucrative to nonprofits.  Okay, this really worries me.   One of the prime motivators for the MOOC conversation right now is that a lot of investors are interested in it—and not for valid reasons and not for reasons of quality and experiment and interactivity but because it is seen as the next frontier of high-yield (and often goverment subsidized) investment, the way prisons were in the 1990s.  Really.  Another reason we profs should be worried, very worried, is that, right now, Forbes and lots of other business venues are convinced that online education is the next rich investment area.

(4)  Our current educational system (kindergarten through professional school) is outmoded.  

If we can be replaced by a form of education more suited to the real needs of students in 2013, we should be.

I believe all educational is vocational. It is the responsibility of educators in every field to take seriously their role in supporting students in their quest for their vocation.   A “vocation” is a “call, a summons” and Wikipedia defines it as “an occupation to which a person is specially drawn and to which he or she is suited, trained, or qualified.” It should be my job as an educator to do everything I can to help my students to a satisfying, socially-constructive, and fulfilling vocation.

Unfortunately, the organization of most universities has, traditionally, been about my vocation as a professor, not my students‘.

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  • I am a full-time lead pastor, a husband, and a father of two. Last year I was enrolled as a traditional student at Columbia Theological Seminary, but was unable to manage the time requirements. The academic work was no problem (no arrogance intended), it was the “being there” time that eventually caught up to me. So I didn’t go back.

    I’m now in the MDIV program at George Fox, taking my classes online, and spending a week in Portland each semester. If it were not for this, I would carry on with my Bachelors in Biblical Studies and Theology and call it day.

    So I like the option.


  • The Ken Robinson TED talk really lays out the need for change & how outmoded our systems are really well. I am sure many of you have seen it but if you haven’t, you should watch it.


  • Phil Miller

    I get a little worried when I start hearing people talk about tying college coursework more closely to vocation. Maybe I’m overly romanticizing things, but I think that education should be more about teaching people how to develop and apply critical thinking skills to problems rather than getting them on a particular career path as soon as possible. I’m not saying kids need to take more Women’s Studies or Interpretive Dance classes, but I do think we’ll lose something if colleges simply become trade schools.

    It’s that some vocations are so specialized and the training is so specific to that trade, that if that’s only thing a student is prepared for, what happens if that industry suffers a setback? I think some specialization is unavoidable, but I think think we need make sure that the fundamentals are still there, too. I have interacted with quite a few people who have gone the trade school or technical school route, and while they are generally competent to perform certain tasks for companies, they are lacking in the theory and underlying knowledge that goes into those tasks. So it’s like they’ll always be limited as to what they can actually do what jobs they can actually do.

  • RJS

    What say I?

    1. There is a real place for online education. Derek gives one great example. There are also large lecture format courses that could be effectively reduced to problem sets and online presentations.

    2. For profit models will not be effective online as they are not in classroom.

    3. Education isn’t (simply) vocational training.

    4. Our K-professional school system is not outmoded although it will certainly evolve into the future. The educational system is whole person based not information based.

  • Buck Eschaton

    I would have to disagree strongly. Education all the way through college should be pretty much confined to math, english, literature, history, classics etc., with the goal of creating good citizens. If businesses want worker bees they should pay to train them. Get rid of all the business schools, all the professional schools. Make businesses pay to train the people they want. Make college free, and then make business pay for any vocational training. Don’t make me pay to train other people’s worker bees.

  • Point 4 is the most problematic.

  • Phil Miller

    If businesses want worker bees they should pay to train them. Get rid of all the business schools, all the professional schools. Make businesses pay to train the people they want. Make college free, and then make business pay for any vocational training. Don’t make me pay to train other people’s worker bees.

    I think to expect that sort of commitment from businesses is a bit unrealistic… For one thing, once a business trains a person, that person could always go elsewhere. Businesses could move more to a contract type of employment system, but even then, it’s a lot of investment. On some level, all employment involves some amount of training, of course, but there are some things that still need to be taught in a more regimented environment.

    Take a field like engineering, for example. All engineers will take basically the same core of science and math classes, but beyond that they take more specialized courses in whatever field they study. This is getting pretty specialized, but they are still broad enough that engineers can work in a number of different vocational environments. The same sort of thing could be said for the scientific disciplines, too.

  • Joe Canner

    While I agree that for-profits are not going to be in the online education business for the right reasons, that doesn’t necessarily translate to poor quality. Schools (FP or NFP) who do not produce a quality product (online or classroom) will not survive for very long. With the internet (including ratings sites, social media, crowd sourcing, etc.) it will be very easy for people to figure out which schools (and which classes) are worthwhile and which ones aren’t.

  • Jag

    The other side of the vocational training issue is that I know four different young adults with master’s degrees… art, history, something cultural, and then another liberals arts field, all from decent or better universities. One works as a grocery cashier, two are unemployed, and the fourth is some kind of receptionist. And all have large student debts. It’s amazing to me that their parents bought into those degrees.

    There is something to be said for a broad education and “following your bliss” but there is also something to be said for doing something that people will pay money for. My high school aptitude tests said I ought to be a poet or writer, but being poor I had no interest in, or money for, self-actualization so I majored in engineering. At times I hated it, because I hate math, but I have never regretted having a base of knowledge that can be traded directly for food and shelter.

  • Tim

    I am with Cathy, in our world all education should be vocational in its focus. Unfortunately, our current higher education system emphasizes the vocation of the professor as an end of itself to such an extent that perhaps a majority of college students are left confused and somewhat dejected as to the status of their own vocation by the time they leave college, which is both intolerable and immoral. In the old days, this emphasis was less of a problem as higher education was mainly reserved for the elite and not something that a large portion of the population had to acquire in order to enter the workforce but, as we all know, that is no longer the case.

  • Tim

    To reiterate my point, if the purpose of our colleges and universities is to train a scholarly and/or political elite then the longstanding emphasis on the vocation of the professor is fine. On the other hand, if their purpose is to prepare a large fraction of the population for the workforce then their emphasis needs to radically change from that of the professors to the students.

  • RJS


    What is required for success in the workforce?

  • Jim Rolf

    Along with many others on this blog, I don’t agree at all that education should be reduced to vocational training. And I guess I’ve missed something in the last 15 year teaching on the college level- I never new that college was supposed to be training people for the professoriate.

    One of the really important outcomes of a college education is that a person should be able to think and communicate critically. If this happens, then a graduate should have many career options, at least in an economy that is not in the tank. The ability to think and communicate critically means that a person has a realistic shot at adapting to the many changes that will come in his/her lifetime. That means the person will be able to navigate the typical vocational changes that most people experience. Another important outcome of a college education is that it can be an important time to “grow up” in the sense that a person transitions into adulthood during college. Certainly there are other contexts that this can happen as well, but I see college as an important time for this.

  • TomH

    I just don’t believe I am going to disagree with RJS.
    I do think our system is outmoded..maybe not exactly the right word. Otherwise why can my 5 year old adopted Chinese granddaughter read better than the graduates of the Chicago School System…maybe not outmoded, just poorly implemented. I certainly agree that general education is needed. I decided to open another business and need folks…I can train via online all the specifics of the work and the certifications and then fine tune it in on the job training. . .but I can’t teach manners (which it seems few have anymore), basic business understanding, and simple gen-ed. Did I say some of these folks are coming out of 40000 a year places of higher learning. Maybe the cost, and I am not in education but many of my best friends are, is causing this surge. But surely we can develop a hybrid educational system that works. PS: I don’t mind investors, as it takes those to give us access to create.

  • Tim


    Among other things, a marketable skill of some kind that courses in English, history, physics, mathematics, etc. usually don’t provide. Aside from a handful of majors, the relationship between the educational content of the average student’s college education and their professional skill set is at most indirect.

  • Marcus C

    Can a person learn to “think and communicate critically” and “grow up” without going to college and spending tens of thousands of dollars in tuition?

  • TomH

    Marcus. . . I think yes, but not by accident. It must be on purpose which tends toward some educational process.

  • RJS


    What do you consider a marketable skill?

    Are not reading, writing, math, critical analysis, and an understanding of the physical world often marketable skills?

    I don’t think everyone needs to go to college – and we would benefit from a revival of good vocational training programs – but I am still somewhat unclear about how we should define marketable skills.

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t know about marketable skills, but the one thing I’d say a college education should do, and still does do in many cases, is simply provide a structure in a student’s life for which they are responsible to get things done, manage their time, etc. Those are things that are harder to learn on the job, or by the time they need to be learned, it’s too late. I’m always amazed at the number of people who simply refuse to come to work on a day because they don’t feel like it.

  • Jim Rolf


    To answer your question– yes. As I mentioned in my earlier remark, I particularly think there are other contexts in which one can mature and grow up. Certainly college isn’t the only place for that. But it’s an important context for it to happen. With regard to thinking critically and communicating well, it’s possible to get this in other contexts. But I think it’s much more difficult. One needs to be stressed in these areas, given feedback on how they are doing, and then more chances to demonstrate growth/excellence/etc. The environment of college is a structured environment for this to happen. Lose the structure, and the chances it happens are much less. But yes, it can happen.

  • Jim Rolf


    I think you are mixing apples and oranges. Early childhood education is much, much different than college education. Our higher education system is the envy of the world. We have students from other countries flooding our universities, desiring a US education. I will be the first to say that what we do in post-secondary education needs to improve and change. In many ways, we need to leverage technology in ways that help students learn more. But this is much different than saying we need to change the focus of education to a vocational one.

  • Marcus C


    I’m just not convinced that racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt is the best means to the ends you mentioned. Surely there are better (more efficient and cost effective) ways grow and be mentored in a structured environment than the current college paradigm, especially given the new “information age” we live in where colleges are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge.

  • Jim

    Marcus. You may be right. I would agree that college is not for everyone. I certainly would be interested in I knowing about other successful models to doing this.

  • Juniper

    As to number four, I don’t think that is true. I suspect the issue is less that education (higher education anyway) is outmoded than that there are wider range of people who want to study. It used to be relatively uncommon to return to college in one’s forties or fifties. That’s not true anymore. Different people with different circumstances and different needs.

  • Luke Wassink

    Jim (13),

    I agree almost completely, but it seems to me that one major difficulty is cultural: large segments of our population approach education with a solely vocational goal. Many students (though certainly not all) have little interest in developing any general skill or gaining any knowledge beyond what they perceive as required for their future job. I think the “college is where you can drink and experiment, and leave it all behind when you ‘grow up'” sentiment doesn’t help any. (Full disclosure: I’m doing my graduate work, and TAing, at a big state school with a partying reputation, so I’m somewhat biased.) I’m all for education that trains you to think, rather than just preparing you for a vocation, but the quality of education can only do so much If a student doesn’t want to learn how to think, and that’s not an issue that professors alone can control.