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College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students

Posted in Ed Tech on November 5, 2013 by

The following is a post from guest contributor, Jeffrey Selingo, higher education journalist and author of College (Un)bound.

What is the value of a college degree?

The four-year college experience is as American as apple pie. So is the belief that education offers a ticket to a better life. But with student-loan debt surpassing the $1 trillion mark and unemployment on the rise, people are beginning to question that value. Is a college diploma still worth pursuing at any price?

In College (Un)bound, Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large for The Chronicle for Higher Education, turns a critical eye to the current state of affairs in higher education, but he also predicts how technology will transform it for the better. Free massive online open courses (MOOCs) and hybrid classes, adaptive learning software, and the unbundling of traditional degree credits will increase access to high quality education regardless of budget or location and tailor lesson plans to individual needs. One thing is certain—the Class of 2020 will have a radically different college experience than their parents.

Below is an excerpt from the book. 



Ultimately, it is the students of tomorrow who will drive colleges to reimagine the future of higher education. These students of the future are in elementary and middle school today. Born around the turn of the century, they have always known a world with the Internet, smartphones, and wireless connections. They are often referred to as digital natives. They pick up electronic devices and know intuitively to swipe instead of type on a keyboard. They feel comfortable in a social world that lives online. They text friends who are sitting only a few feet away.

In school, they remain largely uninterested in learning through traditional teaching methods. Two out of three high-school students say they are bored in class every day, according to a report by Indiana University. Then they go home and fire up Khan Academy to view online lessons from Salman to better understand concepts they didn’t get in school.

“We go to classes because we have to, but the learning is happening after class and online,” says Sean McElrath, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a public high school in Northern Virginia with competitive admissions. During his junior year, McElrath noticed that his classmates were using Facebook at night to discuss homework and help each other with problems. He and a few friends created a Facebook-like Web site to make that peer-topeer learning easier to navigate.
“Today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors,” maintains Marc Prensky, a former teacher and author who coined the term “digital native.” By the time students reach their early twenties, they have spent some 10,000 hours playing video games, on average, sent and received 200,000 e-mail messages and instant messages, but have allotted just 5,000 hours to reading books.

Adults often complain that these trends signify a move away from learning. Peter Cookson Jr. of Teachers College of Columbia University observes that the digital world is “alive with ideas, communication and new ways of problem solving,” which allow the youngest of students to learn “with greater speed and more deeply.” John Seely Brown, a computing pioneer who researches learning, believes students read differently now, navigating and discovering materials not laid out by any traditional rules of order. Navigation, he argues, is the literacy of the twenty-first century.

The students who will be showing up on college campuses in the next ten years will want to absorb and apply knowledge on their terms. They will extend the customer mentality of the Lost Decade and decide when, where, and how they learn and what it means to have a degree. The question is not whether colleges will embrace alterations to their current nineteenth-century model, but when it will happen. A few hundred colleges have the status and money to remain resistant to the forces bearing down on higher education right now. But the colleges and universities that the vast majority of Americans attend will need to change if they want to survive and thrive.

For more on how we can use the peer culture of today to drive the learning of tomorrow, check out Ken Goldstein’s book review of Clayton Christensen’s Disrupting Class.