On the last day of June, the U.S. Department of Education hosted an invitation-only session on “Reimagining Higher Education.” I was very pleased to represent WCET members. Here are some of the top takeaways and notice that they are planning to include higher education in the national technology plan this year.  I’m asking for you input on what should be in that plan at the end of this post.

I don’t agree with all of the ideas that were expressed. What is clear is that changes are happening and we need to continue to pay attention.

The Administration and the Department of Education are Charging Ahead

Picture of the stately main building at Georgetown University. It looks slightly like a castle with a tall, narrow clock tower in the middle.
“Reimagining Higher Education” was held at (and partially sponsored by) Georgetown University.

Even with the election looming and the days remaining in the current administration are dwindling, they are not in a winding-down mode. Ajita Menon, Special Assistant to the President for Higher Education, said that the President is seeing the coming months as a “sprint to the finish.”

Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary of Postsecondary Education, said that there is “unfinished business” and the focus will be on:

  • Improving teaching and learning.
  • New business models for higher education.
  • Reimagining credentials.
  • Affordability for students.
  • Collect use and share data about learning.

Mitchell said they also would like to highlight the work that they have done in expanding the focus on postsecondary students beyond traditional 18 year olds.

Students Need Alternative Paths

In a Google Hangouts session with four students across the country, we heard about how student academic and support needs differ greatly.

  • A student in rural Texas talked about his need to borrow the single family car 2-3 times a week to drive more than an hour-and-a-half to access the internet for his courses. Neither his home nor neighbors have internet access.
  • A mature business woman loved Capella’s Flexpath (CBE-based) program as it recognized her prior learning. She also found that participating in online courses with inexperienced traditional-aged students was not fulfilling.
  • A student who recently graduated from the Galvanize coding boot camp in Denver said that he earned 160 college credits, but they got him nowhere. He saw little need for general education. He recommended that education teach skills in inferring answers rather than memorizing facts.

Is “Grit” Required?

What struck the audience about all of the students who presented was their incredible focus in overcoming obstacles to reach their educational goals. Certainly, people with personal or family obstacles often must call on reserves of fortitude. But, are we asking too much for first generation students to navigate byzantine collegiate systems? And, let’s not forget students like the one in Texas whose entire family is sacrificing to allow him to overcome issues of geography.

Alternative Providers: We Don’t Need No Stinking Oversight

Jake Schwartz of General Assembly (which offers certificates in mostly technology-related fields) said that he is often asked why his company does not seek accreditation. To that question he responds: “The RESULT in the accreditation. The employer is the only accreditor that matters.” He went on to say that this is NOT true of non-career programs (such as liberal arts degrees) and that we are confusing the two types of programs. Schwartz feels that confusion is dangerous.

The Importance of Employers/Higher Education Engagement

Jason Tysko of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that stronger “signals” from employers are needed as to what they expect from education. Jonathan Finkelstein of Credly said that a lifelong relationship with employers is needed. The tension between workforce and general education continues.

Alternative Credentials and Competencies are on the Rise

Holly Zanville of Lumina Foundation said that the Connecting Credentials repository (that Lumina is funding) is a first step in understanding the new world of credentials. Using the data about credentials that will be collected, they hope someone creates a Travelocity-like to help students and employers navigate through the universe of available credentials. Jonathan Finkelstein of Credly said that that employers’ reliance on institutional brand is ending. They need more information about the skills and knowledge of graduates.

Russ Poulin with a side view of the White House
Representing WCET at the meeting.

Investor Thoughts on Innovations

Paul Freedman of Entangled Ventures (an investment incubator) said that two innovations that they are exploring (and are being implemented by only a few) are: 1) programs that charge no tuition and students work half-time, and 2) upper division peer students help to teach lower division students. You might want to look at the twelve themes that Entangled Ventures believes, one of which is: “Low cost, disruptive educational models are likely to start outside of the US.”

Only the Elite Can Innovate?

Invitees were an interesting mix of people who have been involved in educational innovations. As happens in such events, there definitely heavy emphasis placed on work accomplished by big-name traditional institutions and by alternative providers. Of the 110 invitees:

  • Only four had community college connections (three colleges and one association),
  • Thirteen had public university connections (seven research universities, one online-only university, four university systems, and one association),
  • Regardless of sector, only two college-related attendees came from states ranked lower than 19th in total population and one of those institutions is located within a few miles of the District of Columbia.

Jeff Selingo, author and former Chronicle of Higher Education editor and one of the panel moderators at the meeting, recently wrote “Transformations Affecting Postsecondary Education” for the National Commission on Financin21st Century Higher Education. It is good piece on why there will be a certain amount of disruption (read that as needing to operate differently and/or with different players), but the “online education” section also relies solely on innovation at “elite” colleges.  Sigh.

A Higher Education Technology Plan – What Do You Think?

Joe South, Director, Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education, referenced the National Education Technology Plan, which usually focuses on K-12. This year they would like to include a higher education addendum. The second half of the day was spent working on suggestions for what should be including in the plan. They worked on five focus areas: teaching learning, leadership, assessment, and infrastructure. I volunteered to help with ideas on policy issues.

I’ll let you know if there are chances for you to contribute. Meanwhile, what do you think should be in a Department of Education technology plan for higher education??Russ Poulin holding a baseball bat.


Russell Poulin
Director, Policy & Analysis
WCET – WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies


If you like our work, join WCET!

1 reply on “Reimagining Higher Education and the National Technology Plan”

It’s hard to know where to begin when faced with such an ambitious and loosely conceived agenda.

Let’s start with Alternative Paths. This idea is widely thought of as Mildly Good but when we talk about alternative paths to credentials, we are usually talking about credentials that are work-related. This is where “the employer is the only accreditor that matters” needs a few more anchor-points.

Jake Schwartz is right that most professional and vocational degrees, badges and certificates have a built-in evaluative structure that liberal arts degrees don’t have. One of these structures is professional licensure, and that is not mentioned in the article; I wonder if Russ could enlighten us as to whether it was mentioned in the meeting.

There is a useful distinction to be made between programs that are deemed acceptable by employers and those deemed acceptable according to established professional standards, customarily monitored by licensing boards or some other kind of certification entity. There is overlap here, but they are not identical. Society would not accept an architect, nurse or engineer who did not meet the standards of a licensing board. For some reason, society DOES accept teachers who don’t meet licensing standards – Oregon, where I serve on the teacher licensing board, does not require licenses to teach at private schools, only public schools. I am not sure what the distinction is.

Moving on, at some point the question has to be shouted, who should pay for these various employer-needs evaluative processes? The idea that taxpayers should pay for job training at all is new. Until my generation, this kind of training wasn’t done in colleges at all. When my mother was in college, only 5 percent of Americans had degrees. Employers trained their own people at their own expense. Neither the state nor federal taxpayer paid for this. Employers have now outsourced the cost (and oversight) of training employees onto the public.

Now employers want to gain greater control over what colleges do without a willingness to start re-absorbing the training cost that has been added to my taxes.

Finally (for now), there is the question of oversight. I describe myself as a “Green Libertarian” so I can’t argue too much about letting people try new things without excessive regulatory goo. However, if students are paying for training that is supposedly usable in the job market, they need access to a third-party problem solver that can deal with situations in which the student is scammed, trained at excessive cost for jobs that don’t exist (or pay minimum wage) or given training in a professional field that does not meet the requirements for work in that field.

It is true that litigation is always an option in these situations, and I think we will and should see more of it. However, litigation occurs after the fact and is only useful to the student if the offending school has the assets needed to make the student whole. One of the useful functions of a regulatory entity is to make sure that providers are financially capable of cleaning up their own messes. If we allow an educational free-for-all we will eventually see thousands of students harmed.

Unfortunately our current federal model demonstrates ill-conceived and insufficient government oversight hidden behind the ineffectual paper-wall of private accrediting entities that don’t have the resources or the inclination to be enforcement agencies. An oversight entity that won’t kill diseased sheep soon enough to save the flock is useless as a shepherd.

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