Me and Obama

I took a great deal of interest in President Barak Obama’s speech this last week in upstate New York. It was a major announcement of his reforms for higher education, and he cited a few initiatives that he thought were worth commendation. Among them was “Open SUNY”: a system wide effort to link the initiatives of the 64 or so institutions to provide degree completion and online learning and PLAR and other benefits resulting from more synergy among the campuses.

To the average Canadian involved in higher education this would look like a mash up of BC Campus (and similar provincial networks like Contact North), TRU Open Learning (spawn of the old Open Learning Agency and its BC Educational Credit Bank), the BC PLA Network, the Canadian Virtual University, and so on. Which likely explains my tenuous claim that Open SUNY is my legacy of 4 wonderful years at SUNY: I think I was largely responsible, working with others, in planting the seeds and then fleshing out what an agency like Open SUNY could do. Historians of higher education in the US will one day support this claim and will either praise or blame me, or get it all completely wrong.

Obama’s overall concerns are with the rising tuition for higher education, especially in the public sector (while state funding has collapsed of course, thus passing the burden to the student) plus low completion rates (58% of full time students entering in 2004 graduated with a 4 year degree after 6 years) and high default rates for student loans.

Not surprisingly, most of the higher education business has not responded very nicely. And the critics are likely not impressed with Obama’s list of exemplars of innovation, which focus on competency based learning, MOOCs (a false step there I think) and so on. My favorites are Southern New Hampshire’s University’s “College for America” and Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning.

He also promotes a rating system for colleges that do a good job (according to whatever indicators they come up with) and that are rewarded accordingly. I think the intention is solid, but this is ripe for institutions to game the system, and for sharp divisions to occur between institutions which score well in said game, and others which (for many complex reasons) do not show up so well and which likely need more resources, not less.

I guarantee that these divisions will align with and reinforce the existing social and economic class system. My previous institution, Empire State College, is an amazing place: radical, alternative and innovative, serving those who have all sorts of barriers. But if you start counting its success as you would that of my current institution, KPU, it would look embarrassing. Education (or for that matter, life) is too complicated for a simple scorecard that fails to account for the wide range of communities and learners and their needs.

Others have done a much better job than I can of commenting on all this, and there is the usual mobbing of higher education by those who routinely cite Clayton Christensen (have they not read anything else?) and predict the end of the world as we know it. But I can make a few observations.

  • Open SUNY is still largely imaginary, but the potential is huge. One forgets that New York State alone has close to 20 million people, and, despite the extensive public and private systems, many face the usual barriers that those of us in open, distance and adult learning face: location, money, previous bad experiences or no family tradition in further education, not wanting (or needing) to start from scratch, not wanting (or needing) to follow precisely pre-determined curricula that may or may not be relevant to their needs and interests.
  • Although I have problems with some of the proposals Obama has come up with, I am once again amazed at the level of engagement and boldness of US politicians as they try to deal with enormous issues. Much as I love Canada and its largely solid higher education system, I simply cannot imagine any Canadian politician, federal or provincial, speaking as eloquently or as forcefully about higher education as does Obama, and I saw the same from state and federal politicians of all stripes. It all supports my overall impression that when the US does something well, it excels, and when it messes up, it does so with terrible impacts. In Canada meanwhile we muddle along with our platitudes and occasional soft criticism, and maybe that is best. However, we have hardly any major radical and alternative educational institutions any more, and although we seem to lead the way sometimes, our innovations get diluted by the rankings game, by elitism, and by the inherent conservatism of Canadian higher education.
  • Having said that, I am encouraged by the work going on in BC right now, and I want KPU to think about suspending the usual mind-numbing rules and paradigms that we have wallowed into and to try some really bold initiatives to better meet the needs of those learners we currently do not reach.

by Alan Davis, PhD

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