As some are raised a Catholic or an atheist or a vegetarian, I was raised an academic. The university always had about it a mystique, a cloud of mystery and veneration. Lauded in my household were the values of objectivity, critical thinking, close reading. As early as the fourth grade, my mother took me to her college Shakespeare classes, introduced me to her professors, and indulged me with lunch at the student union. I attended classes with her throughout her undergraduate study; and for years after, I’d walk through campus simply to absorb the essence of the place. Today, I am as much in love with the endeavor of higher education as I am disappointed by its outcomes.

The reformation of higher education is under way. Whether we agree or not, the vast credentialing system of universities and colleges, the importance placed upon expertise, the value of the degree and the Ph.D., the political economies that oppress those that form the backbone of the system, the administration of learning, the rights of students, and even the act of learning itself are all under scrutiny. It is a scrutiny that’s been in play for years, and has been exacerbated most recently by the advent of the MOOC (massive open online course), the corporatization of education, and the exportation of pedagogy to technologists and private entrepreneurs. Sadly, little is coming forward from this inquisition of education that’s hopeful. Academics and administrators are afraid for their careers, and students and learners of all ages are looking openly at other options (other options that enterprising speculators are at the ready to provide).

I have read and written about the way that learning is changing. Learners today are taking matters of education into their own hands. DIY education practices proliferate. MOOC providers, now in cahoots with university systems, are doing both a service and a disservice to higher education by offering creditable courses far and wide for low cost. The new culture of learning is one where learning takes place all the time, everywhere, and according to learners’ own preferences and motivations. Disappearing quickly are the rigor, expectations, and outcomes provided by the structures of a traditional education; and coming to the fore is an autonomous learner, who is her own authority on what’s relevant, germane, vital to her own education. Wide and resounding is the call: “The learner has changed! And so has learning changed!” And it follows that if they wish to survive, institutions of learning must change, too.

Learning, we know, is something a person can do on his own, and something that should (does) take place throughout his life. An education is something he must be granted. The institutions of higher education, as they have been established and maintained, are primarily credentialing services. Four-year institutions and those offering advanced degrees are diploma-makers, stamp-affixers, magic wand-wavers. Pay your dues (and tuition), write your theses, and walk out the door you came in with extra letters on the end of your name, and the verification that you have completed your education.

But I am unconvinced by the primacy of the Ph.D., or the degree in general, as currency. While it is impossible to deny the Ph.D. holds sway over the M.A., which is much preferred to the B.A., it is not true that any of these achievements develops in a person a greater or lesser ability to do their own thinking. The degree grants the student her hard-earned credential, but it does not make a person more herself, more productive, more capable, or more sustainably successful. In fact, the political economy of the Ph.D. has overtaken the benefits of receiving it. Audrey Watters speaks to this in her article, “The Real Reason I Dropped Out of a Ph.D. Program”:

I quit because I’d lost the stomach for being part of the institution of higher education — one that wasn’t sustaining me intellectually, financially or spiritually; one that wanted me to teach classes for very low wages — as a grad student and then likely as an adjunct faculty member … I quit because far from that so-called Ivory Tower being a place of solace and contemplation, it had become a nightmare of bureaucracy and politics. I quit because I didn’t want to be a cog in that machine.

We have — we participate in — a system of education that works against the learner. The university is a place where students must abandon their passions and hopes to tread instead the minefield of mimetic professionalism, canonized assignments, and stringent (though often highly subjective) assessment in order to be granted a degree which may have dehumanized their study and disabled, rather than empowered, their critical thinking skills. It’s completion, not learning, that’s key to getting an education.

But I want to return learning to this endeavor. I want to restore the high gloss image of the university as a vibrant campus of engaged learners. I want to free learning from the grip of education. The learner has changed, evolving before our eyes into the autodidact, and so our institutions and pedagogies must cooperate (or at least compensate) by becoming responsive, flexible, and decentered. And I see the way through to this lodged in the convictions of the community college.

I believe that community colleges are situated best among all institutions of higher education to open education to the lifelong, autonomous learner. Four-year institutions are limited by their own biologies, and the ossification of values of expertise, specialization, exclusivity, reputation, and relevance. But the anatomy of the community college gives it much greater flexibility, and therefore greater resiliency in the face of the challenges of new learning. The community college is based on far more humanistic, and more open source, values: personal achievement, complementarity between learning and life skills, diversity, citizenship, and autonomy. There are no “research one” community colleges; every one of these two-year institutions is founded on teaching, and on leading students into a greater understanding of their own intellectual potential.

According to the American Association for Community Colleges (AACC), “Most community college missions have basic commitments to:

  • serve all segments of society through an open-access admissions policy that offers equal and fair treatment to all students
  • a comprehensive educational program
  • serve its community as a community-based institution of higher education
  • teaching
  • lifelong learning”.

Service to the learner is written into the constitution of the community college. This is fundamentally different from an institution focused on research, and on granting advanced degrees. The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education listed the following criteria for a doctoral/research university (“R1” in 1994 when the criteria were named):

  • Offer a full range of baccalaureate programs
  • Are committed to graduate education through the doctorate
  • Give high priority to research
  • Award 50 or more doctoral degrees each year
  • Receive annually $40 million or more in federal support

These, then, are institutions interested in the products of learning and research, less so the learner herself. There are no mentions of service, nor of teaching, nor of lifelong learning. Indeed, the learner appears left out of the equation entirely — except as she is an implied producer and consumer of knowledge and research (who she is not until late in her advanced academic career) — which may be why so many bemoan the university as a relic of the industrial age.

But today’s learner is a lot more than simply a producer and consumer of research and information within the confines of the academy. Today’s learner is a doer and a maker of content — of artifacts personal, professional, academic, and anthropologic — developed and shared communally within relatively disorganized collectives… and usually entirely outside institutions of higher education. Lifelong learners do not restrict themselves to learning from instructors, from texts, nor even from information available on the Internet. They learn from a multitude of sources, and from each other.

The notion of the learning collective is key to discovering why the approach of the community college may be the best one for the emerging autodidact population. In “A New Culture of Learning”, John Seely Brown and Dave Thomas predict that learning collectives will take over the landscape of adult learning in the immediate future. They say that:

Collectives are not solely defined by shared intention, action, or purpose … Where communities can be passive (though not all of them are by any means), collectives cannot. In communities, people learn in order to belong. In a collective, people belong in order to learn. Communities derive their strength from creating a sense of belonging, while collectives derive theirs from participation.

We may be tempted to consider other communities outside of higher education as better fitted to the lifelong, autonomous learner. The learning collective as Brown and Thomas’ describe it sounds suspiciously like the community inside a MOOC, for example. MOOCs offer the opportunity for learners in any location in the world (assuming reasonable access to the Internet) to study and discuss alongside learners everywhere else, forming collectives of learners whose only qualification is participation. Likewise, other communities have begun to spring up. MOOC Campus, a residential retreat-like campus that offers advising for a MOOC-based education, emphasizes the centrality of community in the educative endeavor.

The problem with MOOCs and MOOC campuses is that they’re primarily derivative of undergraduate education at research-intensive institutions, and therefore generally rely on the most vacuous of pedagogies. As well, the paroxysmal growth of MOOCs (especially those built to replace baccalaureate classes) overlooks pedagogy in favor of credentialing, thus falling into the same woeful rut as most of higher education. So, I am not here talking about MOOCs or other online monstrosities offered in place of higher education. I am talking about scooping the collective, about bringing onto campus the type of learning that learners are doing without us — in a partnership that looks a lot like college, and nothing like college at all.

David Staley says in his article, “Autonomous Learning and the Future of Higher Education”, that autonomous learners will change the way learning happens, even in on-ground campuses.

What will a physical campus mean to autonomous learners? These students, I suspect, will still wish to meet with faculty, who will serve more as personal tutors than as traditional instructors … In such a learning environment, classrooms will inevitably be altered. Large theater-style lecture halls might go unused, whereas the faculty office, seminar room or laboratory becomes the preferred physical venue for interactions between teacher and learner. Communities of self-learners might gather for mutual benefit.

As higher education stands on the precipice of its own temerity and demise, here we see a way out. A new learning environment that does not do away with the college campus, but that embraces without ambivalence communities of learning that do not rely upon the resources of that campus. The community college, preconditioned as it already is to serve the student, is in a unique, favorable position to cater to this new culture of learners… simply by doing what it does best, yet aiming its students not at four-year and advanced degree credentialing, but at autonomous lifelong learning.

I am not doe-eyed about this. The community college suffers under many of the same restrictive expectations that doctoral/research-driven institutions do. The community college is just as liable for its completion rates, just as answerable for its curricula, and just as eager for its share of educational funding as four-year institutions (if not more so). The community college has long been under pressure to prove itself to its older brothers, to validate itself through participation in the culture of expertise, specialization, and relevancy. Add to this the diverse nature of the community college student — many of whom must begin their academic careers in developmental courses, and most of whom are otherwise employed and obligated — along with the heavily contingent faculty workforce, and the ambition to be itself credentialed can imperil the community college’s mission.

Daring is necessary. As Jesse Stommel and Lee Skallerup Bessette urge us in their article, “Scholarship of Resistance: Bravery, Contingency, and Higher Education”,

Higher education needs more bravery. Digital pedagogy, or any experimental critical pedagogy, is necessarily dangerous, often with real risks for both instructors and students, much of which can be valuable for learning. But when we experiment with our pedagogies, we confront an establishment that can be hostile to anything new — an establishment that often punishes rather than rewards innovation — that increasingly enforces the standardization of curriculums and classroom practice.

Even the community college, always ready and ripe for experimentation, and built as it is upon the notion of community, will face an enormous challenge making room for the new culture of learning. But as practiced as it is at seeking recognition and relevance, the community college can, if it is daring enough, become an institution of collective learning.

Ultimately, what must happen is the development of a pedagogy, and an institution supporting that pedagogy, that is resilient in the face of the most rapidly-evolving learner in history. We must have pedagogies (and pedagogues) that are as responsive and flexible as our technologies. We must do more learning and teaching on the fly, collaborating with rather than corralling learners.

And if it is not the community college that will lead the charge in the new educational model, someone must. Someone who is willing to stand back from the authority-driven dispensation of learning and create a pedagogy from what happens already, what happens now. A pedagogy based on the way people are learning, teaching themselves; rather than a pedagogy of leading, it is a pedagogy of fine-tuning, a syntonic pedagogy. And, by its own enactment, it is a pedagogy that spreads pedagogies, rippling outward like soundwaves.

[Photo by @Doug88888]