Can America’s Wasted Talent Be Harnessed Through the Power of Internet Based Learning?

Jim_Riggs80By Jim Riggs
Professor, Advanced Studies in Education
College of Education
CSU Stanislaus
President Emeritus, Columbia College (1997-2007)

For nearly 150 years, the American dream of a better life of economic success and advancement has been found largely through the narrow path of higher education. However, access to traditional higher education has always been limited to the top one-third of the adult population and by all indications will continue to be rationed at this level or less into the foreseeable future. Peter Smith, in his 2010 book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning, points out that while traditional higher education will continue to serve this segment of the population, educational leaders must find alternative ways that will effectively meet the postsecondary education needs of a much larger segment of the adult population.

Smith is not alone in this thinking. There have been numerous reports in recent years that have also called for greater access, flexibility, credit portability and increasing degree completion for a much larger percentage of the adult population. In addition, many of these reports place a special emphasis on closing the growing achievement gap, which is increasingly leaving Latinos and African-Americans behind other groups when it comes to earning college degrees. Why is this important? There is a strong and growing consensus among policy makers, educators, economists and scholars that, if this country is to remain an economic superpower, a much larger and more diverse segment of the adult population must be better educated.

America’s current workforce is aging and retiring, and 85% of all new jobs now require some college education. A real crisis is rapidly developing  — America is finding itself with an escalating gap between the increasingly sophisticated workforce skill demands of the new economy and what the average American worker has to offer. In a 2011 report, The Undereducated American, Georgetown University professors Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose provide a strong argument that America will need a dramatic increase in the number of individuals with college degrees within the next decade. This increase in college graduates, according to Carnevale and Rose, is not only needed to help sustain the nation’s economic growth but will also help reverse the 30 year trend of growth in income inequity.

However, with the downturn in the economy over the past six years, we are once again reminded that a college degree alone is not a complete guarantee against economic challenges or underemployment. Economic growth and viability cannot solely depend on education. Nonetheless, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the greatest predictor of personal income and employability for Americans still is, and will continue to be, their level of educational attainment. 

Smith and others believe this problem can be addressed in large part by accessing Internet-based educational resources with an overall increase in the use of technology. The Little Hoover Commission, a powerful government oversight committee in California, recently produced a report calling for a new master plan for higher education for the state. This new master plan would require a dramatic increase in the use of online technology to meet the growing demand for higher education. Not only does the Commission envision increasing online education as a way of making educational opportunities available to more citizens of California, it also believes that online education has “the potential to lower costs” of higher education in the state.

With the immense number of educational resources now available on the Internet, there has been a major and growing shift from a scarcity of knowledge, controlled by the higher education establishment, to an environment where there is an abundance of web based learning opportunities for everyone. But the question remains — Can better use of this abundance of open source educational programs, information sites and online courses be used to help prepare a large portion of the adult population for the workforce? Some might argue that by harnessing the power and resources of Web 2.0, there is already an abundance of opportunities for the middle third of the nation’s workforce to have access to postsecondary learning opportunities. But how likely will these Internet based resources be used to help prepare this part of the population for a competitive job market?

In just a little over a decade, the open source education movement has grown dramatically. It began in the late 1990s with efforts to establish a movement to provide free software and open content on the Internet. This was followed by the development of the Creative Commons in 2001. Now, with many well-established programs and organizations including Global Open Courseware Consortium, the Kuhn Academy, Open Culture and Wikiversity, open source learning opportunities are widely available and quite diverse.

A number of higher education institutions and for-profit companies are stepping forward and offering free or low cost, Internet based courses, certificates and degrees. Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs are now springing up everywhere, and their growing presence in higher education has not gone unnoticed by the popular press and policy makers. There is growing pressure on colleges and universities to adopt MOOCs as a quick way to provide access to low cost educational opportunities for those who aren’t able to access traditional higher education.

With the rapidly growing accessibility of MOOCs and other online learning opportunities, coupled with an equally growing demand for a better-educated workforce, the solution seems obvious. However, many education policies and practices continue to be far from logical and future oriented. More challenging is the fact that higher education, by and large, still operates in the comfort zone of a twentieth century modernity of universal truths and scarcity of knowledge. The rest of the world is rapidly moving into a much more dynamic and chaotic postmodern era, an era that is driven and powered in large part by the abundance of information found on the Internet. However, getting traditional higher education to change will not be easy or happen voluntarily. Many faculty in higher education went through an educational system that made limited use of technology. All too often these faculty see themselves as the chief purveyors of information and knowledge and are likely to resist deferring this crucial role in the teaching/learning process to technology.

So, just how feasible is it to think that a large number of individuals in the middle third of the adult population can bypass traditional higher education and use learning resources on the web to develop high level workplace skills for jobs of the future? Simply put, the vast majority of these potential learners do not have the skills to use Internet based learning opportunities without some sort of institutional structure, facilitated learning environment, and professional guidance. It is unrealistic to build entirely new and parallel systems of Internet driven postsecondary institutions that can effectively educate the very large and neglected middle third of the population. Therefore, a middle ground must be found between what traditional higher education provides and what the new and rapidly growing e-learning opportunities can offer.

Before going too far down the path with the idea that technology can be the primary way to solve the growing educational deficit in America, we must have an honest, open and meaningful dialog about the way the majority of adults actually use the Internet. There is an obvious gap between how most people use the Internet and how they would need to use it in order to develop the kind of skills necessary to be successful learners in the twenty-first century. While they could theoretically use the Internet to develop complex technical workplace skills, their use is mostly limited to entertainment and socializing, which are not the kind of activities that will lead to transformative learning or economic empowerment.

While many adults look to the Internet for information, they may not take the time or have the skills to evaluate, synthesize and apply this information, or use the information to build and construct new knowledge and meaning. Even if those in the middle third of the adult population wanted to use the Internet for meaningful and transformative learning in order to move toward economic empowerment, they may not possess adequate academic skills. They must first be taught how to become independent learners and self-directed in their search and acquisition of knowledge.

Moreover, given the educational preparation and level of maturity, most individuals who are just coming out of high school are not likely to be motivated and self-directed learners. In general, high schools do not prepare students in this way. In fact, high schools too often serve as a means for channeling the middle third of students away from seeking out postsecondary educational opportunities. This creates a kind of disengagement and cooling out function from the learning process, rather than empowering these students and teaching them how to be responsible for their own lifelong learning. It takes maturity, motivation, appropriate habits of mind and a certain level of skill and ability to take advantage of online and open source educational opportunities. Unfortunately, most students are socialized into being passive learners, causing them to be wholly dependent on their instructors to direct all learning.

So, the first step must begin inside our traditional educational institutions. We must reform and refocus the teaching/learning process by placing a much greater emphasis on teaching students how to learn, how to value learning, and how to be responsible for their own learning, thus giving them the skills necessary to access and create knowledge from a variety of available sources including the Internet. Whether learning is done in a traditional setting or via the Internet, it takes effort, perseverance, professional guidance and the ability to learn and develop appropriate habits of mind.

Even though traditional higher education has limitations and problems, it is not likely that professional educators will be replaced anytime soon by the Internet. There is a real necessity for students to be guided through the important stages of learning by knowledgeable and caring educators. The shift from knowledge scarcity to abundance, with the web being the storehouse, could actually have a liberating effect on our country’s education profession, allowing teachers to serve more like expert guides through the vast and often disorganized array of information rather than sources of subject matter content. Faculty could play a critical role in helping students make sense of the abundance of information and guiding them through the process of constructing knowledge and meaning from the countless number of resources now available.

For this to happen, faculty will need to make a fundamental shift from teaching about a subject to teaching about how to access information and how to learn about a subject. Faculty must also place a greater emphasis on how students can apply this newly acquired knowledge within their workplace, as full participants in a democracy, and within their daily lives. If we are serious about all students progressing to the point of real empowerment that leads to economic self-sufficiency, political influence and reaching their full potential as independent, responsible human beings, faculty must be prepared to change both how and what they teach.

Traditional higher education has developed an amazing and bewildering bureaucratic maze of regulations, admissions criteria, transfer policies and course prerequisites that work as a kind of buffer against change and innovation and ultimately keeps potential students away. Despite these organizational barriers, individual faculty members still have a great deal of flexibility and control over what and how they teach. Therefore, any meaningful change in traditional higher education that embraces the new abundance of web-based learning opportunities must begin with and be led by the faculty. It will also be up to the faculty to advocate for organizational changes that force traditional higher education systems to better serve the middle third of the adult population.

When it comes to helping students develop skills for a successful career and life trajectory, traditional higher education can play critical roles by:

  • providing students with an opportunity for maturation including how to function within groups, how to self-monitor, and how to act in a socially responsible way;
  • helping students develop skills including how to access, evaluate, synthesize and apply information from different sources to create meaningful knowledge;
  • assisting students in acquiring essential general and specific academic skills, including computational and language skills;
  • providing students with degrees, certificates and other credentials, which document that learning has taken place.

Internet open source technology based learning and other online educational opportunities are still very new and will take some time to find their way into the ecological sphere of higher education. Even as abundant and accessible as web based learning opportunities have become, it may be a little hasty at this point to view them as a force that can replace or even significantly augment the need for local, place bound traditional postsecondary education that is led by live competent faculty.

Can a system as entrenched as higher education be transformed in order to effectively incorporate this new, massive, messy and disruptive innovation? Can higher education capitalize on this innovation in order to help close the achievement gap and better serve the learning needs of a much larger segment of the American adult population? What should be the place of this new technology within the milieu of higher education? And most pointedly, does America need a new form of higher education that is more flexible, accessible and not tied to the traditional time and place bound education process?

These and many other questions will need to be explored and answered on every college and university campus over the next few years. As educational leaders, we need to understand the full power and enormous dimension of this new technology before we can effectively plan for its use. One thing is clear: colleges and universities must quickly sort through and seize this opportunity to expand postsecondary education to more students. In doing so, they may find at least part of the solution toward closing the education and achievement gap, between the top third and middle third of the adult population, lies in Internet based learning opportunities.

Clearly, the increase in learning opportunities on the Internet is welcome. However, unless several major changes in traditional higher education are forthcoming, this new resource may only serve a small fraction of those who could actually benefit from it. The solution must be found in a combination of efforts including:

  • the incorporation of many types of technology based resources, including Internet based learning opportunities, into the learning environment;
  • improving teaching/learning throughout the K-12 educational system and traditional higher education by creating a rigorous and articulated educational environment that leads to transformative and life-long learning;
  • reconceptualizing how traditional higher education is packaged by moving away from fixed seat time in courses, the time honored semester system, and cafeteria-like degree structures;
  • identifying and expanding public and private resources to provide accessible, high quality postsecondary educational opportunities for the middle third of the adult population.

Ingrained into our culture is the notion that going to college will lead to the good life. While this notion gets tested from time to time, the reality is — college degrees still have value and learning actually does happen in meaningful ways in our higher education institutions. However, the time has come for traditional higher education institutions to move into the twenty-first century. Clearly, integrating web based learning opportunities into the landscape of traditional higher education on a broad scale and finding ways to open the door wider to accommodate the middle third of the population will be difficult and challenging even for the most willing institutions.

Open source Internet based educational opportunities and online courses and degrees have begun stripping away the dominant role that place and time bound traditional higher education has enjoyed for the past 150 years. These new opportunities will likely lead to a radical departure from the norm, from knowledge monopolized and neatly controlled by colleges and universities to a model where knowledge is free, abundant and chaotic. It is not likely that higher education will be able to double its capacity by adopting Internet based learning as a major modality. However, by allowing open source technology and other online learning opportunities to help shape the pallet and broaden the menu of options for students, traditional higher education could continue to be a primary and vital player in the new economy and become an option for more than just the top third of the adult population.

If we are going to help students capitalize on anytime, anywhere learning opportunities, we will need to do a much better job teaching them how to access and build knowledge from these sources. With the emergence of a new ecology of learning and an abundance of educational opportunities through the Internet, it is time that we begin taking seriously what John Dewey declared nearly a century ago  — learning happens everywhere in life and not just in the classroom.

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