Let larger #universities convert to pure #thinktanks

An interesting piece in The New York Times about the displeasure of a number of San Jose State University professors toward incorporating free online courses into their curriculum.  The online courses in question are developed by Harvard and sold to a number of schools.  A number of philosophy professors at SJSU believe that the use of such courses diminishes the quality of education at their schools and may relegate them to second rate status in the universe of academia.

I see their points.  I taught a few years as an adjunct at a community college and there is nothing more rewarding than engaging face-to-face with your students.  The business model of online courses makes sense in that it may help reduce the costs of delivering educational services and may fit with the lifestyles of working people with families who need to do school work at their own pace, but having taught online for a quick minute I rather the collegiality of exchanging ideas in the classroom.

I don’t see any overall policy implications on university education per se from the online trend.  I do see an opportunity to restructure the role of universities.  Many schools provide vast and valuable research that create innovative products and services, however, I think research universities should focus solely on being think tanks.  In addition, we should restructure schools to focus on developing three distinct categories of graduates.

The first category is the technical class.  We need highly trained and skilled producers.  Electricians come to mind.  Also coders or programmers.  Community colleges should expand their offerings to train these types of workers.  Associate degree programs could be expanded beyond their traditional two-year programs to a three-year curriculum where the last two years are focused on training and apprenticeship.  Definitely very little online training here.  I wouldn’t want to send an LPN or electrician into the field based on what they did on line.

The second class would be the professional class.  If you want o be a lawyer, why go through four years of undergrad and then trudge through another three years of law school.  A high school graduate that wants to pursue a profession applies directly to that school; goes through an accelerated underclassman curriculum and then takes the upperclassman (law, medicine, dentistry) curriculum in their last three years.  Again, given the fiduciary and ethical responsibilities these graduates will have to display to the public, the use of online curriculum would be marginal.

Finally there is the research category.  Junior wants to be a scientist.  That’s cool.  He applies to a research university where he commits to five to seven year program all the way to her PhD.  The research university’s role would be pure research with its students dedicated to learning those skills so that they can add value to the university’s research initiatives or, with their doctorates, go out and consult on their own or for an employer.  I expect a lot of online activity as researchers thrive on the amount of information that they can exchange.

I also gathered from the Times piece that the professors are concerned about the future of their profession as well as the future of how college education is delivered.  The best way to address this concern is to get out in front of the change and offer a radical approach that meets the needs of the economy and students.

About Alton Drew

Alton Drew brings a straight forward and insightful brand of political market intelligence. Alton Drew graduated from the Florida State University with a Bachelor of Science in economics and political science (1984); a Master of Public Administration (1993); and a Juris Doctor (1999). You can also follow Alton Drew on Twitter @altondrew.
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One Response to Let larger #universities convert to pure #thinktanks

  1. Kenneth Ciszewski says:

    Alton: great article, great ideas!

    I once took a correspondence course in electronics many years ago. It was very helpful. To actually get an associates degree, I would have had to go to New York for some lab work at a facility there. I didn’t do that. Even so, the education was valuable.

    It may be that some combinaton of online education and “live in person” lab or practical training might be feasible for some skill sets.

    I also agree that for some kinds of education, like philosphy, history, etc. there is a lot that students gain from interactive class discussion. A great teacher can help students develop insights that they might otherwise not see.

    Professor.Michael Sandel of Harvard University did a series of lectures called “What’s the right thing to do?” that were video taped and put on line, and played on PBS a few years ago. The discussions he had with the students during the lectures were really interesting and enlightening for the students, Professor Sandel, and those of us who watched the lectures later.

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