What About Life Long Learning?



On April 1st, at the end of Whyville’s month long celebration of 14 years of existence, the coveted “oldbee” medals were handed out to thousands of Whyville’s longest members.  Remarkably, nearly half the total metals were given to users who have been active on Whyville for more than 5 years with some on the site for more than 10 years.  That means that some of Whyville’s users started when they were 12 and are now graduating from college.

Last week I visited both Penn State and New York Universities, both in the throws of quite visible upheaval, but with challenges not different in kind from many if not most other Universities.  Over the last 10-15 years, many have seen a dramatic bloating of middle management (Deans, Vice Deans, Assistant Vice Deans, Vice Presidents, Assistant Vice Presidents, etc.) and associated dramatic increases in costs.  At the same time, a growing number of faculty seem aware that both undergraduates and graduate students are having a harder and harder time ‘cashing in’ on their degrees with an astounding number of new college graduates now living back at home and working minimum wage jobs.  From “middle management”, faculty are hearing that they are now actually part of a business (rather than the academic institution they originally signed up for), and are under more and more pressure to raise money (largely to support the bloated and overpaid administration) and offer services to more for less.  Tenured faculty who are unwilling to do so, are being replaced by non-tenure track, ‘contract teachers’, who are cheap and will do whatever the administration wants (or be fired).  Faculty are being told that MOOCs are the future (one faculty member, thousands of students) but seem not at all clear how this will work for anyone other than the Universities that already have mass appeal (Harvard, MIT, Stanford, you know who you are).  It is not even clear that those so-called ‘elite’ universities have a viable MOOC business plan  (don’t they know that the public still expects information on the Internet to be free??, and for years we have hired new employees based on real-world performance tests rather than their degrees).

Perhaps, therefore, despite their ivory towers, and 600 years of stubborn survivability,  even universities may be subject to the upheaval going on in the rest of the ‘business’ world.

But what is to be done?

What I suggest is that perhaps it is time to rethink and reconsider one of the most basic assumptions underlying the modern university system – that we train students for life.   Perhaps the bloating of university middle management is evidence that 40 years ago, when many of the faculty who have now taken assistant deanships went to college, there was such a thing as a lifetime career.  That a certificate obtained by isolating yourself for 4 years as an undergraduate, and perhaps another 4 as a graduate student, would launch you on a 50 year career.  However, evidence suggests that in most cases (perhaps even in universities) those careers are gone.  Most of today’s college graduates, once they find a job, are likely to change that job multiple times, in some cases dramatically, over the next 50 years.

Whyville has now influenced and stayed connected to students from 6th grade to college graduation with no end in sight.  With lifetime connectivity possible, shouldn’t educational institutions be enrolling students pre-K and continuing to serve them for their lifetimes.  Instead of a certificate and a handshake, shouldn’t they continue to offer services, on demand, depending on the needs of their permanent enrollees?  Wouldn’t that also make it more likely that the offerings were relevant to the real world?

As many Whyvillians in their early 20s last week celebrated long continuous involvement with a rather odd educational site they first joined when they were 12 – shouldn’t someone take notice?  We did   🙂

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