About Me

Find out more about me here.

19 April 2012

What Does College Do?

Several big time universities have signed on with Coursera to offer free courses online. It looks like a natural experiment of sorts is being set up. We might be able to answer--or at least force students to confront--what higher education is actually for. Is college about teaching, educating, or credentialing?

Teaching is about the imparting of a set of skills and knowledge that are of practical import. This is largely what goes on at professionally-oriented institutions, a model that is creeping into all corners of higher ed. Think teaching, nursing, pre-med, pre-law, and business programs. The point of these majors is to teach students what they will need to know to do a specific job in the real world. The irony here, as most professionals will admit, is that they learn the bulk of what they need to know on the job, not in school.

Educating is about getting students to think in a more critical manner and to generate their own knowledge. This is what we claim to do at liberal arts institutions and in liberal arts majors. Employers often pay lip service to wanting this type of employee but increasingly don't follow through.

Credentialing is about documenting the completion of some program and this usually includes some measure of prestige. A diploma from Harvard is different from San Diego State is different from Paduka Community College is different from ITT Tech.

Obviously, these three models exist only as ideal types. Most higher ed institutions do some teaching and some educating. Until now, all have done credentialing. With the advent of creditless online courses, some places are doing teaching/educating without the credentialing.

So, here is the experiment: if students truly want educating over credentialing, we should see an exodus of people from the traditional brick-and-mortar colleges (and even from the largely for-profit credentialing online colleges) to the new, free online courses. I suspect that this exodus won't happen, though, which will be evidence that college is--and has been--more about credentialing than anything else. Like it or not, students need a piece of paper to show to others to indicate their symbolic initiation into a specific labor force irrespective of their mastery of either a set of skill-knowledge or ability to generate knowledge. Free online creditless courses are noble but doomed.


  1. Well, how does grading (or assessment) fit into this? Obviously, multiple-choice type assessment can be done and scale easily online, but what about critical thinking?

    I somewhat waspishly say that the technology for this kind of self-education has been available since the Gutenberg Press. It's mainly a matter of motivation. You have to be self-disciplined enough to learn on your own, and I suspect it is difficult for a lot of people just to watch online lectures, no matter how good they are, without getting distracted by other things like Facebook, email, etc. Education, for better or worst, is also about disciplining bodies, and not only is a BA or MA a credential of at least some knowledge gained, it's also a credential of having enough discipline to make it through the process.

  2. Warner, I agree with you, particularly on the idea of credentialing being in part about time management. You make a good point about "disciplining bodies," too. However, in an increasingly digital world, does the ethic of a disciplined body really matter? If work, or at least the work appropriate for a college graduate, is more and more intellectual (as opposed to manual), do bodies need to be disciplined?

  3. It's not that I think they do need to be disciplined, but it is one way to provide (perhaps) an estimate of the probable performance of an employee for employers. It is some sort of indication of a work ethic, just as are extracurricular activities and internships. Incidentally, I think unpaid internships are for the most part a loathsome development of late capitalism, but that's another discussion.

    I also think that college also provides a period of socialization. How many students have you seen blossom intellectually when they get to GCSU (or anywhere else you have been) because in high school they were 'nerds' or whatever? They become willing to let their smarty pants freak flag fly when they see that professors and other students openly do so, and they can model themselves on them when they realize that there are rewards for that kind of behavior. So yes, for some students, I do think that they need this period even if they become knowledge workers. One of my professors in grad school emphasized the need for socialization as a professional academic, and I'm sure it's the same in other fields as well. You have to learn to walk the walk, or least fake it until you make it (an idea very resonant with the later stage of Buddhism with visualization of one's self as a Buddha).

    Other students need the period of socialization because they are awkward or frankly overinfantilized in high school and/or by their parents. They have to learn to be accountable and that excuses like "I forget there was a quiz" or "You didn't remind me that the homework was due" because employers won't put up with that b.s..

    I don't think that teenagers in the US 'necessarily' need this period, but it does provide a relatively safe environment for students to try on new identities, fail if they lack motivation and then gain it (I'm thinking of a colleague of ours who flunked out of college their 1st year with a 0.00 GPA and then went on to get a Ph.D. and a TT job at GCSU... they blamed access to beer and cable TV for the 1st time), and basically learn how to interact with a wider group of people who they haven't known since grade school (or longer).