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When Content Is No Longer the Product: Part 2

(This is the second article in a three-part series on shifting product models in Higher Education. In the first post, I focused on the future of textbook publishers as they transition from their traditional focus on content to products centered on learning practice. In this post, we’ll look at ways that Higher Education institutions could better position themselves to have greater relevance by discarding certain worn-out assumptions.)

Shifting cultural and market trends are having a profound impact on product companies serving the Higher Education market, and universities and colleges are no exception.

Higher Education institutions create and distribute products or services into a market that’s increasingly dynamic and competitive. Amidst rising costs, decreased funding, and significant changes in student profiles, universities and colleges are doing their best to differentiate their products via new features, services, and pricing. They work hard to track and generate evidence that shows their products provide efficacy and value for their customers.

Unfortunately, these creative efforts to remain relevant and competitive are constrained severely by an underlying, legacy product model that’s based on assumptions that no longer apply in today’s society.

In the Beginning Was Information

In order to understand the product dilemma in Higher Education, we need to think about the historic context from which our current product model – the course – originated.

In Western culture, this model began to take meaningful shape in the 11th and 12th centuries with the first professional or guild universities established in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. The model took definitive root as similar institutions multiplied across the European landscape over the ensuing centuries.

These early institutions were charged with cataloging and quantifying knowledge in a way that made it possible to disseminate information to larger numbers of people. In these formative centuries, logical areas of knowledge expertise developed in Law, Theology, Philosophy, and Medicine.

The shape of this movement was determined, in large part, by a primary cultural or civilizational factor – the scarcity of knowledge. The foundations of the modern university developed well before the printing press (15th century) in a time when the works of Aristotle were just being rediscovered in Europe (12-13th centuries).

This was a time when the curriculum for medicine consisted of lectures and readings in Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna, and Aristotle. It was a time when the important written works of Western culture could be collected in a single building and a small group of learned people could represent the collective wisdom of the day.

Let There Be Oases

In these formative centuries of universities and curricula, demand for knowledge was much greater than supply. As a result, information and knowledge were treated the same as any other scarce commodity – they were collected, they were hoarded and displayed, and they were traded as forms of prestige and currency.

The demand for this scarce commodity fomented the creation of universities and libraries as oases in what was otherwise a desert of ignorance. It also led to the development of library classification systems that ensured knowledge would not be misplaced or lost altogether.

The goals of these learning oases were simple – 1) to store and protect valuable knowledge assets, and 2) to produce knowledge experts.

Obviously, the treatment and classification of knowledge as a scarce commodity played a critical role in the design of the curricula that produced knowledge experts. Accordingly, course information was codified into neat taxonomic slices that corresponded to classification sections within subject domains. Similar to the shelving of books, curricula were divided into hierarchical silos that could be ingested and stacked neatly.

At the time – considering the very real scarcity of accessible knowledge – this approach made perfect sense. It was a way to preserve, distribute, and eventually expand the existing knowledge base of a civilization.

But a Course Is a Course, of Course of Course

As Higher Education developed in Europe and eventually spread to the U.S., the core product model was refined somewhat but mostly remained unchanged. Universities were established as bastions of information, designed to house and impart knowledge to those seeking it. We continued to build oases of information and catalogued that information into courses. These courses, in turn, represented the amount of information on a particular topic that a skilled individual should possess. Having passed examinations related to a collection of related courses, a successful graduate was deemed to be a knowledge expert in good standing.

In the U.S., the biggest changes in the 19th and early 20th centuries were a continued increase in programs of study (particularly related to the sciences) and increased standardization with regards to the quantity of information or instruction that should comprise a course. This standardization culminated with the broad adoption of the Carnegie Unit and Course Credit Hour at the turn of the 20th century.

These changes provided the framework for modern transcripts and credit reciprocity between institutions, and they necessarily reinforced the course model as the primary product with Higher Education.

And Then a Funny Thing Happened

In many regards, the foundational structure of Higher Education institutions in the U.S. did not undergo significant changes until after World War II, in particular with advent of the GI Bill. While the world of Higher Education didn’t change overnight, the speed and scope of evolution certainly may have made it feel like it did.

Government funding of post-secondary education for military veterans increased enrollments dramatically at universities and colleges across the country. These enrollment increases, as well as changes in socioeconomic forces in the U.S., resulted in a proliferation of new degree programs in business, social sciences, and the humanities. And it was the resulting increase in market size and scope that spawned the modern textbook industry.

During this time, even though information was becoming less scarce, the course product model still served a stabilizing role as new knowledge domains were added. Course catalogs and institutional libraries were growing, but there was still a place for everything and everything had a place.

That façade of tidiness began to change irrevocably in the early 90s with the linking of commercial networks and enterprises to form the modern Internet. It dissolved completely with the advent of the World Wide Web and the inevitable ubiquity of global information. Suddenly and definitively, information and knowledge were no longer scarce commodities. The next twenty years bore witness to an explosion of domain specializations, instructional modes, and business models.

Not surprisingly, there have been a number of foreseeable consequences related to information ubiquity. First, the core value of a basic unit of information has decreased. This can be seen in the demise of encyclopedias and the rise of open content in education. Relatedly, the value of expertise in general has decreased. Top-level credentials are commonplace, as are publications and presentations.

In addition, the value of instructors and the importance of tenure (devised to retain key research and knowledge expertise) has decreased significantly. In a world where information is ubiquitous, we pay instructors for facilitating and curating publically available data. Finally, our traditional information repositories, libraries, have struggled to remain relevant in an age of information abundance.

Yet We’re Still Designing Products Like It’s 1150 ACE

Which brings us back to the present day and the market challenges faced by product companies serving the Higher Education market.

The world has moved definitively into an era of information ubiquity. Unfortunately, Higher Education continues to market an information-based product that is anchored in the same knowledge-scarcity assumptions that originally formed the model in the 12th century.

Regardless of the labels or delivery methods, Higher Education instruction and degrees are still about producing knowledge experts, even though we are well into an era when such experts are less valuable in our society.

The predominance of the course construct as the core product in Higher Education has implications well beyond content. Designing education in this way also determines how we think of students and of learning.

For example, because universities are still architected to produce knowledge experts, and because we continue designing curricula in terms of course silos and prescribed course sequences, we remain committed to defining student success in terms of quantitative knowledge acquisition.  In other words, although information has become ubiquitous and the importance of knowing large information sets by rote has diminished, we continue to prioritize knowledge expertise as a sign of likely success.

How Do We get Off This Train?

The good news, at least for some, is that the shift from information scarcity to information ubiquity presents tremendous opportunity to product companies serving Higher Education. In the coming decades we will see continued disruption in the Higher Education sector, and one of the most likely changes will be a shift away from the supremacy of the course content model. (Note, I’m not saying that courses will disappear but rather that the design model will alter drastically to promote capabilities over content mastery).

In other words, this is a propitious moment to ask how we can might take advantage of a reimagined learning model.

Here are a few suggestions.

1.  We need to think in terms of capabilities instead of content or information mastery – Moving beyond content and information as the foundation for domain mastery necessitates that we think of new ways to articulate readiness and success. One way to do this is to shift our focus to individual and stackable capabilities. This means that, instead of identifying what a person should know about a particular domain, we want to prioritize what they can do with information or how they are proficient using it in critical thinking processes. In this way, we will promote the development of learners who are ready to contribute and be successful with employers who demand these abilities. The diagram below mirrors a slide shared with me by Jon Mott of Learning Objects and depicts how a shift toward capabilities will alter our learning design.

2. We need to rethink how we are defining and measuring success and how we evaluating learners – As we shift away from the predominance of content expertise, what should we measure in order to evaluate student performance and the likelihood of life success? My sense is that we will want to focus on measuring learner engagement, community interaction, and collaborative aptitude. We will also value a learner’s ability to take ownership of tasks and to personalize information in ways that make it relevant to tasks. We will also place a premium on a learner’s ability to recognize dependable information sources.

3. We need to re-conceptualize the university as a hub for lifelong learning, as a custodian of connections, and as a repository of our personal learning evidence – This is one of the biggest new opportunities for universities and colleges. As an example, even though I have earned three university degrees, the majority of domain mastery that has made me successful as a professional relates to capabilities I have picked up since I exited my formal education. This includes expertise in content publishing, educational technology design and development, and product retail. Unfortunately, there is no place for me to record this expertise, even though I have ample evidence to support my qualifications. I imagine a future in which a university would provide me a living transcript that allows me to update it throughout my life. This would include formal and informal learning, as well as processes for validating my accomplishments. I could also share
this with potential employers or others as an official life transcript, backed by my university. Naturally, this would create a much deeper and longer lasting connection between me and the university.

4. If we’re going to reimagine the course, let’s do the same with transcripts – Of course, if we’re going to modify the transcript to support lifelong learning, let’s also extend it to become a meaningful, visual record of both teaching and learning. Let’s create transcripts that allow me, and my potential employers, to see clearly what capabilities I’ve studied and mastered, along with the actual evidence associated with that mastery. Let’s also allow instructors to add transcript notes and other insights so that I can have an informed assessment of my learning.

NextThought Studios Staff
About the Author NextThought Studios Staff

The NextThought Studio team offers high-quality post-production services that create positive learning experiences for students, trainees, employees and more. Our varied video production services can help you create solutions that provide optimal information retention and skill acquisition. With expertise in everything from corporate video production to producing educational and learning videos, NextThought Studios can create a video experience to meet any client's needs.

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