16 September 2011

Thinking about the future of higher education

George Siemens is one of the people whose work I’ve followed for years, and his current reflection on value in higher education bears deep thought on the part of those of us who are in the tiny corner of higher ed which is theological education. For instance, Siemens writes:

Let me posit a duplication theory of education value: if something can be duplicated with limited costs, it can’t serve as a value point for higher education. Content is easily duplicated and has no value. What is valuable, however, is that which can’t be duplicated without additional input costs: personal feedback and assessment, contextualized and personalized navigation through complex topics, encouragement, questioning by a faculty member to promote deeper thinking, and a context and infrastructure of learning. Basically: human input costs make education valuable. We can’t duplicate personal interaction without spending more money. We can scale content, but we can’t scale encouragement. We can improve lecturing through peer teaching, but we can’t scale the timely interventions and nudges by faculty that influence deeper learning.

Universities that thrive in the future will be those that recognize the need for new value point positioning. Some will pursue an integration approach to value creation, others will rely on world-class faculty, and still others will rely on huge research projects or successful sports teams. Those will be anomalies and outliers. The vast majority of universities that will educate humanity in the coming decades will be those that structure their value point on elements that cannot be easily duplicated and scaled, or at minimum, require input costs to do so.

One of the most difficult challenges facing theological education right now has to do with how we support spiritual formation in our students, and how we help them to support spiritual formation in others. That’s a deeply personal form of interaction, and it’s one of the most unique aspects of a theological journey. Yet it is also a form of learning that is often left to students affairs people to process, with faculty barely paying attention.

Chuck Foster led a project through Carnegie and Chris Scharen is currently leading a project on pastoral imagination. These are resources within Christian theological education to which we need to be paying more attention!

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