Online Education and the Cultural Shift in Higher Education

Who will fill these seats?

Anyone paying attention to the news or non-fiction section of booksellers will see that Higher Education is under increasing public scrutiny for its cost and its efficacy. Books like Academically Adrift hit the marketplace and stimulate discussion about what is being learned and at what cost to the student. Top institutions are now embracing the Web to reach new audiences by offering free classes through services like, Coursera, a partnership of Stanford, Michigan, Princeton, and Penn and EdX, a partnership of MIT and Harvard.

These efforts bring to the forefront another aspect of institutions of higher education; their heterogeneous cultures. Engaging the Six Cultures of the Academy by Bergquist and Pawlack discusses four core cultures and two emerging ones that are interrelated and support and challenge each other. The six cultures are the collegial, managerial, developmental, advocacy, tangible, and virtual.

These new models of free college courses illuminates the last two but first let’s define all six briefly:

Collegial: Describes the faculty of an institution who have deep knowledge of a field and deeply value the autonomous pursuit of it.

Managerial: Hierarchical system determined to produce results and influenced by Catholic or Community College structures as well as a strategy needed as institutions grow larger.

Developmental: Grew out of the need to help faculty members develop their teaching skills and collaborate with different disciplines.

Advocacy: Born out of the desire for equal treatment for all and in part as a reaction to efforts of the managerial culture to control the institution.

Virtual: Globally concerned and connected group enabled by technology to communicate and connect.

Tangible: Institution that values roots in history and tradition and a learning experience grounded in face-to-face contact.

The Virtual and Tangible cultures were already in tension with the maturing practice of online education and for-profit Universities. These free classes add an additional dimension to this balance because more people can access these educational resources and it brings the difference between the Tangible and Virtual into greater focus.

Take the Computer 101 course from Stanford as an example. The participants will be close to the same age between 18-22 in most cases and money will be a factor. A computer science course in a traditional, tangible liberal arts school will likely consist of students who either can afford the cost or have been supported to overcome the cost barrier. Because the school is limited in space in California in the United States students will predominantly be from the US with variety that a top-tier institution would normally include.  This free online course includes hundreds of people from all over the world and spanning the ages of 14 to 70s.  There are even parents who are taking the class with their teenage children. This is a feature of the Virtual culture that is both very exciting and very challenging.

Appreciating how all six cultures contribute to the academic setting is immensely more helpful than the tired polemics of how online education is either ruining or saving higher education.  Engaging these new models of delivery and placing them in context is one of my goals for taking this course and along with a better understanding of computer science, I hope to have a better understanding of how higher education is changing and productively and wisely adapt and move forward.

[Image from Fredjk – Stock.xchng]

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