Pushing Back on Idea of Learner-Centered Institutions

By George McCully

It is time to push back at least a little on this very fashionable rubric. While the NEBHE Conference on the subject was generally excellent, especially in the morning, its uncritical acceptance of the whole idea was worrisome. See Center of Attention: Learners.

A fundamental problem is its metaphor. There can be only one “center” of anything, so the question is: In institutions of what used to be called “higher” education, should students be their “center”?

Back in the day (before the late ‘60s, from which higher education has not yet fully recovered), colleges and universities were content-centered. The idea was that scholars and students together were focused on the subjects of their studies, from their different but complementary perspectives, and the activities of research and teaching on the one hand, and studying and learning on the other, were intensely and mutually engaged—with their subjects and with each other. Its epitome was Mark Hopkins on one end of a log, and a student on the other; the “log” was the content of their conversation. That is what made postsecondary education “higher.” “Training”—that is, knowledge- and skills-development —was distinct from and subordinated to “education”—that is, self-development. Training provides the necessary technical equipment for professional adulthood, which also requires the maturing personal and social growth in values that broader learning and human experience provide.

Abundant research has shown that students today, however demographically diverse, tend to regard themselves as consumers, paying exceedingly high prices for practical credentials required to get the well-paying jobs that, in turn, will be required to pay down their consumer loans for the credentialing process.

So we do now have a circle, and its center is indeed the students, but it is vicious. Its characteristic and mutually exacerbating vices are utterly corrosive. Grade inflation, beginning in the late ‘60s, has gone through the roof so that half are now A-minus or above; Bs are at the low threshold of acceptability for job qualifications, Cs are the equivalent of flunking, and you can forget about Ds, Es and Fs. Simultaneously however, the number of hours students actually study outside each class has gone down from five to seven in the old days, to about two today. On the instructional side, inexorably rising and excessive institutional costs have driven down faculty qualifications so that over 75% of faculty are now “gypsies”—part-time, temporary, low-cost and indefensibly exploited help staff, who have neither time nor incentives to “center” their attention on the so-called “learners.” Several speakers at the NEBHE conference noted this problem.

The increasing diversity of students has evoked anxiety over cost-effectiveness, whether and how they are being well-served for job accreditation. This has led to an apotheosis of Andrew Carnegie’s ideal that higher ed should be run like a business, with demonstrable results in the form of quantified measurement of outcomes, which means competency-based training (self-development being more difficult to quantify). For this, minimal-cost gypsies are perfectly suited, and tenured scholars and any research that happens are entirely superfluous, so we can forget that tedious conversation about teaching vs. research, and even tenure. All of this, of course, takes place in, manifests, contributes to and is compounded by an increasingly narcissistic and atomized American culture that favors short-run selfish material gains, polarizes our citizenry, subordinates politics and government to plutocracy, dumbs-down entertainment to vulgar sensationalism of loud colors, noise, and violent action, and focuses our personal attention on hand-held non-human technological devices.

We might well ask, are there any viable alternatives? It might help to tweak the rubric (without losing its marketing value) from “Learner-“ to “Learning”-centered, the assumption being that both faculty and students are engaged together in and centered on, mutual “learning.” At the conference, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed repeatedly, perhaps intentionally, slipped into that locution and it’s not a bad idea for a start.

Perhaps the focus on “competence” should be at least partially shifted to high schools, qualifying students for self-developing higher education. In her spectacular keynote address stressing the values of collaboration in problem-solving, Nancy Zimpher suggested that “four pillars” of “collective impact” are “convening key stakeholders, identifying shared goals, making decisions based on evidence, and sustaining success.” NEBHE might provide some leadership here by considering a follow-through conference convening representatives of the stakeholders in higher education—administrators, faculty, students, parents and employers—to identify their shared goals, propose task forces to focus on each goal and propose evidence-based problem-solving strategies, with follow-through sessions to keep spotlighting the issues and report progress.

George McCully is founder and CEO of the Catalogue for Philanthropy.


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