Longtime Higher Ed Leader (and Former U.S. Congressman) Argues For a...

Exclusive | Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Longtime Higher Ed Leader (and Former U.S. Congressman) Argues For a ‘Networked College’

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 10, 2018

Longtime Higher Ed Leader (and Former U.S. Congressman) Argues For a ‘Networked College’
Peter Smith (at right), author of a new book on education innovation, talks with EdSurge senior editor Jeffrey R. Young during a recent EdSurge Live discussion.

This article is part of the guide EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

The campus of the future will be “networked,” argues Peter Smith, meaning that more and more academic-related services will be outsourced. That, in theory, will allow each campus to focus its energies on what it can do best and turn to outside companies and nonprofits for the rest.

It’s a key claim in his new book, “Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education,” due out next month, and it’s one that might unsettle college administrators accustomed to directly overseeing more campus services in-house.

Smith has a unique perspective on innovation in education. He has led experimental colleges, including designing and launching the Community College of Vermont back in 1970, and becoming the founding president of California State University at Monterey Bay in 1994. He’s also been a force in politics, having served as a state senator in Vermont, Lieutenant Governor in that state, and then a U.S. Congressman.

These days he’s back in higher education, as a professor of innovative practices in higher education at the University of Maryland University College.

EdSurge sat down with Smith last month at the ASU+GSV Summit on the future of education, as part of our EdSurge Live video discussion series. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or watch a video version.

EdSurge: One idea in your book that struck me is what you call “the networked college.” What do you mean by that?

Smith: A college is a vertical stack, and if you go back 50 or 60 years, colleges cooked their own food, they mowed their own lawns, they stocked their own libraries and they controlled their own faculty, or their own faculty controlled them. They control every part of the stack, and then you get your degree. That college is like an information-rich oasis in an information-poor world. You had to go there to get it.

Today that desert has gone green, and there is no more oasis. It doesn’t matter where you are in terms of having access to knowledge or content. So in the new world, technology has enhanced opportunities. Nobody can afford to be good at all the things it takes to put a first-class educational quality product out.
I remember in the early part of this decade, or the last decade, when about 10 colleges got together and they were going to create their own learning management system. And it just was a disaster.

You’re talking about the LMS project, Sakai?

Yeah, it was a disaster, or it didn’t work. It was a passive disaster because it was nobody’s first job. They just thought, “Oh, well this is gonna be easy.” Then along come these other guys who say, “We’re going to do nothing but a learning management system, or whatever it might be.”

So in the networked colleges, you’re walking through the literal or the figurative front door of that college, but behind the scenes what you have is outsourced services.

You’ve got to decide these days what it is you’re going to be really good at, and then you’re going to contract out [other things], increasingly. So first it was grounds crews, then it was the cafeteria. Libraries are now completely different than they were even 25 years ago.

The operating reality is that for any college that wants to be up-to-date—however they define that in terms of technologically-enhanced services—they’ll rise or fall on the quality of their partnerships.

My former colleague at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Goldie Blumenstyk, called it the “embedded for-profit university” because there’s all these different for-profits operations within a nonprofit higher-ed institution.

And more and more of it, I believe, will be nonprofit. For instance you look at what Strada is doing right now. They’ve acquired CAEL [the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning], and also InsideTrack. And Strada is a nonprofit.

But the reason it starts in the for-profit sector is because in the beginning, the academy had such a tight hold through tradition and custom and governance and funding, you couldn’t make the changes. And what’s changed fundamentally in the last 20 years is that the drivers of these changes are not controlled by campuses. They’re from the community around the campus. So the campus cannot co-opt the language and then keep largely doing what they were already doing.

The reason we’re here at this meeting, and what the venture capital has done, is allow people to try things that never would have been tried before because the technology didn’t exist, or never been tried before because of the control that the institutions had on the discourse around what is learning and what is not learning. That’s all changed.

Somebody said, “Why are you doing this stuff?” And I said, “In simplest terms, because I can.” And 25 years ago, I couldn’t. So the idea that you can take content to scale, that you can take advising to scale, you can also personalize in a thousand different ways.

You have been described as a friendly critic of some new models of education. What does that critique boil down to?

I’m described by some as occasionally wrong, but never in doubt.

Each of us comes into whatever we do for our life’s choice—if we’re lucky enough to have had a choice—with a predisposition. Mine is towards experiential learning, towards really engaging the learner in real activities, and then asking them to think about those activities and what they learned and why it matters to them. And I go out from there. I think there are people, for instance, who have mistakenly thought that simply having great content was all it took.

And I remember one of the MOOC founders who said five years later, well MOOCs have failed as an educational experiment. And my comment to that was, they never were an educational experiment. They’re just a bunch of courses by very smart people, produced beautifully. So [I’m skeptical of] people who overestimate [the power of] content alone.

In your book you cite examples of people cobbling together an education from various sources, and there was a book several years ago by Anya Kamenetz called “DIY U” that argued that this will happen more often. But that hasn’t really caught on widely, and it seems most people still look for a structured education rather than just to go it alone. Do you think we’re really going to get to a world where “free-range learning” is more common?

No. And what I was talking about, and what I intended with the title of my book, is that what is possible now is learning anytime, anywhere, or from anybody.

Now, my metaphor for that is it’s like skiing in a blizzard with no goggles. Because you’ve got all these resources around, but you don’t know how to organize them. So the notion simply is that where learning happens, how it happens, how it’s recognized, how it is supported and how it is connected to work or whatever is important to me as a person has changed dramatically.

And we are in a world of multiple new models. The work I’ve done in the last 20 years in online or technologically enhanced learning suggests that fewer than 10 percent of the people who are learners are able to self-direct—or really more like 4 percent.

The third section of my book is called a “GPS for Learning and Work.” We can sit in a car and say, “I wanna go to grandma’s,” and it will tell us the fast way and the slow way and the scenic route. Well, [education] is a little more complicated than going to grandma’s. But what’s possible today, and people here at ASU+GSV are working on it, is to say, “Here’s where I am, my knowledge, skills, abilities and my aspirations. Here’s where I want to go. Here’s the gap. Here are the resources I need to fill the gap.” And I can choose my setting—group study or independent study, or this or that. And what will happen is that as people see these things, I think markets will emerge.

So the role for the new institution is to make sense of that world and help learners figure out what they want and how they’re going to get it, and the mode they want. [When] you talk to a worker who’s 52, what they want in terms of higher education is very different than what I may have thought I wanted when I was 18. Now we can really craft educational solutions to personal situations.

Next Up

EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up