MIT recently introduced plans for a significant expansion of their distance/virtual education program. From the press release:
MITx will endeavor to break down barriers to education in two ways. First, it will offer the online teaching of MIT courses to people around the world and the opportunity for able learners to gain certification of mastery of MIT material. Second, it will make freely available to educational institutions everywhere the open-source software infrastructure on which MITx is based.
It will be exciting to see how other institutions engage this resource and how a free, open-access approach to online education influences the for-profit models that dominate the market.
I have written a little about changes to higher education in the UK here, specifically the shift to business-model approaches to research. The Texas Public Policy Foundation think tank recently proposed “seven breakthrough solutions” for public higher education in Texas. Dean Randy Diehl and a committee from the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts wrote a clear and detailed counter-argument to each of the proposals. On impact and the humanities:
We are also concerned by Mr. Sandefer’s suggestion that specialized academic articles with limited readerships lack real value. This outlook could affect scholarship in such fields as mathematics, natural sciences and social sciences in which seemingly narrow findings have the potential to change human understanding.
We are especially concerned it will inhibit research in the humanities and we take issue with the idea that the value of research can be judged by its immediate impact or reduced to a monetary figure. Humanities research helps citizens better understand the world in which they live and the overall human condition. It provides the history, cultural contexts, and ethical framework needed to make sense of changes in society.
As in other disciplines, the impact of most humanities research is not immediately observable, nor guaranteed. It tends to work cumulatively over time and, for the most part, requires no start-up funds, research labs, or expensive equipment. Historians, philosophers and economists from the Greco-Roman periods through Voltaire, Hume, and Adam Smith, for example, all influenced the American founding fathers. These scholars’ impact was not fully known for decades or centuries, just as the value of much of today’s scholarship can’t be measured immediately.
The whole piece is worth reading. It is at once a response to a very specific threat and a clear distillation of the arguments we all need to get better at making. The strength of this defense rests not only on the claims themselves, but the way in which they are presented. Put another way, the defense depends upon the skill-set it so vigorously defends: critical thinking, clear arguments, close reading of the evidence…
These are the words a close friend used to describe how she feels as a university student. Bloated with access, information, and technology; starved for actual teaching, mentorship, and plain human contact.
She is receiving a graduate degree from a major (non-profit) American institution. She rarely meets her colleagues or her instructor. Seminars are online and informal. Her assignments include endless and shapeless bibliographies, aggregated and linked from tidy Blackboard pages. She sends work into a void and receives grades in return. After three years, she will have paid $30,000 in tuition, without ever having used anything other than the administrative services of the University.
This is just one (terrible) program. But I think (fear) it foreshadows changes to come (or already here), namely the large-scale business modeling of higher education. Doing more with less looks a whole lot like turning a major profit with no effort at all.
In 2010, the Higher Education Funding Council conducted a pilot exercise which aimed to test the feasibility of both assessing the social and economic impact of academic research and using this assessment to evaluate researchers and research institutions across the UK. The key points from the executive summary of the exercise are as follows:
In the REF there will be an explicit element to assess the ‘impact’ arising from excellent research, alongside the ‘outputs’ and ‘environment’ elements.
The assessment of impact will be based on expert review of case studies submitted by higher education institutions. Case studies may include any social, economic or cultural impact or benefit beyond academia that has taken place during the assessment period, and was underpinned by excellent research produced by the submitting institution within a given timeframe. Submissions will also include information about how the unit has supported and enabled impact during the assessment period.
A weighting of 25 per cent for impact would give due recognition to the economic and social benefits of excellent research. However, given that the impact assessment in the 2014 REF will still be developmental, the weighting of impact in the first exercise will be reduced to 20 per cent, with the intention of increasing this in subsequent exercises.
The assessment of research outputs will account for 65 per cent, and environment will account for 15 per cent, of the overall assessment outcomes in the 2014 REF. These weightings will apply to all units of assessment.
Put simply: The category of “impact” will play a new role in assessing research quality and assigning resources to universities in the UK. Researchers have been asked to think creatively about impact, to create impacts, to show impacts, to make impact and make it visible.
But: what is impact? And what does this word mean for the Humanities, where impacts might be invisible or economically unsound? Continue reading