Monitor Board of Contributors: Our children’s college education will be better than our own

Last modified: Monday, January 13, 2014
My wife and I both started our undergraduate careers in 1987. Exactly 30 years later, in 2017, our daughter will leave home to begin her college career.

The higher education change that is almost exclusively commented upon is the rapid growth in costs. Indeed, according the Delta Cost Project, since the 1980s the growth in tuition costs have far outpaced increases in both inflation and family income.

Less commented upon, and I think less understood, is the degree to which the higher education experience has also improved in the past three decades.

When commentators critique changes in the student experience, it is most often to lament a growth in campus amenities. How often have we heard about the luxurious climbing wall, student union or premium new dormitory?

While campuses have become somewhat more comfortable places in the past 30 years (it would be hard to go the other way, given how spartan my experience was in the late 1980s), any increase in campus amenities are only one part of the higher ed cost story.

The reality is that my daughter will in all likelihood get a far superior undergraduate education than her parents did.

When I say that she – and the approximately 3.4 million other learners who will join her as first-time freshmen in 2017 – will have a superior college experience compared to those of us who started in the 1980s (or 1990s), I am not talking about dorms, dining halls and climbing walls.

I am talking about education. I am talking about learning.

Consider some of improvements in higher education teaching and learning that occurred in past couple of decades:

1. A revolution in our 
understanding of how 
learning occurs

Over the past two decades our understanding of the learning process has progressed from one of “speculation” to one of “science.” This was the conclusion of the 2000 landmark National Research Council book, How People Learn. This book, widely read on college campuses across the country, represents something of a turning point in how we think about teaching and learning. The book, and the avalanche of research on effective learning practices that gave rise to it and followed its publication, effectively demolished the idea that authentic learning is about the transmission and receipt of information. Rather, an emerging body empirical research has conclusively demonstrated that learning requires active engagement with ideas and concepts.

2. The introduction of 
new technologies

It is hard to remember what college life was like before the web, e-mail and wireless networking. Before online library databases replaced paper card catalogs. When using a computer to write a paper meant going to the (usually crowded) computer lab. Today, technology pervades every aspect of student life.

The declining costs of computers (and now tablets), has enabled computer ownership to become near universal among entering freshmen. These students are using all these computers and mobile platforms (such as tablets and smart phones) to access an increasing array of class-related materials. The introduction of learning management systems in the 1990s put all course materials, such as readings and lecture materials, within easy reach of students. Information, once a scarce commodity on campus, has become abundant with the introduction of vast online databases that can be instantly accessed from any device.

Students use technology to research, create and collaborate on campus in ways that could not even be imagined only two decades ago. Further, this change is only getting started, as new technologies such as the easy creation and sharing of learning video materials and online assessments, as well as mobile learning tools, begin to make a larger impact on teaching and learning.

3. Changes in how courses are organized and taught

These first two changes, an understanding of how the mind works and how people learn combined with a growing array of new technologies, have begun to result in fundamental changes in how courses are organized.

Today, an incoming student is far less likely to experience a course built around passive lecture, note taking and regurgitation of information in the form of multiple choice exams. Rather, advances in our understanding of how people learn combined with new options enabled by technology have resulted in changes in how our courses are designed and taught. Visit any campus and you are likely to see small groups of students working together to solve difficult problems, often sharing their insights with their instructors and fellow learners using online and mobile technology platforms.

The introduction of online learning materials and adaptive learning environments have freed up precious class time for students to engage in active learning exercises, learning activities that often involve a faculty member working directly with individual learners or teams of students tackling a challenging problem. Nor does the learning or interaction with the faculty member end when class time ends, as online learning tools enable discussions and collaboration to take place whenever students have access to their computers (or increasingly smart phones).

The net result of these three trends is that the higher education experience is much richer and has a greater impact than in years past. Yes, costs have gone up too much, and there is a real need for everyone in higher education to find ways to limit the price (and the debt) that students and their families must bear. At the same time, however, we should recognize that the value of higher education has also increased dramatically. 

My daughter, and your children, will enjoy a much better college experience than we ever did. This is a change that is worthy of both notice and celebration.

(Josh Kim, a member of the Monitor Board of Contributors, is director of digital learning initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning.)