The New, Nonlinear Path Through College

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

One thought on “The New, Nonlinear Path Through College”

  1. While provocative, as a report on a “new reality” this article has some shortfalls.

    (1) American higher education is extremely stratified. The trends described are much more common in some contexts than others. It's misleading to lump them all together.

    (2) Single cases make good grist for the journalist's story, but by their very nature they are the interesting exceptions and so are not so informative for discussions within higher education.

    (3) The article implies a rather uncritical view toward the hidden premise that all higher education is about is getting a credential. The nod to portfolios or the Gates Foundation fellow's comment about “verifying the entire package” still seem trapped in the tendency to see technical training as the metaphor for education.

    (4) The article ignores the pedagogical transaction costs other than “getting credit” of switching among systems. One might think, for example, of the cost of developing relationships with instructors and peers, getting sense of institutional context of course level learning, starting over with people who know what you are trying to accomplish in your education. And most of all, it seems to assume that people pursuing an education are all self-directed, fully motivated, possessed of all the inertia necessary to overcome bumps in the road and arrive at the credential of their choice. Look at the data, folks, there are probably a lot more people without degrees who went to five schools than people with degrees who went to five schools. And in most cases the problem is not credit transportability.

    5) Another hidden premise is the idea that there is no added value to studying at an institution, with other people, over time.

    Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of pushing in the direction of easily transported credits and reducing the system friction that gets in the way of taking advantage of all the learning opportunities that are out there. But rather than the subtext being “how can we force colleges and universities to give credit for work done elsewhere?” we should be focusing on how institutions can supercharge what they do by taking advantage of all the tools that are out there to help students learn.

    This article, though, seems just a tad too much of a puff piece for those who would dismantle higher education to facilitate private capture of the resources students, families, and the state spend on higher education. The key is in the quote from Milliron where he talks about “some protectionist ideal.” It would be healthier for higher education, I think, to have this conversation out in the light rather than dressing it up in cause-serving stories about students.

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