Professor Mitchell Stevens is Associate Professor of Education at Stanford University. Recently confirmed as a keynote speaker for ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2013, he has written prize-winning studies on home education and selective college admissions, and is exploring aspects of globalisation and global learning in his latest work – interests which will no doubt be reflected in his contribution to ONLINE EDUCA, entitled “Education without States”. The News Portal team got in touch with him to hear his views on the latest transformations in higher education, and what universities in the United States are doing to bring them about.
Interview by Alasdair MacKinnon
What are you currently researching?
I am currently writing a book about how US universities organise research and teaching about the rest of the world. The intellectual organisation of the US academy has been in a long period of flux since the end of the cold war. How to conceive of world regions and cultural systems is more in flux than at ever before in intellectual history – but the bureaucratic organisation of universities by departments is a very durable organisational form.
What transformations and developments in modern higher education have particularly impressed or disappointed you?
In the US, the most disappointing thing is the long-term secular decline in public funding for higher education – despite the fact that Americans truly love their universities and see them as essential vehicles for social improvement. This decline has largely to do with the shifting of college costs to individuals and their families in the form of government-subsidised student loans – so that people don’t really feel the rising personal cost of college until they already have gone far into debt.
I am particularly impressed at just how much faith people and governments all over the world put in higher education. People truly believe it will solve all of their problems: make them healthier, wealthier, more cosmopolitan. This phenomenon is great for people who live and work in universities. I do worry however that nations around the world will put too much faith in higher education at the expense of other important forms of social welfare.
There’s a lot of talk about US Universities going global. How is this being achieved?
US universities have been globally ambitious ever since their inception. A main purpose of higher education in American history has been to demonstrate to the rest of the world that ours is a sufficiently sophisticated nation-state. My friend, the historian Adam Nelson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has some excellent scholarship on this.
Until 2011 the most prominent recent strategy for US schools to demonstrate their global credentials was to open programs and satellite programs worldwide. My colleague, sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss at American University, writes well about this.
Very recently the whole discourse has begun to shift again with the extraordinary amount of attention being given to online learning. The moment something goes online it is reterritorialised profoundly. Academics are still trying to wrap their heads around this simple fact.
There is some concern about how quality can be assured in technology-based learning. Does extending the worldwide reach of a university through e-learning help to break down barriers to education, or create a two-tier system that merely reinforces them?
People who fret about the loss of quality in the transition to online education often overlook some very important facts. First, there is wide variation in the quality of physically co-present instruction. Co-presence is no assurance of quality. We all know this, but it is a convenient thing for many critics to overlook.
Second, when properly engineered, online courses give us almost limitless opportunities to learn from our mistakes and iterate toward improvement. This is true for particular students and instructors as well as whole academic systems.
Established universities around the world are organised broadly along the same lines. What alternative forms of education can challenge this homogeneity, and could be adopted in the future?
I disagree with your first premise. There is a great deal of variety in higher education systems around the world. For reasons I have yet to fully understand, most analysts have focused on the few similarities among systems. It’s a large intellectual disservice, especially at this very dynamic moment in higher education history. I look forward to learning more about that variety at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN.