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The unsteady ground beneath higher education

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By Patrick Gareau


The ground is shifting beneath institutions of higher education, and not just because of tractors moving dirt around the podium at the University at Albany. Innovative organizations are increasingly putting pressure on traditional colleges and universities to change the way they deliver education to students.

I had the opportunity to attend the annual SUNY Critical Issues in Higher Education Conference on Oct. 29-30. The event felt like a reckoning or an identity crisis for schools in the SUNY system. As I listened to a number of experts in higher education discuss the disruptive forces at play and the trends in the sector, I found myself wondering where UAlbany will fit in this changing landscape.

One of the developments changing education is the availability of free online courses from top global universities through online platforms like EdX. Anant Agarwal, CEO of EdX, participated in a panel at the event.

“Higher ed. needs to reinvent itself,” he said.

Agarwal suggested that each college and university focuses on what they do well, and allow students to receive credit for subjects outside of a given institution’s specialty through free online platforms. At a comprehensive university like UAlbany, this suggestion may not be as relevant as a specialized liberal arts school or tech school. However, it does call attention to the power of improving online learning platforms and the lack of online course offerings at UAlbany.

As a new student this semester with a busy schedule who could really benefit from being able to take a couple of classes online, I was absolutely baffled by the void of offerings when signing up for courses. I had assumed when coming here that, since this is a large university and it’s the 21st century, it must be making an effort to offer a lot of online courses. Then when trying to cross register an online course through Empire State College, my department said it would not apply to my major even though the course had the same title as the one offered here.

UAlbany has to focus on developing its online course offerings or risk being outcompeted by others that have gotten off to a head start. At the very least, if the university does not want to develop their own online course material, they need to make it easier for students to take courses elsewhere.

Another topic that was much discussed during the conference was a concept called “unbundling.” This is where parts of what are included in a traditional degree are offered separately instead of keeping everything bundled in an one-degree program. This often takes the form of offering certificates for certain skills. SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said the system needs to start thinking about unbundling. She announced the creation of a task force on micro-credentialing during the conference to address this.

Like with online offerings, UAlbany could do better to keep pace with this trend in higher education. While a number of graduate certificates are offered, the university should start moving quicker on offering certificates that can be earned in the process of obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

While our university is lagging behind in the areas mentioned above, UAlbany is doing better than most in some areas that were often discussed at the conference, such as forming partnerships with other local colleges (like the recent partnership announcement with Albany Law), working closely with businesses (such as Start-Up NY) and expanding applied learning opportunities.

However, as a lifetime resident of the Capital Region, I would like to see UAlbany be an aggressive innovator in higher education so that it can continue to be a positive driving force in the community. It is probably too late to see it happen while I am a student, but UAlbany can certainly become a leader in cutting edge practices if that is made a priority in the next five years.

At the conference, Facebook co-founder and publisher of “The Atlantic,” Chris Hughes, said he believes higher education is heading toward a crisis point. Many experts in attendance shared that sentiment. UAlbany has to start reevaluating how they operate in many areas in order to make sure that the university not only survives these disruptions, but also thrives in a new higher education environment.


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