How one innovative president sees the unknown future of higher ed developing

Arizona State University's Michael Crow discusses the future of college degrees, lifelong learning, STEM and technology.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in a conversation with Arizona State University President Michael Crow during last week’s ASU-GSV Summit, joked that it was “exhausting” to learn about all of the programs the institution had forged across the world.

From Ghana to Turkey to Ukraine, Arizona State is working to not only “advance American ideals” for thousands of leaders and learners, according to Crow, but to help them use new technologies and tools to build sustainable education models for the future. As the No. 1 school for innovation in the United States for seven straight years with an astronomical global reach, ASU is committed to being a conduit that helps drive pedagogical change, enhance  student experiences and build lifelong learning pathways.

But, as their session title highlighted, Envisioning Higher Education in an Unknown Future is more than a challenge. There are myriad considerations that Friedman and Crow explored during an engaging interplay of long-term possibilities – notably, where the sector is headed in the coming years and how that may impact students. Take for example, the college degree.

“We’ve got to stop thinking about college degree in a traditional sense only,” Crow said. “Is a degree out of date? Definitely not. What’s out of date is the notion that the degree is the be all and the end all. We have to think about it as a learning moment, a pathway on your learning process. We have to move away from step functions – kindergarten through college, and you’re done with learning. Then you go to work, you retire, you die. Nothing will work that way in the future. College is a stage of learning. And college-based learning is only one pathway.”

Crow said Arizona State – which has increased the number of learners by 50 times over the past couple decades and scaled up instruction through online environments – is not trying to simply prepare students for a specific job but trying to create environments where they become “master” learners. “Most people that go to college in the United States never finish, sadly,” he said. “Moving forward, there will be formal learning, structured learning, unstructured learning, personalized learning. We’ve just got to accept all of this. It doesn’t mean blowing up Brandeis or Bowdoin College. That’s one type of learning for some people to be able to go to.”

He said learning will be continuous and the tools utilized likely mind-blowing for those who have or will encounter the changes that are coming. Traditional methods of education won’t be completely scrapped. They’ll just be part of the equation.

“We’re not talking about doing things in lieu of something,” Crow said. “We’re talking about using these technologies to enhance the breadth of learning, the speed of learning, the depth of learning, to the individual’s tastes. People go to classes [at ASU] as an avatar right now. A thousand students are studying their biology lab by virtual reality in an alien zoo orbiting in space with thousands of unknown species. That doesn’t mean that they’re consigned to a life in this artificial reality world of an avatar. It’s a tool. We’re looking to overcome barriers, particularly to math and science. But we’re not all going to end up in the metaverse.”

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He said of STEM disciplines, which haven’t fully met all the needs of a fast-changing society and industry yet, the problem is the way they’ve been approached traditionally.

“We decided that math and science were exotic, that it wouldn’t be operationalized younger in life, like language and other things,” Crow said. “We turned it into a social dysfunction and made it less interesting. People constantly asked, ‘what is this math for? Why am I taking algebra?’ We’ve done a poor job of connecting to the broader population. We need better ways to teach, more ways of empowerment. In algebra, all we’re trying to do is to teach the skill of solving for unknown. Why call it algebra? Why not call it problem-solving? So, we’re looking at completely different pedagogies, completely different methods and new technologies that help learning. We’ve got to face the fact that we got off on the wrong direction a long time ago.”

Crow said some of the issues that are preventing that pipeline from flowing starts in K-12 schools.

“Most [public] schools are suffering from three or four simultaneous complexities. One is a lack of innovation at a very, very large scale. There’s never been this national push for innovation. We still have largely a 19th century model, with valiant teachers trying to advance that model in a society that looks nothing like the 19th century, and in a future that looks like nothing that we’ve ever encountered in the past. A second issue is micro control. We have many political controls that are now being pushed into publicly funded school districts. I’m not suggesting that parents shouldn’t be actively involved in the design of curriculum. But we have to have some uniform set of objectives that we’re moving towards. And we have, in general, a lack of respect of education within society at large.”

As new technologies are being created and accepted at light speed, there are concerns about the impact of social media, further polarization and isolation as individuals adopt them. Crow said ASU and its School for the Future of Innovation and Society is working to address those, too.

“Universities must be bastions for the maintenance of free speech, doing everything we can do to maintain free and open discourse, both within the academic programs themselves, but then also within the environment of the university,” he said. “We have high-speed forces for the transmission of information, which has little probability or chance of being verified as truth. We didn’t really think through the full impact of massive-scale, multibillion-participant social media. We have huge amounts of distortion in the speed with which the debate is being carried out. Universities need to figure out how we’re going to produce better teachers, who can better teach how democracy needs to work. How do we produce better learners, better citizens? We’re as responsible as any other group for the for the instability we have in our democratic processes.”

In the next decade, what does Crow hope to see?

“That we’ve so greatly enhanced the technological assets that we now have been able to empower individual and personalized learning, both for children, students, adults, retirees … but that we’ve figured out how to make this work across the entirety of the society. Because technology will be accelerating at an even more rapid pace.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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