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Pioneer of Ed-Tech Innovation Says He’s Frustrated by Disruptors’ Narrative

George Siemens is a key innovator in higher education, having coined the term “MOOC” and worked to study the effectiveness of online learning. So it’s no surprise that he was invited to a recent closed-door gathering at the White House to discuss “innovation and quality in higher education.”

Though he isn’t able to divulge details of what transpired, he wrote about the meeting on his blog, in a post filled with strong feelings about some of what he heard there. The post uses such words as “stunned,” “exceptionally irritated,” and “disappointed.”

His frustrations ran in all directions. Some leaders in higher education, he wrote, remain uninformed about “what’s brewing in the marketplace as a whole” — such as shifts in demand for education and the emergence of “code academies” — which will change higher education “dramatically.” And some for-profit players are unnecessarily “antagonistic” to higher education, he argued, failing to recognize that colleges serve other missions beyond operating efficiently, like educating well-rounded citizens and broadening access to education in underserved communities.

One of his biggest complaints is a narrative popular among leaders of education start-ups: that colleges are no different today than they were hundreds of years ago. You might have seen an image of a lecture from the 14th century that is used in slide presentations by many ed-tech disruptors, who then note that college courses are still taught in the same way.

“This is one of the most inaccurate pieces of @#%$ floating around in the ‘disrupt and transform’ learning crowd,” Mr. Siemens wrote. “Universities are exceptional at innovating and changing,” he argued. “Explore any campus today. It’s a new world on most campuses, never mind the online, competency, and related systems.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Siemens made a point of praising the Education Department for bringing together people from a range of areas, and he said he saw the White House meeting as a sign that big changes were coming to higher education.

But he argued that he had come away wanting to push back against the idea that colleges are stagnant.

“When I hear this, I’m like, Have you been to a campus lately, or talked to a college CIO, or have you seen the predictive models for identifying a struggling student?” he said.

“Admittedly colleges have been slower to respond than corporations have” to changes in technology, Mr. Siemens added. But that’s how it should be, he argued. “When a university takes a big pedagogical risk and fails, that’s impacting someone’s life.” He admitted that colleges could be moving faster, but he felt that it is disingenuous to ignore the changes that are happening.

Mr. Siemens said that what’s missing from many discussions of reform is the recognition of the many roles that colleges play — and the many metrics by which they are judged beyond dollars and cents.

“The rest of the world desperately would like to have the higher-ed success the U.S. has,” he said. “It has given us Facebook and Silicon Valley and the drivers of U.S. productivity in today’s age.”

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