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The Radio Shack Phenomenon and the Future of Private Independent Higher Education

For those of a certain age, Radio Shack was electronics central. For decades, all the latest and greatest electronic innovations could be purchased at Radio Shack. You could buy batteries, phones, remote control cars and trucks, walkie-talkies, emergency radios, and much more. If it was electronic and purchasable, Radio Shack sold it.

However, something ominous has happened. Recently, Radio Shack has filed for bankruptcy protection. What happened to our electronic darling? The answers to this question are neither ominous nor nefarious, but are tied to the famous economic principle of supply and demand. For a very long time, Radio Shack was the “king of the hill” — the only game in town who had no real competition in the brick-and-mortar market with clear sailing ahead — or so they thought.

Very quietly, other types of electronic merchants began to populate the landscape. Perhaps the most famous, Best Buy Co Inc., gained a toehold. In short order, Internet sites, like eBay Inc. and Inc., challenged the market that once was Radio Shack’s alone. Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates, in his book The Road Ahead, suggests that the downfall of early computer manufacturers was their inability to see the road ahead and around the corner. As a result, they were unable to navigate the corner and went into the ditch (out of business). I suggest the same has happened to Radio Shack.

In an essay purportedly on the future of higher education, you might wonder what Radio Shack has to do with higher education. I am afraid — an awful lot! If we view the higher education landscape, forces appear to be at work that parallel the Radio Shack demise. At one time, our private independent institutions dotted the landscape of higher education.

These are places, in many cases, with a century or more of service to their local communities. They were the “go-to” destination for countless generations of students. In the last 15 years, a “Radio Shack phenomenon” has taken place within higher education. All types of centers of competition have emerged to challenge the efficacy of the small, private, liberal arts colleges — and all traditional colleges/universities for that matter. Face it; there are only so many students to garner for all educational institutions at any one time. In our current arena of demographic decline for traditional students, there are even fewer students to be had. So when new centers of competition emerge, more institutions are eating the same pie in ever smaller pieces. Besides more institutions sparring for a dwindling population of students, significant changes have begun to occur to our way of “being” in higher education. In fact, the tectonic plates on which our institutions have been founded are shifting dramatically.

For example:

  • The for-profit colleges are not disappearing — rather they continue to innovate and attract students from every student population.

  • Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a reality that is chipping away at our traditional ways of offering and charging for courses. While MOOCs in their present state will probably not be around long, they have changed what is possible.

  • Technology continues to change everything.

  • Where once we were one of a few institutions serving the adult learner, every institution has discovered that market.

  • Community colleges, for many good reasons, are becoming the institutions of first choice for new high school graduates.

  • There is legislation afoot throughout the country to allow two-year colleges to become four-year institutions. California has already passed such legislation; other states are moving forward with similar legislation.

  • President Barack Obama’s push to make the first two years of college free has serious financial implications for traditional four-year institutions.

  • The traditional lecture model is being challenged in new ways every day.

  • Textbooks are disappearing.

  • International education will be much more than sending students abroad to study elsewhere. Institutions, thousands of miles apart, shall be as one.

  • The teacher-centered universe is gone.

  • The lecture, except in rare cases, is dead.

  • Competency-based learning appears to be our future.

  • Tuition must begin to decline in order for institutions to stay in the market.

  • Government oversight will only increase.

  • The credit is on its deathbed.

Welcome to the Brave New World of higher education! Private and independent liberal arts institutions can cower in the corner or put their heads under their blankets and think these things will not impact them — they are already impacting them and they will in the future! Or, these institutions can lead higher educational institutions in this new era by adapting and embracing these challenges — as they always have.

But what might the future of higher education look like? This new world of higher education will have fewer institutions serving larger numbers of students. The focus, however, will not be on the institutions themselves but what happens (or does not happen) in the classroom. While much attention is focused on game theory, competency and problem-based education, adaptive learning, and the flipped classroom, I do not believe these “tactics” are the future.

Certainly, they will be tools available for use but only tools. Tools are things that are “ready-to-hand” (Heidegger) — things that are available to help achieve a goal. In the classroom, the emphasis should not be on the “tool,” as just described, but on learning. The future resides in how we learn.

Toward the end of the 20th century (1991), Howard Gardner, Harvard University’s “Project Zero,” identified seven different intelligences, or seven different ways people learn. According to Gardner, “we are all able to know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves.

Where individuals differ is in the strength of these intelligences — the so-called profile of intelligences — and in the ways in which such intelligences are invoked and combined to carry out different tasks, solve diverse problems, and progress in various domains.”

The ramifications of this theory for the 21st-century classroom are astounding. In the new world of higher education, we shall look much like a physician’s office. Incoming students will be given a series of diagnostic tests to determine their type of “intelligence” and the curriculum will be prescribed to them based on their type of “intelligence.”

Game theory and the other tools (tactics) mentioned above may be prescribed to the individual learner based on their “intelligence” as described by Gardner. What is certain, however, is that the classroom, as we have known it, will be gone.

My brief words regarding the future of higher education may be viewed as either apocalyptic or prophetic. For those institutions that refuse to change and to embrace the Brave New World of higher education, apocalyptic — meaning the complete destruction of these institutions — is their future. For those institutions that embrace the new world of higher education and accept the changes so required, prophetic — in that the future is theirs.

I began this essay with a reference to the Radio Shack phenomenon. Our institutions are either on the road to a Radio Shack future or are charting their own course to tomorrow. No matter the route, apocalyptic or prophetic, it is a road on which they find themselves and must navigate for better or for worse.

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