The Stanford alum and former president of California’s State Board of Education encourages his audience to “think big” and collaborate with each other.
In remarks to attendees at Stanford’s Learning Summit 2016, U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell offered a national perspective on the opportunities and challenges faced by universities at a time when established models of higher education are in flux.
This year’s summit — the fourth in a series sponsored jointly by Stanford’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and its corresponding organizations at UC Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT — gathered leaders in online education from the across the country to share the latest innovations in their field and generate ideas that could help them positively impact their home campuses.
Speaking with Stanford’s Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, John Mitchell, Under Secretary Mitchell emphasized in particular the value of retaining a sense of the overall higher education ecosystem in order to maximize those impacts, especially on traditionally marginalized students.
“As we are digging deep wherever we work for the populations we serve,” he suggested, “I think it’s also imperative for us lift our heads up and ask where in the overall higher education marketplace we are underserving students, and there are plenty of those.”
Mitchell comes to his job with experience in a wide range of educational roles and settings. A Stanford PhD who specialized in the history of American education, he went on to teach at both Dartmouth and Stanford, was dean of UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies and then president of Occidental College. More recently, he worked in venture philanthropy as CEO of the NewSchools Venture Fund and served as the president of the California State Board of Education.
At the Department of Education, Mitchell now oversees U.S. policies, programs, and activities related to higher education, adult, career, and technical education, and federal student aid. He views his job, he said, as “helping to create a higher education system that lives up to our highest aspirations for equality, opportunity, and celebration of diversity.”
Asked what he thinks are the greatest needs faced by higher education in America, Mitchell pointed to several trends that have yet to be adequately addressed.
One is changing student demographics. The majority of today’s students are no longer eighteen-year-olds looking to complete a four-year degree in a residential setting, he noted. They are just as likely to be returning veterans, single moms, or people in mid-career looking to retrain in the face of unemployment. “More individuals are actively seeking higher education, and they come from a far more diverse set of backgrounds in any way that you want to talk about diversity,” Mitchell added. “And they bring with them a whole new set of challenges and opportunities.”
Currently, only 60% of students who start a four-year degree manage to finish it, Mitchell reported. Low-income students are seven times less likely to complete than wealthier peers, and Hispanic and African American student completion rates are at barely 20%. “So at the same time as we’re thinking about what’s the unique role that our institution can play given its strengths and its mission,” he argued, “I think we also need to think about this bigger picture and ask how we can take what we are learning by serving the mission of our institutions and drive that through the wider system.”
Thanks to its diversity of institutional forms, missions, and intended audiences American higher education is already set up to support innovation, Mitchell suggested. “I think that’s a huge strength and also one of the ways in which innovation happens really well,” he said.
But more can be done. Pointing to major research institutions as an example, Mitchell urged them to undertake and then share research into best practices for supporting students not only in universities like their own, but also institutions that don’t have the same research budgets available.
When free online education began to take off a few years ago, it seemed like research universities might also make a difference by sharing their own teaching in the form of MOOCs, John Mitchell noted. Is that a still a possibility, he wondered.
Under Secretary Mitchell thought it was, and envisioned a second phase of MOOC development that might unleash their real potential. “I think that potential is about institutions that may not be producing a specific MOOC using it in a way that that can engage their own students,” he observed. “They can be a part of creating the package, and putting them back together however they find useful.”
Aiding that will be new advances in learning science and assessment, which remain less mature than our methods of content delivery at present. But we shouldn’t anticipate breakthroughs in education in the way that we’ve come to expect from the technology industry and that helped birth MOOCs.
Instead, Mitchell said, we should be looking to build tools that can help us advance in a more incremental fashion, such as more authentic ways to measure student learning (and not learning) that can in turn drive improved methods for allocating scarce instructional resources to ensure that they have the maximum impact. We should also be aiming to solve the conundrum of scale, where the diversity of American higher education actually hampers efforts to spread approaches that have proven effective.
As an example of what could work, Mitchell pointed to cross-institutional alliances that are already bringing like-minded colleges and universities together to share best practices. He also suggested that educators experiment with both where and when students receive instruction to better meet their needs, changes that could help part-time and working students receive an experience as transforming as a traditional four-year residential program can offer.
Mitchell closed with an exhortation to invitees make a personal commitment to collaborate with people not in their “normal traffic pattern” when they return home.
“Continue to think big, collaborate with each other and make very self conscious attempts to build your networks out into places you don’t normally,” he urged. “I think the result will be better opportunities for scaling, but also an enrichment of the intellectual experience and enterprise for everybody involved.”
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U.S. Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell talks with Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning John Mitchell at Stanford's 2016 Learning Summit.