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Bill Virgin: Someday it may be ‘have it your way’ when it comes to education

Today’s paper is stuffed with back-to-school ads — for some retailers, the growth of this shopping season has been like getting a second December, without the decorations and music — full of all the gear, supplies, electronic gizmos and apparel to properly outfit our young scholars for the classroom.

The bigger trend story, though — and you just knew there had to be one lurking there — is where that classroom will be when those students with their accessories finally make it to one.

Or indeed, if they’ll be bound for a classroom at all.

This is especially true at the collegiate level, where a series of recent news reports illustrate just how much momentum the transformation of the traditional model of education is gaining.

Item 1: Clover Park Technical College has announced its first bachelor’s degree program, an applied science degree in manufacturing operations.

We’ll leave aside yet another trend that this story highlights, the move by more of Washington’s two-year community and technical colleges into four-year programs, in response to limited capacity at the traditional four-year schools and demand for spots in specific, usually occupationally oriented subjects.

What’s also notable about the new Clover Park program is the method of instructional delivery. To quote from background materials on the school’s website: “The delivery model for this degree has been designed to meet the educational needs of working adults. It is based on a combination of asynchronous and synchronous Web-based instruction with study groups meeting at times convenient to students.

“Mentored ‘focused study’ courses, and individual and group capstones, will be used to develop students’ independent thought and critical thinking skills to the level expected in a baccalaureate degree and required for a successful career in a manufacturing management role.”

In other words, you won’t be spending a lot of time in a huge lecture hall or windowless classroom listening to an instructor drone on (sorry, we’re sure all instructors are inspired, inspiring and engaging speakers) about material that students could just as well absorb faster and more thoroughly in another setting, without fighting traffic and hunting for a parking space.

Clover Park is hardly the first to have come up with this new model. Even in high school some teachers are flipping the traditional approach of lecture-in-the-classroom, homework-at-home so that students get the basic instruction through reading, video and Web materials in nonclassroom hours, with class time used to apply that instruction and answer questions.

If these approaches work as promised — remember that the educational highway is littered with the wreckage of new things and trendy fads — their adoption is likely to accelerate and spread, to the point that a lot if not all instruction takes place without students ever dumping a backpack in a physical classroom.

Which brings us to …

Item 2: Coffee retailing giant Starbucks’ new perk for its employees, in the form of free tuition for juniors and seniors seeking to complete their college education through an online program offering more than 40 undergraduate majors.

Interestingly Starbucks did not choose to partner with a local or regional institution of higher ed to offer its College Achievement Plan. Instead it’s working with Arizona State University.

Offering full or partial reimbursement to employees who pursue college degrees, basic or advanced, is not a new idea. But if a major employer such as Starbucks thinks there’s merit to the online approach as an employee recruitment, retention, training and advancement tool, then you can expect other employers to sign up. And if Arizona State has success in landing employers and revenue (at much less cost, it might be added, than building dorms and classrooms), you can expect a lot more schools will attempt to cut themselves in on the action.

Online degree programs offer considerable flexibility and convenience to all involved, including the ability to rapidly reconfigure programs to meet real-world demands and conditions. That’s especially important in rapidly evolving fields like high-tech.

Which in turn brings us to …

Item 3: A recent Wall Street Journal story questioned the need for a college degree for landing a very well-paying job in software programming. “Computer-science degrees teach theory and help the best engineers advance the state of the art, but we’ve entered an age in which demanding that every programmer has a degree is like asking every bricklayer to have a background in architectural engineering,” the writer opined. Intense training, whether offered by an employer or by a school such as Code Fellows in Seattle, is less expensive than standard degree programs and gets students into jobs doing practical work, he added.

There’s plenty of room in this new world for traditional two- and four-year schools. Many offer certificate programs to give students in-depth training in specific fields without the time, expense and extraneous effort involved in a degree. In the manufacturing world there’s a drive on to create programs in which students can build stacks of credentials for specific subjects and skills, somewhat like getting a whole bunch of small degrees instead of one overarching sheepskin.

Again, we’re in the very early innings of this trend. What the classroom of tomorrow, real or virtual, looks like when tomorrow actually arrives may be considerably different from what we think it’s going to look like.

But it will look different than the classroom of yesterday. Whatever unsettled feelings may be prompted by doing away with the familiar and comfortable could well be overwhelmed by improved instruction and experience for schools, instructors and students.

However that does leave one major challenge to resolve: How are retailers going to market back-to-school sales to students who are no longer physically in one?

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