On ceding power to learners

On ceding power to learners
Photo by Rodion Kutsaev / Unsplash

Higher education today is faced with an extraordinary evolutionary step. Nobody gets to opt out of this step, and whether colleges and universities make it successfully could determine whether they are robust and successful for years to come, or whether they fade into obscurity and irrelevance. That step is to cede power from the institution back to the learners. In other words, universities have to decide whether or not learners[1] are going to be empowered partners in the educational process, as the world moves forward from 2020.

This choice can't be ignored because quite simply, the evidence is mounting that people want an empowered experience in their education, and everywhere else. They are less patient than ever with the lopsided power dynamic that has existed between students and universities since the invention of the university. That power dynamic is simple: The university holds all the cards and always has. Nearly every facet of a person's experience as a student --- especially including the learning experience they get in the classroom --- has been the property of the university, and learners simply get what they get. The students, seen as not experienced or smart enough to make real decisions about their education even with guidance, were expected to just comply with the playbook.

And yet, we wonder why students are doing so poorly in college these days. As early as 1993, the negative effects of a lack of student empowerment in their eduacation was apparent. That was when Alfie Kohn wrote:

The best predictor [of burnout], it turns out, is not too much work, too little time, or too little compensation. Rather, it is powerlessness – a lack of control over what one is doing. [...] Combine that fact with the premise that there is no minimum age for burnout, and the conclusion that emerges is this: much of what is disturbing about students’ attitudes and behavior may be a function of the fact that they have little to say about what happens to them all day. They are compelled to follow someone else’s rules, study someone else’s curriculum, and submit continually to someone else’s evaluation. The mystery, really, is not that so many students are indifferent about what they have to do in school but that any of them are not. [Emphasis added]

People of all ages have had enough of burnout and are justifiably looking for ways to cut it off at the source, including their education. Current and potential college students are voting with their feet and their tuition money. The alternatives to college as we've known it are getting better and more numerous every year, and nearly all of them give learners a greater say in their education than traditional higher education does. These alternatives don't usually just let learners do whatever they want --- "empowered experience" does not mean "free-for-all" --- but they do treat learners like grown-ups. They treat them as partners who have something real to say about their learning, and work with them to co-create something of value to both the learner and the provider. In short, learners are attracted to empowered educational experiences and repelled by everything else.

Say what you will about the alternatives to higher education, but they offer a winsome model. A generation of high school seniors, newly aware of the limitations of traditional educational structures and concerns about the viability of college degrees, are discovering just how winsome it is. So are adult learners who are now vivdly aware of how good self-determination tastes after two years of greater flexibility in their work. So are those who want to learn but care less about traditional credentials; companies who want to provide learning as a benefit but can't jive with the traditional rigidity of universities; and so on, and on and on.

But traditional higher education is better that those alternatives, you might say. I wouldn't disagree, although "better" is hard to measure. I personally believe traditional universities, like the one where I work, still provide better options, better networking, and better learning experiences --- for some. Namely, for those who enroll, fit in, and survive. But take a look at current persistence rates these days and you may doubt whether "better" really matters, if so many are being filtered out or never starting in the first place.

Just exactly why those rates are what they are, is a complex question. But there is no doubt in my mind that ceding power to learners and giving them a truly empowered educational experience is the key for our survival in traditional universities. If we embrace this idea, I think we'll be OK. If we don't, we may not last long enough to realize the mistake.

So why don't we just commit to empowering students in their education? In places where higher education is at its best, this is precisely what we're doing. The proliferation of active learning in the classroom is an excellent example and the very epitome of empowered educational experiences. It's been shown again and again and again to be good for students no matter how you slice it. Alternative grading practices are another visible pedagogical sign of a commitment to an empowered experience that show great promise for helping students persist and succeed. Anywhere you see more empowered educational experiences happening in the university today --- in our policies, our structures, our pedagogy, our relationships --- you see better educational experiences. Why would anybody want anything else?

And yet, reluctance is widespread. Some people hear the phrase "empowered educational experience" and stop being curious because it sounds buzzwordy. Or, it's vague and they worry that administrators will sieze upon it to ram some half-baked initiatives from the top all the way down. For the first group, I hope this article clears up the meanings of the words. For the second, I can only hope that you trust your faculty governance processes; that's how you prevent administration-driven scope creep, not by taking away from students the chance to have some positive contribution to the education they are experiencing.

But there are others who hear this phrase "empowered education experience" and know precisely what it means, and it's a threat. It says that we are going to illuminate the path forward in higher education by starting with trusting our students and any other learners who might want to join us. This is a threat because it means we (faculty and administrators alike) can no longer hide behind a mantle of absolute authority[2]. It means that we have stop thinking that students simply can't make real decisions about their own education. It means we unilaterally disarm ourselves in this ongiong circular firing squad of mistrust. It is a singularly dangerous idea.

We face a choice. We can keep on doing what we did in the past, using the power structures that "worked" for us, or we can deal with the problem by giving that power away to the people we are serving and treating them as partners in the process. What will our vote be?

  1. Why do I use the term "learners" rather than the more common term "students"? Mostly these are synonymous, but there is a key difference, in my view: "Student" connotes someone who is currently enrolled in a formal educational process, while "learner" is just a human being who learns. You can be a learner without being a student (I'm an example). Conversely you can be a student, duly enrolled in a course, without being a learner. Being a "student" is a matter of paperwork. Being a "learner" is a matter of the heart. As someone in higher education, I will serve all students whether they are currently learners or not; but the evolutionary step I'm writing about here is all about reaching learners who are not presently students. ↩︎

  2. I get that faculty today feel more disempowered than ever, in some measure due to the pandemic and rapid sea changes to what we thought we knew in higher education. So going to faculty in that situation and saying that they need to give up what little power still remains within them after 18 months of constant depletion, sounds like asking them to say "yes" to further demoralization and burnout. I would respond by saying, what I am writing about here isn't something just faculty do, but entire institutions. It's about distributing power differently across the board and particularly to students. So if you're, say, a college president, this applies to you too --- if your students aren't thriving because you're a micromanager who doesn't provide enough resources for faculty to thrive, while you maintain your own power, then start with yourself. To faculty, I would say you might be surprised how much your energy level rises when you empower students more. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.