The best way to improve a failing higher education system is to revamp it in a way that customizes learning to the individual student, the University of Toledo's president, Dr. Lloyd Jacobs, told those gathered yesterday for his annual community address.
"Higher education is failing in America, is on a collision course with bankruptcy, and its failure, ultimately, threatens our democracy," Dr. Jacobs said.
And the single best way to fix it is to take the business model of mass customization and apply it to education, what he is calling "extreme student centeredness," Dr. Jacobs said.
It means finding ways to meet the individual needs of underprepared students, customizing education for different types of learners, and creating degree completion requirements that are tailor-made to the student.
"We are victims of our own successes," Dr. Jacobs said. "Colleges and universities, particularly the state institutions, have mass-produced the middle class. They have, for the first two and most formative years especially, unwittingly and unknowingly, borrowed from Henry Ford's assembly-line technology and built an educational assembly line."
It's time to get away from that lock-step curriculum and occasional special programs, and create student-centered education suitable for today's learners, Dr. Jacobs said.
Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said Dr. Jacob's message was "outstanding" and in line with national conversations about improving higher education.
"The institutions that should lead us back to producing the scientists, engineers, and researchers should be the universities of this country," the mayor said.
For UT specifically, Dr. Jacobs spelled out three things it would begin immediately in this new approach to education:
•Reorganize undergraduate courses into units for core curriculum and the traditional majors and minors into a new, easily accessible computer program that would make the current degree audit system obsolete.
•Enhance computer-assisted learning and distance learning. To do that, faculty would go through a more thorough orientation with a focus on peer instruction, a chief information officer would be hired, and the university would either buy or create a platform for such instruction.
•Create a yet-unnamed entity for student-focused initiatives, such as orientation and first-year programs, study-abroad, and honors programs. It also would serve as a portal for conditionally admitted students and those who are undecided about their majors.
While the president's ideas are interesting, faculty are concerned they did not have any input in the plans Dr. Jacob's announced yesterday, said Barbara Floyd, president of the faculty senate on the main campus and a university archivist and professor of library administration.
"You just can't change the curriculum in such dramatic ways without input from the faculty because that's one area where the faculty has clearly the obligation to provide input," she said.
Ms. Floyd said it's important not just to find ways to get students to their degrees faster for economic development purposes, but to continue to offer a well-rounded undergraduate educational experience that prepares tomorrow's leaders.
Dr. Jacob's message was seen as "revolutionary" by Mike Betz, who will graduate next month with a degree in political science and communication.
"We're all looking outside of the box and seeing what the University of Toledo can do compared to other universities," said Mr. Betz, UT's student body president. "If we can have our education tailored to what we want to do and nobody else is doing it, it could be a huge."
Dr. Jacobs said UT is trying to be both a preservationist and innovator as it moves toward future success.
"The concept of extreme student centeredness treats every student individually and eliminates the need for many special programs," he said. "Every student is special. Every student becomes an individual case."
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