‘Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent’

In his new book, Harnessing America’s Wasted Talent: A New Ecology of Learning (Jossey-Bass), Peter Smith argues that the country needs to reach deeper into its population than it historically has to produce a sufficient number of educated and skilled workers, and that the thousands of current colleges cannot do that job. Following are excerpts of an interview conducted via email by Insider Higher Ed.

Q. Define the “personal learning” that you think is undervalued/under-recognized by the current higher education system.

A. Students are rarely asked, in depth, what they want from their college education and are almost never engaged in an ongoing conversation about it with someone who can affect their higher education experience. Until institutions personally connect the learner with the curriculum and the college experience, the learner is vulnerable. And the ‘at risk’ learner is always more vulnerable.

Additionally, the older one becomes the more experience one has to compare with what they are being taught. So, to fail to integrate someone’s experience into the curriculum both trivializes and frustrates them. That’s why starting with the assessment of prior learning is such an educationally important thing to do.

Q. What are the developments (you call them “game changers”) that make you believe the time is right to create an alternate path to a postsecondary education for these students?

A. You see evidence every day. When AARP solicits proposals for a learning platform for its members, the balance has shifted. When the Peer-to-Peer University moves into its second “term,” the balance has shifted. When StraighterLine is recognized for its courseware alone, the balance has shifted. When the global OpencourseWare Consortium gets three million hits a month, the balance has shifted.

In the book, I devoted a chapter to the “End of Scarcity” and its impact on higher education. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this trend. Colleges are built and organized around scarcity – the expertise of faculty is in short supply, classrooms and labs are limited because they are expensive, and the authority to offer a course of study is limited. Additionally, reputation is built around who you exclude as much as it is who you include and who succeeds. In fact, the whole concept of meritocracy is built on the notion of scarcity because there is not enough room “at the top” for everyone.

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