What Our Keyboard Says about Solving the Challenges of Higher Education

Embracing alternate delivery modalities and self-paced learning? Consider this.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kevin Roberts

I would guess that most of you do not recognize the name Christopher Latham Sholes; however, his work impacts you every day, thousands of times. In fact, this very article is a direct result of Mr. Sholes’ labors. In the early 1870’s, Christopher Latham Sholes invented what we now call the QWERTY keyboard. If that still does not ring a bell, take peak at your keyboard, the top row’s letters from left to right spell QWERTY. “QWERTY” is the accepted layout of all English based keyboards and it was designed to be difficult to use, because he had a problem to solve – jammed keys on the typewriter.

“We simply cannot afford to continue to operate using our old paradigms in the post-pandemic world.”

In higher education, we have been predicting an upheaval for nearly a decade. However, much like Mr. Sholes’ keyboard the existing model has stubbornly held on. Unlike the keyboard though, the consequences of hanging on to our existing education models—those designed to address century old problems—could have devastating impacts on our future. We simply cannot afford to continue to operate using our old paradigms in the post-pandemic world. Let’s go back to the standardized keyboard for a moment.

The History of QWERTY

The standardized keyboard we all use today has not always been “the standard.” Back in the late 1800’s as typewriters were being invented and becoming mainstream, there was no commonly accepted keyboard layout. In fact, the earliest models put the keys in two rows like a piano, in an A-B-C-D-E…order. While this design was very intuitive and familiar, it never really caught one due to a major design flaw. It was, too efficient.

At the time, typewriters were manual and relied on a hammer for each letter striking the ink ribbon and leaving its mark on the page. If the typist was too fast, the hammers would jam, and they would have to stop typing to fix the jam. So along came Christopher Sholes with a solution. He used the results of studies to determine the absolute worst combination of letter placements. He separated letters that often were used together such as “th” and put them where it would take two hands to depress them. He made sure that the most common letters were the difficult to reach. In short, Christopher Sholes designed a keyboard that was purposefully difficult to use. While this seems counterintuitive, it makes perfect sense in the context of the problem he was trying to solve. He needed to slow down the rate at which people could type in order to solve the problem of jammed keys.

The days of manual typewriters and their jammed keys are long gone. Yet, here we are still using the same QWERTY layout designed 150 years ago. Why? Why in the world would we keep using something that was specifically designed to be inefficient? Well into the 21st century, why would we keep using a solution for a 19th-century problem that no longer exists. Why indeed? The truth is that there is no good reason. It is just a fantastic example of our unwillingness to change the status quo. As odd as it seems, we would rather keep doing something familiar, even if it no longer serves a purpose, than adopt something new. We humans are an odd lot.

While peculiar, in the grand scheme of things, the QWERTY keyboard is not that big a deal. The balance of our future does not lie in changing the layout of our keyboards. This is not the case for everything though. COVID-19 and its devastating, unprecedented impact on the world’s economy has shaken everything and the resulting impacts will likely be felt for a very long time.

Higher Ed is Solving the Challenges of Previous Centuries

Paul LeBlanc, the President of Southern New Hampshire University recently said, “The traditional strengths of American higher education – the measured and careful design of curriculum, two and four-year degrees that represent substantial learning over time, a rich coming-of-age experience for those who can afford it, [and] stunning campuses – may not be enough to meet the challenges that lie ahead.” The picture of college life painted by Dr. LeBlanc is ubiquitous and many ways comfortable. The problem is that it is out of date. It is based on solving problems of previous centuries and we cannot afford to hang on to it.

Solving the Challenges of THIS Century

In the last two months, more than 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment. For some context, in the recession of 2008 and 2009, 8.8 million jobs were lost. Clearly, these are unprecedented times and recovering from them will call for unprecedented measures. This is not the time to wring our hands and long for the “good old days.” This is not the time to circle the wagons in the defense of the status quo. This is not the time for fearful or blind adherence to comfortable paradigms designed to address problems that no longer exist.

Colleges and universities have a golden opportunity to re-think their long-held beliefs on what a college education looks like. The country needs us to step up and help everyone re-tool for the new realities. It is time for us to question the necessity of many notions that we consider fundamental. This includes such constructs as the 15-week semester, the credit hour standard, and the “sage on the stage” approach to faculty led instruction. We have an opportunity to fully embrace heretofore fringe ideas such as badging, certificates, real-time job training, and competency-based credit. We have an entire country primed to embrace alternate delivery modalities and more self-paced learning.

This is the time for bold leadership and new approaches. Institutions stand on the brink of a new world and opportunities that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago. The question is which institutions will be ready to step out and say, “enough is enough” and which ones will hang on to the metaphorical keyboard that was purposefully designed to be inefficient?

Higher ed, we are at a decision point and choosing the road less travelled could very well make all the difference. The world is waiting for your choice.

Kevin Roberts is Regional Sales Manager for Campus Management and Former CIO of Abilene Christian University. Connect with him on LinkedIn.


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