01/23/2015 02:21 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

Deflate This! On Footballs and Higher Education

As all of us in New England do some soul searching about how far a football team will go to win, it may actually help to take a page out of the Patriot's playbook. For as Tom Brady knows, and physicists concur, a slightly deflated football provides a better grip. (It doesn't hurt that the quarterback gripping the ball is one of the best ever, but that's a different issue...)

This may seem like a tangent, but hear me out: if we in higher education can deflate ourselves a little, we may actually do a better job at what we purport to do.

Higher education has lofty goals. To foster students' learning, enhance knowledge creation, develop thoughtful citizens, serve the greater community, strengthen diversity, raise the next generation of leaders, etc. These are indeed all true and important and we work hard at it. But as the evidence continues to build, we also have to admit a fundamental truth, probably the real dirty secret of higher education: that we're not very good at our primary job of teaching students.

Research shows, for example, that most college-educated adults can't adequately compare the viewpoints of two newspaper op-eds, that almost 40 percent of college students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" after four years, and that the actual graduation rates for students outside of the top 200 or so colleges and universities is about the same as a coin flip. These are tough numbers. Tough to hear and even tougher for the students who are impacted by the day-to-day realities of their educational journey.

Don't get me wrong. There are few legitimate alternatives. As Winston Churchill said of democracy, it's the worst form of government, except for all those others.

But there are beginning to be alternatives. As online education flourishes and digital learning technologies get ever better, it is absolutely clear to me that there are real and legitimate alternatives to the ubiquitous lecture hall. We take technology for granted when it prompts us of an upcoming appointment or suggests an alternative route to the restaurant. Why can't we accept that it can also quiz us on the materials we've just been studying or suggest another resource for how to understand logarithmic functions?

To be clear, technology will never replace the give-and-take of a deep discussion or prompt the "aha" moment of insight. This is what we educational researchers call a cognitive apprenticeship and metacognitive conceptual changes, and for me this is at the heart of what higher education is all about. I am not a machine and I don't want my students to become one either.

Which, in the end, is exactly my point: we must begin to offload the transfer of information to other means and embrace our role as helping students to transform knowledge. And this transformation, in turn, may actually help us to do all those other things we claim to do, from educating thoughtful citizens to pushing the limits of knowledge. I am of course well aware that such changes in how we think of teaching and learning will have huge implications for how we define education, how we think about college faculty, and how we insure the equity of a transformative education for all students.

But the reality is that we can't avoid the issue. The vision and mission of higher education is deflating all around us as everyone continues to wonder if a college degree is still worth it. For now, we may still have a grip on convincing others (and ourselves) that a college education is more than just the paper the degree is printed on. But our time is short. I'd rather deflate that football just a little bit and be in better control of my future.