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End Note

A College Experience You Can Count On

A wristwatch metaphor for higher ed in the age of MOOCs
University Business, Feb 2013

Will residential liberal arts colleges follow the path of the wristwatch? I sure hope so. With all of the talk about MOOCs, online instruction, and game-based learning models, many of us working at residential liberal arts colleges are uncertain about our future. The reports are scaring us into conversations about fundamentally restructuring—perhaps even abandoning what we do and how we do it.

While it’s critical for us to think about our future, I can’t help wondering about the corporate boardrooms of watchmakers worldwide. I can think of few other “makers of things” who have more carefully considered the future of what they make.

Why? It has been widely predicted that the cellphone and our many other electronic devices would mean the end of the wristwatch. Who would wear a watch when the ubiquitous cellphone can tell you the time? 

But, increasingly, it seems the catastrophic predictions of the end of the wristwatch have not come true. According to LGI Network, watch sales jumped in 2011 by nearly 10 percent with about $5 billion in sales. Sales of less expensive watches (under $150) rose by 13 percent, and luxury watches priced at more that $10,000 rose by more than 20 percent. This growth is coming on the heels of decline in revenues earlier in the decade.

Watchmakers and their corporate boardrooms didn’t seem to panic when they encountered a threat that, if allowed to overwhelm, could have made the watch obsolete. They held steady until the world was reminded of the value of what they made. They did the reminding.

Watchmakers thought seriously about how to maintain and expand their market share. Many introduced new lines, adopted more contemporary features, finessed traditional models, used more emotional appeals in advertising, enlisted more star selling power, developed new distribution partnerships, and reconsidered the role of the wristwatch as not only for doing one job, but for enhancing our lives in numerous ways.

Timeless Liberal Arts

Though college education is not and should not be viewed as a commodity, there still might be a useful metaphor here. The liberal arts are timeless and of a value well beyond measure. The most fundamental value of a watch also is its ability to translate and communicate—in a sense to comprehend—something beyond measure. Unless we think the nature of time can be understood simply by counting the hours in a day, residential liberal arts colleges might learn from watchmakers as we face an uncertain future filled with a cacophony of voices telling us that technology is going to mean our end.

As we think about our future, we cannot forget our essential inner workings:

  • Intentionally connecting in- and out-of-classroom learning experiences
  • Maintaining small, engaging discussion and debate-oriented classes
  • Emphasizing face-to-face instruction
  • Employing teacher-scholars who teach and full-time faculty who advise students, as opposed to using a “publish or perish” model
  • Attending to each student’s path and offering a comprehensive set of services to helps students make their way
  • Building confidence in each student about what they know and can do
  • Developing skills most associated with the liberal arts: critical and creative thinking, the ability to reason in complex situations, ethical behavior, and broad perspective

These qualities are what make the liberal arts college experience reliable, excellent, and durable. We should more effectively highlight why these matter, and why those who choose residential liberal arts colleges are reaffirming their beliefs. Then we must produce superior short- and long-term proof. 

But we can’t stop there. Like the watchmakers, we must think seriously about the sustainability of our model so we can build intergenerational affinity. We must think about new ways of distributing our type and quality of education to new audiences. We must prove that what we do has a lifetime of benefits—a legacy that can be passed down.

During this time of disruption, let’s follow watchmakers’ lead and not panic or abandon our devotion to excellence. We must preserve what’s best about what we do. After all, what we both offer is timeless.

I sincerely hope my four-year-old son will enjoy and appreciate the rewards of a residential liberal arts college experience—all the while wearing a vintage Hamilton watch passed down through three generations.