In loco parentis, 2013-style and beyond

Key Insight: With a host of significant external forces pushing for change in academic institutions, the entire enterprise of teaching and learning has come under the microscope. Long-established and widespread teaching practices are increasingly considered obsolete in terms of adding clear value to students’ collegiate learning experience. In this column I explore some of those key forces, and the ethical ramifications of compelling changes we must make in teaching and learning. Specifically, I want to talk about what those changes mean for adding value to students’ college experience, and the way we must help our colleagues re-imagine and re-tool their teaching practice. In rethinking what “college” means, professors can remain compellingly relevant to students’ learning and college experience.

The 2011 Carnegie report “Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession” (see this webinar with three of the authors) brought significant challenges facing business educators into sharp relief. Anne Colby and colleagues began their research around the working assumption that something had gone seriously awry in business education over the last couple of decades—and they are correct. They argue that business education has privileged only one type of thinking – practical reasoning—at the expense of encouraging more holistic types of thinking, including reflection and acceptance of multiple frames or ‘truths.’ In divorcing practical reasoning from traditional liberal arts-based thinking, we have graduated business students who lack holistic thinking skills and empathic understanding of the impact of business practice. Given the last ten or so years, I see no viable way of arguing with those conclusions.


In other “Wow, we’re not in Kansas anymore, professor!” news, I was struck by a January 16, 2013 Moody’s report [yes, the credit rating agency] that downgraded higher education’s outlook as an entire industry. Moody’s is concerned with business models and revenue outlooks, and the firm note that higher education as an industry has been too slow to adapt to changing income availability [we can’t just keep pricing tuition higher and higher] and reduced student demand [they will not continue to take on gothic debt levels]. These conclusions, too, seem unarguable.

The MOOCs [massive online open classrooms] [see Coursera and edX ] are here and they are, by many accounts, compellingly good ways to learn course content. And oh, by the way, they are free.

These two significant and persistent external forces changing almost every important and hallowed aspect of higher education have been on my radar lately. So, what does this mean for ethics in teaching? Why am I blogging about this?

The ethics of value

Higher education has been disrupted with innovations that challenge our entire teaching and learning enterprise. We clearly need to rethink the value proposition of what we are providing, or risk being lumped with another industry that persistently and arrogantly ignored key external innovations that disrupted its status quo—the U.S. auto industry. That’s the first key ethical issue for this column.

The teaching model we have used for so very long has been all about sharing content—deliver a lecture about some relevant topics, facilitate discussion about those topics, assign homework about those topics, and test students’ “knowledge” of those topics. Even “transformational teaching” advocates still anchor the college learning experience on content mastery (see, for example, Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012). A college degree represents a composite credential testifying to the fact that students have taken certain courses and have theoretically mastered certain course content, and right now, employers still look for the college degree credential.

But MOOCs have disrupted the game. College course content is now commoditized and is increasingly freely available. Availability from the most prestigious institutions in the world is growing exponentially. The perceived gap between an online experience and an in-class experience may also be shrinking. Thomas Friedman envisions the day when students will “create [their] own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world… paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning, and the pathway to employment.” Friedman’s futuristic path to employment means the credential for employment may no longer a program-focused college degree, but rather a series of inexpensive exams that students take to certify their knowledge, which are accepted by employers in lieu of “whole” college degrees.

If content delivery can be so easily replaced by an online course or a MOOC course, and employers would someday be willing to accept a test as “learning” verification, how can we justify spiraling tuition costs? CNN reports  that 151 colleges and universities charged more than $50,000 in annual tuition, fees, room and board for the 2012-2013 academic year. That’s an increase from 123 schools in 2011-2012, and 100 schools in 2010-2011. Moody’s seems to think we’re not providing $200,000 worth of teaching and learning value for students in a four-year undergraduate program.

So if our old model is out.. what’s the new model?

In loco parentis, 2013-style and beyond

The answer has to be in re-imagining what “college” means for student learning. It means engaging with the idea that we are in it to develop students as holistic persons, as participants engaged with communities we help them enter, and as lifelong learners. It goes even beyond the classic liberal arts model– we have to be much more high-touch with students, meaning, building mentoring relationships with them that persist well beyond their graduation. In short: we actually have to care about them as they develop!

Bill Ferris re-imagined the professor-student relationship as one of a senior partner guiding a novice junior partner, a form of apprenticeship (Ferris, 2002). Bill’s metaphor strikes me as more hopeful and more responsible than the “student as customer” comparison, but it comes at a cost: mentoring junior partners is a long term relationship, where our graduate remains linked with our institution as part of an active community, where support and help are readily available at any life stage. It’s already happening at some institutions; my undergraduate alma mater, Notre Dame, has systematically nurtured its alumni and mentoring community for decades. I am part of the ND community charged with helping other Domers succeed. Now the value of that institutional support network must become part of the relationship package we provide students.

Pedagogically, we need to provide much more compelling learning environments where experiential and active learning experiences are the norm. The ‘sage on the stage’ monologuer must give way to the ‘guide on the side’ facilitator. This shift is chronicled in the “flipped classroom” concept, [link ]wherein content is delivered outside of the classroom via some technological platform, leaving class time for hands-on, personalized engagement with students. It’s a relational model that underscores how content is only a piece of what we offer in learning—an entree, if you will, to the real value of one-on-one engagement.

That means sharing power, control and authority with students to create a co-learning community. It means a fundamental shift from “college” being synonymous with content, to “college” being the holistic, relational process of student development. Yikes! Can we do this?

Helping each other

And that brings me to my second ethical issue of the column: how do we help each other re-configure what we do every day? For most faculty, moving to high-touch, long-term relational teaching goes against everything they have been trained to do, against the very model of being a content area expert acquired through doctoral programs and research streams. We cannot just flip a switch where faculty suddenly know the new rules for experiential teaching methods, mentoring students, and fostering alumni relationships. We owe our colleagues mentoring and foundational help in making such a dramatic switch in how their jobs are to be done. We owe our students professionally refreshed faculty who understand that the process of learning has trumped the content of course delivery.

To move to in loco parentis 2013-style and beyond, colleges must commit resources for faculty development. I have long held the philosophical orientation toward the workplace that no one wants to be obsolete. No one wants to experience the message that everything they know how to do, and everything they have been trained how to do no longer works. Teaching in engaged and relational ways is not obvious, and if faculty decide to just “wing it” in the classroom, bad things can happen.

Many teaching and learning societies and communities exist where our colleagues can become part of the answer to higher education’s challenges: the OBTS Teaching Society for Management Educators [] has shared relational and experience learning techniques for decades. Our Academy has consistently allocated professional development space in pre-conference to our annual meeting, and has now crafted TLC@AOM, a day-long set of teaching workshops devoted to innovation. The National Society for Experiential Education [] supports a community of teaching and learning professionals devoted to learning through experience.

There are many others, but the key ethical idea is to resist the temptation to be impatient with colleagues who appear to resist new teaching methods—they may understand their pedagogy has to change but may not know with what to replace it. And that’s where our own senior—junior partner mentoring must come in.

Some discussion questions:

  1. What are the key external forces shaping teaching and learning as we look ahead to the next 10 years, from your perspective?
  2. Have you and your colleagues held any structured, dedicated conversations about what these changes mean for the future of teaching and learning at your institution?
  3. What ideas might you have about helping our ‘sage on a stage’ colleagues re-tool their relational teaching practice?
  4. Although supporting students and relationships appears like a no-brainer good thing, what are some of the potential costs and downsides? What are the ethical issues of relational teaching from your vantage point?

Per usual I am indebted to the other Ethicist columnists for suggestions to the column, and particularly to Lorraine Eden whose encyclopedic trove included the following articles about MOOCs, relational learning, and the future of business education in light of many challenges I mention above.


Berrett, D. (2012, February 19). How ‘flipping’ the classroom can improve the traditional lecture. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lewin, T (2013, January 6). Students rush to web classes, but profits may be much later. The New York Times.

_________ (2013, February 20). Universities abroad join partnerships on the web. The New York Times.

Rae, T. (2011, May 12). Postdocs can be trained to be more effective than senior instructors, study finds. Chronicle of Higher Education.

Solomon, E. (2013, February 8). MOOCs: A review. The Tech [MITs newspaper].

Thrift, N. (2013, February 13). To MOOC or not to MOOC. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Let online higher ed mature before giving financial aid (2013, February 25).

I welcome your experiences and responses.

Ferris, W.P. (2002). Students are junior partners, professors as senior partners, the B-school as the firm: A new model for collegiate business education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 1(2), 185-193.

Slavich, G.M. & Zimbardo, P.G. (2012). Transformational teaching: Theoretical underpinnings, basic principles, and core methods. Educational Psychology Review 24(4), 569-608.

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Author: Kathy Lund Dean

I have been a member of the Academy for 15 years, and served in several governance roles including the Chair track for MSR. At Gustavus Adolphus College I hold the Board of Trustees Distinguished Chair in Leadership & Ethics. My family and I moved to St. Peter after 10 years in Pocatello, Idaho at Idaho State University.

4 thoughts on “In loco parentis, 2013-style and beyond”

  1. I always come back to learning styles with MOOC-many of today’s students are challenged by the self-direction skills needed in this open source education world. However, as students are taught these competencies at younger ages this may become less and less an issue, especially as technology adaptations continue to push to frontier of interaction (see

    From an ethics perspective I sense many institutions are cutting back on faculty development in a time when investment is needed. If so, what are some locally based faculty-faculty models that can help us retrain?

  2. This is a very interesting piece. I’ve been thinking about some of these issues since I started thinking about going into academia. It seems like the main problem here is similar in some ways to the one constraining primary and secondary education– supply side resource scarcity. It’s great to say that we need to ‘do more with less’ for students. But it does cost money to run a university. I don’t know what subscriptions to all of the journal content we have cost, but based on the murmurings that I hear from different academic quarters from time to time about how to ‘buck the system,’ I assume it can’t be cheap: we depend on the journal system for legitimacy, and the publishers know it. Presumably, we still have to reckon with that cost structure, even if faculty (and doctoral students?!) could be persuaded to take a pay cut. Perhaps the cost burden could be shifted even more toward MBA and EMBA programs– but will those students still feel the differentiation is still worth the even higher investment?

    I suspect (from where I sit as a novice) that we can’t be successful if we assume that we (the universities) unilaterally are the problem– not if we don’t want some incredibly unpleasant shocks to the system. Pressure on the system probably needs to be let off at several points along the distribution chain, not only in the universities and with professors, but with suppliers, as well. If our respective products and services are overpriced, it behooves us to reprice them ourselves, before the market presents us with a crisis; just because the industry studies and publishes on how best to do that sort of thing doesn’t mean that we’ll actually be any good at doing it gracefully ourselves.

    The question I have is what students are really demanding, and why. If they want education so that they can ‘succeed’ in a competitive market, then cheaper, more ubiquitous education may end up letting them all down. In the end, it commoditizes ‘what they know’ and lowers the market value of their human capital, especially as they increasingly compete with foreign labor markets with lower cost structures and standards of living, who, incidentally, will also increasingly have access to the same educational resources. Perhaps the causality is reversed: perhaps the knowledge- and skill- based competition is teaching the market that where one graduates from is a poor source of differentiation. Conceivably, in either case, the income differential between those who graduate from high school and learn a trade and those who ‘graduate’ from college with a ‘free’ degree could narrow substantially, as college basically became a trade education for engineers, accountants, &c. We would then expect to see much smaller class sizes by default– the value we would be providing wouldn’t be education, but tie-ins into a connected elite, access to mentoring and/or internships, or access to really privileged information (including for us academic types who want to do basic research); but even there, other institutions may arise to fill most of those niches more efficiently–Ivy league schools will likely always have the advantage in bestowing social capital, for example.

    Can we, even with our best efforts, stop such a transformation from happening, and if so, should we? What are the ethical implications for the world that such a shift would create? Even if we couldn’t stop the change from occurring, we could at least position ourselves in a way to facilitate the transition.

  3. It occurs to me in rereading Kathy’s post and the two responses that the pressures on us as faculty members/teachers/instructors and on the universities as sources of education/learning are a bit like the “five forces” in Michael Porter’s five forces model. We face pressure from upstream suppliers, downstream buyers, competitors, and from the threat of new entrants and substitute products. The universities — and faculty as the chief input — are getting squeezed on all sides. I don’t think it’s possible to stop the transformation. Better to try to understand the forces that are putting pressure on the university system of education, what the likely results are, and how to be pro-active in our responses.

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