Tinkering Toward Obsolescence…?

As a society and culture we have invested a great deal in the established flow that supports the institution of higher education – campuses and buildings, courses and programs, faculty and students, lectures and discussions, research and writing, and the awarding of degrees. The time-honored semester keeping pace like a metronome. Fundamental change is not something that comes quickly in this context, and when it does it is often a reaction to some dire conditions.

Change is coming.

The global financial meltdown and shrinking state budgets have severely impacted public colleges and universities who are struggling to support “business as usual” by eliminating services, freezing salaries, cutting faculty positions…and raising tuition. This state of affairs is not limited to the U.S. either, with universities in Europe facing similar conditions. Some fear the worst is yet to come and they are making calls for nothing short of a paradigm shift. The president of the University of New Hampshire, Mark Huddleston, recently outlined a 10-year strategic plan that he hopes will keep the flagship university from sinking. The key initiatives of greater interdisciplinary collaboration, creation of an open learning portal, broadening the definition of scholarship and supporting a learning-centered environment – seem valuable and important – but do they go far enough to bring the hoped for paradigm shifts?

Innovation is needed.

It seems that if higher education is to regain its grip on learning and remain relevant, an entirely new model for the modern university needs to be envisioned. In a recent piece in the EDUCAUSE Review, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams provide us with ideas that move us from simply considering change to thinking about how to innovate higher education. They outline two key shifts: 1) transforming pedagogy by envisioning new practices for collaborative learning, and 2) opening up the university structure so institutions can connect with each other to create what they call the Global Network for Higher Learning. These ideas challenge long accepted values about pedagogy and the fundamental infrastructure of the university.

Where will higher education look to guide innovation? How will colleges and universities choose to engage in this conversation about change and innovation? What will be needed to encourage current faculty members to chart a new course on uncertain terrain? How can future faculty be prepared to engage with and contribute ideas to fuel innovation and create the university of the 21st century?

I’m not sure if these are the right questions, but it seems like if we ignore or pass over them we participate in planning our own obsolescence.