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.

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5 thoughts on “Tinkering Toward Obsolescence…?

  1. Great questions! To shift metaphors, it seems many of us are continuing to discuss how to make better and better buggy whips when the real question is how transportation is changing. Higher education evolved over the past 100 years with growth of community colleges in the 1960’s, for-profits in the 1990’s, and one in four students nationally now learning through online courses. Yet research universities continue to act as if nothing has changed. Maybe they will go the way of small liberal art institutions, which have not changed substantially in 100 years, yet are significantly less a factor in higher ed overall today.

  2. Free high quality education, just like free high quality journalism, is not really possible. If the course and evaluation and certificate are free, or close to it, who pays the person who developed the course and who does the evaluation? Who works for free? Not me!

    Also some of the fundamental aspects of the campus experience are missed by the campus-criticizers. Campus is not just “expensive summer camp” it is an expensive, but worthwhile, networking opportunity. In a world where who you know matters, the college campus experience is a chance to meet and bond with similarly bright, motivated peers. For this reason degree stratification is not based so much on the quality of the education but the exclusivity of the institution. You are buying your neighbors, not the school, just like people in expensive suburbs are buying their neighbors (and neighbors kids) in order to send their kids to secondary school with other well off, motivated children. A house in a college towns costs more than the same house in another town in the same county. Why? You are buying the opportunity to send your child to school with a group of children whose parents are college professors and have high academic expectations for their children. The quality of the school building, the ability of the teachers, and dollars spent per child are similar between the university town school and the other schools in the county. The education is better because of the peer group attending the school. You’d think these learner centered people would be a little more savvy to the impact of the learners on the quality of the education.

    The bonding over a shared institution and space also gives students something in common and a level of trust that cannot be shared with a collaborator you have never met in person. Those philosophical discussions are not as fluid and do not pop up out of the blue if you are not sharing a physical space. I still feel a level of comfort with my fellow W&Mers that allows me to go more deeply into an intellectual discussion (admittedly now mostly electronic) than I ever could with someone I did not share a certain trust.

    I do like the idea of sharing course materials across universities. That part seems do-able as long as professors get credit towards tenure for developing or adding to a course whose materials they make available to others. This is a great tool to free more time up for discussion and feedback.

  3. @ Catherine Koebel Thank for your thoughtful comment. Some of what you describe as being most valued about your college experience is the connections and networking that have become a rite of passage in our culture. I think many students who have attended college / university would agree with you…myself included. But surely college must be about more than paying for the experience to “get connected,” no? As a parent, I am growing increasingly concerned about the way in which tuition continues to rise unabated…I’m worried that I won’t be able to afford a four-year ride to any school.

    That said, I should clarify that I think high quality learning can be had for free. We currently have access to a vast amount of high quality learning content that is freely available on the web (e.g., MIT Opencourseware, Academic Earth, Open Courseware Consortium), and this is continuing to grow. So the content is there. I agree with you that the social interaction, faculty guidance and assessment are what will continue to be required…and that is not likely to ever be free. I think the point that Tapscott and Williams make is that colleges and universities continue to function under the model that information is scarce – that content is king – that “teaching” was about serving up the subject matter and letting students fend for themselves. That model / approach is wearing thin…and if we don’t engage in rethinking what it means to teach and learn in the modern university…and soon…that we are indeed just tinkering toward obsolescence.

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