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The university of the future: Marching toward obsolescence?

A couple weeks ago, Carlos Scolari interviewed me for a project on pedagogical innovation and disruptive practices in higher education at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). The aim of the project is to produce a document on the “university of the future,” including diagnosis, trends, and proposals for moving forward.

With his permission, I am sharing my responses to his questions:

CS: How do you see the situation of the universities from a pedagogical point view? I’m thinking in the situation of teaching-learning processes inside these big institutions.

JM: From a pedagogical viewpoint, universities have invested too much in a monocultural approach to education. Most universities are using the same methods to teach all the same stuff. This is very dangerous as the world is changing so quickly that entire fields and bodies of knowledge risk being outdated/outmoded very quickly.

I believe that we need to start to expand the ecology of options that we have in higher education, including pedagogical approaches. Otherwise, we run the risk of failing universally.

CS: Why do you think it’s so difficult to change the teaching-learning practices in the universities?

JM: I think change is difficult within universities because we rely heavily on academic “traditions” that are built on faulty assumptions of teaching and learning. Some of most troubling assumptions (which are not based on science) include:

  • Motivation: We assume students must be externally motivated to learn, otherwise they would not learn anything. This is akin to assuming the natural state of humans is laziness and non-curious.
  • Age segregation: We assume people learn best when segregated by age or ability. We tend to compartmentalize education into certain discrete levels (i.e., primary, secondary, and tertiary education), and further segregate students by age. There is very little reason to support this practice, and evidence suggests that cross age/ability integration enhances students’ learning.
  • Power structures: We assume that the only “qualified” knowledge generators are the teachers at the head of the classroom, who download knowledge into students’ heads. In today’s world where the magnitude of change is accelerating at an exponential pace, information and knowledge is always in flux. Rather than relying on static “experts,” we need to start recognizing and attending to new power structures where we all serve as co-learners and co-teachers.

The good news is that “traditions” are things that we invent all the time. I am optimistic that we can create new traditions that are relevant to modern society.

CS: How can we improve the teaching-learning processes in the universities?

JM: I think we should look at new uses for software and social technologies to enable all participants at universities to become life-long co-teachers as well as co-learners. This means that students (and teachers) need to stop behaving as consumers of education, but become creators, producers, and prosumers. At the same time, learning needs to become more immersive and personally-meaningful (subjective experiences) to each learner. This means that we are likely to not have one master narrative for learning at universities, but we may have many different ones, enabling students and faculty to express themselves as postdisciplinary knowledge experts (possessing unique knowledge at the individual level).

CS: Could you please indicate three (3) innovative/disruptive teaching-learning experiences? They could be single practices (i.e. flip teaching) or institutional ones (i.e. Coursera).

JM:

  1. Democratic education: Educational institutions tend to run as dictatorships, and are structured to preserve themselves. By horizontalizing our relationships, and making sure to give each stakeholder an equal voice, we could see significant, positive disruption as students and faculty become co-responsible for attending to all aspects of the educational experience.
  2. Quest-based learning: Thieu Besselink wrote an excellent chapter on this in Knowmad Society: http://www.knowmadsociety.com
  3. Co-teaching: This is best expressed by what E-180 and the Shibuya University Network already engage in.

CS: How do you imagine the university of the future? Please indicate three (3) characteristics.

JM: This question is perhaps faulty in that it assumes that we will have universities in the future. Maybe you should start with the question: Does the future need universities?

Let’s assume that the future does need universities. In that case, I envision near-future institutions will operate in an environment where…

  1. Any form of information delivery that can be commodified, will be. We see this today with the emergence of MOOCs, Udemy, Coursera, etc. Any non-unique content delivery (especially through download-style pedagogies) will be provided through these platforms, and through a small group of providers. This is particularly threatening to junior colleges, general education courses at mainstream universities, and perhaps also to secondary education.
  2. The gap between top tier schools and everybody else will widen. The top schools may not have superior educational offerings, but they have powerful brands. Why pay to take a course at the University of Minnesota when you can participate in a free, online experience that is affiliated with a top school, such as Stanford or MIT? My take is that the top-tier schools with powerful brand identities will “own” higher education; and, in many respects, other universities will become subscribers to their products and services.
  3. Smaller, “boutique” programs outside the formal, accredited system will boom in presence and market share. Small, but highly specialized, programs such as KaosPilots, Knowmads, YIP, Hyper Island, and the Shibuya University Network operate outside of formal education, and have each developed their own approaches to teaching and learning. In an era where mainstream society are beginning to question the value of a university degree, these programs offer alternatives, and employers will become much, much more receptive to the “graduates” of these alternative education/credentialing programs.

I think that, apart from the very few elite institutions, universities are marching themselves toward obsolescence, and they may be the last to figure it out. Remember, as Anya Kamentz pointed out in her interview at Education Futures, the Roman Senate continued to meet for several centuries after the collapse of the empire.

Review: Generation on a tightrope (by Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean)

Book: Generation on a tightrope: A portrait of today’s college student
Author: Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean
Publisher: Jossey-Bass (September 4, 2012)

If, as the saying goes, our understanding of the past is 20/20, capturing the zeitgeist of the present — and, in particular, of a group outside of your own — can be tricky. Arthur Levine and Diane Dean took on the challenge, and produced a vivid portrait in Generation on a tightrope: A portrait of today’s college student.

From the introduction:

Today’s undergraduates and students who attended college before them were optimistic about their personal futures, pessimistic about that nation’s future, committed to the American Dream, little involved in campus life, disenchanted with politics and government, more issue oriented than ideological, engaged in community service, utilitarian in their goals for college, weak in academic skills, beneficiaries of inflated grades, heavy users of psychological counseling services, consumer-oriented regarding higher education, and partial to sex and alcohol, among other things.

Levine and Dean engage in a discussion of findings gathered from a number of studies, including Dean’s ongoing Portrait of today’s college student study, and the book is intended to complement Levin’s studies on previous generations: When hope and fear collide (1998), and When dreams and heroes died (1980). Generation on a tightrope is based on new research of 5,000 college students and student affairs practitioners from 270 college campuses.

At first glance, the book appears to work with the familiar theme of generational attitudes toward the digitalization of society. Rather than emulating Marc Prensky’s binary perspective of youth and technology (digital immigrants vs. digital natives), however, Levine and Dean provide a much more credible viewpoint that the variables involved are numerous and sometimes contradictory. Moreover, they recognize that tremendous socioeconomic change is still underway. This provides for a more fluid interpretation of the present that is informed by its past, tries to understand itself today, and looks toward the future.

By looking at strengths and challenges within the current generation of college students, the authors take a pragmatic view that they should be undervalued compared to previous generations, but rather:

[…] this generation requires a different brand of education that will enable them to attain their personal dreams and to serve the society they must lead. The education we offered to previous generations, whether successful or not, will not work for these students. (Chapter 8)

Will universities take on the challenge?

The bottom line: Generation on a tightrope provides a snapshot of the present that is informed by our past. The strength of the book is reflected in the depth of discussion of many dimensions shared by today’s college students. The resultant snapshot should be used to inform university administrators, policy makers, parents, and students as they build universities that are relevant for the future.


Note: The publisher provided a copy of the book for review. Please read our review policy for more details on how we review products and services.

Pew/Elon: Technologies poised to outpace universities

A survey of technology experts suggest higher education in 2020 will be quite different than it is today with expectations of more-efficient collaborative environments and evaluation schemes.

In the Pew Internet/Elon University survey, 1,021 Internet experts, researchers, observers and users, 60% agreed with a statement that by 2020 “there will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources…a transition to ‘hybrid’ classes that combine online learning components with less-frequent on-campus, in-person class meetings.” Some 39% agreed with an opposing statement that said, “in 2020 higher education will not be much different from the way it is today.”

The full report is available here.

Although the survey methods employed do not yield scientifically meaningful results, it does suggest that there is a rift forming between university leaders and technologies on their visions of the “university of the future.” From the report:

A historical perspective was offered by Dan Ness, principal research analyst at MetaFacts, producers of the Technology User Profile. “The evolution of higher education might best be measured along a geologic timeframe than mere years or decades,” he wrote. “As a former college professor in Silicon Valley (before it was called that), I’ve seen new technologies emerge which promise to evolve higher education. In the 1970s, we talked about the exciting promises of distance learning and on-campus technology, only to meet the inertia of the administration and educators, as well as students. Certainly, education continues to evolve. However, expecting a dramatic change by 2020 may be bit sensationalistic.”

The year 2020 is only eight years away. Can universities pick up the pace and lead change, or will they follow the leads of others?

The future of academic libraries: An interview with Steven J Bell

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Steven J. Bell, the Associate University Librarian for Research and Instruction at Temple University, and current Vice President and President Elect of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL). Steven received his Doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. Steven’s most recent book, coauthored with John Shank, Academic Librarianship by Design: A Blended Librarian’s Guide to the Tools and Techniques lays out a new vision for designing the future of academic libraries enabling librarians to become indispensable partners in the college teaching endeavor by integrating themselves into the instructional process.

“What can we do as academic librarians to better prepare ourselves for what is certainly an uncertain future? We just have to think more entrepreneurially and look for these opportunities.”

I first met Steven a few years ago when I contacted him after reading his excellent Inside Higher Ed article on design thinking and higher education leadership.  Steven is a thoughtful leader who constantly experiments with new ways to improve Temple’s Libraries and the profession of academic librarianship.  Our conversation focused on the future and emerging roles of academic libraries, specifically: Blended Librarians, collections, user experience, Massive Open Online Courses, the ARL 2030 Scenarios Report, and change leadership.  Below I’ve summarized some of the projects and articles Steven mentioned during our interview.

Unbundling of Higher Education

Steven thinks new learning initiatives like MITx and Udacity’s massive open online courses are an opportunity for academic libraries to serve non-traditional, potentially unaffiliated students, who he refers to as higher education’s new majority learners. In a recent article from his From the Bell Tower Library Journal column he suggested two possible scenarios for academic libraries within this emerging unbundled higher education landscape.

Scenario 1: “It seems likely that the providers of unbundled degrees, whether primarily OER like MITx or profit-driven like StraighterLine, would have little need for physical libraries. For one thing, no library means significant cost saving which helps keep tuition low or non-existent. These organizations have no research agendas nor do they seek grants, so there would be no faculty needing huge book and journal collections. Just as the case is now with some online higher education providers, library services, if available, are marginal. They can always purchase access to a set of resources that would adequately qualify for whatever passes as accreditation. They might even go to the trouble to pay a librarian to look after all of it for them.”

Scenario 2: “Another scenario might involve unbundled academic libraries that would offer different types of resources and services. A student might connect with one library for help with a question on ancient Rome, but contact another depending on the subject matter or the service needed. This might involve some extended version of resource sharing where academic libraries would serve more than their own local community. We do that now, but think of it on a much larger scale and for much more than just content sharing. Who pays for it? Perhaps the students, who might pay a fee to access the services and content on a per-use basis, or they might get “library credits” from the institution providing their unbundled course that could be used to obtain service at a participating library. An unbundled system of higher education might require academic librarians to think more entrepreneurially about how they operate.”

Some in the press have suggested these initiatives will topple the ivory tower, knock down campus walls, crumble higher education’s monopoly, and start an Arab Spring of free online learning.

Steven has a more nuanced prediction:

Am I painting a scenario in which traditional higher education and their academic libraries have no future? If it reads that way that’s certainly not the intent. I believe many traditional colleges and universities will continue to thrive and provide the type of experience that many students still want, although the number of families who can afford the tuition is likely to decline. Just anticipate fewer traditional institutions,  and fewer academic libraries supporting them.

Rising costs are a major factor forcing change in academic libraries.  Steven is working to address these issues directly through a new textbook project at Temple University.

Alt-Textbook Project

College students are spending on average $1,100 a year on books and supplies. Temple’s new Alt-Textbook Project is trying to change that. The initiative provides faculty members with a $1,000 grant to create new original digital learning materials with the goal of creating free, timely, high-quality resources for students. Steven recently spoke to Temple’s student radio WHIP about the project. Steven discusses the Alt-Textbook project as part of a larger Alt-Higher Education movement.

Blended Librarians

Steven, with his colleague John D. Shank, developed the concept of the Blended Librarian, a new form of academic librarianship that integrates instructional design and technology skills into the traditional librarian skill set. The goal is to better serve faculty and students through deeper engagement in teaching and learning.

Idea Book

The “Capture an Idea” project encouraged Temple University Library staff to record their ideas to improve the library’s user experience.  Photo Credit: Steven J. Bell 

User Experience

Steven’s recent work has focused on improving the user experience at the Temple University Libraries through researching the needs of students, and by gathering ideas from Library staff. Using the Study of Great Retail Shopping Experiences in North America Steven surveyed students on their expectations to “gain insight into what would comprise a “WOW” experience for student members of the academic library’s user community, and better understand in what ways and which areas academic librarians are succeeding or failing to provide the WOW experience”. In 2011, Steven presented his findings at ACRL’s national conference in this recorded presentation, “Delivering a WOW User Experience: Do Academic Libraries Measure Up?”.

Steven also launched a staff initiative called Capture an Idea and gave every staff member a notebook to carry with them suggesting they record community member’s user behavior, things that are broken, complaints and compliments, and general ideas about the library. The notebook’s cover read “Every decision we make affects how people experience the library. Let’s make sure we’re creating improvements”. After several months of collecting ideas the staff discussed them at a retreat and implemented a few their suggestions including a Fix-It Team to address broken things quickly.

Academic Library Roles

In a previous post I discussed ARL’s 2030 Scenarios Project and ACRL’s “Futures Thinking for Academic Librarians: Higher Education in 2025″ report. Drawing on those projects, and my conversation with Steven Bell, I created this chart to summarize my current thoughts on the historical, emerging, and future roles of academic libraries across several topics. I’d appreciate your feedback in the comments section below. View a larger version of the image.

The Roles of Academic Libraries

For more information on Steven’s work please see his From the Bell Tower column, Designing Better Libraries blog, and Learning Times Blended Librarian Community.  You can also find him on Twitter.

A plutocratic education

This piece from KQED captured my attention:

a number of authors and high-profile businesspeople and entrepreneurs are debunking the notion that college is the best solution. They’re questioning whether paying tens of thousands of dollars and investing four or five years in an institution should be the default for young people when so many more options exist. With free, high-quality education available to anyone, is college necessary? These folks say no.

Indeed, we have been hearing a lot from the überwealthy lately on what they think of education. Bill Gates thinks the Web will outperform universities (Windows required?); Peter Thiel thinks higher education is in a bubble of false promises; Mark Zuckerberg dabbles by bankrolling Newark’s schools; and, Oprah is waiting for Superman to revolutionize America’s schools.

They might be right. But, that’s not the point.

The problem is that these people have hijacked the entire conversation.

If the ultra wealthy are concerned about America’s competitiveness, the schools aren’t failing. They’re failing the schools. The nation’s ranking on the PISA tables continues to slip, but if we control for poverty, we’re darn near the top.

Maybe the problem doesn’t stem from failing schools and a rotting education system. Maybe the problem is that the number of America’s poor under 18 years of age is rising (21.7% live in poverty as reported by UNICEF in 2007) and wealth among all age groups is being concentrated to a tiny percentage of the population. Given a problem that is rooted in poverty, can we trust the ultra wealthy to “fix” education? …or, can we build a more inclusive conversation and generate more realistic solutions?