Thinking locally, sharing globally

On Friday, January 31, a group of fifteen faculty and staff  came together as students for the first local “discussion section” of the MOOC on the future of higher education at SUNY Fredonia.   We are all students in a MOOC led by Cathy Davidson, Professor of English at Duke University, on “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education: Or, How We Can Unlearn Our Old Patterns and Relearn for a Happier, More Productive, Ethical, and Socially-Engaged Future.”

Discussion Section of  The Future of Higher Education

Discussion Section of The Future of Higher Education

The discussion on Friday morning was engaging, entertaining, and sustained by an energy that students bring to the first day of class.     As we introduced ourselves, and our reasons for participating, it became clear that we brought a remarkable diversity of experience and perspectives to the table.  Faculty from history, political science, education, English, Spanish, music gathered with staff and administrators from human resources, equity and diversity, instructional design, academic support services to talk about the future of higher education over coffee and danish.

Most of us have never experienced a MOOC before and many had never taken or taught an online course.  We began by reflecting on the experience of the MOOC, acknowledging that Professor Davis has designed The Future of Higher Education as an anti-MOOC, in which authority is distributed among all the learners.

We all seem to be adapting as students to a new environment of learning.  Some talked about feeling overwhelmed by the material of the course and the non-linear experience of moving among lectures,  forums and readings.  They said they missed the definitive structure of a course that starts and stops at scheduled times. One of our participants said that he realized he had to treat the course as if it had a definitive time, so he schedules two hours on a specific day of the week for his MOOC.   This experience has made us aware of the level of self-discipline that a student needs in order to complete an online course.  

Most of us liked the ability to start, stop, slow down or speed up a lecture as needed to help comprehension.  Others felt the forums to be daunting in the number of posts, and some felt a little shy about contributing.  Do I dare start a new thread? said one participant.

The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.  –Alvin Toffler

But judging by the quality of our discussion, the members of our discussion section learned a lot from the first week’s lesson.     All the participants in the discussion section were born and educated in the twentieth century, yet we find ourselves needing to adjust to a new paradigm of teaching and learning in the twenty first century.   One participant said that the week’s lesson had made her reflect on whether we were really in an educational system created for the last information age.  “Are we educating students for their future or our past?”  This question may become the touchstone for our discussion section.

"You must unlearn what you have learned."

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

The discussion that unfolded on Friday was  peppered with references to Robert Heinlein, John Cage, Robert Pirsig, and Yoda,  as each person took turns as teacher.  After our discussion, we exchanged links by email to Ken Robinson’s RSAnimate on Changing Education Paradigms and Seth Godin’s TED on the future of education.

As a provost, I find that I have to be determined and disciplined not to let the tyranny of administrative minutiae take command of my head space.  I think it’s a matter of survival that we take time to have important conversations like this.  I am grateful to Professor Davidson and her team behind the camera at HASTAC for giving us a wonderful, rich course on the future of higher education.


Jeffrey Selingo’s College (Un)bound


Jeff Selingo’s book cover

I found myself in equal measure nodding my head in agreement and shaking my head in protest as I read Jeffrey Selingo’s book College (Un)bound:  The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).

Selingo draws a clear picture of the formidable “disruptive” forces driving change on America’s college campuses—the “sea of red ink” brought on by the Great Recession, diminishing state support to colleges, diminishing pools of students willing and able to pay full tuition, the increasing pathways that students have to credentials, including “unbundled alternatives” like MOOCs, and the growing gap, whether right or wrong, between the rising cost of college and the perceived return on investment to the individual and society.  Add to these forces the increased demand for a more “personalized” or “customized” education (the effect) from students who are more heterogeneous in their backgrounds, abilities and needs and the digital revolution that has given anyone with an internet connection free access to courses from the nation’s elite institutions—Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and among a growing list others.

Selingo predicts, and I agree, that these inexorable forces will change higher education forever, forcing campuses to offer more personalized education and mentoring, more hybrid classes, “unbundled” credentials leading to degrees, more fluid timelines for students to start and stop, and  reform of the college funding structure.

College (Un)bound is an overview of the current state of higher education from the point of view of a reporter writing for the benefit of the general public, particularly students and their families.  Selingo, who is Editor at Large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, plays the role of the experienced and informed tour guide leading the reader through the unfamiliar territory of American higher education (for example, he explains that the American Council on Education is “the umbrella organization for dozens of higher-education associations”) and interpreting dense academic research in remarkably accessible, lucid prose, studies like Bowen’s Crossing the Finish Line, Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift, and Katz and Goldin, The Race Between Education and Technology.  He engages useful concepts like Richard Florida’s “means migration” and Daniel Pink’s concepts of creativity.   He uses a storytelling, case study approach, relying on examples of real students on real college campuses to illustrate his points.   The effect is to give us a sense of the heterogeneity of college students on multiple pathways through a variety of institutions.

Yet Selingo’s reporterly use of anecdotes, and his commitment to simplify complexities for his readers leads him to make infuriatingly over-generalized statements like the following sampling:

What you witness are campuses where the students are customers first, classrooms are filled with adjunct professors who rush off to their next job after class, and students spend very little time engaged in studying or learning….

The classroom has become one giant game of favor exchanges between students, professors, and administrators.  When they each play their parts, everyone comes out a winner.  Students receive better grades, adjuncts keep their jobs year after year, full-time professors win tenure or have to spend less time dealing with students complaining about bad grades, and administrators are rewarded with more money and higher rankings….

Right now, colleges have a corner on the credential market, and a credential is the ticket to most good jobs.  That’s why colleges can charge whatever they want for that piece of paper….

How rigorously colleges prepare students for the workforce, as well as mature them for life, will play a greater role in the calculation of value.  And on that front, many colleges don’t measure up….

Nearly every school has gateway courses that essentially mimic similar classes on other campuses, right down to the textbooks they assign.  I call them commodity courses….

There are about 21 million students taking on about 4500 two- and four-year colleges and universities in the U.S.  Statements this broad are bound to be as right as they are wrong, and ultimately meaningless.

Okay.  I have to confess to some defensiveness in the face of the picture that Selingo draws of college leaders and administrators who are the embodiment of all that is wrong with higher education.  In Selingo’s view, university administrators are out of touch, old-fashioned leaders of a “risk-averse, self-satisfied industry” by following “the same tired playbook.”  We are braggarts who cheat and game the system of college rankings to our favor.  Ten years into college leadership, I have developed a pretty thick skin, so this doesn’t rankle me much.  I understand that in the game of pass the buck of responsibility and blame, The Administration is the easiest target to hit—standing tall and obvious like some oafish giant.  I get that.  I also get that there is some essence of hard-to-take truth in Selingo’s picture of higher education and its leadership, and I think that the book has uses for college administrators, staff and faculty who are willing to take a hard look at our public perception.

As I read College (Un)bound, I thought that Selingo seemed to be trying to do for the current state of higher education what Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat did for globalization–move it from a classroom conversation among academics to a kitchen table conversation among students and their families.   I found myself missing the ebullience of Tom Friedman, who is able to balance a bracing presentation of facts with an excitement about what might be next.

While College (Un)bound serves its purpose for its intended audience, it makes me realize that among the growing stack of books on my shelf in the genre of higher-education-is-a-broken-mess, I am longing for an honest assessment and useful map to help all of us–students, families, faculty, administrators–navigate the dangerous seas of change in higher education. Will someone please write a book soon about how the upheaval in higher education may actually, in the long run, be good for students, good for society and maybe even good for higher education itself and include a map to get us there?  Please?

Questions for a Campus Discussion of College (Un)bound

As I say above, College (Un)bound is not a guide for administrators and faculty on how to fix higher education.  In distilling the issues down, College (Un)bound skims over or omits urgent campus issues such as the increased reliance on part-time adjunct instructors, the future of tenure, remedial education and college readiness, binge drinking on residential campuses, the confusion caused by the turnover of top level college leaders.

Even so, I think the book would be a useful and provocative common reading on any campus, starting with the generalizations like the ones listed above.  I will be discussing the book with academic leaders on my campus.  I’ve included below some of the questions that we will be using to guide our discussion.

1.  Identify two to three sentences, brief passages or ideas that struck you as particularly true, false, surprising, shocking, etc., in Selingo’s book and be prepared to share your perspective with the group.   What does it mean for us at this institution?  For you and your work on campus?

2.  Selingo identifies five forces of disruption that he argues “will change higher education forever.”   Is there evidence that these forces are already having an effect on our institution?  Where do you see them at play?  How might these forces change our institution “forever”? How might we adapt to these changes in a way that ensures a sustainable future for our institution?

3.  In his conclusion, Selingo reframes his point about the forces changing higher education in more positive terms, identifying “five ways higher education will change in the future.”  How might our institution adopt some or all of these five changes?  For example, what would it look like if we offered a more personalized education, a balance of hybrid classes, unbundled degrees with fluid timelines for completion?  What will it take to get there?

4.  In one of the final sections of the book, Future Forward, Selingo lists about twenty institutions that he considers “forward-thinking universities to keep an eye on.” What would it take for our institution to be listed in this group of twenty innovative institutions?

5.  Finally, Selingo’s book, which is written for students and parents, lists questions that prospective students should ask about colleges or universities that they are considering.  If at the next open house or orientation you were asked by a parent or a student the questions in Selingo’s “Checklist for the Future” (pages 2018-212), how would you answer these questions?

A massive, open conversation about the future of higher education

Whatever your interest or experience, you are invited to join me and 50,000+ other students in a massive, open, online course (MOOC) on the future of higher education led by Cathy Davidson, Professor of English at Duke University.  Professor Davidson has designed an intriguing course on “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education: Or, How We Can Unlearn Our Old Patterns and Relearn for a Happier, More Productive, Ethical, and Socially-Engaged Future.”  Cathy Davidson is co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Sciences and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC), “a network of innovators dedicated to new forms of learning for the digital age.”

The six-week long course, which begins on January 27, 2014, will use a variety of methods (lecture, discussion and interview) to deliver the course digitally to participants all over the world.  The learning objectives are stated clearly and reflect the passion that Professor Davidson has for the subject:

  • Understand how and why we inherited the Industrial Age educational systems.
  • Think deeply about the requirements of the world we live in now.
  • Discover new ideas, methods, competencies, and subject matter.
  • Share our pathways to successful innovation with others around the world. Together, we can change schools, classrooms, institutions, learning–and maybe ourselves!

The recommended readings for the course are Professor Davidson’s book Now You See It: How Technology and the Brain Science of Attention Will Change the Way We Live, Work and Learn (Viking2011), which will be made available free online for the first 50,000 students registered for this course, and two readings available as free downloads,  Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning, and the Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age.

Participants who successfully complete weekly quizzes will receive a Statement of Accomplishment, which is not the same as college credit from Duke University (or any other university).  We are in the midst of a great shift in paradigms from credentials (e.g., college degrees) granted on the basis of how many credits a student amasses to credentials granted on the basis of what a student learns.  I assume this paradigm shift will be one of the topics that the course explores.

I will be leading a local “discussion section” of the course on the SUNY Fredonia campus on Friday mornings over coffee.  (The exact place and time will be determined once I know how many will be joining me.)  Contact me if you have questions about our local discussion section.

If you are reading this post, then you have the basic computer skills necessary to participate in the course.  You can learn more about the course and sign up for free at Coursera.