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.



  1. dickreddy

    The Toffler quote is so apt as was the question about whether we are educating students for their future or our past.

    It’s far more comfortable to try to teach students in ways that fit our pasts. It’s a challenge to be sufficiently on top of our subject matter, especially in rapidly changing fields, to bring them up to the present. But it’s especially difficult to teach keeping in mind that that our students have to be prepared to live in a future that will bear little resemblance to the the pasts we knew so well and which we have all struggled to move beyond.

    The easiest examples of this come in terms of technologies. I remember the time when all boards were black, when there were no computers and then when all we had were (in retrospect) pathetic, underpowered mainframes. A world without PCs or Macs. A time when our phones were rotary and when answering machines didn’t exist. A time when if you wanted to do research you had to go to the library and search there through volumes of indices or, believe it or not, actually physically have to take out books. And, if you needed to produce a paper, you had to use a typewriter and you couldn’t be more grateful for the creation of corrasable bond paper–typing paper that allowed you to easily erase typos.

    But one of the greatest challenges for us today, perhaps ironically, is that even though we should be able to recognize just how inadequate our own educations were for the world we came to live in, we tend to be either unwilling or unable to accept the fact that this could be true for our students as well–especially so if we are unwilling or unable to provide them with the tools they will need for that world. Tools that include a basic understanding of our current knowledge as well as the passion to be a lifelong learner, not just in one discipline or profession (something most of us have tried to be), but across a number of disciplines and professions. To be a lifelong learner requires commitment, requires an openness to the new, and it also requires that willingness, indeed a desire, to unlearn and relearn.

    Quite honestly, as students ourselves most of us were trained in ways that fit our instructors’ pasts and to a certain extent their and our presents. We certainly weren’t trained for our futures. We were not served nearly as well as we ought to have been. Our own students deserve better from us. And, yes, many of them instinctively know that and a lot of them really do expect and want that of us.

  2. Jan McVicker

    Thanks for giving us the opportunity to be part of the conversation, Terry, both in person and virtually. Though I won’t be able to join the in-person group for a couple weeks, I am happy to be participating in the MOOC (my first one, too) and am pretty excited to be a student among so many smart classmates 🙂 It was fascinating to be doing the Week 1 readings while I was teaching The Republic to my ENGL 345 students, I have to say, and thinking about Socrates’s wariness of writing while I was learning from my students how technology has altered their own sense of representation and presence. I look forward to spending the semester with you all! Jan McVicker, English

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