2012 ELI Post Mortem – Where do we go from here?

There is a lot in this post, but rather than waiting until I have the time to think it through, I’m going to put it up.  I’m sure that’s better than never posting it at all.

Despite the many participants in higher education who do not see that change is necessary, I believe that the forces above us (tuition & budgetary) and the forces below us (alternative models of higher education) will put traditional universities in a vise, and what survives will be radically different from the status quo.  I don’t see any way we will be allowed to continue our enterprise as we have for so many years.    What are the changes facing us?  I obviously can’t be sure, but I think they will be a combination of how we design the learning environments in which we teach, and how (and to a lesser extent, what) we expect our students to learn.

Adrian Sannier identifies several signs that higher education may be approaching a tipping point:

  • Disruptive Innovation of the type described by Christensen & Eyring, and by Rosen – This comes in two varieties:  For-profit universities and Online learning (whether offered by for-profit or more traditional universities).  It should be clear that the only way we are going to educate the increasing numbers of students demanding higher education this century is with some combination of the two.  Both are making great strides at improving the quality of the education they provide and traditional universities ignore them at their peril.  There are even some important things that For-profit schools are doing better than traditional institutions.  If you don’t know what those things are, you need to pay better attention.
  • e-Readers, whether kindles, nooks, iPads or other tablets – According to Sannier, Apple sold more iPads in 2011 than all PCs sold across the industry.  iPads are increasingly the tools of choice for faculty and students.  They offer the prospect of substantially cheaper texts and other resources.  The texts can be interactive, searchable, and always up to date.  Perhaps most importantly, publishers are signing on to provide content of this type.  One speaker at the conference announced a plan to offer high school textbooks for under $20 each.
  • Free Open Courseware and Open Courses – What’s better than an inexpensive text?  The answer is a free one. Most of you are familiar with open courseware:  Course syllabi, content, and assignments offered online from MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, and other universities for anyone who wishes.  What may be better than taking a course at Stanford University?  The answer is a free course offered by faculty at Stanford.  That is a reality today.  And coming soon are free “certificate courses” to be offered by MIT and other prestigious universities   What does your school have to compete either on price or quality with these?  Still think that your institution is sitting on a strong foundation?  (If so, consider the image above.)

Much of what follows is speculative, but I think it offers some possibilities for the future.  First, as Milliron stated, learning needs to be in the center of everything we do as teachers!  (I think it’s safe to say that at present teaching is at the center of what we do as teachers.  But to quote a wise former colleague, “It’s not what we do (in our courses) that matters—it’s what our students get from it.”

We need to get away from the notion that individual faculty “own” courses.  Faculty should think of themselves as stewards of the courses they teach for their department.  This is especially true of required courses in their programs, where what students learn is a prerequisite to downstream courses.  Faculty have a responsibility to teach not just what they want, but what is expected by the program they serve.  When we think of our courses as “ours,” that doesn’t always occur.  This is one thing the For-profit schools do better than traditional schools in higher education.

Faculty need to transform from being practitioners of the art of education to being practitioners of the science of education.  As part of that, teaching needs to be recast from an individual to a team-sport.  When I began my career, almost no PhDs I knew received any significant training in teaching or course design.  From what I’ve heard since then, not that much has changed.  In the last few decades, there has been significant research on learning and cognition, which is known to instructional designers but only rarely to faculty members.  It seems clear that we could improve the quality of the courses we offer by bringing readily available expertise into the planning process.   We need to reimagine course design as a collaboration between content experts (the faculty), instructional designers, instructional technologists, librarians, etc.  While the faculty member should still be in charge, he or she can never have the expertise of the others in the collaboration, and doing without that expertise means a weaker course, no matter how excellent the teacher.  This would require a radical change in the way course design occurs.  How many faculty at traditional schools obtain significant help from other specialists when they design or revise their courses.  At present, the answer is very few.  This team approach needs to become the norm.

Chuck Dzuiban argued in his session at the ELI that faculty will respond if they can be convinced that these changes will lead to greater student learning.  He suggested further that the best approach is to enlist faculty to convince other faculty.  I’d like to believe that Chuck is right, but I think we need more than that.  Faculty need to be convinced that business as usual will no longer be adequate, that our livelihood depends on our taking a serious look at how we are teaching and what our students are learning.  I do not believe we are there yet.  There are too many incentives within our disciplines and within academia that work against it.

We also need to radically rethink the learning environments we create for our students.  What should students be learningWhat are the critical literacies for 21st Century learners?  I can see several new types of critical literacies.  None of them are completely new; all draw from existing notions of literacy.  Learning to learn will be even more important in the 21st Century than it was in the last.  What will be critical is not knowing the answer, but knowing how to find the answer, knowing who to ask in one’s Personal Learning Network; in short, knowing how to research an answer using “distributed cognition.”

Increasingly, making meaning out of complexity is a necessary skill (or perhaps literacy is a better term).  More often than not, complexity requires interdisciplinary thinking.  But interdisciplinary thinking is countercultural in the existing siloed world of disciplinary departments.

How should our students be learning?  One clue was provided at the ELI:  We need a new set of pedagogies centered on experiences instead of predigested content.  The experiences teach students the skills they need to learn in the context of the content, but the objective is not learning facts.  There may have been a time when educated individuals knew all there was to know, but that time is long past.  (e.g. Look how large the typical introductory text book is.)  This experience-based approach to learning is different than the distinction between skills and content.  I have blogged on this topic before.  What is the most important thing students learn from study abroad?  I suspect it’s not academic skills or content.  What is the most important thing students learn from a senior research project?  I think it goes beyond standard research skills and knowledge of the subject.  Either way, I suspect that liberal education is particularly well suited to an experienced-based approach to learning.

Many students find online or digital games tremendously engaging.   They rarely find school work the same way.   Increasingly, researchers are exploring ways games can be used for teaching and learning.  There is great potential in virtual learning environments, like the ones being studied by Chris Dede, in which students control their exploration of an augmented reality or a virtual world.  This may be the most promising way for understanding “complex causality” – problems than can’t be solved analytically, that require simulation to figure out.

Whatever you think of these speculative ideas, the fundamental questions remain those I posed previously:

How will student learning be different in a world of digital resources and digital communications?” and “How can teaching be different in that world?


Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joedsilva/4698703312/sizes/m/in/photostream/

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1 Response to 2012 ELI Post Mortem – Where do we go from here?

  1. Paul Latreille says:

    Great post Steve, really hitting the nail on the head. Signs of same dynamic in UK too. I guess my new role from January offers me a natural opportunity to put some of this into practice when developing modules that will be new to me. In particular, I can see real value in bringing in others with different expertise from the start, and reminding myself “it’s not the teaching, it’s the learning, stupid!” 😀

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