Higher Education

moving forward on #futureEd

I’ve taken some time to get involved in Cathy Davidson’s course on the History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education. I have to say that while I’ve taken some enjoyment out of participating, I’ve witnessed a fair amount of magical reasoning, or as your grandpa  might say “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.” For example, if K-12 schools could educate students to be self-motivated, independent learners… If students had the digital literacy to seek out educational resources, create their own curriculum, and build collaborative communities to foster creative, engaged learning… If universities or tech companies or someone would create these technologies and offer them for free… If we had a valid accreditation system independent of higher education that employers would recognize as valid… If, after all this, those would-be students could get good jobs…  well, then I’ll tell you what, IF all those things, then higher education would be in trouble because the INTERNET.

Let me restart from a different point. Irregardless of technology, what is it that we want higher education (or whatever might replace it) to do?

  • support one’s study of a professional area
  • certify one’s preparedness to enter into a field
  • develop communication skills (written, digital, oral) to be able to participate in professional (and civic/public?) discourse communities
  • develop research skills, critical thinking, and creative problem solving
  • learn to do all this work independently, collaboratively, online, FTF, in a global/diverse context
  • an interdisciplinary understanding of the world so that we are not mono-dimensional.

Do we also want to say  that higher education should not only be about contributing to one’s personal long-term earnings potential but also about enhancing one’s ability to contribute to the common/social good? Then we also have to consider whether we are taking the students as we find them or if, in our vision of the future, we are offloading a lot of current problems onto K-12 education. That is, is our vision one that begins by saying “If K-12 did x,y,z then higher ed would do a,b,c.” I agree that K-12 education could be better and that we should try to make it better. However, I am not going to plan a future for higher ed that hinges on K-12 doing things it’s never been able to do.

Now we could get rid of all the trappings of modern education. We could make learning more project/activity-based, more student-centered, and more collaborative, but we will still need experts to teach and mentor students and a larger support system. We could shift more of these activities into online environments, but we will still need some FTF because students benefit from it and because that is still how the professional world works. In fact we see less telecommuting now than we did a few years ago.

So here is a semi-idealized version of how our composition program works (which is not so different from other composition programs, I think).

  • we meet 3 hours a week in-class where students write, work in groups, and have class discussion
  • our pedagogy is student-centered and project-based: the curriculum is organized around a series of writing projects
  • students explore professional genres and learn something about digital composing
  • we have a writing center and individual faculty conferences with students to mentor/support them
  • we have a significant online component for resources, class discussion, student and instructor feedback on writing projects, and so on
  • we learn how to do basic library/database research and evaluate sources
  • we practice invention strategies to find creative approaches to problems and assignments

In short, we’re contributing to many of the goals we might establish for higher education, and we are meeting the students where they are, not in some fantasy land where they are all autodidacts. What I am saying is that when you look inside the university you can find a lot of pedagogies that are conceptually sound. Even at a big public university like UB, less than 10% of the classes have over 100 students and more than 2/3 are smaller than 30. So I wonder if the problem isn’t so much resources as it is professional/pedagogical development. In a class of less the 30 you can do project-based learning, class discussion, small group projects, and so on. And maybe those things do happen regularly across the campus. I honestly couldn’t tell you how much lecturing goes on in those smaller classes. In conversations I have with colleagues across the campus though, my sense is that there concern is often that they feel obligated to “cover” some large range of material. The curriculum is set up so really the only thing that you can do is info-dump.

The problem is that the digital “solution” isn’t any better. It’s also an info-dump (plus let the students talk to each other in forums and figure the stuff out). The standard info-dump pedagogy is based on the same fantasy that imagines plugging something into  your head and learning kung-fu in 30 seconds. There’s no doubt that the info-dump pedagogy can give you a bunch of disconnected pieces of information that you can hold in your mind until the end of the semester. And if you don’t do the info-dump approach then students probably won’t do as well on a test that is designed to see how much you retained from the info-dump.

So what if we established different goals for education. What if a successful education was measured by the work students were able to accomplish, the skills they developed, and the activities they were able to undertake than by the information that they were able to retain? Maybe our pedagogies would be different. And maybe MOOCs would make less sense as an alternative. That doesn’t mean that social media and other digital technologies wouldn’t play an important role in learning. In fact I imagine they will. It just means that watching some videos, reading some material, and then taking a test on it wouldn’t seem like learning to us regardless of whether those things happened online or in a lecture hall.

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2 replies on “moving forward on #futureEd”

I find your last paragraph to be especially important. It reminds me that the “problem” of MOOCs is ultimately epistemological.


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