Sunday, July 13, 2014

Deciding the Future of Higher Education

My current state of mind...
As I was falling asleep last night, I saw an interesting tweet in my TL, with a link to a blog post from Jim Groom, an instructional technologist at The University of Mary Washington. The title of the post ("The Bloody Watters of Higher Ed") piqued my curiosity, in part because I thought it had something to do with Audrey Watters (as it turns out, it was just a typo).  The post was a reflection on Jim's experience at a recent conference on the future of higher education.  The "blood" in the title was an allusion to a smart post from the always insightful Kate Bowles, in which Kate warns that the MOOCs --and all the talk of them in the media and on campuses--distract us from the real threats to higher education.  So long as we remain focused on MOOCs, we are blind to these other, far more perilous forces.  I think this is exactly right.

One of the (many) threats to the future of higher education is the extent to which teaching faculty (tenure track or not) have been shut out of the conversation.  Every morning, as I scroll through my TL on Twitter, I'm struck with the number of conferences that have been convened by foundations, institutes, higher education coordinating boards, think tanks, and the like.  I am equally struck by the near total absence of faculty from the programs of these gatherings.  The participants tend to be high level administrators, teaching and learning staff, foundation employees, and employees of ed tech companies.  Judging by the programs, full-time teaching faculty have nothing of value to add to the conversation.  In fact, one suspects that their absence is deliberate, and reflects the view that their presence would only get in the way of much-needed reform.

As I read Jim's post about his participation in the "Framing the Future of Higher Education" symposium, a few things jumped out at me.  First of all, this meeting happened at the conference center on my campus (UT Austin) yet at no point was it widely advertised to the UT Austin faculty.  Only one person with ties to UT Austin appeared on the program--Steven Mintz, who is the executive director for the UT System's Institute for Transformational Learning.  Anyone following higher education news in recent weeks will be aware that UT Austin and UT System do not always see eye to eye on things, particularly when it comes to the respective roles of teaching and research.  It is Dr. Mintz's job to represent the System, not the System's flagship campus.  The meeting was sponsored by the Texas Higher Education Policy Institute; and important issues were on the table for discussion.  Yet, it seems, working faculty were seen to have nothing substantive to contribute to this important conversation. 

In this coming week, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is convening a meeting in downtown Austin, on student success.  Again, one might think that this is a topic to which teaching faculty--many of us with decades of experience--might have something to contribute.  Apparently not.  Each institution in Texas was limited to sending five representatives, most of whose primary position is staff/administrative (though I am sure many teach from time to time).  The topics to be discussed include the ways that various pedagogies (e.g. flipped class, inquiry-based learning) are being executed on campuses.  It isn't difficult to predict how the conversation will go: these representatives will be told that they need to push recalcitrant faculty to get with it and to start caring about student success.  They will be told that student success is improved by tech-enhanced courses and Big Data.  They will be vested with the responsibility to return to their campuses and spread the gospel of education reform.

Far from coordinating a collaboration between faculty, teaching/learning experts on staff, and administrators, such gatherings tend to demonize faculty as resistant troglodytes who care only about their research.  Besides being false, this caricature impedes the sort of teamwork that it is going to take to push public higher education forward in a careful and responsible way.

Another example of this exclusion of teaching faculty from conversations about the future of higher education (and training in new teaching methods) is Educause's Breakthrough Models Academy.  I don't mean that none of the people who are working on the project teams don't also teach (they do); but these are, for the most part, not traditional tenured/tenure-track faculty.  The projects in development look excellent and, if they work, could be great tools for improving student success.  The model of a week-long seminar with various follow-ups is brilliant.  But, I'd argue, this is money that might better be spent on faculty development rather than "new higher education institutions, degree programs, or comprehensive student success systems."  It really does seem as if everyone is trying to imagine a future of higher education that does not include traditional faculty and definitely does not include traditional degree programs.

To my mind, the shark that we need to be focusing our attention on is not the MOOC (which genre, as Audrey Watters and Kate Bowles observed on Twitter, seems to be reverting to distance education circa 1960); but rather, the institutes, foundations, and private companies who are working hard--and, often, together--to fashion and then impose a future of their own creation onto (most especially) budget-challenged public universities.  It seems clear that the invitations for faculty participation in these events will never arrive, in part because the organizers (private sector players and foundations, for the most part) rightly suspect that faculty presence would get in the way.  Faculty ask hard questions; they like evidence of success, not just shows of enthusiasm and buzzword-laden presentations.  It is much easier to leave faculty off the invitation list--and certainly off the speaker list; and then claim their absence as evidence that they are not invested in teaching.

For too long, the majority of faculty have been willing to let others do the often tedious jobs of administration and the bulk of teaching.  The result is a significant reallocation of resources away from the instructional budget and to administrative/staff positions; disappearance of anything like real faculty governance; and the entrenchment of the adjunct/lecturer.  These shifts have been enabled by the general apathy of many faculty when it comes to things other than their own teaching and research.  Thus, instead of faculty-organized conferences on the future of higher education, we have people with a horse in the race working hard to determine the outcome.  This is a big problem.

I'm not sure what the solution is, because it often feels like the opportunity for faculty activism to make a difference has passed us by.  I hope I am wrong about that.  What I do know: any sustainable plan for re-imaging the future of a university will require close collaboration between faculty, staff, and administrators.  It will require faculty becoming informed and coming to terms with the realities of their institution's resources.  It will require working closely with teaching and learning experts, with both sides respecting the contributions of the other.  It will require administrators supporting and encouraging faculty, treating faculty as partners in rather than obstacles to their plans.  Finally, it will require faculty to understand that, for a range of reasons, things are never going to return to "normal."  The question is, what will the new normal be?  And, importantly, what role will faculty play in shaping this new normal.

No comments:

Post a Comment