Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Faculty Roles in the New Learning Ecosystems

The Butterfly Effect in the Lorenz Attractor
Higher education at public universities is a kind of endangered ecosystem: out of balance and struggling to figure out what form it needs to take in order to survive into the future.  The forest canopy is gone, the water levels have fallen, and a good part of the native species have fled in search of a more reliable food supply.

Contrary to views that nothing in higher education has changed for hundreds of years (typically heard from pundits attempting to discount the current quality of classroom instruction), change is happening all the time.  This is especially true when we look at the gradual but steady disinvestment of state and federal government in public institutions.  This pattern of disinvestment did not start with the recession in 2008, or even a decade ago; but has been happening as long as I've been alive (i.e. since the early 1970s).  What we are experiencing now is not the result of sudden shifts in policy but rather, the inevitable consequences of a long series of decisions, year after year, to treat higher education as a private rather than public good; and to shift the cost burden from the government to individual citizens.  As individuals are expected to pay a larger portion of the costs of their education, and to carry larger debt loads well into adulthood, attention shifts to questions like the marketability of degrees in STEM vs humanities disciplines; and the quality of education that we are offering to our students.  A butterfly flapped its wings somewhere over China in the late 1960s and now, in the first decades of the twenty-first century, we are trying to deal with the consequent hurricane.

Throw into the mix technology--and the private sector/venture capitalist interest in making money in the education technology arena--and we have our current mess.  Everyone seems to be saying that things need to change (and, indeed, they are changing whether we realize it or not), but nobody quite agrees on how they need to change or how these changes might manifest in unique ways at different kinds of institutions.  Also up for grabs is the role that technology will play in the kinds of changes that we see; and the role that faculty will play in shaping this newly imagined version of public higher education.

I spent the first part of last week at a meeting for the AAC&U/GEMS project in Kansas City.  The project as a whole is focused on re-imagining general education. I am on the digital tools sub-committee and our task is to think about what role the digital will play in this.  This was our second meeting as a group, and it was interesting to see how far we'd come in our thinking since the first meeting back in March.  Last week, we talked a lot about how technology--specifically, the extent to which technology makes basic course content much more accessible--affords educators the opportunity (and responsibility) to think hard about what it is that we are trying to do in general education courses.  Our group was largely in agreement that a 21st century general education course was not really about content transfer; but rather, about teaching our students how we solve problems in our disciplines, what kinds of evidence we work with, and what kinds of questions drive the cutting edge research in specific disciplines.  Technology doesn't just change the way we teach, it changes what we teach.  The problem is no longer one of access to content (though that does remain a significant problem for people around the US and world without access to a broadband connection or device); but instead, about how to sort through, evaluate, and act on the massive amounts of content that is now available to many college students in a split second.

Just as we are asking our students to learn to think in unfamiliar ways, we instructors are being challenged to teach in new ways.  One topic that came up both in the AAC&U meeting and then, later in the week, in a phone call with Brad Wheeler, a professor at Indiana and one of the Unizin founders, is the extent to which our traditional model of faculty "owning" individual courses is almost certainly going to fade away, to be replaced by a more reasonable model of team course design/instruction.  I don't mean team-teaching here--which, as everyone knows, always ends up being twice as much work.  I mean courses that are designed by teams of faculty, technologists, learning specialists, assessment specialists, etc.  I mean courses that might be taught by someone who was not involved in the initial design or "build out" of the course.  This makes sense, particularly as courses start to depend on expensive-to-create and maintain digital assets (e.g. graphics, animations, videos); and as they demand the kind of specialized technical skills that not all faculty will or ought to have.  It simply doesn't make sense for a single faculty member to attempt to design, develop, run, and sustain a course over many years, particularly as the emphasis in the student-teacher interaction moves away from transfer of content and towards encouraging higher-order thinking and analytical skills.  Likewise, unless public universities experience a massive infusion of cash, they will continue to rely on a large force of adjunct labor.  If an assistant professor on the tenure-track doesn't have the time to spend on course development, an adjunct--with a much higher teaching load--certainly doesn't and shouldn't be expected to.

For me, the question I always come back to--and whose answer I don't know--is what role faculty will play in shaping the future learning ecosystem of higher education.  Will we be active creators, engaged in defining our roles and taking part in policy discussions?  Or will we cling to the traditional ways we've done things, the ways that we were taught and the ways that many of us have spent at least a decade of our professional lives teaching, until we are forced to change?  Can resistance win?  Is it futile?  I don't know and I suspect that the answer varies.  My guess is that we will see change happening early and swiftly with general education courses; and much more slowly with graduate level courses.  It will happen swiftly at large, cash-strapped public universities and much more slowly (if at all) at elite, private schools with large endowments. 

I also suspect that, a decade from now, we will be running universities in ways that are almost unimaginable right now--we have to if we are going to stay in business.  The most elite/wealthiest colleges and universities may continue to do business as usual, but the vast majority of institutions will undergo substantial change.  A big part of this future is going to involve changing the ways that we create and deliver courses to students.  Personally, I prefer to be out on the frontier, experimenting and having a voice in my own future.  I have come to terms with the reality that I got tenure in a university that, in essence, won't exist in another five years.  I can pout about that or I can focus on figuring out how to adapt to this new ecosystem.  It's still a pretty unfriendly ecosystem, there's not much water to go around, but I have some hope that, with time and patience and creativity, we faculty might use our intellectual gifts to start exploring solutions to the most consequential problems.

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