Blog Post

Why Pundits Like to Say Education Isn't Changing. It is. It is!

Contrary to all those books and op eds decrying the dismal intransigence of higher education and college professors in general, I am finishing an essay (this is an excerpt) and writing a new book on the future of higher education (to be published about 15 months from now by Basic Books--I have to write it first, everyone!!) that makes the exact opposite counter arugment.  It's an optimistic claim:  that there are literally thousands, if not tens of thousands, of educators around the world who are exploring innovative methods, forms, theories, research, and ideas and putting them into practice in their classrooms, even as they attempt to change their institutions too. 

I am further making the claim that, given the distressed situation for faculty and students in higher education, because of a forty-year defunding cycle of public education and of publicly-funded research, it is nothing short of miraculous that so many of us in such a stressed profession are able to innovate and think expansively about how, within our classrooms and in informal learning settings, we are able to experiment with profound new ways of learning together.   In our research too, we are, in so many fields and in so many ways, enacting our roles in public, bringing our research to activism and to public interest, engaging across the sciences and the arts, and, in fact, rather than being the least innovative members of society are (yep! college profs and students!) far more ingenius, committed, and exciting than pundits say we are. 


That is interesting.  Why do they say we haven't changed--why do they want us to believe that?  Why do they want to believe that?  Why do they want society at large to believe in our inability to change (i.e. someone outside of us has to change us, right? because we won't and don't and cannot change?).  Hmmmmmm. . . . 

So here is my question:  why do the pundits keep acting as if we do not exist, as if nothing is changing?   Follow-up question:  what are they afraid of?   Discuss!   #futuresed


Those who say "higher education hasn't changed in 2000 years"  (a) don't know their history [i.e. it changed hugely between about 1865 and 1925 to adopt almost all the apparatus of our institutions today] and (b) aren't paying attention to the explosion of ideas, methods, books, articles, practices happening everywhere.  


It is possible some people want to believe nothing has changed because they have an $$$ product to sell, some new cure-all technology, that will "solve" all the "problems" of intransigent professors who, on their own, will never change.  Education has a lot of dollars to be privatized and exploited.  I'm even going to make the argument that the real fear out there isn't that higher education isn't changing but that it is. MOOCs, for example, had their hysterical moment at least partly because they really did not alter the basic epistemological, cultural, and social hierarchies of top-down traditional higher education.   Rather than revolutionary, on a structural level they maintained those aspects of education that are being most specifically transformed by many of us dedicated to "Changing the Way We Teach and Learn" (one of HASTAC's motto--along with "diversity is not our deficit; it's our operating system").  


So what does real, deep, profound change look like?

There are many different names for the ways educators are turning into pedagogical practice the cognitive, epistemological, and cultural changes wrought by the interactive, peer-led activity of the Internet, and all the different ways we learn from one another informally online—from Yelp! or to Wikipedia. 

Whether called “peer learning,” “peer-to-peer learning,” “engaged pedagogy,” or, as I tend to call it, “connected learning,” this way of approaching makes a foundational assumption about the learning assets in any classroom or in any learning community. The traditional educational structure implicitly and explicitly assumes that the chief asset of the classroom is the content and that the professor is the master of the content, a mastery certified by past masters who have tested him or her and awarded him the credentials to test and certify his or her students.  The credential is key here, as is the structure of awarding that credential.  


In peer learning or connected learning it is assumed that in addition to the assets offered by the professor, there are also collective assets that might in aggregate complement what the professor offers, amplify it, and even, in some cases, especially in aggregate, exceed the level of mastery even in the professor’s content area. 


The ancillary assumption of collected or peer learning is that our institutional structures currently make it accidental or even impossible to truly tap those assets.  They are irrelevant to the progress towards attaining the professor-awarded credential so they are devalued, down-played, seen as a distraction, or, in some settings, even viewed as a challenge or critique to the professor—and therefore are a direct impediment to the goals of the classroom. 


In the connected learning environment all this is turned inside out and supported with a structure of evaluation, assessment, feedback, iteration, experimentation, and innovation that offers a foundation for contribution and participation and rewards it.  Digital open badging, ePortfolios, peer evaluation, the classroom as lab are all metaphors and methods for different ways that actual, recognizable "credit" can be extended within a new economy of learning that still translates into real-world possibilities beyond the classroom:  this is important so that open learning is not just an elite "add on" practice to "real" prestige (and expensive) credentials attained elsewhere.  The bitcoin of education is what we are talking about here, a whole new conceptual framework of "worth" that can be attained within this new system and applied in the real world. 


If you take a look at the book my students wrote about student-led learning, Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies, ( )you will see one beginning at an extensive analysis, presentation, and how-to of how all of this fits together.  Many, many of us are exploring the way to do this.  HASTAC now has over 14,000 network members.  In a busy world, that is amazing, 14,000 people have taken the time to register for a network that costs nothing and offers nothing--except inspiration and support and a community for innovation in learning.

So here is my question again:  why do the pundits keep acting as if we do not exist, as if nothing is changing?   Follow-up question:  what are they afraid of?   Discuss!   #futuresed







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