Blog Post

How Much Do We Really Want to Change Higher Ed?

I'm writing a new book on the future of higher education and the most effective ways to enact institutional change, even as a growing team of us are doing just that, by galvanizing energies and working on the Futures Initiative at the Graduate Center and City University of New York.   Next week, I'll be talking to the faculty here at the GC about both my research and the Futures Initiative.  I only have 15 minutes so I want to take my basic theoretical argument and boil it down to  "three main points." *    After framing these points, we'll then talk about the first course offered by the Futures Initiative, and how it models our peer-learning method.  This is the class  President Emeritus Bill Kelly and I will be teaching next semester, to 15 students, in 15 fields, who are currently teaching at 15 of the CUNY colleges and community colleges, where we will all be working collectively to ensure the students in the undergraduate classes are also part of the co-learning, co-teaching process. We're building a website now where the students of the graduate students will have direct input into the pedagogies we are practicing. (You can find out more about that project here.

So, my three main points: 

(1)  Great and innovative teaching and learning are happening in higher ed today; there are innovators everywhere, experimenting in their classrooms, in their research, and making institutional change.  Yes, there are traditionalists everywhere too, but the change is real, exciting, and it is working.  I'll give examples, because I personally believe the most transformative institutional change happens when we see how change is happening successfully elsewhere and then build upon it.  Critique makes us aware and alert.  Models of successful change help us figure a way out of our own situation to a better one.

But (2) support for change is not always easy to find so change must be accompanied by thoughtful rationale.  As much as the public and pundits love to rant about how much higher education needs to change, there is a tendency to be very critical, even condemnatory, very fast when someone tries something new, and to rant then about how we need  higher test scores, test scores, test scores.   We need to educate the public on the kind of change that is important, relevant, and leads to student success.   And we need to be clear about the narrowness of standardized testing as a metric for either traditional or innovative methods, and help them understand what kinds of changes best work for the world we are living in now.  My method is often to begin historically, to talk about how many of our current institutional apparatus was designed explicitly for the Industrial Age, around 1865-1925.  It may have worked then but it doesn't work now, and then I focus on the research on cognition, on peer-learning successes, and so forth that work better now but cannot be measured simply or even at all in the multiple choice test designed for efficiency in 1914.

And (3) I believe one reason why pundits want to say educators cannot change is because the implicit next corollary is, because profs resist change, they must be changed--by legislators, administrators, or the corporate world.  The tired plaint that higher education will never change is also part of the motor justifying the defunding of higher education over the last decades.   All of this can be covered under the sometimes vague, and sometimes confusing term "neoliberalism," which, of course, is not "liberalism" in the sense of "democrats are liberal" but in the 19th century sense of social Darwinism, public support for anything "weakens" capitalism, etc.   In broad brushstrokes, we can blame neoliberalism for the public defunding of higher education education, including the defunding of research over the last 50 years (basically since Gov Ronald Reagan made defunding universities a political issue, synonymous with undermlining progressives, and thereby reversing the patriotic public dedication to and support of higher education that began with the GI Bill).  If neoliberalism says  educators cannot change, then who can change higher ed?  Well, the answer too often, in this mode of thinking, is corporations.   But CEOs will quickly tell you that innovation is even hard in industry because of the need to report quarterly profits to shareholders.   Quarterly profits don't support either educational innovation or a dedication to a future generation (a long term goal, not one measurable every three months).   Structurally, corporations are not designed to shape general, higher education.  Their goal is profit; improvement may be a secondary goal but, definitiionally, it is not the first goal.  So designing and dumping expensive "ed tech" into the existing classroom may make profit for the "disruptive" company but it doesn't truly reform education.   Are there thingss corporations can do that also may be of benefit to higher education?  Of course there are some instances.  But general educational rethinking for the long-term goal of helping individuals lead better lives and helping the social goal of an educated populace is not part of a for-profit model.   And one major, evident downside of layering on levels of technology is it leads to a re-apportioning of expenses away from students (loans, lower tuitions) and teachers (full time and paid a reasonable wage) to tech developers, managers, administrators, and IT specialists.  


The new learning methods I and others are advocating now are never about technologizing the existing structure but  finding the best ways of thinking with, through, and about technology.  Using technology is not the same as understanding the best ways to prepare students for the opportunities and challenges of the new technological world in which we all live.    That means analyzing the affordances of the tools but also the affordances of the humans and institutions using the tools and understanding the who, what, why, where, and how of that interaction...  and then designing the best ways of learning within that context.

So those are three main points.  Institutional change rests in, around, and about those three points.* 


*The "Three Main Points" is a bit of an inside joke but it is still useful so I will pass on the story here:  Many years ago, on what turned out to be a historic trip to Vietnam, to the first American Studies conference focusing on what the Vietnamese call "The American War," we were all told that our hour-long prepared papers had to be cut to 15 minutes.  There were a number of graduate students (now famous scholars!) in our contingent and they were pretty upset about having to do this the night before, in such a high-profile event.   We sat and worked on papers together and I reassured them that you can definitely deliver a good paper in 15 minutes, that research shows that's about all the attention you get in an hour-long talk anyway, and so all good papers are centered around "three main points," and the you support that with the basic old-saw of a structure:  tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, and tell 'em what you told 'em.  Done.  Now, whenever I see those scholars, we joke about "three main points."  Next week, at the Graduate Center, I'll be delivering an hour-long talk reduced to 15 minutes . . . so the above are my "three main points."   NB to new paper-givers out there:  the above method happens to work pretty well!



Higher education as social Infrastructure:


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