Blog Post

Future of Higher Ed at Duke, Class #3

A lot has happened in a week! Or rather, a lot has mobilized. Last week the MOOC “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” opened. I woke up early to watch the videos that had been sent ahead of time to the Community TAs and then headed over to Duke’s Smith Warehouse to monitor the activity on the site when the MOOC officially opened at 10am. From 10am-1pm, I fielded some questions and posted some of my own. As a historian of Latin America, I was particularly interested in the international participation of the group, which I wrote about last week in a blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Yet, beyond the pins going up on the digital MOOC map, the side conversations that people were having with each other on topics ranging from their favorite teacher to education in Romania captured my attention. Considering our face-to-face class’s assigned reading for the week, I began to wonder about MOOCs, the #FutureEd movement, and the face-to-face companion class, as institutions and mobilizing networks.

For class last week we read the fifth chapter of Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in the Digital Age (2010).  In this chapter the authors argue that institutions are mobilizing networks because they provide spaces where people and collectives can activate change—even changes to institutions themselves. Traditionally, we have thought of institutions as static organizations housed in even more static buildings. But, institutions are also a place where people network, form groups and sub-groups, and discuss and enact change. In many ways, the conversations that I saw taking place in the digital space of the MOOC are the same conversations that take place (perhaps on a more diffuse scale) on college campus quads, and in the cafeteria, classrooms, and dorms.

The activity on the MOOC along with the reading also got me thinking about our face-to-face class. In another blog for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, my classmate Billy Osborn wrote about the diversity of our class. We are all from different disciplines. Billy has military background. Another student has experience as an adjunct professor and is now studying public policy at Duke. We have two undergraduates, four MFA students, and at least three graduate students from other universities. In other words, this is a class that would not fit neatly into my institutional department (History) or any other traditional discipline’s core requirements for its graduate students. Yet, the class exists. Does it exist because institutions are mobilizing networks? Or, does it exist because Dr. Davidson and other professors and administrators at Duke want to help students like us mobilize? Perhaps a bit of both.

I suppose that I didn’t quite realize what “mobilizing” meant to me personally until this Monday night when three of my classmates and I met on Google Hangout to discuss our final assignment. Due to the nasty winter weather in North Carolina last week (a whole two inches of snow!), Duke University closed and our face-to-face class was canceled. Dr. Davidson held a Google Hangout for our group that was later posted to the MOOC, but she also asked that we try to meet in our small groups to advance our work on designing a university from scratch. It was during this small group conversation that I realized our classwork could potentially instigate change. Or, at the very least, the conversation inspired me to think more actively about what it would take to create a different type of university space.

My group includes an MFA student, an undergrad, and a student in Classics. For about an hour we talked about our goals and dreams for higher Ed. We drew some preliminary conclusions. Education in the 21st Century should help students locate their skills and interests and identify ways to pursue them in real world cases. It should also provide spaces for collaboration with people in communities outside of the university space. These spaces may be through online networks, but may also be in the form of some larger project(s) that all students are required to participate in before “graduation.” We questioned the notion of “graduation” as a right of passage and problematized the segregated spaces inherent in university hierarchy. For the first time since joining the #FutureEd movement, I really felt like I was mobilizing—like there was potential for me to do something more than just talking. We left the meeting with some tentative plans for how to proceed during our next meeting in class, which meets TODAY!

During class today, our group will have to present our university name and motto. We’ve been working out some ideas on a Google doc and hopefully these ideas will coalesce over time. I don’t think we’re quite ready to show our plans to the world, but I figure that mobilizing online networks even at this premature stage couldn’t hurt. So, one idea for a motto that we have is pasted below. What do you all think?

Motto: “To empower people and communities to recognize and actualize their full potential as individuals and collectives to positively contribute to our changing global world.“



Think of the Ivory Tower as a Castle where all the admins, faculty and staff exist to make the Castle function. The students are citizens. when the tower appears threatened, the faculty recruit the citizen/soldiers to go forth and challenge the outside forces, but not to question why those at the top are not on the front line taking the risks or whether the problems are internal to the castle itself and there needs to be a revolution. This needs to be consideered because those on the outside are the bank accounts that support the Castle and those at the top. These are governments, foundations, concerned individuals and others that have their own agendas. 

The citizen/soliders need to understand that those on the outside may be more of a friend and ally to the students then the faculty, staff and administration who are housed in a self created brick and click space that maybe antithetical to the citizen/soliders' needs. Perhaps what appears to be a student concern is that of the Castle's permanent residents trying to save their sinecure.

Those who study cycles of "innovation" point out that the first step of the existing entity is to ignore, then to deny, then to bury, followed by cooption, absorption and adoption. (There are variances, but the sequence is basically the same. 

Perhaps it's time, as in the Matrix, to swallow the "red pill". Perhaps the land once known as Camelot is no more and the age of "Middle Earth" has come to an end- a past that never was is not a future that will be.



In traditional Western and Asian classrooms, students participate in adult-run classrooms where the assumption is that students' minds are like empty vessels that need the depository of knowledge. Learning is a process of transmission--factory style. In 'progressive' educational movement, the instruction has shifted to student-centered learning. It values learning as a product of discovery of knowledge by oneself or with peers. However, both models focus on the two dimensional transmission or acquisition of knowledge, and ignores the aspect of learning gained through communities. In community-based learning, student learn the information as they "collaborate with other children and with adults in carrying out activities with purposes connected explicitly with the history and current practices of the community" (Rogoff, 1994). As we begin to envision what future higher education looks like, I think it's crucial to rethink how a K-12 classroom should look like in order to ensure that students are well equipped with the skills to make community-based collaborative learning through online and offline networks possible. 


The weakness of traditional Western and Asian classrooms, schools, colleges, and universities is when they DO presume student minds are "empty vessels." We now that, and we know that "knowledge" is not like some filling.

Given that, all we need in higher ed are the right questions - to inspire the search for knowledge appropriate to solve the right problems. That is the basis for the Right Question Institute, just as it is how Olin College, an innovative engineering school, does without any prerequisites in any engineering course. Students find out what they need to solve a problem - and it may mean a short or long self-study.

Keep in mind Larry Cremin's favored story of why we have eight elementary grades: the contractor built 8 rooms for the first graded school in America in 1847, because the site could only hold eight rooms. The whole structure of sequential knowledge needs a much clearer perspective. Clearly, young people (at any age) have to have some experience and perspective, some curiosity and some experience in exploring that curiosity. They also need some skills in working with others, in recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses, in creativity and cogent curiosity. But those skills are as far from "basic" as A to Z, or quantum physics to waking up. They are "soft skills," existential rather than simply cognitive, and they are best demonstrated in real world accomplishments - which could range from a paper to a problem solving, a team to a brilliant insight, a confident framing to a revolutionary charisma.

As you re-think k-16 schools rethink also your concepts of community: a classroom is itself a community, and navigating that classrooms builds skills for other communities in which we all must survive. Technology like these emails represent how really open - or not - those communities are - or might become. If you want them closed, they'll stay you. If you watch your students, you'll see skills critical to opening new doors to new was unseen til now...

And one other thing: our universities pre-date our schools. Harvard began before the k-12 system; Oxford began before kindergartens. Transformation can begin anywhere, and will only work when it inspires more transformation elsewhere.