Monday, August 15, 2011

The Next University


For all that we stereotypically believe others need to change, educators are notoriously resistant to changes in their own field. Yet we teachers cannot silence the realities of academic technology. Thus the question, I fear, has become not whether education will change, but how—and, just as important, which changes should we embrace, and which should we resist?

The National Writing Project commissioned Because Digital Writing Matters to emphasize the growing importance of writing across divergent platforms. Similarly, Linda and Peter Jeschofnig wrote Teaching Lab Science Courses Online because they believe new technology can tap unrecognized angles of student development. Both books bring important ideas to the table, but both fall prey to sweeping generalization.

The NWP says that the coming generation, to face a heavily digital marketplace, cannot learn writing as the mere arrangement of words on paper. The ability to cross platforms into web writing, video composition, and multimedia, open up worlds of opportunity for what we can call “writing.” And why not, since this generation already writes more copiously than most before it, in the form of Tweets, Facebook updates, text messages, and other non-academic writing.

The Jeschofnigs embrace online science courses because they fear that, as long as students see science as something they go to and practice in groups in public laboratories, they will never internalize scientific principles or evade “magical thinking.” Performing science privately, under digital supervision, makes students own the scientific method. And making students buy their own equipment shifts costs off perennially cash-strapped schools.

Though they address similar ideas, the two books are not essentially interchangeable. Beyond the differing disciplines, they also focus on different age ranges—the NWP ranges from Kindergarten through college while the Jeschofnigs engage mainly post-secondary educators. And they also draw different conclusions, in that the NWP assumes that the classroom remains the educational core, while the Jeschofnigs propose the imminent end of campus learning.

The NWP speaks of copious technologies writing teachers (who they say should re-envision themselves teaching “composition”) should add to their existing pedagogy. While I understand the importance of teaching students to write for visual media, or for multimedia platforms, teachers are generally poor in time and cash. Adding even more for reluctant students to master clutters the class and gives teachers more to do with the same time and support.

But the Jeschofnigs swing to the other extreme, claiming that students do more, feel closer to their teachers, and savvy the learning better if they do it on their own time and in their own space. To which I say: maybe. Not all students are equally motivated. I did well reading and writing on my own, but in science, which was a weak subject for me, I found the classroom environment motivating because I had others depending on me. Different students learn in different ways.

That last statement underlies Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring’s The Innovative University. Higher education’s fundamental core will undergo seismic shifts in coming years, as the end of the go-go economy means endowments are less stable, and costs increase faster than students’ ability to pay. Christensen and Eyring speculate on how universities will evolve to face new demands and tightened circumstances.

Unlike the prior books, which are slim and practical, this book is brick-like and theoretical. Yet for a book running nearly 500 pages, its focus seems appallingly narrow. The authors contrast Harvard, which has set the standards for American research universities since just after the Civil War, with the former Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho. While these represent strong possible contenders for the future university, two isn’t enough.

I wait in vain for more diverse examples. What of St. John's College of Annapolis and Santa Fe? This school's self-consciously classical curriculum, focused on the Socratic method, makes a bracing antidote to Harvard's secular modernism. What of California's Deep Springs College? This tiny (twenty students) two-year school combines liberal learning with autonomy and hard work, with a profitable cattle student-run ranch keeping tuition permanently free.

This book, like the prior two, is a step in the right direction. Yet like the prior two, it can’t quite see past its own inherent limitations. All three of these books make good entries in the debate of higher education’s future in modern America. I’m glad I read all three of them, because I’m now better equipped to enter the debate. But each by itself suffers its own limit of vision, and the debate will go on for some time to come.

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