January 23rd, 2013
I was struck by a recent blog post by Cathy Davidson (of Duke U and HASTAC), and not just because it opens with this slide, the one she opens all her presentations with here lately. “That gets people’s attention,” she says. I’ll bet.
But what has to be at least as attention-getting is the title of her blog post: “If We Profs Don’t Reform Higher Ed, We’ll Be Re-Formed (and we won’t like it).” That, too, is bracing, but is it really up to profs to reform higher ed? That’s a question worth asking, since the problems Davidson lists are pretty formidable: that college educations are highly desirable but hard to get into, hard to pay for, hard to complete. This has lots of venturesome ventures and for-profits lining up to say their feet will fit the glass slipper, but how realistic is that really?
Something similar is happening in a recent “manifesto” released by (or at least under the auspices) of the American Council on Education. The manifesto (full title: “Post-traditional Learners and the Transformation of Postsecondary Education: A Manifesto for College Leaders”) concludes by calling for “a bottom-up entrepreneurship” that occurs from within. Too many distractions (disruptions?) are being brought to bear from without, or so says a recent article in Inside Higher Ed on the manifesto and its author, Louis Soares: “Much of the conversation about innovation in higher education is occurring outside of the academy, Soares said. He would like to see that change.”
That sentiment is not hard to share, no more than the author’s conviction that “post-traditional” (read “adult”) learners represent a great (and largely) unfulfilled need on higher ed’s agenda. What may be a little harder to affirm is the ability of college leaders to re-set their agenda thus — or re-set it period. That may even be behind the way, according to the IHE article, “ACE issued a disclaimer with the report, noting that it reflects the views of Soares, and necessarily those of the council.”
There’s a certain tilting-at-windmills angle to these calls for higher ed faculty or administrators to fix the problems confront them. These are problems of cost and economy, shifting demographics, cultural change and value — things “outside of the academy.” To be sure, there are plenty of calls for change — and responses to them — coming from outside as well. So many, in fact, that if change is conceived as some sort of single (unitary if monolithic) construct, it also seems a juggernaut, creating that feeling that you either get on board or get run over.
This is not to say that standing still or sitting on your hands is a good idea. It’s not even an option. But when exhortations seem to suggest there’s one right way to go — and you need to head off in it — there’s a wonderful curative. You just need to think about how all-over-the-place current attempts at reforming or reinventing college seem to be. A moment that crystallized this for me was when a high-level CUNY administrator listened patiently to the description of what a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was (with a nod to retention problems, shuffles toward credit and credentialing [and monetizing all that], far-flung demographics, etc.). “If that’s a solution,” he asked, “what problems does it solve for us?” Good question.
An answer of sorts is the latest update in who’s jumping on the MOOC bandwagon. “Public Universities to Offer Free Online Classes for Credit,” The New York Times reports, though the new wrinkle is really that a commercial venture, Academic Partnerships, will recruit students for the free course for a share of the tuition they pay if they continue with the degree. Described as “a bold strategy” in the Times article, this try-then-buy ploy, with a commercial partner brokering that, is transparently more about marketing than pedagogy. Innovation as bait: doesn’t this return us to Davidson’s slide and the questions she provokes with it?