If I were to give a name to this whole issue, I thinking it would be “Taking Stock and Moving Forward.” It seems like we're getting down to the basic questions here. How do we need to provision students for the future, and will what we actually put in their trail mix be enough to sustain them, given the trek ahead? What kinds of teaching and learning will prepare them for the journey, and how can we ensure that faculty will be led competently and supported adequately as we do that? Change articles have touched on all these questions in past issues, but they've never been brought together in quite this way before.
So what are some of the themes about what kinds of learning we need to offer students to benefit them and the society at large? Given the ways in which various lists of essential collegiate learning goals echo each other, there seems to be an implicit consensus that we should be giving them kinds of “knowledge, skills, competencies, and dispositions” that the Degree Qualifications Profile captures. But when it comes to what we actually do offer, the signs (we can read them in the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, employer surveys, and Academically Adrift) are not good.
The articles by Pamela L. Eddy and her colleagues and by Jennifer Summit point out that judging from their mission statements, one of the main things colleges and universities want is for their students to function well as workers and citizens in the “transnational future” (as Summit calls it). But as the Eddy article and the commentary by Madeleine F. Green that ends it point out, our efforts in this regard are too often scattered, unfocused, and inadequately supported.
Employers are giving us another message as well: They need workers who can communicate, work in teams, and deal with people different from themselves—in short, graduates with the “soft skills” Patrick Kyllonen talks about—and not just for economic reasons: As global citizens too, they are going to increasingly rub up against strangers. Given that academia is an extremely individualistic enterprise inside a larger culture that encourages radical independence, we don't tend to model, never mind teach, skills of cooperation (as anyone who has sat through too many faculty meetings—that would be me—can attest to).
And yet, Stephen Rose points out that those grumbling employers hire our graduates more than they do their less-educated peers and continue to pay them more as they get to know them better. Selection effects aside, it seems that even if we're doing a hit-or-miss job (we do hit the mark, sometimes) of honing skills, imparting knowledge, and shaping dispositions, the results are still worth a premium in the job market.
So the good news is that if we're doing something substantial for our students without giving it the old college try, we could do wonders if we put our collective minds to it.
Among other challenges we face, as William R. Doyle points out, “is the fiscal new normal,” which seems likely to persist even as higher education becomes increasingly critical for individuals and nations. Although Lara K. Couturier (in Plus Ça Change) reminds us that we have always felt underfunded, the plummeting trend lines in Playing the Numbers speak for themselves. So we need to get a lot more bang for our buck.
Three themes about how we're beginning to do so struck me as I read these articles.
First, from the DQP's emphasis on action verbs to the Cal State Fresno's “Taking Action” projects (in which “students are told to ‘save the world in your own way’”) to study and internships abroad, we are increasingly emphasizing learning by doing. But this shift entails another: giving students primary agency for their own intellectual maturation. As Tony Wagner put it,
Students are going to have to hack their own education going forward. There's no guarantee that college will provide them with the skills they need to succeed if they just go through the motions. Students are going to have to be very intentional about seeking out learning … opportunities in and out of the classroom that really help them develop a portfolio of experiences, skills, and projects that show mastery. (http://campustechnology.com/articles/2013/07/29/creating-a-culture-of-innovation.aspx)
Students can use our guidance in processing their experiences, but their learning is really driven deep when they put their knowledge to work. This also, not incidentally, reduces brick-and-mortar expenses.
The second thing that strikes me is how integral to the activities described in these articles technology is. Cathy Sandeen describes the incorporation of MOOCs into traditional higher education, Patrick Kyllonen reports on employers' use of technology in behavioral interviews (driving the cost of rich assessments down), and the Epsilen platform collects and makes available the tremendous resources of the Global Challenges course model. We are beginning to use technology to bring more people into collaborations and thereby multiple their intellectual power, as well as to be as flexible and various in our modes of education as students need for us to be.
And the third insight I've gleaned from these articles is the power of collective action. The first real intellectual community I was part of was not my academic department—it was the state coordinating board in Virginia, where I worked in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There, the problems we dealt with were so big and real that we all recognized that we couldn't solve them on our own.
I think that the same realization is beginning to dawn with respect to teaching and learning. Pamela Eddy's description of the ways in which internationalization hasn't quite jelled yet at William and Mary suggests the importance of intra-institutional cooperation, while the Global Challenges course model show the power of inter-institutional collaborations.
What George Mehaffy says so eloquently of the latter sums it up:
What I like about this [Global Challenges] course is that it represents much of the revolution coming to higher education. It represents the new networked world, and the wisdom of the crowd. It assumes and provides structure for collaboration. It represents the sharing of resources to lower costs and improve quality. It creates a business model that is affordable for students, affordable for institutions, and yet is sustainable. It focuses on learning outcomes. It allows wide variation in application, yet contains a strong, collaboratively developed core. It gets better over time (not yellower). It assembles (and creates) materials and activities that no individual professor could possibly undertake on his or her own. It uses a whole series of 21st century technologies. It is explicitly interdisciplinary. And each of these courses, developed and proposed, focuses ultimately on citizenship.
Amen, Brother George!