Friday, December 11, 2009

Higher Ed

I've been wrestling recently with identifying the role of higher education. I'm not much of a wrestler, physically or intellectually, so I thought I'd see what I could put into words and have you folks comment on. Thoughts of yours, or links to thoughts of others are much appreciated.

What brought on my recent concerns, or possibly made the pot boil over, as it were, was some frustration in making a final exam for my calculus course. The course I teach is one section among several, and we all have common exams. When we went to make the exam this semester, there was some disagreement about what should be tested. The lack of a prescribed vision for the course (at least, one I was aware of) started to upset me. And then I decided that such a vision should be accompanied by a broader vision of the math courses offered by the department. It should include formal indication of how the courses fit together, what is assumed of students coming in to each course, and what is assumed of students passing a course (I'm thinking something more formal and precise than the short list of pre-reqs for a course). And then I wondered where this vision came from, if it was internal to the department or how much say other departments had in what they wanted math classes to require. I'm not expecting the English department to care at all what is covered in Calc I or II. But perhaps Economics has some input for us? Or other departments? And then I wondered what the point of any of it was. What is the role of higher education, and how does my Calc I or II class fit into that?

Clearly things were getting out of hand.

Luckily, my thesis advisor turns out to have the title of Director of Undergraduate Affairs. Furthermore, he was happy to talk to me about these things, and brought a welcome level-headedness up against my relative insanity. Of course, I'm sure he won't mind much when I get back to research... :)

He pointed out that probably having formal guidelines for all courses is a bit much - that professors teaching upper level courses should be granted plenty of flexibility. I can't really argue with that. I have vast respect for all of my professors. But this flexibility doesn't really help in getting a vision for Calc I or II together. And if the courses are coordinated among several sections, there should be some vision backing it, right?

Part of my initial inquiry was if there was a curriculum review that happened periodically, and how long ago the most recent was. My guess was that if there was such a thing, it happened before nearly all of my students had personal laptops (or possibly even personal computers in their dorm room). I know I'm a bit of a nerd, but I really think it is important to adapt to the changes brought about by each student having their own computer (that they maybe can carry in their pocket!) connected to the internet. The explosion of infinite goods and real-time global communications, for "everybody" (yes, I know I live in a privileged region, or whatever is the PC way to say it. I'm sorry?), has been changing, is changing, and will continue to change... well... nearly everything. When the fundamentals of economics and communication change, what isn't impacted? [Side note: I know very little about economics, I'm probably saying things incorrectly]

Bringing things back down closer (somewhat) to the level of a graduate student who knows basically nothing about anything useful... how does the internet change higher ed? What happens when lectures become an infinite good, available to be watched freely online? What happens when the content that makes up our textbooks is available in a multitude of places online? What happens if students have direct access to experts in any field at campuses on the other side of the globe? Gah, I'm getting out of hand again.

Two recent posts online have been on my mind a bit as I think about this question:
  1. A post on ars technica about the difference between the movie industry and the music industry. For some reason this article made me realize that I probably wasn't thinking much about what was distinct about higher ed, as opposed to the entertainment or news industries, and what that meant about the impact of technology.
  2. A video on techdirt explaining the innovator's dilemma. This video makes me think that in order to adapt, universities should be asking what market they are in. I've been phrasing the question in terms of what role they play, but I think maybe they're pretty similar questions. Are we in the horse-and-buggy market, following the example in the video, or the transportation market? Are we in the market of churning out degrees? Are we in the certification market? Is that our primary goal and purpose?
I truly hope that I'm not saying anything surprising to people involved in higher education (or other fields!), or asking questions you've not heard before. I really do hope that I'm late to this conversation - that smart, dedicated people in the right places are asking these questions. Moreover, that they are coming up with some answers. I hope that I am just not seeing this conversation at my university, or at others, because I am not involved enough somewhere.

Anybody have some thoughts or links for me?

This post is somewhat of a part 1 in a series. The second focuses more on teaching calculus.


Mitch said...

You're not the only one thinking about these things, Nick, but you may be in the minority at UVA (especially among graduate students outside of education). A great place to start (in terms of the role of higher education in general) is the Association of American Colleges and Universities. AAC&U has undertaken what they call the LEAP Initiative (Liberal Education and America's Promise). Their essential learning outcomes are driving many colleges' and universities' revisions to their general education programs.

sumidiot said...

Thanks so much for the links @Mitch. Will definitely check them out.