Monday, December 14, 2009

Rediscovering Higher Education as a Public Good

A recent Time magazine headline –“College Degrees More Expensive, Worth Less in the Job Market”—prompted a wide-ranging discussion on the LinkedIn “Metacognition” group about the nature of higher education in today’s world. It got me thinking about how higher education is perceived in today’s corporate economy-focused environment.

Certainly one reason why college degrees are more expensive these days is that state governments are funding less and less of the total cost of higher education. In part, that is due to a general perception that higher education is a “private good” rather than a “public good.” That is, if our purpose is simply to prepare individuals to get good jobs, then why should taxpayers underwrite an individual benefit? As taxpayer support declines, cost to the individuals goes up. The result: a more expense college degree to the individual graduate with no appreciable change in quality.

The societal role of higher education was addressed by UNESCO this year in the final communique of the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, which noted: "Faced with the complexity of current and future global challenges, higher education has the social responsibility to advance our understanding of multifaceted issues, which involve social, economic, scientific, and cultural dimensions and our ability to respond to them. It should lead society in generating global knowledge to address global challenges, inter alia food security, climate change, water management, intercultural dialogue, renewable energy and public health." In short, higher education does not end with preparing individuals for jobs; it must, in addition, prepare them to address the broader issues facing society.

That raises a fundamental question for those of us in public higher education: How do we rebuild—in the public perception, in our own sense of mission as institutions and as individual educators, and in practice—the ideal of higher education as a public good in a rapidly changing social environment. In other words, how do we prepare our students to be good citizens in a globalized information society? Part of the problem here is that our curriculum has not adapted significantly to the needs of individuals and communities in this new environment. General education—the part of the curriculum that traditionally has prepared people for citizenship—tends still to be dominated by a distribution of courses that introduce students to the academic disciplines and provide some basic skills (writing, math, basic science, etc.).

One thought would be to move toward a “sandwich” general education curriculum in which general courses are sandwiched around the student’s major/professional curriculum. The first part would provide basic concepts in the key academic disciplines—science, humanities, social sciences—along with critical skills. These might include writing, math, public speaking, but also new skills needed in an information society: collaboration, innovation, finding and evaluating information, team problem solving, inter-cultural understanding, etc. The general education curriculum should also incorporate the technology that drives both professional and personal life—wikis, blogs, online social networking, etc.—so that students develop a sense of the effective (and ethical) uses of these technologies. Student would then move to their professional studies. The final general education component—the top of the sandwich—would be during the student’s senior year, when interdisciplinary courses put their professional studies into the context of life in a global information society. The goal of this upper division general education would be to ensure that individuals enter the workforce with an understanding of ethics, cultural understanding and communications, and the societal implications of their profession.

Early in the Information Society, the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) movement attempted to address these issues through interdisciplinary courses that looked at the interactions among science, technology, and society. Penn State was an early leader in this movement and developed several media-based STS courses in collaboration with faculty at the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University. One, “The Finite Earth,” dealt with the limits to resources. One lesson focused on how to identify and engage the “ethical community” of people who would be affected by science/technology actions and who should be involved in major decisions. Similar courses—ideally conducted as senior seminars—could be constructed in every major as a way to match the private benefits of higher education to the public good.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Living in the Moment

When my mother was at a certain point in the progress of Alzheimer's disease, she had lost the context for many things, but still was very much able to communicate. One day, as we left a restaurant, she told me how much she enjoyed simply being alive and seeing the sunset.

Today, I was reading "Living Buddha, Living Christ" by Thich Nhat Hanh. In it, he writes, "To breathe and know you are alive is wonderful . . . Every moment is an opportunity to breathe life into the Buddha . . . Every moment is an opportunity to manifest the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." It is good to think that, for a time--even if it was caused by Alzheimers--my mother was given the ability to set aside the struggles that marked most of her life to live in the moment and have that kind of wonder.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where's Joe Hill?

This morning I listened again to Joan Baez’s wonderful rendition of “Joe Hill.”

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, alive as you or me.

Says I, “But Joe you’re ten years dead.” “I never died,” says he.

“The copper bosses killed you, Joe. They shot you,Joe,” says I.

“It takes more than guns to kill a man,” says Joe. “I didn’t die.”

And standing there as big as life and smiling with his eyes,

Says Joe, “What they can never kill went on to organize.”

From San Diego up to Maine, in every mine and mill

When workingmen defend their rights, that’s where you’ll find Joe Hill.

It is sad to think how far we have drifted from the vision that Joe Hill and people like him worked to achieve so many years ago. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, long after those early struggles to gain basic rights for working people. But I remember well how tough it was when my uncles went on strike in the Shenango Valley mills when I was a boy and how they hoped that the hardships that the strikes imposed on their families would result not just in better days, but better years ahead.

Today, the corporate takeover of American life is very nearly complete. Executives take huge salaries and bonuses, while working to rescind the hard-won benefits of the people who actually make the things America exports. Working people have been diverted by divisive social issues like abortion and homosexual rights—the bread and circuses of today’s right-wing politicians--while the corporations have undermined the fundamental rights of workers to health care, job security, and a decent wage.

I can only hope that the current recession gives us pause to consider a new social morality that replaces the neo-conservative “gilded age” with a more humble commitment to social responsibility.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Re-Perceiving the Land Grant University: Engaging Communities

The original mission of the Land Grant university was very much a response to social and economic needs that arose as a generation into the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. Today, a generation into the Information Revolution, we again must ask: What are the needs of society to which we can respond?

Among the critical problems that the land grant university addressed—and that defined its position in American life for several generations—was the need to greatly improve agricultural production. In the 1880s and 1890s, the United States was undergoing a two-front social revolution: rapid urbanization, as industry located near existing population and transportation centers, growing small river towns into major cities; and mass immigration, as millions came from Europe and elsewhere to find new opportunities and, in the process, provide the manpower for growing industries. A critical concern was that the nation maintain—and improve—its agricultural base in order to support urbanization and immigration.

The problem was partly one for science: how to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability of farms in order to produce more food for the cities. However, there was another dimension: literally, “how to keep them down on the farm.” Rural life was hard. Farm families did not have access to modern conveniences such as electricity and telephones. Even mail delivery was a problem until Rural Free Delivery was created in the 1890s—itself a response to the concern about improving the quality of rural life.

Land grant universities addressed these issues with a series of remarkable innovations (many of which we now take for granted, but that were radical changes in higher education in their day). These included:

  • Cooperative Extension Service, which coordinated funding from county, state, and federal sources to bring university expertise directly into communities. The result was the ideal of the Country Agent standing with the farmer in the field, working together on problems.
  • Four-H and Home Life programs that improved the quality of family life in rural areas and encouraged young people to stay in agriculture.
  • Correspondence study, which took advantage of Rural Free Delivery to extend both noncredit and credit courses to individuals in rural areas.
  • Management Development services that provided training to small business owners.

Over the years, other innovations built on these early departures, including the application of the extension concept to energy and environmental issues in the late 20th century, investments in educational broadcasting to better reach homes and schools, and impact research as a way of integrating the faculty member’s teaching, service, and research functions.

Engaging Communities in the Information Society

A generation into the Information Society, we must ask at least two questions:

(1) What are the problems to which the resources of our land grant universities should be directed?

(2) What innovations are needed to ensure an effective long-term response?

Several broad social issues come immediately to mind:

  • · Climate Change – How will climate change affect the productivity and viability of communities in our individual states? This issue is at least as important to the health of our society as was agricultural production in the early 20th century.
  • Globalization – What must our communities to do remain economically viable in a global community?
  • · Innovation – Given the move of heavy industry off shore, we need to create the capacity for innovation at the community level so that new ideas can take root and grow locally.
  • · Inter-Cultural Education – Increasingly, immigration will be replaced by networking that allows people to stay in their home countries while participating in the American economy. The United States will be less of a nation of immigrants and more of a networked culture, with each of us working with people from different cultures on a regular basis. Just as we created a K-12 education sector to respond to immigration, we now need schools that will produce local citizens who can participate in this new environment.

What other issues should the land grant university address in order to be relevant to the Information Society? What radical innovations are needed today?

Friday, August 28, 2009

General Education and the Information Society

The general education curriculum, as it evolved through most of the 20th century, is a product of higher education’s adaptation to the Industrial Revolution. The question today is whether that curriculum will meet the needs of individuals and society a generation into the Information Revolution. Does the changing societal context demand that we re-perceive General Education for what various writers have dubbed the Information Society, the Knowledge Society, the Skills Society, or Conversation Society?

The Industrial Revolution required a higher level of education for professionals who would create industrial innovations. At the same time, America was becoming urbanized and, due to waves of new immigrants, much more diverse. Recognizing that higher education increasingly was serving a spectrum of students much broader demographically and vocationally than were served by the classical curriculum, innovators like Dewey, Meiklejohn, and Hutchins determined that General Education was not just about liberating the individual, but about preparing individual students from a broad spectrum of backgrounds to function effectively in society as professionals and citizens.

By the 1950s, the idea of General Education as a purposeful and comprehensive curriculum intimately involved in the needs of a democratic society were firmly rooted. The Truman Commission on Higher Education listed eleven principles or goals for General Education that summed up the function of General Education at mid-century:

  • · An ethical code of behavior
  • · Informed and responsible citizen solving problems
  • · Global interdependence
  • · Habits of scientific thought in personal and civic problems
  • · Understanding others and expressing one’s self
  • · Enjoyment and understanding of literature and the arts
  • · The ability to create a satisfying family life
  • · The ability to choose a useful and satisfying vocation
  • · Developing critical and constructive thinking habits

Still, by the 1980s—when the first impact of the Information Revolution on daily life was beginning to be felt—several national reports decried the disarray in the undergraduate curriculum. One, sponsored by the National Institutes on Education argued that excessive vocationalism had weakened the ability of a baccalaureate degree to “foster the shared values and knowledge that bind us together as a society” (Scully, 1984, p. 1).

A quarter of a century later, the concerns are just as real, but we have a better sense of how the revolution in information and communications technology is affecting the problem. We are now a generation into the Information Revolution. And, just as educators a generation into the Information Revolution grappled with the rise of the “utilitarian university,” we are struggling to understand just what it takes to prepare individuals to thrive as citizens and professionals in a globalized knowledge society.

Drivers of Pedagogical Change

Several societal factors are driving the need for changes in our approach to General Education. Prime among these is how the Information Revolution has changed the way we think about knowledge and information. Today, information is ubiquitously available on the web. In this environment, education is less about the transfer of already organized knowledge than about how to find and evaluate information and turn it into useable knowledge that can be used to solve problems and provide meaningful insights. Active inquiry, as a result, becomes both a means and an end of General Education--a core skill of the new curriculum.

The rapidity of change in a global economy is also changing how we work. Increasingly, work tends to get done by teams—often virtual—teams with members at multiple locations. This work environment puts greater emphasis on collaboration rather than individual competition. Similarly, rapid changes in knowledge require an environment of continual, bottom-up innovation. Collaboration and innovation are both professional and civic skills that need to be taught. Even on the most informal level—as evidenced by Facebook and Twitter today—students need to develop a social ethos to guide how they interact with social networks so that they can develop and sustain professional, civic, and personal relationships through both face-to-face and virtual networks.

An underlying feature of the Information Society is that technology has removed geography as a delimiting factor in how we live and work in communities. Members of an Information Society live and work in “distributed communities” (we may need a better term to describe this phenomenon) that accomplish much of their work through technology. This includes virtual working teams, professional associations, and a wide variety of social networks. The boundaries of these communities tend to blur, as people include both social and professional contacts in the same network. Inter-cultural understanding takes on a new immediacy: every culture is potentially present in our virtual communities. General Education, with its emphasis on educating the student for success within the context of his/her society, can help individuals define how to conduct themselves in these new communities.

Knowledge creation, collaboration, innovation, and community building are workplace and civic skills that should be incorporated into General Education for the Information Society. The challenge of General Education in this new environment is:

  • · To create lifelong learners who can create knowledge
  • · To instill problem-solving and innovation as both workplace and civic skills
  • · To develop the skills of collaboration across cultures and across geography
  • · To help students understand the nature of the communities in which they live and work so that they can become effective members of these communities.

This suggests a new General Education pedagogy that is resource-centered, inquiry-based, and problem-oriented and, perhaps, one that is better integrated with the professional studies part of the undergraduate curriculum.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"The Soul of Iran"

In The Soul of Iran, Afshin Molavi writes sometimes poetic descriptions of Iran. Example:

"In the grand square of Isfahan, I sat on a bench at dusk and listened to a young Isfahani play the tar, an ancient Persian instrument with an intoxicatingly sweet sound, like the sugary, soft center of gaz, a popular Isfahani candy. The last defiant rays of the orange sun lingered in the gray-pink dusk sky. The shining blue-domed mosques sparkled. The waters of the central fountains shimmered. The whole maidan, the public square rimmed by the blue and gold of exquisite mosques and four-hundred-year-old buildings, seemed aglow. There was a softness in the air, the kind of softness that might be scooped with a spoon and spread on the hot hard flat bread sold by Hossein, the baker down the street."

I have a longstanding soft spot for Iran, dating from when I read Olmstead's History of the Persian Empire as a teenager. Molavi's book is a wonderful insight into daily life in Iran that offers hope for the future.

He also notes that half of the Irani population is under the age of 21 and that 5/7s of the population has dim--or no--memories of the 1979 revolution. This generation, he predicts, "will dramatically change the face of the Islamic Republic."

It is a reminder for all of us to take a long view and not let our actions be dictated by the headlines.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Re-Perceiving the Land Grant University for the Information Age

Many Pennsylvanians were surprised this summer when Governor Ed Rendell attempted to make the state’s land grant university ineligible for federal incentive funds by declaring that The Pennsylvania State University, the State’s Land Grant university, is not a public university. Presumably, this was justified because Penn State is not owned by the Commonwealth, but operates as a separate non-profit organization. The Governor later added Penn State to the list of eligible institutions. However, the Governor’s actions suggest the need to re-articulate the land grant mission in light of the dramatic changes confronting industrial/agricultural states like Pennsylvania as they adapt themselves to the new economy of a globalized Information Society.

Land Grant universities were a direct response to the Industrial Revolution. They were created by the Morrill Act of 1862, which allowed states to sell public lands in order to create institutions that would, in the words of the Act, “. . . .teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

The question for today’s land grant educators is: How do we articulate this mission so that, looking forward, the land grant university can continue to be relevant to both individuals and the community in the Information Society? A 21st century strategy should encompass several dimensions of the Land Grant mission. These include (among others): (1) improving access to education, (2) ensuring a strong economic base for communities—a dimension that includes a focus on innovation—and (3) creating professionals who can thrive as both professionals and citizens in a global, networked society.

Access and Success

Susan Patrick, president of the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), reported at a Sloan Consortium conference that, while policy makers at the beginning of the 20th century anticipated that the Industrial Revolution would require that 25 percent of high school graduates move on to a college education, the Information Society would require that 80 percent of high school graduates gain at least some postsecondary education. This thinking is reflected in the Obama Administration’s new Graduation Initiative.

The goal of creating graduates for the Information Society requires a three-fold strategy: (1) educating the current workforce, (2) improving the number of high school students who graduate prepared to continue onto higher education, and (3) expanding the capacity of higher education to produce significantly greater numbers of college graduates. While the Administration initiative is focused on community colleges, there are several ways in which our land grant university can contribute to this long-term strategic goal:

· Open Educational Resources – Universities can enrich the resources available to local school teachers by making some of the content in their online courses available for high school teachers to use in their own classrooms. This has a historical precedent in the early days of educational broadcasting, when land grants like the University of Nebraska and Penn State created video-based teaching materials that were then broadcast into the schools for use by teachers.

· Dual Enrollment – Many land grant universities have both online degree programs and smaller, community-based campuses that offer undergraduate programs. Universities can use both online and locally delivered undergraduate courses as dual enrollment courses with state high schools. This will accomplish two goals: (1) it will fill gaps in the local high school curriculum, helping to prepare high school graduates to enter college and (2) it will give high school graduates a head start on a college degree.

· Accelerated Degree Programs Dual enrollment courses could be part of accelerated degree programs that allow people to complete an undergraduate degree in three years through a combination of on campus and online courses, internships, and independent study.

· Virtual High School Programs In areas of critical need—where local resources may not be adequate—Land Grant institutions can assist by providing virtual high school programs, so that students graduate ready to start work in specialized areas. This also has a historical precedent in high school correspondence courses offered by a number of land grant institutions.

Other aspects of re-conceiving the Land Grant mission for the Information Society will be explored in future posts.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Convergence or Transformation: Optional Futures for Distance Education
Speech Given at the National University Telecommunications Network Conference in Park City, Utah, June 2008
In 1992, I was invited by the American Center for the Study of Distance Education to project long-term trends in the field. It was an interesting time to be looking forward. We were about a decade into the rise of video in distance education—the movement from correspondence study to broadcast telecourses and satellite-delivered live interactive courses (the latter of which had spurred creation of NUTN in the early 1980s), but it was clear that the Internet was on the horizon. I identified four trends:
· The simultaneous diversification and convergence of technologies.
· Changing relationships with students
· Changing relationships among institutions
· The emergence of a new mainstream
On the technology side—this was a year before the first web browser I hasten to note—there were already multiple ways to deliver video, audio, and print and to facilitate interaction through all three media. It was clear, however, that, amid this diversity, institutions needed to think in terms of convergence. We could not afford to have video, audio, print, and computer all in separate organizational silos. My prediction was that “organizational structures that do not facilitate a mixing of technologies will find it difficult to reach their full potential in this new environment.” This, in turn, would create a “new institutional infrastructure” where use of technology for instruction would be considered alongside its use for administrative and research applications, creating a “broader community of interest.”
If that was true for the technologies of the early 1990s, it is true in spades today as we consider how the Internet has changed the university infrastructure and created new communities (or, in the absence of these communities, has paralyzed innovation) at our institutions.
The second trend was a changing relationship between our institutions and our students and, particularly, the rise of synchronous and asynchronous “learning communities” as a critical pedagogical issue. I also mentioned another relationship issue: the rise of the “empowered student” or “community of scholars” as a result of students having better direct access to large databases, video and textual materials—what we now call “learning objects.” This trend, I suggested, “will require that we rethink our definition of instruction, our assessment of learning, and our ideas about curriculum.”
Today, we are still experimenting in this area, but with much higher stakes as the Web moves from a publishing environment to a collaboration environment and we enter what some are calling a “conversation economy.” Blogs, wikis, Facebook, You-Tube, social bookmarking—all of these Web 2.0 applications are creating a demand for a new, more collaborative, more inquiry-oriented approach to learning—on campus and off—that reflects how people use technology at work and at home. The goal posts have moved a long way ahead of us on this issue, but there are some great things happening around the world as educators experiment with these new tools and as institutions and governments begin to set new policies on sharing content.
The third trend area was a forecast that the use of new technologies would also change relationships among institutions. The examples I cited in 1992—the University of Mid-America, the International University Consortium, the National Universities Degree Consortium and the Mind Extension University—have long since passed from the scene, but we are seeing new forms of collaboration. Two examples point to the scope of change that is now gathering momentum: the Great Plains Interactive Distance Education Alliance (IDEA) and its mission of offering collaborative online degree programs for adults that no single institution can offer alone, and the CourseShare initiative in the CIC—the academic counterpart of the Big Ten—which uses online learning to share rarely-taught language across institutions to regular, full-time undergraduates on campus.
When you look internationally, you can begin to see potential that is just now being explored. In the international sphere, collaboration takes many forms. Almost every regional association for open and distance education has an initiative to develop quality standards that will facilitate sharing, for instance. There are individual examples of institutions sharing courses at the graduate level, such as Penn State, the Universities of Leeds and Southampton in the UK allowing their graduate students to take online courses in Geographic Information Systems from each other’s programs. Perhaps the most dramatic collaborative initiative internationally is the Open Educational Resources movement. Here, the potential was articulated by a leadership group that met in Cape Town, South Africa, and issued the Cape Town Declaration:
…we call on educators, authors and institutions to release their resources openly. These open educational resources should be licensed to facilitate use, revision, translation, improvement and sharing by anyone, ideally imposing no legal constraints other than a requirement by the creator for appropriate attribution or the sharing of derivative works. Resources should be published in formats that facilitate both use and editing, and that accommodate a diversity of technical platforms. Whenever possible, they should also be available in formats that are accessible to people with disabilities and people who do not yet have access to the Internet.
I projected one other trend back in 1992: The emergence of a new mainstream in American higher education in which distance education is fully integrated into a broader institutional strategy to respond to what I called the “currents of social change.” This has been a little less easy to track, but I suspect each institution represented here has seen some evidence of this kind of convergence. At Penn State, for instance, our online distance education program, the World Campus—which offered its first fully online courses a decade ago—is now a leading part of a broader institution-wide consortium called Penn State Online that tries to coordinate among the many different applications of online learning for students on campus and inter-campus, as well as at a distance. Several degree programs developed for distance education are now being offered as “blended” programs at some of our smaller campuses; some academic colleges have created their own online services to support on-campus instruction and then make these courses available to World Campus students. We an also point to project like the National enter for Academic Transformation and the CIC CourseShare initiative as examples of distance education techniques being used to improve instruction on campus.
Another evidence of convergence—of the mainstreaming of distance education—is the incredible growth in the number of institutions that now offer degree programs online to off-campus students and, equally important, a commitment not just to courses, but to complete degree programs. As far back as 2004, the annual Sloan survey, Growing by Degrees, reported that 44 percent of all institutions that offered Master’s degree programs offered at least one program online. Sixty-five percent of institutions were using primarily core faculty to teach their online courses—a rate comparable to face-to-face courses. In short, online distance education is emerging as an ongoing commitment of academic units, reflected in the long-term commitment to degree programs and to the assignment of core faculty to serve both on-campus and distant students.
The most recent Sloan report—Online Nation—notes that the number of students taking at least one online course has growth to 3.48 million in 2006, more than double the number reported four years earlier (p.7). While the Sloan surveys do not distinguish between truly distant students, full-time commuter students, and resident on-campus students, I think it is safe to assume that this dramatic growth is the result not just of increases in adult students at a distance but also increases in the number of commuter students taking online courses for convenience and scheduling flexibility, and the number of full-time on-campus students taking online course as part of their campus curriculum. In fact, a Penn State undergraduate student told me last year that he has not had one semester in which he did not have at least one course that had a significant online component.
However, online learning is not having an equal effect at all institutions. Online Nation reported that the greatest impact is in public colleges and universities, with community colleges leading, followed by public universities. The impact has been least felt on private, baccalaureate institutions (p. 12). In other words, those institutions that have a mission to serve off-campus or commuter students are more likely to fully embrace online distance education than those whose mission is more campus-centric. Interestingly, a clear majority--59.1 percent--of academic leaders now see online learning as “critical to the long-term strategy” of their institutions (p.16).
Clearly distance education and the mainstream have converged and, in the process, the mainstream has been changed and distance education—at least in some cases—has been more fully embraced—or is being re-invented—as a strategy for the total institution. This has been driven partly by market forces—the rising importance of continuing education for adults who are already in the workforce, by the need for local institutions to more effectively compete for commuter students, and by the growing willingness of traditional-age students to study online. Last, but certainly not least, the convergence has been driven by economics—the need to cut costs and improve efficiency on campus and the need to generate new tuition revenues from nontraditional students in light of reduced government funding and increased competition.
All that said, today, we are working in a vastly different environment—both inside and outside our institutions—than when distance educators began experimenting with online 15 years ago. People have begun to notice that the Information Revolution is not so much about how quickly information is broadcast, but about how it brings people and ideas together in new ways. We are beginning to realize that the Knowledge Society, in reality, is a “Skills Society.” Providing access, convenience, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness will continue to be important issues, but the emerging question for the next decade or so is: how can we help individuals learn how to build and sustain new communities built around collaboration and sharing of knowledge to solve both local and, increasingly, global problems? For those of us in distance education, the challenge is more focused: How can we use what we’ve learned about online distance education to help transform our institutions to meet the needs of this emerging society?
We can envision a broader strategic horizon in which distance education is a key part of a more complex picture, one that includes fully online courses offered to students both on campus and at a distance, hybrid courses offered on campus and through continuing education, blended programs that mix distance education and site-based experiences, and, more generally, an academic environment in which e-learning is seen as a utility available to all faculty and students. Access will continue to be a critical strategic issues, along with efficiency on campus and, perhaps most important, continuing to evolve a new pedagogy that responds to the new needs of individuals and their communities. A generation into the Information Revolution, some new trends are emerging that may signal where we need to go. All of them have something to do with the idea of building community, so let me use that as an organizing metaphor.
Traditionally, we tend to think of communities as local. A community is a village or a neighborhood of people who live inter-dependent lives. You may own the town bank, but my son teaches your daughter in the local school. The kids we went to school with grow the food we eat, work, run the shops where we buy what we need, attend the same churches, etc. In a globalized economy that kind of highly localized interdependence is harder to find. Online learning removes geographic and time as defining characteristics of interaction. We need to re-perceive the whole idea of community to understand how we are inter-dependent in today’s world and to develop the skills needed to work together in a new environment. For higher education, this has implications at several levels:
At the institutional level, we need to re-define the communities we serve and re-articulate our mission in those communities. For most of us, distance education has meant reaching very far beyond our local campus community in order to aggregate markets for specialized programs or serve widely dispersed professional groups. The very first Penn State teleconference through NUTN, as an example, allowed our Nuclear Engineering faculty to share with their colleagues around the country what they had learned from analyzing videotape of the core at the Three-Mile Island nuclear plant after the accent there. Today, we are starting to see institutions use online distance education as a way of more effective serving local commuting students who cannot always come to campus. In addition, the movement toward blended programs is allowing institutions to more easily develop programs that respond to local needs by mixing on campus and online activities. Online dual enrollment courses—which allow high school students to simultaneously earn high school graduation credit and college undergraduate credit—signal another new relationship between higher education and the schools that is another trend in this area. These are starting points for rethinking how our institutions relate to our local communities.
At the faculty level, new kinds of academic communities are emerging that may redefine the relationship between faculty members and their institutions in the long run. Projects like the CIC’s CourseShare, the Great Plains IDEA, and the Worldwide University Network’s shared programs—all of which I mentioned earlier—bring faculty from multiple institutions into an inter-institutional community where they can expand the impact of their specialized research. And, of course, the Open Educational Resources movement—something that began outside the distance education community but that presents great opportunities for it—allows faculties to retain control of their intellectual property so that they can share it with colleagues around the world.
Central to this transformation is the student. Here, “community” has two meanings. The first is the need to prepare students—of all ages—to become effective citizens and professionals in this new society—call it a conversation economy, an age of cognition, a knowledge society, a global information society, etc. Today’s world demands that people have the skill to work collaboratively across boundaries and to participate in communities that are not defined by geography and time. This, in turn, calls for a new pedagogy that redefines what we mean by a “learning community.” For most public colleges and universities—which need to be responsive to workforce and community needs—the new environment demands a curriculum that not only ensures that students gain discipline-based core knowledge but that also emphasizes active and collaborative learning, inquiry-based approaches that help students create useable knowledge out of information and apply that to solving problems. One can envision this as a new general education—not an introduction to the disciplines, but the development of general skills and attitudes that cut across all disciplines. Recent innovations with Web 2.0 innovations—blogs, wikis, etc.—point the way, but there is much to do before a new pedagogy is fully understood, accepted, and integrated into a new curriculum.
Finally, we can apply the “community” metaphor to new relationships that are beginning to emerge between institutions. We can anticipate more collaborative degree programs, especially at the graduate level. We can also anticipate that Open Educational Resources movement will stimulate new partnerships among institutions that have related specialties and between universities in developed countries and those in developing or transitional countries. These new partnerships most likely will be highly variable. Some may focus on undergraduate curricula, others on graduate programs or collaborative research that builds institutional capacity, or assistance to industries served by multiple institutions. Later this month, for example, the Inter-American Organization for Higher Education is holding a meeting in Ecuador to explore the idea of collaborative doctoral programs—what the organizers are calling “sandwich” programs—in which faculty members from Latin American institutions can earn their doctorates from Northern institutions while building a research capacity at their home university. The programs would use online elements to reduce the amount of time Latin American faculty members would spend away from their home institutions, in an attempt to reduce the academic brain drain.
The international dimension of distance education in a transformed university was brought into focus by Stemenka Uvalic from UNESCO, at a distance education conference sponsored by CREAD in Ecuador in May. She painted this picture in her keynote: There are now 132 million postsecondary students worldwide; China and India have doubled their enrollments in the past decade. However, countries are having trouble funding capacity to handle demand. This has stimulated three trends: (1) new private (profit and nonprofit) institutions that do not receive government funds (she noted that 80% of postsecondary students in Japan are now in private institutions); (2) student mobility-2.4 million students went abroad in 2004, with 1 in 16 postsecondary students from Africa going abroad; and (3) the growth in open and distance learning (ODL). The number of open universities has doubled in Commonwealth countries; the number of for-profit online providers is growing globally. This has an impact on student mobility. Fully a third of all international students enrolled in Australian institutions studied from their home country in 2004. Uvalic projected that “cross-border distance education may become the most significant development” in the years ahead.
Clearly, distance education has converged with the mainstream of higher education over the past decade. The challenge for the future is for us to help stimulate a broader transformation that will allow higher education to meet the emerging needs of a maturing knowledge society in which very local communities are affected by global events. This is a momentous year on several fronts. On December 10, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Distance education organizations around the world are collaborating to produce special issues of their journal to recognize the unique role of distance education in providing equitable access to education. But this is also the 40th anniversary year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, both of whom died in the process of trying to make real the ideals of the Declaration. It is a reminder to us that these rights are not “natural laws” but need to be claimed and made new in every generation. Higher education is a unique institution when it comes to helping our communities and individuals in them fulfill the promise of the Declaration. Our generations are lucky to be working at a time when distance education has the potential to help our institutions realize the mission of public education in a new and more complete way than has ever before been possible as our institutions adapt themselves to the needs of the Information Age. We can’t do this on our own, but I think the distance education community—all of us in this room—have the experience and, as a result, the perspective, that can help stimulate and guide change in each of our institutions. It is an important challenge and a wonderful opportunity at the same time.
Thank you again for the Distinguished Service Award and for allowing me to share these ideas with you today.