Thursday, October 23, 2014

Creating Conversations: The New Challenge of Engagement in Continuing Higher Education

In his 2005 essay, “Local Knowledge in the Age of Information” (in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays), Wendell Berry discusses the tension between urban and rural elements of society in the information age.   Noting that information is not knowledge and that some knowledge is centered on the specific attributes of a particular place, he argues that, “until the information is shaped into knowledge in some particular mind and applied without harm to an actual place, we will not know whether or not it is an asset or how valuable an asset it is.”  What is needed, he writes, is not simply one-way communication—from the university outward—but a conversation that goes back and forth between the center and the periphery.  Such a conversation is, by definition, dynamic:  both parties stand to gain from it.  “There is always the possibility,” Berry notes, “that a conversation, by bringing its participants under one another’s influence, will change them, possibly for the better.”  
            For Berry, the situation calls for a new vision to guide the traditional extension mission of the land grant university:
 . . . I am talking about the need for a two-way communication, a conversation, between a land grant university and the region for which it is responsible.  The idea of the extension service should be applied to the whole institution.  Not just the agricultural extension agents, but also the graduate teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other community servants should be involved.  They should be carrying news from the university out into the region, of course.  But this would be extension in two directions:  They would also be carrying back into the university news of what is happening that works well, what is succeeding according to the best standards, what works locally.  And they should be carrying back criticism also: what is not working, what the university is not doing that it should do, what it is doing that it should do better.

            The extension mission dates back to the 1800s, when the national network of Agricultural Extension Services was established to ensure that the United States had the agricultural production power to sustain urban growth and immigration during the Industrial Revolution.  Then, the vision was of the agricultural researcher working side-by-side with local farmers in their fields—a good match with the “conversation” vision.  However, over the years, a variety of services—and other modes of delivery—have developed around the idea of extending the university, gathered under titles like continuing education, distance education, outreach, research and technology transfer, etc.
            Today, “engagement” may be the best term to describe the many ways our land grant universities can best serve their communities.  These include community-based research and research transfer, offering formal education—from workplace training to undergraduate and graduate degree programs—at times and places convenient to working adults, engaging employers in organizational and technical improvement, partnering with community high schools to improve the curriculum, and the broad set of community-based services that have arisen out of the original agricultural extension mission.
            That said, at many institutions the engagement function is often viewed as a one-way “delivery system” rather than as a means of creating conversations between campus and community.  Moreover, engagement programs are often viewed by academic units as cash cows rather than as part of their central mission.   Its many activities—continuing education and distance education courses, conferences, noncredit workshops, consulting services, etc.—produce new, discretionary revenue for academic units, often through the use of adjunct faculty whose experiences in this arena do little to inform research and teaching within the participating academic unit.
            The problem is made more complex as we move into the global information society, where it is increasingly difficult to define “community.”  For today, let’s assume that “community” means the citizens of the state in which the land grant university operates and the organizations—governments, employers, civil society, etc.—through which these communities function.   Here, the need to create and sustain conversations is, perhaps, more clear.
            How do we create sustained conversations between the university and the communities it serves?  Here are some thoughts:
·      Leadership  The Engagement unit—Continuing Education, Outreach, University Extension, etc.—is often the unit most directly involved in linking the university with multiple communities.  Engagement professionals need to see themselves as ambassadors, looking out into the community to identify needs and within the university to identify resources that meet those needs and then managing the relationship to ensure that a true conversation is developing and that the program evolves as the conversation reveals new opportunities.  This is the ultimate role of Engagement leaders.
·      Needs Assessment  Engagement units have developed strong marketing and market research units to determine the financial potential of university programs.  However, this should be complemented by a needs assessment function that goes into the community and ask the basic questions:  What are your problems?  What are your needs?  What can we do to help?   This is the beginning of the engagement conversation.  A periodic needs assessment process—perhaps one that would drive a rolling three-year plan—will help ensure that Engagement programs not only have a market but that they are addressing vital community needs. 
·      Governance  Engagement professionals must be able to match community need with academic readiness.  This requires that the Engagement unit meet with representatives of all academic units to discuss community needs and opportunities and to ensure that the university is bringing the most appropriate resources to the table.  For many years at Penn State, each new program idea was reviewed by a Coordinating Council consisting of representatives from each of the University’s colleges.  This approval process ensured that interdisciplinary opportunities were addressed and that relevant faculty research was brought to the table.  This kind of review ensures an internal “means assessment” conversation that is the counterpart to the needs assessment.
·      Feedback  For the conversation ideal to work, it is important that faculty who participate in engagement programs provide feedback to their colleagues on what they have learned by engaging with the community and with working adult students.  A formal feedback mechanism is essential, given the large number of adjunct faculty who often teach in these programs but do not participate in other aspects of the academic community.  One thought:  offer an annual competition for faculty to write brief essays about their experiences with students and community organizations.  Publish the best articles online and give recognition to those who have worked to develop a true conversation with students/clients.     
·      Partnerships Once the university has determined need, its responsibility is to provide the best possible academic response.  In the past, response was limited by geography.  However, online technology allows an institution to reach out to other universities and partner with them to deliver programs that best meet local needs.  The Great Plains IDEA project is a great example.  At its best, such partnerships also create new relationships among faculty at participating institutions, opening new doors for collaborative research.
·      Learning Design The “conversation” ideal also operates inside individual courses.  In today’s world, education is not simply information transfer.  It is about guiding students through the process of inquiry, evaluation of information, and application of knowledge to solve problems.  It requires conversations at many levels.  Several models for a conversational learning environment are emerging, including the flipped classroom, in which content normally delivered in a lecture is available out of class so that classroom time can focus on discussion. 
            As we—our institutions, our communities, ourselves as professionals—move further into the global information society, it is important that we build new structures to better serve the needs of our communities and, in the process, to build new kinds of community within our work.  In this effort, engagement professionals may well be on the cutting edge of building productive new conversations between our universities and the many communities we serve.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Note on Online Badges

Over the past few years, postsecondary institutions have expanded their use of online learning.   Originally conceived as a way to extend credit courses and degree programs to off-campus students, online learning is now also being used to articulate and deliver a wide range of noncredit programs.  This, in turn, has led many online learning providers to adopt a new kind of credential—the “badge”—as a way to reward students for successfully completing an online learning course or series of courses.  Badges can serve many purposes, to be sure.  My goal in this posting is to suggest a couple of ideas about the use of badges as a way to formally recognize completion or achievement.
            First, if the badge is to be a viable credential, it is important that the online learning community come to agreement on what constitutes a “badge” in this context.  For many years, continuing education units at our institutions have used an international standard for recognizing noncredit learning:  the Continuing Education Unit or CEU. The CEU is endorsed by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training, which  defines a CEU as follows :  “One CEU equals ten contact hours of participation in an organized CE/T experience, delivered under responsible sponsorship, capable direction and qualified instruction.”  The CEU is widely recognized and used by institutions and a variety of professional societies.   Institutions and other providers of online learning badges can ensure acceptability of their credential by tying the badge to this widely accepted measure of noncredit learning.
            Second, it is important that institutions that offer badges formally adopt this credential and keep records of students who have earned them.  It is essential that the institution itself recognize the badge as a credential, so that potential employers, professional societies, and others can confirm that the student has, indeed, earned a badge at that institution.
            We are at a stage in the maturation of online learning where we need to institutionalize innovations that have arisen around institutional experiments with technology-delivered education.  The badge has evolved as a way to recognize online learning.  Now, we ourselves must define and recognize it so that it has lasting value to the student.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Lesson from Frederich Nietzsche

In Tom Wolfe’s 2000 essay collection, Hooking Up, he describes the impact of science on our understanding of human behavior.  He quotes Frederich Nietzsche’s famous “God is dead” as one example of how science—and social philosophy—killed our reverence for the unknown.  Wolfe goes on to explore the impact of Nietzsche’s statement on our own culture at the turn of the new millennium.  Writing in 1882 during a time of relative peace in Europe, Nietzsche warned:  “The story I have to tell is the history of the next two centuries.”   What Nietzsche predicted, Wolfe notes, is that “. . .  the twentieth century would be a century of ‘wars such as have never happened on earth,’ wars catastrophic beyond all imagining” (p. 98).   The reason:
Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason.  As a result, people would loathe not only one another, but themselves.” (ibid.)

            What happened, of course, was the Twentieth Century, a century of two World Wars, revolutions in Russia and China, the Korean War, ideological wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, revolutions and counter-revolutions in Africa and Latin America, not to mention the so-called Cold War.   Turns out Nietzsche was right about that.
            But Nietzsche had a vision for the 21st century, too.  In The Will to Power, he predicted that this century—our century—would see “the total eclipse of all values,” based on the rise of what Wolfe describes as “barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods.”  “Nobody,” wrote Nietzsche, “should be surprised when . . . brotherhoods with the aim of robbery and exploitation of the nonbelievers . . . appear the arena of the future.”
            Certainly, the Nazis and Marxists of the 20th century met Nietzsche’s description, but Nietzsche’s vision is very descriptive of what has happened so far in this century.  Al Qaeda (which attacked New York the year after the publication of Wolfe’s essay) is just one example.  In the past few months, we’ve seen the example of ISIS’s “convert or die” attacks in Syria and Iraq, Russian ethic nationalism in the Ukraine, Boko Haram kidnappings of girls in Nigeria, just to name the most obvious examples.  And, we are only fourteen years into this century! 
            According to Nietzsche, we can expect more.  As Wolfe paraphrases Nietzsche, we are entering  “a frantic period of ‘revaluation,’ in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old.”
            So what does this mean for our generation?  If, in the 21st century, ISIS is something we can expect more as typical than as an aberration, what strategies must we develop to maintain our own culture?  
            Well, for one thing, it means that conflicts with “barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods” will not be war as our grandparents knew it.  This is not government-versus-government inter-national warfare.  It is likely that no peace treaties, no territorial redistributions, no economic collaborations will settle differences and make our enemies friends and allies.   In fact, while these brotherhoods are often violent, war itself, as we typically think of it, may not be a practical solution.  As the Middle East has demonstrated over the past century of European intervention, the methods of war—invasion, occupation, destruction of community, etc.-- only leave increased bitterness behind.  There is no government to accept defeat, no way for the participants to accept the new “normal” after war.  For that matter, there is no way to judge success. 
            What, then, can we do in the face of ISIS and other nationalistic brotherhoods? 
            First, of course, nations need take action against violence against those who cannot protect themselves.  This is best seen not as “war” in the traditional sense, but police action against nongovernmental criminal organizations.  The goal should be to stop the violence and bring the guilty to justice.  The process may look like war, but we need to have a different mindset about what we are doing.
            While these police actions are needed, there is much more to be done beyond that in order to address the underlying problems.  This requires a true coalition of interested and affected nations and other organizations, committed to a long-term engagement to seek both political and social solutions to the underlying issues that led to radicalism.  It  recognizes that these radical brotherhoods are not driven by territory or commercial gain alone, but by a deep loss of identity—a loss of control over their culture, their religion, and their sense of being part of a self-sustaining community.   This, as Nietzsche wrote, leads to a radical “revaluation” as the groups try to find a new identity.  Without these steps, we will simply see a vicious cycle of police actions with no end in sight. 
            There is a theory of social development called the “expanding communities” model.  It works at both the individual level and the societal level.  The individual level works something like this:  Early on, young people identify most with their immediate family.  As they grow, they begin to identify with a broader community—the neighborhood.  Being a member of a neighborhood becomes their public identity, and the family becomes a more personal, private identity.  As they grow older, youngsters may see their membership in their school as their public identity and privatize their neighborhood identity; then they move on to their profession as their public identity and privatize their identity as alumni.  So it goes.  The same sort of thing works at the societal level, but in broader historical terms that define the individual’s relationship to society itself.  Early in history, individuals identified with their family or tribe.  Over time, they formed villages containing multiple tribes; their tribal membership became a private identity as they became publically members of their village.  Then, perhaps, they identified with their religion, with their country, or with their region, etc.
            The question today for many people—it seems to be a particular problem in the Middle East but also in the Russian ethnic areas of the former Soviet Union—is that civilization change—a combination of colonialism, political revolution, international commerce, and the global information society, to name a few—has taken away their public identity, leaving them with the ghosts of private identities but with nothing else to give them a place in society.  This is the ultimate source of ISIS.
            The challenge, then, is to help all people find an identity that allows them to be productive members of the new global society that has arisen around them but that does not yet include them.  This is a task that requires involvement of many different parties, first, to understand the problem and, second, to seek cultural—and eventually political and economic—solutions.
            The current ISIS phenomenon is a good case.  Over the past two centuries, the culture of the Middle East has been undermined by all sorts of internal and external influences, from Napoleonic invasions to British colonialism to the commercial exploitation of the region’s oil reserves and the creation of a Jewish state, displacing millions of Palestinians.   Prior to Western involvement, the Middle East had achieved a tenuous stability through the overlapping influence of three distinct forces:  several Islamic sects, cultural/ethnic groupings, and political/military realms.  Each had its own area of influence that, often, overlapped with but did not coincide with political borders.  The experience of the past century has upset these balances by putting the emphasis on political/economic boundaries. 
            There is little that the United States or other Western powers can do to address this imbalance on their own.  It requires an open discussion among Middle Eastern states, religious and cultural leaders, economists, and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations whose activities have an impact on the issues.  It is a good example of why we need a vibrant United Nations.  We need to accept the reality that we are living, essentially, between civilizations.  Western civilization as many of us understand it ended with the two world wars of the last century.  We are now living in a global economy that is still developing and has yet to take on recognizable form as a civilization.  Nietzsche’s warning is still valid.  We need to find a new standard—a new god, if you will—that will give us a moral compass in these new waters.