Thursday, December 18, 2014

Next Generation Online Learning: Engaging Communities

This fall, I had the opportunity to participate in the prototype of a new community action project—GeoDeliberations.   The project was organized by faculty in Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology and funded by the National Science Foundation.  It was adapted from an Oregon initiative that brought together a small panel of community members in a week-long conference to address an important community issue and report recommendations to local elected officials.   GeoDeliberations organizers adapted the original Oregon model, replacing much of the face-to-face meeting time with an interactive online website to facilitate discussion by the citizen panelists.   
            One advantage of the online environment is that it gives all participants an equal opportunity to voice their concerns.  In most face-to-face meetings, a small number of participants do most of the talking, while others listen, take notes, and wait for the vote.   Online, all panelists have equal access.  They can sign in multiple times whenever they wish to read, post, and respond to the postings of other members.  The pilot effort demonstrated the power of the online environment to bring neighbors together around issues and to create citizen-based input into the governmental process.  It also demonstrated the value of public universities using technology to engage and empower the communities they serve.   
            The project also raises an important question for the future:  How do our public universities support faculty engagement in the community through online technology?  At most institutions, online technology was used originally to extend credit courses—and certificate and degree programs—to off-campus populations.  Institutions organized their technology and support services around the needs of credit instruction, both on and off campus.  GeoDeliberations is just one example of how online technology can also be used to engage the community in less formal ways that build on the traditional missions of engaged research, technology transfer, and public engagement.  Two other examples of emerging online engagement are:
·      Open Educational Resources – Extending access to online learning objects and other resources to other educational sectors,such as K-12 school classrooms, business and industry, government, and civil society organizations.
·      Engaged MOOCs—Using the idea of “massively open online courses” to bring together interest groups who otherwise have little ability to meet face-to-face (see my earlier post).
            Over the past twenty years, universities around the world have innovated to extend credit programs to off-campus students through online learning.  In the process, they have proven that higher education can address a key stress point as society adapts to the needs of the Information Revolution: the need for a better-educated workforce.  The challenge for a new generation of university leaders is to provide central support and encouragement for faculty who want to engage with the community to address the multitude of issues facing residents in their roles as citizens, workers, parents, and members of civil society organizations in the years ahead.  The GeoDeliberations project is demonstrating what faculty can achieve by engaging at the neighborhood level.  As this model is refined and expanded, it should be possible to use online technology to bring together panels in many different contexts.  This kind of engagement in this era of rapid and profound societal change is central to the continued vitality of public higher education.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Finding Christmas

            Historically, Christmas season is embedded in the traditions of the old Roman celebration of Saturnalia.  When the Christian church adopted December 25—the birthday of Mithra, the old god of light—as the date to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, it accepted that the key Christian holiday would exist side-by-side with the abandon and debauchery associated with the old holiday.  The impact was so great that, when Puritans left England looking for a purer society in America, they outlawed the old celebration of Christmas.   Eventually, Christmas was re-conceived in America as a holiday focused on family and children, incorporating elements of northern European celebrations.  In England, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” emphasized giving and sharing as Christmas ideals, and our modern ideal of Christmas was born.
            Today, though, the holiday is returning to its Saturnalian roots, but as re-defined by a commercialized society.  Christmas has become less about giving than about spending.  For some years now, retail merchants have pushed the spending season back to Thanksgiving.  “Black Friday” now starts on Thanksgiving Day or, at best, on midnight as Thurday turns to Friday.  Thanksgiving weekend has, in addition to Black Friday, attracted new opportunities to spend:  Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, etc.   During the holiday season, increasingly, we cease to be Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists; we all become simply consumers.  In the process, the spirit of Christmas—both as a religious celebration and a time to celebrate family and the spirit of giving at the beginning of a new natural cycle—is being overshadowed by commercial greed.   This is a longstanding problem, but it seems to be getting worse these days to the point where the spiritual meaning of the season is barely visible.
            What to do?  I was happy to see that, this year, people pushed back, using social media to encourage folks to enjoy Thanksgiving Day with family and to avoid stores during the Black Friday onslaught.  The fact that people are able to shop online also has had an impact, giving people confidence that they need not rush out to local stores to shop “while supplies last.”   Like many issues in today’s Information Society, the best approach seems to be “crowd-sourcing”—people taking things into their own hands and simply refusing to led around by commercial interests.
            I have very fond memories of Christmas as a family celebration of the warmth and optimism associated with the birth of Christ—and the symbolic assurance that the world will brighten again.  There were presents, to be sure, but it was also a time for family, friends, and neighbors and for quiet reflection.  Let’s not lose these in the face of what has become a mindless commercial Saturnalia.