Saturday, October 31, 2015

Creating Communities of Engaged Learners (CELs)

            Over the past two decades, online learning has revolutionized how colleges and universities reach out to adult learners to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees and credit certificate programs.  Whether fully online or blended, online learning has allowed higher education to respond to a need for adults to extend their formal education in order to remain competitive in a changing workplace.  However, the emphasis has been almost entirely on the formal curriculum.  Even MOOCs—which often offer access to formal courses at no cost and for no credit—tend to follow the traditional curriculum.  As a result, an important part of the traditional higher education service mission—be it called university extension, continuing education, outreach, or engagement—has been left behind in the rush to extend online credit programs to new adult students. 
            Regardless of the name, the idea of engaging the public in a noncredit environment is a longstanding mission in America’s public universities.  The idea of Agricultural Extension—Cooperative Extension, as it came to be known—extends back to the 19th century, when our state land grant universities were charged to improve agricultural production in order to sustain the urbanization that was central to the Industrial Revolution.  The vision, then, was of the university researcher standing side-by-side with the farmer in the field, translating research into action while gaining insights from the practitioner that would stimulate new research.
            Similarly, continuing education units stimulated the development of professional training services for industry managers, small business owners, etc.  Over the years, this expanded to an engagement between the university and wide range of civil society organizations and professions:  police departments, small town governments, school administrators, community arts organizations, tourism organizations, and so forth.  In many cases, the groups served by these programs are geographically dispersed.   They work for internationally distributed corporations or for small communities, where the nearest peer may be miles away.   The type of engagement involved may include professional training, translating research into professional action, or, in some cases, engaged research in which faculty and members of the community work together to solve problems. 
            The challenge today is how we can use online learning to revitalize this aspect of the engagement mission and to stimulate new engaged learning communities, whether in business or civil society, to the benefit of the broader community.  My purpose in this post is to suggest briefly a way that universities can bring together online educational technologies and social media to create Communities of Engaged Learners (CELs) in ways that will improve the quality of life in widely dispersed communities and serve communities of interest nationally and globally.
Communities of Engaged Learners
            The goal of creating a Community of Engaged Learners is to use multiple online technologies to create a sustained engagement of professionals in specific areas of professional and/or civic life, establishing not only a means to deliver professional continuing education but to create and sustain an ongoing professional network and dialog that will inform future research and teaching. 
            The CEL might best be offered on an annual subscription basis.  Over a year, the institution could offer a variety of professional development programs to CEL members.  These might take the form of Webinars, asynchronous online training programs, or TED-like presentations by faculty on recent research.  In addition, CEL members would be able to use the CEL’s social media environment to share ideas with faculty and with each other through moderated discussions surrounding the programs and through a general social media group discussion.  The result is an ongoing engaged community, in which members learn from faculty, faculty get feedback on research and identify new research opportunities from members, and members learn from each other’s experiences.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The PASCAL Observatory "Big Tent" Communique on Engagement

This week, the PASCAL International Observatory’s “Big Tent” collaborative released a new “Communique”
focusing on the role of universities and civil society to respond to the massive human migration caused by civil strife.   The communiqué, which is being presented at the PASCAL annual conference October 7-9, notes:
There is rising uncertainty in many arenas of public and community affairs world-wide: environmental sustainability, peace, economic instability, exploding inequality, poverty, youth unemployment and lost identity, health and mental illness, ageing and the massive movement of peoples. The history of our world is a history of migration and movement. How do different generations, people and places adapt to what is and will be a continuing phenomenon? 
            The communiqué notes the importance of universities in helping to address these challenges through research, teaching, and engagement with civil society.  Those of us in higher education,” the authors state, “need to find a voice beyond the technical, managerial and narrowly economic, and look for a deeper way of hearing and acting on the concerns of ordinary citizens: refugees, unemployed, the homeless and those otherwise excluded.”   Specifically: 
We believe universities need to take a more active role in collaborating with civil society to generate powerful knowledge, and open up their work to much more fruitful interaction with wider society. Urgent attention should be paid to how universities prepare their graduates to play a role in building a more equal and fairer world, and how they support the wider challenges of empowering citizens to work together, across these deep divides, to build a better world. 
            The current migration involves movement of people to Europe from southern countries that are overwhelmed by civil strife, economic failure, and political and ethinic inequality.  It argues for a new balance between the needs of local citizens and those of the immigrants and refugees and asks, “What more can universities do here: in their teaching, in their research and its use, in their local-regional civil society settings?”
            One particular issue embedded in the migration challenge is the large percentage of young people among citizens in southern countries.  It notes that nearly half the population of Asian countries are below the age of 25—young people for whom globalization has been an issue for all of their lives and who connect globally with others through technology.  It notes, “This generation is beginning to experience global citizenship. Yet 'host' communities and governments are resistant to this 'invasion of youth.’  They fear change and are uncertain what future rising waves of youthful mobility and migrations bring.”
            Noting that universities “in both North and South are key structures of transformation,” the communiqué challenges universities to put “more emphasis on engagement in the global South and on new forms of engagement in the global North.”   It lays out this challenge:
This requires universities to take to heart as their primary mission the present and future of our inherited local and global world. A massive community learning campaign is needed, no less challenging than mass national literacy campaigns. We share a duty of care for the future of our young who have little work, little sense of belonging to anything anywhere. Within and beyond world university rankings we need awareness of critical local and global issues linked to transformed practices of engagement. This means respecting the co-construction of knowledge; linking with local governments, organisations and social movements; new reward structures for academic staff; and a change in the culture and language of institutions of higher education. High quality innovative engaged research can assist rather than weaken good ranking.

Finding answers needs abiding optimism; new, transformative, forms of individual and collective engaged lifelong learning; new pedagogies; public and community support for ethically-based learning; research for action. A good role model for senior university managers to foster courage, honesty, public service and humanity might be the nurturing gardener. For university staff, expert in their fields of knowledge and disciplines, and capable administrators of complex knowledge organisations, the first duty is to do good for the wide and the local world.
            We must assume that this issue will only continue to grow in the years ahead.  Today’s mass migration is being driven by civil and religious conflict.  However, in a few short years, we may see a more massive migration driven by climate change—the destruction of coastal communities, the loss of sources for food and water, and increasing competition for natural resources of all kinds.  
            What practical steps can universities around the globe take to address these issues?  Some thoughts:
·      Develop means to more effectively collaborate on research and share research results.  The Worldwide Universities Network(WUN)  is one example.  Collaborative research opens new opportunities for observation of phenomena in different natural and cultural settings, creating new frameworks within which to explore research topics.
·      Expand “sandwich” doctorate programs that reduce and, potentially, reverse, brain drain from southern universities that partner with northern institutions.  Graduate students from the southern universities—who may already have faculty roles there—travel to the partner institution to begin their doctoral studies.  They then return to their home institution to complete their coursework via a combination of directed independent study and online education and to conduct their research.  The result is twofold.  First, individual students complete their programs at their home institution and are thus more likely to stay.  Second, the model encourages a research model that can lead to long-term research collaborations between the partner institutions.
·      Use partnerships to internationalize the curriculum to ensure that all students—both northern and southern—gain perspectives on the emerging global society and their role in it.  This could include using online learning to bring international perspectives more effectively into undergraduate and graduate courses by sharing students and by sharing faculty expertise across traditional campus boundaries.  The Committee on Inter-institutional Collaboration (CIC) has a Courseshare initiative   that operates domestically within the “Big Ten” network of institution that suggests how such sharing might work.
·      Offer multi-institutional degree programs through international partnerships, in which students from multiple institutions around the globe would take online courses from each other’s institutions in order to complete a degree or certificate program.  Such programs have the advantage of bringing specialized knowledge of international faculty to bear on a shared curriculum, while globalizing the experience of students across international institutions who participate in individual courses.  The Great Plains IDEA   project suggests one way that this could be institutionalized within a group of institutions for multiple degree programs.  There are also numerous examples of collaboration around individual degree programs.
·      Higher education and civil society associations should collaborate to create a website that collects and shares best practices in university engagement on these international issues.  Recognizing success is a sure way to encourage institutions and leaders to innovate and peers to emulate.  Perhaps the PASCAL Big Tent member organizations could start this process.
      Ultimately, the challenge will be for northern Universities to engage with both institutional counterparts and civil society organizations to identify research, teaching, and engagement needs and to effectively respond to them in a systematic way.  Increasingly collaboration calls for formalized, ongoing, multi-disciplinary relationships among institutions that share common missions and that are targeted at understanding and addressing the local impacts of global issues.  
      Many thanks to PASCAL and the Big Tent group for mapping out this journey for higher education.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Honoring Distinctive Institutional Missions

Globalization and the emergence of online technologies have created an increasingly competitive environment for today’s higher education institutions.  And yet, institutions of higher education are tending to look more and more alike.  Reporting in the August 11, 2015, issue of Gallup’s online Business Journal, Nate Dvorak and Brandon Busteed noted:
In a recent study, Gallup found that the mission, purpose or vision statements of more than 50 higher education institutions share striking similarities, regardless of institution size, public or private status, land-grant status or religious affiliation, or for-profit or not-for-profit status.

The authors note that, while statements such as “We prepare the leaders of tomorrow” and “We nurture lifelong learners” may represent the broad aspirations of an institution, they “offer little guidance to current and future students who are trying to select one institution over another.”
            Dvorak and Busteed recommend three steps through which “leaders can create clear and compelling statements that distinguish their institution from all others.”  First, establish a distinct statement of purpose that affirms “the institution's reason for existing from a historical, ethical, emotional and practical perspective.”   Second, define the institution’s brand identity in a way “that distinctly states what the institution offers, why it's different and why it's worthy of students' consideration.”  And, third, engage the culture—including the student experience, as well as the institutional and academic cultures—in a way that reinforces the purpose and identity. 
            In short, the purpose, brand, and culture of the institution should reflect the outcomes of the institution’s work:  its research and outreach efforts and, most importantly, the competencies and pre-dispositions that graduates take with them into the community.
            There was a time in American higher education when institutions were differentiated by purpose and mission.  At the height of the industrial revolution, for instance, state land grant universities had a clear purpose of improving agriculture and preparing professionals for the new industries and social agencies arising from industrialization; state colleges—founded as “normal schools”—were created to prepare teachers for public schools to help the children of immigrants become full participants in the American society and economy; and private colleges and universities were focused on graduating future leaders in religion, business, and politics. 
            Of course, those purposes have evolved dramatically over the past 150 years; today, it is difficult to distinguish among these institutions, especially if one looks only at their curricula.  Ultimately, the curriculum itself must embody the purpose and advance the identity of the institution.  In The Next American Revolution, Grace Lee Boggs cites John Dewey’s adage that education is “a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”  She notes that, in a post-industrial society, “more learning needs to occur outside the classroom. Education should involve real problem solving.”   A commitment to active and collaborative, research-based, problem-centered learning environments is critical.
            If, as the post-industrial era matures, colleges and universities are to be vital parts of the social and economic health of the communities they serve, colleges and universities should, as Dvorak and Busteed suggest, engage their institutional cultures to re-articulate their curricula based on a fresh statement of their unique purposes and their brand identities.  In the process, they will be more able to reconnect with their communities and with the emerging global culture.