This morning. I stumbled across a line of questioning about the future of universities that I find unsettling, probably because I’ve invested a lot of time and have developed quite a few skills as a writer and teacher and would like to land on solid ground in the near future. Specifically, a March 7 “Wired Campus” blog in the Chronicle of Higher Ed asked the question: Could Many Universities Follow Borders Bookstores Into Oblivion?
The question is a bit doomsday-esque … but bricks and mortars organizations are proving to be at risk in the digital revolution. The blog post is an interview with Richard DeMillo and Paul Baker, director and associate director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, who consider their center an equivalent to a Silicon Valley garage for higher education. I don’t know about that – seems like an officially run center located in an institution could never be the equivalent of an entrepreneur’s garage.
Still … in a February 22 blog post for the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, DeMillo writes that “incumbents” misread new technologies and become “relics” before they even realize what is happening. He uses the newspaper industry as an example, which does support his point and makes me hyperventilate a bit.
The Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) is supposed to encourage innovation in university teaching and research … incubate risk-taking to figure out what best practices in the 21st century digital universe would look like for higher education. They’ve got lots of good ideas – which may get lost somewhat in the doomsday language – and yet it’s the crisis language that got my attention and probably a lot of other people’s attention too.
Jeff Selingo, editorial director for The Chronicle of Higher Education, devoted his Sept 27, 2011, blogpost to the opening of C21U. He called it “If Engineers Were to Rethink Higher Ed’s Future.” At the end of his blog, he writes: “At a kickoff event for the center … I moderated a wide-ranging discussion with some leading thinkers on the future of higher ed, and among my questions was this: If you had a chance to run this center, what one project would you put on its agenda?”
Some of the ideas he found most interesting are ones that I agree with as directions for universities: Improve Social Engagement, Create Incubators, Interactive Learning, and Stop Teaching Subjects. Luckily, I’m studying and teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University – a public university that is exploring these in pockets all over campus.
Put in this context, perhaps it’s a future to be embraced. Is the old version, based on medieval monastic training, really working that well for most people?
I’d be sorry to see a business model applied, however, since there are research questions – especially in the humanities – that need to be asked and there does need to be a place of reflection to do so. That’s what universities have provided a space for and I’d hate to see that disappear – the same way I treasure a brick & mortar bookstore – for discovery. I don’t always know what I’m looking for until I stumble across it and I’ve found the same thing to be true in education. Algorithms can be too smart for lucky accidents and that’s not a world I want to live in.