My Latest at AAC&U’s Nation: Four Strategies for Liberal Education in a Networked World

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published February 2, 2011 at AAC&U’s Nation,

Can we preserve and transform liberal education for a networked world?  The opening forum of the 2011 AAC&U Annual Meeting raised this question, and I saw affirmative answers and strategies throughout the conference.

Mark Taylor, the opening forum speaker, called for us “to move from a world of walls and silos to one of webs and networks” (as Maggie Stevens (iccmaggie) tweeted).  But what does that world look like, and how does liberal education work in that context?  Webs and networks naturally make us think of technology, especially the Internet, but Taylor is calling for more than just using technology tools.  I heard it put this way in the Q&A after the HEDs up sessions on Friday morning:  “Higher Ed use of technology has so far been varnish on traditional methods rather than the paradigm shift that is needed.” Following the 2010 AAC&U Annual Meeting I wrote a blog post about that varnish called, “Technology and Learning Disconnect,”  in which I wrote about typical attitudes toward technology that I saw at the conference:

Many participants first thought of course management systems, like Blackboardor Moodle, when they heard the words “technology for teaching and learning.”  For them technology has an administrative application rather than a transformative potential to enhance learning when integrated into the curriculum.  In other words, technology is a useful tool for productivity or management, but does not contribute to learning, other than making it more accessible and more efficient. E-portfolios were another popular technology discussed at the conference, but again they were often seen as a tool to aggregate materials for efficient assessment rather than a way to transform teaching and learning.

So, how do we get beyond the varnish and really envision liberal education in a world of webs and networks?  That is, how do we move toward the paradigm shift?  At this year’s conference, I saw four strategies that I think will help us make that change

1. Just Do It.

Just start using the technology to do the things you are doing anyway.  This isn’t necessarily a paradigm shift, but it sets the stage for that shift to happen.  So, kudos to AAC&U for asking participants to tweet the conference and for soliciting blog posts, because integrating technology into your daily work takes practice.  For many, that practice will not happen until they are forced to it.  I noticed more technology-focused sessions in this year’s conference, I think, because the conference theme of global positioning brought out a sector of the AAC&U community that has been forced to take advantage of technology for a number of reasons. The costs of travel, combined with the desire for students to learn from the globally networked world, have made technology a necessity.

2. Build From Your Existing Strengths, Including Existing Networks

On Friday, I moderated a session called “Engaging Liberal Education at a Distance” that focused on using high-definition video conferencing to allow small colleges (DaemenPitzer and Prescott Colleges, all members of the CIEL consortium to collaborate on curriculum, such as language learning.  Earlier that day, I attended a combined session called, “Going Global through Technology,” in which presenters from the University of Illinois-Springfield explained how they took advantage of their existing study abroad partnerships to create virtual international exchanges through online courses.  While the technology network makes both of these collaborations possible, it is the collaborative network of people and institutions that really represents the paradigm shift there.  Both CIEL and the University of Illinois-Springfield achieved that shift by building from their existing collaborative networks.

3. Reenvision Current Practices in a New Context

Adapting to a networked world does not mean abandoning the values and practices of liberal education.  Now more than ever, students need the abilities to read, think, and communicate critically.  We need to think about how to promote and teach those values and practices in the context of a globally networked world.  For example, I moderated another session called, “Creating Culture and Crossing Borders: Digital Storytelling On and Off the Liberal Arts Campus.”  Participants from Austin CollegeBeloit College andHobart and William Smith Colleges described how students use digital storytelling to reflect on their study abroad experience and help integrate it with their campus experience.  Such reflection traditionally could be done in personal writing, but digital storytelling is more engaging and allows students to use their existing resources (travel photography), learn composition in multiple media, and increase global learning on their home campus.  The technique helps turn experience into learning and disseminates that learning through the campus network.

John Swallow of Davidson College in his HEDs up presentation, “Global Liberal Education, Participatory Culture, and the Intellectual Habits of Students” shared another vision of networked learning.  He began by invoking Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains which critiques the shallowness promoted by the Interent, but then answered that critique by looking to the positive view of Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  Swallow called for a more productive strategy for dealing with the Internet and digital networks.  Rather than decrying the Internet as a distraction, we should see it as another item in the list of cocurricular activities that should be integrated into student learning.  He argued that autonomy, competence, and connectedness are developed both by cocurricular activities and social networks so that we can reconcile the Internet and liberal education.  Swallow’s argument gets at the paradigm shift, the change in thinking we need to help liberal education survive in a digital age.

4. Break Down Silos

AAC&U has already made progress in breaking down the silo of liberal education; it is not just the purview of small liberal arts colleges but should happen in many different institutional contexts.  To take advantage of networked learning, we need to break down even more silos.  Thursday morning I attended a combined session on “Strategies for Teaching and Learning: New Partnerships.” Both presentations focused on breaking down traditional boundaries between faculty and staff.  Presenters from King’s Collegeand Misericordia University shared their strategy of embedding librarians in core curriculum courses to promote information literacy, and presenters from Wheaton College in Massachusetts  shared the strategy of partnerships between faculty and technologists to teach digital natives.  Working together across these institutional silos has been a key focus for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) and helps institutions more effectively approach the larger networked world.

I also saw barriers broken down between new research techniques and the traditional pedagogy of liberal education.  In another HEDs up session, Joshua Fost of Portland State University, presented on “Big Questions, Semantic Technology, and Student Engagement.”  Fost built on LEAP’s call to “Engage the Big Questions”,  by asking what the big questions are in a networked world and using a web crawler to find out.  He pulled questions in course titles taken from online course catalogs to help determine common themes and then demonstrated how semantic search technology could help institutions assess the connectedness of the curriculum.  Students could also use it to help them integrate their learning all across the curriculum.  Fost’s techniques are familiar to me from the digital humanities research community, recently profiled in thisNew York Times article, “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches.”

What’s important here is that this kind of project puts digital humanities methodologies to a very practical application that resonates with the core of liberal education.  When we say “breaking down silos,” this is what we mean.  We break down the walls between technology and liberal education, but also the walls between research, pedagogy, and administration.  If liberal education is to survive in the digital age, in the global networked world, it must take the call for integrative learning and make it real integration throughout higher education.


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