My latest at NITLE’s Techne blog: Finding a Place for the Liberal Arts in a Networked World

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Originally posted on February 9, 2011 at NITLE’s Techne blog,

Global Network by Flickr User WebWizzard

Physical places—the classroom, the home campus, the local community—hold great importance for small liberal arts colleges because they signify a particular model of higher education. The current debate about the future of higher education sets this model of the traditional, high touch, face-to-face classroom in opposition to the technology-enabled, global networked world made possible by the Internet. Can we maintain the importance of these places while moving from a world of walls and silos to one of webs and networks as Mark Taylor, the opening forum speaker of the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and author of Crisis on Campus told us we should? Do we really have to move?

At that same AAC&U conference a group of chief academic officers from fourteen small liberal arts colleges gathered to address those questions. NITLE worked with Carol Long, provost and vice president for academic affairs at SUNY-Geneseo, and Katie Conboy, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Stonehill College to organize the meeting, at which participants envisioned how their campuses would look in ten years and identified strategic areas requiring new prototypes. In “Chief Academic Officer 2.5,” a thought piece shared in advance as groundwork for discussion, Long and Conboy point to the dual environments of their institutions—the physical and the digital—that demand “a new institutional reality” and call on their colleagues to “to take the lead in shaping and articulating that reality.”

During the ensuing discussion I was struck by how these leaders were locating a place for the small liberal arts colleges not in opposition to the digital, global learning network, but rather in connection to it. After all, when faced with the new, different, and potentially threatening, it would only be natural to pull in, champion the traditional, and exclude the outside world. As Kathryn Tomasek notes in her blog post, “Why the Humanities Matter,” many of the recent defenses of the humanities in peril have done just that. Ignoring the digital world, however, does a disservice to students who will leave college to live and work as citizens in a networked world. Instead this group tackled the more difficult task of figuring out what a liberal arts college should be, in practice, in the world of webs and networks. That meant making distinctions, deciding what’s unique about a liberal arts college and what could change.

Silo by flickr user eirikref

First they asked, what are the walls and silos that should be broken down to allow liberal arts colleges to thrive in a global networked environment? While imagining the future of their campuses, the participants predicted the breaking down of traditional boundaries of time, space and relationships. Learning will happen around the clock and the year, rather than being bounded by traditional semesters and school days. Campuses will connect to the local environment for learning experiences and offer learning at a distance. Colleges will join global partnerships and engage their students studying abroad (actually, many of them are already doing this one). And traditional categories and roles for students will be crossed so that students learn with the local community; faculty become learning mentors rather than authoritative content experts; and traditional and non-traditional, residential and distant, undergrad and professional students all learn together. Overall, students will have to negotiate a variety of learning networks and global information resources.

Septem Artes Liberales by flickr user Stefan Rimm

Faced with that potentially overwhelming prospect, those students will find a greater need for some traditional features of the liberal arts college. This group of chief academic officers envisioned how the physical places, and by extension, the unique perspective of the local campus becomes all the more important as defined within the global context. For example, students at a liberal arts college in a European capital can learn to appreciate the perspective that geographic location gives them on the world by taking a live trans-Atlantic seminar with students at a college in a US city. In this way, residential liberal arts colleges can take advantage of geographic specificity and turn it into the global. Similarly, Sean Connin recently wrote about how an understanding of place, beginning with home, can help students “view issues and problems from multiple perspectives” as a basis for scholarly inquiry and critical reasoning. The local campus becomes a secure point from which to engage the globally networked world.

These leaders would also preserve the high touch culture of the liberal arts college but redefine what that high touch means. As one dean asked,

Does high touch have to be done in the traditional ways we’ve done it?

The call for webs and networks leads to greater connection and integration, so that high touch happens not just on the campus but also beyond. Another dean spoke of how liberal arts colleges tend to romanticize authentic, on the ground experience. By contrast, for students today, the virtual may be just as authentic an experience.

From this vision of the future, the meeting participants moved on to address the challenges they face in realizing that vision. They were particularly concerned about how to foster innovation and risk taking on their campuses to meet the needs of today’s students. They also realized the need to work together and asked:

  • How can we leverage our unique strengths as a collective?
  • How do you create more fluidity for students amongst are institutions, especially among geographically connected institutions through technology?
  • How do we allocate our resources to our strengths without losing anything for our students?

They considered what unique perspectives and resources their places have to offer in the global context and discussed how they might strategically collaborate both to share that uniqueness with each other and to find solutions to common problems, where they have nothing to gain by going it alone.

Finally, these campus leaders identified the following strategic areas for collaboration:

  • using digital technologies to expand opportunities for students via international partnerships, service learning, and study abroad
  • creating more flexible approaches to tenure and promotion aimed at supporting risk-taking and innovation
  • using an evidence-based approach to blended learning and balancing the residential model with use of digital environments
  • creating heightened exchange and connections between institutions to leverage unique strengths within a collective

April 6-7, 2011 in Arlington, VA

A first step for many of these areas will be gathering and sharing information as a basis for better decision making. Follow-up on this meeting will take place at the NITLE Summit where Carol Long will lead sessions on the business models for higher education and Katie Conboy will join the opening plenary conversation on the future of liberal education.

What place do you see for the small liberal arts college in the world of webs and networks and how will you get there?


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