My Latest at AAC&U’s Nation: HEDs Up Sessions—Why We Fight

January 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Originally posted January 29, 2013 at AAC&U’s Nation,

Friday morning at the 2013 AAC&U Annual Meeting, I attended a series of HEDs Up presentations, a format inspired by TED talks. I’ve found these to be a refreshing break from most conference papers—even those at AAC&U, which are often more interactive than other conferences—because they are designed to be engaging and entertaining.  The brief time limit—just ten minutes—means that speakers must focus on one core message. This format offers the chance to communicate your beliefs about issues that really matter to you, your core ideas, your big questions.

So what are these ideas?  As you might expect at an AAC&U conference, all talks shared a focus on the future of liberal education and how to improve it. Alison Byerly’s presentation, “The Online Checklist,” dealt with the challenge and opportunity of online education, prompted by the recent (and constant) MOOC hype.  She unpacked this issue, pointing to the need to ask important questions about motivation, audience, and institutional fit when considering MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Implicitly, these are the questions we need to ask about any magic bullet brought forward to solve the problems of higher education.

Other talks addressed the value of liberal education.  Brett Gadsen and Vanessa Ryan, two faculty members who are fellows in “National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education,” funded by the Teagle Foundation, shared a solution they had piloted to encourage more conversations about liberal education and its value through practical examples. InTEDxBrownUniversity 2012, liberal education alumni tell personal stories of how liberal education has impacted their lives.  Assessment findings, employer surveys, and policy statements may point to the value of liberal education, but in an age of multimedia communication, personal narrative via digital video is more compelling. Faced with the hype around MOOCs, DIY learning, and other potential threats from new technologies, this solution turns technology and digital storytelling to the support of liberal education.

While appreciating the core value of liberal education, Steven Volk’s “Save the Baby, Trash the Bathtub: Reimagining the Liberal Arts College” called for a change in structure. He argued that we are trying to create twenty-first-century problem solvers with nineteenth-century structures and suggested eight ways to create twenty-first-century structures:

  1. Redesign the stage (the classroom)
  2. Resist failures of administrative imagination
  3. Extend time between class for just-in-time help and class follow-up
  4. Generate knowledge spillovers across departments and other silos
  5. “Horizontalize” the academy
  6. Challenge the major
  7. Recapture the wonderment of learning, likened to a renaissance cabinet of curiosities
  8. Take risks

Bonnie Irwin and Robert Fischer complemented Volk’s admonition to take risks by listing strategies instructors can use to encourage students to take risks and experience failure:

  • Sharing our stories of failure
  • Sharing famous people who failed and then succeeded
  • Keep standards high
  • Have tough talks with students to explain the valuable role of failure
  • Smaller opportunities of failure
  • Embedding formative assessments

Their well-coordinated, alternating, engaging presentation fleshed out the value of failure, especially in students conditioned to learn for tests and not be left behind.

Finally, Andrew Arnold’s “Pedagogy for Professors” embodied excellent teaching in action.  Seeming to follow the advice of Irwin and Fischer, he told his story of failure in developing a personal pedagogy, the insights he gained from it, and how it made him a better teacher. We saw the power of personal narrative (invoked earlier by Brown’s TEDx project) in action.

Several themes emerged from all five presentations.  Stories matter: we need to tell our stories of learning, as modeled so nicely by Professor Arnold, but also our stories of failure and stories of success.  We need to make room for risk-taking and failure, but also learn from that experience and use it to succeed. At least at this conference, students and learning matter.  One first-time conference goer compared his experience at AAC&U 2013 to disciplinary conferences, with some surprise.  “These people really believe in what they are doing. At disciplinary conferences it’s mostly griping.”  HEDs Up sessions are a place to share that belief in student learning and the value of liberal education.  As we go back to our campuses where we’ll run into griping, the latest magic bullet to solve all the woes of higher ed, and the daily grind of teaching, supporting teaching, or administrating, etc., these sessions help us remember why we fight.


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