Grad Students and Digital Education

My campus is in the middle of a strategic planning process, and I have the good fortune of participating in the "digital" working group.

December 1, 2011

My campus is in the middle of a strategic planning process, and I have the good fortune of participating in the "digital" working group

As part of this process we are holding a series of focus groups with various constituents and stakeholders around campus, including faculty, librarians, students, and administrators. We are trying to understand how these different groups gauge the potential of technology to improve learning and discovery at our institution.

This week, along with my colleague Roddy Young, I had the opportunity of speaking with a small group of graduate students, and I again came away from this discussion concluding that:

a.  We need to build in time for these sorts of conversations on an ongoing basis, as opposed to only within the context of a larger strategic planning initiative.

b.  The future of academia is really incredibly exciting, as these grad students are amazingly brilliant, articulate, passionate - while at the same time being grounded in the realities of higher ed.

Represented amongst the graduate students in our discussion were people from the sciences, liberal arts, engineering and medicine.  

Some of the themes that emerged in our discussion:

A Desire for Cross-Disciplinary Collaboration:

This desire for opportunities to collaborate with members in other disciplines and departments came as somewhat of a surprise to me.  When I was in grad school I was completely focused on my narrow subject matter and the research that I was trying to finish.   These grad students seem to understand that the problems they will face, both in academia and in the wider world, will not be solved without an interdisciplinary approach.  They see technology as an important bridge between disciplines, and are comfortable collaborating virtually.   For them, collaboration does not necessarily require working in the same buildings (or even the same campuses), but can be accomplished through a range of social and communication platforms.  They would like to see our institution provide the opportunities for these cross-departmental projects to emerge, and for us to hire faculty who are explicitly interested in multidisciplinary work.

An Awareness That Culture Matters More Than Technologies:

The biggest difference I found in speaking to graduate vs. undergraduate students is that the grad students continually stressed cultural changes over technological ones.   The "killer app" for the graduate students is not the fastest network or the most mobile apps, but an academic culture that encourages and rewards innovation, collaboration and risk taking.   The grad students spoke of technologies as enablers, but not as magic bullets.  Even given a hypothetical open checkbook for technology investment, they kept coming around to the necessity of creating a supportive and innovative campus culture.

A Wish for Engagement and Sharing with the Wider World:

The grad students were knowledgeable about and impressed with the Stanford's  MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) in artificial intelligence.  They love iTunesU, and see M.I.T.'s OpenCourseWare as a great thing.   One grad student made the point that the valuable commodity the institution offers is a credential, and that sharing knowledge only increases the value of this credential.   My strong sense of speaking with these grad students that as faculty they will be leading their institutions into the world of open learning.  They also want colleagues and potential employers to be able to see the great research, teaching and thinking going in their departments, and sharing nowadays requires a strong online, social and mobile virtual presence.

A Recognition of the Need for Faculty Training and Support for Effective Use of Technology:

In our discussions we were trying to get at what digital investments they would make at the institution.   Time and again, the grad students stressed the need for faculty support, development, and training.   They look around and see that many faculty are already making great use of digital tools for teaching and research, yet the use of these platforms is unequally distributed.  For their own teaching and research the grad students would like to have opportunities for development, but feel that the traditional noontime training sessions and discussions don't fit how they work.  They want materials to be online, with opportunities to learn and collaborate digitally and asynchronously.

Have you had the opportunity to speak with your grad students, the future faculty of our profession, about the future of education and technology?  What have you learned?


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