In a world of information overload, the annual NAFSA conference is overwhelming. Not only is it a conference with plenary speakers and concurrent sessions, it is also an Expo with more than 400 institutions and organizations from around the world. The first time I saw one of these Expo halls, I thought – Wow, this is the Vegas of higher ed conferences. It still has the wow factor.
When I arrived at NASA13, I did not immediately head to the Expo to find out about all the fun receptions being hosted this week. Instead, I rushed to George Mehaffy’s session on Challenge and Change in Higher Education. George is the Vice President for Academic Leadership and Change at AASCU (American Association of State Colleges and Universities). AASCU has a great mission – one that really resonates with my own personal philosophy about the role of higher ed in society. For me, their commitment to “underserved student populations” is key (and refreshing).
As soon as George started speaking, it became clear to me that this was also his mission. As he put it, “to educated more students, with greater learning outcomes, at lower costs.” So, how do we do this? Whether we like it or not, MOOCs are a part of this equation. Instead of ignoring them, we need to get ahead of them and figure out HOW MOOCs can help us meet a goal of better serving underserved students. If we spend all of our energy fighting MOOCs, we’ve already lost. We need to focus our energy on the how and this was clearly George’s message: Institutions have lost power; Rich kids are on residential campuses; Poor kids are online. My thinking – how do we make sure poor kids continue to have the option to live and learn on a residential campus and how do we dramatically improve the quality of online and by “quality” I don’t just mean the quality of instruction. Part of what we do when we teach (and learn) is to create and facilitate the process of becoming a better person, a more globally engaged individual. Our online learning (and teaching) environments have to reflect that. We have to accept that some students will never set foot in a physically fixed classroom and that the majority of those students will already be coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Online learning needs to provide them with advantages, rather than further disadvantages. A residential college experience provides students with rich informal networks of friends, mentors, and future colleagues. Online needs to do the same.
I left George’s session with all of these thoughts spinning in my head and I landed in Kofi Annan’s plenary speech where he began by urging us to go beyond the academic and the practical and reminded us that “no one is born a good citizen.”
How do we use MOOCs and online technology to reach the world, to create a situation where our disadvantaged students around the world become global citizens who are doing good work to make our world better for all of us? What do the best online environments look like? Who is focusing on global citizenship and public engagement?
If we can do this here, we can do this anywhere.
St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
Mary Churchill is Special Assistant to the Provost for Partnerships and Innovation at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, U.S. Find her on Twitter @mary_churchill.