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NEW YORK -- If basic market forces are reshaping higher education, common knowledge dictates incumbents will lose market share to newcomers. But based on the discussions at a conference on sustainable scholarship here on Tuesday, no one -- from faculty members to librarians -- intends to play the role of the incumbent.

Disaggregation, unbundling and public-private partnerships were some of the many recurring themes during a daylong brainstorming session on innovative forms of teaching and learning -- themes that the almost 200 academic librarians, publishers and representatives of the private sector in attendance suggested could prevent their fields from becoming obsolete. The conference sessions were meant to focus on specifically on librarianship and publishing, but moderators regularly had to prompt panelists to return to those topics as the conversation quickly spilled into higher education as a whole.

The event was hosted by the nonprofit research organization Ithaka, which promotes innovative forms of teaching and scholarly communication.

“The Internet forcing us to come to terms with what education really is,” said Barbara Anne Bichelmeyer, interim chancellor of Indiana University Southeast, who spoke during a session on course redesign. “It is really important that you understand that online learning has as many forms and functions as on-campus instruction.”

Bichelmeyer and other speakers spoke candidly about the Internet’s ability to render the traditional face-to-face course obsolete. They did not, however, predict a future dominated by massive open online courses, but instead courses with varying amount of online content depending on student ability.

“Here’s what’s got to go: three 50-minute lectures,” said Mark LeBlanc, professor of computer science at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts, during a session on the digital humanities. “It’s not enough. It’s not good enough. If [students are] going to pay $50,000, we’d better think of a new model.”

Whether discussing blended learning or library use, most speakers touched on the same topic: big data. Although frequently tied to improving student outcomes, M. J. Bishop, a teaching methods expert at the University System of Maryland, noted the same data can be used to convince faculty members that their jobs are not being jeopardized by experimentation.

“They’re ensconced in this notion that we can’t possibly turn our attention to that because we have all these pressures threatening our way of being,” Bishop said. “They need to know we’re pursuing this empirically.”

One by one, speakers lined up to present their examples. Wendy Pradt Lougee, university librarian at the University of Minnesota, used data to make the case that students who used the library saw a grade-point average increase of 0.23. McGraw-Hill Education’s Alfred Essa, vice president of research and development and analytics, invited the audience to consider a data-driven portal -- “kind of like eHarmony,” he added -- to match students with the institution best-suited to their abilities. And Ryan Baker, visiting associate professor at Teachers College of Columbia University, described a program that would detect when students get bored and suggest ways to intervene.

“With learning analytics and gobs and gobs of data, we can predict everything -- almost,” Baker said.

When the conversation finally turned to the role of libraries and publishers, two sets of speakers showed they had taken different approaches to combine the two for their mutual benefit. Purdue University moved its university press into its library to cut costs and share expertise between staff members, while BioOne president and CEO Susan Skomal explained why the company has partnered with Dartmouth College to create Elementa, a new open-access publication.

“Survival, I would say, is what we’re all about,” Skomal said. “It’s another way to say sustainability.”

At times the conference captured the state of higher education -- and the ongoing debates about access and affordability -- in a nutshell. David Pakman, a partner at the venture capital firm Venrock, delivered the morning keynote, which consisted of a set of predictions about higher education made by someone outside its traditional boundaries. 

“How do you know that things are changing?” said Pakman, comparing the state of higher education to the music industry’s response to MP3s and Internet downloads. “I think the consumer leads us.”

Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, quickly rose to challenge Pakman. “Music is not a public good,” he said. “It’s a private consumptive good. I don’t care whether everybody in this room listens to crummy music, but if everybody in this room gets a crummy education, then our society suffers.”

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