NEW YORK -- It’s a cliff! It’s a tsunami! No, it’s the future of higher education, say grant recipients of the Teagle Foundation, who warn that language framing the discussion in a negative light is impeding efforts to change academe to fit the 21st century.
The debate was on display here last week as the foundation, which supports undergraduate education in arts and sciences, invited nine grant recipients to discuss how institutions can take innovative teaching technologies and research on cognitive science to change how their faculty spend their time in the classroom.
The foundation last year awarded nine grants to consortiums of colleges and universities working to change liberal arts education. Common to the grant recipients are initiatives that foster collaboration between faculty members of different institutions and experimental pedagogies.
But at this conference of people open to change, faculty members already sold on technology’s ability to lower costs and make higher education more accessible often reverted to a simple question: How do we convince our colleagues those changes won’t cost them their jobs?
"Language is very important, and we need to be very careful about the language we use," said Kevin Hovland, a senior director with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "How do we reframe the conversation about technology not so much as a threat but as an opportunity, at the same time recognizing that there are real threat elements, and that those concerns are legitimate vis-à-vis the changes of higher education and faculty roles in that?"
Other attendees noted that referring to the challenges facing higher education as a “tsunami”  is counterproductive to recasting the situation as one of opportunity rather than despair.
G. Christian Jernstedt, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College who opened the conference with a lecture of cognitive science, said the culture of higher education is the main obstacle holding institutions back from changing how they teach students.
“We already know enough to get going on how students learn, and enough on how to support faculty,” Jernstedt said, later adding that the best way forward for academe should be to discard the idea of a gold standard or best practices and instead experiment with as many teaching models as possible.
And attendees played along, some touting the benefits of making lectures available online or using role playing to boost student motivation, others flirting with the idea of demolishing higher education altogether -- courses, semester, degrees -- and rebuilding it from the ground up.
“You actually have the power and the skill to reinvent education,” Jernstedt said. “I think the answer to that is a continuous process of saying, ‘What does a successful outcome look like for our institution? Now what do we need to do to help them, the students, get there?’ ”
But speakers not only debated how to make that case to their colleagues; they also acknowledged the need to address the larger world of higher education beyond the liberal arts. Even though their institutions may be well-positioned to experiment, attendees wondered how to share the lessons learned with other types of institutions.
"We in the liberal arts … live in a very privileged world," said Steven Volk, professor of history at Oberlin College. "The rest of the world of higher education is much different than ours, and yet we share that same concern about education as a transformative process. How do we learn to speak to the larger world, and to the public spheres we have no interaction with?"
While attendees remained energized throughout the two-day conference, speakers urged the about 50 administrators and faculty members present to invest that energy in efforts to change their institutions. But even though organizers regularly struggled with breaking up spontaneous bouts of group discussion during the conference, there was also the sense that a failure to act now would do nothing but postpone the need to experiment.
Harvard University’s Cathy Trower, after speaking about the need to end the divisiveness between faculty on and off the tenure track, noted that “[t]his is not the first conference where these questions have been raised.”
Beau Breslin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Skidmore College, later added, "What I've gotten out of this conversation is that we're all wrestling with this idea of the changing paradigms of faculty work. What scares me the most is that 10 years from now, we'll be having the same conversations."