Teaching

A look at how European nations create incentives for universities to promote good teaching

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The incentives for universities vary by country.

Essay on finding common ground in debate over digital courseware

The mudslinging in the debate over the use of digital courseware has reached Hatfield-and-McCoy levels of feuding. I have heard at least one higher education leader say, “The only faculty that are afraid of being replaced by digital courseware are those who deserve to be replaced by digital courseware.” Also heard are descriptors such as: rigid, skeptical, curmudgeon, Luddite, etc. On the other side, there are the “reformers” and “disruptive innovators” who are criticized for seeing technology as a panacea.

The enthusiastic debate about digital courseware’s adoption and its impact on student outcomes is caused in part by mounting pressure on faculty to change and, especially, to use more technology in their teaching. Too often, though, faculty are considered as a monolithic group, facing the same challenges across many different types of institutions and student populations. Our research shows that this oversimplifies the perspectives of faculty and the challenges that institutions and instructors face as they grapple with elevated outcome expectations and capacity constraints.

There is more texture to the debate than the view that it’s about brash proponents of using digital courseware squaring off with change-resistant opponents. And this oversimplification sprouts problems beyond mischaracterizations of faculty. The common belief that faculty members are blockers to digital curriculum adoption pushes those who are attempting to advance technology use on campus to adopt strategies that circumvent faculty members instead of directly engaging them. This creates a harmful cycle in which the concerns of faculty members are not addressed, new platforms are created or adopted with incomplete information, and administrators and faculty members on both sides of the technology-adoption debate remain frustrated.

So, what’s really behind faculty members’ resistance? Fundamentally, most faculty are open to using digital courseware, but are so dissatisfied with the prevailing user experience that they are unlikely to recommend their current digital curriculum to a colleague. In surveying 2,700 faculty and administrators in the summer of 2014, our research identified four unique faculty groups on campuses across the United States. Common attributes, behaviors and mind-sets among faculty in these groups help to uncover the layers underneath faculty members’ perspectives on digital curricula. Below is a chart that will help you identify which group you or your faculty fit into, and a snapshot of our findings on each group.

Off-the-Shelfers: This group is moderately open to the use of courseware. They represent 21 percent of faculty. Off-the-Shelfers are more heavily concentrated in public two-year institutions and career-focused disciplines. These individuals value ease of use and implementation and are less inclined to develop their own curricula than their peers. Additionally, analysis links their cost sensitivity to this institutional and discipline concentration.

Unconvinced Do-It-Yourselfers: This group is open to the use of courseware but is still looking for proven improved outcomes. They represent 25 percent of faculty. Unconvinced DIYers want control over curriculum decisions and are open to how courseware might enable this, however, they are not yet convinced that the cost of using courseware is worth the potential benefits.

Enthusiastic Do-It-Yourselfers: At 13 percent of the population, Enthusiastic DIYers look very similar to Unconvinced DIYers in their perceptions and preferences, but they report higher satisfaction with digital courseware than their peers. Generally, Enthusiastic DIYers have not earned tenure or are not on a tenure track and have been teaching for fewer than 10 years.

Lecturing Skeptics: Representing 31 percent of all faculty, Lecturing Skeptics are the faculty most likely to deliver instruction through a lecture format, the least likely to instruct online. They are most likely to prefer proven teaching methods. These are the more traditional drivers of the teaching and learning process, to whom digital courseware has yet to prove itself. Lecturing Skeptics are more likely to teach in arts and social science disciplines than members of other segments.

When faculty survey respondents were asked whether they would recommend their courseware product to a friend or colleague at their own or another institution, only one of the four segments, Enthusiastic DIYers, exhibited a positive net promoter score (NPS), meaning that a greater portion of the group would be promoters of courseware than would be detractors. The negative NPS from three of the four groups of faculty reflects the overall level of dissatisfaction with courseware that faculty members feel.

What does this all mean? Ultimately, we found that each faculty group reveals insights that can be used to engage with those who are unconvinced and skeptical. For courseware developers, these findings are a loud call to rethink their approach to user input in their design process. The truth is that faculty are decision makers and key stakeholders. They have influence to redefine the courseware category and to improve the experience for students and faculty. More than anything, internal and external stakeholders and decision makers need to understand these faculty groups and what is driving their behavior. Ongoing failure to listen and respond to faculty needs will only reinforce resistance.

Digital curricula in the hands of supported and equipped instructors have significant potential to personalize learning and to lead to the delivery of high-quality education that meets the needs of today’s postsecondary students. But that impact will only be realized if technology solutions are able to successfully scale. New offerings with greater capacity to adapt to faculty needs are unlikely to transition from pilot to scale unless more than just the early adopters or “tech-savvy” faculty are engaged from the beginning.

The legendary 1870s feud between West Virginia families the Hatfields and the McCoys -- from disputes over land, prized pigs, interfamily romances and no fewer than 10 revenge killings -- wasn’t a simple one, either. (But the families did reunite in 1979 for a more palatable version on the game show Family Feud -- no joke!) Only by moving the conversation from oversimplified mischaracterizations to engagement of all faculty in the process to address needs and the barriers to adoption will we be able to redefine the digital courseware experience and achieve personalized learning for all students.

Gates Bryant is a partner with Tyton Partners, the former Education Growth Advisors, which provides investment banking and strategy consulting services to companies, organizations and investors.

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Essay on the importance of cues in college teaching

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When teaching undergraduates, it's important to remember what they don't know and to offer cues, writes Rob Weir.

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Essay rejects the hype over fear of liberal or diverse students

I’m a liberal white faculty member, and I have a confession: I have no idea why other liberal white faculty members claim to be so afraid of their liberal students. In the past few months, anonymous (and sometimes not) white professors have started airing these fears, or re-airing them, as they are reminiscent of old complaints. The campus culture, they claim, has grown toxic, with faculty members carefully paring their syllabi to avoid any potentially uncomfortable material. A specter, they will tell you, is haunting universities -- the specter of political correctness, or radical liberalism, or identity politics.

The latest of these accounts, published recently in Vox under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser, is particularly unconvincing. Schlosser, an ostensibly liberal professor, conflates real problems -- the shifting of higher education toward a consumer experience (explained and deflated well here by Rebecca Schuman) and the absence of job protection for contingent faculty -- with ghosts conjured by paranoia. The generality of Schlosser’s writing doesn’t pass the sniff test; for example, he claims, “Personal experience and feelings aren't just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics.”

That sentence doesn’t stack the deck so much as it replaces it entirely. And the oddly random anecdotes of feelings-driven radical liberalism don’t add up; as in many invocations of the dangers of student liberalism, Twitter is a central go-to demon. The fundamental irony of Schlosser’s essay is that he criticizes overreliance on emotional responses that students have, but the fear he describes ultimately seems like an overreliance on an emotional response by some white faculty members. Criticism from students -- whether it’s over the reading choices, the assignments, the in-class dynamic -- isn’t new, even if it develops out of students’ political perspectives or not. Instructors have to learn to meet that criticism and engage it respectfully.

Finally, people of color are starkly underrepresented among full-time faculty members and face authority challenges in the classroom that white male faculty do not, so the growing concern about what the white professoriate can and cannot say seems laughable to me. Plus, for what it’s worth, I’m a white male instructor unprotected by the tenure track, but I don’t feel the fear Schlosser describes, and my academic friends and colleagues, both tenured and not, at a wide variety of institutions, either don’t feel this fear or don’t confess it to me.

All that said, I do think Schlosser’s concern comes from meaningful, important questions: How do faculty members teach controversial material in an open, respectful forum where students can learn? And how can white male instructors approach issues of race, gender and sexual orientation with sensitivity? I teach first-year writing, creative writing and the personal essay, so each semester I regularly teach (and encounter in student writing) controversial material. If a student has raised a complaint about my handling of that material, it hasn’t been mentioned to me. I don’t assume to know every experience that might arise in the humanities classroom; I also can’t claim I’m the exemplar of how to encounter controversial issues in the classroom. Based on my experience, though, I have suggestions below on how Schlosser and other fearful faculty can teach controversial material.

Know, and admit, the limits of your authority. All instructors try to prepare as comprehensively as possible, but we all enter the classroom with our blind spots, our little (and sometimes big) ignorance. If you help students understand both the background of knowledge you bring as well as the uncertainties and questions you ask of a subject, they likely will understand your perspective more fully and engage with the questions you want them to consider. You won’t lose authority; rather, they’ll grow to see, via your model, how they can enter into complex problems and develop their own authority. They’ll also recognize the limits of their own knowledge, and that knowledge is fluid and limited.

Know, and admit, the extent of your authority. Faculty members are overwhelmingly, disproportionately white; department chairs more so. That’s the main reason I can’t take seriously this anonymous fear of retribution from liberal students: even at colleges with less diverse student populations, students still find more diversity among their peers than on the faculty. The resistance some white faculty members feel from students is, among other things, likely resistance to discovering the university as an ostensibly open environment that is still a sometimes unwelcome one for students of color. Even if we’re trying to be welcoming, white faculty members, myself included, are part of the problem, whether we like it or not. (NB: We should not.) Acknowledging that disparity as part of the process of teaching difficult material can help students discuss that material openly.

Know your place -- or, rather, know the place you’re in. While earning my Ph.D., I taught at an urban campus in the Midwest. In one first-year writing course, a student argued that affirmative action has given unfair opportunities to African-American students. In the course of the conversation, I asked the students what percentage of the student body they thought was African-American. One student, from a rural area, guessed 50 percent; no student guessed less than 25 percent. When I told them the percentage was actually under 10, well under the demographics of the city, state and nation the university was home to, they refused to believe me. (Had they looked around the room, they would have seen a single African-American student among the 18 of them.) When I showed them the university’s website, the look of confused resistance that spread on their faces appalled me; one student continued disagreeing, saying there must be some mistake with the website -- an administrator had told him it was 25 percent.

Had I been more aware of the place I was in, I would have understood their reactions better. A colleague reminded me later that the university was bordered on two sides by predominantly African-American neighborhoods; the custodial staff and service workers on campus were also largely African-American. Many of the students came from predominantly white neighborhoods and rural areas; they’d never seen so many African-Americans, so their imaginations likely multiplied those numbers.

Wherever we are, we should remember that academe is a shorthand for extraordinarily diverse kinds of universities. That’s why many of us resist when longtime tenured faculty from elite universities describe their experience as universal, a useful reminder that advanced age and advanced degrees don’t necessarily confer wisdom. Knowing your own college or university culture more intimately will help you work more directly with your students, whether the subject matter is controversial or not.

Recognize your own emotional reactions. Fear has a way of magnifying itself. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean the thing you’re afraid of is real. Along those lines, I’m skeptical of those who posit a split between the intellectual and emotional. Too many of the essays about fear of liberal students (especially Schlosser’s in Vox) posit the fearful faculty as reasonable and the student body as unreasonably emotional. Not only does the fear some white faculty members describe seem like an emotional embellishment, conceiving of emotion and reason as disconnected opposites does a tremendous disservice to both. Yes, reason and logic can be dispassionate, even at times disconnected from our emotional responses, but to pretend that they must be ever thus in the humanities classroom ignores basic human experience. If you pretend as Wendy Kaminer does that the utterance of the n-word by a white person has a negligible emotional charge, you’re committing an intellectual sin.

Explore your own bias, and never treat it as solved. I’m a white man born and raised in Arkansas. I’ve spent years working to understand the legacy of racism in my home state, and I’ve come to understand that, no matter how fully I try, I’ll probably never filter from myself the last dregs of that legacy. Exploring that bias -- via Harvard University’s Implicit Bias test, for example -- and acknowledging it to students can be a useful path to helping instructors and students recognize their own biases and develop a more complex understanding of their own emotional and intellectual responses.

When we discuss race in my classes, I tell my students of my background and acknowledge that, as careful as I try to be in thinking and speaking about race, I almost surely bring biases and emotional reactions I don’t yet recognize. In my experience, that engages them with their own experience and the intellectual material we discuss. Along those lines, instructors can benefit from presenting themselves as learners. Both the best and the most frustrating students have an inherent mistrust of authority, I think. As an instructor, I do, too. My greatest pleasure in teaching is being surprised and enlightened by my students’ work, especially their productive, constructive challenges to authority. And when they realize they’ve taught the instructor something, the students gain a useful confidence and foundation for the development of more complex ideas.

Teach difficult, controversial texts, paying particular attention to intellectual and cultural diversity. The avoidance of difficult material that Schlosser describes would be enormously counterproductive, of course, and faculty need to reconsider their syllabi in light of ongoing change. For example, I had long been proud to have a diverse list of poets and fiction writers in my creative-writing class. But when I reconsidered the syllabus last summer, I discovered that the poetry readings were less diverse and less focused on issues of race and gender than I had thought. So I adjusted the readings, adding in poems like June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and short stories like Percival Everett’s “The Appropriation of Cultures,” excellent writing that drew the students’ attention to complex issues. Just as we discussed sound and sonnet structure in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” and image and figure in Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” we discussed line breaks, anaphora, tone and race in Jordan’s poem.

As sometimes happens, I encountered student fatigue with discussions of race (in this case in a discussion of Jordan’s poem), only to discover what I think is often the source of that fatigue: many students see the beginning and end point of such discussions as “racism is bad.” When reluctant students saw how the issues were more complicated and required more inquiry, they became more engaged and moved to more compelling insights about the poem and about race.

Make clear the potential discomforts and challenges of the course material. To many, that might sound like a trigger warning, but it actually isn’t. On the first day of my classes, I mention that our reading (and possibly their writing, in creative-writing and personal-essay courses) will make us think in complicated, sometimes uncomfortable ways, about sexuality, race, gender and age, among other subjects. That isn’t a trigger warning; it’s simple politeness. Each class approaches its subject matter differently, and guiding students to your pedagogical approach helps them build the class dynamic more constructively. Trigger warnings, on the other hand, explicitly inform students about subject material that might trigger memories of trauma for those who’ve suffered that trauma. Though I don’t include trigger warnings, it’s frustrating that so many critics of trigger warnings conflate discomfort and trauma, ultimately misrepresenting the idea and design of trigger warnings.

If a student accuses you of hurting her/his feelings in a meaningful way, assume you’re in the wrong before you assume you’re in the right. This runs counter to the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” but it’s a useful guide to self-awareness. (Bear in mind that I’m not arguing that departments should assume their faculty are in the wrong.) In academic and nonacademic contexts, I’ve seen plenty of people react immediately with a sharp defensiveness to all kinds of accusations, only to calcify that defense over time. (Full disclosure: I’ve been that person before and likely will be again.) Moving past the initial defensiveness, or converting the initial impulse into self-inquiry, can be useful in helping instructors consider their biases and emotional responses. Even if you and your colleagues decide you weren’t in the wrong, avoiding the defensive impulse will make you a more perceptive teacher.

What I’ve written above isn’t a comprehensive guide for scared white faculty; I’ve based it on my experience, so it’s necessarily limited. I’m trying to keep myself malleable in the hope of becoming a better teacher. Students will change over time; decrying the loss of some golden age while warning of some encroaching PC liberalism screaming across the sky does the students no good.

Charles Green teaches writing at Cornell University. He hopes that his bosses at the Politically Correct Policepersons Union will accept this essay in lieu of dues this month.

 

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Kennesaw State apologizes to student who posted video of how he was treated by advisor

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Kennesaw State apologizes to student whose video of his interaction with adviser went viral, and pledges to cut student-to-adviser ratio. But there are no easy formulas for such ratios.

D2L gets into adaptive learning with a new tool aimed at professors

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Recent adaptive learning entrants seek to put faculty members in charge of "personalized" content, but will the tools go beyond pilot projects?

Rhode Island approves new college to help adults finish degrees

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New college in Rhode Island will help the state's adults with incomplete degrees graduate. Organization's leaders have their eyes on national -- and possibly international -- expansion.

Professors should seize chance to use data to improve learning (essay)

When Rowland Hussey Macy opened his namesake store in 1858, understanding consumer behavior was largely a matter of guessing. Retailers had little data to assess what customers wanted or how variables like store hours, assortment or pricing might impact sales. Decision making was slow: managers relied on manual sales tallies, compiled weekly or annually. Dozens of stores failed, including several of Macy’s original stores.

Predictive analytics, in the early days of retail, were rudimentary. Forward-thinking retailers combined transactional data with other types of information -- the weather, for example -- to understand the drivers of consumer behavior. In the 1970s, everything changed. Digital cash registers took hold, allowing companies to capture data and spot trends more quickly. They began A/B testing, piloting ideas in a test vs. control model, at the store level to understand the impact of strategy in near real time.

In the early days of AOL, where I worked in the 1990s and early 2000s, we were quick to recognize the risk to brick-and-mortar stores, as online retailers gathered unprecedented data on consumer behavior. Companies like Amazon could track a customer’s movements on their site using click-stream data to understand which products a customer was considering, or how long they spent comparing products before purchasing. Their brick-and-mortar counterparts, meanwhile, were stuck in the 1800s.

Unexpected innovations, however, have a funny way of leveling the playing field. Today, broadband ubiquity and the proliferation of mobile devices are enabling brick-and-mortar stores to track cell phone signals or use video surveillance to understand the way consumers navigate a store, or how much time they spend in a particular aisle. Sophisticated multichannel retailers now merge online behavior with in-person information to piece together a more holistic picture of their consumers, generating powerful data that drive changes in layout, staffing, assortment and pricing. A recent study found that 36 percent of in-store retail purchases -- worth a whopping $1.1 trillion -- are now influenced by the use of digital devices. Retailers who leverage online research to drive brick-and-mortar sales are gaining a competitive advantage.

The use of big data and predictive analytics in higher education is nascent. So-called disrupters often claim that the lecture hasn’t changed in 150 years, and that only online learning can drive transformative, game-changing outcomes for students. Of course, these claims ring hollow among today’s tech-savvy professors.

Since my transition into higher education, I have been struck by the parallel journey retailers and educators face. Both have been proclaimed obsolete at various points, but the reality is that the lecture, like the retail experience, has and will continue to evolve to meet the new demands of 21st-century users.

Like brick-and-mortar stores, lectures were once a black box -- but smart faculty members are beginning to harness the presence of mobile devices to capture unprecedented levels of data in traditional classrooms. And smart institutions are combining real-time engagement data with historic information to spot challenges early and change the academic trajectory for students.

Historical sources of student data (FAFSA, GPA, SAT, etc.) have predictive validity, but they are a bit like the year-over-year data retailers used: limited in depth and timeliness. The heart of a higher education institution is its professors -- and its classes. In addition to professors being experts in their fields, providing unique learning opportunities to their students, studies have shown that when professors have positive relationships with students, it leads to greater student success.

Some of the most interesting early data are coming from the big, first-year lecture courses. While most students experience these as a rite of passage, they also hold great potential as models of how behavioral data can improve engagement and completion rates for students. Faculty are no longer powerless in the face of larger classes and limited insight into their students' learning behavior. They can track how well students are engaging in traditional lecture classes and intervene with students who aren’t engaged in the behaviors (note taking, asking questions and attendance) that correlate with success.

Historically, professors have relied on piecemeal solutions to gather insights on student behavior. So-called student-response systems and learning management software, like digital cash registers in the ’70s, provide useful data -- but they don’t provide the sort of real-time analytics that can inform an instructor’s practice or to identify students in need of additional support and coaching.

A more recent brand of solutions -- in full disclosure, including ours at Echo360 -- are designed to work in conjunction with great teaching, while providing instructors with the tools to track and measure student engagement: Are students taking notes? Are they asking questions? These tools give administrators and instructors insight into how students are interacting and participating both in class, as well as with content or readings before and after class. No more waiting for summative tests to demonstrate that a student misunderstood a concept weeks or months earlier.

The analogy between retail and education has its limitations. The mission and objectives in education are more nuanced, and frankly, more important. However, education, like every sector, has what we call a moment of truth.

For retailers, that moment of truth is centered around the purchase decision. Sophisticated marketers and retailers have used behavioral data to become incredibly skilled at understanding and shaping that purchase decision to achieve extraordinary results.

It’s time to use those learnings for a higher calling. The explosion of digital devices in the classroom allows us to understand the learning process wherever it is happening on campus, and to support education’s vital moment of truth -- a transaction of knowledge between professors and students.

Frederick Singer is CEO and founder of Echo360, which provides active learning and lecture capture services to more than 650 higher ed clients in 30 countries.

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OECD prepares to measure teaching quality

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OECD prepares for major project to measure effectiveness of universities in the classroom.

Essay calls for ending the divide between liberal arts and practical education

With the release of his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, journalist Fareed Zakaria became the latest commentator to join the robust debate over whether the purpose of college is to promote professional advancement or personal growth. The debate typically contrasts the self-betterment offered by the liberal arts -- usually meaning the humanities and social sciences -- against the workforce merits of applied disciplines, such as engineering. One side argues that universities ought to nurture educated, complete human beings, while the other calls for marketplace utility. The conversation has long tottered over this line, and there it remains stalled.

But perhaps it’s time finally to advance past the stale juxtaposition of the humanities versus the applied disciplines. After all, is it really the case that one is soft and the other exacting? In many ways, they’re equally complex. And while each proffers distinct rewards, the two sides have much to gain from each other if we move past these entrenchments.

A Common Complexity

Naturally, the study of an applied discipline like engineering is a steep academic challenge. The study of any complex system is difficult. To build a good airplane, biomaterial or computer program, one needs to understand the dizzying intricacies of that object’s composition and context. Materials, environment, the forces of physics, time and logic -- all of these factor into an engineer’s grasp of her subject, and the task of mastering this complexity spurs intellectual development.

Yet the study of human culture and behavior is similarly complex. Just as the hard sciences demand the grasp of intricate systems, so do the liberal arts. In the case of the humanities and social sciences, however, these systems are an elaborate mesh of history, art, geography, biology and economics -- the strands that make up our world’s DNA. Thus, while a civil engineer learns about materials and soil types and local ordinances, a classics student absorbs how the legacy of the Roman Empire shapes everything from the letters we write to the architecture of our buildings and how we structure our water supply systems. This deep contextual understanding weaves through daily life.

To take a concrete example, consider the act of purchasing a gallon of gasoline. An engineer might recognize how the fuel powers her car’s engine, or how oil is extracted from the earth. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, might inform this engineer of the history and meaning of OPEC, the convoluted economics of energy and the context of global warming. She might recall The Nicomachean Ethics and conclude that taking personal responsibility for her actions means she should drive less, or consider how hunger for resources drives civilizations to colonize and conquer. These are obviously not facile mental endeavors.

In terms of rigor, then, it’s certainly the case that the liberal arts can be just as demanding as the applied disciplines. Why, then, is it so commonly believed that an English degree, for example, will leave a graduate trapped in the ivory tower -- or her parents’ basement? 

The reason may be that, in many cases, applied studies feature a strong laboratory or workplace experience, while liberal arts classes are often framed by the traditions of the essay and exam paper. This difference in mode, this boundary between the abstract and the real, may largely account for the conceit that a liberal arts education doesn’t equate to a tangible outcome, or a tangible paycheck. However, liberal arts programs can counter this misperception by reproducing the lessons from engineering laboratories or business school co-op programs and adding an experiential component. By practicing the experiential liberal arts, they would better prepare their students to engage in the world.

The Experiential Difference

What would this look like in practice? Experiential liberal arts would combine the rigor of traditional academics with active participation in workplaces, laboratories or volunteer opportunities -- especially ones in a global context. These real-life elements would heighten students’ motivation, promote practice and self-reflection, promote contextual understanding, and encourage self-direction. In other words, the experiential component would be a vehicle that leads to deeper learning.

For instance, an English major might complete a co-op with a national magazine, applying ideas she encountered in a Technology of Text class to the creation of content for new formats in publishing. In doing so, she would cement academic information into owned knowledge. She wouldn’t merely internalize lessons -- she would live them. Likewise, since many students learn by translating theoretical knowledge into generative action, a philosophy major could parlay a co-op at the United Nations Human Rights Council into a research project on how the global economy is changing the sort of moral choices we face -- for example, making us question the ethics of using electronics built with exploited labor.

To be sure, ensuring that liberal arts students have access to high-quality internships that reinforce their classroom learning requires meaningful engagement between universities and employers. Creating substantive partnerships takes work, but the rewards are mutual. At Northeastern University, for example, one of our undergraduate history majors recently completed a co-op with the U.S. Commercial Service in Mexico, where he applied his content knowledge and research skills -- acquired through liberal arts classes -- to compose a report analyzing plans to expand the Port of Veracruz. His employer then used the analysis to determine whether this $19 billion project should move forward as planned, or with changes. 

Similarly, another undergraduate applied his learning as an English major to design the customer support system and perform financial analysis for a cloud computing start-up firm. “Doing financial analysis is surprisingly similar to doing literary analysis,” he told us. “When you read a poem or a novel, your professor tells you to look between the text and dig as deep as you can to find out everything the author is trying to say. When you’re looking at a spreadsheet of numbers, you’re doing the same thing: What are these numbers trying to tell me?”

The Rewards of Experiential Liberal Arts

Indeed, the marriage of liberal arts skills with experiential learning yields advanced survival skills for the modern era: creative, critical and analytical thinking, deft communication, and the ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity, applying knowledge in unexpected situations. We can’t engage effectively with other human beings -- or institutions, or work assignments -- without these talents. Just as importantly, the experiential liberal arts imparts an appetite for ongoing study, training students to adapt their minds to new learning situations throughout their lives. This is invaluable in an economy that demands that workers make multiple career jumps and replenish their skills on a continuing basis. 

But experiential liberal arts experiences shouldn’t be for liberal arts students only. Context, communication and a capacity for self-directed lifelong learning -- everyone needs these, including students in the applied disciplines. The most brilliant computer scientist has to thrive in the human milieu or risk irrelevance. The most trailblazing biochemical engineer should learn to weigh the social and cultural context of her work. By enhancing their courses of study with relevant content from the humanities and social sciences, programs in the applied disciplines would also better prepare their graduates to engage with the world and succeed in life.

The New Literacy

In fact, what the worn-out juxtaposition of the liberal arts versus the applied disciplines overlooks is that aspects of each are essential for living a full life, both professionally and personally. We wouldn’t say that grade schoolers should choose between learning how to read or how to add and subtract, so we shouldn’t fall into equivalent false choices in higher education. Both domains have relevance, utility and beauty, and both contain critical components of a new skill set -- a new literacy -- that students need if they’re to flourish in modern life and the global economy.

For example, consider analytics, statistics and coding -- three subjects often cited as vital for students to learn today. In many ways, the robust study of each involves drawing from concepts from both the world of liberal arts and the applied sciences. For example, one might integrate concepts from art and design into a course on analytics, so students can transform sophisticated quantitative analyses into elegant, intuitive data visualizations.  Likewise, one might weave lessons from history and concepts in cultural anthropology together with technical instruction in Stata or SPSS to show more deeply how statistics can be used to investigate issues and challenges across a variety of domains.

Imagine how valuable -- and relevant -- an education students would receive if colleges and universities routinely approached the curriculum with this kind of harmonization in mind. Imagine how augmenting it with experiential component would enrich it even further.

Every scientist needs to ponder the context of her work and communicate its meaning; every liberal arts student should wrangle with the revelations of big data. Both applied disciplines and the liberal arts have much to share between them. By bleeding a little into each other, these two approaches to higher education would give every graduate a powerful, marketable education for today’s economy. 

So let’s move past the false dichotomy that characterizes the current debate over the liberal arts and applied disciplines. Better to draw lessons from both, and agree that the most valuable education is one that works.

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.

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