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October 08, 2010

The Future of Higher Education and the Roles of Faculty

The current issue of the Educause Quarterly includes my third OpEd piece on the Future of Education. This one focuses on the roles of faculty in networked education, global research challenges, and teacher preparation for the 21st century.

About 85 institutions in the Western world established by 1500 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and unbroken histories, including the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Iceland, and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and 70 universities. Kings that rule, feudal lords with vassals, and guilds with monopolies are all gone. These seventy universities, however, are still in the same locations with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways.
— Clark Kerr1

Forces of continuity and disruption are observable within any ecosystem. The complexion of today's university and college faculty is at once the single most important institutional force representing the high priesthood of continuity and agents provocateurs inciting adaptive innovation and experimentation at an almost breathless pace.

The rollback of public investment in, pressure for access to, and indeterminate impact of globalization on postsecondary education all contribute to significant disorientation in our thinking about the future of the university. And then there are the disruptive impacts of information technology that only serve to exacerbate the general set of contradictions that we associate with the university. The faculty are autonomous and constrained, powerful and vulnerable, innovative at the margins yet conservative at the core, dedicated to education while demeaning teaching, devoted to liberal arts and yet powerfully vocational, nonprofit in their sensibilities and at the same time opportunistically commercial, in what Kerr calls an "aristocracy of intellect" in a populist society.2

Those contradictions are heightened in the information age. Given the underlying anatomy of the Internet — respecting no hierarchy, boundary, or presumptive authority — it comes as little surprise that faculty continue to grapple with their own identities in the context of the changes fomented by information technology. In the first two columns of this series, I reflected on the impact of:

Online Mentoring and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning — Revisited

Faculty acceptance of learning moving in part or in whole to online environments has been an important debate these past 20 years. While the debate will continue,3 the marketplace has already hit an inflection point — online education is a growing part of what learners want and are prepared to invest in. What has yet to emerge is a peer or professional association standard for outstanding online mentoring and instruction. Bill Gates's recent prediction that within five years the best education will come from the Internet4 generates ridicule and derision on the one hand and on the other the assertion that the best education already comes from the Net. In aggregate, according to research by Ambient Insight, online learning in both a hybrid bricks-and-click mode as well as completely online is quickly approaching parity with the traditional classroom-only experience.5 One of the studies predicted that by 2014 more than 20 million students will choose exclusive online and hybrid online learning experiences, far eclipsing the 5 million students who will choose the classroom-only options available. While a healthy skepticism about the trends predicted by any one study is merited, defining excellence, what constitutes best practices, and an emerging gold standard for online mentoring and instruction is an opportunity (as well as a threat) to the faculty in our universities and colleges. Beyond convenience, price, and agility, the wealth of experience among the professoriate can — and indeed, should — help distinguish and develop a new set of standards of distinction.

Reimaging Teacher Education in a Connected World

Of all the disconnects and contradictions in the early decades of the 21st century, perhaps none is as important to future generations as the challenge facing faculties in schools of education. Educating for citizenship in the global village, digital literacies, and reflection and originality in a mashup world are enormous challenges even if there were no legacy education system. All too often the refrain "students are simply not ready for university/college" leads to faculty and administrators washing their hands of responsibility. Over the next quarter century, the students we educate today will be tomorrow's teachers, challenged with developing meaningful curricula blending 20th and 21st century realities. Globalization and information technology have been great equalizers these past 25 years in terms of K–12 education, and over the next 25 years other countries' education systems with less legacy and more agility stand to make significant progress in preparing their younger societies with 21st century skills in what looks to be a hyper-connected global economy. Leadership among our university faculty should view the challenge to help rethink the boundaries within pre-K–20 learning as an opportunity to contribute to fashioning meaningful learning spaces and experiential learning opportunities for the 21st century.

Global Research Challenges

From the 10,000 research scientists and engineers from over 100 countries working on the Large Hadron Collider exploring the origins of the universe, to the billions of dollars from hundreds of national and private agencies investing in translational medicine, to advancing personalized medicine and our knowledge of diseases such as Alzheimer's,6 many of the big challenges of our time are cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional. All of them leverage information technology for data collection, analysis, and dissemination. The underlying economics of our disciplinary-based institutional arrangements are rarely flexible enough to advance these grand challenges. Many faculty view their departments and the university as a whole as too often hindering their aspirations to take on these global challenges. The university that acknowledges and rewards open collaboration, data sharing, and unprecedented knowledge dissemination, all enabled through information technology, will help distinguish itself and its faculty, enabling them to attract and retain outstanding researchers. While university administrators can provide incentives (or disincentives) and lend vision to those who might provide philanthropy or external funding for such an approach to 21st century global research questions, faculty and faculty governance will evolve innovative institutional arrangements to enable research breakthroughs both on the campus and above the campus through collaborative scholarly societies.

Reflected through these three prisms of learning, teaching, and research, the university will have an important purpose 500 years from now. Kerr's 70 universities will still be in the same locations with some of the same buildings. However, how professors and students engage in the process of discovery, reflection, and scholarly communication will look different 25 years from now, not to mention 500 years from now. Credentialing and offering the imprimatur of degrees of completion will remain our stock-in-trade. Kerr's reflection on the "uses of the university" in the 21st century7 challenges us to find opportunities to reinvigorate university faculty through new roles, new challenges, and new organizational arrangements to advance and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University, 5th Ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 115.
Ibid., p. 91.
Josh Keller and Marc Parry, "U. of California Considers Online Classes, or Even Degrees," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2010.
M. G. Siegler, "Bill Gates: In Five Years, the Best Education Will Come From the Web," TechCrunch, August 6, 2010.
David Nagel, "The Future of E-Learning Is More Growth," T.H.E. Journal, March 3, 2010, and "Most College Students to Take Classes Online by 2014," Campus Technology, October 28, 2009.
Gina Kolata, "Sharing of Data Leads to Progress on Alzheimer's," New York Times, August 12, 2010.
Kerr, The Uses of the University.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University

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