CNI Fall 2012: Closing Plenary – Hunter R. Rawlings III, AAU

Closing Plenary:
Hunter R. Rawlings III, AAU

Fundamental question in higher education: what is college for? The answer drives educational policy and is now up for grabs in dramatic fashion. Went to college to get an education, a rather quaint notion. Assumption was that he’d learn how to learn, and thus would be prepared to be a functioning citizen in a democracy. Today these reasons are buried under getting a job. Much of the public feels this is the reason to send kids to college, and public policy makers agree. Governors of Texas, Florida, Wisconsin, and other states are implementing this in policies.

No quarrel with vocational education to help people get jobs – community colleges do this quite well, and they are growing. But to force this vocational model on public universities, including research universities, is a mistake. Note what Virginia did last year – required colleges and universities to report salaries of graduates by major. Report ranks universities by salaries by major, 18 months after graduation. Entering an era of increased corporatization of higher education – and this will increase.

CEOs of major companies want people who can think for themselves, do sophisticated research, express themselves clearly and deal with unknowns. We’re at a cross roads. State funding for public universities goes down every year, tuition goes up, public anger at tuition increases, and universities end up running themselves like corporations. This leads to problems like what happened in Virginia this summer. This is serious business and the trend line is not good.

Fortunately, there are bright spots amidst the gloom. The astounding flood of undergraduate students from China and other countries in the past ten years. At Michigan State there were 30 undergrads from China in 2002. This year there are 2845. In past two years alone the number of undergraduates from China at American universities has doubled. There are 100 million students in secondary schools in China. 8 million students graduate each year – 100% speak English. A growing number can afford to go to US universities. A tidal wave of 18 year olds coming. This will alter American universities and it will alter China. In many cases they major in subjects that American students don’t want. Let’s hope our government will be sensible enough to let those who want to stay and work do so.

We continue to have great colleges and universities, both public and private, but the publics are under a lot of strain.

The state of scholarly communication, libraries, and IT. Technology provides for increasing access to scholarly communication and reducing the cost of producing it. Publishers are concerned about impact of free availability on their business models. Generating conflicts in the academy and in federal policy making. Access to NIH-funded research has been greatly increased by PubMed Central. Originally NIH planned for 6 month embargo on articles. After contention with publishers embargo was increased to 12 months. NIH made submission mandatory in 2007, and they will begin enforcing that this coming spring. Legislation has been introduced for the last several years for all federal agencies to establish public repositories like PubMed – strongly opposed by commercial publishers.

Scholarly publishing roundtable in Congress, chaired by John Vaughan. Recommendations included call for all federal funding agencies to establish repositories for free public access to research. 12 out of 14 members endorsed the recommendations. The member from Elsevier believed it called for too much government intrusion into publishing, and the member from PLOS believed it did not call for enough government participation. Several of the recommendations were incorporated in the America Competes Act reauthorization.

The digital revolution has great impact for books. One pernicious impact of the soaring costs of scientific journals has been the downward trend in monograph purchases by libraries. AAU and ARL has established a task force focusing on three domains: university presses, digital repositories, and ? University IT organizations will play an increasing role in these processes.

IT also plays an essential role in online education. Almost daily new coalitions of universities offering MOOCs are announced. Newpsapers are delighted with these developments. Does this represent a precipitous paradigm shift? Is the solution to our cost problem at hand? Some political leaders and public think so, but it’s mostly hype. So far very little revenue, no course credit, no degrees, extremely low rates of completion, and (surprisingly) lots of cheating. Not ready to declare victory in the war on cost and in the search for better instruction. Everything we’ve learned about what helps students learn is the opposite of MOOCs – direct interaction helps.

Prior to 400 BC the Greeks communicated orally, not in writing. A performance culture and all forms of literature were in verse because it was rhythmic and more easily remembered. The book and prose made first serious appearance before 400 BC in Athens. Living in Athens was Plato, who learned from Socrates, a great oral philosopher. Plato saw the advent of the book and thought about the consequences of the book for human knowledge. The book had some clear advantages but two disadvantages: Greeks would begin to lose their memory, and (more seriously) you could not query or challenge the ideas in a book – it was a one way street. No dialectic that leads to education. For Plato, when conversation ended, so did learning. Learning depends on intellectual engagement where you perform actively. What did Plato do? He wrote books, but a special kind: Dialogs. Books that mimicked real philosophical conversation. There’s evidence that Plato considered his books playthings, compared to the serious conversation in his academy. The books then are meant to point towards real learning, and he used it intelligently to maximize its benefits and minimize its weaknesses. Perhaps we should think of MOOCs the same way. Very fine demonstrations by scholars of the life of the mind. Enticing and fun, if you don’t take them too seriously. Not the answer to deep education issues, but if they provide 1% of the benefit to humankind of Plato’s dialogs they will have proven themselves a worthy successor.

Flipped classroom is turning out to be a good thing in many cases – watch the lecture online, come to class to perform. Encourages student engagement. Anything that increases engagement is a plus and we’re starting find ways that online education can enhance that. But worried about the hype and over-promising that are going on and the folly that it will solve the cost problem.

What can scholarly community do to restrain the growth in cost of higher education? A complex issue. Harold Shapiro said we could drop costs easily if we start teaching more students per section – some are pursuing this, but you also cut into value. The real question is how do you keep costs down while maintaining quality? This is the big issue that presidents and provosts are now confronting. The public is tired of hearing complex answers to why costs go up – and the answers are complex. Universities have to control non-educational costs much better than they have – we’ve been competing partly on bells and whistles, and we can’t do that any longer. We should push students to finish degrees in shorter time. ACS yesterday recommended that it should take 4 years to get a chemistry PhD.  

 

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