Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

Teaching and the University of Tomorrow

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Image: France in 2000 year (XXI century). Future school. From a postcard by Villemard, 1910.

Last week, I attended the De Lange Conference held at Rice University every other year, this time on “Teaching in the University of Tomorrow.” The future-oriented theme had both intrigued me, and left me a little skeptical. But ultimately I was won over by the chance to attend, for the first time, a conference exclusively focused on teaching. I would be able to talk shop about learning and pedagogy. Like many other academics, I’m concerned about what the university of tomorrow might become.

Additionally, the conference organizers at Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence hoped to develop an active Twitter backchannel alongside the lineup of powerhouse speakers. Joshua Eyler, the center’s director, even recruited a cadre of “so-called social media fellows,” including Jason Jones, Dorothy Kim, Liana Silva, Ben Railton, and me, who tweeted the event under #delange9. This was my first conference as an official tweeter, though I’ve done so unofficially on panels at the American Academy of Religion and American Studies Association. I hoped that our Twitter backchannel might not only report on keynotes, teaching demos, and panels but also offer analysis and commentary. The best conference tweets include not only what was presented but also critique.

Unlike my fellow Tweeters, my travel plans made me late to the conference (bad, conference goer, bad), so I missed the opening address by William Bowen, the president emeritus of both the Mellon Foundation and Princeton University. (Jason Jones has a good summary of Bowen’s talk up at ProfHacker, Derek Bruff made his beautiful sketch notes available, and Jonathan Rees weighed in, too.)

On my cab ride to Rice, I glimpsed just how active the backchannel was going to be. Tweet after tweet critiqued Bowen’s discussion of technology and its relationship to labor costs, especially his suggestions about ceding faculty control to administrators.

The livestream feed of talks at the conference also allowed those invested in higher education from near and far to add their insights. The De Lange conference was off to a rousing start on Twitter, and #delange9 trended twice.

Unfortunately, Bowen seemed to set the tone for the rest of the featured speakers with his mention of how MOOCs might be employed to aid on-campus education. Apparently, the university of tomorow is all about the MOOCs. Like many others, I bristle at the mention of MOOCs. I’m skeptical about what these massive courses can actually offer students. Additionally, I wonder about the quality of this “education for all,” considering the demographics for these courses. My skepticism was not abated after listening to presentations on edX and Coursera, especially since under 7 percent of students complete the courses. Anant Agarwal of edX and Daphne Koller of Coursera both touted new technologies, instant feedback, and fee-based certificates for the completion of courses.

MOOC promoters continually claim that their products provide technologies that have never appeared in face-to-face classrooms. While I don’t disagree that my courses have lacked fun ways to draw molecules (because I teach in the humanities), I do find their insistence that traditional higher ed lacks technological advances to be odd. If you took the MOOC prophets seriously, it would seem that all real-time professors do is lecture to bored students. That, of course, is not true. My own classroom, and that of many other faculty members, relies on active learning and various forms of technology that work for the subject matter. Certainly some professors still rely too much on the lecture. Yet MOOCs rely on video, another form of passive learning, even if there are in-video quizzes to guarantee that students are paying attention.

Moreover, edX and Coursera are trying to get students to put “skin in the game” (a phrase used by both Agarwal and Koller) in the form of fee-based certificates. Those certificates are a form of credentialing that could appear on students’ LinkedIn pages to aid their employment and/or promotion. When I asked Agarwal about how employers view these credentials, he explained that edX needs to teach employers the credential’s value. The certificate, on its own, is not necessarily valuable. So, what does this education for all actually accomplish?

There were also keynotes on Minerva (an attempt to press the “reset” button on higher ed by focusing on particular skills and hiring instructors on three-year contracts); on the use of cognitive psychology in the classroom; on research-based educational resources; and on balancing technology with the goals of education (the latter a lovely keynote by Ruth Simmons, president emerita of Brown University).

Simmons, more than anyone else, pondered the purpose of universities by suggesting these spaces are where we should contemplate what it means to be human and encounter difference. She was also the most nervous about whether these new technologies, especially online education, would actually help the students who need education the most. Simmons recognized the ways in which access to education can deepen inequality rather than counteract it.

Teaching demos and workshops were what I expected from the De Lange Conference, not edtech keynotes. The main difference between the workshops and the keynotes was that I actually learned things in the workshops that I could apply to my teaching. (The notable exception was an incomprehensible demo by Pearson that focused on “big data” and student surveillance.) The workshops provided tools that would help me engage students and think about how they learn, instead of pimping new technologies.

Still, by the end of the conference, I feared that the university of tomorrow neglected pedagogy while promoting MOOCs and online forms of education. Moreover, it seemed that elite institutions would be the only ones left standing.

The tech utopianism of the De Lange Conference did not feel utopian. (Never send a scholar who studies dystopias to a conference with futuristic themes.) If this conference is our example of the future of higher ed (and I’m not sure it should be), this future is overwhelming white, male, and elite. Out of the 31 speakers, only 9 were women and 3 were people of color. Most of the attendees were also white and male.

The discussion of education revolved around elite institutions, rather than community colleges and state universities like my alma maters. In one particular keynote, difference became a problem to be solved on our way to unity, and I wasn’t even sure how to respond without cursing. When I attempted to add class analysis to varying discussions I had with attendees, there was reticence and dismissal. As I pointed out, Rice students are not representative of all students, so they can’t be our metric for the university in the future. If they are, where does that leave the rest of our students?

On my plane ride home, I wondered if maybe the De Lange Conference should be viewed as a cautionary tale about educational access, success, and labor. Which students will get ahead in the university of tomorrow and which ones will get left behind? Moreover, the question of labor in the university of tomorrow was neglected and sometimes actively avoided. Who exactly will be teaching these MOOCs? If Minerva is the reset of higher education, will tenure be shifted to contract work? Will we all be adjuncts? When Ben Railton made a comment about contingent labor to the final panel, they initially dodged the question. That was a bit surprising because labor was a pressing concern on the Twitter backchannel. Dorothy Kim mentioned this crucial issue again and again.

I was shocked by the panelists’ dodge as were many others. What became clear was the remarkably different concerns of the presenters and the backchannel. Labor is more pressing when you are at the bottom or middle rungs rather than the top.

Overall, the conference made me ponder the future of higher education for students like I was -- first-generation college students who often lack monetary support. I wonder if my choices about education would have been different if MOOCs had been available to me. The allure of free courses and their convenience of schedule might have pushed me toward MOOCs despite my scholarships.

Yet I’m not worried that MOOCs will bring about doomsday in higher ed. Instead, I worry that contingency will end us.

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