October 31, 2014

Higher Education Rebooted | From the Bell Tower

It may not rise to the trend of the year in higher education, but the “rethinking” of higher education is very much on the minds of everyone in the field. It’s time for a reboot.

Take the amount of time, effort and words that go into thinking about how academic libraries could be different, multiply that tenfold, and you get a sense of a growing trend in higher education—coming up with ideas about how to change it. There’s always been talk about what’s broken about higher education and how to fix it, but the conversation seems to have ramped up, and I’ve noticed something slightly different in the tone of the discussion. The year 2010 was one that saw a crowded field of books with the same theme of critiquing higher education. While the authors offered solutions, the focus seemed more on the criticism. Books like Academically Adrift captured the attention of higher education policymakers, and now we may be seeing a much more serious effort to re-think how higher education is structured. It helps that disruptive providers of higher education are being taken seriously by traditional colleges and universities. The search is on for real solutions.

Ideas needed

One good example is a special report from the Chronicle of Higher Education that focused on how higher education could change for the better. Using the premise of reinventing higher education, a series of essays promoted ideas for bringing radical change to some of the sacred cows of academe. Tenure is a good example. One essay suggested allowing faculty to pursue multiple careers tracks besides the traditional one. It sought to further tackle the problem of too many adjuncts by suggesting that adjuncts evolve into full-time teaching faculty, while those on the research/teaching track would shift to primarily research. As with many of the essays, you could probably say two things. The idea was less disruptive than imagined, and it was either discussed previously or perhaps already tried somewhere. Those critiques aside, there were a number of ideas worth considering. For example, making greater use of digital badges instead of traditional grading. I think badging has real potential, particularly for academic libraries that could deliver badges to students who complete library learning activities or demonstrate mastery of research skills. For it to work, of course, there must be an appropriate motivational force, such as obtaining course credit.

Three top challenges

Higher education trends start to gain real momentum when they go mainstream. Such was the case with rebooting, rethinking, and reimagining the whole enterprise when Time invited 100 college presidents and experts to join together for a summit on what traditional higher education needs to do to reinvent itself. According to the website report on Time’s Summit on Higher Education, there were three important takeaways. First, too many colleges are competing to be top ranked and all the spending to get there is continually increasing the cost of higher education. It’s an arms race that needs to stop. As Kevin Cary, the higher education economist, wrote in a recent essay, “Institutional spending, by contrast, is limited only by the ambition of institutions, which is to say not at all. … Per-capita institutional spending on education and related expenditures continued to rise from 2000 to 2010.” So spending is out of control and must be reined in by administrators.

Second, higher education needs more innovation. There was no escaping the impact MOOCs have had on traditional higher education this year, if not affecting their operations, certainly exposing their lack of innovation, and demonstrating the vast market for new forms of learning.

The last core theme had less to do with higher education than K-12 schooling. There was universal agreement that unless this country improves the quality of primary and secondary education, increases graduation rates, and achieves innovative learning approaches, the students transitioning will be less well prepared to succeed in college as well as fewer in number.

Put all three together and you might achieve Arne Duncan’s vision for “transformational change [to] deliver a “first-in-the-world” system of higher education opportunities for all Americans.”

Part of the solution

Whatever you think of those three themes, and there’s no mistaking that higher education has other significant challenges—retention, accountability, athletics, adjuncts, deferred maintenance, just to name a few—it’s clear that the vast majority of colleges and universities have substantial opportunity for change and improvement. It would be hard to claim that academic libraries, as with other academic support services, contribute to the overall problem. Maintaining our resources certainly adds to the escalating cost of tuition, but much of that is owing to circumstances beyond our control. I know few librarians or library administrators who are carefree spenders of student tuition dollars, and most accept the responsibility of making the difficult budgetary choices.

Upon closer examination, there are signs that the academic library plays a more significant role in the higher education reboot than is realized. I see this happening in several areas. When academic librarians advocate for open access and push the frontiers of fair use, it potentially reduces higher education costs, while increasing the level of innovation as information is shared more freely. When academic librarians promote the integration of research skills into the teaching and learning process and develop initiatives to distribute this activity across the curriculum, it provides students with tools needed for academic and career success. When academic librarians demonstrate the value of their services and the institution’s return on its investment in the library in research dollars or student graduation rates, the assessment effort helps all of higher education to achieve greater accountability. Despite these positive contributions to a better, more effective higher education, academic librarians know they can’t rest on their laurels. Higher education is headed for a reboot, and we will want to be right there helping it along.

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Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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