November 20, 2017

Five Trends Changing Higher Education That Librarians Need to Watch | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellHigher education has a reputation for staying the same. That’s never been more of a myth than right now. Some of the changes have little impact on academic librarians. Others require more of our attention.

Calling all higher education trend watchers: What’s capturing your attention right now? While it’s true that many components of higher education are much the same today as they were a hundred years ago—think academic semesters, course credits, and standardized majors—colleges and universities are defying their reputation as static, adrift, change resistant institutions. Even if your only resource for keeping up with higher ed is the Chronicle of Higher Education, it’s evident there’s no dearth of creative change in teaching, learning, technology, space, student success, and more. The present state of higher education could be characterized as a period of highly experimental change. That means academic librarians, now more than ever, should be paying attention to what’s happening beyond the library. Five things in particular appear prominently on my higher education radar screen. I think they have the capacity to significantly change American higher education.

21st century transcripts

Academic librarians find it frustrating that much of what they teach students never finds its way onto the official record of learning, the transcript. There’s growing recognition that the transcript format in use for generations is inadequate to reflect the full range of experience students gain in college. That should be promising news for academic librarians. My institution is looking at a new type of transcript that is more a curated record of student learning experiences than simply a flat, mostly meaningless (to employers at least) list of course taken and grades received. If the technology allowed for students to more easily gain official academic recognition for participation in library education classes, that could lead to earned credentials for digital literacy skill building, personal consultations with librarians, or time spent in Wikipedia edit-a-thons. Imagine how that would increase student engagement in library learning experiences. These new types of transcripts could also capture student worker activity, another type of out-of-the-classroom learning experience. When it comes to transcripts, higher education needs to rethink their purpose and allow them to evolve into documents with more meaning.

Move to microcredentials

College affordability is a significant barrier to access. Academic librarians know the havoc that student loan debt plays with our students’ futures. MOOCs could help some students to earn credentials, but these rarely work well for less experienced learners. Short-form programs that lead to certifications or other employer-sought skill sets could give these students a better, affordable path to a college degree. Imagine colleges re-engineering degrees around sets of microcredentials, at far lower tuition, that allow students to more quickly gain career-oriented skills. To earn their bachelors or masters, students would continue to earn microcredentials or enroll in full-tuition courses. If an elite institution such as MIT can launch a MicroMasters program, is it possible that some LIS graduate programs could do something similar to create more affordable entry to the library profession? We can hardly expect to diversify librarianship if the cost is out of reach for underrepresented minorities.

Tuition-free higher education

Higher education emerged from a Middle Ages system where those seeking knowledge would pay learned individuals to teach them the skills required for new types of jobs, such as accounting for a growing world of trade merchants. Students have paid some form of tuition for nearly as long as higher education has existed. Is that about to change? From Tennessee’s Promise to New York’s Excelsior program (currently providing free college for 22,000 students with some strings attached), states are exploring no-cost college. These are programs to watch, but doubts that free college will become widely available anytime soon, especially with an administration that champions the rights of for-profit colleges, are understandable. That said, expect more states to give it a try. Making something free tends to reduce its value. Adding some requirements or dropout penalties seems reasonable to ensure student commitment to graduation. How states will pay for it and what impact it would have on our libraries are just two among many unanswered questions.

Analytics on the rise

Colleges and universities have long collected data about students and used it for feedback on their academic performance, as well as institutional decision making. What’s changing is the application of big data technology that allows institutions to mine student information for diagnostic and predictive indicators to support just-in-time intervention for personalized learning. While analytics are controversial, this trend will eventually find its way into most institutions. Given the pressures to retain and graduate students in a timely fashion, colleges and universities are eager to adopt tools to help students succeed. For better or worse, analytics are proving useful. My own institution has a full steam ahead take on learning analytics, and it’s not a question of if but when there will be expectations for the library to engage with analytics as well. Academic librarians demonstrate more concerns about student data privacy and confidentiality then other academic support colleagues, but some academic librarians are already collecting and analyzing student data, and I believe we will find ways that allow us to contribute to and benefit from analytics without compromising our commitment to the privacy and confidentiality requirements of our professional code of ethics.

Librarian as campus leader

It’s likely I’m the lone higher education pundit who sees this trend: Librarians emerging as campus leaders for multiple movements that will change higher education. Advocating for openness is slowly but surely gaining the attention of faculty and they are propelling the movement’s momentum. Librarians are leading the way towards openness in higher education with their advocacy for open education and open data sharing. We have a knack for observing service and educational gaps, and then figuring out ways to work with faculty, students, and other academic support colleagues to close them. Librarians lead by leveraging collaboration to get things done. At my own institution, I’m exploring a partnership with a new program that seeks to provide underprivileged middle and high school students with a pathway to college. The library could lead to help these students find employment and career possibilities. Do faculty and other staff see us as campus leaders? It may be a trend they have yet to notice, but we can change that.

Pay attention to trends

Choosing just five trends is hard given the considerable change in higher education. The open pedagogy and social justice movements, institutional mergers, demographic change, accessibility, declining international student enrollment, new competitors, and the growth of online learning are all trends worthy of academic librarians’ attention. What matters is that we make time in our professional lives for exploration of emerging developments in the world of higher education. Some require our immediate attention while others can be put off until tomorrow. Knowing the difference requires a steady observation of change in the higher education landscape. Academic librarians can certainly satisfice with occasional environmental outlooks from our associations, think tanks, and analysts that alert them to trends, but why wait when there’s greater reward in personal pattern recognition? What higher education trend has most captured your attention? What am I overlooking or getting plain wrong in my own observations? I look forward to hearing more about the higher education trends you are following and why academic librarians need to watch them.

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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