Thursday, May 9, 2013

30th Year Reflections/43: Context

“Simply put, our nation needs far more college-educated citizens than are now being produced.” — Jamie Merisotis, ACRL 2013 Annual Conference

As you might tell, I’m still chewing over some of the presentations from the ACRL annual conference. Later this month some of our staff who attended will offer a “Brown Bag” session over the lunch hour to recap their experiences and provide insights into sessions they attended. One of the invited presentations, by Jamie Merisotis (“The Attainment Goal and the Changing Higher Education Landscape”), caught my eye. I’ve re-read his talk a couple of times as I seek to understand this changing landscape in which I work.

Context is important. The context of my work is higher education, and specifically academic libraries within higher education. So what are Merisotis and others saying about my space? They’re saying that change is necessary and change is coming. Merisotis cites labor economist Tony Carnevale at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale estimates (quoting from Merisotis) “that, by the end of this decade, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require some postsecondary education and training. The simple fact is, jobs are becoming more complex and require higher-level skills than ever before … and that trend is sure to intensify in coming years.” Beyond the economy and job market Merisotis believes change is necessary in order to create societal benefits “including greater civic and social engagement, higher rates of voter participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, less dependence on public assistance.…” Finally, Merisotis sees change in terms of societal need, “an equity imperative” to address the “massive gaps in educational achievement in this country linked to race and class.”

On other fronts philosophy professors from San Jose State University issued an open letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel on why they will not use material from Sandel’s online course on justice. The brave new world of MOOCs (massive open online courses) has generated various reactions across higher education. The New York Times, in reporting on the San Jose letter, also noted this reaction: “Faculty backlash against online courses has spread in recent weeks, as the Amherst College faculty voted against joining edX, and the Duke faculty voted down participation in Semester Online, offered by a consortium of universities.” The Chronicle of Higher Education also covered the story, including the text of the open letter. In February my institution announced its partnership with Coursera, “a leading massive open online course (MOOC) platform,” to quote from the news release, “to develop free online courses as part of the university’s efforts to improve teaching and learning through technology.” Our Provost was quoted in the release: “We’re excited by the opportunity to explore innovative ways of using e-learning to extend the reach of University of Minnesota educational offerings across the state, nation and globe. This partnership will give people from around the world the opportunity to learn from the U’s world-class faculty at a time when we are working harder than ever to increase access to higher education, reach broader audiences and strengthen our land-grant mission.” In a conference last weekend, also reported by The Chronicle, scholars gathered in Milwaukee to discuss “The Dark Side of Digital.” MOOCs were part of the discussion. The Chronicle noted: “In a talk dubbed ‘,’ Rita Raley, an associate professor of English at the University of California at Santa Barbara, described how societal and technological changes had ‘reconditioned the idea of the university into that of an educational enterprise that delivers content through big platforms on demand.’”

It is not too hard to find differing opinions on the state of higher education in America. This little post has just scratched the surface. The trick for us, it seems, will come in navigating the currents flowing through this new landscape. Merisotis has a high view of our professional ability to handle change. “In my view libraries and librarians ― have always been in the redesign business … always on the cutting edge of change.” We’ll see if he’s right, knowing as we do that the cutting edge can sometimes be the bleeding edge. Finding our balance between the bright side and the dark side will be crucial.

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