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Mason’s Forum on Higher Education

06 Nov Posted by in Academics, Faculty, Students | Comments
Mason’s Forum on Higher Education

The Forum has come and gone. This is not a formal or detailed review (though it will be a bit longer than my usual blog). The presentations and conversations were lively – it was even better than I’d expected in that regard. Attendance was terrific, over two days overlapping into weekend, which was in itself both impressive and encouraging.

Key follow-ups include: continuing the conversations, to which this comment is meant to contribute; relating to our strategic discussions; and ultimately doing or extending some new things.

This was not a complete overview. We didn’t discuss research much, and global was limited as well. Ultimately we must fold additional issues into what was already a fairly complex mix. Some specific comments, for example on fruitful arrangements with publishers whose products we use, clearly warrant follow-up.

We heard some very interesting stuff, from how to present data more effectively visually to how to promote deep rather than superficial learning (keynotes here: don’t rely on lecture, build on questions that link directly to questions that are meaningful to the students).

We did not get an entirely coherent picture of our environment. Some comments highlighted huge new competitive forces, from the for-profits (who were directly and vigorously represented), and from MOOCs. Other comments, including from people like Burck Smith of Straighterline, talked of the huge audience available for American higher education and the opportunity for diverse pathways. The untenability of recent budget models based on soaring tuitions, did lurk in the background, though as I will note below it might have received more attention.

Here are my main takeaways:

First, the new environment makes it imperative for places like George Mason to highlight what we do well. This will include particular programs and modes of instruction, but also: research (hopefully explicitly linked to the educational process), student maturation (blending the academic with key facets of student life, again more explicitly than has been our wont), and professor-student interactions outside the classroom. These are areas we’ve been working on, so we should continue to work but also more persuasively identify.

Second, and this is obviously a large umbrella: we need to encourage innovation, experiment, and flexibility (the experiment part will require some suppleness in accreditation, a subject that itself came up for somewhat diverse comment). We need experiments and innovations in a number of areas, and several Mason faculty who have already ventured successful changes were already directly represented, from English to computer science to economics.

Here’s a partial sample of the overlapping areas crying out for still more attention and experiment:

  • Our role in generating but also utilizing MOOCs and other openly available materials. Links exist here as well to reaching a larger global audience.
  •  Our ability to acknowledge work that students bring in from a wider variety of sources, including relevant for-profits, and competency-based demonstrations. We’re probably too rigid now, but this is a complicated area. 
  •  Our ability to deliver “commodity” classes to underclass students either even more cheaply, or more effectively (here including more self-paced  and technology-enhanced options), or both. Linked to this, a commitment to reassess how we engage freshmen academically, capturing greater interest and participation. Discussion of teaching spaces, where we’re already committed to some exciting additions, was also part of this category.
  •   Reconsidering some Masters and certificate programs in light of market needs and new, online competition, including relevant MOOCs. While most attention is riveted on undergraduates, it may turn out that new modes of instruction and certification will have the quickest impact at the Masters level, and imaginative responses and anticipations will be important.
  • Finding ways for more cost-effective delivery. Should we rely more on a mix of MOOCs and recorded lectures from faculty who are most gifted in this mode, so that actual instruction focuses on “coaching” or mentoring in classes dealing with participatory exercises, with possibly fewer class sessions but with instructors responsible for more students (how to handle grading was not discussed as much as it should have been)?

Third, we will need to reconsider the reward structure, the integration of term faculty, and the training of future academics. Mason will want to maintain a vigorous and expanding research presence (and see existing strengths, above). We will need to expand our ability to recognize instructors who innovate effectively along one or more of the lines suggested in the previous section, and some meaningful and realistic conversations here will be essential (though I think we have elements of an appropriate framework, in the Handbook provisions). Clearly, we need to work toward establishing a genuine  “teaching innovation” fund, and I had actually already noted this in comments to our new President.

A few topics did not get enough attention. A final talk returned to the theme of dwindling resources  with the simultaneous deep need to expand access, but there wasn’t enough discussion of the cost side (not only in the faculty arena but through the university), or of reaching out to underserved but qualified student segments (though one of our faculty outlined his own success in this area).  An audience member properly raised concerns about student writing, which really risks suffering amid the new realities. The whole issue of meaningful testing, as opposed to a retreat to more machine-graded multiple choice exercises, was underplayed – this is part, after all, of the interest in deep learning.  Other attendees will surely note other areas directly relevant to the scope of the Forum that must be brought out more fully.

Again, however: this was a lively, wide-ranging, and impressively intense experience involving lots of really imaginative people on both sides of the annoyingly bright stage lights. The challenges now are to maintain the energy, including constructive disagreements, and actually do more along some of the lines suggested. I return to the importance of experiments: we don’t have to recast everything in a single new mold—we can venture, and fail sometimes, and gradually introduce a more effective framework for teaching and learning.

The whole Forum was predicated on the notion that we want Mason to lead in these vital new areas, adding further to our commitment to innovation. The conference raised all sorts of issues that will be difficult, and some outright tensions in the various goals we’ll pursue. But I heard nothing that didn’t convince me that a leadership role is right for us, and available.

Sorry for the long blog.  But there’s a lot for us to cover.