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Can Campuses Change Before Obsolescence?

Colleges and universities provide the cultural venue for young people to launch into life professionally and personally; they are spa where young people "get in shape" for adulthood. For the 18-22 year-old cohort, the learning model of the past several centuries will perhaps continue to serve them well because the human transition function does not wholly depend on the teacher-learner relationship. Just being in college for four years launches a young person into a higher orbit in life. Surprisingly, the classroom experience may or may not have too much to do with how high the orbit is.

The Old Spa

This spa aspect of college means that colleges and universities will probably remain in business for a long time to come. Despite efforts over the past several decades to move from "I tell you, your remember what I tell you, you write down what I tell you," to "Here is a task that I'll help you organize to accomplish," the "I tell you" model remains overwhelmingly dominant. When I visit campuses, I walk up and down the halls of classroom buildings and from classroom to classroom I hear one voice "telling" knowledge.

No technology is enticing enough to disrupt the convenient delusion that when one person is talking, the whole group is learning; the silence of the group means only--within this delusional construct--that the students are concentrating on what's being said and actively rearranging their mental models of knowledge. We all know, at some level, that this is a delusion, at least for young learners, yet we have be enacting within this delusion so long we believe it's true.

Neither teacher nor student nor those looking at the bottom line really want this delusional process to cease. Teaching in an open education way introduces too many variables and requires more energy. Learning in open education ways means that students have to be more active and self-directed. Teaching and learning in open education ways would probably mean that classes would have to be smaller, decreasing the teacher-to-student ratio to a point where institutional revenues would suffer. No, the current spa approach in higher education is too entrenched, too convenient, too profitable, and too delusional to be disrupted.

This grand generalization has so many exceptions that almost anyone can easily shoot holes in my argument. There are those 10 percent of early adopters and innovators who are always trying new ways to engage their own creativity and sense of accomplishment. There are those truly engaging lecturers who do inspire students to seek out more learning. There are those fortunate institutions where so many high-achieving students attend that they challenge each other and their teachers to be fully engaged in learning. So, let's say the "spa" milieu applies in only 85 percent of venues where teaching and learning occur. But let's also admit that almost 100 percent of the revenue of traditional colleges and universities depends in large measure on the spa model.

Yet, the spa as the new ivory tower exists within a world culture awash in new models of knowledge creation and dissemination. Startup and existing learning institutions challenge the spa with an enterprise designed for older learners and traditional-age learners eager to get a degree. Is the higher education spa "too large to fail" or, alas, too large to change?

Those of us at stake for technology innovation in higher education have tried proving that open education approaches enabled by technology result in greater gains in learning, but with very limited impact. With our results in hand, we early adopters convince each other but not the majority of faculty to try something new.

New Web 2.0 Crossroads

Newspapers are going out of the print business as print is proving unable to meet the expectations of readers given the pace of the news cycles of today. The New York Times online edition has an issue each day that changes all day long: It's April 1, 2009.1.4 (which is what I read at 7:00am over breakfast) and then April 1, 2009.2.3 at the closing bell of the New York Stock exchange, as the lead stories have changed and new articles appeared all day long.

Over 200 million people have Facebook accounts: Facebookowns the cultural conversation; it is the new Broadway and 42nd Street, "the crossroads of the world." Microsoft commercials show four year olds producing visual artifacts beyond the capacity of professionals a decade ago. And then there's the University of Phoenix, the UK's Open University, the Western Governors University, Walden University, the University of Maryland's University College, UMass Online, and on and on.

People have said the walls of the ivory tower have come down. They may have, but do those inside the fallen walls behave in a fundamentally different way? Is there any sense of urgency? The spa business model may still support 4,000 colleges and universities and their endowments may--at some point--continue to grow. But, we have found all too painfully last year and this year that wealth can mask foundational weaknesses. Have we gone so far in the direction of running higher education institutions like businesses that we are making the same mistakes the AIGs of the world made?

Accrediting agencies, however, are in business to look for the learning realities within the spas. They and various government agencies as well as the top political leaders of the country demand that the spas be accountable to show evidence of the learning gains the spas claim. Because, after all, people who pay to go to a spa don't want low grades and so hold the sword of student evaluation of teachers over the heads of teachers to ensure they don't get low grades--thereby producing grade inflation and making grades questionable measures of achievement.

Enter the ePortfolio

Responding to the demand for accountability, university administrators turned to a software package intended to improve student learning--the electronic portfolio or ePortfolio--and turned it instead into a reporting tool to satisfy the demand for accountability. The ePortfolio was wrested from the control of the faculty and placed within central computing services and turned into a tracking system. It was still called an ePortfolio even though it had moved miles away from its origins.

But grabbing the ePortfolio to meet the demands of accreditation or certification is not the end of the story.

Returning to the classroom and the spa model of "I'll tell you, you remember what I tell you, and you write down what you remember," an ePortfolio offers a means for faculty to gradually move to "I'll give you a task, you go do the work of the task, include evidence of that work, and I'll base my assessment of you on your evidence."

That's a big step. Evidence of work--photos, journal entries, video clips, audio clips, multiple drafts of a written report, and so on--shows learning in process rather than catching a brief snapshot of a student's memory at a certain time after the work has been done. Opening the formative process to view is much more informative about learning than the summative evaluation expressed in a grade for the transcript or a check mark in the assessment management system (the institutional ePortfolio).

Electronic portfolios are in their infancy but may well be exactly the technology needed, and the community around electronic portfolios may well be exactly the leaders needed to move the spa toward the hub of learning it is supposed to be.

A New Conversation

The ePortfolio community, a world-wide community who together see the value of a portfolio approach for transforming traditional undergraduate education, are in the process of forming The Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning (AAEEBL, pronounced "able"). (Full disclosure:  I'm part of the executive team of AAEEBL). The board of directors and the executive team of AAEEBL show that it includes many of the ePortfolio leaders in the US and abroad. It is unusual for a technology and learning community to be organized around the kind of learning the technology enables instead of around the technology itself.

For those faculty members, instructional designers, faculty development folks, program directors, deans, and provosts already inclined toward fundamental change in how teaching and learning transactions occur, the portfolio approach offers a pathway. The spa will make money as it is, but the spa committed and reorganized around "visible knowledge" (CNDLS at Georgetown) and formative assessment through evidence-based learning will produce better graduates.

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