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Informing the Mission for Institutions of Higher Learning

A Q&A with Gardner Campbell

The learning ecosystem and technological landscape are changing fast for institutions of higher learning. These institutions are integrating new technologies and 21st century skill sets into their curricula at warp speed. Most are trying out new pedagogical approaches, and frequently they establish whole new programs supported by technology. But how are they doing at adjusting their missions to reflect all this? Can "digital opportunity" inform the mission?

W. Gardner Campbell, futurist, highly regarded education thought leader, and Virginia Commonwealth University associate professor of English comments on why most institutions need to rethink and restate their mission and supporting conceptual frameworks in light of game-changing digital opportunities — and he suggests how faculty and students can weigh in on these important discussions.

"Students should always, always be thinking about what they are doing, why they are here, and what they believe should happen as a result." — Gardner Campbell

Mary Grush: How are institutions of higher learning doing at adjusting their missions to reflect change?

Gardner Campbell: We are at a point in time when, as we look at the whole learning ecosystem — especially in higher learning — we are starting to have to confront the fact that our sense of mission, and the conceptual frameworks by which we understand that mission, are simply not working now, certainly not as well as we would like them to. In some cases they seem to be absent altogether.

Today we may ask, "What is the mission of higher learning?" (And I should say, I am beginning to like the phrase higher learning better than higher education because it can take us into a different place in terms of how we're thinking.)

If we think about our mission statements as representing how we conceive of the goals and the reasons-for-being for higher learning, we may have to admit that they are actually becoming incoherent (a situation that's happened over time but will not go away on its own). At some institutions of higher learning, multiple mission statements are being provided that are not only incoherent, but even truly opposed to one another.

Grush: What's causing all that? How do you work with it?

Campbell: It's a great deal of noise and a resultant lack of focus. One of the thought experiments I have been doing recently to try to understand the proliferation of learning opportunities — ranging from traditional four-year education, to graduate education, to startups with radical new approaches — is to look closely at what people are saying the purpose of higher learning is.

It turns out that when you do that, you start to find quite a range. Sometimes you'll find a mission statement that tries to list every possible thing that would be a good result, from broadening one's outlook on life, to being able to address social problems, to getting a job… all very useful things, but the question is, how do those all go together? Can they all go together? Should they all go together?

This is where I don't find the kind of robust and rigorous conversation that I would expect from higher learning. More often, people just keep adding more "good things" to the list. By not focusing and not trying to make a coherent framework for what we mean by the mission, we may well end up risking the ecosystem.

Grush: How do you approach building a coherent and effective conceptual framework?

Campbell: To avoid getting so abstract that I lose track of everything, I started to think with my students about this, asking simply stated questions like, "What are we doing, when we get together and discuss a poem by Robert Frost? What do you believe is happening here?"

I do realize these might actually be difficult questions for students to consider, whilst they are staring down at a series of assignments and related curricular events. But I think that very difficulty points to something important that we may have lost track of over time: Students should always, always be thinking about what they are doing, why they are here, and what they believe should happen as a result. This questioning is something we haven't really built into the student experience — and we should.

Alongside that, I'll put forth what I think is a great phrase that Randy Bass and Bret Eynon highlight in their book Open and Integrative: Designing Liberal Education for the New Digital Ecosystem (AAC&U, 2016), in which they discuss re-envisioning liberal education in the digital moment. The phrase they use and talk about is "digital opportunity". This is so interesting because, when you think about it, we have a light-speed, global communications network that did not exist just a few years ago. This is a wholly new medium — even a meta-medium, if you will — for human communication. It's a new digital opportunity, and it changes everything.

Grush: Fabulous — but what does that have to do with the higher learning mission and supporting conceptual frameworks, per se? In other words, what's the key linkage here? And how can this "digital opportunity" guide higher learning today?

Campbell: That's a very interesting question, and it's not yet getting asked in a way that will generate robust, informative discussions… at least not from what I've been able to see on our campuses.

I really do think that we need to begin soon to engage in such discussions, with questions of mission, of conceptual frameworks of what learning is or might be, and especially of the "digital opportunity" and what it represents as an idea and as a set of transformative events in human experience.

If we don't have these important discussions, we're not going to get very far with our initiatives for student success, for learning innovation, for digital literacy, and for all the other things we love to talk about.

Grush: And where will we be if we just keep adding to that "list" you mention?

Campbell: So far, what we've ended up with is a series of practices that can certainly be improved, but whether these are the particular practices we should be promoting on an ongoing basis has not been thoroughly questioned. Adding to this list just increases the noise and incoherence.

And it's all being magnified by the acceleration of technology adoption and the increasing pace of change.

Grush: What can you do about all that? I know you mentioned talking with your students to help you approach conceptual frameworks or at least get some ideas… What about faculty's role? Can you open a discussion with faculty?

Campbell: I think the challenge right now is, of course, starting that conversation on any given campus. Where should this take place?

I think faculty development should be a really good place to start to think about this. The heart of the university is its faculty. Questions of mission, of conceptual frameworks for learning, and of the complex nature of the digital opportunity — to think deeply in these areas should be natural for faculty. In every discipline I can imagine, faculty are always engaged with rich, fundamental questions.

Too often, though, faculty development programs devolve into procedural and operational gatherings and workshops, which are valuable but not the result we are looking for if we want to contribute to the mission and to conceptual frameworks. 

Grush: What about students and faculty coming together? A formal aspect of this, or a nice intersection of the two, is curriculum. Might discussions of curriculum be another useful place to start?

Campbell: Curriculum is an opportunity for the best of self-directed learning and the best of expertise-imagined learning to exist in a synergistic relationship. Curriculum ought to reflect structures of thinking that experts bring to the work they do and that learners probably wouldn't be exposed to otherwise.

But curriculum also ought to be available for students to think about as well as a tool for them to think with, as they bring their own experience, interests, desires, and growing awareness of the world to an unusually rich learning opportunity.

So, curriculum, the way I've just described it, becomes both a richly intellectual opportunity and a tremendous participation opportunity for thinking about some of the larger questions that we laid out earlier in our Q&A here today.

When curriculum exists within the realm of "digital opportunity", it means to me not just that we tell the learner to go look at all the great stuff on YouTube, or some such thing — instead, we ask ourselves: How could the digital opportunity and the digital ecosystem provide a way for students to communicate and express the story of their learning? And ideally, they could do so in a way that the university begins to be able to have a layer of reflection built in to every aspect of its relationship with the learner and their instructors.

Notably, the learner moving through the curriculum is in a uniquely interesting position that faculty, for the most part, are not: The student is usually taking 4 or 5 courses at a time, and especially in the early going, the courses are usually not in the same discipline. So tapping into ways for students to share their learning experience can inform the institution and the faculty on opportunities for richly interdisciplinary experiences. The "digital opportunity" could make the student experience across a particular set of courses much more richly integrative and reflective, if we just ask students to make those connections in visible, public ways. 

Grush: Would this be done with an ePortfolio?

Campbell: Yes and no. The ePortfolio I have in mind is a kind of "connection hub" students would make and share on the open Web. Such a connection hub—say, a WordPress site—can make visible the links and connections the students themselves make as they go through the experience. Courses would need to scaffold opportunities for students to create those hubs and record their connections, but those opportunities could easily be considered another aspect of class participation. That is, one mode of class participation would always be to think creatively and diligently about connections between one course and another, and to do that in a space where those connections can themselves be connected to. The lowly hyperlink, which many of my students do not understand how to create (hard to believe, but true), can become an artful and important part of weaving a richer tapestry of learning throughout the university.

Curriculum, by definition then, would evolve to imagine and facilitate those kinds of opportunities. This would just become a part of what it means to have a curriculum.

Thinking about curriculum could become a significant focal point for thinking about "digital opportunity" and the learning ecosystem.

Grush: Are we there yet, or close to being there? Is there hope?

Campbell: We are not there yet, and, as usual, part of the reason this could take some time rests with political will. When I hear concerns like "we have to produce more graduates" I get a little worried. Yes, we want people to graduate. But that shouldn't have to take away from "digital opportunity" like the curriculum issue we're talking about here. Besides, the students graduate. We don't graduate them — they're not our products.

The old saying is, "You get what you measure." So, be careful what you take as your primary measurement. Otherwise you might drive potentially dangerous consequences. But with enlightened leadership, we can, as you say, "get there". In terms of specific technology, there's really nothing in the way.

When I think about the challenges and the opportunities I've sketched out on a big scale, the temptation is to become overwhelmed. And sitting and thinking about this in isolation, that can happen. But working in the classroom I can easily see that these kinds of questions and this kind of engagement not only work, but can and do take the class to a completely new level.

So, every time I think that it's just too tall an order, or it will never happen, or that some vendor will eat our lunch… I remember that whenever we are in an opportunity to help students engage in creative and fulfilling ways, amazing things can happen. Surprising things can happen. And there is something really hopeful about that.

The moment when a group of people become aware of the nature and possibilities inherent in learning: That is a sacred moment for me. I don't want to lose that. As long as that's there, I think it can be amplified in wonderful ways by our "digital opportunity". I look to that opportunity with hope.

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