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On Change and Relevance for Higher Education

A Q&A with Phil Long

Phillip D. Long, Ph.D., is the Chief Innovation Officer and Associate Vice Provost for Learning Sciences at the University of Texas, Austin. Previously, his career has led him to other leadership positions in technology and learning — at MIT, the University of Queensland, and Seton Hall University, with most posts including associated professorial duties. His work with numerous professional associations and publications, such as AAEEBL, IMSGLOBAL, NMC, edX, and others has also provided him with exceptional exposure and access to the trends and forces that shape education's technology landscape. His freshly minted consulting company, RHz ([email protected]), will allow him to focus even more on his "passion projects" — those that augment learning while benefitting society. Here, we asked him for his perspectives on the most challenging questions for higher education institutions today.

"The pace of change never seems to slow down. And the issues and implications of the technologies we use are actually getting broader and more profound every day." — Phil Long

Mary Grush: You've been connected to scores of technology leaders and have watched trends in higher education for more than 30 years. What is the central, or most important concern you are hearing from institutional leadership now?

Phil Long: Higher ed institutions are facing some serious challenges to stay relevant in a world that is diversifying and changing rapidly. They want to make sure that the experiences they have designed for students will carry the next generation forward to be productive citizens and workers. But institutions' abilities to keep up in our changing environment have begun to lag to a sufficient degree, such that alternatives to the traditional university are being considered, both by the institutions themselves and by their constituents and colleagues throughout the education sector.

Grush: What sort of alternatives? Is there a key role for technology?

Long: Alternatives are being sought to the ways in which one gets updated in one's skill sets, in order to produce knowledge and work that's socially beneficial and economically desirable. That's only the broadest answer to your question about alternatives, though. Of course it goes deeper.

As for technology's role, it is an affordance and a means by which universities can better reach their audiences and at the very least engage with them in new ways. Still, there are huge challenges pressing universities. The pace of change never seems to slow down. And the issues and implications of the technologies we use are actually getting broader and more profound every day.

Grush: Are these mounting challenges going to cause more and more divisions among institutions?

Long: Probably. We're already starting to see partitioning between universities that are more successful at navigating these waters and others that are finding enrollments dropping and, in some cases, having questions about their ability to sustain at all.

Grush: What are a few of the more specific areas in which institutions may find it difficult to navigate?

Long: Just from a very high level view, I'd include on that list: big data and the increasing sophistication of algorithms, with the associated benefits and risks; artificial intelligence with all its implications for good... and for peril; and perhaps most importantly, new applications and practices that support how we recognize learning.

Grush: The first two seem like challenges that have come about relatively recently on the scene. But what's particularly new and challenging about ways to recognize learning?

Long: The entire landscape for assessing and recognizing learning is changing. Internally, it's very important now that the institution thoroughly understands the processes of how we recognize learning; externally we need to learn how to convey those processes that will help others see the value of the university in contributing to the growth of workers and citizens. Our practices related to all this should become increasingly more transparent, and more measurable.

Grush: Where might institutions focus their work, as they try to recognize learning in ways that will keep them relevant for the future? On faculty? On administrative systems? What's a practical approach to change?

Long: Speaking in practical terms, I think the overarching question might be: How do we understand what happens in the university environment and communicate that to the broader public with clarity, transparency, and openness? (Let me make a quick distinction here. Transparency is seeing clearly what's going on behind the curtains. Openness is sharing what is going on, but not necessarily simply a direct, unadorned snapshot of it.)

So, we have to be able to change and stop doing some things, and to stay relevant and focus our efforts on being ever more transparent.

A statement of one of the areas in which we need greater transparency is: How do faculty go about assessing and judging what students have learned? Along with that, can we develop better communications about what students are learning?

Note, I don't mean to imply that there is any sort of crisis in the professoriate. The actual challenge to recognizing learning is that our organizational structure for enabling faculty to do what they do well is increasingly impinging on their capability to do it.

We need to do a better job of showing not just what the student can think about, but what the student can do. What can the student produce as a consequence of their time spent on a particular course or in a particular classroom? Use of rubrics can help us put more transparency into our assessment of student work — rather than relying on the old, more opaque letter grades. Students also need to learn how to translate their academic experiences into relevant business value for a prospective employer.

An important place for developing openness is the contribution of the institution to the surrounding economic and social community.

We have seen over the past several decades a complete reversal of the funding of public institutions. This is, in some sense, a marker of uncertainty and lack of confidence about where that funding is going in order to produce something of use for the general citizenry and economic value for states and communities around the country.

There are questions surrounding how universities affect the economic viability of the local towns and the broader regions in which they reside. We tend to forget how powerful universities are to impact the economic vitality of their surrounding communities. Getting insight into these questions could be a significant win for the institution.

Grush: What are some of the more concrete changes institutions have been making or considering, to approach more relevance in the learning experiences students have?

Long: There is a need to move from a "city on the hill" view of the university (where deep thinking is sequestered in the isolation of the university) to a much more porous environment — meaning that students are engaged in classrooms that are very much aligned with what they will likely be doing in the communities, or in the businesses they will work in going forward. This might include more internships, or more engagement in various forms between the classroom and the problems of the "real world". This type of environment can use real-world problems to drive disciplinary gain as opposed to offering isolated presentations in the discipline. It also extends to the built learning environments that are aligned with different translations of academic disciplines into associated workplaces.

Many institutions are looking at implementing various forms of service learning, or internships, or short-term engagement between disciplinary activities and academic coursework. They may also factor in the needs of the communities the students will be living in during their term at college, drawing on the community for work experience or cooperative opportunities related to the student's discipline focus.

Institutions offering these kinds of experiences can maintain the connections between their students' academic programs and the problems of the world to which students need to be exposed. Some institutions may pursue a highly transformative approach; others may offer a more incremental or hybrid strategy. Some employ creative approaches whereby industries can leverage bench space and student workers to help them solve a real-world problem. We are starting to see diverse types of institutions with programs that provide this kind of opportunity to the students as well as benefits to other partners. The question may be whether they are, as yet, as transparent as they need to be, or can be deployed as quickly as they must be.

Grush: Are institutions going to be able to earn their relevance for the future? Or, are they perhaps already too set in their established ways?

Long: Part of the role of an institution of higher education is the preservation of community, social, and academic knowledge, to transfer that from generation to generation. So, they do have to be mindful of that — they can't just jump on new technologies because they appear to be on the cutting edge. They know that a lot of things have initial promise but then fade away. Big institutions are highly aware of that danger. But, I think we have been a little too lugubrious and slow in our approach, and that has to be balanced with more outward-looking community engagement than we've had so far.

And yes, technology will continue to be an important part of change. I have always thought technology has the ability to augment how we as humans engage in problem solving and find solutions to the problems presented to us. Technology can build trust, autonomy, agency, and community if built with clear expressions of our values. We've let the economic potential of technology overshadow its ability solve humane problems. We need to rebalance this equation.

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