Forging Ahead in the Radical Middle

Forging Ahead in the Radical Middle

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In higher ed, it’s easy to lament the downside of tech—texts replace talk, representation stands in for life. There are real pitfalls to an excessive reliance on technology, but our investigation of its benefits should not founder on them.

But what if we at universities considered tech’s potential to expand and enrich human experience? Can new technologies help to overcome standardization, overspecialization and the relentless routine of industrial production? Can we, in the digital age, imagine an integrated, perpetually creative, self-driven life? And if we talked more about this, could skeptical faculty find a way into the conversation?

Off campus, policy makers, employers and ed tech entrepreneurs take for granted that the next decade will drastically change how we live and work. From their perspective, our country needs to educate a more diverse student population more effectively in less time and at lower cost. Traditional higher ed can either rise to the challenge or get out of the way.

On campus, many faculty members ignore or resist calls for innovation, which they equate with corporatization, trendiness, and the pressures of the market. Colleges and universities cultivate abiding values, barbarians at the gate be damned.

Although xenophobia is depressingly common, there are global citizens out there who move between cultures, and last week several of these—scholars, practitioners, entrepreneurs, policy makers and investors—came together at Stanford to explore “the radical middle.” They asked crucial questions: can the education, government and corporate sectors work together? Why is collaboration so hard? Who benefits from the status quo and why? How can we best unleash the radical potential of standing together as a new community at the nexus of these forces? How can we create a “radical middle”?

Building Trust

At the conference, we started by airing our mutual frustration: higher ed languishes in decision-making, and people skirt responsibility for implementing what eventually is chosen; corporations and startups develop technologies to improve learning without consulting those who are supposed to use them. Ed tech R&D wholly divorced from traditional higher ed severs research from practice to the detriment of both—here is where the radical middle has the greatest potential. Collaboration between stakeholders in all the stages of research and development, especially the inception, will produce solutions that everyone can agree on. It will take time to reframe these questions and processes, but the answers will be our longest-standing solutions.

As we talked, we realized that transactional models—buyer & seller, vendor & client—failed to capture the complexity of the relationships we were trying to build. After all, ed tech is a double bottom line sector: both profit and mission matter. But what if we began with the latter?

A New Model

What if ed tech companies and higher ed institutions began not by negotiating a contract but by identifying a shared purpose with respect to teaching, learning or research? “We will accelerate math learning for first generation students at five institutions this year,” or “we will double student research opportunities in the humanities.” A shared purpose enables creative relationship building. Partners can develop a common timeline and milestones. Maybe classrooms become R&D labs so that faculty/student data can drive improvements, or institutions get equity or a seat in the boardroom so that they have a stake in the company’s future.

Such partnerships might expand to include K-12, investors, and philanthropists, building a richer, more sustaining and sustainable ecosystem. As educational opportunity grows, we will all develop as learners who are genuinely equipped to ask the biggest question: how do we make use of the affordances of technology while maintaining what is deeply human about education: the messiness, the connection and the beauty?

Carol Quillen is President of Davidson College

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