Old Ways Meet New Tech (and New Students) at Meeting of Library and...

Digital Learning

Old Ways Meet New Tech (and New Students) at Meeting of Library and Academic Leaders

By Jennifer Howard     Nov 30, 2017

Old Ways Meet New Tech (and New Students) at Meeting of Library and Academic Leaders

With edtech, specialized isn’t always better. Technology designed for educators is pushed “as if our ones and zeroes are special,” keynote speaker Clay Shirky told top librarians, publishers and administrators at the Ithaka Next Wave 2017 conference, held in New York City on Wednesday. “When you look at the way students actually work, they mostly work with tools that are general-purpose,” Shirky said.

Those easy-to-hand, widely adopted tools cited by Shirky include the ubiquitous Google Docs, as well as more-unexpected ones like the website Genius (formerly Rap Genius). Originally set up to house lyrics, it’s been repurposed by students as a place to share and annotate texts like the Mayflower Compact.

Next Wave 2017 was the latest in an annual, invitation-only meeting series run by Ithaka, the nonprofit group behind JSTOR, ArtStor, the PORTICO digital archiving and preservation service, and Ithaka S&R, which conducts research on higher ed and technology. This year’s theme was “Innovating and Adapting to Address Today's Higher Education Challenges,” and leaders from different walks of academic life took turns throughout the day addressing it, beginning with Shirky’s keynote.

You might expect an internet visionary who’s also a professor and an administrator overseeing tech-based education to plump for the latest edtech. But Shirky, vice provost for educational technologies at New York University, argued that having the latest digital tools isn’t what counts most in today’s higher-ed environment. The focus, he said, should be on the changing narratives around the technology: how the internet isn’t just enabling new approaches in the classroom, it’s altering the bigger public discussion about how to provide (or pursue) a college education. “Online is changing the story people are willing to tell themselves about college,” he said.

Shirky invoked Napster, the music file-sharing system brought down by legal action on the part of the music industry. Napster failed—but it opened possibilities that led to the multitude of sharing services we use now. “These kinds of tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technically boring,” Shirky said. “It’s the moment that people take them for granted—the moment they tell themselves a different story about how life could be.”

On a panel called “At the Leading Edge: Transformation and Innovation,” a trio of higher-ed leaders shared stories of how their institutions changed, not always by choice. Meredith Woo, the recently-installed president of Sweet Briar College, described radical changes implemented in response to the school’s near-closure. Those changes included doing away with the general-education program and replacing it with a core set of courses focused on women and leadership; focusing on three “centers of excellence,” including engineering education; and cutting tuition dramatically. “We decided to signal to the American public that a compelling, small liberal-arts education is a financially viable option,” Woo said.

“What we’ve done is not nuclear science,” she added. “These were things that had to immediately be done to define who we are.”

Changing Attitudes

During that panel—and throughout the day—online education emerged as a dominant theme. Michael H. Koby, associate dean of international and graduate programs at Washington University Law School, said that at first he was “100-percent against” the online Master of Legal Studies program he was put in charge of—but changed his mind once he realized that it made the school stronger by “bringing in groups of students we otherwise wouldn’t have.”

The university chose 2U as its tech partner to help create and run the online program. Koby said that made it possible to think creatively about the program—how to do mock trials and adapt the Socratic-dialogue approach to the online-learning environment, for instance—and to make sure the online experience lines up with the law school’s overall approach to teaching.

One secret to the partnership’s success: clear boundaries between the for-profit company and the nonprofit educational institution. “We’re completely in charge of admissions. We’re completely in charge of the curriculum,” Koby said. “They’re in charge of the technology.”

For Gordon Jones, founding dean of the College of Innovation & Design at Boise State University, affordability and technology stand out as dominant trends now, with online options expanding what the college (and the larger university) can offer for the tuition it charges. The pressure students feel to sign up for pre-professional majors has driven “significant outmigration from our humanities and liberal-arts majors,” Jones said. To satisfy the hunger for more business training, the school teamed up with Harvard Business School to offer Boise State students a 9-hour credit block in which they earn HBS’s business-writing certificate online. It doesn’t cost extra, and the option might make it easier for undergraduates to think more flexibly about the majors they choose.

In a crowd-pleasing aside, Jones mentioned that he decided to house the innovation-and-design college within Boise State’s library, and suggested that libraries often function as safe neutral spaces in which to experiment. “You are leaders of what’s basically Switzerland on campus,” he told the audience.

The second half of the day focused on what universities are learning about student success, and on new workflows and frameworks for research and publishing.

Several publishers talked about how some university presses are experimenting with how to do things differently in an era of tight finances but a wealth of non-traditional forms of scholarship. That includes digital-humanities projects that work best as interactive, multimedia products and that can’t be reduced to flat text. Alan Harvey of Stanford University Press explained the thinking behind the press’s Digital Scholarship publishing program, which put out its first product—Nicholas Bauch’s Enchanting the Desert—in 2016, with three more to follow this spring, including Samuel Liebhaber’s When Melodies Gather, centered on the oral poetic tradition of the Mahra on the southern Arabian Peninsula. “The only way to engage with this is digitally,” Harvey said.

Reinvention in the networked era requires changing definitions as well as adopting new technologies. Darcy Cullen, associate director of acquisitions at the University of British Columbia Press, used a joint project with the University of Washington Press to talk about how publishers need to expand their thinking about authorship and audience. The two presses are building a platform for indigenous-studies scholarship that’s “audience-tailored,” Cullen said. “Readers can choose the format that best suits their needs.”

The project is part of a move toward culturally-sensitive design that can be adapted to scholarly norms while also respecting indigenous communities’ traditions and expectations. Cullen mentioned the Reciprocal Research Network, which enables research on First Nations items from the Northwest Coast; 27 institutions participate, and indigenous community members can correct and interpret material in the network, she said.

Monetization v. Information Flow

Technology changes rapidly. Mindsets often shift more slowly.

Certain themes have been cropping up for years now at almost any gathering of academic librarians and administrators: the need to appeal to faculty self-interest in order to get things done, for instance, and the complaint that scholarly publishers are price gougers. Arnold Hirshon, associate provost and university librarian at Case Western Reserve University, talked about how many publishers in the United States focus on monetizing content, while the rest of the world is more interested in what he called “the information flow.”

Not everybody was predisposed to agree. One attendee, Rick Anderson, associate dean for collections and scholarly communication at the University of Utah’s library, said later that he was “a little bit distressed at how much reductionist rhetoric we’re still hearing about ‘publishers who only care about money and are just trying to preserve their 30-percent profit margins.’” Anderson said, “I don’t believe for a second that the people saying this stuff are really unaware that 75 percent of publishers are nonprofits,” many of them dedicated to supporting their fields rather than making a killing off them.

Although it focused on big shifts and challenges, the conference also brought to light smaller but revealing details about shifts in how higher-ed practices have changed. Hirshon, for instance, talked about how one small behavioral problem has big reputational consequences. Many faculty members don’t take the time to learn how to cite the university in their work so that it turns up in international rankings of scholarship. He’s seen hundreds of variants of his institution’s name, he said—but only the correct version gets counted.

Another theme that emerged during the day: Librarians as well as faculty are being called on to rethink old habits. “The priorities of 25 years ago are not the priorities of today,” Hirshon said. Judy Ruttenberg, program director for strategic initiatives at the Association of Research Libraries, said that librarians accustomed to “a high-touch kind of work”—one-on-one reference services, for instance—must get comfortable with providing library services in new ways. “It’s hugely destabilizing for people to work in that way, but it’s urgent,” she said.

In his keynote, Shirky pointed out what’s probably the biggest disruptive factor of all in the internet era: the rise of what he called the “post-traditional student.” American higher education has been been too focused on the 4-year college model, with an emphasis on a certain kind of student for whom that model works.

“Colleges are run by people who did well in college,” Shirky said. “We are the number-one nation in enrolling people in college. We’re not even in the top-10 for completion. We don’t have an enrollment problem, we have a completion problem.”

That’s because the traditional model doesn’t work for students who aren’t untethered teens but adults with jobs, families, and other commitments, he said. A flexible online model works better for them—and their numbers are growing. “Online program after online program is filling with students who are perfectly capable of doing the work,” but who can’t leave their commitments behind for a residential college experience, Shirky said. “These are not characteristics most of our institutions are well set up to deal with.”

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