Briefly Noted: The Chronicle, on “Rebooting the Academy: 12 Big Ideas”

The world of higher education finds itself in a heightened tizzy these days, as it adjusts to many new realities, such as online education, electronic course management systems, and so forth. A recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 2: A10-17) heightens the tizzy even further as it takes the reader on a lively, thought-provoking romp through new approaches to teaching and research with digital tools. Like many romps, it has no real destination, but the experience is worth it.

The article presents 12 cutting-edge educators who are making tech savvy proposals and contributions to education at the secondary and college level. This blogpost highlights only five of the Chronicle’s 12 leaders in order to give an idea of what “Rebooting the Academy” might look like (otherwise, we’d have to rename this column “Laboriously Noted” or, perhaps, “Unctuously Noted”).

So here they are, our five chosen innovators:

1. Candace Thille of Carnegie Mellon University seeks to address “higher education’s ‘cost disease’ with team-built online courses used across institutions.” (A10) Thille directs the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon. The initiative aims for faculty at various institutions to work with her team on creating “expensively built online course materials, cheaply available to the masses.” (A10) Her proposal includes creating open online courses (in core subjects like statistics and biology) which track student work on online modules outside of class. After faculty consult that data, they know better how to use in-class time, so the proposal goes. Thille desires to correct widespread student failure in such courses, at a lower cost to students, but her proposal is not without much backlash from the faculty she speaks with as she tours the country promoting the initiative.

2. Sal Kahn of Kahn Academy is working to “build a vast library of short educational videos” that serves as “a challenge to end the lecture as we know it.” (A10) Kahn Academy is a free online library of thousands of 10-minute tutorials on subjects from calculus to American history. In the tutorials, Kahn’s own voice narrates work he does on a digital whiteboard. You never see his face, only hear his voice. Students watch the tutorials at home then do more work in the area at school the next day. His work caught the attention of Bill Gates, who threw a lot of financial support Kahn’s way via the Gates Foundation. Kahn and his academy were recently featured in a 60 Minutes piece (http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7401696n).

3. Burck Smith, founder of StraighterLine, believes he can “make online education cheaper by letting companies offer courses on behalf of colleges.” (A14) In fact, Smith believes he can get costs down to $999 for the first full year of college. He plans to do this by providing popular college courses online and partnering with accredited colleges that give students transfer credit. The students are students of the company.

4. John Wilkin of the University of Michigan wants to “pool digital collections from universities to build a super-library for the 21st century.” (A14) Wilkin is executive director of HathiTrust, an “online digital repository with more than 10 million volumes.” The project was created in 2008 alongside Google’s book-scanning project and is housed at U. Michigan. The goal for Wilkin is not to emphasize “digital” but “library” in his project. That is, the purpose of HathiTrust is to figure out “how to manage ever-bigger amounts of information and how to make the best collective use of resources.” This is a constant challenge for libraries in the age of the hard book and digital book.

5. Daniel Cohen from George Mason University is trying to “find new ways to do humanities research using digital tools, and give even non-techy scholars the ability to use them.” (A16) Cohen is actively thinking about how technology can advance, not harm, disciplines like history. “Mr. Cohen feels that many scholars don’t grasp the full potential of digital tools.” Thus, his center developed Zotero, which is a powerful way to do (and save) research quickly. Cohen is above all seeking to challenge old ways of reading texts while supporting more efficient collection of the growing number of texts.

Well there you have it folks. Just as your professor has finally replaced his leisure suits with sandblasted jeans, his papyri with power point, and his greenbook with Moodle, he might have a few more adjustments to make.