Thursday, November 8, 2007

13th Sloan-C Conference Nov 7-9, 2007

Florida landscape--ironic actually--really more water than land--but to return to the original thought: Florida--land of enormous natural beauty; blue waters at every turn; birds, fish, white beaches, the Okefenokee swamp, palms and lush plants of every variety; yet, slowly, that natural landscape feels bounded, increasingly penetrated by roads and choking cars, the relentless advancing frontier of houses and development: America's now ubiquitous urban sprawl but here especially painful to see, juxtaposed against aboriginal natural beauty.

New hotels with ersatz waterfalls decorate their pastel walls with pictures of that older Florida--hoping, I suppose, to remind travelers, tourists, bustling businessmen and women, of the Florida now quickly fading, of an older reality and sensibility, a Florida now morphing into another place, one less pristine, less natural; more cars, more people. The Florida panther lives on but on a smaller patch of land and water, the occasional dog is eaten by the occasional alligator but the gator is quickly caught and "removed" or, if unlucky, shot by local police.

I've come to attend the Sloan-C conference one of the nation's foremost venues for discussing online learning. Frank Mayadas' leadership of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's Asynchronous Learning Network division has been crucial for co-creating, for shaping, the revolution in American and global learning at the university level. ALN's 13th annual conference is being held this week (November 7-9, 2007) in Orlando (once a tiny backwater in older Florida's vast empty stretch of swamp and--well--more backwater). Its been fun being here to visit with old friends and see the terrific growth of the conference; one speaker reported that the first "conference" was little more than a table full of attendees; today some 1400 educators, professors, web designers, administrators, have come to lovely Florida to talk about the revolution they are collectively creating.

A few folks discussed the irony of last week's article by the educational editor of the NY Times acknowledging, while lamenting, that online learning seems to be here to stay. Ironic, I suppose because the editor of the Times education beat is just now! coming to suspect that perhaps the application of technology to higher education is here to stay. It certainly feels that way here in Orlando: its as if the American university complex has reached a tipping point and its many components, stakeholders, are beginning to actually come to grips with the reality of this new world.

Similar to my lament for the passing of an older, pristine Florida, the older pristine, face-to-face university--an institution serving the town, state or region: University of Hartford, the University of Wisconsin, the SUNY system; an institution of familiar roles for professors and students, for librarians, department chairs, deans and assorted administrative denizens, is facing an enormous challenge to its existence as we know it today. We've all become familiar with the statistics counting the explosion of online enrollments, but like Florida's everglades its only in the last few years that we are collectively coming to grips with the shape and character of those changes to Florida's swamps and natural environment.

Today's panel discussion, aptly entitled "The Role of the Professor: Archetype, Anachronism, or Work-in-Progress," was well attended, filling the room with interested educators, clearly wondering where all this is going. Moderated by Boria Sax, the panelists included Anthony Picciano, Carla Payne, Phylise Banner, Mary Jane Clerkin, and myself. A range of suggestions about the emerging role of the professor in the new university were aired.

We heard much about the pedagogical implications of online learning, the need to embrace the current and quite refreshing revival of Deweyian "constructivism," a nod here and there was given towards new active learning strategies (tools) in this new "architecture," the new digital classroom. With others, I raised the possibility that this new "age" might see a renewed interest in professional organizations (national and international) for professors and university professionals. As the older university, the university of locale and state, is superseded by institutions with global reach and aspirations it seems necessary for professors, as other educational professionals, to organize not only to defend their financial interests (especially the accelerating trend to adjunct more courses--piecework)--but also to defend and define their "content" rights (similar to the digital distribution concerns of the members of the Writers' Guild) while working with administrators and web designers to write new policies addressing issues of class size, online support services, pedagogical standards and a host of vexing issues that can only be sorted out by revising and modernizing accreditation standards for the emerging online university; "new" professors all decked out in their ancient academic "garb," but now assigned a host of new digital "rights and privileges."
(Let me add a shameless plug: I've written an extended article on many of these same issues, "Constructing the Cafe University: Teaching and Learning on the Digital Frontier" to appear soon in a special edition of the online journal On The Horizon edited by ALN's own Boria Sax.)

As educators and learners we are living in a wonderful moment in the history of education. We are fortunate to be able to observe and shape the most momentous changes in the institutions and structures of American and global higher education since at least the Guttenberg printing press. But Florida's timeless landscape is also changing, perhaps has already changed beyond recovery and in ways we cannot bring back. In shaping, in transforming, our educational landscape we need to take this moment to think carefully about our pedagogical goals, to make our educational institutions, increasingly corporate and market driven, yield to learners' needs, student imperatives; to respond to John Dewey's timeless pedagogical goals of constructivism and democratic community.

No comments: