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Chief Penguin
Musings from the Academy’s Global Ambassador

July 5, 2013

Enriching the Traditional Residential Curriculum

Part 2 of a three-part essay on technology and higher education…


Many colleges and universities are choosing to use new digital technologies to become better residential undergraduate institutions—to offer more varied and challenging programs, foster livelier intellectual interaction, and develop stronger residential communities.

These institutions recognize that the central power of residential education is the power of the learning community. Their goal will be to use Internet tools to enhance traditional education, not replace it. Some methods of doing so include the following:

Computers for Information, People for Interaction.

One potentially powerful use of technology is in helping students gain information and develop skills so that live faculty can spend their time interacting with students as only humans can—so far at least. Screens for information. The classroom for interaction. If students can learn the fundamentals using computer-based modules, faculty can be liberated to challenge students to think (a remarkable concept in itself). It’s all about using technology for what it can do best, so that people can be freed to do what they do best.

Rich Offerings for Small Institutions.

The Internet makes it possible for small institutions to provide specialized course offerings despite their size. Consider classics. Although the number of colleges with significant classics departments is relatively small, even modest programs can become more comprehensive by using communications technology.

A good example is the multi-institutional classics department developed some years ago among the 15 institutions in the Associated Colleges of the South. Most of these colleges have at least a few classics faculty, but usually too few to offer a large variety of courses in Greek and Latin culture and literature. By banding together through the Internet and telecommunications, the faculties created a virtual classics department linking faculty, course offerings, and students across their institutions. The goal was not so much to reduce the cost of education, but to make it richer intellectually, to make each institution more competitive for the finest new faculty, and ultimately to increase the number of students who study the classics.

This consortium model can be applied in many other areas and in larger institutions as well, particularly in topics in which each institution has too little expertise to offer a full program, or in which critical teaching expertise can best be found outside of academia. Examples include biotechnology, e-commerce, genetic engineering, and many other fast-changing fields in which any one institution may find it very difficult to offer the highest-quality programs.

Traditionally, colleges and universities have made relatively little use of shared teaching. The goal has been to gather, on the same campus, all the faculty members needed to teach each program they choose to offer. In the future, it seems inevitable that colleges and universities will be knit together by webs of teaching and research consortia that magnify the power of smaller groups of faculty on individual campuses, and make it possible to maintain up-to-date curricula in fields that are changing rapidly. The goal will not be to concentrate all the expertise on a single campus, but to have enough high-quality expertise to form the best alliances.

The Internet may also change the definition of faculty. When information was stored only in books, and books in libraries, faculty had to live near the libraries, and students had to come to them to learn. Faculty therefore had to make teaching their professional lives. But with the power of the Internet, experts who do not choose to make teaching their primary career can still participate in educating students. Much has been written about the power of the Internet to allow current faculty to access many more students. Far less attention has been paid to the possibility that many more people will be able to be faculty, part-time, and greatly enrich educational offerings. There’s an old saying, “There are those who teach and those who do.” Well, now “those who do” can also teach. It’s coming.

To be continued…Part 3: More Radical Changes and Looking Ahead.

Filed under: Uncategorized — gfarrington @ 4:04 pm

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