Background on the Theme

For additional background on the IARSLCE conference theme, Connected Knowing, read our first post from KerryAnn O'Meara, the 2012 conference program chair

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Cecilia M. Orphan, Ph.D. Student, Higher Education, UPenn

Cecilia M. Orphan, Ph.D. Student, Higher Education, University of Pennsylvania
Twitter: @CeciliaOrphan

When I was a student at Portland State University (PSU), I served as a teaching assistant for University Studies (UNST), the interdisciplinary general education program at PSU. The UNST program explores the following four goals in its courses: Communication, Critical Thinking, Social Justice and Diversity. In this role I assisted students in the creation of online portfolios that demonstrated their learning. This was before there were ‘plug and play’ portfolio platforms and my students had to build their own websites. Through this process of web design, they made virtual connections in the form of weblinks between the assignments they had completed and the four UNST goals, and then they reflected on their learning with one another. I quickly discovered how powerful this mode of teaching can be for producing robust learning outcomes for students. This was my first experience with connected knowing.

For the last two years I have worked with the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE)’s Next Generation Engagement Project (NGE). The Director of the project, John Saltmarsh, challenges NGErs - a group of engaged scholars and practitioners, early career faculty, and graduate students - to expand traditional academic notions of expertise to include the knowledge of students and community members, and to incorporate online tools to aid in the production of engaged scholarship. We use web 2.0 tools to connect with one another when we are not able to meet in person and these tools create a constant conversation in which multiple voices are heard. We participate in connected knowing.

The theme of this year’s IARSCLE conference, “Connected Knowing,” describes what I believe will be the future of American higher education. No one can deny that the academy is changing. Our students are becoming more diverse. Tenured faculty members are decreasing in number and non-tenured, adjunct faculty are being hired to replace them. Each year online, for-profit education is claiming larger shares of our student body. Public support and funding is rapidly disappearing. And the civic engagement movement is gaining momentum and transforming the way universities and colleges interact with their communities. Confronting these challenges is the premise of AASCU’s Red Balloon Project that seeks to “redesign undergraduate education for the 21st century.” The leaders of Red Balloon are using networked knowledge generation because they believe that the best way to confront these challenges is to use technology to work collaboratively, share expertise and devise solutions. 

Of course the idea of crisis in American higher education is not new. The history of the academy has witnessed scores of people predicting crises, and despite this history, higher education remains intact. We will survive this current crisis as well. But there are a number of important questions that we will need to answer as we progress. How should students be treated and viewed? Are they clients and customers buying a product, or are they co-creators of an academic environment? I would argue that when students are engaged as co-creators, they learn and grow much more than when they are treated like customers. How should we interact with the communities surrounding our universities? Despite all of the calls for reciprocity in community/university relationships, you will be hard pressed to find universities that equitably engage their communities and allow neighborhood leaders not only to participate in university projects but also to design and assess these initiatives. The next phase of the civic engagement movement must reckon with these power imbalances so that community members are invited to oversee university engagement. How will we treat adjunct faculty who have very little if any say in university operations and yet at many public universities now outnumber tenured faculty? Despite the important questions raised by the growing presence of adjunct faculty about academic freedom and governance, I don’t believe that it is realistic to think that they will disappear. In fact, if current trends are any indication, their numbers will only continue to grow. So in the interest of creating democratic institutions, I firmly believe that this group must be considered vital contributors to connected learning.

With all of these complex changes taking place, we have the opportunity to model and engage in a process of connected knowing as we advance toward a more democratic, inclusive and educative culture in higher education. When I think back to my days at PSU, I still remember the way my students’ learning came alive when they were able to reinforce the mental and virtual pathways and connections between their assignments and their understanding of the course goals. This process of connecting and co-creation is of benefit to us all especially as we consider how we will survive the current crisis in higher education while better serving democracy and our students.

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