Turning a Page on Higher Education?

photo_1003076The other day, I did something novel: I went to a library, checked out a book, sat under the vaulted ceiling of a spacious reading room and got lost in the printed page. It may seem odd to hear a professor talking about a trip to the library as a novelty but the fact is that I spend far more time in front of a computer screen than an open book.

As I ambled through the quad towards my office, it struck me that I still love books and going to the library but I’d be lost without my computer. It also occurred to me that this shift is emblematic of a much broader shift. Before the advent of the Internet, information was relatively hard to assemble, creating a need for it to be gathered and organized in vast collections of printed materials. Universities—quite literally built around grand libraries—filled this niche admirably, serving as repositories of specialized information.

Today, that has all changed. Information is relatively cheap and accessible (at least in Western democracies) so that the content of many libraries is only a click away.

In this new world, universities do not need to warehouse academic books and journals, they need to provide skills for navigating the glut of information on the web and organizing it into useful frameworks that function across diverse settings while being flexible enough to adapt to a constant influx of new data.

The challenge of creating effective navigators of the information age is higher education’s opportunity and, I would argue, a special opportunity for social scientists. As social scientists, we are constantly grappling with how to understand complex social phenomenon. And it seems to me that scholars who make a living out of making sense of the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the social world have something to offer others who are trying to make sense of the swirl of content and perspectives on the Internet.

This means a switch in the kinds of classes that we have traditionally taught. Consistent with the old role of universities, our classes tend to focus on conveying substantive content as opposed to how content is created. Courses on the methods of inquiry—if required at all—are segregated from the core curriculum and treated as intellectual spinach at best (and curricular castor oil at worst). The new classes need to turn this model on its head and emphasize how we build knowledge from the ground up. Put differently, instead of designing courses around the questions of who, what and where, we need to design courses around how knowledge is created, integrating methods and content throughout the curriculum. Such courses would use substantive content as the raw material for a guided exploration that reveals the complex relationship between theory, data and methods in the search for meaning.

This type of pedagogy is inevitably more project-­‐based and collaborative than the old “sage-­‐on-­‐the-­‐stage” teaching of the standard university class. It requires teachers to reverse engineer their courses by starting with target skills in mind, designing assessments that test those skills and finally identifying appropriate content. This will not be an easy task. Professors are rewarded for research not teaching and developing new curriculum is labor-­‐intensive. Yet higher education has little choice. To be relevant (and justify its cost), it needs to turn the page and address the demands of the digital age.

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