Wednesday, January 14, 2009

To: American Higher Ed, Get Ready to Lose Your Innovators

The writing is on the wall. The shifting is beginning and I am part of it. For the past three years I have watched myself transform from a professor of art history into a passionate advocate for online education and an overall transformation of our higher education system. I believe our colleges and universities have an issue that is not being addressed. Higher ed in the US is rooted in traditional pedagogy that "we" (professors, administrators, support staff - all of us) can't even see that a college degree in the US is becoming less relevant to our students each year. We must see the potential of new approaches to education. We must get beyond our vision of "the classroom" as "the learning space" for our students. We must engage in thoughtful conversations about how technology can engage more students than ever before in powerful, transformative, personalized learning experiences.

"Tradition" tells us that professors stay in their positions for a lifetime because they have tenure. Certainly, in today's unstable economy this is a coveted blessing that most people aren't willing to give up. But I think times may be changing -- for two reasons. First, the generational characteristics of our faculty are shifting. Baby Boomers, who compromise the upper ranks of tenured professors, possess strong loyal ties to their employers. Baby boomers connect personally identify with their place of employment and typically stick with an employer for decades, working through difficult times and doing whatever it takes to succeed (that's the Boomer mentality). Generation X is different. Gen X (birthdates early 1960s to about 1980) members typically are more interested in looking out for their own interests in a career. Many Gen Xers have memories of their "loyal" parents getting laid off from that employer they were so committed to. Gen Xers are the first generation to be willing to say "see ya later" if their needs are not met in a career. They're more willing to start over and take risks than their Boomer predecessors. And these Xers are now moving into the mid-ranks of professors.

Many of these Xers are technologically savvy. Many of them have been intimately connected to the social changes that have emerged since the dawn of the internet in the mid-1990s. Many of these Xers are thirsty for innovation. Some may feel frustrated with the disinterest they sense around them when they speak of things like "new pedagogies," "online learning," "social networking," "web 2.0," podcasting, blogging, etc. It's seems counterintuitive to see large percentages of institutional budgets be focused on traditional classrooms and little to nothing be dedicated to developing programs to design forward thinking educational models, provide online support for our students, foster online community for students who learn at a distance, purchase web cams and microphones and digital movie cameras for our professors to teach more interactively through technology.

I don't think tenure will keep the Gen Xers from shuffling around. And, interestingly enough, there's one university who seems to get this. Take a minute to watch a couple of the new recruitment ads for Kaplan University.

What non-profit American colleges and universities fail to see is the critical role that innovative faculty will play in defining the success of higher education in the 21st century. The shadow of tradition obscures our view. And, interestingly, Kaplan -- a for-profit university -- sees this clearly.  What does that mean for the future of public higher ed?

I am a tenured, tech-savvy, Gen X professor with a passion for innovation. This June I will leave my current position and begin a new career at a 4-year university that has integrated online learning into the strategic focus of their institution. While some view my move as "a crazy risk" in this time of economic uncertainty, I see it as essential. I have about twenty more years ahead of me in my career. If I'm not passionate about what I do every day, then how can I be meeting the needs of my students? That's what I do - I'm an educator. Isn't that what we all should be doing?
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