Monday, April 18, 2011

liberal arts futures

This IHE article captured some of the mood at the NITLE Summit in Virginia the week before last, which I attended. I find often at technology conferences there is a sense of religious reformation in the air and it this vibe was definitely apparent at this one. As is often the case there was a sentiment that educational and financial models at liberal arts colleges must change drastically.

The mood on my campus heading into the end of the semester, is vastly different. This past week, I attended a teacher-of-the year ceremony, in which students gave their own testaments about their favorite teachers. These accounts were inspiring, most commonly emphasized how effectively faculty convey their passions to students, and got me thinking that our model is certainly not entirely broken. Following on that came announcements of a bevy of Fulbright awards to students as well as a ceremony honoring undergraduate researchers.

Many of the remarkable things I hear about on campus involve student research, whether it be in the science laboratory or in the archives. And I think there is a connection here with the reform zeal of the NITLE Summit. John Seely Brown's talk emphasized the connection between thinking and doing and the importance of transferring tacit knowledge. Student research experience that give students the chance to tinker and put themselves at the cutting edge of knowledge gets at this mode of learning.

But is experiential learning of the kind advocated by JSB really all that new? I guess not. I think his point is that this kind of learning becomes more important as we navigate an rapidly evolving socioeconomic system with almost unlimited access to explicit knowledge. I have trouble buying the idea that change is as rapid as he says it is in all sectors of society, but I think he is on to something.

We were also interviewing candidates for our dean of the college job this week. One of the more interesting conversations that came up at one of the faculty candidate talks was around academic rigor. Many faculty believe that there is a deficiency here, that we need to develop a culture that asks more of our students academically. I think there is a tie-in here with the liberal arts value proposition: our expectations should be very high in selective liberal arts colleges and this can be something that sets us apart from other players on the education landscape.

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