Last week I helped emcee the ITHAKA Next Wave conference. It was a rich and powerful experience, and I want to share some reflections here.
The event presented cutting-edge thinking about the future of higher education, from economics to demographics, liberal education to publishing. The audience consisted of librarians and publishers, mainly, along with some faculty and other administrators. My job there was not to present, but to facilitate discussion between those participants and presenters. That included asking questions of the audience, active social media engagement (I and others live-tweeted the event and brought comments into the live space), and polling the audience with clickers.
For more background on the event, here’s my introductory blog post. Here’s a good EdSurge article describing the event by Jennifer Howard.
Excellent speakers included “YS” Chi, George Fowler, “Cappy” Hill (previously on this blog), Sylvester A. Johnson, Melissa Korn (previously), Paula M. Krebs, Doug Lederman (previously), Caroline Levander, Aanand Radia, Simon Ross, Jeffrey J. Selingo (previously on this blog) (previously on the Future Trends Forum), Benjamin Schmidt (previously), Judy Verses, and Elaine L. Westbrooks.
Overall observations: the day began with the desire to establish the emerging higher education context for libraries and publishers. Through the day, the tenor of discussions shifted from dread to cautious optimism, veering between grim assessments of unfolding challenges and hope for the ideal missions of research, of teaching, of liberal education, of access and curation.
Some clashes of opinion and framework did occur, such as: how important are market models? (One great quote from Cappy Hill: “The only people who don’t care about jobs or earnings are those who need neither.”) What is the better way to organize scholarly research through proprietary or open access (although this was quiet, largely below the surface). There were also many points of agreement: the need for more data for just about every actor in and around education; the value of increasing access to learning and research; the importance of serving students; the imperative of responding to a new age of automation and also biology.
One other point of agreement: there was no consensus on what to call kids these days.
Presenters and participants seemed to agree on three macro, top-level drivers of change. First, population changes include: a smaller Gen Z (or whatever we’ll call them); a more racially diverse population; a greater proportion of the youth population living in poverty; more of that group located in the south, and along the Texas-Dakotas corridor. The urban-rural gap is widening, to the country’s overall disadvantage. Income and wealth inequality are escalating, with impacts seen in major donations to universities along with soaring discount rates.
Second, students are changing. Most are working, and often a lot of hours. A growing proportion are older. The younger student body tends to be more non-white. They also face more basic food challenges (here I cited the world of Sara Goldrick-Rab: previously on the book club; previously on the Future Trends Forum).
Three, certain stresses are afflicting institutions. If we look at them as medical patients, most appear healthy, but some have morbid symptoms and bad conditions. Some might disappear (5-7% was raised as one estimate); less likely, there will be mergers. Chief business officers (CBOs) are more nervous than their presidents. The international market is sharply down now, but it should recover; American academia’s reputation remains high. We were reminded to recall the wide range of institutional diversity in American higher education.
Throughout the day we discussed the strategic decisions these colleges and universities should consider. They include: rethinking lifelong learning, by making it more porous and continuous; rethinking liberal education; conducting more and deeper collaboration, although we’re unskilled at it and resistant to it; expanding lifelong learning support, especially for labor outcomes.
So what are the takeaways for the audience, especially for libraries and publishers?
For publishers the day found a steady drive for innovation and creative service offerings. There was some interaction with the consumer technology world, especially for inspiration and competition. We might see mergers and acquisitions among publishers. Collaboration is called for, but is hard to achieve. Some publishers might seek to capture or support new forms of research and research-based competition beyond traditional channels. At times we glimpsed a vision of more national collaboration.
For librarians? They have to serve a new population. They might expand their information literacy operations. Libraries might change their collection focus, shifting away from the humanities and more towards STEM fields. They might have to develop new services. The population of librarians has some pressure to change in order to look more like the new American demography.
Final note: I wanted to thank the participants for energetically and thoughtfully engaging throughout the day. Next Wave is now a rolling conversation, and that’s due to the audience who decided to ask questions, share ideas, push back, tweet, and think out loud with colleagues.
It’s also due to the Ithaka staff who put on a flawless show. From an excellent interview with YS that kicked off the day to wrangling hundreds of clickers and polls to arranging a fine venue – bravo.