Storms over liberal education: notes on the 2016 AAC&U conference

Last week I participated in the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) 2016 conference.  It was a powerful gathering of campus leaders and practitioners, organized around a common focus on liberal education.

I was there for a few reasons, starting with having the fine opportunity to lead a pre conference workshop, followed by presenting on two panels, helping out with a Twitter component, and reconnecting with dozens of friends and colleagues.  The event became much more dramatic than expected, once the hosting city, Washington DC, was clobbered by the great snowpocalyspe of 2016.

Let me share some materials here, along with reflections on the conference.

AAC&U logo

  1. Preconference workshop

I helped start the conference with a half-day workshop on “How Technology Can Enhance Liberal Education: The State of the Art in 2016.”  Around 35 professors, deans, provosts, program directors, presidents from several nations (mostly the US) and a variety of institutional types came together, some with very different levels of technological experience.  On the latter score, several younger faculty and program leaders revealed themselves to be serious gamers, while some administrators described themselves as operating with a very basic level of digital knowledge.

A quick round of introductions revealed some interesting trends: a growing number of liberal arts institutions are launched or growing online learning programs; many sought to find the distinct ways liberal arts institutions, and campuses pursuing liberal education, can use technology.  This last point has been a major theme in this quadrant of American higher education as far back as the 1990s.  I also asked each person to specify their role concerning technology, and there were a lot of different roles: someone running a distance learning program, another in charge of a problem-based learning initiative, a prof looking for good examples of technology in liberal education, a provost to whom several tech departments reported, and more.

I kicked things off with a survey of major technological developments in a very top level way, then dived into specific, currently used digital tools (the LMS, ePortfolios, video, robotics, big data, social media, 3d printing, etc.).  I hoped to move on from there to what I called “approaches”, ways of using tech that didn’t depend on a specific platform – i.e., gaming and gamification, blended learning, distance learning, MOOCs, mobile, and digital literacy.

But participants were very, very engaged from the start.  The LMS section, for example, detoured into questions of copyright, FERPA (the major US legal regulations about student information), and privacy, after some contention about which LMS was better or worse than others.  I had two measly slides for ePortfolios, the main thrust of which was “go to AAEEBL!”, but folks were keen on sharing problems they had in integrating their LMS to a specific ePortfolio program, setting permissions in their ePortfolio, questions of ownership, and more.  Our social media section also went over to FERPA, with some audience members arguing for the LMS as superior to the social web for privacy reasons, plus some discussion of personal versus professional social media use.

Bryan on open; photo by Stephen BragawOne participant volunteered a fascinating use of 3d printing: to print objects in such a way as to simulate for seeing people the way blind people perceive the world through touch.  Very interesting!

By the last 45 minutes we’d barely reached my slide deck’s half-way point, thanks to the sheer energy of the audience, so I showed them an outline of what remained, and asked them to determine which topics interested them the most.  Consensus was: next steps, the future of tech and liberal education.  So I told them about the way campus CIOs see the future unfolding (emphasizing security and getting more value out of academic computing investments) and some of the challenges faced by campus IT in trying to grow their services as technology and user demands grow (hiring and retaining the best staff, for example).

It was one of those situations where the audience had an awful lot to ask and express, and it was important and fitting that they do so.  My slides are on the web, shared with you via this post, and with those participants via email; that’s easy to see.  It’s those emergent discussions that are hard to set up, and so rewarding when they occur.  I felt bad for over preparing materials, but am satisfied that we were able to thrash out these issues.

2. “Embracing the Unexpected Challenges Posed by Liberal Education’s Success”

On Thursday professors Mark Rush, Stephen Bragaw, and myself presented on three related challenges to liberal education.  Mark addressed internationalization, Stephen sustainability and unbundling, and I open education.  Thanks to Snowzilla my two colleagues wisely got out of town to their Virginia homes, and I ventriloquized them as best I could.  You can read our combined slides here, or in this embed:

Mark’s argument about internationalization was provocative, well-researched, and unsettling.  The gist is a question: if the American liberal arts is increasing its global reach and adoption, what happens when liberal education embeds itself in illiberal societies?  (That’s “liberal” in the sense of “liberal democracy”, not liberal as in Bernie Sanders) The audience looked sober at this, but didn’t have any questions or comments, alas.  That’s “alas” because the implications are major, especially with declining US enrollments and K-12 population shrinkage.  Is it possible that American liberal arts colleges will turn inward, deglobalizing, rather than have to compromise their practice in an increasingly non-liberal world?

Stephen asked us to consider competitive threats to liberal education.  In support of one threat, unbundling, Bragaw offers this powerful pair of contrasting historical photos:

"The problem with content bundling": Steve Bragaw picks two Washington Post photos for contrast

That is, unbundling a service or good might not turn out so well for the provider.  Bragaw encourages us to rethink campus strategy in light of being a nonprofit business.

Discussion went in some interesting angles, such as secondary education.  Several participants saw high schools as crucial to our sector, as with early college programs for high school students (but raising questions of quality control thereof).  One person thought shifting tertiary school content down to secondary could help reduce adjunctification, by (I think) reducing teaching hours in colleges.

Then I took the stage – well, I was already on stage, but now speaking only for myself – to urge the audience to expand their engagement with open.  That meant open source software, open education resources, and open access in scholarly publication.

Discussion connected my theme with Stephen’s via arguments about sustainability.  Several participants pointed out limitations on faculty time which block creation and even adoption of OER.  I pushed back, arguing that open shouldn’t be the prerogative of individual faculty, but part of strategic programming for colleges as a whole, freeing up resources and collaboration.  Several audience members saw a disconnect between hiring/promotion/tenure/review committees and the real world, which throw up obstacles to embracing open.  One audience member said those committees were built in the 50s and still act like it.

On Twitter several people, on site and out of country, praised open as a business model.  Several participants chimed in with my call for faculty to work with librarians on open strategies.  For example,

tweets praising librarians for collaboration

Kristin Vogel: “Libraries ally, champion and offer expertise on this very value. Good things are happening and possible.”

Andrea Rehn: “so true. In fact, they invented the model (lending for free)”

Good stuff.

The minute our time ran out I ran out for hotel checkout and the DC Metro, in order to get ahead of onrushing meteorological doom.

3. Tweeting AAC&U

On the conference’s last day I was scheduled to help present on using Twitter for a conference backchannel.   Rebecca Davis, J. Elizabeth Clark, Mark Rush, Julie Kane, Andrea Rehn, Stephen Bragaw, and myself helped plan this out.  Those plans included setting up a website to host information about the effort, presenting quickly during a TED-style session earlier in the conference (where Andrea simply owned the room), firing up various analytical tools, and, of course, tweeting like mad.

I, holed up against storms in a remote location, could only participate via Twitter.  As did many other people, both storm-stricken conference participants and interested parties elsewhere in the world.

The team presented visualizations of Twitter discussions, examining how the represent one glimpse of the conference meetings as a whole.  For example, from Julie Kane:

AAC&U tag cloud by Julie Kane

And from Mark Rush:

AACU 2016 tag cloud by Mark Rush

Liz Storified tweets and shared her awesome, visually striking presentation.  That broke down many different forms Twitter takes in supporting a conference.  In fact, that was the point of the panel, to show the ways academics can use Twitter.

4. Reflections on the conference

It’s always exciting to be immersed in the leading edge of liberal education.  It’s moving, too, to bask in the commitment and passion people have for teaching.  There’s a marvelous ethos of care.  All of this shows up in Ed Ayers’ concluding address and in the willingness of remaining conference-goers to stick things out through the storm.

Online learning is on the rise.  There were discussions of using MOOCs on liberal arts campuses and developing distance learning programs for outreach or to make up for enrollment shortfalls.  I didn’t hear any of the classic complaints about online life being unreal or grossly insufficient.

The backchannel was very active.  I was able to track ideas emerging in sessions I couldn’t attend.  I’m not sure what proportion of the AAC&U crowd participated in Twitter.

Related: the Virtually Connected efforts sounded like they succeeded, using Twitter and Hangouts (and more?).  People outside the conference were able to poke their heads in and learn something.

Virtually Connected tweet

(Those last two points taken together?  Conferences, like classrooms, are no longer closed spaces.)

I noticed the expression of two schools of thought, which seem to contradict each other.  One emphasized good management of campuses, focusing on stability, growth, consensus, and leadership.  The other spoke of access, public financing, inequalities.  The former uses “business” and “corporate” as neutral descriptors, while the latter deploys them as criticism.  Both speak of faculty governance, albeit in different ways.  The latter is more likely to mention adjuncts. In a dark moment I referred to the first group as “neoliberal liberal education“; Susanna Williams nicely shortened that to .

Another divide was between those seeing liberal education as fundamentally sound financially, versus those concerned for its fate.

Let me circle back to friends and colleagues.  As with EDUCAUSE I found myself in a steady stream of conversations in every hall.  I made new relationships and welcomed inquiries from campuses and people I’ve never visited.  That sense of mission, of supporting the liberal arts style of undergraduate education, was heady.  AAC&U was a warm, rich environment – despite the winter storm.

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7 Responses to Storms over liberal education: notes on the 2016 AAC&U conference

  1. autumm says:

    Thanks for the overview of the conference Bryan. Especially the part about faculty partnering with librarians to help bring Open to the institution. It seems like such a symbiotic relationship.

  2. Pingback: #AACU16 Thoughts and Reflections « Mark Rush

  3. Thanks for posting this. Love the backchannel!

  4. VanessaVaile says:

    Thanks — I did am #aacu16 and @vconnecting hangout bundle — this anchors the follow-up bundle underway, pointing the way and providing links.

    #AACU16 & Vconnecting GHO, 22 links

    PS please remember my @precariousfac next time you are handing out adjunct stream mentions. fyi SEIU’s @AdjunctAction has been largely replaced by their @FacultyForward stream

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