April 30th, 2010
Spring means conferences and lots of travel–fog permitting– to exotic places, like Ottawa, Toronto, and, last week, Charlottetown. I attended the annual meeting of the deans of arts, humanities, and social sciences. About 40 or so of these tired but noble administrators convened on the thriving campus of the University of Prince Edward Island for a couple of days to compare notes, discuss trends, and drink some of the local maple-syrup-flavoured wine. Not recommended–although we did frequent some wicked pubs with superb local brew. I digress, surely.
I am not a dean of arts but I had been invited to speak to the group about some of the financial challenges facing universities and in particular the arts and social sciences community. By the time my turn came up we had been fully apprised of just how rapidly things had to change for the university sector, particularly regarding those faculties and schools that had not changed to any discernible degree in decades, maybe ever. Driving the need for change is one huge factor: demographics. The size of incoming undergraduate classes has been declining, with few exceptions, and will continue to do so for at least the next fifteen or so years. This means a severely diminishing labour force, with, for the first time in my lifetime, to be sure, a larger group of people over rather than under the age of 55. These maturing seniors will start putting enormous pressures on the health care system, and therefore on provincial and federal treasuries, leaving less and less for post-secondary education. It will become increasingly difficult to justify channeling public monies into institutions that are shrinking.
What these sobering facts tell us is that to justify our existence we need to ensure we are actually answering the needs, not just the fantasies, of our potential learners. Those academic programs that have been particularly resistant to change, defiantly hanging on to 18th century notions of what a text is, or proud to be resisting new media and up-to-date technologies, will be singing to empty halls. As this blog spot has been arguing in one way or another, unless we rethink and revise our curricula we are doomed to be quaint fossils.
For example, maintaining all the disciplinary barriers to mobility across the curriculum will have devastating effects on our very existence. In Charlottetown we were encouraged to imagine a time in our own galaxy and in the not-too-distant future when those barriers will be dissolved. Instead of administrative departments we will have clusters or groups of instructors and researchers who will communicate by harnessing social media among other not yet even dreamed of channels of interaction. The image of a professor standing in front of a blackboard and lecturing for anywhere from one to two hours will seem as dated as a cave painting. Online delivery has already challenged that behavior, but in-class learning will look very different, too. As more of our classroom spaces become wired and smart, as our pull-down screens become touch pads, talking and listening will extend to pointing and browsing. The classroom will resemble an IPad, a living, interactive space. Indeed, today at a meeting at a university in Halifax I was guided through a freshly minted building on whose atrium walls are hanging large LED screens plugged directly into some assistant’s computer. These animated screens, filled with information, stunning visuals, and all manner of original programming have become the new wallpaper, now a natural part of our physical environments.
How about our sacred semester system? As pressure mounts to graduate students faster and as demands intensify for more flexible, accessible units of knowledge, our hold on a traditional 13-week term will have to relax, and we will start constructing alternative pathways to a degree–shorter, accelerated programs.
You can already see evidence of these changes in the technologies we are purchasing and applying, but to date we are still lagging in ways to deploy them most effectively to attract and retain students to our universities. We have to change not only the form of delivery but the content, as well.
I keep thinking of that famous, magical moment in the opening frames of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. You know what I’m talking about: it’s the transitional montage marking man’s discovery of tools. An ape throws a bone into the air, a bone that becomes in the split instance of a cut into a space ship—from one tool to another. Arguably the most stunning montage in film history, that (literal) slice of film captures the essence of the paradigm shift we are all now inhabiting.
The message in Charlottetown is that we still have a lot to learn about the potential of the new paradigm. Those faculties—especially arts, social sciences, and sciences—that don’t appreciate that notion are doomed to low enrolments at best, redundancy in the most dire cases. Yes, boys and girls, the space ship has left the launching pad.