April 1st, 2011
Each year the School of Graduate Studies hosts a special lecture named after the first dean of Graduate Studies. This week, for the 2011 Fred Aldrich Interdisciplinary Lecture, we had invited Ken Steele, Higher Ed marketing guru and creator of a widely read daily Top Ten list. If you have a pulse and are interested in university scene, then you are a loyal subscriber. It appears in my inbox each day before sunrise.
Ken’s shtick is trends. Everyone is interested in hearing data about the world we work in and so it is no surprise that a good house turned out to hear what he had to say. Ken admitted to us that he is more accustomed to painting a broader picture of Higher Ed than the one we asked him to draw—that is, a picture of graduate studies, in particular. But he was able to weave his material, at last in part, into the focus we had asked of him.
And talk about weaving…. Ken’s lecture was one of the most lively power point presentations I’ve ever seen. It was, indeed, a model of marrying content to the visual. Not only were his slides colourful and often amusing but they were highly animated, kinetic and therefore entertaining and seductive. Because so much of what Ken has to say is about the millennials and their active tech-dependent learning, acquiring, and consuming habits, that’s a good thing. The implicit message he at once offered and demonstrated is that lecturing, good old-fashioned by-the-notes-by-the-podium lecturing, is dead. Profs who use technology to extend the classroom experience, to allow for more interactivity, posting of discussions, lecture notes, and useful links to relevant sources and videos are hip to the new model of teaching. Technology has effectively removed the need for cavernous lecture halls. Why, Ken asked, would a student choose to sit in a 1000-person hall when she could get the notes on line, possibly watch the lecture on her computer from the comfort of her own room—at any time convenient for her during the week? The satisfaction quotient in such hybrid or digital component courses is proving to be way higher than the old model, and that fact alone is shaking up all our old assumptions about how we should be teaching and learning.
Memorial is engaged in a concentrated, widely consultative teaching and learning planning process, and you can bet that the recommendations following this exercise will reflect the kind of things Ken told us about trend lines. Memorial is already well ahead of many universities in this country in terms of its so-called distant learning technologies, but it was humbling to hear so forcefully about tomorrows—no, today’s—student expects from a course, any course.
As we consider how best to refit our buildings and create new spaces for learning, teaching, and research, we would do well to keep the message of Ken’s Aldrich lecture in mind. We will need many more common areas, smart classrooms, widely wired campuses, and, ironically enough, environments much more in line with what our libraries have already become—a commons, not a set of confined spaces. Once the most traditional, cloistered buildings at the heart of our campuses, university libraries have become models of shared spaces. Today they are open, learning environments that look out on the world as much as they invite introspection. Most of our classrooms and the way we conduct our undergraduate teaching has a long way to go.
Arguably, on-campus graduate seminars, by definition small and intimate, will always depend in some measure on the close interaction of the in-person conversation. For many of us, that’s where the sparks of imagination and curiosity first really flew. But by all accounts, that cocoon will also metamorphosize into some new form. Resistance, as the millennials know better than any of us, is futile.