ITHAKA Next Wave Conference Focuses on Higher Ed Challenges

Speakers at ITHAKA’s The Next Wave conference, held at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel on November 29, made the case for work that colleges and universities must take on if they want to improve national educational attainment. The conference, “Innovating and Adapting to Address Today’s Higher Education Challenges,” looked at new approaches from a variety of angles, from administration to the classroom to research, with alignment between leadership and the library given particular attention.
Speakers at ITHAKA’s The Next Wave conference, held at New York’s Roosevelt Hotel on November 29, made the case for work that colleges and universities must take on if they want to improve national educational attainment. The conference, “Innovating and Adapting to Address Today’s Higher Education Challenges,” looked at new approaches from a variety of angles, from administration to  classroom strategies to research, with alignment between leadership and the library given particular attention. “It was striking that we heard again and again about the ways in which structures in higher education are not yet optimized to support the success of new types of students with different sets of needs—whether older students with other life commitments or first generation students [who] require different kinds of services to ensure their success,” ITHAKA president Kevin Guthrie told LJ. “The good news is that there are inspired leaders from a range of places working on these issues, and we saw some excellent examples demonstrating progress in these areas.”


Keynote speaker Clay Shirky, writer, columnist, and vice provost for educational technologies at New York University, led off with a consideration of Napster as a metaphor for higher education. The music industry may have won the battle against the file-sharing platform, Shirky said, but it lost control of its distribution system in the process. Napster uncoupled songs from albums and permanently changed the story of how people bought music. How, asked Shirky, would the new realities in the landscape of higher education change its story? Research and publication models are shifting, for one thing, as contributors convene online and the definitions of authorship and collaboration blur. Fiscal crises threaten colleges with closure. But even more pervasively, today’s students resemble their predecessors less every year. Nowhere in the country does the average graduate of a four-year college finish in four years; the number is currently one in ten. College is financially out of reach to nearly a quarter of those who wish to enroll, said Shirky; many more are unable to attend full-time because they work or have families. As Republican tax reform is poised to undo decades of work to make college affordable, the barriers are mounting, no matter how technical innovations level the field. Students’ choices will continue to narrow unless the model changes. “This is the place where something analogous to Napster is happening to our institutions,” said Shirky. Just as Napster unbundled music, online education is unbundling the curriculum, and the number of students enrolling in online, asynchronous programs—who would not ordinarily be able to attend physical classes—attests to that. Two-year or transfer community colleges are rising in popularity as well. Shirky suggested that smaller schools join forces in the manner of Massachusetts’s Five Colleges consortium, scaling up central systems including the library, information technology, and human relations. “Colleges are run by people who did well in college,” said Shirky. (Although at least one Twitter commenter noted, “Not my college.”) What we’re seeing now, and what we need, he added, is a push to rethink not just how and what we teach, but to include student realities in that model. In the same way that most people who run a marathon are thinking in terms of finishing rather than time, higher ed metrics need to preference completion over an outmoded four-year ideal.


In “At the Leading Edge: Transformation and Innovation,” three academic leaders looked at what it took to rebuild—or, in the case of Gordon Jones, founding dean of the College of Innovation + Design (CI+D) at Boise State University, ID, to create—their institutions. Meredith Woo, six months into her tenure as president of Sweet Briar College, Amherst County, VA, recounted the process of coming on board the venerable women’s liberal arts college as it recovered from near-closure in 2015. “We decided to signal to American public that compelling excellent small liberal arts education is a viable option,” said Woo, formerly dean at the University of Virginia. She made several quick and decisive choices, among them to create an integrated core liberal arts curriculum with an emphasis on leadership, to invest in the school’s engineering program—Sweet Briar and Smith are the only two women’s colleges with accredited engineering programs—and to reduce tuition. Michael Koby, associate dean of international and graduate programs, Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, was originally a skeptic about distance education. When the Law School decided to move in that direction, he said, “I remember thinking, why can’t it all stay the same until I retire?” Eventually, however, he became associate dean in the same program he initially opposed. It currently offers online master’s programs for international lawyers and U.S. non-lawyer professionals, and a dual-degree program with the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey in Mexico. Students are of a wide range of backgrounds and ages, and Koby has become a proponent of the small, active online law school classes, which he calls “The Socratic method on steroids. You can’t hide…. There’s no back row.” When Jones, formerly of the Harvard Innovation Lab, was invited by Boise State president Bob Kustra to help identify new learning pathways for CI+D, he told Kustra that he didn’t fit a traditional academic program. That, said Kustra, was what he wanted. Jones chose to catalyze the new online school by empowering faculty who were already inclined to work across boundaries, at the same time looking into ways the institution at large would answer questions of lifelong learning. He specifically chose to house the college in the library from the beginning. CI+D has also embedded a partnership with Harvard Business School (HBS) in the curriculum, with non-business students receiving a nine-hour credit block of HBS distance classes at no extra cost.


“The Provost Perspective: Emerging Strategies and Gaining Alignment” brought together Marni Baker Stein, provost and chief academic officer at Western Governors University (WGU), an online school based in Salt Lake City, and Neil Weissman, provost of Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA, to discuss the challenges they’re encountering and what strategies they’ve adopted, along with ways that libraries can position themselves as critical to their institutions’ missions—particularly when it comes to working with faculty to help develop open educational resources (OER). WGU, founded 20 years ago, serves more than 78,000 students who have some post-secondary education but no degree. WGU’s competency-based educational model is built around student outcomes rather than textbooks or traditional syllabus, and managing that vast knowledge taxonomy, said Stein, is “both our greatest point of innovation and our greatest challenge.” Figuring out how to crunch and curate that data is key to developing the personalized learning pathways WGU’s students need, she said, and noted that libraries at other institutions could begin to push their digital asset management work in a similar direction. Libraries are uniquely poised to help curate a more atomized curriculum for returning learners, Stein said. “You cannot do personalized learning through a course-based curriculum. It has to be more autonomous than that.” Weissman agreed that campus-wide challenges offer a number of opportunities for academic libraries to focus on where their mission aligns with that of their schools. Dickinson, a more traditional residential liberal arts college, still needs to stay responsive to changes such as managing tuition costs, enriching an ideas-based curriculum, and incorporating diversity and sustainability into the system. Keeping the library, and library instruction, at the center of Dickinson’s core mission, has been important, said Weissman. And as student needs change, the school’s ability to communicate that it can provide them with the skills they need rests firmly on what the libraries do. “If you’re thinking about strained resources and disruption,” said Weissman, “the library is a wonderful model.” Both provosts agreed that libraries can work with university presses and authors to unbundle and retag textbooks to customize content.


Roger Schonfeld, director of Ithaka S+R’s of libraries and scholarly communications program, spoke with Arnold Hirshon, associate provost and university librarian at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, and Judy Ruttenberg, Association of Research Libraries (ARL) program director for strategic initiatives, on “Research: New Workflows and Frameworks.” The three circled back to Shirky’s initial proposition, that new platforms and systems are changing the face of research and publishing, and considered the roles libraries are being encouraged to play within this new landscape. One angle not always at the front of the list, noted Hirshon, is reputation management: helping faculty ensure that their work is included in the university workflow (publishing in the right places, using ORCID IDs), as well as citing the institution’s name correctly—250 variants were discovered on the Web of Science alone—and understanding that they can push back against signing away copyright. Ruttenberg agreed that this is a strong space for libraries to occupy, adding assistance with managing funder and institutional mandates and answering questions about rigor and reproducibility to the workflow support mix. Case Western has instituted reputation management workshops for faculty, although Hirshon added that often faculty talking to faculty can be equally effective, and that bringing in provosts, presidents, and trustees to contribute to the effort can prevent the library being seen as the “sheriff.” He said, “We need to work with the right people on campus so it’s a university-wide effort and it’s not just ‘here comes the librarian, they’re going to bother me about my data again.’” Ruttenberg added that decision-making around resources is as important as enforcement; openness needs to be intentional. She added, “Sometimes you don’t want to share.”


With student success taking high priority, how can institutions up the odds? “Teaching: Understanding Students and Helping Them Succeed” looked at some methods of analyzing opportunities for intervention. Stella Flores, associate professor of higher education and director of access and equity at the Steinhardt Institute for Higher Education Policy, New York University, highlighted the results of her study of the college completion gap by race and income in New York City. It may come as no surprise that student success is often defined before a student ever enrolls in college, but as Flores noted, while it may not be the fault of higher education professionals, it is their responsibility; nothing diminishes inequality like a college degree. The long-term effects of college investment matters more than ever, especially for low-income and underrepresented students, said Flores. “We’re all going to need some form of a STEM-like skill-set—[it will be] what I call the STEMpocalypse—and those who get a lower-quality education will fall through the cracks.” Jade Winn, assistant dean for instruction, assessment, and engagement and associate university librarian for University of Southern California Libraries, discussed the work being done by the Greater Western Libraries Association (GWLA) task force on a multi-institutional longitudinal study on the impact of library instruction on student success. GWLA, a consortium of 37 research libraries, set out to identify and promote best practices for supporting student learning outcomes, including retention, academic success, and which specific library instruction methods affect those numbers. While again, the results are not surprising—library instruction has a positive impact on both retention and success—the consortium is contributing to a data set that will, she hopes, eventually be open and usable by researchers nationwide. Research at Washburn University, Topeka, KS, bore out similar findings, said Alan Bearman, founding dean of university libraries and the Center for Student Success and Retention. Some 50 percent of students there are first generation, and 60 percent are not college ready. Washburn’s Mabee Library has evolved from a book repository to a center for student success and recently built a first-year experience program from scratch around information literacy instruction. Thanks to these and other improvements, the school’s calculated revenue impact was 129 percent projected for FY18—up from two percent in FY13 and -32 percent in FY14. A less statistical take, noted Bearman, is that collocating student services in the library has led to a destigmatization of support such as mental health counseling.


At the final session of the day, “Publishing: Building New Capacities,” Donald Waters, senior program officer for scholarly communications at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation introduced three investigations, funded by Mellon in parallel with institutional support, into new forms of publication for the monograph. John Sherer, director of the University of North Carolina Press; Darcy Cullen, assistant director of acquisitions at Canada’s UBC Press; and Alan Harvey, director of Stanford University Press presented a series of digital-first monograph projects. All featured a variety of innovations such as interactivity, discoverability, quick publishing turnaround, tailored metadata, embedded geographic information system (GIS) data, and media-rich opportunities—particularly important for the UBC collaborations between academic and Indigenous communities. Challenges included issues of sustainability, dissemination, building scale, incorporating traditional production practices into a nontraditional format, losing prestige along with the monograph model, and the difficulties of peer reviewing digital content. Nevertheless, the takeaway—as with the other disciplines and aspects of student success examined throughout the conference—was that publishers, instructors, academic leaders, and libraries were all not only prepared to organize around new models for student and institutional success, but were enthusiastic about the potential for innovation in the field. “It is evident that much remains to be learned and implemented across our higher education system to address the scale of our challenges,” said Guthrie about The Next Wave, “but given the examples we saw and the broad recognition expressed that we must do more, both individually and collaboratively, there are many reasons to feel encouraged that we will get there.”
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