Future Tense

Will It Play in Emporia?

When discussing how tech will change higher ed, don’t forget small state schools.

Students with laptops in classroom
It’s not just that students have laptops; it’s how they’re asked to use them.

Photo by Creatas Images/Thinkstock

This article is part of Future Tense, which is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Wednesday, April 30, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on technology and the future of higher education. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

When we talk about the future of higher education in the United States, let’s please focus our attention on where most higher ed happens. It’s not in Cambridge or South Bend or Ann Arbor. It’s in Kirksville, Mo.; Emporia, Kan.; Lafayette, La.; and Bridgewater, Mass.

The majority of undergraduates in the United States get their bachelor’s degrees at regional state institutions, not research-intensive doctoral institutions or small liberal arts colleges. Regional public universities serve commuter students who work, part time or full time, who drive or take the bus from their homes in the region, and who will stay in the region after they graduate. They’re not the Division I football schools, and their faculty members don’t do Nobel Prize-winning research. They may not be what you think of when you think of college in the United States, but they are where most Americans get their degrees (usually five or six or more years after they enroll).

It sometimes seems that local legislators think a regional university is essentially a white-collar vocational school. Policymakers and the general public seem increasingly skeptical about the value of a liberal arts education as unemployment continues to be a problem—that’s despite studies that show how well liberal arts majors do and how much employers value what students get from a liberal arts education. But faculty members at these schools, like those at their doctorate-granting counterparts, don’t like to think of themselves as trainers, as instructors in a narrow set of workplace skills. Close-reading skills, good analytical abilities, excellent writing, and the ability to use evidence to back up an argument—these attributes work for jobs of all sorts. The rest of what you need you get in on-the-job training.

Here’s the problem: While so many of us have been defending the value of a liberal arts education against the desire for us to deliver “skills,” we’ve too often been holding out against change in general—and technology in particular.

A solid liberal (in the ancient Greek sense—that is, befitting a free citizen) education need not and should not be delivered the same way today as it was when current faculty were in college. Class discussion, group assignments, and a variety of other pedagogical practices help to change up the old lecture model in the classroom, of course. And many schools have added online courses as options, sprinkled in among traditional offerings, with increasing numbers of schools offering fully online programs.

But online education is not the use of technology that will move public higher education into the future. Only taking full advantage of the new digital tools that are available to classroom instructors will enable regional institutions to really serve the needs of their areas, where hostile legislators or chambers of commerce rail against tuition increases and want students to be “workforce-ready” without being able to say exactly what that means. Probably something about computers.

It is something about computers, really. The higher ed that is successful in 30 years will not necessarily be the universities that demand that their students use the latest device, or the schools that outfit their classrooms with the biggest screens. The schools that will lead the pack, or survive the drought (choose your metaphor), will be the schools that produce students who can take full advantage of every digital resource they’ll encounter.

Cultivating the desire to play, to fiddle, to mess around with new research and creativity tools will create graduates who are ready to enter the workforce. They won’t be the docile employees the more old-school Marxist faculty members are loath to produce. Instead of being eager to please, they’ll be eager to learn, to challenge, to grow. In the commercespeak that is sometimes necessary for defense of the liberal arts, we need to acknowledge that our best students are innovators and entrepreneurs (shudder). We who educate the majority of college students in this country need to provide the skills with technology that allow students to see its place at the intersection of the culture and the economy.

We don’t need to build more huge high-tech buildings to train STEM graduates—we can teach students to build wikis in class. We don’t need to require that they purchase the latest high-tech device—we can work with what they have, or what the library has, to teach them to use free apps for group assignments, to produce annotated documents, to design basic webpages. We don’t have to require them to take computer science courses (although that’s a great idea)—we can make sure that they encounter, in many different classes, assignments that make them evaluate online sources, use new programs, build apps, or record and make available podcasts or videos.

The schools that require the most variety of experience with tech will be the schools that prepare their students best for the regional economies they’ll be entering, if that’s the frame you want to use. I prefer to think that we’d be preparing students to fully participate in a culture that depends on tech, draws from tech, but cannot be understood without a liberal arts perspective on tech.

The schools that don’t figure out what technology can do for their institutions and their students, who relay on their current methods of instruction and assessment, will be left behind over the next decades. They will be forced to narrow their focus to training for a small range of jobs or will, in the face of the nation’s declining population of 18-year-olds, have to become something else entirely.

To stay alive, this most important sector of higher education has to embrace the opportunities offered by new digital technology. It’ll be an investment, for sure. For one, it will call for the elimination of the dependence on poorly paid adjunct faculty members—the kind of instruction we need will depend on faculty development, on faculty members being trained by their institutions to teach differently with tech. Making a commitment to offering students the tech they need will require campuswide change. A concomitant investment in faculty would mean training and development of instructors who are in it for the long haul—permanent full-time faculty. Institutions that create full-time positions and offer opportunities for new faculty members to keep up with the latest digital developments will see great rewards in student success.

The biggest change will have to be in administrator and faculty mindset, not in campus hardware. Faculty members will have to be willing to make the 10-page paper give way to the collaboratively produced website. The scannable exam will have to go the way of the mimeograph, replaced with hyperlinked documents that demonstrate command of course material as well as technological tools. Students will learn to use, professionally, social media and cultural resources that right now exist in a part of their lives untouched by their college experience. We need to equip them for the lives they’ll lead as well as the careers they’ll have, and a critical perspective on, as well as facility with, technology will keep what we do relevant to the culture and economy of the next decades.