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The Future of Liberal Education in the New Learning Ecosystem

By Jessie L. Moore, Associate Director, Center for Engaged Learning, Elon University

On Friday, Randy Bass (Georgetown University) facilitated a panel discussion with Jose Antonio Bowen (Goucher College; author of Teaching Naked), Gardner Campbell (Virginia Commonwealth University), and J. Elizabeth Clark (LaGuardia Community College) on “The Future of Liberal Education in the New Learning Ecosystem.” Rather than simply reacting to changes in higher education, Bass framed the discussion as a proactive design question: What is it we want higher education to become, and what kinds of graduates will we need to be producing?

Because the panel invited audience members to tweet questions and comments using the hashtag combination #libedunbound #aacu15, it’s possible to examine both the panel and audience members’ perspectives on these design questions.

Panelists pointed out that we have reached a moment in the history of liberal education where customization of and access to information are easy, but Bowen suggests that students still need faculty as aggregators and cognitive coaches, guiding learners through the selection, analysis, and application of data. In addition to providing access to massive amounts of information, as Campbell noted, the Internet opens up network effects, with possibilities for forging interconnections and building community. As a result, Campbell argues, higher education should embody and model a culture that builds human capacity as an end in and of itself.

Other new technologies also facilitate these goals. Clark, noting that higher education is “at an infant stage of learner analytics,” asked the audience to consider how we could tailor higher education if we had an academic Fitbit for learners. Knowing more about the information students are seeking (or ignoring) and what they are doing with it would deepen faculty’s ability to adapt their teaching to students’ learning. Clark also argued that faculty need to continue to model expert learning. Online courses may work well for motivated learners, but they leave behind students who haven’t acquired the skills and dispositions for self-guided learning. Online tools, though, open up other possibilities for helping students collect, synthesize, and apply information. Clark suggests faculty could build on the citizen science movement to foster citizen history or citizen writing, and so forth, working with students and community members to co-author texts.

The session led to hundreds of audience tweets and retweets, and a quick frequency analysis of words used in this backchannel conversation highlights some of the themes that resonated with audience members. Although “digital” and “technology” appear frequently in the tweets, the most often used words were “learning” and “students.” This prioritization resonates with the speakers’ reminder that technology is not the problem-solver; it’s a tool. As higher education adapts to changing ecosystems, technology may offer new means to achieve liberal education goals, but higher education must remain focused on and committed to students’ learning.