higher education

MaRS, College Avenue nr. University, Toronto, ON

The province of Ontario is increasing funding for 6,000 graduate students in high demand areas such as engineering, health, and environmental sciences. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government is set to increase funding for 60,000 total students by 2015-2016.

I think this is a step in the right direction for Ontario and Canada to address the innovation and productivity gaps that plague the economy. AnnaLee Saxenian, author of Regional Advantage, examined the innovation clusters of Silicon Valley and Route 128 in Massachusetts. Historically, both are areas with strong technical universities that were generously funded during the Cold War, but what emerged in California was a culture of innovation.

“In the 1970’s both the Route 128 complex of Boston and the Silicon Valley were centers of high technology industry, but by the 1980’s the Route 128 area was stagnating while the Silicon Valley, after experiencing economics shocks, was moving ahead to become the unchallenged global leader in high technology. The difference in the two areas was not in resources or location but in their commercial culture. Route 128 firms tended to be insular and proprietary, whereas the Silicon Valley firms were open and linked by social and economic networks which enabled them to adjust to the vissitudes of market shifts.”

In today’s Toronto Star, an article on a Toronto Board of Trade report cited a need for increased regional coöperation among the economic development entities in the Greater Toronto Area. The report cites the regional transportation planning of Metrolinx as an exemplar of regional planning. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for the development of Toronto as an innovation cluster, but I think the big challenge won’t be in terms of funding, but in terms of creating an innovative localized culture that permeates the regional institutions, including government, higher education, hospitals {in medicine and healthcare}, and business. So, I can see the Ontario Liberals touting plans to integrate their higher education policy with one for regional innovation incubation. The MPP for Toronto Centre, Glen Murray, is the Minister for Research and Innovation, which runs the Ontario Network of Excellence (ONE). One on the ONE members is MaRS, an organization designed to bridge science, government, and business, which the Ontario Liberals have committed funding to::

“To continue to foster that environment, Murray announced a $2.25 million commitment over the next three years for MaRS so that it may continue its mandate to foster innovation in Toronto by harnessing expertise from across academic and business sectors to aid in launching and developing companies. MaRS will become one of 14 centres in the province-wide ‘Network of Excellence’ being built to foster innovation.”

Toronto is a confluence of different types of capital and global flows, with high levels of educational attainment, being a landing area for immigration, serving as a financial centre, and being a hub for the culture industries. What I’ve been reading is that much of Canada’s innovation occurs in extraverted industry clusters, which would tend to dilute regional advantages that take advantage of localized networks. The exception being the entertainment and culture industries. What I don’t know is what the business culture is like in innovative sectors in Ontario–is it more like California {informal, open, networked, greater mobility} or Massachusetts {formal, closed, hierarchical, and path dependent} in the 70s and 80s? The stakes are high, given the state of the economy and hopes pinned on innovation for future growth in GDP and jobs, which Murray is keenly aware of::

image:: outsourcing facility in India, from foreignpolicyblogs.com

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article on outsourced grading to India, Singapore, and Malaysia is causing controversy. Academics and others are chiming in on the issue, with many deriding the practice, some claiming that it’s a “scam” and others defending the practice.

Even if the “quality” issue were settled, I get a sense that many would still balk at the practice. In a sense, isn’t outsourcing grading and providing feedback on papers an outsourcing of what should be a core competency of an institution? Although, try this on. With the advent of assessment fever that can result in rubrics that specify (a) what is expected of the students, (b) the criteria with which they will be evaluated, and (c) the metrics that comprise a grade, isn’t the grading and feedback just a simple matter of execution? That is, the heavy lifting and the value-added is in the rubric, not the labour?

I’m not so sure. In some contexts, having someone very familiar with the material and the classroom interactions doing the grading makes a lot of sense. I will say that I think that in certain other contexts, the use of outsourced grading doesn’t compromise quality. In fact, it may actually increase quality in some settings, as I’ve seen shockingly bad feedback, memos, and letters—written not by grad. students, but by faculty. When I was a TA for an MBA Global Business course, I checked the math of students calculating exchange rate agios and applying various formulae. If this were outsourced, I don’t think this would be a travesty.

Here’s the experience at a rural California community college in the sparsely populated west San Joaquín Valley::

“Acceptance has been a little easier at West Hills Community College, in Coalinga, Calif., which turned to Virtual-TA to help some students in its online classes get more feedback than instructors for such classes have typically offered. The service is used for one section each of three online courses—criminal justice, sociology, and basic math. Instructors can use it for three to five assignments of their choice per student…The feedback from Virtual-TA seems to make the difference between a student’s remaining in an online course and dropping out.”

Should there be policies on who does what in higher education? Not just the grading, but on who does the teaching? I think there needs to be more transparency and more information provided about the delivery of education. What should be guiding these decisions from an institutional or policy perspective is how costs and efficiencies are being balanced with the value-added experience of higher education. I think distance learning and online programmes will test the limits of how the educational experience should be defined.

Those in higher education should watch how these issues evolve, as it’s showing how labour dynamics of skilled work are being addressed in a globalized world of supply, demand, cost efficiencies, and values.

Twitterversion:: Should outsourcing of higher education overseas be regulated? Cost efficiencies need to be contextualized in the value-added experience. @Prof_K

Song:: M.I.A.-‘Paper Planes’

McGill University, Montréal, QC Canada, August 2006

Should higher education be thought of as a public infrastructure?

While in many European countries, higher education was often treated as a public good, a market ideology is increasingly being allowed to allocate access to it. The rationale is that higher education is well-suited to market mechanisms. It’s scarce, not everyone wants it, and is often available at a price. Recent trends towards market capitalism and neoliberal economics have globally hastened the transition towards a market-based view of education. Is this a good thing? Are there market failures?

First, there are political pressures in many countries to reduce public expenditures in higher education. Exploring configurations of public-private funding makes sense. In terms of market failures, or potential failures, one big issue with respect to higher education is the uncertainty of outputs. Higher education offers no express guarantees or warranties. One of its characteristics is that it has “credence qualities”, i.e., those which are hard to gauge even after purchase. Many services have credence qualities, such as consulting or legal or medical advice.

While assessment tries to address this quality issue, Mark Granovetter’s work on embeddedness shows that auditing functions are often subject to social and political forces. In a sense, assessment is really only as good as the localized culture.

Impacting the quality issue are market forces. Higher education institutions compete for students and there is a upward limit on price. The “business” of higher education tries to increase efficiencies to lower costs, by increasing “productivity” {e.g., larger class sizes} or utilizing part-time labour, graduate students, or lower-wage online instructors. The Nordic experience is one where national quality assurance agencies allow universities to develop their own quality initiatives, factoring in the multidimensional nature of quality and institutional contexts. The result is a diversity of approaches that allows flexibility, but also has sanctions for non-compliance.

I think one of the worst places for higher education to be is having an identity crisis with factions supporting radically different views. Teaching versus research can be a dichotomy, but I’ve also seen institutions struggle over going from having regional status versus national status, i.e., “we want to be great.”

Twitterversion:: Higher education & regulation.Does market ideology & the “business model” clash w/quality & accountability?#ThickCulture http://url.ie/5o75 @Prof_K

Song:: Bishop Allen-‘Charm School’

Lillis Complex-The University of Oregon's Charles Lundquist School of Business, my office was in Gilbert Hall to the right in 1993-1994

Should higher education be regulated?

If someone were to ask me this question in 1990, I would have said, “absolutely not.” I was an undergraduate in business and economics and self-regulation as a preventative measure to regulation was the code of the day. Regulation creeps in when there are market failures.

Fast forward fifteen years and I had a dean who was making a big deal out of regional accreditation, stating that without it, the Federal government might step in to regulate the higher education industry. This was in an era between Enron and the subprime mortgage meltdown and I wasn’t so sure about self-regulation in higher education. Why? Over the past few years, I’ve thought about higher education as an institution with multiple stakeholders. The university not just a place to get a degree or obtain pre-professional skills, but a site of lifelong learning that’s integrated into a larger local and regional community. In light of this, I’ve thought about how distance learning factors in the mix and have seen these and “industrial park” programmes pass for higher education that are suspect at best. I began to wonder if the higher-education model may be broken? I’m not sure I’ll go that far, but I have concerns about the value-added and the shift of higher education towards being a business. Given this, I’ve been wondering if there should be some standards in place and who should develop them?

I’m not interested in a standardization of education or a regulatory body making curricular decisions, but one of the things that can make a university a unique place for developing and disseminating ideas is a sense of community that’s embedded within an organizational culture. I get a sense that many institutions of higher education are struggling with how to remain relevant and viable, in light of looming global and domestic competition for students. Perhaps a good first step is to develop guidelines with respect to channel {mode of instruction}, structure {organizational}, and governance {decision-making} in light of all of the stakeholders. The question remains is who should develop this? Accrediting bodies, which are comprised of member universities, or the government?

When I was at the University of Oregon, the doctoral students gathered around regularly, shared a beer, and discussed what they were working on or challenges in the classroom {we taught independent preps of undergraduate courses}. I now realize that that type of “community” is quite rare and The Chronicle of Higher Education has hundreds of articles on the solitary toil of the academic. Is community the answer and can community help to restructure or regulate higher education?

Twitterversion:: Should higher ed. be regulated in light of distance learning & industrial park programmes? Does academic community matter? @Prof_K

Song:: Steely Dan-‘My Old School’

MIT Open CourseWare Staff Pick Screenshot, February 2010, on YouTube

I’ve been thinking of the future of higher education with the advent of Web 2.0 for some time now. Will new technologies be a “game changer” for colleges and universities and what are the stakes? Currently, there is the issue of legitimacy that accredited schools and programs afford to both students and employers, taking a narrow and pragmatic view of higher education, and web 2.0 education alters the higher education business model. While costs are reduced, particularly with the use of online adjuncts, there are questions of quality. Technologically-mediated instruction still needs to be refined so it affords the same educational experience of face-to-face instruction. I’m interested in the specifics of this, with respect to the use of newer video codecs and interfaces that foster engagement, as well as the use of both synchronous and asynchronous modes of instruction and interactivity.

Online lectures are interesting, as they reduce education to digitized content. The instructor, lecturer, and professor are in the same boat as the photographer, music artist, film producer, and journalist. The digitization of what drives value allows it to be readily obtained, retransmitted, repurposed, remixed, etc. The Chronicle of Higher Education has a recent piece on whether or not lectures should be online. Most of the article focuses on what I see as side issues, but this hits on what I think is one of the key points::

“And lectures might just fall out of popular use in physical classrooms, because professors could just point to their past recordings or those of others and assign viewings for homework. To keep students interested in the classroom, some professors would focus more on discussion or group projects and things that can’t be easily captured on video.”

I think moving away from the “canned lecture” rehashing the text is a good thing. Way back when I was an undergraduate, back when dinosaurs roamed and PC meant pre-Cambrian, the best courses were those which built upon the readings, not parrot them. Fast forward a few years when I taught my own “preps” at the University of Oregon. I felt that my teaching was at its best when there was limited lecturing and more discussion of the material and the derivation of knowledge, particularly with the use of cases, articles, or blog posts by myself or students. Sometimes, I felt that being a good talk show host was what I was striving for.

I feel for what I teach, marketing, strategy, methods, economic sociology, consumer behaviour, etc., the lecture isn’t the true value added. It’s the moderated discussion afterwards, face-to-face and online, synchronously and {to a lesser extent} asynchronously. Web 2.0 can help universities rethink curricula, in terms of::

  1. What is optimally offered online given current technologies?
  2. How to address courses with different types of content/knowledge?
  3. How can courses be tailored towards students with different learning styles/abilities?

An old boss of mine scoffed at students claiming “alternative learning styles”, using quotation fingers, but over the years I’ve seen students who flounder in other classes come alive with thoughts and ideas just by allowing them to use different modes of expression, both online and face-to-face. While the Chronicle of Higher Education ponders issues of intellectual property, copyright, and even professors subject to ridicule, the weightier issue is how will universities offer courses, certificate programmes, and degrees in the context of lifelong learning that deliver value for its students and other stakeholders?

Future posts of mine will examine issues of Research 2.0 and a possible future for technologically savvy professors that understand how Web 2.0 and beyond can leverage efficiencies in teaching, move towards better learning outcomes, and foster a research agenda. Is this pandora or panacea?

Twitterversion:: Blog on the professor’s role as teacher w/advent of Web 2.0. Will digital content kill the teaching stars? #ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: Belle & Sebastian-“Family Tree”

image:: "Jay Sherman" from The Critic {1994-1995} voiced by Jon Lovitz

It may seem like all I do is bitch about other articles on here, but I am getting old and cranky. Today’s target, I mean subject is an article from The Chronic{le} of Higher Education by Thomas Doherty, The Death of Film Criticism. Doherty laments the rise of blog film critics on the wild expanses of the Internet that don’t have much to say beyond the trivial by scribes who don’t even read books. He does a good job of describing the rise and fall of film criticism in the 20th. century and it’s worthwhile reading. Where he loses me is how he doesn’t see how utterly predictable this all is. The main target market for films is the youth. That’s not to say older people don’t see movies, but for the most part, they matter far less than the teenager. Why? The blockbuster needs repeat viewings by throngs of theatregoers. So, the medium is increasingly targeted towards teen audiences, along with the current infatuation with celebrity culture. The Hollywood machine caters to the “head” of the long tail, i.e., the blockbuster, which is all about delivering spectacle. It’s not about artistry, how Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia {1999} has umpteen layers of symbolism and references couched within, or what Lars Von Trier and the Dogme95 movement are doing with films like Antichrist {2009}. The rise of the bloggers, who could care less about allusion or auteurs, goes hand in glove with where much of the industry is today. These days it’s about horror, action, and vampires.

Where Doherty gets interesting is how he says the Internet is also spawning interesting intellectual dialectic discussion on film by academics. Unfortunately, such work isn’t weighted the same way as publications, bringing up the issue of how institutional logics lag behind the new technologies. I see this as a big problem for two reasons.

First, while I “get” the idea that peer-review publications and books in journals and presses serve a legitimation function, this same function serves dominant paradigms in fields and places academic knowledge behind paywalls. Should academic knowledge be free? I feel that what distinguishes higher education research from applied industrial research is that it serves the public good, so I feel university knowledge should be towards no or low cost to obtain. Even in the areas of innovation, I believe universities can be a catalyst for “open innovation”, where technologies are licensed to multiple entities at a lower cost structure to spur distributed collaborative work. The idea is to speed up the innovation process by allowing knowledge to flow through networks, not silos {within companies or even departments}.

Second, I think that higher education may be at a crossroads. Right now, it has a monopoly on providing the legitimizing totem of the accredited degree, which has a ceremonial function in the workforce. In 2007, I was at an event where a local employer discussed what skills they are looking for from recent college graduates. What were they looking for? Critical thinking? Domain knowledge? Sure. But what came through as highlights were “meeting” skills and knowledge of Microsoft Office. This made me cringe, as I thought this was a harbinger as the university as merely vocational education.

Nevertheless, I’m wondering if with globalization that higher education needs to be relevant more than ever. Relevant to all of its stakeholders, which may mean a swifter adaptation to changes afoot, in terms of the institutional character of higher education and what it rewards and values. Future blog posts of mine will develop my ideas on this and provide a blueprint for the university in Web 2.0+.

Is the film critic dead? Well, no, it’s just her/his audience may be a lot more fragmented.

Twitterversion:: Death of the film critic? WWW killng the profession-also fostering academic dialectic while higher ed scoffs.#ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: Steely Dan-“Reeling in the Years”

6a00d8351b44f853ef0115712edacd970c-320wiOn the UC Berkeley campus, the Center for Open Innovation is doing work in this interesting new area::

Open innovation is the use of purposive inflows and outflows of knowledge to accelerate internal innovation, and expand the markets for external use of innovation, respectively. [This paradigm] assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as they look to advance their technology.”

Henry Chesbrough, Open Innovation: Researching a New Paradigm

In a recent talk, part of the discussion was on innovation and how it related to higher education.  There was talk of “silos” of knowledge.  So, when students are taking courses, they specialize in tracks, in terms of a functional area like finance or a specific type of engineering.  The problem with this is that this may not be the best preparation for students to work in the area of innovation and I would extend this much more broadly.  In other words, universities should be preparing students to think and problem solve  innovatively.  My experience is that there is lip service paid to this, but what becomes the focus is instilling a corpus of knowledge.

6a00d8351b44f853ef0115712edc22970c-320wiLast spring, Mark C. Taylor created a firestorm of controversy by calling the university on the carpet as an antiquated institution…and graduate education as the “Detroit of higher learning”.  Oh, you didn’t hear about this? That’s because the controversy was mainly in the halls of acadème with the rest of the world marching on without missing a beat.  Nevertheless, Taylor brought up some excellent points, six key ones to be specific.  Two that struck me were revising the curriculum and abolishing departments.  His example on a focus on problems used “water”::

“Consider, for example, a Water program. In the coming decades, water will become a more pressing problem than oil, and the quantity, quality and distribution of water will pose significant scientific, technological and ecological difficulties as well as serious political and economic challenges. These vexing practical problems cannot be adequately addressed without also considering important philosophical, religious and ethical issues. After all, beliefs shape practices as much as practices shape beliefs.

A Water program would bring together people in the humanities, arts, social and natural sciences with representatives from professional schools like medicine, law, business, engineering, social work, theology and architecture. Through the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge.”

Many in the academy went ballistic, but often citing “pragmatics” that, to me, were often thinly veiled rationale for preserving extant institutional structures, power bases, and resource allocations.  In a Kuhnian philosophy of science sense, there was a lot of clinging to the existing paradigms and the marginalization of any “crisis.”  There is a crisis.  It is one of relevance.

Open innovation is a new paradigm that’s focused on problems.  If I looked back on labels that have been used to describe my work, it includes marketing, branding, Internet marketing, economic sociology, and social media.  A common theme is “technology & media,” which in my mind defines a particular paradigm examining the intersection of both, which encompasses the humanities, the social sciences, the professional disciplines, and the applied technological.  If I had my druthers, courses would be less about checkboxes and more about developing and synthesizing knowledge structures.  Maybe life sciences with a lab could be substituted with a rigorous survey of the issues, challenges, and opportunities of bionanomedicine.

While paradigms and departments are both social constructions, they can be forced into an artificial structure or allowed to evolve organically…or even die.  I once sat in on a session where local employers close to a university I was working at stated what they wanted in an ideal undergraduate candidate.  There was a lot of passive reaction to what often boiled down to a desire for vocational education for job candidates.  Can students use the advanced features of Outlook or do a mail merge?  Please.  Universities need to redesign what they’re offering after reconceptualizing what they really are trying to do, knowledgewise, starting with the curriculum.  Over a decade ago, I was reading about differential perspectives on knowledge.  Some organizations treat employees {as repositories of knowledge} like stones in a wall to be built.  Others treat them like uniform bricks.  Universities play a role in this shaping.  Over the years, I grew weary of the pressures to create bricks and questioned the true utility of this.

I also think it’s time for universities to move away from churning out undergraduates, graduate, and professional students and become true fixtures of communities with a mission of serving lifelong learning–in the era of the free.

Twitterversion:: Innovation & innovative thinking in higher ed. Will knowledge “silos” persist & how will ivory tower adapt? http://url.ie/2i59 #ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: LITTLE BOXES – The Submarines

Bryant & Stratton College Second Life Commencement
Bryant & Stratton College Second Life Commencement

A few months ago, I blogged on how no-frills universities were catching on and have been reading on how higher education may be in a state of impending crisis.  Plus, I saw how one university was offering commencement in the online virtual realm of Second Life.  All of this had made me think about the future of the university::

  • Will the traditional “university” setting give way to the “business park” mode?
  • Will online degrees become increasingly prevalent?
  • How will the functions {research, teaching, community engagement, etc.} of the university change in society over time?
  • Should the university be treated like any other business and at what price?

I’ve always seen universities as communities, rare places where one interacts with others about ideas and knowledge. In the mid-1990s, I had the chance to be a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and remember it being a place open to inderdisciplinary perspectives, where interesting research was being done and intelligent conversations could be had.  I read somewhere that a few decades ago, the Stanford University Faculty Club was once a vibrant place where professors from the various schools and departments would kick around ideas.  I was talking to a recently retired computer science professor who was at my alma-mater, UC Irvine, in the 1970s, recalling conversations and debates with post-Marxist historians and scholars in the humanities.  From my perspective, it’s the community that a university creates that matters and I feel that uses of technology should be working not only on online instruction but on helping to foster a virtual intellectual community.  In terms of non-traditional settings and online instruction, I think there are challenges of legitimacy.  Online and “business park” universities taught primarily by adjuncts need to address the quality issue and ensure that the pedagogy is not just having students jump through hoops.  Students also need to adjust to learning in these environments.  I used synchronous chat in a recent class.  I heard from students I never heard from in the face-to-face discussions and it became clear who prepared and who didn’t.  Some students were quite candid in confessing this in front of everyone, virtually.

The “crisis” that universities face in my book is not just a financial one, but also one of relevance.  Relevance to individuals and to society.  While there is a business aspect to running a university, treating it too much like a business by focusing on efficiency metrics and revenue opportunities, rather than how it fits into a community structure, is a sure-fire way to balkanize faculty.  I think it will be challenging for universities to keep an infrastructure in place and deliver value that students want.  I do expect a shakeout, especially in a globalized world connected to the Internet, unless universities adapt to being more competitive and rethink pricing.

Finally, I think universities can learn from the writer Ray Bradbury, who thinks libraries are more important than universities and a staunch library advocate::

“Libraries raised me…I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

It makes me wonder how ideas like Chris Anderson’s “free-conomics” could be applied to universities, an idea I’m mulling over and would love my colleagues to chime in on.  Can a university business model be created that offers up free education, but brings in revenues through non-tuition means, begging the question, what business is the university really in?  Is a degree the “product” or is “lifelong learning,” as in the building cultural capital?  I leave with this Anderson quote, with my mind on how free knowledge, rather than free electricity, could transform society and improve democracy::

“What if electricity had in fact become virtually free? The answer is that everything electricity touched — which is to say just about everything — would have been transformed. Rather than balance electricity against other energy sources, we’d use electricity for as many things as we could — we’d waste it, in fact, because it would be too cheap to worry about.”

Twitterversion:: What’s the future of higher ed? Can it be #Free: #ChrisAnderson #freeconomy ideas? Peddling degrees or lifelong learning? http://url.ie/1xzu @Prof_K

Song:: The Headmaster Ritual – The Smiths

So says Mark Taylor in a New York Times op-ed.

Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).

His piece questions the efficacy of graduate education, but many of his prescriptions could also be applied to undergraduate programs.  The gist of his concerns is that we’ve tilted so far in our graduate training toward academic specialization that our product has become idiosyncratic, unrewarding, and irrelevant to the larger society. This graduate training spills over to undergraduate teaching by reproducing a structure that keeps academic work in departmental silos. Here are a few of his suggestions for transforming the university:

Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.

I personally love the use of the complex adaptive network metaphor. Some of my students are working on a project where they would gather our faculty’s research interests, code them and conduct a cluster or network analysis to determine cross-disciplinary commonalities. From there you could create learning communities of faculty and students that could then be linked to similar clusters around the world.

This complex adaptive system approach to developing a curriculum seems to be where our students live. I’ve had 2-3 students inquire about getting a Ph.D. and they all are drawn to interdisciplinary programs. Knowing what I know about the biases in academia, I’ve tried to encourage them to go for more traditional disciplinary-based programs so that they have more flexibility on the academic job market, but to little effect.

I submit that our challenge is that Web 2.0 has stripped from the academy it’s monopoly on knowledge. Young people’s unfettered access to information (of both dubious and stellar quality) places greater demands on the university as an institution to be as flexible as Google in how we organize knowledge and information. When an institution comes to a student with a major checklist or an undergraduate curriculum checklist, an increasingly common response is to see it as an arbitrary set of hoops to jump rather than a carefully considered set of courses. In other words, it looks like Yahoo circa 1996 (i.e. knowledge organized in pre-selected categories).

Instead, our students expect the academy to have the same customizability, flexibility, and functionality of the Web searches they do everyday.

Which leads me to Taylor’s second prescription:

Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed.

I’m inclined to agree with Michael Berube on this one — we should be careful not to conflate department with discipline. People can still operate within the structure of a department and pursue an interdisciplinary agenda (like a political scientist blog hosted by a Sociology association). I think completely untethering academics from disciplinary moorings is probably a bit too extreme and unnecessary in my view. There are some real benefits to being rooted in a “discipline.” You could accomplish Taylor’s goal by increasing the number of joint appointments or developing “programs” or “emphases” that get at the same objectives. Besides, if we abolished departments, what type of evaluation/peer review process would replace it?

Despite these reservations, I think the academy does require a serious rethink in no small part because the nature of idea dissemination has changed so radically. The larger question might be whether we should try to respond in kind or should we take William F. Buckley’s advice for budding conservatives and “stand athwart history yelling stop”!

I’d be curious to hear what others think.