Higher Ed

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I attended the Middlebury College-Monterey Institute of International Affairs sponsored ConnectEd conference last week, in Monterey, California. It is fair to say that the conference exceeded both institutions’ expectations for a number of reasons: it generated meaningful discussion about international education as a result of globalization and its consequences; it provided a great forum in which representatives from multiple sectors—higher education, business, government, and non-government organizations—could exchange a wide range of ideas and perspectives in different venues (round tables, paper sessions, keynote addresses with Q&A sessions, and informal meetings); and it underscored the importance of collaboration across institutional and national lines if we are to educate successfully students to meet the challenges of this most complex century.

The four keynote speakers, Scott McNealy, Jorge Castaneda Gutman, Robert Kaplan, and David Rothkopf provided different perspectives on the role of education in and for the 21st century. In this post, I will focus on the first keynoter, Scott McNealy. McNealy, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems and now chair of its board, offered perhaps the most provocative vision for education. One conference attendee, a current Middlebury parent and educational consultant, who sought me out to comment on the conference, said, “What McNealy described is definitely going to happen, but it is not what a Middlebury education is all about!” No and yes. More on that later.

McNealy criticized the static nature of education today, and called for an “open source” approach to teaching and learning. Using a new open source based project he is developing (known as Curriki: see http://www.curriki.org/), McNealy challenged the belief that learning had to be a process dictated by a certain number of hours in a seat, taught at the same rate for all learners, at the same time, with materials that were limited by publishers’ long time horizon, and was hardly ever fun. He argued that education would be done more effectively if it were offered as part of a larger learning community that was able to create and edit content, if it allowed students to learn at their own pace with materials that faced constant scrutiny and improvement, and if it was delivered via the internet with opportunities for mentoring from experts/teachers on demand.

McNealy created his vision, he said, from observing how his own young children were taught, and from growing tired of doing “those predictable science projects.” He found that it was nearly impossible to find good online sources to explain things as rudimentary as electricity, and needed to use a welding Web site to help explain how electricity worked to his son. He juxtaposed the dearth of good educational materials online with the 5 percent weekly growth rate in accounts on Facebook.com, the social networking site, and asked why this was so—why were there so many opportunities to use the internet for social networking, but not for education.

Back to the Middlebury parent. How right she is in saying what McNealy advocated is not what Middlebury is about, when what we think of as a Middlebury education is the strong personal, student-faculty, student-student, and student-staff learning opportunities that abound on our campus. Yet, the on-line learning communities that McNealy advocates, and the open source nature of their teaching materials, can also enhance aspects of a Middlebury education if we think a bit more broadly. For language students, having standard course materials accessible that are “localized” or customized for a particular region or country under study would be extremely valuable. Having them available on demand to use to enhance one’s learning, say, after one’s 12-week semester ends or during the summer, or whenever a student needed it, would be very useful. Having that same material updated frequently, and improved, would also enhance what we do best: face-to-face engagement on our campus.

Or think about our 1,300-plus Language Schools students, and how having dynamic learning materials would enable them to continue their learning well after they leave our campus following their intensive, immersion program each summer. Language acquisition is easily and quickly lost (“use it or lose it”) and so having a rich online program that enables one to continue learning and be in contact with mentors in the target language would enhance our Language Schools’ mission and open up new possibilities for our students. Similarly, a Curriki-like site could serve our students who study abroad: by combining customized learning materials with perhaps weekly or bi-weekly online meetings with faculty back on the Middlebury campus, students would, at least in some disciplines, be able to expand their opportunities while they study abroad, especially in disciplines in which it has historically been difficult for students to take courses that count toward their major while away. The language pledge aside, part of these students’ study abroad curriculum could include one course “back at Middlebury” through this kind of technology.

Of course the so-called devil is in the details, and many at the conference had practical criticisms of McNealy’s “open source” approach to online education. The publishing world would be the first in line to criticize this approach to teaching and learning, but many others would be likely to join the naysayer parade. I believe we need to think of the benefits that such an approach to using the internet and open source technology can bring to our current students as well as to our future students. The boundaries for learning need to expand beyond our classrooms, the materials our students are asked to use need to be dynamic, and the learning process in general needs to be more engaging and fun. On these issues, Scott McNealy is right on.

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