ON THE IMPENDING DEMISE OF THE UNIVERSITY" By Don Tapscott

James O'Donnell, Marc D. Hauser


MARC D. HAUSER
Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Moral Minds


I found Don Tapscott's piece on education a distortion, at least of what I experienced as a student, and the kinds of experiences I have with students here from the other side, as professor. I certainly don't think of my students as blank vessels, and I don't imagine colleagues of mine having similar conceptions. Rather, I think all good teachers think that their students have heavily loaded vessels, with strong conceptions of how the world works, but often, these views are either wrong or narrow minded.

The art of good teaching is to allow the student to discover alternatives, to see the elegance of a good argument, and to understand how to engage in a conceptual revolution, overturning some of their cherished beliefs. This can happen in large class rooms or in seminars. None of this denies the importance of the digital age, nor does it ignore the fact that students today rely on digital media for learning. But such knowledge will not replace, but rather, compliment what goes on in the university. In fact, many professors are finding new ways to challenge their students in class, even large classes, by taking advantage of new technologies.

For example, in a large core science class that I have taught for many years on human nature, we have used digital clickers to engage students in class with questions as well as demonstrations of data collection. For example, I will often present an experiment in class, have students enter a response, and then immediately , pop up a graph of the class data.

This is fantastic as it not only engages every student in a large class, but shows them how they contribute to data collection and why it is important. It is also possible to use this technology in a different pedagogical mode. I ask the students a question, and they answer. If less than 75% of the class gets it wrong, I ask them to turn to their neighbor and discuss the problem. Virtually without fail, when they give their answer a second time, the scores go way up. Thus, I engage with the students, they engage each other, and a pedagogical circle has been formed. It is magic.

Tapscott's article thus underestimates the ingenuity of good teaching, that from my perspective, continues to thrive in many universities, and is not based on the premise of a blank slate student, waiting for professorial scribbling. Although I realize that many universities are turning to online classes, with virtually no personal engagement with the students, I find this trend sad. There is nothing more riveting than the dynamics of a class, when it is buzzing with discussion, to and from student to professor.


JAMES O'DONNELL
Classicist; Cultural Historian; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, The Ruin of the Roman Empire

"Back in 1997 I presented my views to a group of about 100 University presidents at a dinner hosted by Ameritech in Chicago." (Don Tapscott)

I'm not sure I've heard of many dinners hosted by Ameritech lately. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I suspect that the hundred universities represented that day are still in business, virtually every one of them bigger and stronger than they were in 1997. When Tapscott spoke, Peter Drucker had already spelled the doom of universities, and most recently Mark Taylor did so in the pages of the New York Times. We're still here.

I grant you there are days when the busy provost thinks that a little doom would have its points. I've got books to read and books to write and a little quiet time in the rubble might not be all that bad. But we're still here.

What strikes me most about Tapscott's essay is how far out of touch it is with current realities. Oh, I give you the NetGen kids pounding their phones to tweet each other and the hyper-multitasking and the creativity that arises in such settings. (I'm tweeting a little myself now, quite content that no one is following at http://www.twitter.com/Eugippius — all my tweets are quotations from Greek or Latin authors that I'm thinking about. Content of a new medium is always an old medium, and that can be quite powerful, bidirectionally.) I freely grant that there are dismal moments to be survived along the educational path. And I know with piercing clarity just how challenging a business model we've chosen for ourselves.

But there are three big things about contemporary higher education that I find our wellwishers fail to notice:

1. Extraordinary work done in the most extended and democratized system of higher education in history to reach students of every age and stage with education of remarkably high quality. About 20% of the students in American universities are 18-22 years old, doing a traditional BA. The rest range from part-timers in community colleges to retirees finishing what they started long ago with masters and doctorates in liberal studies, with every variety of professional and technical and vocational education in between. For a system that's dying and doomed, we do more and we do it better than anybody else has ever done it in all of human history.

2. Innovation pressed to the margins in leading and not-so-leading universities in reinventing pedagogy and learning for a new generation. My best meeting today was about taking our teaching in statistics to the next level for more students than ever before across the whole undergraduate population. The idea that we teach an increasing proportion of our students to be responsibly thoughtful about quantity and probability is incredibly powerful, in the face of social innumeracy and social acceptance of innumeracy. That's just today's example. Derek Bok's Our Underachieving Colleges is a splendid survey of innovation and possibility, with a long way to go, and a lot in motion.

3. End of the day, these communities we create are places of miracles at the micro level. I spent three and a half hours yesterday and today in conversations with a junior former colleague and two former students, doing what I suppose we should call mentorship, but I just call the ordinary everyday work of a university: talking about their work, their hopes, their ambitions, and working up close and personal on the kind of craft work we do in universities. The ones who can and will seize opportunity — and it's in my experience as much in their character as it is in the opportunity whether they will seize it — those students get the chance to craft their future opportunities and ambitions in tandem with mature scholars and teachers whose learning, imagination, and experience make them the right talking partners for people at the life stages where the intersection of intellectual discipline and thoughtful personal attention can be revolutionary.

Break that, demise that, huff and puff about collapse and the like: fine with me. My bets are on the faculty and the students of the modern university, still the most powerful engine for social and intellectual advancement I know.

"Universities should be places to learn, not to teach." (Tapscott)

Always have been. Still are. Hanging in there.

Jim O'Donnell
Provost, Georgetown University



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