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education's digital future

May 21: Public forum — new forms of college access

Academic leaders are rethinking the purposes, costs, and consequences of college residence and student co-presence in the digital era. This forum investigates possibilities for reconfiguring the time, space, and experience of college brought about by the digital revolution.

Laura Hamilton
Laura Hamilton
Stephen Kosslyn
Stephen Kosslyn
Ann Kirschner
Ann Kirschner
Brian Murphy
Brian Murphy
Date: 
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - 5:00pm to 7:30pm
Location: 
101 CERAS Learning Hall
What happened in class: 

After a brief introduction from Mitchell, Laura Hamilton took the stage to describe her research on what she calls the "modal 4-year residential college experience" at an anonymous large Midwestern public school. As a result of reduced federal and state funding over the past 3 decades, "Midwest U" has been forced to cater to students who are affluent enough to pay its bills, but not high-achieving enough to be scooped up by more prestigious universities. As a result, students, faculty, and staff have tacitly created and accepted a "party pathway" through college, in which students choose less-rigorous majors and professors lower standards to allow for socializing over studying. Hamilton and her colleague Elizabeth Armstrong discovered the party pathway by actually living in a dorm full of Midwest U girls for a year. The girls were roughly similar along most demographic metrics except for income level, allowing Hamilton and Armstrong to see how this variable influenced their academic success. They found that the party pathway worked like a highway - it was hard not to get on it, hard to get off, and much more clearly marked than the other roads. The party pathway worked for students who already had enough social capital to land nice jobs after graduating, but it hurt middle- and lower-class students who finished college with weak job prospects. Hamilton concluded by noting that despite the dangers of the party pathway, Midwest U students appreciated the presence of a physical campus as a way for them to leave their hometowns and mix with a different culture.

Ann Kirschner followed, describing herself as perhaps the biggest "techno-optimist" of the panel. She described her own relationship with educational institutions over the years, noting that she and her parents never paid a cent for her college education across three public schools. She argued that free cost led to freedom for students to choose academic paths that would enrich them beyond a more conservative job-training approach that they might otherwise take. As the dean of the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY, she serves 2,000 high-performing students with a zero-tuitionhands-on and blended-learning approach. Students at Macaulay participate in online, blended, and in-person courses, as well as study-abroad opportunities and internships with business and non-profit partners across New York City.

Brian Murphy, dean of De Anza College, introduced himself as being mindful of both the amazing variability of American colleges and college experiences, and of the dangers of the reductive economic language used to describe student learning outcomes and "access". De Anza is a large community college serving a highly diverse population, and it has a very high acceptance rate. Everybody at De Anza therefore has access, but access to what, and for what? The vast majority of De Anza students enter in need of remedial coursework. De Anza could "reach" more people with MOOC-like online services, increasing "access" and perhaps even improving basic metrics of student technical skill, but Murphy demanded that a higher bar be set for his students. He expects them to not only become effective economic contributors, but well-rounded and generous students who can transform Silicon Valley and wield real power to disrupt the systems that limit their potential. One of Murphy's major initiatives towards this goal has been to encourage the formation of "familias" - collaborative student groups that provide peer mentoring, tutoring, and other forms of support. Having now defined a goal (empowered students) and a possible means of reaching it (familias), Murphy closed by asking us: how might our new digital tools facilitate familia?

As the final panelist, Stephen Kosslyn offered a proposal for a new kind of elite university that would address the concerns of the other panelists. The Minerva Project, started by Ben Nelson and of which Kosslyn is the founding dean, seems paradoxical - it is an elite university that is also affordable; it is residential but students rotate in cohorts across multiple campuses across the globe, and it has online infrastructure supporting old-fashioned Socratic discussion around a virtual table. Kosslyn summarized the goals of Minerva with the acronym STAR - Students and Science, Technology, Alignment of incentives and curriculum, and Residence. Students: Minerva's goal is to produce a network of global innovators and global leaders, and they intend to accept students based on their talent over funding. They also intend to ground themselves in empirically-established best practices in teaching and learning from the start. Kosslyn referenced Eric Mazur's peer instruction approach as one example. The technology is built off of the empirically-established value of face-to-face remote seminars. Their "seminar on steroids" software allows for tools like attention-tracking, quizzes, and the creation of breakout groups along different criteria. In terms of alignment, students and faculty have simple economic incentives to succeed, and a first-year "sampler" course will help students to build valued thinking habits while sampling different majors. And finally, as mentioned, students will spend their first year in San Francisco, and then rotate to campuses in Berlin, Mumbai, and more.