The Road Ahead: Learning is Central

Central College Pond MMW blog 6

NOTE: This is the final installment in a six-part series of essays reflecting on the future of liberal arts colleges. Some speculate all liberal arts institutions are destined for failure. I disagree. We explored the current dynamics and set the context for the future of Central College.

In this series of essays, I have attempted to describe the contours of change impacting the landscape of higher education in general and for liberal arts colleges in particular. My task in this final essay is to focus on Central College as an example of a liberal arts college defining a future rooted in an impressive tradition and yet growing toward possibilities that embrace thoughtful and meaningful change. And, while this essay speaks in broader terms, you are invited to find specifics of the Central College implementation plan, The Work We Have to Do, on the Civitas website.

I begin with the premise that regardless of the technological innovations, economic realities and demographic shifts affecting liberal arts colleges, this educational endeavor will remain fundamentally rooted in human relationships. The modalities of learning will indeed change just as they have for centuries in response to an ever-evolving set of societal expectations. However, the idea that learning can or will be primarily achieved by the interface of a student with a technological device is misguided. The ability to efficiently and effectively retrieve the content for learning is critically important, but we lose our way when we think delivering content is the same as facilitating learning. That’s why I think MOOCs (massive open online courses) are a greater challenge for publishers than they are for educators.

For me, the relationship between teacher and student, master and apprentice, and parent and child, is the base element of learning. To be sure, the nature of those relationships changes through the course of lifespan development. Gradually, we become more independent in our learning as our knowledge, skill and experience expand. The learning approaches we use for adult and professional populations are quite different than techniques utilized for children and adolescents. For this reason, adult and professional learners can benefit most by online learning opportunities. The key is the context for learning matters, as do the developmental needs of the learner. This is what it means to be “learner-centered.” I’m a fan of technology in teaching and learning, but we must never confuse the tools of learning with the relationships of learning.

Liberal arts colleges emphasize the interaction of the teacher and learner, and attempt to do everything possible to deepen that connection through curricular design, co-curricular activities and experiential education. Our focus is on what students and faculty do together. Here’s the problem: it’s expensive to do this. It would be much more cost effective to put everything online in homogenized, static formats with standardized course materials. So push is coming to shove as scarce resources and competing priorities are driving us to rethink how we are facilitating learning. So what has to change? Here are my top ideas for reshaping liberal arts colleges for the road ahead:

First, we should increase our emphasis on the intersections among our academic disciplines and professional fields of study. The expansion of the body of knowledge has created increasing specialization for members of our faculties and a fragmentation of the curriculum. Too often, we think more is better, when perhaps less is more. There is increasing pressure on our liberal arts colleges to expand the scope of the curriculum, rather than revising the content of the curriculum. Staying current is essential, but chasing the growth is unsustainable. The unique opportunity we have, however, is that our faculty members have already self-selected into an educational setting that values the breadth of one’s knowledge and the connections among disciplines. Accordingly, it is not only possible, but desirable for our professors to teach across disciplines, where appropriate, at the undergraduate level. At Central College, the Intersections program for first-year students and the Liberal Arts Seminar for seniors are powerful examples of valuing the whole of the curriculum and expanding the reach of our faculty as they explore interdisciplinary topics, team teach and reinforce the coherence of the curriculum by demonstrating the integration of knowledge. The model is a good one.

Second, as liberal arts colleges we need to unleash our creativity and stop trying to copy our way to success. The genius of the American system of education is that one size does not fit all. There is much we can learn from each other and our efforts at benchmarking various activities and characteristics are indeed useful. However, there are limits to what we can gain through similarity and sameness. The shadow side of rankings, standards for accreditation and state/federal regulations is we are too often forced into the same exact mold. While the excellence of our institutions should be ensured, such limited expectations serve to inhibit creativity and reinforce the status quo.

Technology has a lot to offer us in this arena. As we find ways to make use of the innovations available in our teaching and learning activities, we must avoid the sameness that would gradually degrade us all. We should be inspired by the innovations among our institutions, not bound by the limits of conventional wisdom. This should lead us to partnerships among institutions to take advantage of shared expertise, shared services, economies of scale and collective innovation on uniquely designed programs and services.

Third, it is essential that we bend the cost curve, moderate pricing, diversify revenue streams and limit the extent of student debt. This will not be an easy task, but the realities of our economics are emerging in ways that have been long predicted, but assiduously avoided. Affordability will be the greatest demand of the next decade and to meet the challenge, we will need to think and act in new ways. In addition to the partnerships among institutions referenced above, we will need to reverse the ratchet on the cost of educating students. Some assert the cost increases in higher education are a function of the availability of financial aid funded by state and federal governments. The reality is our pricing is driven much more by competition and cost than the funding of outside aid. The rate of increase in both federal and state aid is dwarfed by the rate of increase in institutionally funded aid. While the funded aid programs have fallen behind the real cost of producing an educated student for society, more funded aid will play only a limited role at best. As our costs are driven at a rate much higher than the Consumer Price Index (CPI), we will need to make tough choices about the scope of our enterprise in a competitive landscape.

These three steps, (1) a more interdisciplinary focus, (2) the unleashing of creativity in the design of programs and services, and (3) an honest look at the realities of affordability can combine to reshape the landscape for liberal arts colleges. If education is fundamentally relational, not transactional, and requires the human element to be successful over the long-term, then the ways we do things will necessarily change. That change, however, need not redefine education to be less effective in order to be more efficient. We dare not abdicate our role in preserving an educational model that seeks to deepen understanding, open minds to nuance, explore rich context and find new synergies. American society desperately needs the leavening of a thoughtful educational experience for coming generations. It is our task to preserve it.

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7 responses to “The Road Ahead: Learning is Central”

  1. Kevin Cool says:

    Interesting commentary, thank you. There is no question online education will challenge traditional liberal arts schools, and perhaps even the notion of campus-based learning environments. The vulnerability is not only that online education is less expensive to deliver; it is also lack of differentiation and brand strength among these schools. Cost certainly is a factor, but cost has always been a factor. What has changed is that the cost-to-value relationship is eroding. It seems to me Central is positioned pretty well to respond because it has a strong point of differentiation–international study. That experience cannot be replicated by technology; there is no proxy for it. The extent to which that core strength can be leveraged further, perhaps even expanded upon, might be central (so to speak) to a strategy going forward.

  2. Ronald Fadness ('87) says:

    I am encouraged to know that Central has a president who is thinking strategically about the future of the college. As a parent with children approaching college age, it is important to me that the liberal arts experience that Central provides remains an option for the next generation. Innovation can be beneficial, but Central must build on its traditional strength – a residential liberal arts experience which benefits the student far beyond the instruction received. Affordability is vital, but it would be unwise for the college to abandon its core identity in a race to the bottmm. Some institutions may find financial success pursuing distance education and off-campus centers, but I hope Central never will.

  3. Ed Ver Hoef '54 says:

    I graduated from Central in 1954 with a double major in math and physics and followed this in 1960 with an MS in mathematics from De Paul. My working career was in custom software development. I have been retired for several years now but I believe I have some meaningful observations to make regarding the interface between a college education and a working career.

    One of the things I believe is the most important benefit of a college education is the ability to think independently and analyze matters and (perhaps even more important), to express oneself fully and intelligibly both orally and in writing in a manner that is clearly understood and persuasive to your audience. I feel my experiences at Central fulfilled those requirements quite well. I suspect that the same could be said regarding many other under-graduate liberal arts colleges but this is in STARK contrast to many technical-oriented universities. Over the years I interviewed many graduates of highly-esteemed technical institutions and I found that, though they were excellent technicians, they often had pitiably poor communication skills, both written and oral. In this regard I feel their schools had done them a significant disservice. Unless they had the opportunity to acquire these skills on the job, there was a clear limitation to their career growth.

    On the other hand, my experiences at Central were much broader, both in written and oral communication, and were vital to my career. I was able to further enhance my communicative skills on the job partly because I had acquired a larger vocabulary and employed it in my reports and was able to tailor them to the intended audience, making them more readily understood.

  4. Jennifer Giezendanner says:

    “The ability to efficiently and effectively retrieve the content for learning is critically important, but we lose our way when we think delivering content is the same as facilitating learning.”
    Yes, learning is relational. It fits a person to relate to her society and the world in humane, thoughtful,and constructive ways. I appreciate now more than ever the way that this perspective formed me as a student at Central. Valuing the unique ways each person reflects God’s image is a gift that we want to share widely, from our own families to the families of people on the other side of our globe. It is learned in dialog with mentors and classmates as young adults take their places in the world.

  5. Rod Klein says:

    Being both a product (’85) and a provider of a liberal arts education I found each of the six-part series interesting and relative to what I do as a psychology professor at a small, public, liberal arts institution. The growth of technology-based education at my academic institution has been both exciting and concerning. Located in a poor, rural region within Appalachia, distance learning has provided affordable access to an education that might not otherwise be available. However, I have not been convinced that the education they are receiving is necessarily in their best interest. Given the isolation and limited opportunities of the region, what most of these students need the most is the opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse with other students with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and views and with educated faculty; both of which are typically limited in the on-line format. In addition to the academic enrichment provided by a residential learning environment is the social enrichment. Finally, my first-hand experiences studying in Yucatan cannot be duplicated in any technology-based classroom. Because of the experience I had in Merida, I have been a strong advocate for study-abroad programs at my institution and have fortunately had the opportunity to become involved in our summer program where our students have the opportunity to spend three weeks in the United Kingdom (London, Edinburgh, and Bath) and Paris. This opportunity has been able to dramatically change the lives of many of our students forever.

  6. Don Huffman says:

    My experience of over 40 years of teaching at Central, and about 25 years of teaching in international studies programs has convinced me that relational liberal arts education is likely unique in its capacity to bring undergrads to a point from which they can initiate their own life-long education in a meaningful way.
    International study programs offer new insights into cultures that are often quite different from our own, and often result in experiences that are not easily learned in a culturally limited educational system. Rod Klein is obviously among those students whose international studies experiences have shaped a life well beyond that available in most of our strictly U.S. based educational opportunities.
    Often the question is, which international program can offer the same mind-opening experience for a given student? This is not a simple question, and the answer is probably different for each student involved. It is even more complex if one considers what the future areas of challenge will be for international studies students. Does a language/culture component in other than Western languages and culture provide a different sort of experience? Probably so, but this only multiplies the challenges to both the student and to Central College as an institution seeking intensive intercultural understanding. One size or one type does not fit all, and the challenge for the future is to determine which program(s) might hold the greatest value for Central and its students. Learning is infinite, and that is a challenge for all of us as time passes.