Magazine article Liberal Education

President's Message

Magazine article Liberal Education

President's Message

Article excerpt


Technology has unleashed a learning revolution, and the animated dialogue at AAC&Us 2001 Annual Meeting made it clear that many campuses are tapping technology's potential to deepen and enrich what students can learn. The Annual Meeting enthusiasm was contagious as faculty and academic leaders examined wonderful new programs that are putting students online to probe big questions, analyze world class data, and learn how to learn from resources both near and far.

However, even as campuses embrace these new educational opportunities, market forces are already harnessing technology to accelerate one of the least defensible inventions of the twentieth century academy: the Cafeteria Curriculum.

In 1985, AAC&U leaders sent a strong warning to the academic community. "The cutriculum has.... [become] a supermarket where students are shoppers and professors are merchants of learning .... It is as if no one cared, so long as the store stays open." (Integrity in the College Curriculum, 2-3.)

In 2001 that dire assessment must be updated. Today, society is awash in plans to create world-wide cyber-catalogs unapologetically geared to consumer preferences and funded by entrepreneurs who want to trade transferable course credits for bankable profits. In some versions of this educational futures agenda, as Sheila Slaughter alerts us in these pages, faculty are receding altogether, their "intellectual property" purchased and packaged for "delivery" to envisioned throngs of "anywhere/anytime" recipients.

Simultaneously, course producers are putting enormous pressure both on accreditation and on state systems to make sure that cyber-catalog courses intended for mass distribution will indeed be bankable, i.e., convey credit acceptable for degrees at established colleges and universities.

Ironies abound here. Off in another sector of the educational community, leaders are investing billions of dollars to make our schools more purposeful, more accountable, and more productive of powerful learning. What's driving this High Standards agenda? There's a mountain of evidence that the great majority of students who go from schools to college have a long way to go before any observer would judge them either knowledgeable or proficient.

Juxtapose these two visions for change, the Cyber-Cafeteria Curriculum vs. the High Standards Curriculum, and you would have to assume that we were talking about two different student populations, one already operating at such a high level that they can be effectively self-directed; the other still in need of significant guidance and structure. But the truth, of course, is that the students most likely to sign up for cyber-cafeteria programs are also the students most in need of knowledgeable faculty guidance, structure, and feedback.

Yet, too many decision makers, on campus as well as off, acquiesce in the polite fiction that once we get course materials online, for delivery anywhere anytime, university-level learning will surely follow. It will not.

As it happens, the current debacle in start-ups may provide the blessing of a respite for some sober second thoughts. Clearly the driving force in cybermarket course production has been the exciting vision of profits for all. But now the market has called a time-out for remedial review of some basic lessons about the role of "comparative value" in sustaining consumer demand.

And in this season of "chastened reflection," academic leaders also need to spend some time helping our publics engage issues of comparative educational value. …

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