Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Future of Education Task Force

As you may have read in the Muncie Star Press, I am on the Future of Education task force here at Ball State University. Contrary to the headline, competition from online institutions is not the primary motivation for the task force. Rather, our mission—as articulated by the task force co-chair— is:
Students coming to Ball State now and in the future are more technologically inclined, how do we tap into their expectations and mindsets to create a more relevant and better learning community?
I suggested that this be edited into a more relevant form, to wit:

How do we create a learning community?
Be that as it may, we had a major meeting yesterday, running from 9am until 3pm. The meeting was expertly facilitated by task force member and Entrepreneurship Center director Michael Goldsby. I would like to share here some of the highlights from this meeting.

We began with a SWOT analysis. Michael referred to all of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats explicitly as "facts," and he used continuous numbering over the facts. This strikes me as significant, since I would have naively numbered strengths differently from the weaknesses, but using continuous numbering—and even continuous pagination—emphasized the fact that the ideas are more important than their categories. Several times, a task force member would say a single word or phrase that is known on campus, such as "The Working Well Program." Michael challenged with the simple question, "Why?" That is, he raised the level of discourse by forcing us out of academically-comfortable buzzwords towards meaningful facts. (For example, "The Working Well Program promotes physical and mental health among faculty and staff," a strength of the institution.)

A critical part of effective SWOT, as with brainstorming in general, is supporting divergent thinking by postponing criticism. This can be challenging for any group, and we were no exception. At several points, we devolved into discussion over points rather than supporting the creative brainstorming process. The facilitator was not always able to pull us back out. I have to admit, there was one point where I challenged a fellow task force member on a cited weakness, and it was completely unproductive to the process. I guess it's OK, though, since I did it because of my circumstances and everyone else did it because of who they are.

One of the task force members is Michael O'Hara, whose opinions on higher education I greatly respect even though we don't completely agree. He has a propensity for expressing complex ideas using just the right words, perhaps an artifact of his being both an academic and an actor. During the SWOT analysis, he championed the perspective of higher education as a humanistic endeavor rather than a utilitarian one. This point—the conflict of utilitarianism and humanism in higher education—is a critical aspect of the current debates, and I hope to return to it in later writings.

Another theme of the SWOT was the "placeness" of Ball State University. It is important for us to leverage our brick-and-mortar nature, given that much of our competition is from purely digital institutions. Martha Hunt pointed out that sustainability plays well into this discussion, that having a physical place allows for serious and grounded academic discourse on respect for physical space. As a Computer Scientist, I tend to abstract space and work with intangibles, and so it was good to have a Landscape Architect to bring us down to a discussion of what space really means.

The most challenging and intellectual elements were contributed by Matthew Wilson, whose scholarship as a humanities-minded geographer is directly tied to both virtual and physical space. In my opinion, the most meaningful challenge of the whole SWOT analysis was Matt's call for post-disciplinary thinking. Like the utilitarian vs. humanistic dichotomy, the call for post-disciplinarity cuts to the heart of much of higher education's problems. When a fellow task force member asked for my thoughts on post-disciplinarity, I pointed out that we are in disciplines, but problems, by and large, are not.

After the divergent SWOT analysis, which generated 200 facts in about three hours, we moved to a convergent mode in which each task force member had to select at most five of the greatest importance. The highest vote-getters moved to the next round, which consisted of an articulation of challenge statements of the form,  "How might Ball State University...?" Similar to the divergent-then-convergent SWOT, we started with some 25 challenge statements, each selected three, and the highest vote-getters moved forward. The final step involved the creation of a "map" of challenge statements, connected to their antecendents. As one who is well-versed in graph theory, visual rhetoric, and graph drawing, I saw this last step as particularly subject to manipulation and misintepretation, since we assumed a planarity in the articulation of a wicked problem.

I have many notes on the SWOT analysis in my blue notebook, which could be attributed to the fact that it was in the morning and was done with free coffee on hand. Upon reflection, though, I did find the SWOT the most interesting step, and the rest logically followed. I am not completely convinced that I would not have come up with the same output without investing a full collaborative day into it, but that's not really the point: the point is that now the task force has a shared experience that forms a collectively-owned starting point for the prototyping process.

Speaking of which, prototyping is next. Task force members are being put into teams to iterate through prototypes on the Future of Education. I am eager to see who the task force chairs assemble into groups, though in any case, I plan on using some of my software development tools to assist, definitely user stories and possible risk matrices. Assuming time allows, I will share my prototypes here, for my continued exercise in reflective practice and to invite commentary from the community.

No comments:

Post a Comment