Required Reading for Turbulent Times

Dealing with the Future Now

Every few years those of us in public colleges are plunged into the same turmoil of budget uncertainty that invariably results in canceling travel and professional development, hiring freezes, and creative attempts to defer payments for every non-essential expense possible. The atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) hangs over every decision and even the most promising experiments in innovative teaching and learning are likely to be abandoned. In Virginia, most of us in are in the midst of the FUD part of the cycle right now with no long-term end in sight.

This is the part of the cycle where this Change article by ALan Guskin and Mary Marcy should be required reading for every leader in a college or university. The authors argue that these periodic retrenchments are not short-term problems–they are long-term and structural. The three sources of income for universities–tuition, state and federal government support and private philanthropy–are all limited, while those of us who work in higher education have unlimited aspirations and imaginations that eventually have to bump up against the sustainability of our funding models.

Guskin and Marcy call for leaders to recognize the fundamental changes in the higher education environment and to try to find more sustainable ways of dealing with the structural limitations of future funding. Transformation rather than “muddling through” is the goal.

“Muddling through” is a time-honored practice for dealing with recurring fiscal problems in higher education. So in the face of the present fiscal constraints, one can almost hear people voicing familiar sentiments: “We have always been successful in the past and we will surely come out of this okay…But in the present environment, responses that assume an eventual turnaround in fiscal conditions are difficult to justify. Projected future economic realities indicate a scenario very different from past projections.”

The key to transformation is focusing on developing a vision of the future that challenges our conventional way of doing things and focuses on two overarching purposes: enhancing student learning and maintaining a decent quality of faculty work life. Unlike many models of learner-centered education, Guskin and Marcy acknowledge the importance of reestablishing a quality of life for faculty that allows universities to remain true to their core values while responding to inevitable economic and cultural change.

Achieving the vision won’t be easy in that it requires changes to some deeply held assumptions about the nature of higher learning. But if the structural financial changes predicted by the article are accurate, the consequences of not changing may be even more painful than giving up some cherished assumptions.

Architectures for Collaboration

Architectures for Collaboration: Roles and Expectations for Digital Libraries

The new issue of the Educause Review contains an article that is right on point for our joint planning meeting between staff from IT and the Swem Library next week. Peter Brantley, executive director of the Digital Library Federation, acknowledges that libraries–and librarians–have been in the leadership of the digital revolution. In an 2003 Review article, Ed Ayers also highlights the role of libraries:

The real heroes of the digital revolution in higher education are librarians; they are the people who have seen the farthest, done the most, accepted the hardest challenges, and demonstrated most clearly the benefits of digital information. In the process, they have turned their own field upside down and have revolutionized their own professional training. It is a testimony to their success that we take their achievement for granted.

In his article, Brantley focuses on the areas where libraries haven’t addressed major problems–or at least where they have failed to address them quickly or well enough. Librarians, he asserts, need to do more to understand and support student learning, to engage in key campus and national debates, and to collaborate more broadly with IT organizations and other providers of digital information. Some of these failures are substantial, such as the failure to develop clear strategies around large-scale digitalization efforts like the Google Book Search.

The bulk of the article is organized around a series of mantras, most of which are valuable primarily as discussion starters for institutions trying to make sense of the impact of new technologies on teaching and learning in their own contexts:

  • Libraries Must Know Where They Are.
  • Libraries Must Be Tools of Change.
  • Libraries Must Be Designed to Get Better through Use.
  • Libraries Must Be Available Everywhere.
  • Libraries Must Study the Art of War.

Information Technology, Information Discovery

One of the most important components in this “architecture of collaboration” is effective sharing of expertise, experience and ideas between the library and the Campus IT organization. As he notes, these collaborations have not always been successful, often focusing on very specific problems like providing storage for data repositories or “haggling over who manages software implementations.” What’s more important than the solution of individual problems is the development of a shared, communal technology paradigm that bridges the differences between organizational cultures.

Frustrations in building collaborations between IT groups and libraries often come about because there has been a dearth of collaboration in the past and because the communities historically come from very different cultures. The two groups are trained with different sets of expectations. Stereotypically, librarians focus more on the long haul, more on thoroughness, more on well-described and studied approaches to data and systems development. IT organizations, again stereotypically, focus more on trying to get something delivered as quickly as possible while achieving reasonable success in order to move on to the next task. I think we’re seeing a meld of those values—as we should.

While the cultural problems are substantial, there are other issues that keep institutions from achieving the vision that Brantley lays out. In the current fiscal environment, neither organization has much access to new money for innovation. Pressures for critical institutional requirements for expanded security measures, requirements for business continuity, disaster recovery, bandwidth upgrades and a seemly insatiable need for storage leave IT organizations with very little discretionary money for collaborative initiatives. The amount of operational work and the number of current projects required of both IT and library staff required someone to stop delivering some service or doing something that they currently doing now. That’s no easy task without strong leadership and vision on an institutional level.

One of the key points of the article is that libraries face big-picture problems, but they are not library problems alone. They cut across libraries, publishers, IT communities, search engine providers, content providers of all types, but someone has to take the lead in getting them solved. Framed the following way, it seems as though that “someone” pretty much has to be a library/IT consortium would be required to address the following kinds of institutional needs.

  • Massively distributed information; rich data that is often not very well described
  • The necessity for building new indexing architectures both at the engineering and the discovery levels
  • The necessity for mining and mapping data to build linkages that are interactive and that encourage further building
  • The challenge of providing ubiquitous access to information from a wide variety of places
  • Shifting access points and variable persistence, since content shifts in location and is described with shifting names

Like so many of these Educause think-pieces, this article is much better at raising questions than it is at offering solutions. It certainly does reinforce our believe that time spent building communications and shared community within the IT/library worlds is worth taking on.

The success of libraries is not to be counted by the number of books, either digital or paper, held by libraries or the number of pretty pictures that libraries can put online. Libraries are successful to the extent that they can bridge communities and can leverage the diversity of the quest, the research, and the discovery. Libraries are successful when they offer new services and when they help others discover services provided by others. By building bridges among these various sectors, libraries will be able to define themselves in the next generation. They will become the architects of collaboration.

Very timely.

Overcoming Bias: My Favorite Liar

Overcoming Bias: My Favorite Liar

One of the blog that I’ve really come to enjoy is Overcoming Bias housed at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford. It’s a great source of information on cognitive bias and on the predictable ways our brains fool us into making bad decisions.

This post focuses on a little technique that can be used to help develop students develop the habit of questioning authority–even authority of the teacher. An economics professor announced the first day of class that he would incorporate one lie into each of his lectures.

Between today until the class right before finals, it is my intention to work into each of my lectures … one lie. Your job, as students, among other things, is to try and catch me in the Lie of the Day.”

The lie of the day began with an obvious untruth and became more subtle as the quarter moved on. When no one caught the lie by the end of the class the instructor would send them off with a challenge: Ah ha! Each of you has one falsehood in your lecture notes. Discuss amongst yourselves what it might be, and I will tell you next Monday. That is all.”

This makes for a great story, but I wonder how it would fly in today’s classroom. Our students seem so serious; trying a trick like this could really hurt the old evals.

Gaining Conceptual Clarity

C.R.A.P.:The Four Principles of Sound Design

A post in DailyBlogTips retells the story from Robin Williams (the author The Mac is Not a Typewriter –not the manic comedian) about the importance of finding language to describe things that are important to us. It’s a great parable about the importance of learning to see the important details in the rich content of our educational environments.

Daily Blog

Once upon a time, Robin received a tree identifying book where you could match a tree up with its name by looking at its picture. Robin decided to go out and identify the trees in the neighborhood. Before she went out, she read through part of the book.The first tree in the book was the Joshua tree because it only took two clues to identify it.

Now the Joshua tree is a really weird-looking tree and she looked at that picture and said to herself “Oh, we don’t have that kind of tree in Northern California. That is a weird-looking tree. I would know if I saw that tree, and I’ve never seen one before.

So she took the book and went outside. Her parents lived in a cul-de-sac of six homes. Four of those homes had Joshua trees in the front yard. She had lived in that house for thirteen years, and she had never seen a Joshua tree.

She took a walk around the block – at least 80 percent of the homes had Joshua trees in the front yards. And she had sworn she had never seen one before!

The moral of the story? Once Robin was conscious of the tree, once she could name it, she saw could see it everywhere. Which is exactly my point. Once you can name something, you’re conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You’re in control.

Developing a shared understanding within a community requires an enormous amount of work to find ways to name and describe the technologies that might really transform student learning. Defining even simple trees are difficult enough–but think about the activities we want to identify in our own environment. How to we get students and faculty alike to recognize the power of complex interactions like authentic learning, digital imagination or transformative learning? This little story was a good reminder for me that the continuing conversation is important, even it’s hard sometimes to point to specific results.