The Cosmos and the Campus

Myk Garn, Asst. Vice Chancellor for New Learning Models, Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia

Myk Garn, Asst. Vice Chancellor for New Learning Models, Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia

Speaking truth to power is always risky. On a chilly February day in 1600 a Dominican friar was lashed to a pole and set ablaze in a Roman square. Giordano Burno, a challenger of Aristotelian heliocentricity (that the Sun and planets all revolve around theEarth)  - was burned at the stake for heresy.

New data, that contradicts what we know to be true, is not easy to accept.

The Polish priest Nicholas Copernicus knew this when he discovered Aristotle's error in 1515. Which is why he didn’t publish his findings until just before he died in 1543. But sixty-seven years later, Bruno, a free-range learner who travelled and learned widely across Europe, was not so worried. His bad.

Nevertheless, the evidence was mounting. Using a simple telescope, Galileo offered more scientific proof in 1616. And between 1618 and 1621 Johannes Kepler published his laws of orbital motion. Regardless, Galileo was tried for heresy in 1633. It wasn’t until 1687, with the Age of Enlightenment dawning, that Newton, using a more powerful refracting telescope, published irrefutable evidence that the Earth was just another planet orbiting the Sun. And only seventy-one short years later, in 1758, the powers of the Catholic church would decide that saying the Earth revolves around the Sun was not heretical.

Indeed, change is hard. Especially when technology eats culture for breakfast.

In the case of heliocentricity the new technologies included developments in mathematics, physics, and astronomy that challenged the prevailing view of the cosmos - and the centrality of man within it - that society had held for millennia. A paradigmatic shift of almost two hundred and fifty years in the making.

Today, we are in the midst of a similar shift in academia - from a mindset of campus-centricity to one of learner-centricity. And it is moving at about the same speed.

Again, almost a millennium of culture informs what we know to be true. That faculty, and the university within which they reside, is the center of learning. This fundamental precept was established when the first learned teachers coalesced at the University of Bologna in 1088.

 And we hold this truth to be self-evident today. That place is important. That proximity to eminence is essential to learning. That individuals, born as a tabula rasa (a blank slate), must be taught through learned instruction. Or, as was stated more colloquially by the character of the iconic professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. in the movie The Paper Chase, “I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.”

With the phrase “you come in here…’ he means the classroom. The physical classroom.

This is the central misconception of campus-centricity - that the classroom is a place of learning.Which, of course, it can be. But it is really a camera raza (empty room) where teaching can be most efficiently distributed. Thus, while the campus classroom has been very important to teaching, for hundreds of years - it is becoming less critical to learning.

Like heliocentricity - the falsity of campus-centricity (that the physical classroom is the only place students can be taught) has been known for nearly two hundred years.

Early challengers to the eminent classroom included Caleb Phillips who placed an advertisement in the Boston Gazette seeking students to learn shorthand through weekly mailed lessons in 1728. The first correspondence school in the United States (the Boston Society to Encourage Studies at Home) opened in 1873. Funded by distance learning pioneer Anna Eliot Ticknor, the school offered higher education (exclusively) to women.

However, like heliocentricity, the hegemony of campus-centricity has proved hard to break and many a disruptor has been branded a heretic. In 1852 John Henry Cardinal Newman, in his discourses on ‘The Idea of a University,’ argued strongly against such ‘virtual’ endeavours declaring, “a university [is] a place of instruction where universal knowledge is professed” and disparaged any “so-called University which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination…”

Consequently, it has again taken a revolution in technology (the computer, learning management software (LMS), and the Internet) and a global pandemic (Covid) for major cracks in a nearly one-thousand year-old paradigm to widen.

“As the pipeline of rising high schoolers diminishes, the market of adult learners needing to upskill, reskill, and redefine their careers is growing rapidly as the digital transformation of everything drives business harder everyday”

With the advent of learning management software in the late 1990s online learning grew rapidly and soon became the dominate form of distance learning. And that growth was significant. Rising from about 1.6 million students taking at least one online course in Fall 2002 (about 11 percent of U.S. higher education students) by Fall 2016, there were over 6.3 million students taking at least one distance education course, comprising 31.6percent of all higher education enrollments. (Seaman, Allen).

While dramatic in the long-term, this growth was largely incremental and could have been expected to peak in the next few years as the number of colleges interested in offering, and students interested in taking, online courses maxxed out.

And then cameCovid.

In less than a year the number of higher education students learning online went from 31.6 percent taking a course to roughly two-thirds of the all higher education students educated either wholly (44.7 percent) or partially (28 percent) virtually in fall 2020.

While these numbers are reducing as Covid subsides, like the experience of working from home is having on America’s workforce, more students (and faculty) have experienced the advantages of learning online - and aren’t so sure they want to lose the convenience. Like the Great Resignation, this great move to online changed students' view of ‘where’ they need to be to be taught. And faculty discovered they no longer needed to be on campus to teach.

Even with these tsunamic change drivers, it is possible that the campus would remain unshaken. Except move disruption is rapidly approaching.

The cliff approaches.

Like an almost perfect storm, the Covid Bump, which exposed campus-centric students and professors to the possibilities of virtual learning, will be followed with a rapid enrollment fall-off in higher education over the next two years. Resulting from the precipitous drop in births following the 2008 recession, those non-births are now becoming non-students. The demographic data shows declining or stagnant student enrollment rates with a fall of more than fifteen percent nationally after the year 2025.

These enrollment drops will be difficult from some institutes, and catastrophic for others. Budgets will remain flat or fall for most, while salaries and expenses will rise. The glory (and cost) of impressive campus facilities will become an architectural albatross around the neck of many colleges. The fiscal retrenchment will not be pleasant.

Conversely, to the entrepreneurially inclined, the opportunity is immense. As the pipeline of rising high schoolers diminishes, the market of adult learners needing to upskill, reskill, and redefine their careers is growing rapidly as the digital transformation of everything drives business harder every day.  However, to position themselves for adult learners, universities will need to transform their view of the campus cosmos.

This conceptual change, from students physically orbiting the professors like planets, to one where faculty revolve virtually around learners will be both difficult - and essential. If you are saying to yourself ‘we’ve been student-centric’ for years…you have missed the point. Providing student-centric services e.g. library, clubs, athletic facilities - that students have to come to campus to access is still campus-centric.

Don’t get me wrong. Adult learners would love to return to the halcyon days of the campus (as would most faculty). But those days are over (if they ever really existed). Few working adults, with families and responsibilities, can take either the time nor loss of income to return to college for degrees.  They need new skills now. And they need them delivered when they need them - where they are. If their needs can’t be met by legacy, land-locked, institutions - they will go to providers who can deliver them at any time, and in any place (even if they do not have a football team).

Historian Jared Diamond, in his seminal work “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” wrote, “The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs.”To succeed (or even survive) requires we make this transformational view of the academic enterprise. While centuries of campus-centricity, with students gathered around a faculty, have served us well, we have only to look at the smart phone in our hand to know that the cosmos has changed. Those campuses that can reframe themselves as services surrounding a student are far more likely to remain relevant (and viable).

Or, to paraphrase the prescient but ill-fated Girodano Bruno “Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the university, and the learner is always at the center of things.” (De la Causa, principio etuno).

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