No More Tinkering at the Margins -My Higher Ed Epiphany

Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen at 13,615 feet, the relaxed state of mind brought on by the coca tea served in the hotel lobby (to help alleviate the nasty symptoms of altitude sickness), or the heady conversation with a cohort of 30 study abroad students who were now entering their ninth country in four months, but whatever the reason, this moment of epiphany I am about to describe happened while walking down the street in El Alto,  above La Paz, Bolivia in December 2012.

Bit of background first - I have been working on the experiential learning side of higher education since 2002 when I worked part-time for the University of California Education Abroad Program, and I’ve since managed offices running study abroad and service learning programs at two additional universities. This career has been a good fit for me. My personal mission is to help create educational spaces that facilitate human transformation and flourishing communities, and I love the way that engaged learning pedagogies like service learning and study abroad can contribute to that process of transformation.

Up until Bolivia, however,I had been operating on the idealistic notion that the work my colleagues and I were doing to  promote experiential and engaged learning was going to somehow infiltrate the rest of the university and that - over time - active, engaged learning models would be adopted across the curriculum.  The disappointing realization, I was headed towards, however, was that those programs – even the ones I was managing, were failing to live up to their true potential.  Our "high-impact" programs operated at the margins of the university, disconnected from the primary curriculum, and were failing to live up to their transformational potential.

But at the same time I was growing disappointed in the overall higher education system, I was increasingly intrigued by the transformational possibilities of emerging alternative higher education models. 

Back to Bolivia. In 2012 I was traveling and teaching with a remarkable semester study abroad program, the Around-the-World Semester (ATW) at Concordia University Irvine (founded by Professors Adam Lee and John Norton in 2009).  ATW is a program unlike any other I know of.  Thirty students, two professors, and four graduate assistants travel to ten countries in five continents over a four and a half month period.  The students receive 18 units of credit for series of liberal arts courses which are integrated into their field-based experiences and spend little time in a traditional classroom setting.  They live in hostels, community centers, or churches; serve and work in community organizations like Mother Theresa's Home in Calcutta; engage with local students and community leaders; and meet for discussions about the intersections between what they reading and experiencing.  

I term this type of pedagogy utilized by ATW "transformative engaged learning" - because it offers a transformational process where students are deeply engaged 1) in self-reflection, 2) in a community of learners, 3) in the city, 4) in the great ideas and learning of the past, and 5) in exploring personal mission and calling.

As we walked the streets of La Paz the ATW students talked not so much about the countries they had visited as much as a process of personal transformation.  With a fire in their eyes, they shared how they had discovered deep community, located the courage to tell their story for the first time, found clarity in their life missions, learned how to push through hard circumstances and failure, and saw their passion for learning come alive.  One student described her experience - explaining, “I’ve learned more in the past three months than I learned in my previous three years.”

It fascinated me that here we had taken away all the trappings of what Selingo terms the “Hollywood vision" of the university – the legacy buildings, cushy dorms, dining hall buffets, and world-class athletic facilities – and replaced this with simple meals of rice and beans and sleeping on the floors of churches and community centers.  We had stripped the university experience down to a simple community of professors and students living and learning in the city (and had even had the audacity to charge the students more to be a part of this bare-bones semester experience), and yet the students couldn’t get enough - they didn’t want it to end.

I knew from experience that the most difficult stage of the journey would come at re-entry.  In another month we would be placing these students back in a mostly passive campus environment of one-hour lecture classes and library study nooks, a world where parties and sports would have to fill the gap for the excitement they had found the semester before in the process of learning. They would not just be going through the reverse culture shock of returning to the U.S., they would also be wrestling with a shift back into a paradigm of learning severely constricted by the shape and structure of the American campus.

There were two key truths that hit me at that moment on the street of El Alto:

1)  We can't get to transformational learning without fundamentally rethinking the campus and classroom. My project to integrate high-impact pedagogies on a traditional campus was proving futile. It was impossible to tinker around the margins of a campus-centric, largely passive learning model and expect that somehow we could get the same transformative results we see in a semester of city and community-engaged learning like the Around-the-World Semester. 

My friend, architect Steve Chaparro at Visioneering Studios, likes to quote Churchill who famously said – “we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us.”  We who work in higher ed have inherited this structure of monastery-like campuses with lecture halls and one-hour course schedules that define and effectively restrict our pedagogy.  No matter how much we talk about high-impact practices and transformative engaged learning – in a course-centric and classroom-centric campus model – those pedagogies will always remain at the periphery.  My epiphany was that we don't need more study abroad and service-learning programs – we need a re-imagining of the entire higher education model. 

2) It is possible to have a higher education model that is simultaneously low-cost and high-impact/high-transformation.  In La Paz I pondered, what would it look like if we built a four-year program with students studying in city-engaged micro-campuses somewhat along the ATW model?  The primary investment would be in the faculty, and cost-savings could be passed on to students, or re-invested in faculty and student development... This model might not work for every major or every student, but it offered hope that there could be promising alternative models out there to be developed. 

Please note, I’m not dismissing the value of our research universities or intimate ivy-covered liberal arts campuses - including the university where I teach.  But there are at least three compelling reasons why we desperately need to be exploring and experimenting with new models – which I’ll delve into in future posts.  1) Our financial and business models are unsustainable, 2) we have a crisis in global access and student debt  – where we are excluding those who could most use a university education, and 3) our learning models are failing to provide students with the kind of human 21st century skills necessary for them to thrive as creators and culture-shapers in society. 

Thus, the questions that are driving this blog:  How might we move beyond “tinkering at the margins” to a more comprehensive re-imagining of the existing structure of higher education?  What promising models of transformative engaged learning are emerging – both inside and outside the academy?  Where do recent edtech innovations intersect with those transformative engaged learning models? How can we build off of recent breakthroughs in brain science, psychology, and research on how students learn? What models show promise for increasing both transformative learning and affordable access?  And if we imagine a preferred future and a university model where each student is positioned to step into their creative purpose - what would that university look like? 

El Alto above La Paz, Bolivia - December 2012

El Alto above La Paz, Bolivia - December 2012

Paul WaiteComment