Turning a Page on Higher Education?

Before COVID-19, I occasionally would go to the library, check out a book, sit under the vaulted ceiling of its spacious reading room and get lost in the printed page. Even then, there was a “going-on-a-field-trip” quality to this experience; a respite from my daily routine during the school year.

It may seem odd to hear a professor talking about a trip to the library as a novelty but the fact is that I spend far more time in front of a computer screen than an open book—now, more so than ever.

It occurs to me that this shift is emblematic of a much broader change. Before the advent of the Internet, information was relatively hard to assemble, creating a need for gathering and organizing it in vast collections of printed materials. Universities—quite literally built around grand libraries—filled this niche admirably, providing curated repositories of specialized information.

Today, that has all changed. Information is relatively cheap and accessible (at least in affluent Western democracies), so that the content of many libraries is literally at our fingertips. However, this information is often embedded in a sea of unvetted material designed to generate clicks as opposed to insight.  Search algorithms compound the problem, invisibly guiding our inquiries to small snippets of information that reinforce our pre-existing views and preferences.

In this new world, universities do not need to warehouse academic books and journals. They need to provide skills to navigate the glut of fragmentary information on the web, break out of the echo chambers created by search engines, and organize the flood of data into useful frameworks that function across diverse settings while being flexible enough to adapt to a constant influx of new materials.

The challenge of creating effective navigators of the information age is higher education’s opportunity and, I would argue, a special opportunity for social scientists. It seems to me that scholars who make a living out of making sense of the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of the social world have something to offer others who are trying to make sense of the swirl of content and perspectives in the virtual world.

This means a switch in the kinds of classes that we have traditionally taught. Stuck in the old paradigm, our current classes often focus on substantive content as opposed to knowledge creation. Courses on the methods of inquiry—if required at all—are segregated from the core curriculum and treated as intellectual spinach at best (and curricular castor oil at worst). The new classes need to turn this model on its head and emphasize how we build knowledge from the ground up. Put differently, instead of designing courses around the questions of the whowhat and where of specific topics, we need to design courses around how knowledge is generated, integrating methods and content throughout the curriculum. Such courses would use substantive content as the raw material for guided explorations that reveal the complex relationship between theory, data and methods in the search for meaning.

This type of pedagogy is inevitably more project-­based and collaborative than the old “sage-­on‐the­‐stage” model of teaching of the standard university class. It requires professors to reverse engineer their courses by starting with target skills in mind, designing assessments that test those skills and finally identifying appropriate content. This will not be an easy task. Professors at research universities are rewarded for scholarship not teaching and developing new curriculum is labor-­intensive. Yet higher education has little choice. To be relevant (and justify its cost), it needs to turn the page and address the demands of the digital age, where information has been atomized and monetized in ways that often reinforce prejudices and division as opposed to encouraging learning.

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