Five Questions

Each of our Year of Transforming Education speakers was asked to consider five questions developed by our student ambassadors to explore and extend our understanding of what transforming education would mean. We hope the responses we received to these questions will give our community an opportunity to anticipate the ideas our speakers might share with us during their visits. And, on a broader scale, we also hope the responses will help us to see multiple perspectives on the same issues and to develop follow-up conversations and outcomes for our community moving forward.

We will continue to update this page as we receive responses from our speakers, so please check back here to see how this conversation unfolds.

The Five Questions

  1. What would it mean to transform education? What is one thing our community could do to begin that change?
  2. What would be the best way to create greater access to quality education? What are the ethical obligations when expanding access?
  3. What role will technology play in the evolution of education? What is your greatest concern about the growing on-line education movement?
  4. What is the purpose of education? Why are you passionate about it?
  5. What will education look like in the future? What piece of advice would you give those preparing to go into the field?

President James Mullen

1. I believe that an excellent education is both a core right of every American and fundamental key to our nation’s success in the decades to come. As such, I believe our nation should commit itself to educational opportunity as a priority of our public policy — in substance as well as rhetoric. Truly transforming education will mean that at every grade level, at every age level and in every community, there will be a full complement of educational programs that are relevant to the complexities of the 21st century; preparing individuals not only for career success but for the responsibilities of citizenship.

Allegheny can play its part in this effort by expanding our partnerships with schools in Crawford County, offering the kind of advanced coursework and cultural programming that our young people deserve. We can continue to advance programs for non-traditional students and for lifelong learners in our region. Finally, we can continue to challenge ourselves to curricular and co-curricular programs that are increasingly interdisciplinary, encourage civic engagement and prepare students for meaningful lives and careers in a diverse, highly interconnected world. Such transformation should animate the work on our campus.

2. Access is an essential part of the Allegheny tradition and is a central tenet of our strategic focus for the future. Simply put, we need to put in place the kind of endowed scholarship program that will insure that tradition continues in perpetuity. No student should be denied the opportunity for success at Allegheny because of financial need. I believe that there is no more important component of our current fundraising than to expand endowed scholarships. It is an ethical and moral imperative.

3. Technology is already driving education in ways that were not imagined only a few short years ago. From MOOCS to the means of student communication, there is great disruption in the marketplace. As an industry, higher education has to get its arms around all this, at once encouraging the incredible opportunities created, providing some “rules of the road,” and understanding the implications for the full scope of teaching and learning. My greatest concern falls in the last category — that we not lose the important human aspects of learning that come through face-to-face encounters with professors and colleague students. Technology should supplement these encounters, not replace them.

4. The purpose of education is to provide a framework for how we meet and know each other as human beings; how we understand who we are and whence we have come; how we seek truth, wisdom and the knowledge that advances our society. For me, a driving force is the quality of our democracy…our form of government cannot meet its highest aspirations if we have an uninformed, disengaged electorate. Education at all levels is the cornerstone of successful democracy and setting this cornerstone firmly in place gives me a special passion in my career.

5. In thinking about this question, I looked back as to how I might have answered it when I was in graduate school. I think I would have underestimated the impact of technology, the worsening finances of many of our nation’s school districts and the complexities that have come with global inter-dependence. Thus, I do not claim to have a perfect crystal ball, but it seems to me that the future will be laden with even greater technological innovation, deeper fiscal and cost challenges (that will require new approaches and financing models) and the need for more partnerships between secondary education and our nation’s colleges and universities. I believe that programs that consider diversity and global awareness will be even more important. Finally, I believe that one of the challenges that will continue to face all levels of education will be that of preparing citizens who understand the responsibility of citizenship and who care deeply about the quality of our political process.

Anya Kamenetz

1. The fundamental shift is one that puts the learner in the center of the process. Every member of your community, whether faculty, student, or administration, can begin today to take more responsibility for him- or her-self as a learner, to ask your own question and find your own answers.

2. The best way to create greater access is to lower the cost of providing education. Our nation has an ethical obligation to open access according to ability, not according to family income as is currently the case.

3. Technology deeply affects the way we communicate, access and share information, the fundamental raw material of education. The web, which is written by all of us, together, and made powerful by infinite connections, has the potential to empower individuals to take charge of their own learning, replacing scarcity of knowledge with unthinkable abundance. I’m troubled to see online education dominated by for-profit “distance learning” programs and narrow thinking about cost cutting or the latest bells and whistles, or dismissed out of hand by those who refuse to accept that the world has changed.

4. The purpose of education is for each person to discover. I am passionate about the human ability to discover for oneself.

5. The pace of change will continue to be brisk. My best advice for those preparing for the education field is to be adaptable and think of the broadest definition of your mission.

Andre Perry

1. Too often education reformers focus on innovation and radical changes in policies. These practices are important. However, there’s nothing more innovative than care. If education reformers’ strategies don’t demonstrate the same values we would like to see students master, then we may miss the more important lessons. The goal of education is to improve community – not to improve despite the community. Education has always been a group project.

2. Over the last 60 years of education research, socioeconomic status has been the most stubborn predictor of ineffective educational service. Providing quality to people with the fewest resources will always challenge our collective character.

3. I love technology because it enables us to expand instruction to meet the range of intelligences that exist in our communities – local and global. However, my mentor Kenneth A. Strike, one of the most prolific education ethicist in the world told me, “I made a pretty successful career from just a library card.”

4. The purpose of education is not about closing an achievement gap. We currently employ good and bad ways to close achievement gaps. The goal of education is to make more caring, inclusive and safe communities where every person can understand and actualize his or her potential.

5. How schools teach will always change. Moses delivered the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets. Today he might use an iPad. Keeping up with the ever-changing fashion of education is easy. Staying focused on the purpose of education is difficult.

Lisa Spiro

1. Fundamentally, transforming education means making the changes necessary to ensure that it meets its mission for today and the future. Thus it entails enabling students to learn better by leveraging emerging insights into how people learn. It means building more robust, diverse learning communities and transcending unnecessary limitations of space and time so that learning is not necessarily restricted by the classroom or calendar. Transformation includes expanding access so that more people can take advantage of education. These are broad goals—what transformation means in a local context may vary, and each college must develop its own understanding of why and how it should transform.

To begin the change, the community can go through a design thinking process that cultivates deeper understanding and leads to concrete outcomes. This process includes observing and interviewing students and other stakeholders, involving people with diverse perspectives in generating a range of creative ideas, and moving through cycles of prototyping and feedback. As part of the process, a community might consider: Who is it that education serves? What challenges or obstacles do these people encounter? How might we address these obstacles in imaginative ways? What kind of prototypes can we build to test different approaches? How can we use feedback from testing these prototypes to make real change?

2. As we are seeing with the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Open Educational Resources (OER), free, open online education expands access to learning. Now it is possible for anyone anywhere with an Internet connection to watch lectures by some of the world’s greatest thinkers, work on interactive exercises, and collaborate with people around the world on team assignments or discussions. Of course, significant challenges remain to be worked out, including ensuring the quality of new educational models, certifying the knowledge gained through open courses, and determining viable business models. But massive open online education also raises ethical issues, such as how to handle privacy concerns, how to cultivate meaningful human connection as education is scaled up, how to help learners who may need more support than is typically provided in a MOOC, and how to ensure that open education is not coopted by more narrow commercial aims.

3. Just as technology has helped spark the transformation of many industries, from banking to the media, so it will play a vital role in the ongoing evolution of education, particularly by supporting personalization, community and the production and dissemination of knowledge. Whereas in the traditional classroom model the student more or less follows the same schedule, completes the same assignments, and receives the same instruction as his or her classmates, interactive online learning platforms such as the Open Learning Initiative personalize learning so that it serves the needs of the learner. Such systems provide feedback and activities targeted to the needs of the learner and enable both the learner and the instructor to see gaps in understanding.

Not only does technology provide customized learning, but it also can support broader communities. Already classes are using Skype or high-def videoconferencing to bring in guest experts and connect to fellow students across the world. Likewise, blogs, Twitter, and social networking platforms allow us to engage in ongoing conversations and collaborations with a dispersed community. Finally, technology makes it easier for students to create and curate knowledge, whether by making digital stories, data-driven visualizations, or digital collections.

Although I am generally optimistic about the learning opportunities that technologies can help make possible, I fear that we will use technology to reinforce outmoded ways of learning, focused on standardization and content absorption. I also worry that education will become narrow, focused on particular skills necessary for a particular job or task rather than a broad liberal education. Finally, I fear that human connection and community may decline as we shift from physical classrooms to virtual ones. However, I believe that learning in physical spaces can likewise be passive and disconnected, and I think technology can be used to support lively, meaningful social interaction, as we see with some virtual communities.

4. I’m passionate about education because I think it is core to our human purpose. Education helps us to grow intellectually, ethically and socially; equips us to make a difference in our jobs, communities, and families; and fosters deeper awareness of ourselves, other people, and the forces that shape our world. On top of that, I think education—or, more precisely, learning–is fun, whether I am solving a tough problem, gaining a new insight, or collaborating with a colleague.

5. It’s hard to predict exactly how undergraduate education will look in the future, but I would expect to see a continuing growth in online and blended education as well as the decline of some traditional institutions that cannot compete. As more instruction is available online, I predict that the value of face-to-face education will largely be in the community that is formed, the experiences that are offered, and the mentoring that is provided. Those institutions that do not offer a unique experience will struggle to compete against low-cost (or even free) online education, especially as students begin to earn credentials that carry weight in the job market. To the extent that liberal arts colleges can build on and make known their unique strengths, they will be more likely to survive and even thrive.

For those preparing to go into education, I can only say anticipate change. Be nimble, flexible, open, and forward-thinking. Ask questions. Listen. Play.