The global Paleyian university

For this case borrow the internet further so that offices, classrooms, or the university can be retrofitted. Not rebuilt from scratch, but respecting the infrastructure that is already in place.  (source)

Instead of a retrofit, this design sketch promotes inversion or turning inside out or perhaps gastrulation. (In the embryological process of gastrulation the initial ball of cells invaginates so that some of the outside is now inside and that new inside is in interaction with the outside, creating a new interactions.)  Unpacking that picture, we have three steps: 

  1. begin with an innovation in use of educational technology.
  2. notice that the power of that technology is how it meets human needs, indeed even brings some needs to the surface and makes them visible.
  3. in the inversion we start with those needs; those needs become a touchstone. We use them to motivate everything else: technological changes, institutional changes, use of space, scheduling, and so on.

Let’s make those three steps concrete:

  1. consider the technological innovation of synchronous online courses, where students from a distance meet with students in the face-to-face classroom. In order to do that we in CCT have implemented structured turn taking, feedback from everyone on everyone else by online forms, and eventually begun courses with extended autobiographical introductions and “connections and extension” feedback on those intros.  
  2. In this sense the technological innovation has become a means of creating a deeper community, perhaps even deeper than is customary in face-to-face classes.

Another consequence of the innovation is to recognize that online students are in their own places, so that teaching and learning should be of the kind that allows individuals to connect the course materials and projects with their individual interests and aspirations. Then we can see that the face-to-face students are commuters also returning to their own places, so the same principle of meeting human needs applies.

3.  The shift from step 2 to step 3 is to start from those human needs.  Here the quote the Vivian Paley guides us:

“I need the intense preoccupation of a group… inventing new worlds as they learn to know each other’s dreams.”  Vivian Paley (1997, 50), speaking of teaching her kindergarten classes

Paley’s spirit is in contrast with the critique of online education that it’s just a digital diploma mill, that is, a way to churn out graduates with certificates at lower production costs. Instead we are looking for learning that connects and continues through people’s lives. These days connection is a big issue – universities are often promoting themselves as globally connected. But now we can propose a different approach to global connection – one that is not founded in the business plan of bringing in elite foreign students who can pay high fees that are meant to compensate for lower investment from state legislatures.

Specifically what might this Paleyian global university look like?   Faculty could volunteer to be part of the initiative. That would mean:

  1. They train in synchronous online and face-to-face teaching, and in using the associated community building processes.
  2. They would allow a certain fraction, say 25%, of non-degree, but for-credit students to join the course once it is reach the minimum enrollment that covers costs, which is probably 8 to 10 at the graduate school. The students could come from anywhere in the world and be charged a certain percentage, say 3%, of the national median income in that country converted to US dollars.
  3. Faculty teaching in this way would be allowed to spend less time on campus. Along with that they would be asked to strip down their offices so that there were no piles of decades-old computer printouts and student papers, file drawers of photocopied reprints that can now be accessed online, and so on.
  4. Rooms and other areas would be reconfigured to to allow for a range of individual work, teaching, and collaboration spaces, with many offices available for private meetings, but now shared by faculty members who come to campus on different dates.
  5. To maintain the spirit of inquiry and sharing of insights that should be, but often is not, associated with being in a given department on campus, Collaborative Explorations would become frequent. These would include the four-week online CEs and four day intensive face-to-face workshops.
  6. The same tools and processes used to build community in courses could be extended to committee meetings.  It would become unacceptable for people to use meetings to transmit information that could be circulated in advance to be read. Instead, the time together would be generative time – time which the participants at the meeting helped surface ideas and collaborate to produce new proposals.
  7. The work of meetings, like the student work in the synchronous online classes, would be archived and available so that people coming afterwards did not have to rediscover wheels or relitigate what had already been resolved.

My hope is that gradually more and more faculty would join the initiative.

Postscript: A design principle implicated in this sketch is to see what changes when you try to integrate face-to-face dynamics into the structure and expectations of online platforms and the use of digital tools.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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