The Future of the University

What should “the university” look like as we lurch further into the 21st century? If there were one thing I could change about higher education in the United States it would be to expand access, broadly speaking.

It is hardly a unique observation to point out the exorbitant cost of college attendance in the US. This is true even of public schools. The US is, in my opinion, behind the curve on recognizing that tertiary education, like primary and secondary, should be a right guaranteed to all of its citizens (and residents). A college education remains a privilege only available to some because of its large cost. And while I believe we should consider it a privilege to have the time to study and learn access to education should not be a restricted privilege available only to those who can pay.

I hope to see the university accessible financially but also physically. By this I mean I hope to see all universities and university buildings literally accessible to any and all students. Though slightly out of date, Inside Higher Ed reported in 2005 that students with disabilities were half as likely to attend college as their peers without disabilities. We need to ensure that the physical space of the university is accessible to people of all abilities. As importantly, we need to ensure that the university is a space in which those with disabilities are welcome and treated as an important part of the make up of the student body, staff, and faculty.

Moreover, black students and faculty are underrepresented on college campuses as well. I would like to see universities that are open, encouraging, and actively seeking students of all backgrounds and therefore reflect the composition of US society. Addressing the economic inequality that high costs perpetuates by making tertiary education free (or very close to free) is one way to address this. The other is to continue the work of education within the university and without to create the understanding in our society that all members, regardless of their socio-economic, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and/or sex background, have equal rights and claims to a decent life.

Given recent trends a more accessible university will likely mean more online and distance learning classes. I think this can be an avenue to ensure that the university is open and accessible but it is not a foregone conclusion. It is important that online courses are carefully crafted to ensure that the level of instruction and deep engagement is the same as in a “traditional” classroom. Perhaps technologies such as VR could facilitate this in the decades to come. Even better, investment in high speed rail, another area the US lags behind in, could better allow students to travel to and from universities.

However it is accomplished, the most open and accessible university will be the best university in the future.

Open Access Journal – Geo: Geography and Environment

I came across an open access journal related to my field(s) called: Geo: Geography and Environment. It is published by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) in London.

The editors are professors at University of Exeter and University College London. It is fully open access and all of its articles are published under the Creative Commons License.

The journal lists its “Aims and Scope” in the following way:

Geo is a fully open access international journal publishing original articles from across the spectrum of geographical and environmental research. Geo welcomes submissions which make a significant contribution to one or more of the journal’s aims. These are to:

  • encompass the breadth of geographical, environmental and related research, based on original scholarship in the sciences, social sciences and humanities;
  • bring new understanding to and enhance communication between geographical research agendas, including human-environment interactions, global North-South relations and academic-policy exchange;
  • advance spatial research and address the importance of geographical enquiry to the understanding of, and action about, contemporary issues;
  • foster methodological development, including collaborative forms of knowledge production, interdisciplinary approaches and the innovative use of quantitative and/or qualitative data sets;
  • publish research articles, review papers, data and digital humanities papers, and commentaries which are of international significance.

The journal explains open access in this way:

Open Access and Copyright

All articles published by Geo are fully open access: immediately freely available to read, download and share. All Geo articles are published under a choice of Creative Commons Licenses which permit use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. Copyright on any research article published by Geo is retained by the author(s). Authors grant Wiley a license to publish the article and identify itself as the original publisher. Authors also grant any third party the right to use the article freely as long as its integrity is maintained and its original authors, citation details and publisher are identified. Further information can be found on our open access license and copyright page.

I didn’t find a specific statement on the journal’s stance toward the open access movement but they do list “Reasons to publich in Geo,” which include:

  • high standard, rigorous peer review
  • immediate open access
  •  articles published under Creative Commons Licenses
  • articles can be enhanced by integrated hosting of multimedia and data content
  • fully compliant with all open access mandates

Three of the five reasons listed related to open access. As far as I know I haven’t read any articles yet from this journal but I will certainly keep an eye out for it as I am researching for future projects.

Further Thoughts on Technology in the Classroom

The issue of technology in the classroom has captured my imagination this semester. I’ve been thinking a lot about it this year as I have taught my first online class as well as taken my first online classes. Until this year I had completed small professional development courses online but never a full college course.

First a brief description of the varied types of courses that fall under the “online” or “distance learning” umbrella that I have experienced. In the first summer session of 2016 I taught an online course that was facilitated completely through Canvas. I based my syllabus (and teaching techniques) on the previous summer’s syllabus. As a result, I conducted the course completely through online message boards and written assignments. There was no face-to-face or digital interaction with voice or video. Students wrote on message boards and emailed me with questions.

This fall, I am taking two courses that may qualify as “online” or “distance learning.” The first is conducted through Scholar and is similar to the course I taught. Assignments are written message boards and essays. However, the professor also provides video and audio lectures that he has recorded to supplement the readings and written assignments.

The final course is a “polycomm” course. The professor is in Northern Virginia and has the bulk of the class’ students in Alexandria. I and several other students sit in a room in Blacksburg and join the class through a video conference. Of the three distance learning formats I prefer the polycomm course. It provides the closest experience to an in person, face-to-face and “traditional” classroom setting.

Given the difference in medium, the three courses have had qualitative differences but overall I still prefer teaching and taking in-person courses. As I’ve written before, I believe that the face-to-face (and spontaneous) interaction between students and teachers and professors is where deep thinking and learning occurs. As a teacher answering spontaneous questions from students is both difficult and fun and as a student the ability to ask questions to faculty in the moment they occur and receive nuanced answers is most helpful. It can be difficult to decipher exactly how to understand written feedback. Tone is often lost and critique can read as criticism.

However, despite this reservation, tools such as Skype have made video calling easy to do and it works as well (or better) for speaking with faculty during office hours. If I were to teach an online course again, and I imagine that I will, I would make more use of video and/or audio lectures and definitely encourage my students to meet with me virtually through Skype. It is quite strange to only evaluate students on their written assignments having never met or even spoken with them.

Additionally, the benefit of online courses that do not have fixed meeting times is that it allows students and faculty flexibility in their day to complete assignments on their own schedules. However, in my limited experience I found that some students tended to be silent on message boards until the last day assignments were due. At this point they would post the required amount rapid-fire. I’m not sure this has the intended pedagogical benefit of interaction and discussion between classmates and faculty.

To close these musings I want to note that I am no Luddite!* Technology has been enormously helpful in my academic and teaching career (I am thankful everyday that the internet saves me from card catalogs). However, there is something about face-to-face interactions, both in the classroom and socially, that social media and digital technologies can’t seem to replicate.


* I use the term here in its contemporary meaning of someone averse to new technology. However, actual “Luddites” were skilled workers who sabotaged new machinery they worried would reduce their wages or render them redundant. They were not intrinsically against technology. I have, of course, solidarity with workers resisting the inexorable capitalist drive to lower costs and raise profit.

Social Media in College Classroom: A Public Sphere?

Social media use has increased nearly tenfold in the past decade. We use social media for personal communication (Facebook), professional communication (LinkedIn), news (Twitter), and for entertainment (YouTube). Social media has a role in the classroom as well. So much so that Wikipedia’s page on social media has a subsection dedicated to social media “In the classroom.”

According to a 2010 article on Inside Higher Ed, 80 percent of professors had accounts with social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so forth. (Several of the websites they list, including MySpace and Google Wave, no longer exist.) The poll cited found “little variance” in social media usage by age of professor. The article goes on to say that 52 percent of professors used one or more of these websites as teaching tools. Another study cited in a 2013 Inside Higher Ed article found 40 percent of faculty using social media in the classroom. I am in that plurality.

I have used YouTube many times in class and as a teaching tool. The amount of lectures, speeches, and documentary material on numerous topics makes YouTube a perfect supplement to readings and other class assignments. I can search for nearly any topic and find recorded lectures from prominent faculty, scholars, and practitioners on that topic in seconds.

I have not used other social media in the classroom, however, though I have received videos from students on class topics that they have found through Facebook. I do not have a YouTube account to which I upload videos. This makes me less concerned about breaching personal/professional boundaries with this particular service.

However, I have a Facebook and Twitter feed.  When I began teaching I made sure to set my privacy settings on Facebook to restrict access to anyone who is not already my “friend” in order to prevent my students from finding and seeing my posts. In the classroom we can engage in intense and sometimes uncomfortable discussions but they are face to face. This real interaction helps (I believe) to limit misunderstandings that can arise when reading a Tweet or Facebook post.

Though we have freedom of speech in the US and academic freedom as teaching assistants there are still often repercussions for speaking in ways that are considered “inappropriate.” The Inside Higher Ed article mentions a case of a professor being reprimanded for comments made on social media websites. This reminds me also of the case (relevant to Virginia Tech) of Steven Salaita. He expressed unpopular views and suffered repercussions for them.

I would like to consider social media (and the internet more broadly) as a public sphere in which open debate and dialog can take place. However, open dialog means that views can (and likely) will be voiced that are not popular or that do not conform to what everyone considers “polite” or “appropriate.” I see a troubling trend of punishing those who express views that are outside the mainstream rather than engaging with these views in a productive way.

This is exactly what the classroom is for. And it is important to make it an open space to explore all possibilities of an issue or topic. I do not believe this is happening yet (or perhaps that is will happen in the future) on social media.