Generation Facebook and higher education

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I read Gary Hamel's piece, The Facebook Generation vs. the Fortune 500, with great interest. In it, he talks about the tensions that traditional, cubicle-land corporations will likely face as a creative, connected workforce comes on-line. I was particularly interested because, as a member of the higher educational establishment, I'm part of the pipeline, sitting in-between K-12 and the workplace. More importantly, I think that higher education faces many of the same challenges that the Fortune 500 does. So, with that said, I'd like to parallel Gary's piece, edging towards the extreme in my reflection (playing agent provocateur, perhaps) on the tensions between the Facebook generation and higher ed.

Gary's essay is focused around twelve observations regarding the connected world that the "Facebook Generation" are likely to take for granted. In each case, I've responded with a reflection on the state of higher education that contrasts these points.

  1. All ideas compete on equal footing. While this may be true in open communities, higher education is not an open community. We have accreditations and certifications to maintain. We have programmes in place and curricula to advance. While some individual classrooms may create space for innovation, departments and institutions are typically (highly) resistant to change. "We tried that once... what, ten years ago? It didn't work then; it won't work now." In no small part, this is because there is no financial incentive for the faculty of any given department or institution to adapt to change – they've lasted this long, why change now?
  2. Contribution counts far more than credentials. In an open project this might be the case, but in higher education your contribution only matters if it received funding or was published (preferably in the right journal). Did you write something and release it under an open license? Was it valuable to your community? It doesn't matter. When the gatekeepers of your community bless your work, then it has value. Before then, it's a "gray publication" at best, and it doesn't even have a place on your resume.This is especially problematic with respect to teaching, as open educational materials (homework exercises, video lectures) currently have no place in the tenure and promotion process of the vast majority of faculty.
  3. Hierarchies are natural, not prescribed. The academie is the original mythical meritocracy. That said, it is not a meritocracy—we have fiefdoms and territory to defend, whether the space is physical or intellectual. Many a PhD graduate has been sent off into the world with the admonishment to keep their mouths shut. Why? So we don't blunder into a turf war or some other petty departmental/institutional political nightmare that might, in some way, comprimise our professional advancement. Respect, and possibly even fear, the hierarchy.
  4. Leaders serve rather than preside. Not in the academy—academics get credit for presiding. As an academic grows their (research) career, they end up taking more important roles on conference, journal, and (ultimately) funding committees. The successful academic has direct power over whether colleagues publish whether they receive funding (see #2). Leaders preside, not serve, in academia, both locally at their institutions and nationally/globally within their disciplines.
  5. Tasks are chosen, not assigned. With respect to their research, academics can do anything... that they can get funded and published. But don't talk too broadly about work in progress! If you fail to get it published/funded—well, that's failure. Academics serve themsleves best by being quiet about  work until it is done, has passed review, and is on the way to the printer/the check is in the mail. The myth of equality in many departments also surrounds the allocation of teaching load: no matter what their area of expertise, a newly minted PhD will teach the courses that are open to them in their department. It is unlikely that they will teach in their area of expertise if a more senior faculty member "owns" the course most closely related to their area of specialization. When they are finally able to teach a course close to their heart, the cycle is perpetuated.
  6. Groups are self-defining and self-organizing. This is one of the few points where I think there are a lot of similarities between academia and the online world. No one works on things they don't want to... unless it is particularly advantageous, politically speaking.
  7. Resources get attracted, not allocated. I liked Gary's terminology: resources get allocated top-down, in a politicized, Soviet-style budget wrangle. I'd say that sums up most of academic funding?
  8. Power comes from sharing information, not hoarding it. Nope. See my previous points, I'm afraid I'll sound like I like flogging dead horses. As a note, though: after academics take funding from (say) the NSF, they publish their work into closed journals that their libraries then have to license back from the publisher. So, the public pays for the research, and the results get privatized. Why? Because academia is not fully prepared to acknowledge the value of open publications and open editorial process... but a Springer-Verlag monograph or a publication through the Harvard University Press... well, we know those are good.
  9. Opinions compound and decisions are peer-reviewed. While good ideas might propagate quickly online, it is fair to say that nothing happens quickly in academia.
  10. Users can veto most policy decisions. Oddly, faculty built the system they're in. And, we've given ourselves a say in what we do—we allocate funding, we review each-other's work—but we're pretty vicious about it as a group. It is unlikely that we'll see a "crowdsourcing" of research anytime soon. Likewise, I'm uncertain how decentralization will impact higher education in general. While students can rate a member of the faculty poorly, it is going a bit far to say they have "veto" power.
  11. Intrinsic rewards matter most. Yes, the intrinsics keep us going. And yes, we tend to align our teaching and our research with our passions. But to be clear: academics are not volunteers. Our job is to educate and to do research—sometimes more of one than the other, depending where we are. We get no credit for contributions to open communities, because they don't get reviewed by our peers... but if we had spare time, I'm sure we'd enjoy the process. (I've heard colleagues say "They pay me for the administrative work, I teach because I love it.")
  12. Hackers are heroes. WHAT DID I SAY!? KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN! Mercy. Activists and rabble-rousers have no place on a faculty! Order! Decorum! More exclamation points!

Research and teaching

I've painted a grim picture of the academie. You can do a search for "tenure horror stories" and find many first-person accounts of the ugly that exists in higher education. In truth, you can find a lot of ugly stories in education in general, largely because the educational establishment is underfunded and undervalued in many societies.

I could be swayed to believe that the promotion of research as the "objective measure" of an academic's worth is, in no small part, responsible for many of these tensions. There is a great deal that has written about the value of a diverse undergraduate education (The Case of the Disappearing Liberal Arts College, Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education (PDF) can both serve as starting points), and I'm not going to try and recreate it here. I will say, however, that few institutions, if any, have clear, publicly communicated policies about how they assess undergraduate instruction, and how faculty can engage in the production of artifacts surrounding their teaching that can be shared and evaluated as part of their professional development.

I make a point of our lack of effective models for sharing and evaluating excellent teaching simply because it is in the space of great teaching that we stand to innovate most with the Facebook Generation. If I turn my classroom into an incubator for decentralized ideas, a space where my students actively pursue knowledge and challenge each-other (and, for that matter, the world), that classroom will look completely unlike every other classroom at my institution. Expectations matter, both on the part of my students and on the part of my colleagues... and a radically different approach in the classroom challenges everyone's expecatations. Why does this matter? If I want to keep my job, what kinds of risks do I take, as an educator, to provide the best/most engaging/most challenging education possible for students who are part of Generation Facebook?

(To be clear, there's not a lot of research surrounding adult learning that screams that decentralized models of learning are highly effective... blended approaches that leverage the best of both worlds are almost certainly needed, and we neither know what those models look like, nor do we know how best to evaluate the teaching and learning in those contexts.)

To wrap this up, I would like to share Roger S. Jones's letter in Physics Today (July 2010). He is talking in the context of personal experience and Joseph Hermanowicz’s book Lives in Science: How Institutions Affect Academic Careers. Specifically, Roger is writing about the (possibly wrong-headed) importance academic institutions have placed on the role of research (eg. publication, funding) in the academy.

The research obsession is both self-reinforcing and self-destructive. The eroding state of science and science education in the US today is at least partly due to that misguided and harmful attitude in our universities. It has disfigured the humanities into useless imitations of some kind of quantitative science and has made the exact sciences a shadow of what they ought to be as part of liberal education and knowledge. It’s tragic that at a time when science should be setting the standard for truth and understanding, science academics and administrators are too preoccupied with their own self-advancement to play the valuable and important leadership role.

My reflection of Gary's list of "12 work-relevant characteristics of online life" is an amalgamation of the worst academia has to offer. The list does not necessarily reflect my own experiences, nor does it necessarily reflect the typical experience of faculty in higher education. That said, there is truth in the list, and at the core are tensions surrounding research vs. teaching, open vs. closed systems, traditional vs. alternative models of teaching and learning, and centralized vs. decentralized thinking.

For next time: Centralized vs. decentralized

I've been thinking a lot about centralized vs. decentralized systems lately. As I work to bring my own students into open projects, I am acutely aware of the tensions they feel—they are bridging centralized and decentralized communities through their efforts. Their work is evaluated in two contexts: by me, in a centralized world, and by the community, in a decentralized world.

Many challenges lurk at the intersection of the open world of FOSS and the (traditionally) closed world of the college classroom. Perhaps it is because I'm reading The Starfish and the Spider with my first-year students right now, but I believe there are a lot of opportunities for educators who embrace the chaos and find ways to support their students in entering into and flourishing in the connected world of decentralized learning.

Matt is passionate about the design and development of usable languages for embedded control. You can some of his work at, a rallying point for parallel programming on the popular Arduino platform. However, most of the time Matt keeps himself busy as a member of the faculty at Berea College.


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The one thing I would say Matt, even on this campus, is that the newer generation of faculty (who will hopefully be moving into positions of power in the next decade) is far more receptive as a body to the sorts of things you mention that perhaps our more senior peers are. I have high (albeit perhaps naive) hopes that some sort of systemic change is achievable over the long term. But maybe I'm just being silly!

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