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Timeless Fundamentals: Changing the Future of Higher Education

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© 2010 Diana G. Oblinger. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/).

EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 45, no. 2 (March/April 2010): 4-7

Diana G. Oblinger (doblinger@educause.edu) is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE.

Comments on this article can be posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

Undoubtedly, the future of higher education will involve change. The demand to educate greater numbers of students, a financial model that is increasingly unsustainable, new tools for scholarship, and pressure for greater accountability all signal change. The question is, What should we change and what should we hold on to in the coming future of higher education?

In 1995, Jim Collins answered a similar question in his article "Building Companies to Last." Speaking about the corporate world rather than higher education, he argued: "In a turbulent era like ours, attention to timeless fundamentals is even more important than it is in stable times." He added that companies need to be "clear about their core values and guiding purpose — about what should not change."

Fifteen years later, Collins's statements apply equally to higher education — particularly to higher education information technology. Indeed, the ultimate strategic and societal value of information technology may hinge on a deep understanding of our "timeless fundamentals."

One might assume that Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, would argue for new rules and new models in higher education. However, he too cautions us to pay attention to the fundamentals: "To claim that the Internet allows us to learn less, or that it makes memorizing less important, is to belie any profound grasp of, or at least any concern about, the nature of knowledge." He continues: "The point of a good education is . . . to develop judgment or understanding of questions that require a nuanced grasp of the various facts and to thereby develop the ability to think about and use those facts. If you do not have copious essential facts at the ready, then you will not be able to make wise judgments that depend on your understanding of those facts, regardless of how fast you can look them up." Sanger argues that core basics of a liberal education — not only memorization but also individual effort and book reading — are prerequisites to intellectual growth, no matter the technology environment.

The title of Larry Lessig's article — "Getting Our Values around Copyright Right" — signals his focus on the fundamentals as well. With the advances in information technology and digital reproduction, change is certainly called for in the copyright arena. Lessig clearly states: "The existing system of copyright cannot work in the digital age." He argues that a focus on the historic mechanics of copyright makes little sense in today's world, since the laws were originally written for a print-on-paper world rather than a digital one. But he adds that we must not lose sight of the core purpose behind copyright laws, which were put in place to "promote the progress of science and useful arts" — to provide the "incentives that artists and creators need in order to produce great new work." We must remember the fundamentals at the same time that we need to change the system.

Finally, in his discussion of scholars, scholarship, and the scholarly enterprise, Richard Katz explores the digital age and the changes faced by other industries — music, newspapers, book publishing, and television, for example. "Consumer expectations and technological innovations not only make new possibilities evident and desirable but also put old capabilities and investments at a competitive disadvantage." Katz adds: "Unless we plan for the changes that we can reasonably forecast, the changes ahead will be accidental ones." Addressing timeless fundamentals such as educational philosophy, academic standards, and delivery systems will aid higher education in facing the uncertain future.

The introduction of technology can add confusion to the ideas of what should change and what needs to remain central to the mission of higher education. Although information technology provides us with opportunities to make learning material more visual, interactive, and accessible, significant intellectual effort is required, regardless of the format of the material. Learners must read. Learners must think. Learners must write. And learners must analyze. No matter how advanced and engaging the tools and techniques available, learning requires hard work.

Focusing on the fundamentals does not mean a total absence of change, of course. As Collins asks: "How can we do better tomorrow than we did today?" Improvements can and should be made. Innovation can and should be fostered.

Higher education's mission of learning, scholarship, and outreach benefits individuals and society. Information technology supports — it does not supplant — the mission of higher education. Each of the feature articles in this issue of EDUCAUSE Review illustrates the importance of maintaining a focus on fundamentals as a way to ensure that the changes we make are the ones that will really matter for the future of higher education.

Diana Oblinger

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger President and CEO of EDUCAUSE

Dr. Diana G. Oblinger is President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology. The current membership comprises over 2,300 colleges, universities and education organizations, including 250 corporations. Previously, Oblinger held positions in academia and business: Vice President for Information Resources and the Chief Information Officer for the University of North Carolina system, Executive Director of Higher Education for Microsoft, and IBM Director of the Institute for Academic Technology. She was on the faculty at the University of Missouri-Columbia and at Michigan State University and served as the associate dean of academic programs at the University of Missouri.

Since becoming president of EDUCAUSE, Oblinger has become known for innovative product and services growth as well as international outreach. For example, Oblinger created the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), known for its leadership in teaching, learning and technology innovation as well as several signature products, such as the 7 Things You Should Know About series. She also initiated EDUCAUSE's first fully online events and its e-book series, including Educating the Net Generation and Learning Spaces.

In collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation she led the creation of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, a $30M program focused on improving college readiness and completion through information technologies. Partners include the League for Innovation in the Community College, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the Hewlett Foundation.

Oblinger has served on a variety of boards such as the board of directors of ACT, the editorial board of Open Learning, the National Science Foundation's Advisory Committee on Cyberinfrastructure, and the National Visiting Committee for NSF's National Science Digital Library project. She currently serves on the American Council on Education (ACE) board and works with other higher education associations as chair of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat. Dr. Oblinger has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Employment, Safety and Training and the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Technology.

Oblinger is a frequent keynote speaker as well as the co-author of the award-winning book What Business Wants from Higher Education. She is the editor or co-editor of seven books: The Learning Revolution, The Future Compatible Campus, Renewing Administration, E is for Everything, Best Practices in Student Services, Educating the Net Generation, and Learning Spaces. She also is the author or co-author of numerous monographs and articles on higher education and technology.

Dr. Oblinger has received outstanding teaching and research awards, was named Young Alumnus of the Year by Iowa State University and holds two honorary degrees. She is a graduate of Iowa State University (Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D.) and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, and Sigma Xi.

 

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