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Evolution in Higher Education Matters to Libraries

By Steven Bell

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Take Nothing for Granted.  In the spring of 2014 the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) proposed radical revisions to standards for colleges and universities contained in its Characteristics of Excellence (MSCHE, 2006).  This action generated considerable angst among academic librarians who reacted to the unexpected insertion of new language that completely eliminated any mention of librarians or information literacy from the standards.  As one of the first national accrediting bodies to move from input/output measures for libraries to the incorporation of information literacy into its standards, MSCHE was considered among the most forward thinking of its peers.  Mid-Atlantic region academic librarians were quite rightly puzzled by the turn of events.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Owing to a well-organized advocacy network, academic librarians were able to generate considerable comments in response (Bell, 2014b). At town hall meetings throughout the regions, academic librarians turned out in force to speak their concerns about the revised standards. At the Philadelphia town hall MSCHE representatives indicated their intent to rectify what they termed as an “oversight” with respect to libraries and information literacy. At the town hall that followed, in Albany, the officials allowed only one librarian to speak in representation for the many present, in a symbol of acknowledgment that the message had already been heard loud and clear.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Ironically, the academic librarian community was so effective in advancing information literacy into the curriculum, that in their desire to streamline the standards, MSCHE assumed that language was no longer necessary. As higher education experiences radical change, in what other ways will academic librarians demonstrate the curse of being too successful for their own good? Faculty and students are so accustomed to the highly efficient delivery of digital scholarly content to their desktops and devices, that they no longer question its point of origin and simply think that it flows effortlessly through the institution network as electricity flows magically out of wall outlets.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Though a small event in the overall scheme of where academic libraries fit into higher education, the story speaks to the rapidly evolving change in higher education. Forces that are causing accrediting bodies to transform their standards and role as the gatekeepers of quality higher education are just one piece of how the entire industry is subject to disruptive forces, mostly external. Yet we can see how even a minor change, one that may be of little interest to the majority of higher education stakeholders can significantly impact the future of academic librarianship. What the Middle States episode proved once again is that academic librarians are effective advocates for their community members, and they will organize and raise their voices to support what is in the best interest of those members. That role, while not new to us, will grow in importance as education, publishing, technology and related industries evolve in ways that may challenge our interests.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 Higher education is still in the infancy of great period of experimentation. Writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeff Selingo observed that higher education is currently in an “evolutionary moment” in which early experiments will fail but that “without these early experiments, we can’t ever evolve to what comes next.” (Selingo, 2014a). As with any period in which many new ideas and methods are being put to the test there are great opportunities but also the danger that following these new paths will lead us astray from our mission and core values. Whatever new roles academic librarians adopt in this evolutionary phase, they must all carry some element of change awareness. When things change quickly, the danger is that the comfort of complacency will leave us on the outside looking in as opposed to being active participants in the change process. That’s a lesson the profession needs to take away from the Middle States episode. The academic librarian community assumed that because Middle States was a supporter of information literacy and was a pioneer in reflecting it in their standards and accreditation process, that their standards would always include language about libraries and information literacy. Had a few librarians not taken a closer look at the new proposed standards, things might have turned out quite differently.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Alt-Higher Ed.  The higher education industry has seen its share of troubles since the great recession of 2008. The assault on public higher education has led to deep financial setbacks at even the most venerable of state systems and their flagship institutions (Bell, 2012). Fast forward to 2013 and Moody’s Investor Services issues a negative outlook for all of higher education that includes even the most elite institutions (Moody’s, 2013). Nothing changed in higher education to convince Moody’s to adopt a more optimistic perspective in 2014 (Troop, 2014). In the intervening years fundamental questions about the nature of college are asked with regularity. Sparked by the public outcry about high tuition and student debt, pundits and scholars began to ask, in 2011, if college was still worth the investment. (Bell, 2012a). They questioned if everyone needed a college diploma. Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg obviously gave proof that not everyone did. The authors of Academically Adrift (Arum & Roksa, 2012) sparked a debate about the value of a college education, whether students actually learned much and what does it actually mean to be college educated. In response to these questions, billionaire Peter Thiel famously created a reverse scholarship program that paid students to drop out of college and join his entrepreneur’s academy. This re-examination of the fundamental value of higher education led to even more focused questions about the value of the liberal arts and whether the humanities were still relevant in an age when students needed career skills in order to pay off their student loan debt (Bell, 2014a).

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 What emerged from all this questioning was an acknowledgement that, yes, for the vast majority of Americans, there was value in obtaining a diploma and that it still did make sense for high school students to aspire to attend college (Carlson, 2013b). Student debt continued to loom large in the minds of mainstream Americans and the media, and it contributed to the launch of a wave of experimentation in higher education.  What emerged was a new, somewhat parallel system of alternate higher education that would grow to exist simultaneously with traditional higher education, and would offer students multiple tracks to navigate on their way to a diploma. (Bell, 2012b). Whereas traditional higher education is linear, as shown in figure 1, with students starting their education as freshmen and proceeding to earn the appropriate amount of credits at a single institution until they accumulate the number needed to graduate, alternate higher education is non-linear and may include time spent at multiple institutions, as shown in figure 2. Alt-higher education is where the evolution of higher education, of which Selingo spoke, is happening.

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9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Among those who contributed to the growth of alt-higher education was Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity. A Stanford professor who admired Salman Khan’s use of technology to disseminate learning, Thrun decided to open his online course up to the world and in doing so made MOOCs an integral component of alt-higher education. Within 18 months of Udacity’s start, two other large-scale MOOC providers formed, Coursera and edX, the New York Time’s declared 2013 the Year of the MOOC and the rest is history. At one point Thrun boldly predicted there would be only 10 higher education institutions in 50 years. Within a year, much to the delight of his detractors, Thrun declared that his MOOC offered a “lousy product”, and shifted Udacity’s focus on corporate continuing education while also announcing its remaining MOOC courses would begin charging for certificates of completion (Chafkin, 2013). While the naysayers pointed to this turn of events as a sign of the demise of MOOCs, it was just one step in the evolution of higher education to which Jeff Selingo referred.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Librarians Look Ahead.  In the search to define and shape new roles for themselves, academic librarians were quick to engage with the world of alt-higher education. In 2013, across multiple platforms, they explored what role they might play in the MOOC environment. Through symposiums, conference presentations, articles, webinars and informal discussions, academic librarians shared ideas for how they could integrate library and research services into the design, delivery and support of alternate forms of higher education. As is often the case when our profession blazes a trail into new territory there was information to share about initial projects and future possibilities, but also the uncertainty about whether or not academic librarians could truly connect with learners in the alt-higher education space – and what these developments might mean for our current and future relevance. The big question on everyone’s mind remains “What are concrete examples of how academic librarians can help with MOOCs and other forms of alternative higher education?”  Answers are beginning to emerge.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 While academic librarians may be grappling with how to make licensed database content available to students who hardly fit our traditional notions of an enrollee, they are making advances in helping faculty develop learning objects, providing support for copyright clearance or directing faculty to open resources, creating resource guides and connecting students with local sources for research support. Instructional support for course research is another service that academic librarians are successfully transferring to the distance learning world, but it’s less clear how to make it available to the massive learning space. As other types of alternate higher education systems emerge academic librarians will need to determine if they can fit their traditional service package onto a form of education meant to break the constraints of the way it’s always been done. Competency-based higher education, for example, while advantageous to certain students, presents considerable challenges to academic librarians who want to serve the students. It is quite possible that students can earn competency-based degrees without ever attending a traditional class setting, in person or online. How exactly does an academic librarian connect with those students?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Looking ahead, current trends suggest that alt-higher education will expand and increase in offerings. Factors such rising tuition, fear of student debt, uncertainty about employment, need for flexible learning arrangements, expectations of learning while working full time, desire for competency-based programs and other concerns pushing degree seekers towards more affordable options and flexible options will all move higher education in new directions. Libraries that stay committed to traditional service delivery will experience difficulty in making the shift to the new road. In the long-term there will always be families that will pay private institution tuition in order to gain access to the traditional college residential experience, and those institutions that can provide it will no doubt offer the types of libraries to which we are now accustomed. Over the next decade, predictions are that as many as 1,000 regional, tuition-driven, non-distinctive colleges and universities, both public and private, will close for lack of students. (McDonald, 2014) Those that manage to survive will likely do so by transitioning to alternate forms of education, and their library services will no doubt be quite different from what we see today.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 3 With more students swirling their way through higher education it is possible that library service may shift from an institutional to a consortial focus (Selingo, 2012). How, for example, might we deliver library instruction to a student who may only be with us for a few select courses or who is receiving credits for competency-based learning and is gaining more credit for learning that happens outside the classroom. Knowing that students are shifting from institution to institution, physical to virtual, fee to free and credit hour to competency, academic librarians may want to respond with more aggressive cooperative services. This way, we may have some assurance that students are exposed to a shared instruction system and therefore gain some skills that can be applied to research at nearly any institution. To avoid the constant creation and termination of accounts, perhaps a student has a single account that is honored by any consortial member. Just as we now have academic librarians dedicated to delivering services to distance learners, we may see special positions in academic libraries for Creative Learning Specialists who focus on responding to the needs of alt-higher education students for whom higher education is achieved with multiple institutions with all types of delivery platforms. The job of the Specialist is to provide the level of support that gets the students through programs and successfully graduate.

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SIDEBAR: New Roles – Creative Learning Specialist: Academic librarians traditional roles were defined by traditional functions, such as reference or instruction, or perhaps by a subject specialty, such as English or education. For the road ahead, we are likely to see many more highly specialized functional areas within the academic library. While these new roles will likely reflect some of those traditional skill areas, such as reference or collection building, they will be shared responsibilities among all staff and far less the defining element. Rather these new roles are largely defined by the special function they encompass. As higher education evolves to include many different types of delivery systems, each allowing for different segments of the learner market to match themselves to the system that best suits their lifestyle and learning needs, academic libraries may want to design a new position for the Creative Learning Specialist (CLS). The CLS is a librarian with strong skills in instructional design and technology, and is able to identify and communicate with other faculty those pedagogies, methods and assessments that will best help integrate research skill development into the curriculum.
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Source: http://acrl.ala.org/newroles/?page_id=239