By Steve Eskow
3 November 2008
I’m a chronic reader of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Part scholarly journal, part newspaper and gossip column and help wanted advertising, each week its reporting brings to me the doings and thinking of faculty, students, academic administrators and education officials and accrediting agencies and all the shapers of academia in the colleges and universities in the US and around the world.
Lately I’ve been bemused by that 375-billion dollar question asked in the October 3, 2008 issue:
“The 375-Billion Dollar Question: Why Does College Cost So Much?”
The article itself never really gets around to answering the question. But each issue of the Chronicle provides pieces of the answer—and often analyses that are quite convincing.
Here is the answer of Honor Jones, a student. Her piece in the May 8, 2008 Chronicle is titled “Invest in People, Not Buildings.”
“Everywhere I hear the sound of dump trucks. It’s my fourth year at the University of Virginia, and they haven’t stopped building since I got here. A new commerce school, a new theater. If UVA is any example of the state of public education in general, we need to evaluate our priorities before another brick gets bought.”
In his “Meditation on Building” in the October 20 Chronicle faculty member David Orr paints this grim picture:
“It is estimated that the construction, maintenance, and operation of buildings in the United States consumes close to 40 percent of the country’s raw materials and energy and is responsible for about 33 percent of our CO2 emissions, 25 percent of our wood use, and 16 percent of our water use. In 1990, 70 percent of the 2.5 million metric tons of non-fuel materials that moved through the economy were used in construction.
“Further, by one estimate we will attempt to build more buildings in the next 50 years than humans did in the past 5,000. Most of this development will be driven by individuals operating in a market system that does not account for losses of farmland, forests, wetlands, or biological diversity — or for the human need for community.”
So: to students—some thoughtful students—and to faculty—some ecologically sensitive faculty—the university invests in buildings, not people, not the environment. The counter, of course, might well be: how else does the university house its students and the apparatus it needs for learning? How would the critics provide spaces for instruction, for housing, for study, for recreation? Are there alternatives to the buildings, or are the critics beneficiaries of the structures they deplore?
Which brings us to the question of the new information and communication technologies and how to bring their benefits to the university.
Xavier University’s answer is typical: build a building around the new technologies, and have the students come to the building to use them.
From the Chronicle, January 1,2008:
“A $28-million building called the Learning Commons will be erected to house the organization and serve as a center for various educational programs. Users will be able to get technical help, use multimedia software at any one of a bank of computers, view the library’s online holdings, and have their reference questions answered.
“The library, which will be attached to the new building, is being refashioned as simply a warehouse for books.”
The Xavier officials, of course, could not have seen the October 17, 2008 issue of the Chronicle and the story headlines “Colleges Struggle to Keep ‘Smart Classrooms’ Up to Date,” which describes such a “learning commons” shared by the University of Colorado at Denver, Metropolitan State College of Denver, and the Community College of Denver.
“Professors who hold classes there say that years of financial neglect have left the smart classrooms nearly unusable.”
Xavier, then, might find that its $28-million is only the beginning of its commitment to keep its Commons smart and usable.
We need—need desperately—a new Learning Commons: a new Agora.
There are those who point out that we already have such a commons in the Internet itself. It is a worldwide commons that need not be enclosed in buildings: indeed, its possibilities for serving students and teachers and researchers are limited when it is enclosed.
The new Agora of the Internet is classroom, lecture hall, library, and students can take the Agora with them and listen to lectures and read books and engage in dialog with teachers and students who are scattered in time and space.
MIT, Yale, Stanford, Rice have put syllabi and lectures online.
David Wiley, then at Utah State, let unenrolled students take one of his online courses, and gave them his own unofficial certificates to show employers: this as a public service. And Stephen Downes and George Siemens allowed more than 2,000 unofficial students to take their online course “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge.”
There is a new Agora in the process of creation, a new Commons. And it will flourish free of the constraints of buildings, and, if we let learning move to where it is needed, we will enrich the lives of all those who can’t find their way to our buildings, or can’t afford the price of admission.
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