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Universities: Carnegie, Classification and the Advancement of Teaching

The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education is in the process of revising the classification system for college and iniversities in the United States [Note: this entry is the result of a comment left by Chris in Universities: Teaching The Textbook]. Since we are presently in the initial stages of development (you can stay updated here: Carnegie Classification Mailing List), it is difficult to comment in much detail. There is some useful documentation in the Downloads for 2005 Revision of Carnegie Classification Revision. However, there are some things that struck me as interesting...

At first glance, it seems to me that the most important aspects of the new classification scheme fall under the heading:

Proposed Elective (voluntary) Schemes
These schemes will be based on voluntary participation by institutions, and will involve independent data reporting and development of new measures that are not reflected in the national data. These will be ongoing initiatives.

The two schemes proposed are:

a) Outreach and Community Engagement; and

b) Assessment and Support of Undergraduate Education.

Outreach and Community Engagment are critical and essential strategic directions in any university. The old idea of the isolated "ivory tower" is in desperate need of being replaced by a more open interface with society and a more vibrant sense of interaction with the practical realities of everyday life. Community engagement is a vital and essential capacity in learning. Community engagement is a more effective strategic direction for a university than community service.

The pedagogy of community engagement, if that term makes sense, is not hard to describe. There are many ways of developing instructional methods and approaches that serve to foster an authentic linkage between the educational institution and the practical realities embedded in the community. Connected Intelligence is one example of this type of strategic design:

  1. Origins of Connected Intelligence - Madeira
  2. Creating a Connected Intelligence Learning Organization
  3. Connected Intelligence Network Learning Environment
  4. The Impact of Connected Intelligence on Education Systems
  5. Connected Intelligence Training and Development
  6. The CITD Learning Framework
  7. Connected Intelligence Network Learning Projects
  8. Overview of Completed CI NLPs
  9. CITD Program Assessment

The danger that universities face in attempting forge meaningful linkages with the community is the tendency to deingrate the entire approach to community service. However, the definition provided by the Carnegie Institute makes it seem that they are well aware of this:

Community Engagement is defined as the exchange of knowledge and resources between higher education institutions and their larger communities for mutual benefit, in a context of partnership and reciprocity. Plans are under way for the development and pilot implementation of a set of indicators and a classification framework.

But I do not believe that the mere "exchange" of "knowledge" and "resources" is enough. Authentic community engagement cannot merely be described as a kind of "exchange." Exchange knowledge and resources to do what, and why should we believe this matters? Exchanging knowledge and resources do not necessarily result in meaningful action, change or development. Community engagement is something far more profound, interactive and unified than anything that could be captured by the word "exchange."

For example, one only needs to spend a few minutes with the Tamarack site to see a more comprehensive and meaningful definition of mission and strategic direction at play. And I also believe that universities should not build ideas about community engagement in a self-referential manner, for the history of university interaction with community is quite modest at best. There is little experience to draw on from within.

There is, at this early stage, little information about what "Assessment and Support of Undergraduate Education" means. One document offers an initial view:

While the national data provide extensive information about who is enrolled, who does the teaching, and what degrees are awarded in what fields, there are no national data on how colleges and universities endeavor to understand and improve upon one of their most important functions, the education of undergraduates. This elective scheme will group institutions according to the nature of their efforts to learn about and improve upon undergraduate education, with attention to their engagement in assessment activities, approaches to teaching evaluation, and support for the improvement of teaching and learning.

One of things that strikes me is the impression I have that this is a "new" initiative? Is this an elective? I suppose it is an elective in the sense that participation by educational institutions is voluntary, but it makes one wonder what kind of education institution would not volunteer. I completely agree that one of the most important functions of any university is the education of undergraduates. But are we really facing another exercise in language that attempts to create a kind of marketing reality that is different from the practical reality of students? For example, I commented earlier on a rather predestrian notion of something called blended learning that, unforutnately, is more an exercise in fiction than anything else. I also commented on the vacuous and completely inept use of technology in providing undergradute psychology students "knowledge" via video lectures. This is what we mean by "teaching" - by providing "knowledge?" And even with a reply from the professor concerned (an intelligent one that I am grateful for), it is clear that the bureaucratic machinery of the university is more important than the students are.

Of course, I have an appreciation for the underlying financial challenges of educational insitutions, yet it is a challenge that is often addressed by making education more expensive for undergraduate students while simultaneously providing them with less of an opportunity. And all to often, this is wrapped up in a style of language that promotes the power of technology or the benefits of some new adjective + the word learning. Fodder.

Of course, the comments above may have no direct relevance to the new classification system and is not intended to be a criticism. At the same time, circular and self-referential nature of innovation that characterizes much of education is something that needs to be addressed. Why is all this language about innovative approaches in education developed while simultaneously very little of a fundamental nature actually changes? If the classification scheme is to be helpful, it will also need to address the core assumptions and bureaucratic blockages that tend to denigrate innovation into fleeting variation, and thereby trap professors in an underlying and more mercurial reality that is strikingly different from the propaganda of the day.

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