Friday, August 9, 2013

Redesigning our Campus Communities: What would a TEDCampus2.0 Conference Look Like?

On September 20th, TED will be holding its 2013 TEDCity2.0 conference, a day-long conversation led by an eclectic group of thinkers from a variety of backgrounds, including art, anthropology, sustainability, engineering, and transportation to name just a few.  Their goal?  Discuss and imagine what future cities might look like.  As I see it, they are essentially exploring the question "How can we design and create more effective communities?"

That's a question institutional leaders should be asking as well.  Granted, some probably are; however, TED's City2.0 conference provides an interesting model for how campus leaders could go about exploring this question.  Rather than insulated conversations among small groups of academics, what would happen if a campus or group of campuses were to convene their own Campus2.0 conference?

First, there would be a small number of core themes or issues that would be explored.  Second, experts and innovators from a broad range of areas would be invited to ensure that a wide range of perspectives are represented.  Third, the dialogue for each session would be built around a number of provocative questions.

Here's my vision of how it might look.

Session #1:  Redefining what it means to be a member of a campus community.  
Those of us who live and work on college campuses have become too tied down by our "roles" and the scripts that go along with those roles.  Students go to class, take exams, and occasionally participate in on-campus events. Faculty members teach classes, sit on committees, and do research. Administrators worry about their specific programs and make sure that resources are allocated.  It's all very fragmented and disconnected.  Sessions and presentations around this theme would help members of a campus community consider common goals and purposes, invite members of the community to reconsider what their role in the community should be (particularly as it relates to shared purposes), and discuss how various members of the campus community can be brought together to collaboratively address real challenges on a college campus.

Guiding Questions

  • What does engaged citizenship on a campus community look like?
  • How can a campus community enact principles of democracy in meaningful ways?
  • Who are the vulnerable campus populations that need a voice in the campus community?
  • What does a thriving campus community look like?  Feel like?  Sound like?
Who would be there?
  • Citizenship & community experts who can discuss the philosophy of citizenship and community building and how those ideas can be applied on a college campus.
  • Local, state, or national community organizers and activists who can apply their expertise to issues of community on campuses.
  • Poverty experts, not necessarily because traditional forms of poverty are issues on college campuses (although they are probably more prevalent than we would like to admit), but to help members of campus communities to consider what other forms of poverty and vulnerability might exist (e.g. the plight of first-generation college students, adjunct faculty, etc.).  
  • Historians who could discuss what citizenship has meant in the past, across societies, and what it can and should mean in the future.
The Dream Team (who we'd invite if we could have our pick of anyone)
  • Robert Putnam, to discuss issues of social capitol and community
  • David McCullough, because he's interesting and seems to have thoughtful things to say about just about anything.
  • Clayton Christensen, because I disagree with the management principles he applies to higher education (it's good to have opposing viewpoints represented), but think he's an excellent thinker and it would be good to have his perspective on issues of campus citizenship.

Session #2:  Reinventing the Campus Experience
In a thriving campus community, the campus experience would shift from being focused on transactions (e.g. taking classes, providing instruction, coming to work to clean the buildings) to shared experiences that build meaning, social capital, and relationships.  So, we'd invite people that could speak to the ways in which experience can be designed to lead to these outcomes.

Guiding Questions
  • How has the campus experience shifted in the last 20 years?  What might campus experience look like moving forward?
  • Who are the key players positioned to impact campus experience?
  • What are the elements of experience that will contribute to the academic, social, and civic aims of higher education?

Who would be there?
  • Artists, poets, and musicians who could help us understand how to create aesthetic experience within our campus communities.
  • Anthropologists who could speak to issues of human experience and what we know about it as a phenomenon.  
  • Technologists, to help us think through both the promise and peril associated with integrating technology (especially new and social media) into the campus experience.
  • Experience architects who can raise issues of story, design, aesthetics, interaction, and place within experience.

The Dream Team
  • Tom Kelley, who could share IDEO's expertise in designing and shaping experience.
  • Clay Shirky, to explore the impact of technology upon experience and what it means for communities.
  • Jason Sweeney, who could help us understand how participatory art (and other large-scale community collaborations) can contribute to aesthetics, dialogue, and cohesion in a community.
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to discuss what "flow" on a campus community might look like, feel like, and how it could be designed for.

Session #3:  Reimagining the Physical Campus
Campuses come in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Some are small campuses in large cities, others are large campuses in what students would describe as the middle of nowhere.  And, the exact design of a physical campus should vary depending on a variety of factors, including the size of the student body, whether it is a residential or commuter campus, and its institutional mission (agricultural land grant institution vs. science and technology).  The key is making physical design decisions intentionally and for the right reasons, not just under the pressure of space and cost.

Guiding Questions
  • What can campus planners learn from successful cities?
  • How can physical design decisions be leveraged to make a positive impact upon citizenship, engagement, and the student experience?
  • What can physical campuses learn from successful virtual spaces that can be applied on a college campus?  What are the cautionary tales to be learned from these virtual spaces?
  • What are the various types of spaces that should exist within a campus community?
Who would be there?
  • Architects, because they design and build the stuff.
  • Traffic engineers, because they understand the dynamics of moving bodies within spaces and how to make intentional decisions about flow.  
  • Artists and graphic designers, because it should look nice.
  • Industrial designers, to help us think through the products and materials that should be placed within communities and how they should be designed.
  • Sociologists, to make sure the builders and accountants don't dround out the other voices.
The Dream Team
  • Ray Oldenburg, because he understands the characteristics of effective community spaces and how to create them.
  • Jane Jacobs (yes, we're bringing her back from the dead), because she could help us think about a campus community as a city and what that might mean.
  • Toni Griffin, whose background in urban design, architecture, and place-making would provide incredible insights for a college campus.

So, now we just need TED to plan this conference and invite us all.  Would you come?

Friday, August 2, 2013

Aaron Osmond's Practical (read: Illogical) Argument for Ending Compulsory Education in Utah

+Aaron Osmond, a Utah republican state senator from South Jordan, asserted in a recent posting on the Utah State Senate blog (which has, curiously, disappeared from the web) that the state of Utah should end its requirement for children to attend mandatory schooling.  Osmond's argument is centered on two main premises:
(a) The United States is a country founded on the principles of personal freedom and unalienable rights;" consequently, "no parent should be forced by the government to send their child to school" (direct quote from the original blog post).   
(b) Parents have failed to take responsibility for and engage in their children's education, and the current requirement forces schools and teachers to become "surrogate parents, expected to do everything. . . . Some parents act as if the responsibility to educate . . . is primarily the responsibility of the public school system" (blog post).

While Osmond's two observations (i.e. that the US was founded upon personal freedom and that parents often don't take enough responsibility for supporting their children's education) are accurate, his logic is flawed at best and absent at worst.

First, in what is likely an act of deference to ultra conservative members of his party (as well as the Utah Eagle Forum, which seems to have as much control over Republican lawmakers as nearly any single individual or organization, even more than the LDS Church), Osmond selectively applies the worn-out "personal liberty" argument to promote a narrow political agenda.  The basis of this argument seems to be that because the US was founded upon principles of "unalienable rights," parents should have free license to make any and all decisions regarding their children's lives.  However, Osmond and his colleagues don't allow political opponents to use the same logic (personal freedom = parents can do whatever they want) in other aspects of parenting (e.g. taking their children to a restaurant that serves liquor in plain sight).  He can't selectively apply the personal freedom argument in some contexts, but not others.  Additionally, this line of logic is incredibly naive for someone claiming to be a lawmaker.  The basic premise of the law-making process is that governments limit some freedoms in order to promote the general welfare of its citizenry.

Second, Utah is already incredibly friendly toward parent choice in education, providing a number of home and charter school options.  In fact, for those parents who choose the home-school route, there is no mandatory testing or curriculum inspection--all they need to do is sign an affidavit committing to teach the same subjects as public schools and for the same amount of time.  In my opinion this already borders on negligence and couldn't be much more parent-choice friendly.  There doesn't seem to be much wrong with the current system in terms of providing parents with freedom to make choices about their children's education.

Third, although most parents could do more to be involved in their kids' learning (and some could do much more), making school "optional" isn't likely to help things.  Salt Lake City School Board member Michael Clara put it most succinctly "the cure would be worse than the disease."  Imagine what an already disengaged parent would do if his kids weren't forced to go to school?  Exactly.  He'd do nothing.  How is that better?

Finally, and most importantly, education is a public good.  So, while a parent should have some choice in how, when, or where her child is educated, she should not have the choice of whether her son or daughter receives an education because all of her neighbors (both present and future) need that son or daughter to be educated.  State and local governments (and, increasingly, the federal government) are concerned about and involved in influencing educational issues because having an educated citizenry is essential for a democracy to function.  So, ultimately, education is a means to enabling the very freedoms Osmond supports.

Because Osmond has seemed relatively intelligent in the past, I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he hasn't somehow become stupider over the last few months.  Rather, I think he's probably been influenced by big players in Utah politics.  Regardless, his thinking that education could or should be made optional is flawed.