My New Favorite Professor

I graduated from Colby College in 1994 with a B.A. in Biology and a minor in education.  I graduated with a certificate to teach Biology to students in grade 7-12 in the state of Maine.  I had a great experience at Colby and had many outstanding professors.

But my new favorite professor at Colby is  The Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government, Calvin MacKenzie.  In the most recent edition of Colby Magazine, MacKenzie writes about the potential that 21st century technologies can have in opening up possibilities for college students.  More specifically he writes:

The fastest-growing segment of American higher education is now asynchronous or online learning—where the professor is in one place and the student in another, and not always at the same time. We’ve always disdained this as “not our way.” But contemporary technology has significantly narrowed the gap between distance learning (where teacher and student are apart in space or time) and traditional learning (where they are physically together). We are deluding ourselves if we think that the only truly effective teaching and learning occurs when all God’s children are in the same place. How can we use the emerging possibilities for online instruction to complement and improve our product without diminishing the great benefits of a residential college? And it’s never been easier to join forces with other colleges in creative partnerships that allow us to share our strengths and cure our weaknesses. No small college can teach everything it would like. But can’t we harness new communications technologies to create curricula that draw on the combined strengths of many institutions in ways that benefit us all?

We need as well to ask if four years should remain the norm for completing a college degree. Many Colby students, aided by technologies and resources that did not exist a generation ago, seem to have reached levels of proficiency as juniors that I didn’t used to see until deep into their senior year. They can do good research and analysis, produce clear and insightful papers, and make effective oral presentations with almost professional skill. They are, in baseball parlance, ready for a higher league long before they get their degrees. With costs now so steep, shouldn’t there be a powerful imperative to take advantage of our expanding array of technological resources to shorten the length and reduce the overall cost of a college education?

How do you think the trustees of Colby feel about that statement?  One of their professors suggesting that students can earn their degree in less than three years?  At $50,000+ per year?  Of course, professors may not be too happy either.  Less years means less courses, which in turn means less jobs.

But, in my mind, this isn’t about lost jobs – I don’t want to see any competent educator jobless – it’s about providing opportunity for students.  Imagine a student at Colby taking a Law course offered at American, or an African-American Studies course at Howard, or a Film course at USC.  Moreover, why not allow a student to develop his or her own course by collaborating with instructors and experts from around the world.  You can think of it as Independent Study 2.0.

The point is that students now have choice.  They have the opportunity with the digital world to customize their learning in ways that extend beyond the campus of the college of their choice and their programs.  They have the opportunity to earn additional credits so that they can complete their degree in three years, thus avoided another year of student loans to be saddled with upon graduation. They have the opportunity to work collaboratively with literally anyone in the world from anywhere, including Waterville, ME – Colby’s home town.

Chris Lehman taught me that educators need to be preparing their students to be  a 21st century citizen as opposed to a 21st century workforce and I think part of that citizenry must include a willingness to be open to evolving and dynamic times.  Professor MacKenzie’s belief that higher ed institution need to start embracing the power found in the creative use of 21st century technologies.  As he says,

Things change. And they are changing now at an unprecedented pace driven by ineluctable technologies. Our task is to make those new technologies our servant, not our master, and certainly not our enemy.

Technology as a servant.  Brilliant.

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