The writing is on the wall. The shifting is beginning and I am part of it. For the past three years I have watched myself transform from a professor of art history into a passionate advocate for online education and an overall transformation of our higher education system. I believe our colleges and universities have an issue that is not being addressed. Higher ed in the US is rooted in traditional pedagogy that “we” (professors, administrators, support staff – all of us) can’t even see that a college degree in the US is becoming less relevant to our students each year. We must see the potential of new approaches to education. We must get beyond our vision of “the classroom” as “the learning space” for our students. We must engage in thoughtful conversations about how technology can engage more students than ever before in powerful, transformative, personalized learning experiences.

“Tradition” tells us that professors stay in their positions for a lifetime because they have tenure. Certainly, in today’s unstable economy this is a coveted blessing that most people aren’t willing to give up. But I think times may be changing — for two reasons. First, the generational characteristics of our faculty are shifting. Baby Boomers, who compromise the upper ranks of tenured professors, possess strong loyal ties to their employers. Baby boomers connect personally identify with their place of employment and typically stick with an employer for decades, working through difficult times and doing whatever it takes to succeed (that’s the Boomer mentality). Generation X is different. Gen X (birthdates early 1960s to about 1980) members typically are more interested in looking out for their own interests in a career. Many Gen Xers have memories of their “loyal” parents getting laid off from that employer they were so committed to. Gen Xers are the first generation to be willing to say “see ya later” if their needs are not met in a career. They’re more willing to start over and take risks than their Boomer predecessors. And these Xers are now moving into the mid-ranks of professors.

Many of these Xers are technologically savvy. Many of them have been intimately connected to the social changes that have emerged since the dawn of the internet in the mid-1990s. Many of these Xers are thirsty for innovation. Some may feel frustrated with the disinterest they sense around them when they speak of things like “new pedagogies,” “online learning,” “social networking,” “web 2.0,” podcasting, blogging, etc. It’s seems counterintuitive to see large percentages of institutional budgets be focused on traditional classrooms and little to nothing be dedicated to developing programs to design forward thinking educational models, provide online support for our students, foster online community for students who learn at a distance, purchase web cams and microphones and digital movie cameras for our professors to teach more interactively through technology.

I don’t think tenure will keep the Gen Xers from shuffling around. And, interestingly enough, there’s one university who seems to get this. Take a minute to watch a couple of the new recruitment ads for Kaplan University.

What non-profit American colleges and universities fail to see is the critical role that innovative faculty will play in defining the success of higher education in the 21st century. The shadow of tradition obscures our view. And, interestingly, Kaplan — a for-profit university — sees this clearly.  What does that mean for the future of public higher ed?

I am a tenured, tech-savvy, Gen X professor with a passion for innovation. This June I will leave my current position and begin a new career at a 4-year university that has integrated online learning into the strategic focus of their institution. While some view my move as “a crazy risk” in this time of economic uncertainty, I see it as essential. I have about twenty more years ahead of me in my career. If I’m not passionate about what I do every day, then how can I be meeting the needs of my students? That’s what I do – I’m an educator. Isn’t that what we all should be doing?

14 Comments to “To: American Higher Ed, Get Ready to Lose Your Innovators”

  1. Sierra College is losing one of its best, brightest and absolutely passionate and talented young professors. I am sure going to miss you…wake up call is right. I hear it everyday in my office as a community college counselor, students trying to make school and work fit into their lives. How sad, with all that we could be doing, that we do not make education available in a form where they could reasonably do both. Where is the student’s “academic freedom” to choose how they access education? Who are we here to serve anyway? The market demand is clear in that online fill up before in class sections.
    Nancy Martinis/Sierra College Counselor

  2. Hi Michelle – great comments, and I agree with your observations about the future of our industry. Have you seen the educause book “Dancing with the Devil“?

    It’s been out for a few years – but post reminded me of it – we’re on the cusp of a major transformation, as education becomes more and more critical, and our previous structures and methods of delivery don’t meet needs of our learners.

    I’ve actually got a spare copy of it – I’d be happy to send it to you, if you’ll forward your address via email.

  3. Michelle,

    I am really sorry to hear that you are leaving Sierra College, and hope that you will reconsider. We need more innovative educators like you to lead the way to the new frontier ahead, and help transform Sierra to the institution it must (and will inevitably) become.

    But in any case, best wishes on your career, and please keep in touch.

    All the best,

    Aaron Klein
    Sierra College Trustee

  4. Sierra is loosing one of its best and brightest innovators that is for sure. I agree, if higher education does not shift its ‘mindset’ into the 21st century a trend of loosing innovators (talented employees & students alike) is sure to develop. As a fellow tenured, technologically savvy Xer who is passionate about creative approaches to education, I too am frustrated with higher education and its failure to embrace the ever changing technological landscape (and what I have to offer). The importance of doing this seems blatantly obvious on so many levels yet education remains steeped in traditional approaches to learning.

    Michelle Macfarlane
    Faculty, Sierra College

  5. I have been singing your praises about my Art 10 online experience of last spring(08)to any one who is contemplating taking this course! They will truly be missing out on one of the best educational experiences at Sierra.May you achieve everything you set out to do.
    Many thanks for your energy and passion for the art learning process. This has been a great inspiration to me. Thank you for holding the bar high and helping me not only reach it but clear it! I consider your course one of THE best out of my three-year experience at Sierra.You have given me many online tools that I did not possess before and for that I am grateful.

    I hope you left a mentor behind to carry on! Sierra College students will be the better for it!!Keep at it! Because of you I continue to love online courses and will be working on a Bachelor online in Family Studies this fall!!
    I wish you much joy and continued success…
    Keep in touch,
    Marilyn Martino
    Sierra College Graduate
    Spring 2008
    Liberal Arts,Early Childhood Education and Master Teacher-Art Emphasis

  6. Risks! Those are what give life the exciting spike it has! If no one ever took a risk, do you thiink we would ever be as far as we are today in anything from technology to clothing to worship… anything! I’m sad that you’re leaving for my own selfish desire to be able to drop in and say hi every once in a while… and for the students that never got to have your class i feel sad for as well. Congrats on the new job! I will pray for you that everything works out and life is even better than you ever dreamed! Good luck with the class, and hopefully people will someday understand that technology could so easily become the new frontier in the academic atmosphere if a few teachers had the drive that you have to ge there!
    Much love, always, Jordan Pare

  7. As a very grateful previous student of yours, I cannot say enough how much you and your style of teaching will be missed. I am 27years old and am finally transferring to Sac State this semester with 127 units, most of which taken online, because I could not previously work on-ground classes into my busy life with work, a husband, and 2 kids. Not only does Sierra need more educators like yourself, but this entire state and it’s education system definitely needs to change if they want to continue to educate our future leaders. You will be greatly missed here, however it is fantastic that you have the opportunity to expand your audience. You know you will always have loyal listeners here.

    Stacie McNally
    Former Art 1E Student and Hopeful Future Teacher

  8. Brava Michelle! It is moments like these that help to define who we are!

    I know all too well the frustration you have expressed!

    If I can be of any support to you now, or in the future, please let me know!

    Many blessings!

  9. Anonymous

    I sense sometimes that I am viewed by people at Sierra College as the “loose cannon.” Thankfully with the protections tenure provides for those of us who genuinely practice academic freedom, I admit to enjoying that role. My sense that “between the lines” in Michelle’s posting is that she feels much like many of us “early adopters” of technology feel with regard to the support provided by the College in our efforts to bring teaching into the 21st century.

    A much more accurate characterization would be “lack of support.” With the focus of the College constructing buildings in locations that have an expected downturn in enrollments (based upon the downturn in K-12 enrollments), substantial financial resources are being directed into areas where we will lose money. Only nominal funding has been directed at the primary source of growth revenues. That source of course is the increase in online class enrollments.

    Michelle, I’m sorry to see you go. It is clearly a loss for our community, the College, and our students. Know that as with other posters in this thread, you have my respect and admiration.

    Take care,

    Steve Linthicum
    Professor, Sierra College
    Adjunct Professor, Lesley University (School of Education, Post-Graduate Program)

  10. Darla Jones

    I am one of so many that you have inspired, and I will sincerely miss you and the knowledge/skills/passion you bring to Sierra College. I admire you for reaching out and attaining what will fulfill your long term goals and passions. I just feel blessed to have been lucky enough to know you and learn from you.

    Good luck in all you do!

  11. Michelle
    You have been an incredible inspiration for me. I am still new to Sierra and am part time. I met you in Louis’ pedagogy class a year ago, and have been working with new technology ever since! I tell a story of the first time I saw your student online class, how I felt, how it changed me, and how I want to create that for my students.

    As a fellow gen-xer, am I surprised you are leaving for something new, different, risky? Absolutely not. It makes complete sense to me. May we all have the strength to create change in our careers, to challenge ourselves, to venture out from safe and familiar arenas.

    Am I depressed about the loss Sierra will feel, the students and teachers who will miss out? Absolutley.

    And what about the people who helped you create and sustain the iTech lab, those folks who continue to teach and lead the faculty learners? Will I join the ranks of these wonderful people like you who are willing to take up the torch of creating change here at Sierra? Consider it done.

    You will be missed, Michelle.

    All the best,
    Kellie Bliss
    Human Development

  12. Michelle – I wish you the best on your new position. May it give you all the creative license and fulfillment you deserve.

    Unfortunately changing our educational system is an uphill battle. I believe the old joke is changing traditional education is like trying to move a grave yard.

    This system has long outlived its medieval beginning (altho the robes and mortar board hats still come from then). Served us well during the industrial age, but failed us and our students miserably for today’s world and information age.

    All too often creativity and innovation are stifled for the traditional methods of teaching and learning. Do we not need great innovators now more than ever as we stand on the brink of worldwide economic and environmental disaster?

    Now’s the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of their world… and help others to do the same.

  13. I found your post provided an interesting perspective on the GenX and Baby Boomer dynamic of higher education. I’m doing my masters online and I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I also teach in a traditional educational setting so I know the obstacles to using social networking and web 2.0 technology.


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