making universities relevant: the naked teaching approach

I feel sorry for college deans, I really do*. They face the herculean task of proving that the brick-and-mortar college experience offers something worth going into tens of thousands of dollars of debt for, a task made even more difficult by the realities of a recession that's left nearly a quarter of Americans either unemployed or underemployed.

Then there's the added challenge of proving colleges have anything other than paper credentials to offer in a culture where information is free and expert status is easily attainable. Only in a participatory culture, for example, would it be possible for time-efficiency guru Timothy Ferriss to offer a set of instructions on "How to Become a Top Expert in 4 Weeks." "It's time to obliterate the cult of the expert," Ferriss writes in his mega-bestseller, The Four-Hour Workweek. He argues that the key is to accumulate what he calls "credibility indicators." It is possible, he writes,
to know all there is to know about a subject--medicine, for example--but if you don't have M.D. at the end of your name, few will listen.... Becoming a recognized expert isn't difficult, so I want to remove that barrier now. I am not recommending pretending to be something you're not... In modern PR terms, proof of expertise in most fields is shown with group affiliations, client lists, writing credentials, and media mentions, not IQ points or Ph.D.s.

Ferriss then offers five tips for becoming a "recognized expert" in your chosen field. None of them include earning the credential through formal education.

Just like that, we've gone from the position that expertise takes a decade, at minimum, to develop, to the argument that a person can become an expert in just four weeks.

In the face of this qualitative shift in how we orient to expertise, colleges--the educational institutions that have made their bones on offering a sure path to credentialing--are struggling to remain viable. One strategy--and the one chosen by José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts--is to offer "naked teaching." Bowen's approach, as described in a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, is to actually remove networked technologies from the classroom. The article makes it clear that Bowen is not anti-technology; he just thinks technologies are being misused by faculty who overrely on PowerPoint and technology-supported lecturing techniques. He favors using technologies like podcasting for delivering lecture materials outside of the classroom, then using the class itself to foster group discussion and debates.

To support this approach, all faculty were recently given laptops and support for creating podcasts and videos.

According to the Chronicle piece, the group that's most upset about the shift away from the traditional lecture format is...students. According to Kevin Heffernan, an associate professor in the school's division of cinema and television, students

are used to being spoon-fed material that is going to be quote unquote on the test. Students have been socialized to view the educational process as essentially passive. The only way we're going to stop that is by radically refiguring the classroom in precisely the way José wants to do it.

For all the griping we do about No Child Left Behind, test-centered accountability practices, and high-stakes assessment practices, the roaring success of decontextualized accountability structures is their astounding ability to keep formal education relevant. "Success" at the primary and secondary level means high achievement on high-stakes tests; and, achievement depends on the learner's ability to internalize the value systems and learning approaches implicit in the approach of this kind of testing structure. Do well on a series of state-mandated tests and you'll probably also do well on the SAT; do well on the SAT and you're well positioned for the lecture-style, knowledge-transfer and, in general, highly decontextualized experience of most undergraduate-level classes. We gravitate toward the kind of experience that make us feel successful, which means the testing factory churns out its own customer base.

While Bowen's experiment (one that he's been moving toward for years; see this 2006 piece in the National Teaching and Learning Forum) may garner attention for an apparent anti-technology stance, the impetus behind his "naked teaching" approach is an effort to reshape the role of institutions of higher education. In truth, learning can happen anywhere, and Bowen's embrace of this truth through his embrace of technologies for supporting out-of-class information transfer seems like a low-risk and high-yield slant on the role of the university.

If learning can happen anywhere, then the physical community of learners gathered together within four walls, engaged in the act of collaborative knowledge-building: That's the rare commodity. In a world where everyone can be an expert, the promise of credentials become just another strategy for bringing that community together.

*jk I really don't.


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