Is the university experience wasted on the young?

Every now and again, the universe conspires to free up some time to do some face to face learning with terrific resources in the academic world.  After a whirlwind set of face to face meetings with professors at UW Seattle and UW Bothell where I learned a boatload, I reflected on my university experience at age 18 versus today.

While I am deeply grateful for my four years as an undergraduate at Duke University, I mostly went through the motions of attending the required classes and getting through to a degree.  Most of my learning occurred in my part time jobs programming lab computers in a psycho-physiology lab and for an automated medical records research group.

I viewed the classes as the penalty I had to pay to be able to do the part time work with the lab computers.  I did the minimum to get by or as I shared with my children “when I was in college, I made the upper half possible.”

In the set of interactions with a diverse collection of professors today, I come at the meetings with a notebook full of questions as I try to make sense of the rapid rate of knowledge production changes in the university world.  How wonderful it is to see computational thinking and practice infuse almost every discipline.  How eye opening it is to see what is going on in the digital humanities and the shift from science as theory and simulation to science as making sense of Big Data. I walked away with a notebook full of references to chase down and even more good questions then I walked in with.

After forty years of creating companies and products, I am finally ready for a true liberal arts education.  Yet, not the kind of “dolt in a seat” education of my youth.  Every idea that comes streaming through from the professors is cross referenced against forty years of business experience and family living.  Each assertion raises deeper and deeper questions.

Alan Wood

I am having the time of my life exploring topics and digging deep into areas I never had the time for or frankly the least bit of interest – Chinese history for example (thank you Professor Alan Wood for opening up such an interesting and relevant topic).

This excitement in the immersion of learning made me wonder if we have the university experience backward – shouldn’t we come back at age 60 or so for what would be a real liberal arts and sciences education?  What if we looked at the university experience as interesting bookends on a life – start us off on the life long learning pursuit at age 18 and then make sense of our life experiences at age 60?

Most of us at age 60 are still lively and vibrant and have generous amounts of time with our children now grown and on their own and our financial responsibilities lessened. The time freedom could allow us to come back to truly educate ourselves so we can devote the remaining third of our life to working on the big problems of global society.  What would a classroom experience be like with a mix of young adults and the worldly wise – for the students and the professors?

Sue Kraemer

The 24 hours of learning immersion started with a couple of hours getting the story behind the story of how Sue Kraemer transitioned from a world class bioinformatics and genetics researcher to getting her MBA at Seattle University and now teaching a management course in the CSS Department at UW Bothell.  We both realized we have a shared passion for understanding how to create great teams working in “healthy” corporate or academic environments.

Gray Kochhar-Lindgren

Gray Kochhar-Lindgren

Then it was on to a meeting with Gray Kochhar-Lindgren to thank him for introducing me to Kate Hayles and to get his perspective on the digital humanities.  Gray is the Associate Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Learning at UW Bothell. Gray has written several fascinating books that reflect his passion for “Philosophy in the Streets” that he teaches.  As I described my journey so far in learning about the digital humanities, Gray let loose with so many wonderful references that I couldn’t write fast enough.  I am learning that each 1 hour session with a good professor leads to at least 100 hours of reading and study for me.

Ed Lazowska

Next up was a meeting with Ed Lazowska to follow up threads that he introduced in his talk at a recent MLA conference in Seattle.  Ed was finishing up a conference call at our appointed time so I had several minutes to explore the artifacts in his office and see what kind of books he had on his shelf.  I was immediately drawn to a 2 foot by 3 foot poster board that had the “genealogy” of the professors who taught Ed in his pursuit of his PhD and the students that Ed has advised in his 30 years as a computer science professor at UW.

My heart melted inside as I looked at Ed’s PhD students, grand-students, great grand students, and great great grand students.  What a fantastic visualization of a professor’s 40 year impact on the academic world and the world at large.  When Ed finished up his call, I had to ask about the visualization.  In his high energy way, Ed shared the story of the surprise birthday part at MIT where many of the family tree of his students gathered to present the genealogy diagram as one of their gifts.

Ed is an incredible gift to Washington state for his academic prowess and generations of students he has taught and advised.  However, his greatest gift to Washington state is his tireless advocacy for STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) Education.  Ed is ever present with his message of how much we are under funding university education in the state.  When I shared with my wife that I met with Ed, she immediately brightened and shared “I remember Ed from a presentation he gave to our guidance counselor conference.  He was engaging, vibrant and I could even understand him.  I’d expected a lot of technical jargon from a computer science professor, but he was far and away the best speaker at the three day conference.”

The 90 minutes flew by with a wide ranging discussion that included the potential coming together of digital humanities and eScience along with the problems of how do you teach computational thinking.  Then we looked at the declining funding for STEM undergraduates in the face of overwhelming qualified student demand.  We finished by going through a presentation on the relationship of educational funding and job creation in the state.

Beth Kolko

On the way back to the HCDE Department, I ran into Beth Kolko who is pioneering what she is calling Hackademia.  At our recent HCDE External Advisory Board meeting she described what she was doing with non-engineering students and 3D printers to create medical devices for under developed countries.  She pointed me to her recent presentation at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.  I’ve been fascinated with what is possible with the coming desktop 3D printing revolution after reading Neil Gershenfeld’s book FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop – From Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication.  Beth is always so exciting to catch up with as her deep commitment to moving technology from the developed world to the developing world is so inspiring.

Figure and ground illusion

With a hole in my schedule between meetings, I took the time to attend the HCDE 521 seminar where Anne de Ridder was presenting “Making Sense of chaos: An evaluation of the current state of information architecture for the Web.” Buried in her talk was the comparison of a web site she designed for FEI in 2009 and Apple’s current MacBook Air website.  She pointed out that the “design rules” of 2009 were to make sure that the structure of the website was in the foreground and the content was in the background.  Yet, currently the Apple website reverses things and has the content forward (large images and content is king) and the user is drawn into the experience by scrolling through the content.  Her discussion reminded me of the “figure and ground” illusions of Gestalt Psychology.

Jennifer Turns and Family

Content versus structure was a timely insight as this is an aspect of my “content with context” application design thinking.  As I was absorbed with transferring what Anne was describing to the world of the iPad that I am designing for, Professor Jennifer Turns shared that Anne’s insights were broader than just the website.  Jennifer described a recent conference she attended where the discussion was around how structured the university is with each class having a formal syllabus with detailed learning goals that sits in a formal curriculum with so many credit hours required for a degree.  Jennifer pointed out that everything in a university curriculum today is Structure Forward.  Yet all the research is showing that learning is far messier than that – for students the content needs to be forward, not the structure.

OK, Jennifer, you have hurt my head once again.  Fortunately, we both had some time as we headed back to Sieg Hall so that I could ask her to fill in a few of the gaps in the amazing leap of insight between website structure and university curriculum structure.  The next hour disappeared as we leaped from this topic to several of her current research projects. I was particularly intrigued with a research group she is leading looking at academic literature to find either explicit or implicit implications of the research for practitioners.

Professor Turns is one of the most innovative teachers and researchers I’ve come across. She is always thinking deeply about what is going on with student learning and how do we all get better at learner centered design (a variant of human centered design).  And then she takes those insights into practice as soon as she can.  Whenever we get some quality time together, I come away with 2-3 innovative insights on how to do a better job of teaching.  More importantly, I come away with better questions to drive deeper thinking about human centered design than I walked into the interaction with. And lots more books and articles to read.

Jan Spyridakis

The 24 hours of immersion were about to finish up with my last meeting with Professor Jan Spyridakis and Professor Turns to review the insights and advice we’d gained from the recent External Advisory Board meeting.  In less than a month, the HCDE department had acted on the bulk of the advice and were already gearing up for increasing the size of both the undergraduate and the Masters programs.  The quality and number of applicants to each program continue to grow exponentially.  In addition, both professors were really excited about the quality of the candidates applying for tenure track faculty positions to enable this growth.  The administrative items were concluded very quickly so that we could continue to understand what is driving the demand and how we can continue to improve our learner centered design, particularly as we scale the programs.  Yet again in her thoughtful way, Jennifer described her innovative ideas for how to use Teaching Assistants to facilitate learner centered design for the coming year.  I can’t wait.

Whew.  What a 24 hours.  My head was full.  My head hurts at the implications.  I am elated about the better questions I came away with to drive future research and learning.

At the top of my list of questions is wondering how we bring back into the university learning environment the many of us baby boomers with lots of rich life experience to re-engage in learning what we missed the first time around? And more importantly to use that education in service of our global connected society grand challenges.

This entry was posted in Big Data, Content with Context, Knowledge Management, Learning, organizing, Relationship Capital, social networking, University, User Experience, Working in teams. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Is the university experience wasted on the young?

  1. Totally true – I did my masters as an adult and am certain I got so much more out of that than I did the much earlier classes. Maturity and experience bring so much to the classroom experience. Anyone want to pay for my doctorate? 🙂 Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience.

  2. swaltersky says:

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comment. Maybe we should start a fund for paying for a collection of doctorates.

  3. Pingback: Idealized Design Qualities for a University | On the Way to Somewhere Else

  4. Pingback: Know Thyself – UW Bothell Innovation Forum | On the Way to Somewhere Else

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