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“Buckle Up!” It’s not the first time I’ve heard that admonition while traveling. This time it was delivered by an especially cheery flight attendant who was eager to get the cabin ready to roll for a our 6 a.m. flight. Perfect metaphor, I thought, for this week’s conversations and conferences; “buckle up” seems to be the dominant admonition from those ready to take on the future challenges in higher education. First was the League for Innovation in the Community College’s Innovations Conference in Boston. The opening keynote was Walt MacDonald, president of ETS, who shook the conversation up with presentation of new data from their recent PIAAC test of readiness for the road ahead. PIACC is a test of numeracy, literacy, and problem solving, with many of the questions leaning toward the use of technology to explore and solve problems. One finding that took the audience aback was MacDonald’s revelation that the US millennial cohort, who many thought would do quite well on this test, especially with the technology-use components, lagged far behind their international peers. Here’s more on the survey if you’re interested. Long story short, he argued that while increased access and completion might be our stated goals, we have our work cut out for us. Students are hitting postsecondary less ready to roll than ever. The next morning, the president of the League for Innovation, Gerardo de los Santos, and I presented our survey of key trends in community colleges, with responses from some 280 presidents across North America’s community colleges. There will be more on that survey in the coming weeks, but the headline could clearly be “buckle up.” Community colleges are reeling from increased access and completion challenges at a time when expectations around learning outcomes are going up, learning models are changing, and funding is shrinking. There are lots of exciting elements of the survey to be sure. But the top-line take away is get ready, things will get bumpy and we’re going to have to innovate to make progress. I then went on to the Society for College and University Planning Mid-Atlantic Regional conference appropriately themed “Planning for Change: Cultural, Technological, and Economic Shifts in Higher Education.” These events are where facility, financial, IT, and academic planners gather to chart the road ahead. “Integrated planning” is the buzzword at SCUP these days as their members try to pull together their future-ready work to make sure higher education building—thought of in the broadest sense—is anchored in a collective vision of helping more student succeed. What this means is that we need to build out our facilities, IT infrastructures, funding models, and academic strategies in an integrated and strategic way. While this has long been a strategic vision, it’s now an operational imperative. From blended learning that’s bringing together online and on-ground learning as never before, to mixed models of delivery, including accelerated modular learning and competency-based learning, planning for the road ahead is going to be much like getting ready for taxi and take off. We end the week at SXSWEdu, which is more than fitting. This event is fast becoming an Austin staple and a national and international coming together of educational high-flyers. Presentations from the Gates Foundation grantees, Jill Biden, Sal Khan, and many more pushed the boundaries of both vision and execution. But there was a common theme: the stakes are high and the strategies to reach them are unlikely to be comfortable. While there is considerable hyperbole and histrionics anchoring both side of this innovation showcase, there is enough meat in the middle to make any thoughtful educator realize that the road ahead will be full of change, adaption, adoption, development, learning and more. One final reflection I’ll share as this week comes to a close–and I’ll need to work the elements of this out a bit, but it’s worth putting the idea out there: while buckling up might be the right metaphor, I don’t want anyone to think I’m arguing that most of us will be passengers. Quite the opposite. We don’t simply need ready passengers. What came through this week was the feeling that to reach the destinations of improved learning and increased credential attainment, we’re going to need more pilots, drivers, captains—you pick the travel metaphor—that have instruments at the ready, plans in hand, and projections of what’s to come. Of course, buckling up is an important first step for pilots, drivers, and captains; but the expected next steps are different. The journey will be in our hands more than ever before.
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