I’ve just returned from the 2013 AICAD conference, an annual affair which brings together faculty and administrators from mostly small, private art and design colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada. This year’s theme, New Paradigms in Teaching and Learning, invited a number of presenters who shared examples of the many challenges faced by higher ed arts institutions along with examples of how best to meet these challenges. (*Nb: The emphasis was on the undergraduate experience.) It’s a no-brainer that higher ed is in crisis, with unsustainable, escalating tuition fees and a growing perception that a college education may no longer be a worthwhile — much less, affordable — ‘investment’, even with the insistence by our national leaders that a college degree is a necessity to enter the job market.
Not having many expectations prior to the conference, I was surprised by the diverse approaches being envisioned and implemented at many institutions as we scramble to keep pace with the speed of social and technological change that really does threaten to make our institutions irrelevant to current and future generations of young college degree-seekers. If anything, my university colleagues and I take comfort that we are not alone in our attempts to re-imagine how we create meaningful educational experiences for our students within this turbulent time. And, while I won’t say there was widespread agreement in the range of pedagogical and curricular approaches being tested, some familiar themes emerged: an emphasis on interdisciplinary work, broad collaborative opportunities, increased student choice, integrated digital media instruction beginning at day one, competency-based learning and assessment, and online education. (For my part, my colleague Jonas Milder and I led a seminar on design skills and competencies within a design for social impact education, first presenting our work in the graduate program at UArts and then facilitating an exercise to sort and prioritize a range of skills and competencies.)
There were many new relationships begun and several insightful nuggets shared during these few days, which perhaps I’ll share in more detail at some point. However, even though many examples of interesting student projects were shared, I felt that a genuine student perspective was missing from the discussion. Our students need to be invited into to these spaces to reflect on our collective experiences in education together. I want to hear more from them, and I believe that in creating space for their input — and truly embracing the idea of student-led learning by giving them access to these higher level conversations — we actually empower them to take ownership of their own educational experiences. At the end of the conference I found myself writing: “trusting students, so that they can trust themselves.” We need more of this attitude.