Friday, July 19, 2013

An Urban Campus, Out-of-the-Box, Idea

The MOOCs threaten to do to higher education what online sharing has done to the music industry, what the internet has done to publishing, what Wikipedia has done to Encyclopedia Britannica, and what online services have done to news.  Massive Open Online Courses, which as I have seen can be quite impressive, threaten to take down brick and mortar institutions with enrollments in the tens of thousands, given their growing quality, appeal, and sophistication. 
One asset of my university which will not be threatened by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is its excellent location, in the center of the Chicago Metropolitan Area – all the more important because NEIU students are dispersed over 30 or more mile radius.  As part of a recent study I mapped 11,000 students by their street address, placing each dot within 50 feet of their front door.  Then I measured the distance of each one to campus, removed those over 50 miles (probably former addresses) and averaged the distances.  The average student at my institution lives just about 6 miles from campus.
When I mapped alumni -- 60,000 of them, I found them all over the country, of course, but mostly -- 81% to be exact -- saturating the Chicago Metropolitan Area.  You see, Northeastern Illinois University is a commuter campus -- we have no dorms.  Students are connected to their homes and home towns throughout college, and they tend to stay in this region for work.  Our students and alumni own the City of Chicago.  The MOOCS, coming out of Stanford, Duke, and the like ... can't have it.

If we geographically blanket the city, our campus certainly doesn't.  We have a peaceful little 67 acres, a postage stamp, nestled between a natural area, the river, and park, and a cemetery.   And surrounding our us are more than 300 municipal and county governments, hundreds of community organizations and non-profits, State and Federal government agencies, schools, libraries, businesses and a stream of events as robust as you could imagine.   It is here that our students do internships take field trips, and get jobs.  We attract interesting speakers and recruit adjunct faculty from professions in virtually every field.  

But as great as all that is, Chicago offers something more -- it has an infrastructure that would allow us to expand -- potentially to explode if we wanted to.

Let me explain.

One of the trends in higher education is toward an "inverted curriculum," in which students are first engaged in a vexing, nasty, "capacious" problem: Something real.  Take Asian Carp invading Lake Michigan, a community suffering from a local school closing, a farmers market hoping to expand, community gardens in a food desert, a failing after school program, participatory budgeting, lakefront restoration. The problems are endless in a city like this of 9 million.  Each problem could be a course, and one in which students first understand all angles of the problem, in the field, then drill down into academic disciplines to help solve it.  It would be an interdisciplinary effort, probably.  

This has been called "problem based learning..." excellent pedagogy, but hardly revolutionary.  The twist is that a course could actually be built around a problem in a geographical sense.  Because we can now map students we can identify, say, a ward trying to start participatory budgeting and email all the students in the ward.  Or we could contact students in a particular high school district, or those who live within a half mile of the river, or just Justice Studies students who are 15 miles from a proposed jail closing, everyone who does not have access to public transportation, or sociologists and psychologists in segregated neighborhoods, biologists near the lake, and so on. 

We can target market around a nasty problem, targeted based on the characteristics of the students, the location of the issue, and the nature of the capacious problem itself.  And if we work with an organization they will likely help with the recruitment.  The alderman can use her own mailing list to promote a for-credit class attacking on a local issue.  The Forest Preserve District can put out a call to their folk, addressing a vexing deer problem.  The problem itself may generate the students, perhaps students new to NEIU.  And once they see us, I think they will stay.

If that weren't enough, by identifying a public library near the site we may find an excellent free off-site classroom, complete with wifi for Google Chat or Skype -- perhaps done simultaneously, with several instructors, at several locations.  The class could meet periodically on campus as well, making it "hybrid" (which is supposed to be best of all) as well as "inverted."

Probably libraries would welcome the traffic -- after all they also have been hit by disruptive technologies and are looking to reinvent themselves.  Some will have comfortable rooms where groups can meet, or may reserve a seating area.   But if libraries aren't nice enough, there are also coffee shops -- certainly students will be snacking as they work, wouldn't they. 

These maps show how students may be assigned to their nearest center.  They are color coded depending on their nearest center.  The dispersed centers (libraries, scattered Starbucks) are each labeled with the numbers of students for whom that center is the nearest.  It would be a simple matter to establish two or more levels of meeting places (for example, libraries, and regional libraries) for different purposes (e.g., small groups and larger group meetings).  GIS will easily assign each student to both.

This would open classroom space on campus, particularly during the peak times 10-12 a.m. when classrooms are hard to find but when libraries and coffee shops are mostly empty.  Travel costs would be reduced for students, who would not only be working with peers (this is proved to be good pedagogy), but peers who are also neighbors (for good university-based social cohesion), on a project that affects them personally, of a real-world sort which underscores the relevance of their degree.  In the process Northeastern will gain visibility, establish a working relationship with a community group, contribute to the region, and garner appreciation.  And because of fewer trips to campus, the geographical reach of the University could expand, drawing on an new and untapped population.  It would also reduce NEIU’s carbon footprint and decrease congestion.