Future of the University

If there is one thing I believe should change in higher education, it’s the perception of the university as a gateway to a career instead of a place of academic enlightenment. Now, I realize this perception is a result of how higher education coevolved to meet the needs of contemporary culture. I also recognize the unlikelihood this perception will ever change. Regardless, I don’t see why I have to agree with the present situation or maintain hope that it will change for the better.

The history of higher education is distinct from other forms of education, with some universities among the oldest learning institutions in the world. The development of universities, and higher education more generally, over the course of the last millennium is closely tied to religion. Universities were established as organizations free from direct control of the church or other religious institutions, a privilege usually granted by the king or state. This privilege allowed for academic freedom to question, research and advance knowledge. Those who attended universities were usually individuals from the upper social class who had substantial wealth and weren’t required to devote all their time to laboring for money. They didn’t need to gain knowledge to obtain a job and , if they did, they did so by apprenticing/gaining on the job experience. University attendees were motivated by a true passion to learn. Thus, people initially attended universities for the sole purpose of immersing themselves in knowledge.

Education is widely accepted to be a fundamental resource, both for individuals and societies. Indeed, in most countries basic education is nowadays perceived not only as a right, but also as a duty – governments are typically expected to ensure access to basic education, while citizens are often required by law to attain education up to a certain basic level. As society has evolved, the necessity for labor-based trade skills has shifted. Today’s society is technologically integrated and the ability to interact with and interpret information is now a crucial skill. Universities have become the “go-to” destination for learning how to operate in our technologically advanced world.

In the modern world universities have two purposes: equip students with advanced skills useful in the workplace and to further human knowledge and understanding of the world. A decrease in employment opportunities (due to outsourcing or technological advancements eliminating the need for human-manned positions) combined with an increase in population growth has yielded a highly-competitive job market. Degrees in higher education have become a factor used to differentiate between job applicants and are seen as an indicator of applicant “quality”.  At first, this meant that a bachelors degree ensured one better chances at becoming employed. As more and more people saw the need for a university-granted degree, the employment market became increasingly saturated with bachelor degree-obtaining applicants. Now, a masters degree has become the standard for obtaining a “high profile” career.

Universities are now perceived as a place to obtain a piece of paper that (supposedly) guarantees gainful employment. Don’t get me wrong, they are still a place of academic enlightenment. Faculty and students still engage in the free thought that drives the advancement of knowledge. However, most universities are more focused on pumping out degrees than knowledge advancing research. As we look to the future, universities will inevitably coevolve to meet the needs of the people. Education has been and will continue to be a valuable resource — one that is essential for the advancement of humankind. It is my earnest hope that universities will once again become a destination for the passionate pursuit of knowledge rather than a destination for a better chance at gainful employment.

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Academia Gives Back

Have you ever looked at the mission statement of a university? More often than not, many of them will say something to the extent of the university providing service to the community. Take Virginia Tech’s mission statement for example:

“Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) is a public land-grant university serving the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. The discovery and dissemination of new knowledge are central to its mission. Through its focus on teaching and learning, research and discovery, and outreach and engagement, the university creates, conveys, and applies knowledge to expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.”

Not only is service mentioned in Virginia Tech’s mission, but also the university’s commitment to “…advance social and community  development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life”. For those of us living in the “bubble” that is campus culture, it can be difficult to tangibly see how the university provides on its promise to serve. Thankfully, I stumbled across a phenomenal example of how Virginia Tech gives back to the surrounding community: Campus Kitchen.

What is the Campus Kitchen?

Virginia Tech’s Campus Kitchen is a program ran through VT Engage that recovers surplus food from VT’s dining halls, repurposes it into meals, and delivers those meals to a local food bank. Campus Kitchens Project is national organization that promotes students getting involved combating food waste and hunger. Students in collegiate chapters across the nation collect surplus food from on-campus dining halls and help transform it to healthy meals that are distributed to food insecure individuals in the area .One in eight Virginians struggles with food insecurity, and there is a great need in our region to provide services to get food to those in need.  In spring 2015, Virginia Tech was one of three schools that won $5,000 grant to help start up a campus chapter. Volunteers have devoted over 2,500 hours with the CKVT since its launch in fall 2015. We are now recovering surplus food from three Virginia Tech dining halls six days a week. 10,000+ pounds of recovered food and 400+ meals have been delivered to our community partner, Radford-Fairlawn Daily Bread.

Who is involved in the operations of VT’s Campus Kitchen, and what exactly do they do?

The great thing about Campus Kitchen is that anyone at Virginia Tech or the surrounding community is welcome to volunteer their time to help with daily operations. There at a variety of ways one can get involved in VT’s Campus Kitchen. For instance, the Kitchen needs weekly volunteers to pack, cook, deliver, and serve the food they repurpose. Additionally, if one finds they enjoy volunteering and would like a larger more long-term role, volunteers can commit to collecting the food from the dining halls or becoming a delivery/shift leader.

If volunteering in VT’s Campus Kitchen isn’t your “cup of tea”, there are plenty of other programs offered through VT Engage to get involved with.  It seems that Virginia Tech really strives to provide on its commitment to service and truly lives up to it’s motto ut prosim — That I May Serve.

Open Access: Foods Open Access Food Science Journal

The “go to” journal for all things food science is The Journal of Food Science (JFS). Unfortunately, this journal is not open access and a paywall stands between valuable scientific knowledge and those who wish to access it. Thankfully, my membership in the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT; a professional organization for food scientists and industry professionals) provides me access to this journal. Now, my membership in IFT isn’t free (annual student dues are around $50) but that fee costs me significantly less money than it would to access JFS. If it weren’t for my IFT membership (as well as  Virginia Tech’s libraries), then I probably wouldn’t be able to access any of the articles I need for my research. Thankfully, a Google search has yielded another source for peer-reviewed scientific research: an open-access food science journal.

The journal is stumbled across was Foods—Open Access Food Science Journal. Foods is an international, scientific, open access journal of food science and is published monthly online by MDPI (Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute). This journal provides an advanced forum for studies related to all aspects of food research and publishes reviews, regular research papers and short communications. Their goal is to “encourage scientists, researchers, and other food professionals to publish their experimental and theoretical results in as much detail as possible alongside sharing their knowledge with as many readers as possible”. There are not length restrictions on their papers, which allows scientists to “put it [their research] all out there” for others to learn from. Some unique features Foods offers its readers are:

  • manuscripts regarding research proposals and research ideas will be particularly welcomed
  • Ÿ   electronic files or software regarding the full details of the calculation and experimental procedure, if unable to be published in a normal way, can be deposited as supplementary material
  • Ÿ   they also accept manuscripts communicating to a broader audience with regard to research projects financed with public fund

Foods also provides the “Scope” (i.e., applicable areas) of the research they publish which includes:

  • food sciences and technology
  • food chemistry and physical properties
  • food engineering and production
  • food security and safety
  • food toxicology
  • sensory and food quality
  • food analysis
  • functional foods, food and health
  • food psychology
  • food and environment

Foods ensures its publications follow a code of ethics, specifically they are a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Since MDPI publishes Foods, their ethics statement is what Foods abides by. Additionally, MDPI states they verify the originality of content submitted to their journals using iThenticate to check submissions against previous publications.

The only reference I noticed that mentioned their stance on open access was that articles published in Foods will be Open-Access articles distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution License. MDPI then states they will insert the following note at the end of the published text:

© 2013 by the authors; licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).
In my opinion, Foods seems like a great open-access journal for food science publications. They want to get research out there and accessible to everyone, yet still credit the authors and protect their rights. I will definitely be using this journal for my research—related needs, and would even consider submitting future manuscripts to them.

Tech & Innovation in Higher Ed

If I had choose two (nice) words to describe present-day society (even though there are a multitude of words I could use) those words would be: technologically integrated. Technology has taken over our lives, and I’m certain most of us could not function if it somehow disappeared from existence. The world of higher education is no exception. Those of us in academia have adopted technology and evolved our research and, yes, even our teaching methods to incorporate it. The integration of technology in higher education has spawned  an evolution in teaching methodology: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

MOOCs (e.g., Coursera, edX, Udacity) are courses available online that allow unlimited access and participation, provided one has access to the Internet. Besides there (almost) universal accessibility, a benefit to taking MOOCs is that they provide provide traditional course materials in addition to interactive user forums and support from the global online community. Sounds pretty perfect, right? Well, as it turns out, many teachers, universities, and even students take issue with MOOCs. In a quest to better understand the controversy, I discovered a paper in the International Journal of Communication by Jose Van Dijck and Thomas Poell titled Higher Education in a Networked World: European Responses to U.S. MOOCs.

Van Dijck and Poell begin by stating the objective of their paper: “analyze the dynamics underlying the development of MOOCs in the context of an emerging global social Web where these courses are implemented in systems of higher education that are often institutionally grounded and largely nationally based” and “to understand how emerging commercial online infrastructures affect public systems such as higher education”. In the introduction, they describe how MOOCs are designed to function based off of the same mechanistic underpinnings of the ecosystem and other connective platforms: datafication, (algorithmic) selection, and commodification. Datafication is defined the tendency to quantify all aspects of social interaction and turn them into code. These codes signal for algorithmic selection (based off popularity of the course, student success in assessment modules, etc) of how the course will be enhanced and evolve overtime to meet the needs of students. The last mechanism of how MOOCs function is commodification, which involves the transformation of objects, activities, and ideas into tradable commodities. The majority of this paper involves the authors discussion of the pros and cons of how these three mechanisms impact MOOC and their stakeholders (i.e., students, teachers, program developers & entrepreneurs, and Europe). I’d go into more detail and discussion on this, but it’d be difficult to do the 19 page paper justice in one blog post.

Next, the authors introduce the following questions: Is education a public good. How do MOOCs relate to key public values-sustaining systems of higher education?  The authors mention that main disputes concerning MOOCs focus on the impact they have on core values of education. Because the paper’s discussion is focused on the U.S. and Europe, there were come interesting contrasts presented. For instance, many U.S. universities have been, to some extent, privately or corporately funded, which is one reason why many of them embrace the for-profit (or at best nonprofit) high-tech apparatus (i.e. MOOCs) that renders them part of a global online market. In contrast, European taxpayers have traditionally supported a public system of higher education that is focused on commodification, deregulation, globalization, and is economically distinct from its U.S. counterparts. I found the discussion on these contrasting frameworks super interesting and rather thought provoking. I wonder how systems of higher education in other countries (besides the U.S. and Europe) are approaching MOOCs?

The paper concludes by mentioning that MOOCs are  “an ideological battleground where a revamped definition of what public education means in a networked world is wagered and contested”. In our technologically integrated society, there exists an ever present battle over privacy, accessibility, inherent and protected freedoms, and the meaning of publicness . Higher education is one battleground where this struggle takes place. Governments and university administrators will eventually need to address the regulatory problems at stake here, as well as the potential profound ideological shifts in the emerging global market for online learning. Even if online mass instruction will never come to replace traditional college education, MOOCs will inevitably have a substantial impact on how education is defined as a public good.