Welcome to the New Year

Our community’s achievements are moving SDSU forward into the ranks of the nation’s top public universities. I hope you will take a moment at the beginning of the new academic year to learn more in the video message found here.SDSU President Elliot Hirshman.

Go Aztecs!

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Does tech revolution change education’s foundational goals?

It is commonplace to recognize that changes in societal norms and needs, including technological developments, change our academic programs and educational goals.   For example, the development of land grant universities – focused on agriculture and technology – in the 1860s reflected the needs of an emerging industrial society.   Similarly, the rise of normal schools – San Diego State’s provenance – reflected our society’s need for broad public education in America’s growing democracy of the 19th century.

Students in a classroom in the early days of the San Diego Normal School.

Students in a classroom in the early days of the San Diego Normal School.

The ties between specific technological developments and individual fields of study are even more direct.  Aerospace engineering degrees emerged with human flight and molecular biology degrees emerged from a constellation of discoveries in genetics and biochemistry.

Clearly, the development of information technology is also producing program developments.  The dramatic growth of undergraduate and graduate degree programs in computer science, computer engineering and information systems are three prominent examples.

A more complex question is whether the emergence of multifaceted and ubiquitous information technology should change our broad educational goals. In prior blogs – linked here and here – I have discussed how online learning technologies affect pedagogical approaches and business models in higher education. In this blog, I turn to the question of how these technologies are influencing our broad educational goals and programs.

To consider this issue via analogy, think about how the development of television in the 1950s changed our educational goals and programs.  Television (and related media) allowed mass dissemination of information, including mass marketing, at a heretofore inconceivable pace and scope.  This mass dissemination of information amplified the importance of the ability to persuade others and of the complementary ability to critically evaluate media messages in our society.  Universities responded to this need by incorporating courses on mass communication and critical thinking into their general education curricula and by expanding specific programs in communications; public relations; marketing; and critical studies in ethnic studies, film studies, journalism, and sociology, among other areas.

The widespread availability of computing power and ubiquitous connectivity is also producing significant societal changes.  Most dramatically, the reduced cost of information, computing power and other resources accessed through universal connectivity (e.g., 3-D printers), is dramatically democratizing the ability to produce things – products, algorithms, services and ideas.  The computing power and information inherent in a watch or hand-held device that costs hundreds of dollars today would have cost hundreds of thousands– even millions – of dollars even two decades ago.

These developments create the possibility of an era of mass customization in which small groups with relatively limited resources become centers of production and innovation.  In a dramatic departure from the future envisioned by Marx and Engels, the tie between investment capital and the mechanisms of production has been weakened.  To prepare our students for this future, our educational programs must help them develop the abilities necessary to produce things – the abilities to design, collaborate and create.

The evolving notion of “design thinking” is one framework for preparing our students.  Broadly defined, design thinking focuses on addressing important problems or challenges, developing collaborations to bring people with different abilities together, simulating or rapid prototyping of solutions to challenges, and iterative testing and refinement of potential solutions.  At San Diego State, our Lavin Entrepreneurship Center and our Zahn Innovation Center, with its H.G. Fenton Company Idea Lab, are providing opportunities for growing numbers of students to participate in the design thinking process.  Design thinking is but one concept for fostering the abilities and skills our students will need.  I know our faculty, staff and students are considering, and will devise, many other academic and co-curricular frameworks as we educate students for a future in which relatively low-cost design and production capabilities are widely available.

A student team at SDSU's Zahn Innovation Center is developing ShredLights for skateboards.

A student team at SDSU’s Zahn Innovation Center is developing ShredLights for skateboards.

It would be possible to imagine, as some have, that a focus on design, production and solving challenges highlights the importance of vocational education and diminishes the importance of a classical liberal arts education.

While there are few things in life that are exact, this surmise is exactly wrong.

Just as synthesis requires prior analysis, so the challenges of design thinking require the classical abilities of critical thinking, quantitative and scientific reasoning, and an understanding of diverse places, times and cultures that are at the heart of a liberal arts education.  Meeting challenges and taking advantage of the opportunities presented by our information technology revolution requires taking these classical abilities and applying them in new frameworks of collaboration, synthesis and solution.

The changes in information technology that dominate our contemporary lives are revolutionary, and our education goals and programs must evolve.  Yet, even as we embrace new educational approaches, we reaffirm the classical liberal arts education that allows us and our students to understand the implications of these changes and how to respond so we can address our society’s challenges. This is the great opportunity that presents itself at SDSU and throughout higher education.

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Status of Online Learning

Aerial view of SDSU campus, 2014-15

Photo courtesy of Joel Ortiz

As we complete our commencement celebrations and look ahead to the next academic year, we have an important opportunity to reflect on broader developments, such as the role and impact of technology on our educational programs.

At the height of the Great Recession, a new orthodoxy emerged with claims that technology-mediated instruction was transforming higher education (see my blog from 2013 here).  This view – strongly endorsed by politicians and others outside education – heralded the end of physical campuses and face-to-face interaction, assuming that a technologically sophisticated generation would not only embrace online educational programs, but would demand them.  Another important assumption was that technologically mediated education would dramatically reduce costs.  How this would occur was not necessarily specified, but the presumption was that technology could somehow replace personnel and facilities – perhaps in the same way that factory automation has reduced manufacturing costs.

Looking at the landscape today, it is clear that online and hybrid educational programs have grown substantially at San Diego State and across the nation.  For example, this summer, there are over 5,000 students enrolled in online programs.  Similarly, we had nearly 13,000 students enrolled in hybrid courses (courses with both face-to-face and online components) this past academic year, and we now offer six fully online master’s programs.  These programs help some students advance in their academic programs and produce some cost savings. For example, hybrid classes facilitate more efficient use of our classrooms, and online summer courses permit students to make academic progress even when they are not in San Diego.  Online master’s programs create opportunities for students who might not otherwise enroll due to family or job constraints.

At the same time, predictions regarding the demand for online programs eclipsing demand for face-to-face programs have not been borne out.  This past year, SDSU again set an applications record – for enrollment in our face-to-face programs.  In the last five years, our annual applications for face-to-face programs from the most technologically advanced generation in human history have increased 31 percent to 81,080.

There have also been significant challenges to online programs.  Most notably, fully online programs were touted as programs that would enhance access to education, but repeated analyses show that students facing academic and financial challenges perform more poorly online than in face-to-face programs. The challenges of massive open online courses (so-called MOOCs) have received the most attention in the media (Chronicle of Higher Education update here) as universities and MOOC providers rethink and restructure the classes – and sometimes their business models – based on mixed results.  We also review and re-evaluate course formats and offerings at SDSU, and we have seen challenges in our own online efforts.  For example, failure rates in lower-division math courses have been significantly higher in online courses than in face-to-face courses and, for this reason, we will not be offering these courses in fully online format until these challenges are resolved.

For a variety of reasons, some of which were predictable, online cost efficiencies have also fallen far short of predictions.  For example, technology is very expensive, offsetting cost savings from more efficient use of facilities.  Similarly, and ironically, online courses require professors to handle more individual inquiries relative to face-to-face courses.  Students are more likely to form support groups in face-to-face courses through which they can assist each other. The greater reliance on the instructor has forced course sizes to be smaller in fully online lower-division courses than in comparable face-to-face courses – reducing efficiencies.

So, where does this all leave us?  We are in medias res – in the middle of things. There have been significant changes, significant progress and significant challenges in educational technology at SDSU. Embracing collaboration between our faculty, staff and administrators, continuing to experiment and changing our approaches based on the results will continue to serve our students well.

There are, of course, many implications of technology for our educational programs that go well beyond how we deliver our programs. In my next blog I will turn to some of those topics.

 

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Many Identities – One SDSU Community

Recent events at the University of Oklahoma and UCLA have highlighted something that, in our hearts, we already knew. We have a long way to go in achieving fair and equal treatment of every person on our college campuses. To the good, there has been near-universal condemnation of the blatant racism at Oklahoma and of the anti-Semitism at UCLA. Further, many students, faculty and staff have emphasized that these hateful and discriminatory actions represent the views of only a very small minority on our campuses.

Yet, these atavistic, insular hatreds persist. They are part of a powerful set of forces that are dividing Americans and our university campuses into ever smaller groups based on our race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation and their intersections. Such divisions reinforce old hatreds and create new ones. For example, cultural appropriation, in which one group mocks the cultural identity of another group, and identity politics, in which groups support political positions based solely on their identity, further divide us.

In this maelstrom of separation, we all lose. We lose Dr. King’s vision that, despite the injustices of the past and present, we can all share a common future – that “the sons of former slaves and the sons of former Quest for the Best winners 2015slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.” We lose the benefit of our rich diversity in which we come to appreciate the value of each other’s unique identities. Perhaps most troubling, we lose the ability to act as one SDSU community – which is essential to all of our successes.

There is a way forward. We must embrace and respect each other’s identities, both individually and as groups, in all of their complexities. We must also recognize that these diverse identities can come together to support one SDSU community – a community that is defined by shared values, shared aspirations and shared experiences. This is the promise of our diversity. Our “One SDSU Community” initiative – part of the implementation of our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence,” – attempts to realize this promise. The initiative is a multi-faceted effort to foster shared experiences, shared values and shared aspirations in our community. Three major programs were initiated or expanded this year. The Aztec Unity Project brings together diverse student organizations to work on community service projects and reflect on their experiences. Integrative diversity workshops, conducted in partnershipAztec Unity Project participants with the National Conflict Resolution Center, help student leaders develop skills to communicate about and resolve conflicts related to diversity issues. Campus Collegiate Dialogues bring students together to discuss and reflect on the challenges facing our diverse society. Hundreds of students have participated in these experiences this year with plans to expand our efforts in the coming year.

Our campus’ rich diversity and our substantial diversity programming provide us with a special opportunity to create a distinctive new model for higher education – one in which diversity is embraced, common humanity recognized and shared experiences and values build One SDSU Community. This is the path to greatness. For, as we know from 118 years of our university’s history, we can accomplish anything when we work together as one community.

Greek Awards winners

 

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Lessons Learned at the Family Table

Earlier this month, my family gathered to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday – a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a life well-lived.  To engage in understatement, my mother was not a typical mother.  Unlike some of her contemporaries, she was not vain nor did she have a focus on a particular domestic art.  Her focus was on justice.  Having grown up as a poor, Jewish woman in the southern United States of the 1940s and 1950s, she had, and has, a singular daily focus on rooting out bigotry and prejudice.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Golda Meir and Cesar Chavez were as present in my childhood as if they were sitting in our living room.  When the UFW boycotted, there were no grapes in our house.  My mother argued vehemently for a women’s right to choose long before widespread adoption of this view, and racial and ethnic disparities in health care, wealth, education, and incarceration rates were a constant focus of her concern. Unlike many, her approach was not intellectual or philosophical.  It was about action.

Looking back from the perspective of today’s challenges and turbulent environment, some might see the efforts of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s as not going far enough – as somehow honoring civility of dialogue above moral imperatives. This was most assuredly not the case.  In the context of the times, my mother’s views and those of many others were extraordinarily disruptive.  They were tornados that caused people, values and social conventions to crash into each other, leaving behind a changed landscape.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but after a “sharing of perspectives,” we sometimes left social gatherings quickly – and we were not always invited back.

So why is all this on a university president’s blog?

At California’s public universities, we have lived in a culture of protest for over 50 years, since the beginnings of the Free Speech Movement at UC-Berkeley. There are, literally, protests every day somewhere on California’s campuses. Moreover, some of the classic techniques of protesting – the reflexive reliance on Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” – don’t always seem relevant given the complexity of many of our current fiscal and organizational challenges.  For some members of our community, the omnipresence of complaints has numbed them to the substance of the concerns.  Others have reacted by emphasizing that we must put a focus on civility in our public discourse.  (See my prior blog post on the importance of university communities protecting freedom of expression, even at the expense of civility.)

Yet, disruptive action and protest remain critical to progress.  Many members of our community are focused on the complex analysis, planning and implementation that must occur for us to address social, economic, political and environmental challenges.  Nonetheless, there must often be a moment – a moment of protest – that helps us recognize our societal challenges and begin to address them.  This spring, as we move through the semester and the voices of protest are raised, let’s all listen carefully to discern the substance of our challenges and to find ways to become a better community.

Thanks, Mom, for teaching me this lesson, and Happy Birthday!

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Spring Brings New Initiatives in Research and Creative Endeavors

Detail from a visual art piece depicting a bacteriophage.The arts and sciences present complementary ways of understanding and engaging the world, but both enhance our quality of life and the meaning of our lives – from the powerful insights and emotional experiences produced by great works of art to the profound impact of scientific theories and discoveries in applied disciplines like engineering and medicine.

SDSU has strong traditions in both the arts and sciences, and an innovative group of artists and scientists is taking important steps by exploring the synergies between the two.  A great example of these efforts was the recent Phage-Infused Evening of Art.  Spearheaded by our distinguished Professor of Biology, Forest Rohwer, this event brought together renowned researchers and artists for a showcase of students’ music and art inspired by the molecular structure of bacteriophages (viruses that kill bacteria).  In a scene reminiscent of a SoHo opening – seen in the video here – the University Art Gallery displayed multimedia visual art inspired by phages’ molecular structure, and Professor Joe Waters Two musicians perform music inspired by bacteriorphages' molecular structure at the University Art Gallery at SDSU.conducted an original composition based on the fractal patterns in phages’ DNA.  The visual art and musical compositions were innovative, dramatic and provocative.

The evening was a fitting start to a spring semester in which we will pursue significant new initiatives in research and creative endeavors.  These efforts, part of the implementation of our strategic plan, reflect our community’s ethos that vibrant programs in the arts and sciences are essential elements of the exploration, both of knowledge and ourselves, that characterize a great public university.

These efforts are truly “Building on Excellence.”  In the last year alone, Rob Edwards and his colleagues discovered a virus that affects digestion in half the human population, Robert Quimby received the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for work demonstrating that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, and Ralph Axel-Mueller and Inna Fishman discovered brain pathways implicated in autism.  Similarly, our efforts in the creative arts advanced with a visually stunning performance of “Les Misérables in Concert,” starring Broadway legend Ivan Rutherford, and our Arts Alive SDSU initiative is on track to present visual art, poetry and pop-up concerts to an audience of over 100,000 by the end of the academic year. (In the fall semester alone, more than 50,000 faculty, staff, and students engaged in the arts at SDSU.)

This spring, we take the next steps.  We are recruiting a significant cohort of new faculty in the arts and the sciences.  These efforts include the Conrad Prebys Chair in Bio-Medical Research, faculty in our areas of research excellence – viromics, clinical and cognitive neuroscience, climate and sustainability, and human dynamics in a mobile age – and artists in musical theater, music, dance and visual art.  These new faculty will bring energy and cutting-edge ideas – the lifeblood of the university – to advance our academic and co-curricular programs.

We are also pursuing program innovations and enhancements.  These include expanded opportunities for undergraduate students’ research and creative endeavors, new support for faculty in securing grants, enhancement of research facilities and many additional opportunities to highlight our creative work.  The Phage-related art at the University Art Gallery through Feb. 5.phage exhibit runs through Feb. 5 at the University Art Gallery.  The Thousand Plates exhibit of food-related art and design will be at the SDSU Downtown Gallery from Feb. 19 through March 30, and our Arts Alive SDSU initiative will bring creative work to the entire campus throughout the semester.

Further, we continue with planning and fundraising for our most ambitious project – the construction of our new Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences Complex.  The construction process will begin in July.  This project will transform our campus by creating facilities to advance our research, as well as the Thomas B. Day Quad/Courtyard – a central gathering place for our community.

While it is common to highlight the methodological and epistemological differences between the arts and sciences, the deeper commonality that makes both essential is more important. (SDSU artists and scientists discuss that concept in this video.) The arts and the sciences stem from the same fundamental desire to understand and characterize the world, to unlock its mysteries and to capture truths about ourselves and our environment.  It is this powerful spirit that guides our efforts in the arts and sciences.  I look forward to the excitement and achievement this spring will bring to our campus.

Phage-Infused Evening of Art at the University Art Gallery at SDSU.

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Holidays Build SDSU Community Ready to Conquer Challenges

During the holiday season, the days are a little shorter, the light a little less brilliant and, even in San Diego, the temperatures are a little bit colder.  So, as people have done for thousands of years, we gather together to share our warmth, light and generosity.  The last several weeks have been a time for communal gatherings, large and small.  Our Department of Geography celebrated its 100th anniversary.  We came together for our “Get Together, Give Back” event in support of our military and the Monarch School community.Les Miserables production at SDSU in December 2014.Our School of Theatre, Television and Film and our School of Music and Dance collaborated on an extraordinary concert production of “Les Misérables,” and our athletic teams inspired us with a conference title in women’s soccer, a fifth consecutive bowl game in football and a national ranking in men’s basketball.  Add countless department and office celebrations across campus and you appreciate the flurry of activities that accompany the holiday season.

These gatherings illustrate the essential role of community at San Diego State. During the formulation of our strategic plan, “Building on Excellence,” the theme of community and its many meanings arose again and again.  People recognized the benefits of strengthening our campus community, the necessity of building relationships with our alumni community and the importance of supporting our regional community.  As we have moved forward with implementing “Building Get Together, Give Back event at SDSU in December 2014.on Excellence,” we have initiated the “Get Together, Give Back” program to support faculty and staff morale, the Aztec Mentor Program to bring alumni and current students together, and the Sage Project in National City, in which over a thousand students, faculty and staff work on community projects.

Each of these programs – and others like them – is an important effort in its own right, but each also serves a larger purpose in building our community. Through community, we bring a diversity of perspectivesAztec Mentor Program participants at SDSU. and talents to address our challenges. Equally important, each of our individual efforts takes on a deeper meaning and purpose when it is tied to the common efforts of friends and colleagues in our community. This shared purpose is essential to the Aztec spirit – resolute and indefatigable – with which we meet our challenges, large and small.

The three central themes of “Building on Excellence” are Student Success, Research and Creative Endeavors, and Community and Communication. While we have critical goals in all three areas, our ability to achieve all of our goals rests on our ability to work together as a community.  In fact, given the strength and scope of the Aztec family, no aspiration and no goal is beyond our reach when we concentrate our efforts and work together.  While life presents many challenges, both to individuals and to universities, this fundamental truth, the power of community, is always essential to addressing them.  I look forward to working with all members of our community to continue to make progress and move our university forward in the spring semester.

Best wishes to all for the holiday season and the New Year.

SDSU football team singing the fight song after a victory in 2014.                          SDSU women's soccer team celebrates their conference championship in 2014.

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