Calling for innovation at Whitman College

Look­ing back over four years at Whit­man, I am dis­ap­pointed and frus­trated with a sys­tem that could be doing so much. I think that there is a severe lack of encour­age­ment and val­u­a­tion of open knowl­edge sys­tems at Whit­man. While dis­ap­point­ing for my four years here, there is quite a bit that future stu­dents can do to force the insti­tu­tion to rec­og­nize the value of these learn­ing systems.

These open sys­tems can take many forms but essen­tially boil down to one key aspect: the ease with which oth­ers can view and con­tribute to the infor­ma­tion being pro­duced on cam­pus. The tools should be public-facing, open to pub­lic con­tri­bu­tions and use standards-based, open source software.

There are some cases of real inno­va­tion at Whit­man, but, unfor­tu­nately, they are few and far between. They are the excep­tions that prove the rule of con­fined learn­ing. There must be a con­scious shift toward a more open and col­lab­o­ra­tive edu­ca­tional envi­ron­ment. Even though this did not hap­pen dur­ing my four years on cam­pus I think that there is a tremen­dous amount of poten­tial for Whit­man to change, and to change rapidly, in the com­ing years.

First, if it wants to main­tain its sta­tus as an elite lib­eral arts col­lege that encour­ages stu­dents to address prob­lems in new and crit­i­cal meth­ods, Whit­man must do far more to encour­age par­tic­i­pa­tion in open sys­tems of knowl­edge.

Mark Pesce writes that, “The edu­ca­tional field does not rec­og­nize the bound­aries of the class­room, the insti­tu­tion, or even the nation.” Edu­ca­tion in gen­eral may not rec­og­nize these bound­aries, but Whit­man solid­i­fies them. Classes here have dri­ven home the idea that the legit­i­mate par­tic­i­pants in a dis­cus­sion are those within the classroom.

In order to effec­tively address soci­etal issues Whit­man must pro­duce knowl­edge that is open and pub­lic. It must cre­ate an envi­ron­ment within which stu­dents con­cep­tu­al­ize knowl­edge as some­thing that is a pub­lic good. It must seek to cre­ate data­bases of knowl­edge that are avail­able to all online in a search­able, standards-based format.

Finally, it must work to actively cre­ate knowl­edge that is not just the priv­i­leged pos­ses­sion of its stu­dent body. If every­thing is kept within a tiny cam­pus of 1,400 stu­dents Whit­man will not be able to enact the type mean­ing­ful change it champions.

Don’t read this as a typ­i­cal “break out of the Whit­man bub­ble” argu­ment. What I think Whit­man can do goes far deeper than that. Whit­man has the abil­ity to re-conceptualize how infor­ma­tion and knowl­edge are pro­duced on a col­lege campus.

The tools exist that would allow stu­dents to start cre­at­ing knowl­edge that will be acces­si­ble to them, to their class­mates and to the broader pub­lic for the com­ing decades. What is left is for depart­ments on cam­pus to rec­og­nize the valid­ity of open learn­ing and incor­po­rate it into their cur­ricu­lum. By call­ing for an end to assign­ments that never leave the walls of Whit­man and orga­niz­ing together out­side of class to take part in public-facing dis­cus­sions about their edu­ca­tion, stu­dents can spur this change.

If we cor­don off the knowl­edge pro­duced in under­grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion to a series of inac­ces­si­ble PDFs and archaic printed copies we lose every­thing we’ve learned in the four years here. Put knowl­edge online, make it pub­lic, make it acces­si­ble. Make assign­ments carry weight and author­ity for the years after school.

Whit­man needs to reframe knowl­edge as a col­lec­tive endeavor instead of an indi­vid­ual pos­ses­sion. If oth­ers can see what has come before them then they can truly start work­ing on the prob­lems of tomor­row.

Whit­man is a great insti­tu­tion and, because of its size and stu­dent body, could be doing really inno­v­a­tive things with its aca­d­e­mic pro­grams. Instead, Whit­man classes recy­cle the same types of learn­ing and assess­ments. This no longer works and, more impor­tantly, is not what Whit­ties need if we are to go on to posi­tions of lead­er­ship in our world. We need a Whit­man Col­lege that embraces knowl­edge sys­tems open to all and infor­ma­tion that remains acces­si­ble beyond the con­fines and com­fort zones of classrooms.

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