Mary Washington as Academic Innovator

Image from the UMW blog publishing platform page

by James A. Bacon

Kudos to the University of Mary Washington, one of the lesser known lights in Virginia’s pantheon of colleges and universities, for setting the standard for integrating blogs into academic teaching methods. The university warrants mention in a new book, “Abelard to Apple,” by Richard deMillo, on the future of higher education.

The traditional university structure “will not survive the coming changes,” writes deMillo, as quoted by George Leef in the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy blog. DeMillo, who has held high-level posts at both Georgia Tech and Hewlett-Packard, believes that information-technology tools will turn teaching methods topsy-turvy.

Surviving institutions will be those that:

  1. Focus on value, delivering what students want based on their skills and aspirations.
  2. Drive down costs
  3. Earn a reputation for quality education through continual validation in the marketplace

DeMillo cites Mary Washington as an institution experiencing great ferment. “At the University of Mary Washington, learning takes place in the digital spaces engineered by Jim Groom and his band of Edupunks. At UMW, learning takes place in blogs.” Leef elaborates:

There are more than 2,500 public blogs at the school. Professors don’t have to make their course material available to outsiders, but for each class there is a blog. Students see the blogs as a “space to do work” that enables them to easily connect with their professors and other students. The result is vibrant communities of learners, sometimes including strangers. DeMillo writes that it’s “not uncommon for an outsider to stumble into a UMW blog, find that there are interesting people to talk to, and jump uninvited into the middle of a conversation.”

Here is an example of a blog that accompanies a class on Western Civilization taught by Nabil Al-Tikriti.  Not only does the professor post the syllabus and course outline online, he provides several weekly blog posts to complement the course material. He also uses blogging technology to accommodate student-generated “group study guides” that include ” links to websites offering more information on these topics, primary source samples, photos, paintings, music samples, sample essay questions, and any other resource relevant to the topics covered in their respective chapter. ” Students are graded for the quality of their study guides.

UMW allows any member of the UMW community to publish a blog using WordPress software. Judging by this list of courses, the English and History departments have really gotten on board with the technology. As Al-Tikriti’s course description makes clear, however, the blog supplements traditional teaching measures such as lectures, reading, discussion and tests, it does not replace them.

From what I can see, UMW blogs have yet to constitute a disruptive technology that will transform higher ed single-handedly. On the other hand, the idea is still new. The process of experimentation is only beginning. Bad ideas will be jettisoned, successes will be replicated. If students feel like they learn more, practices perfected at Mary Washington could well boost the institution’s academic reputation. Moreover, practices may well spread beyond traditional academic centers. Leef cites the example of Abelard, a 12th-century French monk, who attracted a personal following of students, much as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle did in the ancient world. The technology will be truly revolutionary when free-lance professors can use IT tools to disseminate knowledge outside the institutional setting. Mark my words, the great disruption is only a matter of time.

6 Responses to Mary Washington as Academic Innovator

  1. I live near UMW and never knew. Who KNEW!

    ;-)

    I totally agree with Jim’s assessment. We are living in risky times for institutions like Universities.

    you don’t have to go into hock for thousands of dollars to get a quality education.. in fact, an education that will probably get you a real job (although Western Civilization is a bit sketchy on that point).

    Places like UVA may find themselves catering more and more to those who have the ability to throw away tens of thousands of dollars when just as good is available for 1/10th the cost.
    All those sports programs are going to be for the rich and famous and the rest of the (us) schmucks are going to go for the Chevrolet of education… or perhaps characterized as “Larry the Cable Guy “git er done” school of higher education.

    you no longer have to actually spend tens of thousands of dollars to get a quality education nor go into hock for 2o or 30 thousand but people still do it even though there are viable alternatives like UMW.

  2. Interesting piece and good points about Mary Wash. One of my daughters goes there and really likes it.

  3. From what I can see, UMW blogs have yet to constitute a disruptive technology that will transform higher ed single-handedly. On the other hand, the idea is still new. The process of experimentation is only beginning. Bad ideas will be jettisoned, successes will be replicated. If students feel like they learn more, practices perfected at Mary Washington could well boost the institution’s academic reputation.

    I couldn’t agree with this more. UMW cannot ingle-handedly transform higher education, but we do hope our willingness to experiment will be a model for others. because like DeMillo, I have to believe higher education’s monopoly on accreditation is at a particular pressure point, not unlike newspapers monopoly on the news and the entertainment sector’s monopoly on distributing video and music. This is a rave new world, and higher education needs to be returning to its role as an innovator and experimenter or find itself irrelevant.

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