(This entry is part of a series by Gordon Freedman, Blackboard’s VP of education strategy, in which he reflects on technology and education as he travels around the world to meet with innovative education leaders and researchers, government leaders, and Blackboard clients who are experimenting in e-Learning and changing the education landscape.)

Unfortunately, being global in the information age seems to require way too much travel.  For those of us coming into consciousness about our carbon footprint, staying out of the skies is a good thing.  When the chance arose to participate in a global higher education conference in my hometown, I was overjoyed.

Monterey, California is an unusual place by Western U.S. standards.  As early as 1542, Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo was dispatched from New Spain, now Mexico, to map the California coastline.  He was followed 60 years later by Sebastián Vizcaíno, who named Monterey and Carmel.  In subsequent years, Monterey, in succession, was a Spanish, Mexican and then U.S. town.  In 1846, it became California’s original state capital, the site of the first brick structure in California, adjacent to the Spanish style Custom’s House and the State’s first theater.

With this fitting European, Latin American and North American setting, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, www.miis.edu, and its new affiliate, the internationally minded Middlebury College, held the first Connect-Ed international education conference, www.connectedconference.org.  With attendees from 24 nations and Monterey’s own higher education institutions – the Defense Language Institute*, the Naval Post Graduate School* and California State University Monterey Bay* – the conference became a soul-searching experience, to find out what the heart of higher education should be in the globalized world.

We were treated to keynote speakers, each of whom provided different perspectives or frameworks to view today’s and tomorrow’s world.  SUN Microsystems founder and now chairman, Scott McNealy, preached the gospel of open content for education, all curriculums free and open, and only a click away.  He is bringing this into reality through his new non-profit effort, www.Currikki.com.

The former foreign minister of Mexico, Jorge Castaneda, painted a majestic picture of Mexico and California supplying education to Mexican children as a bi-national effort.  “Why shouldn’t California pay to educate Mexican children in Oaxaca, Mexico?” he asked.  It would be cheaper than doing so in Los Angeles, the results would likely be better, and some of those children would stay in Mexico and build a stronger economy.  Can education be a tool of diplomacy? 

Robert Kaplan, a defense scholar and correspondent for “The Atlanta Monthly,” fresh from two years as a guest faculty member at the U.S. Naval Academy, provided a stark military framework, in contrast to Castenada’s diplomatic vision.  In the world Kaplan portrayed, we will see more military activity than previous times as the century unfolds, but it won’t all be combat.  Disaster relief, keeping sea lanes open, and building a counterbalance to the growing navies of China and Japan will be a role the U.S. will have to occupy.

As the conference came to a close, wondering about the three frameworks – Technological, Diplomatic and Military – begged multiple questions for me and the nearly 400 participants:

  • Where does higher education fit into this picture: as a reaction to the other frameworks or as a new framework in the making?
  • What kind of a role does global higher education play in this new world?
  • Is higher education simply a handmaiden to the economic needs of the knowledge economy?
  • Or is higher education the steward to a world out of control, where the balance for life and planetary well-being is not going to come from corporations or nations?
  • What about students, scholars, researchers and perspective-setting faculty?

The setting could not have been more appropriate to these kinds of questions or the dialogue more thought-provoking.  This conference, in contrast to others, called on each person to go a little deeper in thinking not only of the abstract role of what institutions should be in the 21st century, but what each participant’s commitment to change should be.  Somehow that had more of an authentic 21st century ring to it than the purely technological, diplomatic, militaristic or institutional frameworks.

Three contributions were offered from participants who, like McNealy and Castenada, are all personally motivated and interested in individual lives making a global difference:

1. Minneapolis, MN–Morales, MX Axis: A University of Minnesota graduate student with State Department experience is working at improving access to services for the sizable Mexican population that has settled in Minneapolis, from the area outside of Cuernavaca in the Mexican state of Morales.  These two towns are linked daily, minute-by-minute, in a singular culture divided by 3,000 miles.  The next step will be to introduce more distance learning between the two.

2. No Passport, No Diploma: One of the executive directors of a large study abroad program related that there is one, and only one, higher education institution in the U.S. that requires that students have a passport in order to be admitted.  The same college requires that the passport have been stamped in at least one country other than the U.S. in order for a student to graduate, opening the way for global community development. 

3. Russian Literature, Self-Taught: A university professor of Russian literature came to the conclusion during the conference that he should not be the lecturer, but the facilitator of students who each construct their own course during the semester, producing the knowledge they need, not answering assignments.  He sees this as an essential skill in the new global economy.

Stewardship, community and knowledge production are going to be necessary to balance the economic forces of globalization.  The modern university is going to have to sit in the middle and offer balance, care and perspective, as well as growing economies and sustaining the planet and its inhabitants.  Doing that will have to come from inside each person: a new slant on globalization for me with hardly a trace of carbon.

Middlebury and MIIS, which will become a singular institution in the future, should be applauded for leading a discussion that became more personal and profound than the usual factual and interpretative sessions that do not necessarily motivate participants to move themselves to a next level.  Of note is that board members and administrators from both institutions were active participants. 

So, a few miles from my home, on a California harbor with historical roots deeper than Jamestown or Plymouth, I received a better sense of the new globalization than I expected without ever having to step on a tarmac. 

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