Beyond Access: Radically Unlocking Higher Education
My goal as an educator, firmly situated in higher education, is to eliminate artificial barriers and increase avenues of support, meaning-making, and respect towards students so that they can effectively understand, impact, and critique society. In the nearly twenty years as a student, instructor and staff (playing all three roles at once many times), my experience, research, and reflection has shown me that the degree to which an institution embraces aspects of radical access goes hand in hand with how well all students thrive in college, are capable of substantially shaping some aspect of society, all while better understanding themselves and the world they live in.
Radical access moves beyond the traditional (but still important) forms such as racial, socio-economic, ability-oriented, intellectual ability access and focuses on inclusivity, flexibility, transparency, and equity. It isn’t about who we let in but how we court, make room for, clarify our intentions towards, and uphold everyone’s right to be there in meaningful ways. By focusing on these attributes, radical access better ensures the traditional forms of access. In many ways, radical access is not the way many colleges operate. It is not the way that I used to act as an instructor. Yet, as I have worked to enact the practice of radical access, I have transitioned t from sage on the stage to being part of a community, from where the classroom was a place of antagonistic tension to where it is a place of learning intention, and from where intellectual challenges are collaboratively engaged as opposed to hierarchically mandated.
InclusivenessTo be radically accessible, institutions must be inclusive; they must dissolve the doors and walls between themselves and their communities so that it becomes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. I would go as far as to remove the term “higher” for all its implications of elitism, and reframe higher education as “embedded education;” education as community, not as apart from. Only in this way can an institution be deeply entrenched with the public to actively co-create what it means to improve society for all of its members (Simpson, 2014). In this way, colleges and universities can reimagine what it means to fulfill a public good purpose. I envision an institution where it does not stick out physically and socially from its community, but rather is so ubiquitously interspersed to the point of being almost rendered invisible to the community (akin to pavement, electricity, etc). In such an environment, where anyone at any time can become part of a college, it feel like we would have achieved inclusivity. The difference to me is akin to how one might celebrate and be thankful to friends and family throughout the year as opposed to how we typically celebrate one another’s lives largely on birthdays and other significant holidays (e.g. Christmas). Higher education currently operates like this, engaging with community on special occasions rather than being engaged in multifaceted ways year-round.
FlexibilityCampuses need to embrace flexibility, which means resituating learning to meet students where they are, rather than having the student contort into what is preferred by the system. For instance, the current system arbitrarily determines the terms of engagement regarding acceptance into college, when semesters start, when courses run, what format they are run, where they occur, the frequency of offerings, etc. A good macro-level example of this is the starting times of semesters at most higher education institutions, providing most courses in September and January, and then a fraction of courses at other times. If a student fails or withdraws from a course in mid-October, they may have to wait between three and eleven months before getting another chance to take that course again. That gap happens because many colleges put the needs and wants of the system and its more powerful representatives at the center of decision-making, rather than students. On the micro-level, flexibility can embody the structure of learning activities. Course activities and learning experiences are often predetermined and preassigned. Few instructors are likely to respond and pivot according to the students rather than blame the students for not meeting the instructor’s preconceived notions. It’s the rigidity of these practices that physically and chronologically distances the student from his or her education. It reiterates that the system is the machine and the student is the raw materials; a dualistic relationship that offers superficial choice or flexibility for the students. Over the years, I have worked hard to reinvent my classrooms in ways that emphasize flexibility and choice for the student. I work to to convey a desire for them to succeed and for each student and myself to collaborate to make that happen when the way the course is running doesn’t meet their needs. As an instructional designer, I am often trying to find ways to nudge faculty to see and respond to the innate abilities in their students and to be flexible with them.
TransparencyAuthentic transparency is essential for higher education. Clear, timely, and easy-to-find information should be provided. For instance, institutions often fail to articulate the exact and total costs of individual courses, full-time education, extra-course costs (course texts, necessary equipment, etc), the courses required, the means of achieving success within a given course and in the program as a whole. But transparency also extends to adequate information about how decisions are made throughout an institution and how one can contribute to changing things within the institution if he or she believes it important. Too often, the institution feels like an impregnable system that students (and for that matter faculty and staff) feel subject to rather than a part of—that they either accept things because they get run around or have been told that things aren’t possible. If higher education is meant to empower people, providing the means and tools with which they can begin to practice such things in the college community is a good start. This transparency filters down even into the courses where all course content, expectations, and considerations for a course should be made readily available even before a student registers. It is ridiculous to ask students to spend so much money on their learning with nothing more than a 100-word generic description of the course and no real indication to the learning methods, activities, and intellectual demands that they will be engaged in. Any given course is apt to ask much of a student but that student has no easy or consistent method of understanding what is being asked until the first day—all the while, we require them to divulge piles of data about themselves just in order to be “accepted” and become a student at the institution. As early as a month before a class starts, I am emailing currently enrolled students to provide them with relevant information for the course, potential expectations, and what they might need to know about the course. With faculty, particularly in online classes, I strongly advocate for such transparency around course content and if they need to make changes or make mistakes.
EquityHigher education must also constantly revisit equity for all those who are part of the college and even the community. The hierarchy of powers that exist within the classroom between students and faculty remains unbalanced and too often students are stuck in situations where they feel unable to challenge their instructors, compromise their values and education, and decide if problems they encounter are worth the hassle of getting them resolved. Whether courses and instructors fall short or overstretch, the student often believes that his or her voice or ability to change the outcomes is beyond them. This powerlessness is trained into the students throughout their entire education as their movement is entirely subservient throughout the educational experience: they ask for admission, they must wait to be told what is available (admission, financial aid, courses offered) and when they can sign up for courses, they must sign innumerable forms and agreements about their conduct, health, behavior, and commitment, they must apply for their graduation—their institutional interactions all speak to them as the supplicant and the institute as the master in a ceaseless game of Mother-May-I. Equity goes beyond students and affects faculty and the different faculty at an institution. The rights, access to resources, and stability of a part-time faculty member or a graduate assistant pale in comparison to the tenured or tenure-track professors; and it is often the latter who are centrally involved in decision-making while the others are intentionally or de facto left out. If an institution is to become learning-centered, it would mean reexamining the power differences among the different types of faculty (as well as staff and administration for that matter). I do as much as possible to level the playing field within a classroom by empowering students to choose the materials that work with their learning preferences and personal interests while also providing assignment choices that let them approach learning as a more demonstrative experience rather than a solely evaluative process. For nearly a decade, I helped to run a professional development program for part-time faculty members in large part because it felt like a valuable way of empowering and helping part-time faculty better claim space and power within the institution. In both the classroom and my work with part-time faculty, I always find it important to recognize the value and dedication so many of them bring day-to-day into the institution, despite the ways in which they are unfairly treated. Even as an instructional designer, I often seem myself as a force to better create equity between students and faculty in an online class, where the concentration of power can be even more extreme.
If higher education proves inclusive, flexible, transparent, and equitable enough, there is the possibility to holistically engage students with intellectual challenges and education that is transformative. Without constantly working towards inclusivity, flexibility, transparency, and equity, higher education offers little more than lip service to the kind of learning that Friere, Simpson and others offer. I believe that these elements maximally reduce unnecessary hurdles to learning for the students to allow them to focus their energy and intellectual capacities on the deeper and more powerful learning that can happen within higher education; learning that transforms the people, the institute, and the community. This is the radical access I believe in.
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 I have included but not cited these texts as a bibliography as I see them as a part of me and shaping my thinking over the years. I was challenged to do so since in some ways, these books represent my own challenge with “banking education” wherein accumulation is the goal. Yet, books can often be dialogic in that they offer ideas that change with each viewing. In that vein, they are much like Heraclitus’s river, in that one can never step into the same river twice and therefore, the books are less static knowledge than dialogue that happens in different contexts.
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