Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Serendipity, students, and revamping higher education


I have had a serendipitous few days that made me realize something that for some reason had not occurred to me: if I care to revamp education in Egypt, I need not limit myself to working with school teachers and university faculty: I could actually work with students directly!!! I always thought working through teachers was a good way to go, and it is, because it increases my reach, but that should not exclude the option of working with students as well! And I have been doing too little of that. It is time to change. It is time to get closer to the student perspective and work with creative young minds – how could I have missed doing that? I now realize I was missing it (emotionally speaking) so much!

Our university is working on strategy for the next five years or so, and being on taskforces that work on this, and attending sessions of what other taskforces are doing,.. And then doing all that in the midst of taking Cathy Davidson’s MOOC on the history and future of higher education… Then today meeting with a student who is inspired to radicalize education for the better of learning and the community – I am inspired to do more. To think beyond whatever imaginary boxes and structures I have been putting for myself and think beyond (lots of this inspired by rhizo14 of course, which will continue to inspire me for years, i think. Rhizo14 folks will see the influence of it here for sure). I am also at the same time planning an Open Access week at my institution, and revising a couple of articles on issues related to all this so lots of ideas coming together in my muddled mind.

So below is my first draft for this week’s futureed assignment, which asked us to imagine a new university and what kind of values, etc., we would like it to have. (I am deliberately ignoring the Coursera honor code and posting the assignment up on my blog to gather feedback – the usefulness of that goes way BEYOND the arbitrary honor code of Coursera anyway):

MISSION STATEMENT: to support every learner to become more than they ever imagined they could be, working interdependently with peers, faculty and the local and global community to make all university learning meaningful.

1. Capacity to embrace uncertainty and find creative ways to solve problems
2. Capacity to work interdependently, to become interdependent responsible citizens of one’s own country and the world
3. The value of striving to make your actions and work contribute to the public good with a social justice orientation

1. Student-created courses (inspired by the Duke iPod project) where students come up with interdisciplinary ideas for courses they would like to see, and find the faculty member(s) who can help design and facilitate these courses.

2. Authentic/sustainable assessments: all or most assessments need to have value beyond the classroom. No research papers for the teachers’ eyes only, to be unused. Every project or paper needs to connect with some real-life external community and the output of it to be shared with or even used by the community. The output itself may involve action by the students working with a community. Assessment involves the community, not just teachers/students.

3. All learning can be counted for credit (or badges, as in this week’s topic). Learning need not all take place in a classroom formal setting. Any learning that occurs outside e.g. Community service, internships, informal travel experiences can count. To try to make this into valuable learning, students can create ePortfolios reflecting on their learning in each of these experiences.

4. Group mentoring: students work throughout the college years with a slightly older peer and a a faculty member, to brainstorm ways of enhancing their learning in college.

I am looking forward to becoming inspired by other people’s ideas about this assignment. I don’t have time to go to the futureed forums this week but at least I will check out what is on twitter and what I end up peer reviewing. But am more interested in what students think, and how they would envision things. There is, however a book I recently reviewed that has good examples of universities doing some of what I am proposing here:Cultivating Inquiry-Driven Learners: A College Education for the Twenty-First Century

I am inspired to create a selected topics course about re-imagining higher education, to invite radical teachers and students to share their visions and to imagine what might actually be possible. So much potential here!

I have just started sharing some of these ideas in the document created by #moocmooc which is an editable rethinking highered document:

Update: there was also a #moocmooc chat Feb 26, storify here.


  1. Hi Maha. Seems convergences happening all the time. How many students, which places, doing what with global communities? Much of what u write echoes my thoughts – on edge of something exciting.
    Hashtag? Space? Where?When?

  2. Looks very interesting Maha. Ordered the book on Inquiry Driven Learners and love the student centered approach to creating new learning opportunities. If you need someone to drive your students crazy, count me in as a volunteer. Somewhere I’ve downloaded a paper on cross-cultural dialog and will send the link. Even in Canada we feel the pressure of the American worldview that creeps into everything originating from the US. It’s an unfortunate barrier.

    I’ve worked with teachers and found it frustrating as there was the background of having invested in training that made them resistant. It’s also a bit rude to step into someone’s ongoing practice and announce “improvements to your performance are available.” Being adult learners too makes things even harder. Some teachers I know that are literally only a year out of their BEd were never exposed to online or open teaching. Their training almost seems from an ancient era.

    Great posting.

  3. These are great initiatives I believe you can have great results when applying the mentioned four points. I like to add one idea why not actually work with parents? Education is a way of life it is a process starting the moment we are borned and the greater teacher in life is our parents, here in Egypt I believe that most of the parents forgot their role as mentor to their children, so a lot of children don’t understand what is learning process and they mostly failed in practical life.
    You can form a group for young parents at AUC to educate them how to support their children learning process may be one day we will get a complete generation of youth that are able to change our educational system.

  4. Scott. Am sorry u ordered the book… The first half of it is abit repetitive but the second half is kind of good! Hope u find it useful anyway. My review of it was lukewarm.

    • Not to worry about the book. Not available at the local library so I’m used to purchasing books to skim. Since the college library has gotten rid of most of its books in favour of online resources we take books we don’t need to the university hospital where my surgeries were done and they sell them as fundraisers. The university also has a teacher’s college that might need a copy on their shelves.

      Found the link I mentioned plus another from Ontario with research questions for online education:
      Students and Researchers as Global Actors: Developing New Learning Cultures

      Toward an Online Learning Research Agenda for Ontario Themes, Opportunities, and Challenges

      QUOTE from the paper: “A large number of employees in Canada function at literacy and other skill levels below those required to productively perform their tasks. These low skill levels have negative consequences for the performance of companies and organizations in Ontario, as well as for job satisfaction, personal lives, and communities. Using new curriculum design methods for online learning to advance communication, problem-solving and other essential skills and ensure that all post-secondary graduates have high levels of literacy and other workplace and personal skills would be a major contribution to the Ontario population and economy.”

  5. Love this, am working on my mission statement as well, also have no time as mental week at work.

  6. Hi Maha, sounds like very big ambitions. Be sure to read about pro and cons of Problem Based Learning and collaborative learning.
    I’m now reading an article on the Tyranny of networked learning.
    According to the writers you need good coaching of the self led peer group. Plus you need to set some kind of rule to help the students to start. Too much freedom can have a paralyzing effect.

    E.g. When you have to write a poem for the first time, just saying anything goes can paralyze the students. But if you set simple rules like use a rhym scheme of ABABA and write 5 rules, those simple rules can help them a lot.

    • Hi Ronald, thanks for that. In our enthusiasm to disrupt power relations and enable social justice we often forget to be cautious about the practical realities of what might happen when we “let go”. I am still cautiously optimistic, but writing this blog post is one thing. Trying to create some sort of vision for my university, collaboratively with students and other stakeholders, with buy-in from admin? A whole new ball game. Can’t stop thinking about it! We discussed these issues in the #moocmooc chat on twitter today.

  7. Hi Maha, This is great stuff and I’m really glad to see things like this being taken seriously somewhere in HE. I don’t know what “structure of institution” means but the four qualities you list would easily fit Celestine Freinet’s practice with school kids in the 1930s. He called this pédagogie du travail.

    I like your reference to “interdependence” in the mission statement. It’s really hard to understand mission statements until you start to live them. Here’s the one from my kids’ school in Colorado: “An Eagle Rock student has the desire and is prepared to make a difference in the world. Eagle Rock has a positive effect on schools in the United States.” These things just slip past us until we start to see how they are implemented, how curricula support them, how teachers use them to create coherent learning experiences for their students: how can you have a positive effect on schools in your country if you do not have a positive effect on your class, on your peers, on your teacher? How can you make a difference in the world if what you are doing in class is meaningless?

    • Hey Mark. Not sure it is being taken seriously, yet. Just my excitement, meets the excitement of a student (a coincidence that we ever met at all) and trying to use our influence over others. Will try to mobilize the most radical of ppl i know to make this a community effort

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers:

%d bloggers like this: