by Steven J. Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University Libraries
Let’s say you have some bad and good news to share. Most of us want to hear the bad news first so we can get it out of the way fast. Then we can bask in the feel-good glow of whatever the good news is coming our way. I’m hesitant to characterize my five ups as good news. To my way of thinking these five are just better indicators than what I shared in part one. If 2023 happens to have some good news in store for us, we are probably going to have to wait to find out what it is. This year has hardly gotten off to a stellar start in the good news department.
One sign that we ought to remain cautiously optimistic at best, is that I struggled to come up with five good “ups” while the “downs” came quite easily. That may just reflect my own degree of pessimism – and I’m usually upbeat about the future. For what it’s worth, here are five ups to counter those five downs as we look ahead to the remainder of this new year.
1. Return to in-person conferencing: While this will hardly offset some of the challenging financial possibilities higher education may encounter in 2023, it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about the prospect of returning to in-person conferencing. Some will say it’s a bad idea or that we are jumping the gun on getting back together in other cities – or that it’s bad for the environment or unfair to colleagues who lack support for conference travel. Those factors can’t be denied, but there is value in re-establishing conference travel. In addition to supporting our library associations, helping them to rebuild their finances, the benefits of in-person meetings for learning, networking, sharing ideas and connecting with vendors supports the personal and organization value they deliver. ACRL 2023 will serve as a major test for how eager academic librarians are to return to the conference scene.
2. Open education movement makes strides: Being an open movement advocate is somewhat akin to walking through a series of hills and valleys. On the hilltops, things can look incredibly promising. Then there are the valleys where the outlook for progress appears dismal. Given the advance of inclusive and equitable access programs marketed by textbook publishers, 2022 seemed like more of a valley, despite the publication of more open textbooks than any prior year and some encouraging legislative developments. Perhaps this is more aspirational, but I foresee 2023 as a return to the hill. Thanks to the efforts of open education advocates, more educators and institutional administrators will become aware of the pitfalls of the publisher access programs while also gaining a better understanding of how open course material can support a truly affordable and equitable education for all students. On the plus side the U.S. Open Textbook Pilot Program was funded for a sixth consecutive year, and now accounts for $47 million in support of publishing OER texts. In addition, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy issued new guidelines to increase open access to articles resulting from U.S. funded research. These developments provide hope and more to build on for 2023.
3. Higher education challenges public perceptions of value: One of higher education’s worst problems in 2022 was the perception of declining value. It’s escalated over several years owing to factors such as culture wars, politics around student debt and what is widely seen as a lack of return on the investment of tuition dollars, but the problem truly spiraled last year. Now, the academic community needs to come together and challenge the value issue by creating its own counter narrative that makes the case that a college education is about more than a quick return on tuition. How higher education is going to accomplish that I cannot say. What I’d like to see is a coalition of higher education associations, accreditors, representative institutions from across the spectrum, college presidents and above all, successful students and alumni, coming together to develop a public information campaign to make the case for the value of a college education – which the data continues to support. Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks this is exactly what higher education needs in 2023. I encourage you to read what Jeff Selingo had to say about changing the narrative on the value of the Bachelor’s degree in 2023. What we need are more stories to counteract the narrative that higher education is just a dead end or costly mistake for too many people. Then our institutions must back that up with solid performance data and qualitative content. That means improving retention and graduation rates, keeping tuition manageable and debt low, along with demonstrable evidence of student post-graduate success.
4. Benefits of a better workplace: After years of focusing attention to low morale, burnout and leadership failures in library organizations and higher education, look for improvement in 2023. Where there are job openings, the competition for attracting top candidates can be brutal. Lack of staff diversity continues to be problematic for both the professoriate and academic library. This is motivating library organizations to question whether their working environment is designed to appeal to both current and prospective employees. Leaders want to retain their top workers and attract new, more diverse colleagues. The conversation about harsh, unengaging or unwelcoming work environments is being heard loud and clear. To counter these barriers, higher education administrations are rethinking everything from work-life balance, to time-off policies to flexible work arrangements to employee wellness. None of this will matter however if higher ed and its libraries fail to rein in toxic managers and leaders. Though budgets are tight, ignoring the need for investment in professional development to develop more humane leadership would be a potentially catastrophic mistake.
5. Higher Ed gets real about information literacy: Academic librarianship has been advocating for student research skill building and critical thinking for what seems like ages now. Despite those efforts and research confirming its contribution to student success, progress toward widespread recognition and integration of information literacy has proven elusive. We’ve vastly upped our game when it comes to integrating library research skill building into the curriculum, instructional design for learning, integrating educational technology into our instruction activity and harnessing learning research to deliver evidence-based pedagogical methods in our teaching. At the end of fall 2022 semester faculty were alarmed by the emergence of AI for writing, primarily in the form of the GPT3 software. So far in 2023, the response to AI technology from higher education is less about panic and more about developing thoughtful strategies for accepting what AI will change and adopting practices for adapting to this new world of research and writing. Perhaps more alarming is a trend for students to watch YouTube or TikTok videos for advice on how to conduct research (or worse – purchasing one from the many paper vendors frequenting these platforms). This all comes on top of existing concerns about students’ inability to discern accurate, reliable information from that which is neither. No one knows for sure just yet what to make of all this. One possible outcome in 2023 is that administrators and faculty will find ways to get students more deeply immersed in both research and writing in ways that harness the power of these new technologies while developing assignments that limit students’ ability to have AI do all their writing. That could bode well for academic librarians if higher education takes a new direction in getting students back to the foundations of research, as challenging as that might be now that these AI tools are on the loose. With our experience in helping students gain confidence in and mastery of their research abilities, academic librarians are poised to emerge as valued partners to those who have previously discounted what we can bring to the classroom and beyond.
As much as I like being able to look back to discover the accuracy of my predictions, in this case I’d be glad to be all wrong on my downs and mostly right about the ups. As is usually the case with predictions, it’s more likely this will be a mixed bag of varying degrees of right and wrong. What are some of your downs and ups for 2023? Do you agree with the ones I’ve shared – or are they way off. Use the comment box to express your opinion.
About the Author: Steven J. Bell is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University Libraries. His past blogs have included The Kept-Up Academic Librarian and Designing Better Libraries. He started the blog ACRLog in 2005 and was its primary contributor through 2011. Between 2009 and 2019 he authored two monthly columns, “From the Bell Tower” and “Leading From the Library” for Library Journal. You can learn more about Steven at http://stevenbell.info or follow him on twitter @blendedlib