Why Mellon's Digitization Grant to Barnard College is a Big Deal

If there's one thing everyone in higher education can agree on it's that, paradoxically, there's no clear-cut consensus on how technology will shape the field of liberal arts in years to come. And that's precisely why a recent Mellon gift to Barnard College is so exciting.

The gift relates to digitization, just one of the technological changes hitting campuses, but it's a big one and what's happening here carries broader lessons. 

Before we take a closer look, let's first summarize what everyone can agree on. Foundations, colleges, curators, and archivists alike agree that digitization technology is, quite obviously, here to stay. They agree that these technologies will change how liberal arts teaching happens and how students interact with material, both written and visual. And they agree that, if implemented properly, these tools will equip graduates with the skills to succeed in the "real world" in a way that wasn't foreseeable five years ago.

So far, so good. There's just one problem: How, exactly, will this all play out? Which specific technologies should schools embrace, and for what purposes? How will "collaboration" look? What new equipment should they purchase? And the list goes on.

Which brings us to news out of New York City, where a new partnership between the Mellon Foundation and Barnard College provides some preliminary answers to these questions.

The school received an $800,000 Mellon grant to support "Barnard Teaches: Real Place + Digital Access," a new academic initiative that will allow Barnard faculty to "collaborate with curators, archivists, and collection specialists at New York City cultural and scientific institutions to co-develop courses to be offered through Barnard College to Barnard and Columbia undergraduates." In the process, students can look forward to:

  • On-site learning instruction at partner institutions and digital design training at the International Center of Photography. 
  • Special access to the partnering institutions’ resources, such as high-resolution digital photographs and archival objects that are largely unavailable to the public. 
  • Newly acquired digital design skills to illuminate and explore topics through “visual storytelling” and other digital technologies uniquely suited to the space and place in which they learn.

Perhaps you're familiar with the phrase "building the ship while sailing" (variants include "fixing the plane while flying," etc.) It's used by consultants to describe the process in which thought leaders, guided by a high-level plan, create new initiatives in the moment while current operations continue to chug along. 

The same logic applies with the role of emerging technology across the world of higher education. While organizations may have a high-level plan or vision, there are nonetheless no set rules, no guidebooks, no easy "how-to" manuals, and most certainly no crystal balls predicting what skills will be in demand in five years.

This is why we're so bullish on Mellon's generous grant to Barnard. By creating a roadmap for next-generation liberal arts students that combines archival work, academic scholarship, and digital design skills, it's a great example of colleges and foundations collaboratively responding to changes as they play out. 

Stay tuned.