​5 Invisible Barriers Preventing Change in Higher Ed

column | Higher Education

​5 Invisible Barriers Preventing Change in Higher Ed

By Michelle Pacansky-Brock (Columnist)     Apr 28, 2017

​5 Invisible Barriers Preventing Change in Higher Ed

Everyone has an opinion when it comes to issues facing higher education. But there are a few things we know for certain: Textbook and tuition costs are too high, student engagement is too low, and students want choice in how they learn. Plus, there are new literacies that are not yet addressed in formal curriculum.

We also know technology holds potential to improve many of these problems. But there is resistance.

These problems are the effects of invisible organizational barriers, such as assumptions that faculty don’t want to change or that we need to be on campus to have a meaningful interactions with peers. They shape our thoughts, our actions, and how we relate with our peers. They prevent us from seeing how our role is interconnected to all parts of an institution as well as to the broader ecosystem of which it is a part. These illusive barriers are both articulated and reinforced through policies, actions, reporting structures, titles, and other aspects of our workplaces. Most importantly, these barriers prevent each of us from acting as agents of change.

Much like the water that a fish swims in, we don’t recognize the existence of organizational barriers or their systemic impact. But making organizational barriers visible is the first step in breaking them down.

Here are five organizational barriers that are preventing change in higher education:

1. A Culture of Smallness

Brene Brown, an affective researcher and professor at the University of Houston, identifies vulnerability as the birthplace of innovation. Making change requires stepping into an unfamiliar place and the willingness to make mistakes. Change is a process of growth and mistakes are essential to growth. But making a mistake in higher education feels like showing your dirty underwear.

Higher education institutions typically have, what I describe, as a culture of smallness. This means we operate within a fabric comprised of values that both construct and reinforce practices and policies that dissuade us from taking risks. A culture of bigness, on the other hand, embraces mistakes and celebrates those who embrace experimentation as part of their process. Even if that experimentation comes with a few flops.

When we fear vulnerability, we build shelter and stay inside. Learning Management Systems (LMSs), the paywall around academic journals, and the reliance on proprietary textbooks, are evidence of this barrier.

2. Perceptions of Faculty

Rarely do we acknowledge the immense complexity involved with supporting faculty to teach effectively in the digital era. If part of your role is to support faculty, you play a key role in leading organizational change. In reality, the faculty we support are at all stages in the technology adoption cycle: from technology enthusiasts to skeptics. Unfortunately, we tend to exaggerate the proportion of faculty skeptics on campus. We all have heard it and/or said it: “Faculty just don’t want to change.” The problem with this barrier is that it creates a blind spot. By focusing on those who resist, we don’t see the dazzling new ideas and practices flourishing around us. Every campus has faculty who are visionaries and early adopters. Their stories—their innovative practices, their mistakes, the voices of their students—must be excavated and lifted up to inspire faculty who remain skeptical. It’s time we stop focusing on those who don’t want to change and start valuing our innovators on campus.

3. Digital Participation

The web holds potential to revolutionize education, and higher ed has much to add to conversations around how the web is shaping society. Digital participation is one important way we can contribute to these discussions and ideas. However, in higher education, digital participation is not mainstream. Want this to change? Hire connected people into senior roles on campus.

Christopher P. Long, a dean and a faculty member at Michigan State University, sees digital participation through a unique lens. As an employee at a public university, he believes that sharing scholarly ideas openly on the web is part of his professional obligation. Long blogs on a site that is part of his university’s Domains project, hosted by Reclaim Hosting, which gives faculty, staff, administrators and students their own web space to cultivate a digital presence. If more administrators and faculty modeled Long’s commitment to knowledge sharing, perceptions about digital participation would begin to shift.

4. Tool Adoption Process

While tech adoption has been a slow process for higher ed, there is one instructional tool that has reached the mainstream: the Learning Management System. But LMSs, such as Canvas, Blackboard and Moodle, are like closets; they’re good for storing stuff behind a closed door. They are not good for fostering meaningful interactions and authentic assessment of learning, which is why more and more faculty turn to third-party tools to enhance their students’ learning in online and blended course settings.

This groundswell of grassroots experimentation challenges traditional management-driven, decision-making process about site-wide tool adoption. While collaborative decision-making is at the heart of some campus cultures, part-time faculty are often left out. This is a concern, as the majority of classes are now taught by part-time instructors. The practices of these early adopter faculty are a wealth of untapped knowledge that we should use to ensure tool adoption aligns with good pedagogy. Instead, many faculty teach in the shadows, in fear of violating mandated IT policies.

The adoption of tools for teaching and learning needs to start at the grassroots level— where faculty teach and students learn. As faculty seek out tools to improve student learning, collaborative processes must be developed to identify effective practices, implement pilot stages, and ensure the adoption of tools is guided by the student experience.

5. Time & Place

Our mobile era is transforming the traditional workplace. Between 2013 and 2014, the U.S. employee population grew by 1.9 percent, while employees who telecommute grew 5.6 percent. Employees are mobile and employers are reinventing their workplaces to recruit and retain them.

In higher education, on the other hand, the workplace has not changed much. Faculty are certainly teaching more online classes, but the expectation for employees to be on campus for meetings and professional development has shifted very little. According to a 2014 study, 90 percent of surveyed institutions required faculty to be on campus to teach online classes. Plus, only one in five faculty are full-time tenured or tenure track, which means most faculty have multiple workplaces. In short, time and place function as significant barriers to the increasingly diverse higher education workforce.

Faculty are using technology to make face-to-face time with students more meaningful and student increase access to learning. Our campus workplaces need to take note of this, and adopt strategies to untether the campus workplace to ensure time and place are not barriers.

What are your thoughts about these 5 barriers? Which do you see evidence of within your institution?

Michelle Pacansky-Brock (@brocansky) is the Innovations Lead of Teaching and Learning Innovations at California State University Channel Islands.

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