At Gathering on Academic Innovation, Leaders Wonder How Fast Colleges...

Digital Learning

At Gathering on Academic Innovation, Leaders Wonder How Fast Colleges Should Change

By Jeffrey R. Young     Sep 20, 2017

At Gathering on Academic Innovation, Leaders Wonder How Fast Colleges Should Change

Last week leaders from about two dozen colleges and universities met at Stanford University with the goal of helping each other reinvent the way their institutions teach and operate. Among the many unresolved questions: How fast should academic innovation happen?

At one point organizers asked the participants—most of them leaders of academic-innovation efforts on their campuses—to stand in a line, arranging themselves along a spectrum of whether they favored “radical change” or “incremental change.” (The meeting was held under Chatham House Rules, meaning that participants agreed that statements made at the event could be quoted but not attributed to them, though some participants agreed to be named for this article.)

Sean Hobson, chief design officer for Arizona State University’s EdPlus effort, which is charged with “reimagining the higher education landscape” and lead projects to reinvent ASU, says he stood toward the radical end. “Advancements in technology are driving market forces at a pace that is unparalleled in the history of education,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “If we want to keep pace with the teaching and learning mission, we will have to explore and invent the new models for delivery in a way that more-traditional models have proven insufficient.”

Nearer to the other side of the room was Matthew Rascoff, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation at Duke University. He explained his leaning toward “incremental” change by reading aloud a quote from Clark Kerr, a former president of the University of California, that noted the staying power of universities:

“About eighty-five institutions in the Western world established by 1520 still exist in recognizable forms, with similar functions and unbroken histories, including the Catholic church, the Parliaments of the Isle of Man, of Iceland, and of Great Britain, several Swiss cantons, and seventy universities. Kings that rule, feudal lords with vassals, and guilds with monopolies are all gone. These seventy universities, however, are still in the same locations, with some of the same buildings, with professors and students doing much the same things, and with governance carried on in much the same ways.”

In an interview after the meeting, Rascoff said Kerr's point emphasizes the historic importance of higher education as an institution. “Scholars and leaders in higher education have sacred duties to our students, to our institutions, to our communities, and to the pursuit of knowledge," he added. "So while in our missions we must be wildly ambitious, in our means we must be humble, collegial, and patient."

Where officials stood during this exercise seemed to depend largely on what type of institution they were from. One leader standing at the “radical” innovation end had noted earlier in the day that her institution is in “survival mode” because of changing demographics and is under pressure to try new approaches to improve completion rates and maintain funding.

Another official on the radical innovation end, Terik Tidwell, director of STEM innovation at Johnson C. Smith University, stressed in an e-mail interview after the event that colleges need to change to serve what he described as “a growing population of first-generation, low-income, adult completers, and/or racial/ethnic students.” He pointed out that it isn’t just teaching that he thinks should change, but that the business model of higher education needs an upgrade as well. “Regardless of size,” he said, “higher-education institutions need to be able to generate non-tuition revenue that can support core-operations, strategic/growth initiatives, and student aid.”

Mitchell Stevens, associate professor of education at Stanford who gave a talk at the meeting, said in an interview that the major force driving all these innovation efforts at colleges is what he calls a “recapitalization” of the higher-education sector. Public support for higher education is declining—in both dollars and respect—while Silicon Valley companies and other for-profits have moved in. Put simply, colleges are following the money.

“The patrons of higher ed are continuing to shift,” he said. Yet the colleges are still set up around the idea that higher education is a public good. “We haven’t reorganized our conception of how universities are supposed to be governed to accommodate that change,” he added.

“This change brings a profound sense of loss for a lot of academics—especially for those my age and older,” he said. “We all came of age when the public had a lot of trust in higher education, and our government and philanthropic patrons allowed us to run our universities pretty much as we chose. We chose to prioritize research, and they allowed us to pay much less attention to the quality of teaching and the quality of the undergraduate experience.”

These days, though, only the most well-resourced colleges and universities have the luxury of operating that way, he argues, yet professors across the academy still see themselves as having “jurisdiction over teaching and learning.” It’s a shift that’s causing tension—and presents a major challenge for officials running academic-innovation efforts.

Several participants also noted that higher education doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and that colleges need to adapt to the changing world that students will enter after graduation (and rapidly-changing expectations of how institutions should operate).

Brian Fleming, executive director of the Sandbox ColLABorative at Southern New Hampshire University, which fosters academic innovations there, says that part of his mandate is to keep tabs on how other industries are changing. This year, for instance, he’s considering attending a conference for supply chain professionals and another on talent development and human capital management. Other participants said they are looking to how the healthcare sector is adopting new technologies. “Other industries are much further along in some of these issues,” said Fleming.

But Stevens, of Stanford, argues that colleges are already changing faster than many people realize. “This idea that we’re not innovative is frankly very wrong. It’s just wrong,” he said. “There are some parts of the machine that are very sticky, and a lot of that boils down to faculty sovereignty and faculty governance.”

Organizers of the event, known as Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners, or HAIL, say they plan to hold similar gatherings twice a year to continue sharing their experiences (an earlier meeting took place in January).

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