How to Bring Innovation to Campus Without Cheapening Education

Digital Learning

How to Bring Innovation to Campus Without Cheapening Education

By Jeffrey R. Young     Oct 17, 2018

How to Bring Innovation to Campus Without Cheapening Education

This article is part of the guide: EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

Many professors worry when they hear the word “innovation,” or when they see college leaders looking to the business world to upgrade practices on campus, because they fear it will weaken the quality of education.

There’s even a growing body of scholarly work critiquing a so-called “McDonaldization” of higher education, saying colleges risk becoming factory-like deliverers of training rather than places of research and intellectual exploration.

Yet, at the same time, many college leaders are finding that institutions can learn from tech-savvy companies, especially when it comes to kind of creating a culture of innovation and trying new things. After all, higher education is rarely praised for its ability to change.

So how can colleges experiment without straying from their mission?

We recently held an online discussion to explore that question as part of our monthly EdSurge Live series. We were joined by two guests: Dennis Hayes, co-author of the book The McDonaldization of Higher Education and a professor of education at the University of Derby, in England; and Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation at Davidson College who has grappled with these issues in her own writing (and on her campus).

Listen to highlights of the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen. The transcript below has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Dennis, could you briefly explain what you mean when you say college is becoming McDonaldized? What’s your main concern?

Hayes: The term McDonaldization was coined by George Ritzer in 1991. And in his original work, he described universities as like factories, where students are processed by two things: bureaucracy and computers.

Originally when I first wrote about this, I thought, “Well, it doesn't feel like that. The students are quite happy.” Certainly in Britain, [in] the student satisfaction surveys that students all fill in, they're all quite happy.

Well, they're happy, but they should be unhappy. The university is about the pursuit of truth without fear or favor, and they should challenge everything you believe and think about. But, if your main concern is just to make students happy, that doesn't work.

I once gave a talk called "Education is Bad For You." And somebody said, "you shouldn't say things like that because it will [deter] students." But I was being ironic. I meant that, when we go to university, we will challenge everything you believe in. People maybe lose contact with their family, have all different experiences. So it changes your life.

But if your concern is to make people happy, you don't want them to start worrying, so you stop challenging them. Nobody makes anybody do this, they just basically stop saying anything critical. So if you really challenge students to think, and challenge their assumptions, and their most preciously-held beliefs, then they're going to be unhappy.

EdSurge: Kristen, what your reaction this, and to the broader critique of the danger of bringing in sometimes these digital innovations—that there could risk these standardizations that could get at the core of what education should be about in the mission statement of the university?

Eshleman: I'll answer that with Davidson's context. So I would agree with much of what I heard Dennis say. And if you look at the accreditation process, that's where this became apparent to me. So [Southern Asscoation of Schools and Colleges] is our accreditor. SACS is one of the more, I would say, strict accrediting bodies, where they get down into the detail of learning outcomes in every single course. And they force you to go through this process of defining those learning outcomes, and then document those to make sure those are part of the accreditation process—to the point of almost stifling faculty creativity in courses.

That's the argument you would hear from faculty: that, yes, we're trying to standardize, we're trying to have accountability in a time when people are increasingly questioning the value of a liberal arts education.

But that’s not recognizing the value of what happens in the classroom is oftentimes very emergent. It's a discovery process. And you can't define ahead of time what those learning outcomes are going to be in those cases. You know, there's some introductory science courses where you can very clearly define those outcomes, and make sure those are hit. But it doesn't apply everywhere evenly. So we had a lot of pushback. It's the first time I'd actually heard general agreement across our campus, from the top all the way down, was around frustration with that process because it didn't feel like it aligned with our values.

But this is why I like innovation. Because I think innovation is looking at that space of emergence and discovery. So I don't see innovation as an industrialization of education, or at least it doesn't need to be.

What's interesting here is trying to look at innovation efforts that explore accountability in other ways. So are there ways that we can be accountable for emergence, and discovery where we can show that that is valuable? Those are the kinds of things that I'm interested in the innovations space, not "McDonaldizing" or trying to apply these standards. But really trying to say "where is the value?" And by questioning our assumptions about those values, I think we do get closer to a kind of accountability that could benefit higher education, so we don't have to keep fighting this battle with those who are saying we're not being accountable for what we do.

EdSurge: So you're arguing that there are actually corporations—maybe small ones rather than McDonald’s—that are trying things that might be worth emulating in some way. That they aren’t just standardizing everything.

Eshleman: Yeah, that's right. I think the way startup culture works is very similar to the way the scientific method works, for example. I think there are things in industry we can learn, particularly that Horizon3 have to do innovation and accountability in context of uncertainty. So when you don't know what the outcomes are, how do you become accountable, and manage in those spaces? It's really looking at higher education as a complex adaptive system. This is where my heart is at the moment, is trying to understand our institutions in that way.

EdSurge: Dennis, if college leaders do want to try something new, what would you say is the best way to involve faculty?

Hayes: I'm not against innovation. I mean, I like McDonald's. I think they're really good at what they do. They're very popular across the world. I just think universities are not good at [running] those systems. And what often happens with innovation, certainly in British universities, is that people who are not part of [the faculty] essentially impose innovation or ideas on the staff. And there's no dialogue. So I think innovation, to be really effective, has to be part of dialogue and discussion between staff and the innovators. If it just comes from externally, it just will not work.
How do you have that dialogue? I have seen Kristen give the example of Amherst College, when they were considering whether to experiment with MOOCs in the early days of that trend, and they were going to join edX. And then they put the question of whether to join to the entire faculty senate for a vote, and they ended up rejecting it.

And, Kristen, you said you felt like that might have been a missed opportunity for the college. Could you say a little more about that?

Eshleman: I was drawing from some of my own personal experiences working with innovation and [I’ve noticed] this bizarre inverse relationship between the number of people who are thinking about an idea, and as that number grows, particularly in the faculty, the resistance to it also grows. When I'd work with one faculty member on an idea, the enthusiasm would be high. The willingness to try it would be high. And as we involved more people in that, the willingness went down.

And I can only really attribute that to what I think is a structural design that doesn't support innovation when you take it to the whole faculty in that way. But I think individuals are very willing to try. And the people who have the best ideas for innovation are the ones who are closest to the work. It's not the people who are the most distant from the classroom. So you have to have the innovation start in a very localized way.

But, if you involve everyone at the outset, and you try to get everyone to agree on what that should look like, you're going to kill the idea for any innovation to get off the ground.

EdSurge: How do you get around that?

We started out trying to run projects, to push projects through in an R&D way, but we didn't have a process that people trusted. So the only processes we had were processes designed for permanent changes, either permanent changes to adding a program, or a course to the curriculum. We didn't have a way to say, "how can we experiment with something where we don't know what the outcomes of this course is going to be, or this program is going to be, but we want to try a pilot?" And from that pilot, learn what works and what doesn't work. And then iterate and try a second one later, but not kill it before it gets off the ground.

Eshleman: This is the struggle we've had for the last few years. We tried to launch R&D—true R&D—where we would not get into the weeds of an idea, but we'd let an idea get off the ground and iterate over time, and validate the learning as we were actually putting it into place. So building and learning as we go, as opposed to, say, spending three years coming up with the perfect plan, which is how we typically do things, and then investing millions of dollars in that plan. And then you're kind of stuck with it, whether or not it works.

So we went back and said, “Okay, we're not going to be able to get this through the standard college processes anywhere they exist, let's design a process as campus, very inclusively.” So to Dennis' point, faculty were very involved in designing this parallel process for experimentation, and then trust that process. So that's the way we approached it. But it took us two-and-a-half years of pain to get there.

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