In the April 8th edition of Chronicle Review, Ann Kirschner presented an article entitled Innovations in Higher Education? Hah!:College leaders need to move beyond talking about transformation before it's too late. The message of Dr. Kirschner's article is that we have to stop talking about innovation and actually innovate.
The idea of disruptive technologies, and how they ultimately force organizational changes is a critical message. What is needed is not the gradual change often discussed (change one aspect of your class, and then when your comfortable, change something else), but radical change. What surprises most people is that the change is not about the technology, but about our methods of delivery and expectations of students.
Recently, I was in a discussion with a fellow faculty member and some book reps. My colleague's comment was that they did not really care about the technological offerings of the book company, but instead cared more about the textbook. My response was the complete opposite. All of the books are essential the same from each company, and all are intimidating to the student due to unrestrained depth and complexity of presentation. I wanted to know if the company had tutorials, managed case studies that led students through the problem, short videos on difficult topics, meaningful assignments and practices. I wanted to know where I would need to invent and where I could count on support. I'm not going to just give my students a book and expect that they read it, I want to give them support. OK, so I have brought up tech when earlier I said it was not about tech.
The change is about our methods: do we stand in front of class as the "sage on a stage" spouting off an hour or more "wisdom" that is summarily ignored, or do we become mentors engaging our students in discussions and activities? Do we flip the class where "instruction" is handled through technology and the mentoring of the student occurs in person? Do we leave behind the flawed idea that "the only way students learn is if I tell it too them", or do we trust that undergraduates can become self-actualized learners?
A resistance that Dr. Kirschner brings up is the academic culture and disciplines that are woven into Higher Education. Here is where I'm going to go on a major tangent, because this is something I have been considering for a while...
One of the greatest problems in modern academia is the false separation of individuals by the invisible walls of disciplines. The idea of disciplines was important in the development of higher ed, but now it strangles the life blood out of innovation. How many chemists work with biological systems, and how many biologists do chemistry? At what point do we divide the line. While it can help a novice, it can become a stumbling block, especially when the discipline/department divides prevent stronger collaborative efforts (usually ending when which department/college gets how much of the grant money).
What if we did away with the invisible walls of disciplines, and went to a higher order set of "school" based upon the faculty and students? Taking the College of Arts and Sciences here, what if we had a school of applied science where people from various disciplines could come under the same roof? Public health, biology, chemistry, geoscience, and physics, anyone who did research and wanted to collaborate in applied sciences. As an urban campus, what if we had a school of Urban Ecology, combining biology, geoscience, policy, social science, etc... with a focus on the Urban environment. Yes, it is a scary thought to do away with disciplines at the faculty level. For students, we could have a school of undergraduate studies that focused on the undergraduates (instead of having them shuffled under the rug of research). We could keep discipline specific areas for undergraduates. Graduate degrees would be less about a name and more about showing the evidence of your work.
I'll come back to all of this in a bit...