We like to think of ourselves as open to change. Indeed, we often see ourselves as one of the “change agents” in our organization, not the person that needs to be constantly prodded to do things differently.
But the truth is less flattering. All of us resist change more often than not. The greater the perceived change, the stronger our resistance. Why? Because change is uncomfortable and occasionally threatening. Change can affect our status, reduce our level of control and, worst of all, makes us look bad. Although we’re just as likely to benefit from the change as not, history suggests that we will work harder to hang on to what we currently have than to obtain something new.
Our efforts to innovate in online higher education runs headlong into our resistance to change. Technology tends to provoke an especially fierce resistance — for good reason. First, because technology is unfolding and shifting so quickly and, more to the point, because it has the capacity to reconfigure the world of work — an area of obvious importance to anyone with a family to support.
The benefit of technology is also our source of anxiety. Advances in technology typically replace lower level tasks, allowing us to focus on higher, knowledge-intensive responsibilities. The subsequent improvement in productivity can raise the standard of living. But in the process, technology upsets the existing labour market. Sometimes this means jobs are eliminated outright; more often, though, it simply changes the range of duties required for existing positions. (There are, apparently, more bank tellers in 2015 than there were when ATM’s were first introduced.)
Change in online higher education has been slow. Despite forecasts of “transformation”, “revolution” and (God help us) “disruption”, the vast majority of our institutions continue to operate more or less as they did when “distant education” first became a going concern and 56.6k modems were the norm.
The literature on innovation can help us understand our current predicament and offer tactics to stimulate faster and hopefully better quality innovation. But the bulk of this literature comes from the world of business – in particular, consumer and technology industries. Higher education, as is often stated, is unique. The institution operates by its own set of rules; consequently, we need to develop theories and practices around innovation that suit the character of the institution.
Selected Principles of Innovation
As a first step, we can consider a few of the more useful principles of innovation in terms of how they relate to higher education.
The Free Flow of Ideas
Organizations stagnate without regular exposure to ideas and information from a range of sources (the same might be said of societies.) It’s oxygen for innovation.
While higher education has good processes in place to encourage the free flow of information, we’ve been less successful with respect to teaching and learning. A minority of academics regularly attend conferences and other events on teaching and learning. Few make the study of pedagogy a standard part of their workflow. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for academics in a single department to have never witnessed classes offered by their colleagues. (This was one of my greatest surprises when I joined faculty.) Derek Bok went further:
“A remarkable feature of American colleges is the lack of attention that most faculties pay to the growing body of research about how much students are learning and how they could be taught to learn more. Hundreds of studies have accumulated on how undergraduates develop during college and what effects different methods of teaching have on improving critical thinking, moral reasoning, quantitative literacy, and other skills vital to undergraduate education. One would think faculties would receive these findings eagerly. Yet one investigator has found that fewer than 10 percent of college professors pay any attention to such work when they prepare for their classes.”
The limited flow of information about instruction in our institutions appears to have two distinct origins: a lack of rewards for effective teaching (for the instructor, certainly, but also for the institution) and the degree of autonomy afforded higher education professionals, which supports – albeit unintentionally – impenetrable one-person silos.
Freedom to Fail
Innovation involves risk. If we try something new, it may not work out as hoped. But without the freedom to screw up, innovation has little chance to take hold.
It’s true that the meaning of failure has undergone some modification of late; it’s no longer the end of the world, according to some. The romanticization of entrepreneurialism and “start-ups” in North America during the past couple of decades brought with it the notion that we ought not to fear failure, but “fail fast, fail often“. Failure, here, is a symptom of a robust and sufficiently innovative economy.
But it would be overstating the case to suggest that this logic has taken hold in our larger, more well-established organizations. Universities like many other mature organizations still treat failure as something to avoid at all costs. If you’re going to fail, best keep it to yourself.
More optimistically, the relatively high degree of autonomy afforded many educational professionals may make it easier for new instructional approaches and technology to be tested on a small, less risky scale.
A Sense of Urgency
John Kotter popularized the idea that leaders need to create a “sense of urgency” within the organization in order to drive substantial change. The degree to which this tactic maps effectively to higher education is an open question, though.
The tactic of creating a sense of urgency implies a top-down leadership model: the leaders are in a position to foster a set of beliefs widely across the organization that leads to a particular orientation and set of behaviors. Higher education, however, has a far less centralized and formal management structure than most other types of organizations. University presidents may have plans, but faculty – as a result of culture and a shared governance structure – aren’t always especially concerned. CEO’s in other organizations are not subject to non-confidence votes and the like.
Second, despite the very real challenges facing higher education, the fact remains that demand for post-secondary education has been growing for decades, despite tuition increases above inflation rates. The notion that young adults should aspire to attend college has never been more widely accepted. The sense of urgency, then, will need to come from concerns other than a belief that the institution is under threat.
In the next installment in our “Innovation Series” we will look at the obstacles in the way of innovation in higher education and how we might best navigate them. The introduction to the series can be found here.