George Siemens made an excellent point in his recent blog post after his White House meeting.
I’m getting exceptionally irritated with the narrative of higher education is broken and universities haven’t changed. This is one of the most inaccurate pieces of @#%$ floating around in the “disrupt and transform” learning crowd. Universities are exceptional at innovating and changing.
While I agree with his primary point about false narratives with simplistic no-change assumptions, I think there is a risk about going too far the other direction. Universities have certainly changed, and there are many innovations within universities, but universities are not very good about diffusing the innovations that they do make. I made this same argument here and here.1 Campus changes are apparent, but too often I see innovative course designs showing real results, but courses in the same department remain unchanged.
In my opinion Universities are exceptional at innovating, but they are not exceptional at changing.
In our e-Literate TV series on personalized learning, every case we reviewed was university, not vendor or foundation, driven. The universities drove the changes, and much of what we saw was very encouraging. But that does not mean that universities don’t face barriers in getting more faculty and course offerings to adopt changes that work. Take the University of California at Davis, where they are transforming large lecture intro to STEM courses into active learning laboratories that get students to really learn concepts and not just memorize facts. I’ve highlighted what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, but episode 3 of the case study also highlights the key barriers they face in adopting their own changes. I do not think UC Davis is unique here, just very open about it. The following is an interview with the iAMSTEM group that is supporting faculty and teaching assistants with the changes.
Phil Hill: But the biggest barrier might be with faculty members. Too often, the discussion is about resistance to new ideas without addressing the existing structural barriers.
It sounds like there are some very exciting changes—boisterous students, people wanting to learn—is some of what I’m hearing. What’s the biggest barrier that you guys face in terms of getting more of this cultural change to go throughout UC Davis? What do you see as the biggest barrier moving forward?
Erin Becker: Can I take this one?
Chris Pagliarulo: I think we all have some in mind.
Phil Hill: I’ll ask each one of you, so Erin?
Erin Becker: Incentivizing good teaching at the university—as it currently stands, most incentives that are built into the tenure package are based on research quality not on teaching quality.
So, asking instructors to put a lot of time and effort and energy into making these big instructional changes—it’s hard to incentivize that. If they’re going up for tenure, they want to spend more time in the lab.
Chris Pagliarulo: It’s risky.
Phil Hill: So, it’s the faculty compensation or reward system is not in alignment with spending time on improving teaching. Is that an accurate statement?
Chris Pagliarulo: Yep, that’s a key structural barrier.
Phil Hill: So, Chris, what would you say? Even if it’s the same thing, what do you see as the biggest barrier to this cultural shift?
Chris Pagliarulo: The next step would be, let’s imagine it was incentivized. It takes a lot of work to transform your instruction, and it’s also a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. When you change out of a habitual behavior, they call it the “J curve”. Immediately, your performance goes down, your attitude and affect goes down, and it takes somebody there to help you through both that process—and we need expertise, so there’s a major resource deficit that we have now.
If everyone was intellectually and emotionally ready to transform their instruction, it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of resources to get there. So, that’s another thing that we would need to ramp up.
In other parts of the same episode, the UC Davis team talks about student expectations (active learning is hard and requires accountability for students, which is not easy at first) and student course evaluations (designed more for ‘do you like teacher & style’ than ‘is this an effective course’). In separate interviews with two faculty members (Marc Facciotti and Michelle Igo) who not only are teaching the redesigned courses but were key parts of the design process (you know, innovating), they both talked about how much time this takes. They have to get up to speed on pedagogical design, teach the course, sit in their peer’s courses to watch and learn, adjust their own courses, and improve each semester. They described not only the time commitments but also the risk to their own careers by spending this much time on course redesign.2
There is nothing new here, just the opportunity to hear it from first-hand participants.
The point is, universities are not exceptional at adopting their own changes as there are structural barriers such as faculty reward, student expectations and student course evaluations. Change happens but it is difficult and slow. The faculty who lead change often do so at their own risk and in spite of their career needs, not in support of. None of this obviates George’s frustration at the no-change, “disrupt and transform” learning crowd (and I agree that is a big problem). But let’s not adopt the opposite viewpoint that all is well with the change process.
Note that I do not think that George is actually arguing for the all-is-well point, as evidenced in the Chronicle article on his blog post.
“Admittedly colleges have been slower to respond than corporations have” to changes in technology, Mr. Siemens added. But that’s how it should be, he argued. “When a university takes a big pedagogical risk and fails, that’s impacting someone’s life.” He admitted that colleges could be moving faster, but he felt that it is disingenuous to ignore the changes that are happening.