Universities As Innovators That Have Difficulty Adopting Their Own Changes

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.

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  1. The first article had more of a technology focus, but the same applies to the pedagogical side of change. []
  2. Unfortunately these parts of the interviews ended up on the cutting room floor and are not in the videos. []

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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29 Responses to Universities As Innovators That Have Difficulty Adopting Their Own Changes

  1. Kate Bowles says:

    This is a great post, thank you so much for highlighting that the problems are structural far more than they are attitudinal.

    In relation to difficulty of pushing innovation through the barriers to change, the casualisation of academic work has become a huge factor, globally. Adjuncts on short contracts and (in Australia and the UK) hourly paid academics are often the most adaptable innovative users of edtech, and the most likely to bring experience of several different platforms to the task, because they work across institutions.

    But they are also the least likely to be “incentivised”, as your discussants put it, to use their skills and experience to drive institutional change. As things are, they’re lucky to be taken into consideration at all.

    The next genuinely interesting disruption will be when skilled, capable and highly qualified adjuncts exploit the capacity for open online teaching, PD and training that MOOCs have developed.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Kate, Good points (as usual). I would add that I see progress in full-time, hourly instructors. For example, the changes we highlighted at ASU for their remedial math program was for these instructors. They have partial incentives to be part of change, at least in terms of pilot programs. This is not the same as helping to diffuse those innovations, however.

    On your point of the ‘rise of adjuncts’ in last paragraph, I met recently with founder of https://adjunctprofessorlink.com. She has similar goals, or at least sees her org as supporting PD and support for adjuncts.

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  4. tabeles says:

    Most of the change that are being discussed here are at the level of the “class” and at neither the institution nor the individual student program, thus incremental, a little more than bricks to clicks, for example. Consider:

    a) the shift to competency-based learning (e.g. Western Governors Univ). Large databases and sophisticated search, such as Amazon and Google adverts, are now able to fine-track individuals and customize learning whether single situations or combinations. Other software are able to deal with content, including composition. This changes the entire role of faculty.

    b) It has been said that if a job can be replaced by AI, then it will. In academia, that represents the entire middle management and administrative function of the institutions, a section which is rising in cost the fastest

    c) Brian Marsh’s video, Success in the New Economy,

    clearly points to the need to consider alternative paths to “further education” other than the conventional approach thru traditional academic degree programs regardless of how they are incrementally configured

    In other words, the acceptance by the commenters and Phil’s narrative on the ability of the HEI’s to change/innovate are basically supporting the same type of response that Christensen describes of the US automotive industry. The closest example mentioned was the launch of the Open University, and that was in passing. In the 60’s/70’s a number of “innovations” in HEI’s were launched. Most have failed or fallen back into old habit patterns.

  5. Phil Hill says:


    You make a good point about course-level changes vs. institutional changes, but this misses the distinction between creating an innovation and adopting that innovation. They key argument of my narrative is that HEI are much, much better at the former and are not very good at the latter.

    At the institutional level, you are quite correct that innovations are not apparent. There are growing examples of certificate-based novel approaches typically through continuing education departments, and these could be thought of as innovations thinking outside the traditional academic degree programs. But overall there are many more innovations at the course or even program level.

    At the same time, I do not accept the Christensen model as “accepted science”, especially in non-commodity markets delivering a public good. The automotive industry (and others in Christensen’s book) do not necessarily show a path forward for higher education. Let’s not assume that the disruption model is valid everywhere.

  6. tabeles says:

    Hi Phil,

    First, I am in agreement with you regarding Christensen’s metaphor. I do not think he has ever defeased Jill Lapore’s article effectively. Like Prensky’s Digital Native/Immigrant metaphor it is too easy to glibly use in the general.

    I believe Upton Sinclair’s insight might be of value here: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” It is far too easy for academics to turn their critique into a book, monograph or article adding to their oeuvre for promotion and tenure rather than to address the issues. As I have said, there was a brief window in the 60’s and 70’s for such “risk” while today we see the MOOC’s default to the mass lecture, Coursera/EdX models, vs the Siemens/Downes model.

    I do not see the “innovation” at the course or program level as being more than revisiting the past and, as T S Eliot says, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

    For some time e-Literate has focused significant attention on the “course” delivery systems, Blackboard, D2L, Instructure, Moodle, etc with some attention to MOOC’s which creates a course level view of the HEI’s at the expense of the institution and the larger system of HEI’s. Again, I go back to the 60’s/70’s +/- a decade to see that much of what happened was because the institutions were open to change. In fact, governments funded much of this directly or indirectly with even new campuses being created, and even surviving today, albeit some in vestigial form.

  7. Phil Hill says:

    And for some ammunition on the ‘look at the institutional-level changes more often’ argument:

    Yet higher education analysts and experts say colleges will have to look beyond enrollment increases if they plan to solve deep-rooted financial issues in the sector.

    “All of the signals are that this is a sector that is in trouble,” said Jane Wellman, a higher education finance expert with the College Futures Foundation. “Yet the kind of things that would better position institutions for the long haul probably aren’t happening. They’re still at the edges, and solving this more symptomatically than strategically.”

    Increasing enrollment and net tuition revenue, as a financial strategy, “can only go so far,” said David Wheaton, the chief business officer at Macalester College, a liberal arts college in Minnesota. “Most of us are limited in how much capacity we have on our campuses,” he continued. “You can’t do that year after year after year.”

  8. Phil Hill says:

    I do think both (institutional-level issues and course/program level issues) are important. One bias we tend to have at e-Literate is how education affects students’ lives. For the near and medium term, the bigger impact is course/program level.

    Michael just gave a keynote this week at the COLTT conference in Colorado, and he addressed a Twitter heckler who stated:

    “WHAT?!?! w all due respect @mfeldstein67: “Our students are failing college bc they’re failing math.” Dangerous narrative shared at #coltt15″

    Michael replied (as only he can do so well):

    “.@remiholden For students at ECC, it was literally true. For you it is a narrative; for them, it is their lives.”

    I am not implying that you are seeking a “narrative”, but I am explaining some of the reason for our bias towards heavier coverage of items that affect students’ lives today.

  9. tabeles says:

    I agree, it is the students’ lives. Unfortunately, the universities in general and faculty, in particular, for the most part do not seem, by their actions, to care with the same level that faculty of students in K-12 small class, private schools do. After all, the students have graduated, and are considered as decision making adults, having been transformed like caterpillars to butterflies as they transition over the summer to post secondary institutions.

    As far as I can see, and having experienced, only the shift to personalized or competency based learning where a mentor is required restores this relationship, at least in part. I am not sanguine that “worrying” the form of didactic delivery or the fate of an LMS provider is addressing these issues. But, the drive to lower the cost of, at least, the access to basic knowledge is critical as is the relationships between the faculty, students and institutions (research vs teaching, administrative overhead vs direct funding for knowledge access/delivery, and the balance between research, education and the function of the HEI’s within a global societal frame become significant.

    Again, i refer to the vimeo video on “Success” to point out that, as many of the colleges with less healthy endowments or research programs are finding, either they deal with innovation and change or it will deal with the institutions regardless of the choice of LMS as long as the current lock-step, cohort (often age-defined) academic model persists as the preferred management model.

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  11. Kate Bowles says:


    “It is far too easy for academics to turn their critique into a book, monograph or article adding to their oeuvre for promotion and tenure rather than to address the issues.”

    Just to hop back up on my soapbox for a moment, one of the consistent weaknesses of the way we address questions like these is to normalise “academic” to those on the tenure track. They’re in the minority, particularly when it comes to student experience and innovation at the course level. And then they’re excluded from institution wide discussions of curriculum, where the whole thing knits together.

    This isn’t any longer a side issue for edtech, or an issue only for adjuncts, it’s a core service delivery problem for higher education in many countries. But in this debate specifically, it’s a rhetorical problem. When we say “academic” or “professor” we still think in terms of a model that is years and years out of date in terms of how higher education works, and this is trebly the case with pop commentary on disruption and innovation.

    I’m so interested in the current tweets based on searching images of the word “Professor”, that turns up exactly what you would expect: backlit bearded prof in book-lined room, when the reality is more likely to be frantic freeway flyer grading in car, with innovative mlearning skills mothered by necessity.

    Institutions really need to ground themselves in a better understanding of how the labour market couples with tech innovation to forge the student experience today.


  12. Kate Bowles says:

    To correct the previous bit of crankiness, just to be clear — it’s adjuncts (and casual hourly paid majority teachers in Australia) excluded from curriculum planning, not the tenured. And that’s a huge disconnect.

  13. tabeles says:

    Good day Kate,

    Phil suggests that we (I) may be looking for a “narrative”. In fact it is the narrative or as some suggest, the “stories” which are the critical issue as you so eloquently point out. At its core, the faculty may have (did) traded their power to shape the direction of the university, internationally, and not just in the US, for a sinecure (or a former sinecure, tenure), George Siemens’ quote not withstanding.

    Your point about the tenure and non-tenure track faculty, particularly in public universities, reminded me of a Bruce Sterling quote: “…technicians were owned by the abstract ones and zeros in the bankers’ microchips…” That is the strong narrative which runs thru universities since their founding around 1000 and erupts, like herpes, at various points in time, like now.

    May I suggest: http://nextgenlearning.org/ and their conference:

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  15. Thanks for this- love it. ““It is far too easy for academics to turn their critique into a book, monograph or article adding to their oeuvre for promotion and tenure rather than to address the issues.”
    Not only is it harder to address the issues and make change happen, the reward systems are all about research publishing (of a particular kind) and not about changing practices (individually or systemically). In my experience, the individuals often likely to be prepared to innovate, and to enable change, are the established senior professors. They are also the ones who are likely to introduce dual systems in their spheres of influence ie playing the traditional game while introducing and inculcating new practices. (Which is counter to the notion that the old and established are conservative, by the way).

  16. tabeles says:

    Western Governors University was founded in 1997, almost two decades ago by the consortium of western governors. It took a while to find its footing, but it has been the prime example of competency based education. Finally, 2015 sees it launch an academic journal based on the arena of CBE. In 2008 the idea of digital badging was born, largely focused on primary/secondary school programs (in part inspired by scouting “badges”) https://edtechdigest.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/digital-badging/

    Neal Stephenson first imagined the basic idea in his 1995 novel, The Diamond Age. Two decades later, at the post secondary level we are still concerned with tweaking the “student experience” with innovative LMS systems and optimizing student/faculty interactions in the standard lecture hall and classroom models while the standard, labor-intensive administrative structure still holds, and harried adjuncts struggle with time and financial rewards to meet the demands of the teaching system while “tenure track” individuals, including post tenured faculty contribute to the 2300 academic journals with varying “impact factors” to enter and remain “tenured”.

    With secondary schools now offering post-secondary options and entire programs such as “college in the schools” and where most faculty have extensive experience in educating students, perhaps it is time to seriously rethink, at least for what has traditionally been the freshman and sophomore years, how these programs are delivered and staffed and whether or not the 7:2:1 ratio makes more sense in distribution of degree qualified individuals or even institutional structures rather than worrying about LMS and current systems and practices at the post secondary level. Student “experience” not withstanding. On the other hand, Upton Sinclair’s observation holds.

  17. Phil Hill says:

    I agree with so much in this discussion thread:
    – Tom is right that looking at institutional model changes is important (although I argue that it is a both / and situation with course and program-level changes with existing institutions);
    – I also love “It is far too easy for academics to turn their critique into a book, monograph or article adding to their oeuvre for promotion and tenure rather than to address the issues.”
    – However, Kate is right that this comment only hits on tenure track faculty who are in the minority.
    – Agree with Laura that it is often established senior professors who can afford to experiment and improve instruction.

    Great conversation.

  18. Jeff Pinto says:

    Great post and subsequent discussion. I was surprised to see Siemens’ frustration peak over this issue. I share his frustration with the simplistic narratives pushed by companies drawn to ed tech because they see another journalism / music industry in the unmaking. I’ve worked for such companies. I once explained to a development team the need for greater role flexibility in the content and learning management system we were building. After explaining some of thinking behind student self-organization the response I got from developers was that this was a little “hippy-dippy”. More generally, it was hard to build for the future when focused on delivering a minimum viable product. I agree with Phil here, Christensen’s model may not apply to “non-commodity markets delivering a public good.” This is not a commonly held belief which is why there are both value and expectation bubbles forming around ed tech today.

    “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.”

    I immediately thought of the work of Fred Keller and Benjamin Bloom in the 60s (Personalized System of Instruction, Mastery Learning), David Hestenes in the 80s (Modeling Theory) and Eric Mazur (Peer Instruction) in the 90s. Put simply, these researchers and educators investigated better methods of “teaching” in higher ed but none of their work was widely adopted. To extend Kate’s exercise, the dominant image of higher-ed teaching remains the bearded prof at the lectern. Part of the reason that experience in online courses is one of the best predictors of success in online courses is that it takes a little time for students to absorb the challenge to their expectations surrounding what learning looks like when they experience more active, self-directed courses. This is part of the reason why long-time distance educators (i.e. Tony Bates) are so incensed by video-driven MOOCs.

    Universities are resistant to change. I believe the systems needed to give researchers the freedom to pursue basic research with no immediately apparent practical use slow the adoption of new models of teaching. I believe George was challenging the Silicon Valley education narrative while also making the case for not throwing out the baby with the bath water. At the same time, I believe we now have the technological *and* pedagogical tools to make higher education more effective and more accessible.

  19. Phil Hill says:


    All good observations and points. One dimension that should be mentioned is time, however. Some changes do get adopted but in a timeframe that is an order of magnitude longer than what might have been expected. Prompted by your list of 60s through 90s examples, I would add Jaime Carbonell with Intelligent Tutoring Systems circa 1970. That work has led quite directly to adaptive systems such as ALEKS that are directly changing how remedial math is taught in many schools (a subject of several e-Literate posts). If you did a chart showing this development with the time axis unlabeled, it might look like significant change is happening based on academic-produced innovation. Likewise for Keller and Bloom to recent developments. None of this is to argue against the points made in the post or comments – just an observation.

  20. As an erstwhile academician who has also worked in very large, very small and mid-sized companies, I strongly agree with Phil’s observation that “Universities are exceptional at innovating, but they are not exceptional at changing”.

    However, I believe that it is difficult for any organization that has achieved a certain size and/or longevity to change, a theme highlighted in a recent article, The Failure Of Google Plus Should Be A Reminder That Big Companies Very Rarely Successfully ‘Copy’ Startups.

    The incentive structure in any organization that has grown sufficiently large – or long – enough naturally gravitates toward preservation vs innovation (I would lump religious organizations in with academia and business, at least in this regard). In the absence of the dissolution of an organization, it becomes increasingly natural to think that success (lack of failure) means I / we must be doing the right things, a sort of organizational confirmation bias.

    FWIW, there are some interesting observations relating to innovation, incentivization and [academic] organizations in Clay Shirky’s controversial 2013 essay, Your Massively Open Offline College Is Broken, though I would not be surprised if many of the readers of this post are already familiar with Clay’s provocative writing(s).

  21. tabeles says:

    It seems to me that there is an underlying consensus here regarding the HEI system, particularly here in the US. Innovation exists but adoption of change across the system is slow. There is the lack of support for teaching in academia that one finds budgeted in the corporate sector and other elements discussed above. What I am unable to shake is the Upton Sinclair quote that when a person’s paycheck is dependent on not understanding, then acting on not understanding is in their best interest. For HEI’s that holds not just for the institutions and its inhabitants from classroom to corner office to those who provide services in support of this behavior whether it is software, hardware or wetware, even if it is provided via faint praise in support for incrementalism.

    It seems clear that CBE and its alternate formats such as badging and personalized education are pushing at the edges, but what are the waves that are lapping at the sea walls and about to break through or not. Increasingly there are more books, essays and electronic posts as well as conferences discussing the destruction of the HEI’s through rampant and increasing forces of neoliberal economic policies while the academy has tied itself to the post, watching the tide rising but betting it won’t rise sufficiently to wash the post out to sea.

  22. Jeff Pinto says:


    The Sinclair quote is pretty great. I think applying it to this situation requires us to see institutions as the sum of the their employees’ motivations. Phil and Joe have done a good job above of describing how the reward structures set by the institution, though undoubtedly influenced by peer institutions, work to discourage individuals from risk-taking and diverting effort that could be devoted to research to teaching. I agree at this point there’s exciting work being done but as you say, we are still “pushing at the edges”.


    Thanks for adding ITS to the list – good to have a representative of the 70s there. In some of your earlier posts about pilots I was reminded of how Anderson & Shattuck (2012) drew upon Dewey to support the case for iterative, design-based research over small pilots. They write “Dewey realized that new meanings, values, and attitudes become encultured in schools only when they have become embodied and are sustained within real-life contexts.” Are we now seeing new applications of Mastery and Keller’s PSI (i.e., Carol Twigg’s NCAT work) and ITS (i.e., ALEKs) because those ideas have slowly been fermenting and being refined over the years? Or has new technology enabled us to embed these practices without being so disruptive the status quo? Or has opening up the hood to examine one component (how do we effectively move this practice into the digital realm), allowed us to also make a few other tweaks here and there (revising the pedagogy). My feeling is that it is a mix of the latter two. The evidence at this point is largely apocryphal, but we are hearing about instructors involved with MOOCs in turn refining their formal practice. I think we’d all agree current ed-tech hype can be dangerous, but it’s great to see good ideas gaining traction and in general, greater interest and debate surrounding underlying pedagogy as technology makes new models possible.

    Anderson, T., & Shattuck, J. (2012). Design-based research a decade of progress in education research Educational Researcher, 41(1), 16–25.

  23. Phil Hill says:


    Thanks for reference – I’ll read the Anderson & Shattuck paper later today.

    “Are we now seeing new applications of Mastery and Keller’s PSI (i.e., Carol Twigg’s NCAT work) and ITS (i.e., ALEKs) because those ideas have slowly been fermenting and being refined over the years?”

    I see different answers for the different cases.

    From an ITS perspective, I think you’re missing one. The status quo of remedial math has become so bad and so visible that it is hard, if not impossible, for anyone to argue for the status quo. It is not accepted in the culture that something has to change. This moves the argument from whether to change to which change to make, at least at most community colleges and more and more at state universities.

    Given those new assumptions and framing, then your questions come into play. I think the technology is now much better, no just in the adaptivity and cognitive modeling, but also in the ease-of-use and support structures (e.g. extra help buttons). I think the opening up the hood argument is also good here.

    On the mastery and PSI side, which is not as discipline-specific as some ITS moves, I think your first argument of slow fermenting to be important. We have seen a lot of work in this area that many faculty are picking up on their own or through separate grants (e.g. UW Milwaukee ant uPace program).

  24. tabeles says:

    When I mention ALEX to some in the secondary schools, they mention that it has been in their programs for some time. That coupled with the rise of approval of “College in the Schools” and similar programs tells me that the issues being faced by the HEI’s, particularly in the tech/community colleges and in some freshman/soph programs in the 4 year institutions are challenges to the break between secondary/post secondary institutions. It points to the continuum which disappears as the lock-step/age-defined curriculum disappears as does the belief that something magical happens over the summer when students move from secondary to post secondary programs. There are numerous examples of institutions working across this increasingly mythical divide. That puts stress on the post secondary institutions which, to again evoke Sinclair, want to defend the increasingly fragmenting walls of the Ivory Tower.

    As Amazon and Google have clearly demonstrated, what is coming is the rise of “big data” that can track the progress of each individual from K–>16 and custom create an educational program. While in the near future and filled with privacy issues, it does emphasize that documenting and thus endorsing or supporting these incremental systems of practice behind the post secondary cloister is reinforcing the “Jack Horner” syndrome …saying what a good boy am I) and reinforcing an increasingly expensive patching. They need to be challenged.

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  26. Phil Hill says:

    To add to the mix, I have a new post calling out forces beyond institutions and faculty reward systems as sources for structural barriers to change:

    To wit, Ed Dept program on CBE has stalled despite institutional efforts to try new approaches.

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