Miller, B. (2010) The Course of Innovation: Using Technology to Transform Higher Education Washington DC: EducationSector

Batson, T. (2010) Innovation in Higher Education: It’s Not the Technology Campus Technology, June 2

There is an increasing awareness that for technology to be used effectively, there has to be changes in the way people work. This ‘truth’ is only slowly penetrating the post-secondary education sector.

The National Center for Academic Transformation has for over 10 years now been working with 100 major universities and colleges in the USA to redesign large first and second year lecture classes. From all the reports from NCAT, these redesigns are highly successful, reducing costs and leading to better learning outcomes.

However, if these interventions have been so successful, how comes that without the financial incentives provided through foundation grants for most of the NCAT projects, the redesign process has not been adopted generally throughout the system? This question is explored in a report from EducationSector, (a non-profit, non-partisan independent think tank) which states the problem as follows:

Despite the worst fiscal environment for higher education in a generation and mountains of evidence that NCAT-style reforms are effective, just over a hundred colleges out of nearly 7,000 nationwide have worked with the center to transform a course. This failure has broad implications for the way state and national leaders should think about the pressing challenge of helping more students earn an affordable college degree.

A major conclusion from this study is:

Reluctance to change is hardwired into many of the structural features that define today’s colleges and universities, and it will be very difficult to achieve large-scale reforms of any sort without dealing with them directly. The root of the dilemma lies with the decentralized and inherently conservative nature of the modern higher education institution. (p.13)

The report goes on to draw some interesting conclusions from the NCAT experience and makes recommendations to support change in institutions.

Trent Batson, always a realistic optimist (if that’s not an oxymoron), does see signs of gradual change, stemming from a growing realization that:

the myth that the technology does something itself to bring about significant human change in teaching/learning/assessment practices has been “busted.” Campuses are instead accepting the obvious truth that some human change must come first, that time and human commitment to a sustainable support system must precede technology adoption, and that educators themselves must lead technology initiatives.

Nevertheless, having read these two excellent articles/reports, I have two conclusions (see also Keith Hampson’s Higher Education Management Group blog for his thoughtful reflections on the EducationSector report):

1. At what point will faculty themselves take responsibility for institutional change, without having to be bribed to do it? Is there really no integrity or ‘greater purpose’ in university and college teaching these days that would drive faculty to do things differently, for the benefit of students and the general tax payer or are they really so self-centered on their academic careers? This does not square with my knowledge of many faculty, who do care and do want to make things better (there’s just not enough of them to overwhelm the rest). I believe that it comes down in the end to five major underlying barriers to change:

  • lack of effective leadership, not so much in intent, but more so in knowing how to manage institutional change successfully
  • lack of training of both administrators in how to manage change (see above); and particularly lack of training for faculty in how to teach effectively. Without a good grounding in change management and pedagogical theory and practice, making the necessary changes is impossible
  • academic career incentives that reward research and punish innovation in teaching and learning
  • lack of successful alternative models of governance for public post-secondary institutions, partly because of government and academic unions’ reluctance to create or allow radically different institutions
  • complacency with the current dominant teaching paradigm, which places the instructor at the centre of the teaching and learning process, not the student.

2. Change will be impossible without changing the governance of universities and colleges. This is an issue sorely in need of research and discussion, because it is not a simple matter. It is not really a question of centralising power in the executive or board of governors, but of finding better ways to encourage faculty and administrators to see the benefits of change and take responsibility and reward them for doing it. However, our current methods of devolved and decentralized governance (which at its extreme is: let faculty do what they want, and at its best is: don’t upset the deans) are clearly inadequate for the challenges being faced.

Thanks to Keith Hampson, Ryerson University, and Gary Munro, Justice institute of BC, for drawing my attention to these articles.



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