This is a talk I gave for Okanagan College’s employee get-together Connections on August 23rd, 2016. In this session the group learned how to identify and think about potential disruptive innovations in higher education and what we can do about it in both the short term and the long term. The session also outlined the work of OC’s Disruptors Group.
Trying to balance accountability with accessibility is one of the key problems of leadership in any organization, but in educational institutions the challenges are unique in that the fundamental purpose of the organization requires engagement and collaboration from all those part of the enterprise. This model makes sense of the challenges of designing an institution that supports learning and teaching, but which balances two sometimes conflicting goals: creating a culture of learning while achieving excellence in learning and teaching.
No single model is representative, each has its strengths and problems – the idea is to visualize the contrasts in some way. The range of ‘less focus’ and ‘more focus’ is meant to refer to the central purposes of the organization. So, if the central purpose leans more toward ‘excellence’ or ‘quality improvement’ that is one direction, while if it leans more toward ‘learning culture’ or ‘organizational development’ then that is another purpose.
Each model utilizes elements of the others and no model is exclusive, it is only in the degree to which the model leans in that direction that determines its position. The description of each model refers to a series of metrics, including ‘who’ carries out the functions, the direction and type of learning and service provision, whether it is focused on goals or process, and whether it is competitive.
Ultimately, the purpose serves the organization by creating the conditions for its operation, as well as by shaping expectations for performance. Like any good classroom, the function and purpose that underlie the enterprise should closely align with the structure. At the same time, purposes should be flexible and, to my mind, not neglect the processes that allow people to be people, and to realize their best selves in any organization.
Institutional centres for learning and teaching serve vitally important functions in higher education. They focus on core educational activities. However, across the country, for a variety of reasons, these offices are at a crossroads. I’d like to consider at least some of the factors creating change as we move ahead to a 21st century learning and teaching environment.
The impetus to create centres for learning and teaching in the 1970s and 1980s arose from three main developments.
First, there was an explosive growth in literature in the educational field that could inform teaching and contribute to better learning outcomes.
Second, governments increased pressure on higher education institutions to make use of resources more efficiently and effectively.
Third, there was a growing unrest among students concerning the quality of instruction (understandably, given the rising cost of tuition and the declining relative value of a degree in an increasingly competitive job market).
Despite their prominence, these three sets of priorites (dissemination of knowledge, the need for cost savings, and response to demands) represent very different, often conflicting, pathways for institutions. The need for cost savings conflicts with the desire for student access to quality teaching, and student demands sometimes conflict with the best practices of teaching. As well, there has been an incomplete fit between the growth in teaching-oriented professional development and improved student learning outcomes overall.
The ‘Place’ of Teaching
In research universities, teaching has often been considered a ‘lower tier’ of academic activities . This is not without reason if the focus is on graduate education, since on average only 30% of PhDs actually go on to academic positions in which teaching is a primary activity. Given this, it makes little sense to ask graduate students to devote a lot of time to prepare to be teachers. In addition, the universities’ focus on research as a source of funding means fewer expenditures on other initiatives with less potential for return. As a result, despite the fact that teaching occupies a considerable amount of professors’ time and energy, professional recognition or institutional support for teaching remains comparatively low. While less apparent in teaching-oriented universities and colleges, the same dynamics are at work driving teaching-oriented professional development at other institutions.
Despite their prominence, these three sets of priorites (dissemination of knowledge, the need for cost savings, and response to demands) represent very different, often conflicting, pathways for institutions.
The Great Acceleration
All three of the conditions that contributed to the creation of learning and teaching offices in higher education still persist. The growth in knowledge about learning, student expectations, and governmental belt-tightening are still at work. However, almost everything else about the environment has changed, creating a sense of flux and transition, opening up new opportunities and choices.
The crossroads confronting education is at least in part, a function of the wave of disruptive technology, including mobile and online options, which has upended education. New technologies diffuse power, eroding the monopoly of knowledge and expertise. This is evident in the boardroom as well as the classroom. In response, managing technological transition has become a key focus for centres for learning and teaching. The technological imperative is accompanied by the perception among administators (although not necessarily the reality) that new technologies will create cost savings and that students will demand them. The drive to incorporate and disseminate new educational technologies and to encourage their adoption by faculty has become central.
The fear of being overtaken by competitors is almost overwhelming. As W.D. Smith pointed out in Maclean’s a few years ago, the drive to be competitive (which incurs increasing costs for recruitment advertising and change management) are causing ballooning administrative costs. CBC news reports that “non-academic full-time salaries at Ontario universities, adjusted for inflation, rose 78 per cent from 2000/01 to 2013/14, from $934 million to nearly $1.7 billion (Davison, March 16 2015).”
The 2012 removal of Teresa Sullivan as President of the University of Virginia was motivated largely by concerns over “competition, technology and scarce resources.” Her subsequent reinstatement after an outcry from students and faculty vindicated her view that “corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university (Sampson, Aug 27 2012).”
The pressure to compete and for cost control also accelerates a focus on superficial measurement of professional development activities. As Broad and Evans point out in their summary of the PD literature, “evaluation connected to professional development tends to consist of “counting” or recording activities or outlining the activities undertaken with no analysis of their impact on learning or practice (25).”
Growth in Knowledge
The second big change is around the literature on learning and teaching. There is little agreement on what kinds of professional development actually lead educators to improve their teaching practice. The result is a cacophony of conflicting advice and forces. Approaches veer between the extremes of standardized delivery models on the one hand, and collaborative peer-led models of professional development on the other.
The complexity and ambiguity of learning and teaching, as evidenced by the trends in the literature, defies an easy fit into the ‘one size fits all’ model of delivery. Together with the trend toward knowledge sharing facilitated by network technologies, the need for a collaborative model of professional development is increasingly apparent.
The benefit of a collaborative approach is its recognition and respect for diversities of opinion and for the knowledge and experience of teaching practitioners. This philosophy prioritizes bottom-up expertise, dialogue, exchange of knowledge, problem-solving, realistic expectations, caring for the teacher and learner, and, at its core, a recognition of the ambiguity of the practice of teaching and learning. It prioritizes a consultative, open, and mutually supportive culture that recognizes disciplinary knowledge and respects differences while working to improve student learning outcomes by building relationships.
The complexity and ambiguity of learning and teaching, as evidenced by the trends in the literature, defies an easy fit into the ‘one size fits all’ model of delivery.
This approach, while true to the state of the literature on learning and teaching, is at odds with the third driver, that of improved cost-effectiveness. It is also at odds with the increasing pressures to be competitive and cutting-edge in an era of shifting technologies. Managing change under this philosophy is slow, incremental, and consensus-driven.
The future of learning and teaching will be shaped by many conflicting forces. Shifting student demand, changing technologies, and a focus on organizational efficiency and measurable outcomes will continue to influence decisions. Proceeding as if all options are possible (and compatible) only deepens the cacophony and reduces effectiveness. Managing change in this transition means going beyond superficial forms of consultation to create new, more inclusive and open forms of collaboration. This is in line with the levelling influence of technology, and is a good fit with the dominant philosophies of education, which increasingly recognize the need to acknowledge and include the learner in all dimensions of the educational process.
Student Opportunities Lots of new ones! Dr. Rosalind Warner http://ow.ly/WOUFq
The hearbreaking image of a drowned toddler on the shores of Europe reminded us all of the responsibilities towards others on this planet. Human ties towards distant ‘others’, however, have historically been loose and fickle. Only rarely do people feel closely committed to the needs and troubles of others beyond their immediate family. Distance usually decreases empathy. One of the reasons that states appeared was to deliberately overcome this innate human tendency to prioritize close relatives over strangers. If human settlements were going to work, large communal groupings required closer ties among people who did not interact daily on a face-to-face basis. To accomplish this, national groupings took on the trappings of families (the ‘motherland’, ‘fatherland’, ‘homeland’) and encouraged people to imagine the state as their proxy family writ large.
However, creating states to bond national groups together had a counter-effect, it created a new category of humans: outsiders and ‘others’ who were encountered only when travel (either by explorers sent out from the homeland or migrants coming in) brought them together. Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices to help them classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated. Partly, these rules have emerged from historical experience and are particular to individual societies. For example, the European memory of the mass starvation and refugee crises following World War II has shaped the image of what a refugee is today. Ultimately, because European states had an inordinate influence on the creation of global order in the post-War era, European ideas have heavily influenced international laws. A ‘refugee’ is a classification of people distinct from a ‘migrant’ in two main ways: 1. a refugee has rights to legal process, material support, and protection in the country they are seeking asylum; and 2. a refugee has the right to not be forcibly returned to their country of origin.
Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices that help them to classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated.
However, states have jealously guarded their own rights to define someone as a citizen or to keep them out of the national family. In doing so, states have created legal categories that make no sense when applied to real humans, because states’ rights and human rights conflict.
This background helps us to understand more clearly the landscape of political arguments going on now around migrants, as well as the ways in which the rules are being interpreted and applied. It also allows us to recognize the limitations of these rules, in particular the ways in which these rules have arbitrarily divided humanity into categories that systematically de-humanize them and construct them as ‘strangers’, outside of the ‘families’ created by states. The insistence on the application of these rules by state leaders reveals their emptiness. Insisting that migrants register in the first country of arrival, that they be registered in order to apply for further transit, and that they somehow demonstrate and document that their movements are involuntary, are levers designed to ensure that they remain outside of the national family, not that they be embraced by the protections of refugee law. Insisting that the solution to the problem is to ‘solve the Syrian conflict’ or ‘eliminate ISIS’ is similarly meant to distract from the fact that migrants have already waited 4 years or longer for the world to do something to help them, and that many thousands of refugees remain in countries closer to their countries of origin in the hope that they may be able to eventually return. Some of these host countries, including Turkey, have been unwelcoming and hostile to their presence, driving them further afield to find sanctuary. The insistence that migrants be prevented from ever settling in their countries of refuge ignores the legal invocation that they not be refouled back to danger. The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.
In light of these realities, it is amazing that some have now decided to re-invoke humanity and the home/family analogy, and have even opened up their homes and lives to help strangers. The defeat of the
The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.
Harper government in Canada is a rebuke of a legislative program designed to reinforce categories of separation and exclusion, to invoke tribalism in the legal guise of statehood. It is understandable, if not totally forgivable, that this welcoming comes late, and that it comes only with the ever-closer proximity of the suffering of others. Maybe that’s the best that humans can do. However, states are another matter. States are created by humans to encourage the embrace of strangers into a larger family. The next step is to build on the initiatives begun by states to encourage the expansion of the national family and to begin to challenge the arbitrary categories that divide humanity up. The human willingness to challenge the separation created by distance has communicated empathy throughout the state system. What remains is to communicate this to states in the future through new laws that strengthen human ties rather than state rights.
With an average audience of 18.4 million viewers, Game of Thrones is among the most popular TV shows ever produced. Many are drawn to the show for its grand storytelling of love, betrayal, war and power. However, those who study politics see much more beyond the plot. In this session, we will explore the politics of the show by reviewing select video clips and quotes and asking thought provoking questions. How do the themes of Game of Thrones help to inform us about world events today?
In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights. Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.
It’s hard to imagine such a movement today. The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.
In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.
The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order. Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.
Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.
The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals. Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.
Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob). People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?
Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself. Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.
But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises. By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone. Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.
Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty. It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state. The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.
The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good. To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised. Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.
In my companion post (ahem) a few weeks ago, I mused about the potential for higher education to be vulnerable to the kinds of disruptive innovations occurring in other industries, like newspapers, music, and movies. This time, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption. Although it’s sometimes easy to miss, Arts education is much more than attending lectures, writing essays and acquiring transferable and marketable skills. Indeed, as this recent survey indicates, Arts educators would be remiss not to respond to the demands of their ‘clients’ for a greater and more meaningful experience animated by passion, curiosity, and depth.
It’s this complexity that makes Arts education less, rather than more, vulnerable to ‘MOOC-ification’. The study of Humanities and Social Sciences requires an immersive and sometimes life-changing configuration of influences. The expression of complex ideas in simple language, the organization and prioritization of research, and the exploration of the human experience from a range of viewpoints requires a commitment much larger than a given delivery system. Arts education is larger than the acquisition of skills, indeed, referring to the complex processes of critical and creative thought as ‘skill acquisition’ devalues it, and is in many ways beside the point.
None of this is to deny that the institutional mechanisms of Arts education haven’t done some damage to the cultivation of critical and creative thinking. Large lecture-style classes, cookie-cutter tests and formulaic essay-writing are convenient for educators concerned with conveying mass credentials, and have played their part in the past in reducing costs. To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable. However, new means of conveyance cannot yet accomplish the kinds of personal, individualized experience that Arts education aspires to (see the Culture lab as an example of this changing philosophy).
To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.
In addition, it matters that learners experience different Arts subjects in a manner that allows comparisons of their content. Most Arts undergrads take a few different subjects each term, offering the opportunity for cross-fertilization and meta-learning that can’t be accomplished by taking each subject in isolation, or ‘mixing’ and ‘matching’. For example, my subject of Political Science emerged from a time when the arrival of mass warfare, revolutionary movements, totalitarian governments, and economic dislocations prompted an interest in cultivating citizens capable of making critical judgements based on historical knowledge. This contextual knowledge of the origins of one’s society was believed to be a social good as well as an individual good.
Can Arts education evolve to meet the challenge of new technologies and disruptive innovations? There is alot of synergy between the distributed model of online learning, and the more concentrated model of the classroom. These two learning settings can be complementary. With individual practice, testing and writing done in a distributed or individual setting, blended learning means making more time for group discussion, interactive question and answer sessions, and customized coaching in a personal or group setting. Technologies can aid this process by enabling more time for intensive learning experiences when they are most effective, leaving educators the ability to collaborate and customize courses of study to suit their learners. This can shorten the time necessary to learn. However, making the most of disruptive innovation for the Arts means rejecting the temptation to reduce and narrow the purposes of Arts education to a specific and transferable set of measurable criteria. Self-development and intellectual growth do take time, and for many, these experiences should not be rushed. Blended learning, coupled with open educational resources, can also improve accessibility and bring experiences to new learners who may not otherwise have the opportunity, by reducing the price without compromising the value of the experience.
Disruptive innovations are those that open up new markets by creating a demand using a simpler or different package of attributes from those available in existing markets. Such disruptions tend to emerge in contexts remote from the immediate concerns of an established industry, but ultimately have wide and deep effects that can cause radical shifts. Disruptive innovation is often less about the product and more about the delivery system or point of access to the product. For example, most of us still watch movies or tv shows, but tend to download or stream the content rather than visit a Blockbuster. Most of us listen to music and follow the news, but tend to download or stream music and use the internet to follow the headlines. In the past, we may have opened up our morning newspaper or put a record on a turntable. One of the lessons is that it is not sufficient to rely on demand for the product to drive a given mode of delivery.
While it is difficult to identify industries and firms ripe for disruption, the tendency is to point to large-scale concerns with overpriced products and stilted business models based on industrial-era formats. Higher education has been in the sights of those writing about disruptive innovation for precisely this reason. Its reliance on mass delivery of material through face-to-face lectures, the credit system which offers degrees based on time investment rather than competency, and its increasingly overpriced credential system has the hallmarks of an industry ripe for innovation.
I would argue that higher education is not a perfect fit, however, for the types of analysis offered by Clayton Christiansen and Sebastian Thrun and others concerned with disrupting education and encouraging more radical innovations.
In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience.
In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience. A better comparison might be with the travel industry, similarly engaged in delivering what might be termed an ‘experience’, and one which operates on the basis of time as an investment [or, in the case of a vacation or an education, a reward for effort].
Experience or even time is a more complex commodity than a book or a song. Although web-based booking has almost completely replaced travel agencies, professors are not like travel agents in that teaching involves a more complex and involved relationship than simply the ‘delivery’ of the material and the ‘reception’ in the mind of the learner. Music and movies are still ‘mass produced’ and streaming a movie or song is virtually the same experience as playing the song on a record or watching a VHS. In those industries, innovation was more disruptive because the experience the products offered were interchangeable. In education as in travel, the experiences are more differentiated and uniqueness is the stock in trade, and increasingly, it is the singular and unique interaction between the ‘consumer’ and the ‘product’ that creates and adds value.
it is for this broad reason that I hesitate to apply the frame of disruptive innovation to higher education. Yes, there are problems with the mass delivery model based on lectures and textbooks and tutorials. Yes, there will be challenges to the delivery model through MOOCs and even peer-led educational models as found on Redditt and other sites. However, a more likely outcome than a full rupture may be a disaggregation of the educational functions of accreditation, time in class, competencies, and resources. In my next blog post, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption. In fact, I will further argue that Arts education is actually less vulnerable to disruptive innovation than the STEM subjects precisely because of its unique character as an experience created by the organic relationship between teacher and student. Education is as much process as product.