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Reform and Its Limits

Reform and Its Limits

Last weekend, I met with provosts from the other Colonial Academic Alliance schools, around the annual undergraduate research council.  A good meeting.  It’s actually fairly rare for provosts to be able to get together (there are a few useful national organizations, but the meetings tend to be large). SCHEV gets Virginia provosts together, but mainly around bureaucratic matters. An occasion with 10-12 of us is a welcome opportunity for a relatively candid exchange.

On this occasion we talked a lot about educational changes and how our institutions are engaged. Many references to more experiential learning opportunities and also to distance or even more commonly hybrid courses where technology can facilitate both access and learning. “Flipped” classrooms, where instructors and students work on problem solving rather than lecture presentations, with factual material conveyed through reading (including online offerings) prior to the workshops, are obviously gaining a lot of attention. We also discussed, a bit more vaguely, opportunities to use open source materials and do more competency-based assessments.

It’s clearly an exciting time, with many new, experimental opportunities. I personally prefer to stress the invitations to innovation, rather than overdo the references to “disrupting” higher ed, which do not clearly appeal to many faculty and, I think, overdo the implication that somehow we’ve been doing an awful job prior to this age of reform.

I’m also really interested in making sure that all significant subjects are included in the purview, and not just some of the technical areas that may lend themselves better to machine-graded competency exercises. Sensible curricular balance should drive reform, not the other way around. I’m looking forward to some partial flipping in my freshman world history class next fall, reducing my usual emphasis on guided discussion in favor of some workshop sessions — it’s not just math and science that can reach out this way.

But the most interesting point from our provostial discussion, as we ruefully admitted toward the end, was that none of the main ideas very clearly cut costs. Possibly some open-source and competency approaches can a bit, once we become more familiar with the factors involved (so far, pricing formulas have lagged well behind technological innovation). But lots of the new approaches continue to be fairly labor intensive — they aim at more effective learning, which should be the main point, but the current cost-cutting imperative seems to be a separate issue. Which means that we have still more to discuss down the line.