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Innovation in Higher Ed

26 Jan Posted by in Academics | 3 comments
Innovation in Higher Ed

As many readers know, the tone of innovation discussions in higher education seems to be changing a bit, compared to last year. Whereas the most vigorous voices a year ago were talking boldly of disruption and defending radical departures like MOOCs, today the bloom has faded a bit. Intelligent discussions about realistic uses of MOOCs still occur, but they are no longer front and center. One astute education observer, who I think a year ago was more firmly aligned with the innovation camp, now talks – realistically, I think – of an evolutionary rather than revolutionary moment. Of course there are still plenty of folks around who have to see innovation in every university crevice, but the overall discussion may be shifting.

It’s not that all the problems have been solved. I did wonder, and still wonder about how much of the radical innovation talk was really a reaction to the temporary, if dire, circumstances introduced by the great Recession, overreacting if understandably to a hopefully shortlived setback. But other spurs remain, apart from the lingering recessionary effects: the need to figure out the role of new technologies; the sense that current students might be better served with new learning approaches; the obvious stagnation in student demography; the probably permanent decline in state funding. But the partial relaxation of the recession may help explain a somewhat less desperate innovation tone.

For there were and are drawbacks to overinsistence on change. We know that some students are reasonably happy with current delivery systems. We know that lots of faculty may be drawn into discussions of new approaches if they can see them in some connection to more traditional methods and goals. Too much revolutionary rhetoric can actually inhibit constructive reform, by bypassing or antagonizing much of the audience.

And the disruptive emphasis also tended to sidestep the research mission which many of us continue to find vital to the basic role of higher education. Here too, a new recognition of continuities as well as new challenges can prove useful.

It’s possible, in other words, that we can continue a vigorous discussion of new opportunities and directions in a somewhat calmer, less faddish context. Not everything is broken. Not every new possibility is actually worth investing in. At the same time we shouldn’t let the pendulum push too far in the other direction. There are current problems and constraints – and opportunities – that we must be willing to discuss; there are experiments worth undertaking. We’ll have to see if an evolutionary environment works best for the future.

Active and varied strategies, and outright experiments, remain essential; this is not a plea for a standpat approach. But just possibly the inclusion of older elements that deserve to be blended with innovation, or reserved outright, plus a slightly less frenzied and aggressive tone from change advocates, will generate more useful and durable products going forward.