Friday, May 9, 2014

Institutional Innovation: Campus-wide improvement efforts, or lifeboats for a sinking ship?

The pressure for institutions of higher education to be "innovative" is rapidly growing.  While there are a few holdouts, clinging to romantic notions of what universities "should" be, it's commonly understood that the landscape of higher education is shifting dramatically.  Consequently, the "traditional" way of doing things won't be enough for institutions to remain viable into the future.

One of the most frequently critiqued "traditions" of the academy is the general education experience of undergraduate students.  This is particularly true for large research institutions where undergrads, especially first-year students, commonly find themselves in large, impersonal lecture courses or trying to make sense of complex general education 
requirements that leave students feeling fragmented and disoriented.

In response to these critiques, institutions frequently engage in small-scale innovations that are touted as improved alternatives to the typical general education experience.  The most well-known (and oldest) brand of these innovations are Honors programs, where students are promised things like "an unusally rich and challenging experience for capable and motivated undergraduate students" (from the description of BYU's Honors Program that appears on the Undergraduate Education homepage).  Another example from BYU is our new "Mosaic" approach to general education, offered as a program that "works for YOU and YOUR goals" and as a better approach than taking "random classes."  Finally, our most recent innovation--a series of three interdisciplinary general education courses titled "Unexpected Connections" and taught by administrators in the College of Undergraduate Education.  The goal of these courses, taught in close collaboration with the BYU Honors program, is to give students a "broader and more interdisciplinary education by making connections between . . . different disciplines."

At first glance, these "innovations" all seem fantastic.  What could be better than an "unusally rich" experience? A general education program that meets MY goals and that moves away from me having to take "random classes?"  Or, a broad and interdisciplinary education?  Isn't this what we're all striving for at our institutions?

Precisely. The undergraduate experience is assumed to be providing all students with these types of experiences.  But, ironically, when institutions emphasize curricular innovations like those above, they are in the words of Murray Sperber, "pointing the way to their lifeboats" (i.e. these small pockets of innovation), while inadvertently signalling that those who don't make it into the boats are, sadly, part of a sinking ship.  As innovative, enriching, and engaging as these lifeboats might be, they don't in any way compensate for the poverty of the ordinary experience.  This is the problem with innovations in higher education--they are often used as a camouflage for more wide-spread failures.  

So, what to do?  I'm not advocating for institutions to stop innovating.  Improvements to the general education experience, as small-scale as they may be, are a good thing.  But, only if they lead to one of two outcomes.

One path is to provide enough "lifeboats" that everyone is saved from the sinking ship.  In practice, this would mean allowing diverse, small-scale innovations to continue to occur on the margins, without worrying about wholesale changes to the undergraduate experience.  While it may be naive, an institution could make the argument that they have provided enough different "niche" opportunities that any student can have their "honors" experience, whether that's in a formal honors program, through participating in undergraduate research, or serving in some sort of peer leadership role (i.e. as a resident assistant, peer mentor, or peer advisor).  For this "many lifeboat" plan to work, it's imperative that campuses provide some means of helping each student find the lifeboat they'll need.  Providing adequate advisement resources and personnel seems like a good start, but this could be accomplished in other ways as well.  Without an intentional and strategic plan for connecting students with these niche opportunities, chances are only the most prepared and resourced students will benefit.

The second approach to more ethical innovation is one that moves away from providing "lifeboats" and focuses on improving the "ship."  From this perspective, innovation becomes a learning exercise for the institution at-large.  While the innovations and improvements may begin on the margins, the perennial goal is always to use these "experiments" to eventually make more widespread changes that impact all the students on campus.  The challenge here is making sure that innovations don't live and die on the margins, but that the best innovations are identified, rigorously evaluated, and then thoughtfully scaled up.

For institutions to innovate in the ways I've described here, they'll need both honesty and patience.  The honesty to admit that a handful of lifeboats aren't enough to save a sinking ship, and the patience to see worthwhile innovations through to the point that everyone, not just the privileged few who find their way to the lifeboats, benefits.

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