Innovating the Traditional College, University Right Now

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Traditional colleges/universities are conservative, even risk-averse institutions desperately preserving their prestige (and market share). The open market of for-profit education is a risk-fueled financial orgy desperately trying to be taken seriously. Both have ethical and organizational problems, which is why neither is succeeding in truly innovating the practices of higher education.

What real innovation requires is people who understand and value both the conservative values of the traditional university–rigor, broad general education, cultural values and intellectual engagement and critique–and the risk-fueled, what-the-hell-let’s-try experimentation of for-profit models of education. 

There are several practical ways that traditional higher education could be reformed that would improve learning, better meet the needs of today’s many different kinds of students, and decrease the negative impact of market shifts that have dramatically endangered some fields–primarily in the humanities, but also broader STEM fields, such as math, biology, and others that are not linked directly with specific professions.

Here are some of those ideas, many of which I’ve adapted not only from my own experiments with them but also countless books, conference presentations, blogs, and articles that I have read over the 30+ years I’ve been teaching.

What Innovations Would Work Right Now? 

Provide On-Demand Asynchronous Learning/Course Completion

Traditional universities organize their courses by semester. If a student wants to earn a degree, they must take courses in 15-week increments, possibly along with occasional courses available in 3-weeks winter sessions or 6-10 week summer sessions at more expensive rates (and/or lower financial aid benefits). All students must begin and end at the same time. Why?

What if we made the same courses also available on demand, so that students could begin them and end them as their time and interest allows?

I created a 14-week asynchronous online course called “Reading Social Media.” It’s essentially a course applying rhetorical theory to social media. It applies ancient knowledge to students’ contemporary lives. Since I created it several years ago, I’ve offered it 4 times, and ever seat has been filled each time. Virtually no students drop it, and almost no students get lower than a C. It also attracts a wide range of students from many departments in addition to English, where the course is “homed.”

There is little reason why I couldn’t also offer this as an “on demand” course, allowing students to start it anytime they want and finish it anytime they can. It doesn’t really matter to me as the teacher if they take 3 weeks or 25 weeks to get all the work done.

Yes, I would need to remove all deadlines for the course, and I would have to find a way to create social interaction among students who may not be on the same page at the same time.  For example, how would I run discussion boards with students at different points in the course content? But I am sure I could figure that out, especially with the vast numbers of electronic tools available, such as Google Apps, Voicethread, mind maps, social media, blogging, and more. I would also need to build in my own “down time”–if I want it–when I don’t offer the course, so I can take a break from giving students’ feedback. (Right now I don’t teach in Winter or Summer, and I use that time on my writing and research–please note that I am not paid in the summer.) 

This course set up would have many advantages for students, most notably:

  1. Students who have the time, support, physical space, intellectual capacity, and other privileges/gifts needed to earn credits very quickly would be able to complete their credits (even their entire degree) much, much more quickly than average.
  2. Students who do not have the time, support, physical space, intellectual capacity, and other privileges/gifts needed to earn credits quickly could take as much time as they need, even far more time than the average college student takes. But there would be no stigma (or even record) attached.
  3. Students who have an unexpected and sudden problem (illness or the sudden illness of a family member) would be able to slow their courses down with no administrative intervention at all–not even any paperwork! And, if students suddenly find themselves with more time/capacity than they expected could increase their speed concurrently.
  4. All that would matter to both groups of students above is how many academic credits/credentials they earned, not how long it took them to do so. 

Add Microcredentials

I have been seriously involved in microcredentials development since 2013. At first they were scoffed as risk-averse, and unimaginative faculty and administration defensively reduced them to the idea of digital badges and made fun of them as Boy Scout merit badges for the academy. (This is what happened at my own university where our then especially risk-averse provost shut down our successful program despite the fact that it was the first microcredentials program in all of SUNY, and we consulted on dozens more across the country that are now up and running.) Digital badges are based on the science of motivational psychology and the highly-successful practices of gamification.

Students should be earning microcredentials along their way to earning degrees. And if those microcredentials are created with the direct input of employers–as they SHOULD BE–those microcredentials will be immediately useful on the job market. 

So a student who has earned 30 credits toward a bachelor’s degree might also have earned a microcredential in something like “project management,” “personal branding,” “Black Literacies,” or “business communication.” Why should a student have to wait until they earn 120 credits before they have something from their university saying officially that they have developed USEFUL KNOWLEDGE?! Microcredentials address that problem.

That means, if a student is going to take 10 years to earn a BA, it might be ok because that student will also earn a microcredential 2-3 times per year, and employers can count those credentials in their hiring practices. In fact, employers can PROMISE to do so, if they are part of the group that actually creates the microcredential in the first place. 

I don’t think ANY FACULTY MEMBER SHOULD BE REQUIRED to create on-demand courses or microcredentials such as the ones I discuss above, but there are many of us who would be excited to do so. Especially, if there were incentives. Which prompts me to suggest that we . . .

Employ Innovative Compensation Models

Right now, I teach two courses per semester, which means four courses per year. (That is a common teaching load at a “research university” in a department with a doctoral program.) My “Reading Social Media” class is capped at 30 students, but I frequently have up to 35 in the class, either because the department simply chooses to pierce the cap, or I allow a few extra students in because they need it, and I don’t mind a little more work if it can help some students out. Of course, the university may make more money from these extra students and I don’t see any of that money. But, I get the money back when I teach courses that don’t fill to capacity and the university doesn’t cut my salary for it. I get paid the same no matter how many students I teach, as long as I teach 4 courses per year. Four courses at an average of 32 students is 126 students per year.

How about instead of paying me to teach up to 126 students per year, the university pays me a flat rate up to a certain number of students, and then gives me a bonus for each additional student I teach? If I make $50K per year for teaching 126 students now, how about paying me an additional $50 for each student above 126 that I teach?

Now a bonus like THAT might well inspire me and a lot of other faculty to create courses that would attract a lot more students.

Yes, there would be some quality control issues. There might be faculty who chose to create too-easy courses that would attract students who would like the idea of getting high grades for very little work. But I think this would be a rare problem in traditional universities because:

  1. There are already quality control measures in place that would continue to apply to on-demand courses
  2. Most faculty at traditional universities and colleges actually WANT to do well by their students, and they won’t cut corners on their students’ education just to get a little more time and money. Look at what many college teachers are willing to be paid now? These are not greedy, lazy people. Quite the opposite.
  3. Students are smarter than that. Today’s students are well aware that–unless they are the children of the 1%–they will need real skills, knowledge, and abilities to succeed in the future. If a quality education is available at a reasonable cost in a reasonable amount of time and delivered in a manner that is actually engaging and interesting, they will be happy to put in the work on it. 

In other words, we can respect faculty and students enough to give this a shot and correct problems that may emerge if some faculty and some students try to take advantage. After all, those problems (work-averse faculty and students) already exist in traditional courses and programs to probably the same degree they would in a more innovative, on-demand situation.

Create Extra-Departmental Majors and Graduate Programs

The ancient Greek sophists–about whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation in 1996–used to claim that they taught “everything there was to know.” The interesting thing is that they were largely correct.

They were correct for two reasons: 

  1. There was much, much less to know back then, especially since knowledge could not be adequately stored and shared. The technology of writing things down was very new, and most knowledge was kept in one’s memory.
  2. They didn’t have so many discrete fields of knowledge, as they were birthed largely by Aristotle, who came later than the older sophists. Instead, they focused on broad knowledge that would enable their learners to increase their memories, open their minds, and develop critical thinking skills that would serve them in the future as they sought to solve the material problems that arose in daily life. 

Practical, material problems and solutions were the focus of the sophists, until one particular sophist claimed that he alone understood that practical, material problems were not an issue; the real issue was symbolic, abstract knowledge and “the good.” That sophist was named Plato, and he is largely responsible for the cursed theory/practice split that plagues modern education to this day.

Here’s a fable I made up to help articulate this:

Plato, Aristotle, and a sophist are teaching a class together in the same room, when they all realize that some of the students seem cold. Plato says, “Let us discuss what the right temperature is for a classroom. What would the gods say the temperature should be? How can we know that?” Aristotle says, “No, let’s use a thermometer, which will allow us to measure the temperature and then we can decide together on the setting of the thermostat.” While all this discussion was going on, the sophist gave everyone who was cold a coat and had already gone back to teaching the class.

The sophists taught broad knowledge in a way that allowed students to solve practical, material problems AND to continue to learn throughout their lives. We have so much more technical knowledge now than the sophists did back then, so we don’t have the option to teach “everything there is to know.” But their model remains incredibly valuable.

Let’s create degrees not in fields within a single department, such as math or English or business or psychology. (Discrete fields of study that emerged from Aristotle’s tendency to taxonomize.)  Instead, let’s create programs that move among them. I’m not talking about “interdisciplinary” programs–which are currently all the rage and not really going anywhere. (They have been the “next great thing” at my university for at least 10 years and counting.) 

Instead, I’m talking about Extra-Disciplinary Programs that build NEW THINGS from innovative combinations of specialized knowledge (e.g., chemistry, engineering, coding/programming, teaching, dentistry, program management) applied to specific kinds of material problems (racism, virus protection, cybersecurity, education, communication, commerce, preservation of democracy) that ALSO make use of broad knowledge (such as critical thinking, humanistic pursuits [art, literature, history], ethics). 

We need new majors, new master’s programs, and new doctoral programs that focus on areas such as:

  • Communicating as a Public Intellectual
  • Managing Data to Identify and Tell Persuasive Stories
  • Healthcare for the Underserved
  • Ethical Entrepreneurship
  • Digital Humanities
  • Humanistic Thinking for STEM Professionals

These programs would not be located in a single department, but rather in spaces between and among departments. This would make them more flexible and would fit better into an existing traditional university structure.

Let’s say we’re in an English Department. 5 faculty members could be graduate faculty in a PhD in “Communicating as a Public Intellectual.” 5 other English faculty might teach in a PhD program in “Digital Humanities.” 2 others might teach in a PhD program in “Humanistic Thinking for STEM Professionals.” Those 12 faculty would have 2-2 teach loads. The other faculty would not teach in any PhD programs, and they would teach higher loads in BA programs. The more valuable PhD programs invented (the market would determine value), the more options faculty would have to be graduate faculty members. And those who prefer to focus on undergraduate programs would be welcome to do so, with no stigma and an equivalent salary.

Higher Ed Disruption is Here: It’s an Opportunity

For years, entrepreneurs have been trying to spark creative disruption in higher education. Like it or not, the global pandemic and the resulting decrease in already record-low funding for higher education has started a chain reaction that will level many universities and colleges in the next few years. 

For many in higher education, this is a deathknell. For others, this is an opportunity, but not for the squeamish.

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