Surveys that examine attitudes and perceptions about change and innovation, whatever the context, often come to the same conclusion: we tend to believe we’re open to change; it’s everyone else that’s stubbornly sticking to the past.
But the truth is often less flattering. All of us resist change more often than not. The greater the perceived change, the stronger our resistance. Why? Because change is uncomfortable and occasionally threatening. Change can affect our status, reduce our level of control and, worst of all, make us look bad. Although we’re just as likely to benefit from the change as not, history suggests we work harder to hang on to what we currently have than to strive for something new.
Efforts to innovate in online learning at the post-secondary level run headlong into this resistance. Technology is particularly good at provoking resistance to change. Often for good reason: it changes quickly and it has a long history of reconfiguring the world of work, possibly impacting our identities and livelihood.
Even the benefits of technology can be the source of anxiety. Technology can replace lower-level, repetitive tasks, freeing us to focus on higher, knowledge-intensive activities. Subsequent improvements in productivity can raise standards of living. The effects can surprise: there are, apparently, more bank tellers today than there were when automated teller machines (ATMs) were first introduced in the 1980s and there is more paper sold in 2016 than when we first read about the impending “paperless” society. Sometimes, though, technology eliminates jobs altogether. For example, there are far fewer people working in print shops today.
The pace of change in online learning has been slow. Despite repeated forecasts of “transformation”, “revolution” and (of course) “disruption”, the vast majority of our institutions continues to operate more or less as they did in the late 1990s when 56.6k modems were the norm for accessing the Internet.
The literature on innovation provides clues as to how change can be realized and sustained. While there’s no formula, a number of principles were developed over the years - primarily for use in business settings - that we can draw on to build effective strategies within colleges and universities. Three core principles provide a good starting point:
- Free flow of ideas
- Freedom to fail; and
- A sense of urgency
The Free Flow of Ideas
Organizations need regular exposure to ideas and information from a range of sources to prosper. It’s innovation’s oxygen. Higher education has good processes in place to encourage the free flow of research - conferences, journals, and the like - but we’ve been less systematic and committed about how we go about sharing information on teaching and learning. A minority of faculty and instructors regularly attends conferences on teaching and learning and, as Derek Bok notes, few make the study of pedagogy a standard part of their workflow:
“A remarkable feature of American colleges is the lack of attention that most faculties pay to the growing body of research about how much students are learning and how they could be taught to learn more. Hundreds of studies have accumulated on how undergraduates develop during college and what effects different methods of teaching have on improving critical thinking, moral reasoning, quantitative literacy, and other skills vital to undergraduate education. One would think faculties would receive these findings eagerly. Yet one investigator has found that fewer than 10 percent of college professors pay any attention to such work when they prepare for their classes.”
Most institutions do not have systems in place to capture and share the instructional practices of individual faculty and instructors. Teaching is treated as an individual pursuit. Indeed, faculty and instructors can work in the same department for several years without ever seeing each other teach.
By not encouraging and facilitating the flow of information across institutions, colleges and universities ultimately limit the breadth and depth of the knowledge that is brought to bear on each course within the institution.
Freedom to Fail
Without the freedom to fail, innovation remains stifled. Innovation always involves some level of risk.
The meaning and status of “failure” in the world of technology has undergone modification during the past couple of decades. The overly romanticized “start-up” culture has sought to glorify failure: “fail fast, fail often”, they argue. For them, failure is simply a symptom of a robust and innovative economy.
But it would be overstating the case to suggest this logic has taken hold in larger, well-established organizations like colleges and universities. Most organizations still treat failure as something to avoid at all costs. Indeed, in some respects, our culture seems more interested than ever in criticizing people and their mistakes. To what extent do the people in your institution believe they can try new ways to serve students? To what extent can they fail without hurting their careers?
Leaders and colleagues in higher education can make it easier for people to step forward and suggest new strategies. Talking openly about the importance of taking calculated risks, and the inevitably of occasional setbacks make it clear to faculty and instructors that inaction is the enemy; those colleagues constantly seeking out ways to do better work are to be emulated.
A Sense of Urgency
John Kotter popularized the notion that we need to foster a “sense of urgency” within the organization in order to drive substantial change. Properly aware of the threats and opportunities, professionals are far more likely to commit to new ways of operating.
Creating a sense of urgency across an entire college or university is made difficult by the highly decentralized structure of the institution. University presidents may have plans, but faculty members — as a result of culture and a shared governance structure — aren’t always especially involved or committed.
While the demand for higher education ebbs and flows with birth rates, immigration patterns and economic cycles, it continues to rise decade after decade. While we lament increased tuition fees, this hasn’t inhibited enrolment growth in higher education. And the cultural notion that young adults should aspire to attend college or university has never been more widely accepted among the burgeoning middle-class. Consequently, a sense of urgency will not likely be realized by way of a direct threat to the livelihoods of people working in higher education.
Managers, faculty and instructors need to call on drivers of urgency that align with the conditions in higher education, such as a desire to improve student success during and after their education, access to research funds and support, tangible recognition and rewarding of innovation and achievements, a sense of competing with other institutions, and other possibilities.
Sharing of information, permission to fail, and urgency of purpose distinguish colleges and universities that are open to “transformation” and even “disruption”.