Blog Post

Two Examples of Why Universities are Vulnerable to Disruption

We in academia are mostly aware of the coming changes to higher education.  Some are blissfully unaware of what has already happened and what developments are underway.  That alone makes higher education vulnerable to disruption.  But, I would like to offer a couple examples to highlight a particular vulnerability which will be very difficult to change and which show how easily outsiders can innovate while we sit still.

Several years ago I had an idea to offer a course in critical thinking at the community college where I teach.  It was a course that had not been taught or offered there before.  It was a course students would benefit from because it would be a good transfer course for students who intended to pursue their four year degree once they completed their associate’s degree.  Faculty members were largely supportive of the idea and saw the benefits of offering the course.  Yet, the course was not offered and still is not taught.

What happened?  The curriculum review process happened.  This is a process I am sure many readers are familiar with and have dealt with in some form or another.  Perhaps many of you have worked very hard to get a course through such a review process and others have probably worked on a curriculum review committee tasked with evaluating new courses for approval.  I have sat on both sides of such a committee and from both perspectives what I mostly saw was a process that had, perhaps as an unintended consequence, the effect of reducing the number of new courses offered and reducing innovation in the approved course offerings.   After a protracted period of time I simply gave up the goal of creating a critical thinking course.

Now, it’s easy to see the problem as mine alone.  I just wasn’t persistent enough.  I wasn’t passionate enough about the course.  Well, perhaps.  But, my question is: How many others have innovative ideas for new courses and simply get discouraged before even attempting to put together a proposal.  How much creativity are we leaving undiscovered due to the process itself?

Fast forward to earlier this semester.  Here where I teach we have two programs each of which offer courses with flexible enrollment which allow students to work at their own pace through the course’s self-directed modules.  Leaving aside the question of why we have two such program instead of one, suffice it to say that I wanted to migrate one of my courses from one program to the other in order to make it available to a wider group of students who may not know about its existence.  Again, this would benefit students.  Again, faculty were in favor of this offering.  Again, the course will not be offered.  Why?

This time the reason consists of an answer I received to the question: How could I migrate this course which is already built and serving students from one program to another both of which use exactly the same learning management system?  The answer came in an 11 page single spaced form which outlines a complicated review process that each course had to go through to be accepted into the program.  So, again I simply gave up.  I don’t need to have my course in both programs just as I didn’t need to offer a course in critical thinking. 

So, am I just a quitter?  Perhaps.  But, again the important point here is that there is a process that encourages quitting.  Perhaps some faculty are more tenacious than I am and when faced with an obstacle like this, they simply roll up their sleeves and get to work.  But, how many more faculty are like me; hard working, dedicated, interested in serving students, but, lacking in the constitution to deal with mostly needless obstacles to innovation.

The main point of this is that while innovation is being slowed or stopped in universities, there are those outside of the academy are simply proceeding to innovate and make those innovations available.  I’m sure there are many courses in critical thinking that students can take and benefit from all over the internet in places like Coursera and Udemy.com.  No, they aren’t officially accredited.  Yet.  No, they won’t count for college credit.  Yet.  But, those problems are being addressed and solutions will be coming online soon.  Meanwhile, faculty in universities and colleges will continue to wrestle with the questions I have been asking myself: Is it really worth the time and effort to submit to a lengthy committee review process just to offer a new or innovative course?  Is there any reason why the process has to be so complicated?  Are we always going to allow others to be quicker and more nimble in making innovative changes to learning?

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