June 16, 2024

Is Academic Innovation Always a Good Thing?

As you may have noticed, the past few weeks have witnessed a remarkable outpouring of important new books calling for academic innovation, as experts including Arthur Levine, Scott Van Pelt, Robert Ubell and others vie for attention.

I hope to write about those books in some forthcoming blog postings. But here I want to do something different and a bit risky: offer a few words of caution about what often passes for academic innovation.

You might find my tone unsettling. The word I’d use to describe it is “sardonic.”

Words like “wry,” “sardonic” or “sarcastic” describe a particularly biting form of humor, one that often seems like little more than mockery or irreverence. Such a tone is often dismissed as insulting: disdainful, disrespectful and derisive.

But there are times when such a tone, I think, is appropriate: whenever we are overly earnest and humorless. And those of us who are staunch proponents of innovation are particularly prone to come across as overly serious, overintense and preachy.

So I hope you’ll forgive me if I adopt a rather wry tone in discussing a particular literary genre that has arisen within higher education.

I try to read all these books so that you don’t necessarily have to.

I in no way mean to cause offense. Most books in this genre sparkle with valuable insights and actionable ideas. But it’s important, I think, for all enthusiasts to master the art of not taking ourselves or our ideas too seriously.

What I’ve discovered is that many books on educational innovation follow a simple formula.

Step 1: Begin by declaring that higher ed is in crisis.

These include a demographic, completion, equity and employment outcomes crisis, coupled with a broken business model. The message: that costs are out of control, that learning outcomes are too low, that too many students — especially adult learners and students of color — are not being well served, and that too many students leave college with high debt and without good job prospects.

All true, if a bit hyperbolic. Every institution I’m familiar with now places a premium on retention and student success. The underlying problem lies not in a lack of institutional will, but in finances, especially at the least-resourced institutions whose students have the greatest needs.

Step 2: Describe the looming competitive threat from mega online providers, MOOCs, technology giants, skills academies and various certificate and certification programs that threatens to upset the higher education landscape.

This threat may well materialize, but remember: we have little, if any, reliable, rigorous data on short-term or long-term employment outcomes or even much information on demand. Institutions should innovate not out of a so far illusory competitive threat, but because our students deserve the best education we can possibly provide.

Step 3: Tell your readers that it’s essential for higher ed to shift from an industrial to a postindustrial paradigm.

Without a doubt, colleges and universities need to adapt to a rapidly shifting employment environment. But we should be wary of dismissing the past too quickly or distorting and oversimplifying higher education’s history, which, alongside bitter contention and conflict, includes remarkable experiments that we should learn from.

Above all, we should remember that the historic purpose of higher education, that is, a liberal education, was not to prepare students for a job, but for leadership and management and professional positions, which it sought to accomplish in a variety of ways that we’ve largely rejected, but which make a great deal of sense if we’re trying to create leaders: oral presentations, memorization, an emphasis on writing, debate and broad learning that addresses big questions and wrestles with complex, demanding texts.

Step 4: Insist that expanded online learning or technology-enhanced education is the answer to higher ed’s problems of access, affordability, attainment and equity.

These books typically tout online learning’s many advantages, which purportedly include greater convenience, a more personalized academic experience and access to new student markets. But too often they commingle two very different kinds of online learning — a distance education that emphasizes interaction, inquiry and collaboration, with lots of engagement with an expert instructor — and scaled, self-paced, self-directed asynchronous instruction that can be delivered affordably and therefore contribute to institutions’ bottom line.

Step 5: Cite studies that claim that online students learn just as much as in-person, on-campus students.

Of course, these are typically studies with small sample sizes and without randomized control groups. Generally, they’re not studies that disaggregate the efficacy of online education by student background or discipline.

Implicit in many of these arguments for innovation are certain guiding assumptions:

  • That radical changes are inevitable and urgently needed.
  • That those institutions that fail to innovate are doomed.
  • That substantial numbers of students want and need an education fundamentally different than that offered today.

But I’d advise caution whenever we hear that our colleges and universities face existential threats.

  • Let’s not conflate ideas that need to be disentangled and analyzed separately.

Unbundling higher education’s undergraduate package — which includes a physical campus and extensive student life — may well result in some cost savings. But we should remember that for most students, it is the package that underlies college’s appeal, that spurs persistence and that helps them grow across multiple dimensions.

As for the argument that an online better serves nontraditional and marginalized students, I think the very best we can say is that this case is “not proved.” It certainly doesn’t square with my anecdotal experience (which actually involves thousands of students, many of whom need a lot of personal support, which is very difficult to provide in a large online course).

Higher education should, as innovators argue, become more skills- and outcomes-oriented and even more career-focused. But those goals have nothing to do with online education in itself. And we must remember that some of the most important skills and outcomes are wickedly difficult to define or assess. Evaluating a student’s written communication, critical thinking, intercultural competency or problem-solving abilities can’t easily be automated or scaled. It requires analysis by an expert.

  • Too often, there’s an exaggerated and unrealistic faith that an online education can be a personalized education.

In most instances, any cost savings from online learning are a product of various labor-saving measures: standardizing courses, relying on less trained, less accomplished instructors, and substituting course mentors or coaches and graders or for expert faculty. That’s anything but a personalized education tailored to individual students’ learning needs.

  • An innovative education, much too often, reflects a rather constricted and impoverished conception of the purpose of a higher education.

What makes a higher education higher is not that it’s a postsecondary education, but that it’s an education that involves something more than marketable skills and career preparation. It should be an education dedicated to students’ holistic development.

  • Innovations too often omit any discussion of capital-P politics.

Whether this country will incentivize a traditional education or a short-term certificate programs is less a matter of student demand than of political decision making. Politics will determine whether this country will make community college free or increase Pell Grants.

The many books on academic education do speak to certain fundamental truths.

  1. It’s certainly the case that online will play a more integral role in higher education’s future. Many students on traditional campuses — including athletes, commuters, students with disabilities and those with complicated work schedules or caregiving responsibilities, among others — benefit enormously from online courses.
  2. The learning sciences should reshape course design, pedagogy, activities and assessments. The more that faculty know about engaging and motivating students, cognitive load, active learning, and a host of other topics, the better.
  3. Students would benefit from more coherent, integrated and synergistic degree pathways, from greater exposure to job-related skills training, and from activities and assessments that are authentic and relevant, and from an education that is more career-aware. The challenge is extraordinarily difficult: How do we convince or incentivize faculty who operate under a lone artisan model of course creation and delivery to think more collaboratively and strategically? No doubt, part of the answer is to offer dedicated skills workshops and award students a certificate of completion.
  4. We need to offer more just-in-time and proactive student supports. Many students need far more mentoring, advising, scaffolding and timely, substantive feedback than we typically provide. Some of these functions can, potentially, be scaled or triggered with technology. But in most instances, such support must come from actual human providers.

But we must be careful not to delude ourselves or others with half-truths.

We certainly know that not all students can successfully navigate online courses. We do them a great disservice if we imply that most undergraduates learn as much or succeed as often in online classes.

We also need to speak a basic truth: that most undergraduates need a high-touch education. Too often, I fear, even in in-person courses, students don’t receive the level of support they need to improve or to be successful. But let’s be careful lest we diminish the average level of support students receive.

Let me offer my own responses to questions the literature on academic innovation raises.

  • Does a cheaper, faster online education represent an existential threat to traditional higher education?

As a historian, I know better than to predict the future with confidence. “Never say never” is always good advice. But there’s actually not much evidence to suggest a fundamental shift in students’ educational aspirations. The growth of the mega nonprofit online universities tracks closely with the decline of the for-profits.

  • Should campuses partner with third-party vendors or enhance their internal capacities?

It depends on a host of variables. Cost is one. The nature of the service is another. Should a campus move marketing in-house? That’s probably impossible if one is pursuing a national market. But local and statewide markets may well be another story.

Should campuses construct their own technology infrastructure? Most campuses have discovered that the answer is no.

How about course design or student support? Course design is, in my view, a core competency that should take place in-house. But adding bells and whistles, a sophisticated visual interface, and adaptive learning capabilities may well be another matter. As for student support, cost and 24-7 availability may lead a campus to outsource this service.

So what do I recommend?

  1. Expanded experiential learning. In my view, the top priority at traditional campuses is to offer more experiential learning opportunities — research experiences, internships, study abroad, practicums and clinical and community learning — experiences that can’t, for the most part, be delivered online. However, expanded online education can conceivably free up faculty to deliver more experiential learning.
  2. Strengthened instructor support. High-quality teaching — that involves more active, immersive and authentic learning — will require campuses to provide faculty with much more extensive support, whether they teach in person or online. Access to an instructional designer, an educational technologist, an assessment specialist or a student assistant can make a world of difference.
  3. Development of interactive courseware. I can’t imagine a better way for well-resourced institutions to help the broader higher educational ecosystem than to create and make freely available interactive courseware for the key introductory and gateway courses that enroll about a third of all undergraduates. High quality — incorporating multimedia, animations, simulations and valid assessments — is extraordinarily expensive, well beyond the budgets even of OpenStax. (A textbook that I co-authored cost several million dollars to develop in the 1980s.) But courseware can replace the much more static textbooks that instructors rely on today and make it much easier to adopt a flipped-classroom approach. Equally important, such a tool can monitor student engagement, confusions and mastery, and therefore empower instructors to respond to student needs more effectively.
  4. Prioritizing equity. True equity should mean that every student should be able, irrespective of their family’s wealth, to attend the kind of institution best aligned with their abilities, talents, interests and needs — not the cheapest or most convenient. Also, at whatever institution students attends, they should have access to much more experiential, active, immersive forms of education than is the case today. Insofar as part-time status is, perhaps, the biggest barrier to student success, we simply must find ways to help as many students as possible attend college full-time. Equity demands no less.

The pandemic has been like a lightning bolt that momentarily illuminates the landscape before fading out of sight. The pandemic taught us many lessons about online learning:

  • That remote instruction can serve certain students well, but does a disservice to many others.
  • That online learning is exceptionally difficult to do well and places extremely heavy burdens on instructors.
  • That a quality online course requires institutions to provide faculty with instructional design and technical support and even in-class support (for example, from a TA or an undergraduate assistant).

Above all, I hope we’ve learned that online learning should absolutely not be done on the cheap or as a revenue ploy or as a substitute for rich, robust, holistic education that goes beyond training or job preparation.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.