Revolution or Evolution? Technology and Higher Ed

I’m on a committee charged by my university’s chancellor to explore how my university can use digital tools to enhance our teaching, research, and service missions. This afternoon the committee held its first meeting, and it’s clear to me that we’ll have some interesting conversations in this committee, if nothing else. (I suspect that much more will come from this committee than just conversation, however.)

As I was walking to the meeting, I thought about what role I might play on this committee. As much as I love to come up with creative uses of technology in teaching, I decided that, given the very creative and innovative teachers on the committee, perhaps I could bring something else to the table. I tapped into a series of discussions in which I’ve been involved over the past few years on the theme of “Revolution or Evolution?”

  • Back in May 2010, in one of my contributions to the Hacking the Academy project, I argued that a backchannel-enabled classroom in which students communicate not only with their instructor but with each other and with people not physically in the room might be pretty amazing, but how crazy does that sound to an instructor used to lecturing with a bit of Q&A here and there? Should the academy perhaps be “hacked” in a more evolutionary than revolutionary way?
  • Later that fall, my colleagues Jim Julius and Dwayne Harapnuik and I led a workshop at the POD Network conference titled “Revolution or Evolution? Social Technologies and Pedagogical Change.” We pointed to those like Bill Gates, Salman Khan, Anya Kamenetz, and Sir Ken Robinson who have aruged that higher education must embrace social technologies and the information-sharing power of the Web in order to remain relevant in the 21st century. How can we help our colleagues respond to these external pressures to radically change teaching and learning? (See our ProfHacker post for a few ideas we generated during the workshop.)
  • At the NAIRTL conference over in Ireland last June, keynote speaker Mike Neary, who heads up the Student as Producer project at the University of Lincoln, argued that students no longer want to be the “object” of the educational process, but the “subject.” That is, they want to be producers of knowledge, not consumers of knowledge or customers of higher ed. Might the push for revolutionary changes in higher education come from our students? And, if so, might those students lead those changes, whether or not faculty would prefer a more evolutionary approach?
  • Just last week, I blogged about the challenge of using wildly innovative teachers (whether they use technology or not) as role models or examples for other faculty. It’s great that we have tech-savvy instructors with keen eyes for motivating students toward authentic learning, but how do we scale that? How do we help more instructors understand and possibly adopt these teaching approaches?

I don’t know if revolutionary change in higher ed is possible. If it is, I certainly don’t know what I can do about it. However, I have some ideas for evolutionary change, some scaffolding that might help instructors foster deeper learning within their students. That’s why I see the “revolution or evolution?” question as a faculty development question. And faculty development questions are ones I feel comfortable bringing to the discussion in this committee.

During the committee meeting today, I didn’t make the argument that changes in technology have great potential for forcing higher education to change its teaching and learning model. I might make that argument at a later date, since I think there’s a strong case for it. Today, I focused on the faculty development angle, asking the committee members to consider the people not in the room–the faculty who aren’t running backchannels or using social bookmarking or teaching their courses via video-conferencing or asking students to create virtual worlds. What recommendations can we make as a committee that will be sensitive to the needs and interests and ideas of these faculty? In other words, how can we ensure that our revolutionary ideas will resonate with those more comfortable with evolutionary change?

I heard a few great responses to my faculty development question. One was that change does happen in the university, provided it’s well-resourced and is acknowledged as valuable. (Six years ago, we didn’t have ten faculty living as “heads of house” in a first-year commons. Now we do.) Another was that sometimes it’s important to provide support and resources for innovators, even if what they’re doing isn’t that popular. Assuming the innovators create something of value, others (not all, but some and maybe most) will eventually follow. A third was that it’s healthy to have a diversity of approaches to teaching and learning within a university community. We all have different teaching contexts and different teaching strengths, and some of us won’t find certain technologies or practices useful. Let’s embrace that diversity.

When I asked my faculty development question, I think I sounded like a technology skeptic, which was a strange place for me (the “clickers guy”) to be. It’s not that I’m worried that faculty will resist change. Sure, there are some CAVE people (colleagues against virtually everything, h/t to Mark Milliron for that), but I’m more concerned about the faculty who don’t actively resist change, but just aren’t quite ready yet to do things very differently.

I’m glad I asked my faculty development question since I think the perspectives that were shared in response to it will be helpful as our committee continues its work.

If you’ve read this far in the post, I’m guessing this “revolution or evolution?” question is of some interest to you. If so, I’d like to ask your help. I’ve been tagging articles and resources relevant to this topic over on Diigo using the tag “RevOrEv.” I would love some company in this endeavor, so I’ve set up a Diigo group called “Revolution or Evolution? Technology and Higher Ed” and seeded it with my “RevOrEv” bookmarks. If you’re interested, join the group and contribute your own bookmarks–or just see what others have shared, that’s fine, too.

Image: “Surprisingly Quick,” me, Flickr (CC)

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