By Doug Ward
Consider a few of the changes roiling public higher education.
Technology has created new ways for students to learn and to earn credentials but has also eliminated the need for a physical presence in many courses. Competency-based models have elevated the importance of work and life experiences in learning. Declining state support has pushed tuition costs increasingly higher, leading to growing scrutiny of colleges and universities by families and legislators. Many recent graduates have even expressed doubts about whether college was worth the expense.
Ann Austin, a professor at Michigan State University who recently led the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, says these types of changes are as significant as those that higher education experienced in the late 19th century. That’s when the land grant acts led to a vast increase in the number of public universities, helping give rise to technical training, science education, social sciences, medical schools, law schools and other professional schools. Also during that time, faculty and curricula began to specialize, but students also gained the right to choose electives. Colleges for blacks and women also took root. By the early 20th century, higher education operated much differently than it did just a few decades earlier.
Modern institutions are only beginning to come to terms with the changes that lie ahead, and can really only guess at how those changes might reshape education.
“There’s a big question about what higher education will look like in the coming years,” Austin said.
Austin does a lot of thinking about change, which has been the focus of her research but also her work at NSF and the development of the Center for Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning, which she co-founded.
Austin spoke recently at the semiannual meeting of the steering committee of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of nine North American research universities (including KU) working to improve teaching and learning in higher education through cultural change. She drew from her extensive research into cultural and organizational change in higher education, especially in the areas of faculty development and the need to adapt the workplace, as she urged alliance members to think more strategically about the types of changes they are trying to make on their own campuses.
A changing landscape
Her views are especially important during this time of shifting ideas, perceptions and practices in higher education. Societal, legislative and financial forces are bearing down from the outside, providing opportunities for making much-needed changes from the inside, especially in the way we approach and value teaching.
Austin argues, though, that to do that we must not only analyze the problem we are trying to change, but examine it from many different angles and consider the issues that drive or impede change. Many times, she said, we jump into a change process but don’t identify the problem, the issues or the context. Nor do we consider how we would address the problem, even though “this is something we should be coming back to over and over again.”
In essence, she suggested that BVA members engage in change as they would a research project: Clarify a problem that needs to be addressed, gather information about that problem, analyze that information, provide context, and draw conclusions on how best to move forward.
Austin offered many provocative questions to illuminate the process she laid out, drilling down on the many facets of an institution that provide opportunities for or impediments to change:
- Why is this issue a problem? What elements of the problem need to be addressed? What factors will affect the process of change?
- Who owns the process of change and has access to data? Who gets recognition? What alliances do we need to form?
- How do we maintain momentum and energy, especially as leadership changes?
- How do we establish support mechanisms to aid the process in person and online?
- Who has informal power, and how do we handle resistance?
- How do we connect our efforts to institutional priorities?
We must consider these and many other questions if we hope to succeed, Austin said.
“If we want people to change, they have to know what to change and why they should change,” she said. “They also need to know that they won’t be penalized for doing so.”
A multi-university approach to change
BVA has approached change at many levels of university culture as it has worked to improve recognition of innovative teaching at research universities, to promote the use of active learning in large undergraduate classes, and to build community among faculty members so that they can share ideas and experiences that lead to improved student learning. Recent projects include use of embedded teaching experts to improve instruction, use of data analytics to better understand learning, and creation of new processes for evaluating teaching. Ultimately, it hopes to change attitudes toward teaching and the university culture that impedes innovative teaching.
Austin’s presentation came after a morning in which several BVA members raised concerns about the slow pace of change in higher education, saying that members must do a better job of explaining the value of change. Some said teaching centers needed to do more to move change from the grass-roots to the administrative level. Others wondered how they could tie the need for improving teaching to improving university finances. Still others expressed doubt that attitudes toward teaching had changed at all.
Mary Huber, a BVA advisor who is a senior scholar emerita at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, challenged that notion. Those of us who value teaching have indeed helped bring about change, she said.
“The conversations we are having today are much different from the ones we had 30 years,” Huber said. “We may have not had the magical transformative powers we had hoped, but what we have done has been hopeful.”
And if Austin is right and we are at the cusp of an enormous wave of change, we must continue to remain hopeful as we work to shape the future.
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.