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Faculty as Drivers of Innovation

The real key to academic innovation

March 31, 2019
 
 

Faculty occupy a very uneasy place in the discourse of innovation in higher education.  Much of the literature on academic innovation focuses on administrators and the crucial role of "the critical few" in leading educational transformation.

In these works, faculty are often treated as a cost center that contributes significantly to higher education’s unaffordability  -- even though, typically, instruction only accounts for about 20 to 30 percent of campus costs.  This discourse emphasizes how administrators might cut instructional costs: for example, by substituting adjuncts for tenure-track faculty or through course redesign strategies that make use of personalized adaptive software or undergraduate learning assistants and peer instruction or that reduce the number of face-to-face class meetings or that eliminate hand-grading.

At other times, faculty are regarded as obstructionists, whose self-interested emphasis on their own convenience and role in campus governance hinders efforts to make higher education more efficient and cost effective.  This discourse often calls for changes in campus governance, giving administrators a greater role in decisions involving hiring, requirements, evaluation of teaching, and, especially, decisions regarding online learning.

At still other times, faculty are caricatured as disengaged, more concerned about their own research and career advancement than college’s primary purpose: to educate and mentor students.  To be sure, all of us can point to isolated examples of “dead wood” or worse:  incompetent, unproductive, unmotivated, argumentative, unsociable, and truculent professors who harm faculty morale, alienate students, and make department life uncollegial.  But if there are genuine problems that are not matters of academic freedom, then mechanisms already exist to address this, through the tenure and promotion, merit, and post-tenure review processes.

Among the many problems with this anti-faculty animus is that faculty members are central to academic innovation – or should be.  Faculty, after all, bear responsibility for the most important aspects of the academic experience:  Faculty select colleagues, evaluate the professional competence of fellow faculty members, control the curriculum, set academic standards, and even conduct evaluations for accrediting agencies. Equally important, faculty are at the heart of the academic experience through their interactions with students.

Instead of regarding themselves as victims -- of budget cuts, administrative mandates, accreditation requirements, and unsympathetic legislators -- faculty members need to see themselves as the true and rightful drivers and owners of innovation.  The faculty needs to exercise its power and expertise to prevent the diminishment of rigor and quality in innovation’s name. But faculty members also need to feel empowered and supported as they to experiment with new approaches to pedagogy, instructional delivery, assessment, and student support.

How might institutions empower faculty to drive innovation? Three ideas strike me.

1.   Rethink how academic support units can best collaborate with faculty.
Having run a teaching center myself, I know first-hand how such units are often viewed: As units for remediation (for especially promising researchers who elicit poor student evaluations); as marginal operations that exist as symbols of an institution’s dedication to high quality teaching; and as intrusions on faculty members’ pedagogical autonomy. But such centers can achieve genuine success when they take on tasks that faculty regard as diversions from their proper role and expertise (for instance, creating knowledge and outcomes maps or developing interactives and simulations).

2.   Create spaces where faculty are free to experiment and evaluate innovations.
These “islands of innovation,” which are environments free from normal institutional constraints, can serve as test beds and assessment sites for innovations that might later be scaled.

3.   Incentivize innovation.
Here are a few low-cost ways to incentive innovation: 

  • Invest in faculty development, including sending faculty members to training sessions and relevant conferences.
  • Invest in faculty support, by providing innovators with the kinds of expertise they need, including access to instructional designers, educational technologists, and assessment specialists, and even qualified support from advanced undergraduates.
  • Showcase successful innovation through innovation expos and workshops.
  • Build an innovation community by facilitating campus conversations about innovation, pedagogy, curricular design, online learning, and assessment.

I can attest from personal experience that the best way to facilitate campus conversations about academic innovation is to draw upon a campus’s researchers in the learning sciences.  Within the academy, research is the coin of the realm, and any attempt to seriously engage faculty members in discussions of teaching and learning need to begin with those who have seriously studied learning, motivation, memory, and assessment.

Academic innovation is a truly wicked problem.  Obstacles include incumbent practices and policies, legacy technologies, initiative fatigue, and well-deserved skepticism and cynicism.  Despite these barriers, many faculty members strive to make the education they offer more successful. Tapping their energies and insights is, without a doubt, the most cost-effective way to bring about the changes that higher education needs.

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

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