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A reporter recently asked me: Why is it so difficult for higher education to innovate?

Articles on that topic abound, with titles like “The 10 Barriers to Innovation in Higher Education” or “5 Invisible Barriers Preventing Change in Higher Ed.” Typically, such articles lay blame on the usual subjects, such bogeymen as feckless administrators, self-interested faculty, resistant students, and recalcitrant bureaucracies.

But, of course, a great deal of innovation has occurred and continues to take place. Over the past decade, higher education has undergone profound transformations:

  • A vast expansion in online and hybrid courses, including synchronous as well as asynchronous online classes.
  • A heightened emphasis on active, experiential, team-based, and project-based learning.
  • The emergence of competency-based education with its focus on mastery of essential knowledge and skills rather than on credit hours or seat time.
  • The spread of high impact signature programs, including freshman seminars, freshman interest groups, freshman research, and capstone courses.
  • The rise of data-driven advising that identifies and targets students at risk of failure.
  • The appearance of new ways of designing curricula and the academic experience, including guided pathways and Meta Majors.
  • The proliferation of such technology tools as classroom response devices, hangouts, new kinds of educational courseware, and a host of interactive simulations.

Less common yet nevertheless important innovations include the spread of microcredentials, e-portfolios, and skills or competency transcripts.

To my mind, perhaps the most striking and significant innovation is higher education’s heightened emphasis on community engagement, community service, and local and regional economic development.

So what, then, do critics mean when they decry higher education’s alleged failure to innovate? The critics are, I am convinced, referring to:

1. The failure to radically reduce the cost of tuition.
Many  unrealistically expected that the spread of online learning and of personalized, adaptive educational courseware would dramatically reduce instructional costs.  In fact, institutions did stabilize instructional spending. But very unfortunately the solution was to rely, more and more, on non-tenure track instructors.  

2. The failure to make college transfer more seamless.
Critics quite understandably expected colleges and universities to sharply reduce the credit loss for transfer students. There have been efforts to make the transfer process smoother.  Some states have adopted common numbering systems for gen ed courses and mandated acceptance of certain gen ed classes. A few have adopted “Pathway” or “Field of Study” programs to require four-year public universities to apply certain community college courses to their majors. But such efforts remain nascent.

3.  The failure to more directly align majors with marketable skills.
Some institutions have made career exploration an integral part of their academic experience and some units have taken steps to make majors more practical and relevant, including integrating internships into degree pathways. Still others have made it possible for students to acquire various badges and professional certificates. However, many majors still do not directly consider career preparation a major part of their role.

4. The failure to measure student learning and to make college’s value-added more transparent.
Despite efforts to assess student learning, like the Association of American Colleges and Universities VALUE Rubrics, information about learning and program-level outcomes remains limited.

How might we reframe the conversation about innovation within higher education?

I would argue that there are three key barriers to innovation within higher education.

The first is the difficulty of collaborating across institutional lines.  

If we are to address transfer issues, we need “global” articulation agreements and degree maps that begin in community college (and even in high school, for those students taking early college/ dual degree courses or Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses).

If we are to expand access to highly specialized classes or programs, we need more programs like those that the Big Ten Academic Alliance offers in the less commonly taught foreign language courses.

We might also make instructional tools developed at well-resourced institutions widely available for free. Carnegie Mellon might serve as a model: Sharing its Open Simon tools, software and content, including underlying source code.  

At my own institution, Liberal Arts Information Technology Services developed a classroom response system (called UT Instapoll) that supports polling, multiple choice quizzes, and short answers using cellphones, and an overall to the LMS (called Clio) that supports rich multimedia and interactive simulations without forcing students to move between files and folders. Wouldn’t it be great to share these tools?

Were higher education to think of itself less as a competitive market and more as a collaborative ecosystem, it might engage in less destructive competition (think of the struggles between the Penn State System and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education) and more about ways to leverage smaller institutions and their faculty.

The second barrier is the difficulty of collaborating across departmental lines.

A widely touted alternative to a traditional major is the career pathway, a set of integrated, synergistic, carefully sequenced courses that seeks to promote “professional identity formation” – not simply instilling technical skills and knowledge but the perspectives and habits of mind of practicing professionals. 

Thus a biomedical sciences pathway at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley included classes on “The Literature of Pain and Illness,” “Representations of the Body,” “The History of Disease and Medicine,” and “Medical Ethics” – all relevant to any practicing health professional.

This kind of curricular coherence obviously hinges on cross-department cooperation.

Whether higher ed can overcome the barriers to institutional and departmental collaboration is, to my mind, the next great challenge facing our colleges and universities.

Steven Mintz is special advisor to the President of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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