Small Liberal Arts Colleges as Learning Innovation Base Camps

How metaphors can help us think about our institutions.

May 7, 2018

A metaphor that has captured the imagination at my College is that of a “base camp to the world”. I’ve been thinking about this base camp metaphor as it could apply to learning innovation.

What role might small colleges that are liberal arts to the core play in a larger postsecondary movement to advance learning? Are there advantages that small and intimate institutions have in leading change across the higher ed world?  Advantages that perhaps are not as much shared by some large institutions that operate on scales of ten of thousands of students, and which tend to get most of the attention.

I can think of 3 areas where the metaphor of a learning innovation base camp works for small liberal arts colleges:

1 - A Commitment to Impact:

The metaphor of a base camp only works if there exists a commitment to climb the mountain.  When it comes to advancing learning, institutions need to feel that they have a role to play in moving all of higher education forward.

Small liberal arts schools have an important role to play in the national conversation about the future of higher education.  Our insistence that an education should be about acquiring the habits of a lifetime learner, in addition the skills necessary in tomorrow’s job market, sets a liberal education apart.

How learning innovation, and in particular digital learning innovation, plays out in a context an intimate and small-scale educational context is a fascinating question.  Too much of the conversation about learning innovation is about scale and efficiency.  Too little of the conversation in learning innovation is about scholars who love to teach, and a system of education that is built on the relationships between highly skilled faculty and their students.

Small liberal arts colleges have a leadership role to play in our national conversation about the future of higher education.

2 - A Sense of Shared Responsibility:

Learning innovation is hard.  There seems to be no end of forces lined up to protect the postsecondary status quo.  These forces range from challenges related to economics (cost disease and stagnant wages), demographics (numbers of potential students), and organizational (colleges are not built for rapid change).

The base camp metaphor helps us think about learning innovation in a couple of ways.  First, it helps us develop the shared mission that the status quo is not acceptable.  That we need to make improvements along every dimension of higher education - from learning, to access, to costs.   We wouldn’t need a base camp if we were not committed to take some risks.  The mountains we need to climb are as much on our campuses as they are across higher education.

Second, we can think of much of the work we do to advance learning as disciplined experiments.  We can try new things to climb the learning innovation mountain, and share them with everyone else who is on a similar journey.

Small liberal arts schools should have a comparative advantage in this commitment to experimentation.  The culture of trust and collegiality that can develop at a small liberal arts school can encourage individuals from across the institution to try new things - to take some risks.  Leadership can be understood as a shared responsibility.  Base camps probably don’t work well as top-down entities.

3 - A Culture of Caring:

A third way that the base camp metaphor for learning innovation resonates for me is the idea of community.  Of making a commitment to each other to advance learning.  This commitment extends to colleagues within and outside of our institutions.

A base camp is where those getting ready to climb the mountain - to take on the big challenge - gather to gear up for the task.  It is a place of support and refuge.  The faculty and non-faculty educators committed to advancing learning comprise a tight community.  We depend upon and rely on each other.

Relationships at small liberal arts colleges are, by necessity, deep and multifaceted.  People at small liberal arts colleges play many roles.  Everyone knows everybody. They care about each other as people, not just at job titles.  This cultural trait of caring may be, in the end, the most important enabler of learning innovation.

Like any metaphor the base camp has its limitations.  Not everyone in a community will feel that the institution in which they work is supporting their efforts for larger impact.  Not every member of a community will feel a shared sense of responsibility for the mission of the organization.  And members of some groups may find themselves outside of a culture of caring.

Nor is the base camp metaphor necessarily restricted to small liberal arts institutions.  Large comprehensive universities, community colleges, and other types of institutions may have a similar commitment to impact, shared responsibility, and a culture of caring.  I tend to think that small liberal arts colleges are at an advantage in all these areas, but the point can be argued.

Perhaps the metaphor of a base camp is more a goal than a descriptor.  I like to think of my institution as a base camp for higher education learning innovation. 

Does the metaphor of a base camp help you think about the role of your institution?

Does your school feel like a base camp for learning innovation?


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