This being spring conference season, I’ve attended a number of higher education events in recent weeks, as well as a number of smaller gatherings where higher education leaders have congregated to reflect on the present moment and what it might mean for the future of our colleges and universities. Needless to say, many of the discussions at these various meetings have featured liberal use of the word “innovation.”
Indeed, as keynotes drifted from one into the other, as PowerPoint slides clicked by with dizzying speed – chock-full of numbers presented in just such a way as to persuade us that a vast and disparate array of trends pointed pretty much down one path (the inevitable road to innovation) – and as numerous hallway conversations, tote bags emblazoned with seemingly hopeful messages about “disruption,” and yet another banquet chicken came and went, I began to wonder what we really talk about when we talk about innovation.
Is innovation, I wondered, just a euphemism for anxiety?
In one small-group conversation I sat in on recently, for example, a colleague observed that when she arrived at her new institution, a meeting was called summoning all those individuals on campus who, like her, possessed the word innovation in their job titles – 90 people attended the meeting, she said.
That’s a lot of innovation. Or is it something else?
The contemporary moment poses many questions about the future of our industry (if I may call it that). Should higher education be free? That’s a fairly big one for a start, and yet we find ourselves asking it at a moment when public contributions to our colleges and universities seem bent on an ineluctable downward slide.
Can students learn without the direct assistance of faculty? Another fairly challenging brain teaser, particularly as we explore the potential for artificial intelligence, machine learning, personalized learning, adaptive learning, and so on, to – at the very least – “flip” the classroom. And what about the near cousins of this question: Are peer grading and computer grading as effective as traditional models of assessment? At one event I attended recently, Bill Bowen, the former president of Princeton University and a trustee of the research organization Ithaka, bluntly observed, "the faculty governance model is not well suited to online learning." Little surprise, then, that faculty organizations have met recent legislative proposals suggesting that selected MOOCs be judged credit worthy in California and Florida with strongly worded counter arguments.
Will the federal government award Title IV funding for direct assessment? Yes, it turns out. And thus guaranteed student loans are officially untethered from the credit hour. How long before other seemingly unshakeable barriers crumble? The recently proposed bill in Florida, for example, recommends that unaccredited organizations be considered among those that might deliver these credit-bearing online courses. It almost makes you wonder which state will be the first to declare that higher education can be undertaken entirely without the aid of an institution higher education.
Maybe all of this talk about innovation is, in part, an effort to domesticate and tame these challenging and threatening questions. But what if masking our fears with more positivist rhetoric about innovation actually narrows our options and leads us to make false choices – between “freemium” and premium pricing models, between faculty-led and faculty-free instructional models, between academic institutions having the authority to award degrees and almost anyone?
As we sip conference wine and watch the sun stretch out across the close-cropped lawns at golf resorts, we may feel like we’ve got a good seat on the innovation bandwagon, and we might very well be enjoying the ride. But in the end, we may come to realize that we’ve been following rather than leading, and copying rather than innovating, and pretty much just hoping for the best – until the bandwagon hits a ditch.
Perhaps the next time we find ourselves at one of these conferences, mingling at one of those receptions, having one of these conversations about innovation, we should ask ourselves: Are we really talking about our anxieties? That might help to bring some of these conversations back down to earth a bit, away from the atmospheric fizz of so many PowerPoint slides racing by, and away from the blurry feeling that change is inevitable so any change will do. That can’t be right when the stakes are so high. Innovation is one thing, after all, but anxiety is something else.
Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision  column.