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The Cost of Innovation

Thoughts on teaching and learning and the bottom line
University Business, Feb 2009

THE PREVAILING MODEL FOR INNOVATION IN TEACHING is drawn from the conviction of many funders that any teaching innovation in teaching requires faculty to be released from normal duties to try something new. Campus leaders are assumed to want to have it both ways—maintaining the old ways of doing business while the grant-funded experiment takes place.

But in a tight financial environment, those at institutions of higher education are less likely to behave as grant-makers assume. A faculty member will introduce a classroom innovation right after becoming excited about its potential benefits. IHEs are equally quick to abandon existing practices when something new looks promising, well before proof of efficacy is established. The true cost of innovation, then, is not likely to be the cost of keeping two systems in simultaneous operation but rather the cost of informing and then persuading people to try something new.

Lectures aren't inherently bad, and seminars aren't inherently good.

Another problem with relying on natural experiments is that comparisons of their results with longstanding practices rarely present sharp contrasts. So many students perform at only mediocre levels in most courses (old and new) that faculty observers usually cannot find evidence of a compelling motive for change.

It was only when faculty began to fault the passive and dull pedagogy of large lecture halls that small classes with interactive discussions came to prominence. Senior capstone courses and comprehensive exams arose after faculty began blaming the overly flexible, informal pedagogy of small seminars for failing to uphold student performance standards. Today’s individualized, asynchronous instruction through technology seemed appealing, first, as a corrective to the more limited flexibility of any instruction in groups.

In the next few years, a desire for greater cost-effectiveness may shape curricular innovation. But before all college teaching is converted to large lecture halls requiring only one instructor for, say, 200 students, we ought to ask how much students learn in that setting in comparison with others. Do seminars cause people to learn more? Does a big investment in instructional technology make sense if it is not implemented “at scale”?

Graduates should be expected to demonstrate that they can learn through a variety of formats: lecture, seminar, independent study, internship, guided research, and online course. Lectures aren’t inherently bad, and seminars aren’t inherently good. An education received entirely through any one instruction mode doesn’t prepare students for the many ways in which information is received and must be presented in the postgraduation world.

The most effective forms of instruction are sometimes inexpensive, and the least effective are sometimes very expensive. We are all familiar with courses that use internet-based exercises in which the online material is simply a static textbook to be consulted and read online. Except for faster searching, the technology’s capability is not exploited for any of its distinctive features—dynamic capabilities for simulation or modeling, use of images (especially moving images), sound mixed with text, or graphical representation of complex data. A student learns little in these courses that couldn’t be learned equally well from a printed book.

Some of our ambivalence may come from the contemporary tendency to emphasize broad concepts to the exclusion of facts. Yet facts are not the enemy of true learning. While an understanding of principles may be the ultimate goal of every course in the liberal arts curriculum, the path to the goal inevitably goes through details.

One college history course with which I’m familiar requires students to read an entire textbook in the first two weeks, then to take a short-answer test of 200 questions (120 correct answers is passing). The test and scores are then discarded and the real business of the course begins. A professor of English I know makes students memorize poetry—not because memorization is the goal but because a residue of remembered poems in students’ minds makes possible the discussion of more interesting questions.

Our focus on concepts often means that teachers who are sticklers for details are not highly regarded by their peers.The small-college science teacher who is too flexible about the due date for a lab report is not reflecting the distinctive values of small colleges in ways that will ultimately help the student. And a chemistry major who cannot meet a deadline or produce precise lab results will not do well as a “bench chemist” employee in the chemical industry or as a PhD student.

Additional confusion comes from the assumption that experiential pedagogies can work only in some fields. We forget that it was graduate programs in the applied social sciences that first used internships and on-the-job experience as techniques to make the abstract study of such professional fields as social work and teaching more effective. Soon undergraduate programs in the social and natural sciences began to use these techniques to good advantage—for example, biology majors worked in commercial labs and political science majors interned in political campaigns. Internships and other forms of experiential education are now pervasive in undergraduate education. While the humanities lag in their use of the technique, good examples suggest that more can be done to make these theoretical fields of study more meaningful in students’ lives.

Community-based, experiential education approaches need not be more expensive.

In undergraduate instruction, small colleges have led the way in the development and use of community-based, experiential education. The experience of institutions in arranging these opportunities into consistent patterns for defining faculty members’ workloads suggests that these approaches need not be more expensive than more traditional ones.

The same is true of undergraduate research opportunities. Students who work closely with faculty on research are not less able as junior collaborators than graduate students. This model has been so well demonstrated on small college campuses that some enterprising deans have used it to attract superbly qualified new faculty members who might otherwise have considered jobs only at research universities.

Changes in instructional methods can have positive effects on how much students learn. Any effort to define what students should be expected to know by the time they graduate is difficult to separate from efforts to choose the most effective pedagogies. And relative cost has not been given as much emphasis in the past as it surely will in the future.

People do learn in a variety of ways, and colleges have a responsibility to honor the different modes of learning of their students. But that shouldn’t change our standards of what graduates are expected to know, or our need to find more cost-effective ways of reaching ambitious goals for student learning.

Richard Ekman is president of The Council of Independent Colleges,

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