Over the Christmas break, I finally found the time to read Christensen & Eyring’s The Innovative University. I had heard that this book, written by a pair of insiders had important insights into what ails U.S. higher education. Well maybe. There’s a great deal the authors say that I agree with in principle, but the devil is in the details which they generally don’t provide.
The book is written for a general audience, which I take to mean people not familiar with the literature on higher education reform. It is framed as a story rather than an analytical piece. It presents a series of assertions (and makes a number of assumptions), but does little to provide supporting evidence for them. Who knew, for example, that face-to-face instruction was invented at Harvard? My biggest complaint is that the authors don’t consider any alternatives to their thesis.
It is quite a long story, slightly more than 400 pages. The first 170 pages are a history of two schools: Harvard & BYU-Idaho. One could get the bulk of the argument by starting with Part III, pages 171-219, and then focusing on the crux of the story in Part IV, pages 220 -324. The remainder of the book is largely summary and conclusions.
The premise of the book is that the problems of U.S. higher education come from a single source: All colleges & universities try to mimic Harvard, but very few have the resources or students to be successful at that. The result is that colleges & universities try to be all things to all people (as is Harvard), rather than trying to be competent at something simpler: providing a more generic higher education to the many people who need something more than high school.
A key implication of their story: Not every student can (or should) obtain a first class education like at Harvard. So, let’s stop pretending otherwise and explicitly tier our higher ed offerings both across institutions & within them.
If we shouldn’t be like Harvard, who should we be like? Answer: We should be like BYU-Idaho (and a few similar institutions). Their solution includes five or so components, each of which makes a certain amount of sense to me:
- End intercollegiate athletics
- Adopt a year-round academic schedule
- Rethink pedagogy in radical ways
- Simplify and standardize programs
- Expand their reach through online programs
Their first point is that intercollegiate athletics is a money sink that adds to the inflation in the cost of higher ed while providing no academic benefits. Higher education should be about education, not development for professional athletics or entertainment for students, staff and alumni.
The second point comes from the observation that campus infrastructure is essentially unused or at least underused for about a third of the calendar year, namely the summer. While many institutions have a summer term, it’s generally treated as a poor step child, rather than a full blood relation. Most students don’t take summer school, and the courses are often considered lower quality than those taught during the regular term. Why not create a genuine third semester during the summer? Given the available infrastructure, it should be cost effective to expand instruction into this time, even granting the need to pay faculty to teach during the new semester. It’s true that most faculty use the summer to conduct their research, but the authors have a solution to this also: Faculty should focus on teaching, not research. After all, not every faculty member is capable of doing cutting edge research; much of the so-called research done is waste, unread and unnecessary. See, for example, Mark Bauerlein’s recent work. One implication of this argument is that research does not complement one’s teaching, which is arguable. Also, I suspect there’s a difference between faculty in R1 institutions that teach two courses a year, and faculty at other institutions who may teach eight or more courses a year.
With respect to rethinking pedagogy, the authors give a brief nod to peer instruction, which was invented by Eric Mazur of–wait for it–Harvard. I think peer instruction is an excellent innovation, which deserves to be more widely used in contexts where it is appropriate. One such context is teaching large sections of science and probably social science courses. But the authors don’t explore peer instruction in any detail. They simply present it as part of the solution.
The primary pedagogical innovation the authors suggest is adopting something taken from the best of the for-profit institutions: a more centralized organization of what is taught and how it is taught. Courses should be designed centrally by teams of instructional designers and subject experts (i.e. the former full-time faculty). Begin with a list of learning objectives for each course. Think about the most efficient way to teach the content, which generally involves training lower cost adjuncts. Think seriously about adopting some part of the Western Governors University approach, where students face a series of program learning objectives. When they demonstrate mastery of the objectives, they are done. Exactly how students learn on their own at WGU is not spelled out. That’s something I’d like to hear more about.
Next, institutions should simplify their programs, by reducing the number of majors. Does every university in the state need a major in Classics, for example? Why not limit the number of Classics major programs so that each is a reasonable size? Does every university need to offer an M.B.A? WGU, for example, has only four majors: Business, Information Technology, Healthcare and Education. Another suggestion of the authors is to create modular majors so that the same courses (or groups of courses) can count for multiple majors. Think a common instruction to statistics that can work for the business, psychology and economics majors. Think perhaps of a common introductory course to the social sciences. Thus, when students change their major, they don’t have to take a completely new set of major requirements.
Something in this vein was described by Michael Rao in an op-ed the other day on articulation agreements between the Virginia Community College System and Virginia four year colleges and universities.
The “disruptive innovation” that the authors identify is online learning, though honestly that’s only a small part of the book. Their key proposal is to expand the number of students taught by developing online programs in which full time faculty are largely replaced by (trained) adjuncts. Existing full time faculty are redeployed to teach in the face-to-face programs and to develop courses both for face-to-face and online delivery. As a result (say the authors), online programs can be taught at much lower cost than traditional face-to-face programs. Additionally, by expanding the student body through online programs, the overhead expense of the face-to-face instruction can be spread to those who don’t enjoy the benefits of it. The authors identify Southern New Hampshire University as another institution who has successfully adopted this model.
The unstated assumption here is that there is no loss of quality in the instruction, or that the “system” of course design and training can replace the lost quality. I’m not going to argue that experienced adjunct faculty who can teach well don’t exist, just that in my experience many adjuncts are relatively inexperienced (e.g. graduate students), and few adjuncts have as deep ties to the institution as full-time faculty do. I would like to see the evidence on the quality of those online courses. The authors seem to be arguing that this type of online learning is good enough for those who have no alternatives. As an economist, I can appreciate that argument but I think that that undervalues the potential of online learning.
Given the tremendous diversity of institutions in U.S. higher education, it’s hard to imagine that the authors’ prescription is appropriate for all of them (aside from the special few who inhabit the highest reaches: Harvard & its peers). The authors know little about a school like mine, the University of Mary Washington. We are a largely undergraduate institution. The standard teaching load is eight courses per year, and the vast majority of the courses are taught by full-time faculty–we have no graduate teaching assistants. While promotion is driven largely by one’s scholarship, the vast majority of faculty here (>90% I would guess) care deeply about their teaching and put the majority of their professional effort into it. That is not to say that we have no room for improvement—just that the authors may not have much to say of relevance to us.
Is the authors’ proposal worth pursuing for some institutions? Absolutely. Is it the answer for all institutions besides Harvard? I doubt it.
What really disappoints me, though, is that Christensen and Eyring fail to really dig into the fundamental issues facing higher education today: What should compose a college education for the 21st Century? Should degree completion be primarily about certification or education? Should degree completion be defined by inputs (e.g.120 credits) or outputs (e.g. some list of competencies)? How should the role of instructors change to suit this as yet undefined model of higher education? What should the workload be for a full-time professor? How can the entrenched cultures in higher education be changed? For example, how can academic departments and programs be persuaded to take assessment and learning outcomes seriously, to see them as critical tools for improving student learning? (I’ll note briefly that BYU-Idaho is rather a special case, given the authority of the Mormon Church, whose leaders unilaterally instituted the changes there. I can imagine few other institutions whose leaders could make such unilateral changes and have them stick.) How can what researchers have learned about cognition and learning more generally be disseminated to all faculty in higher education? How can faculty be induced to reconfigure their teaching to incorporate those research findings?
The book that answers these questions would be much more insightful than The Innovative University.