Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Future of Education: Inside and Outside the System

This is a continuation of my series of posts (1,2) on the Future of Education Task Force at Ball State University.
I have had two very productive meetings with my working group within the task force, which consists of three faculty and a student. We worked individually on some ideation, and at our first meeting, we collected and sorted our ideas into a laundry list. In our second meeting, about a week later, we restructured our list and removed redundancies as well as elements that are clearly outside our sphere of influence.

The most exciting deliverable from our working group comprises of a pair of prototypes for improving higher education. The two are orthogonal, one being "inside" the current system and the other being "outside" of it. I will start with the latter.

Institution within an Institution

This prototype is based the observation (a la disruptive innovation) that institutions tend to be self-preserving regardless of the need for disruption. The premise is that an "inner institution" be created, in the spirit of a spin-off company, that would be able to experiment with different organizational structures. Easy examples include current models of credit hours, faculty loading, and core curricula. In order to succeed, the inner institution would need to have timeboxed experiments and measurable plans for impacting the rest of the institution. It would be a test-bed for allowing faculty and students to deeply explore a design-thinking-oriented solution to place-based higher-education.

I can see echoes of my discipline and preferences in this model, of which I was a key designer. In software development, there is a dangerous tendency to talk about what might be the best solution rather than sitting down and exploring it. It's one of the reasons I like test-driven development: you start by considering how the module will be used, and then build the module to match, via rapid prototyping with short feedback loops. This applies the same principles to higher education.

I find this model appealing because of its obvious connections to principles of agile software development and design thinking. In software development, we know that we cannot know all of the users and their needs a priori, and so we use agile methods and feedback to continuously improve. Rather than engaging in endless debates—as faculty are wont to do—this structure would allow instead for real experimentation and measurement.

There are many dangers with this kind of approach, of course. As with the connection between a research unit and the rest of a company, the pressures of the controlling organization may quash the potential of the experiments, and there is a risk of irrelevancy of the experimental structures to the rest of the institution. The students involved would have to trade expectations and establishment for an experimental undergraduate experience, and I would not blame parents for being hesitant to send their own kids into such a situation.

Themed Institutes

The working group could not come up with a compelling name for this concept, so for the sake of discussion, I will use "institute". The premise is that the university would identify a small number of prominent, post-disciplinary tensions or problems, such as "Digital Culture and Ethics" or "Capitalism and Sustainability". Faculty from any department could apply to be part of the institute. It merits repeating that these institutes would be post-disciplinary by definition, so they could never fit within an existing department.
The institute would be timeboxed: it would be created and exist for a fixed period of time, after which it would be dissolved.

The faculty proposal would include a description of the learning experiences he or she could offer that further the institute's inquiry. This would practically require that faculty collaboratively propose participation in order to identify how various scholarly traditions would intersect within credited learning experiences. Students would be recruited directly into the institute, potentially directly from high schools and freshmen-level experiences. The students would therefore be part of the institute just as faculty are, and the mixed cohort would grow and learn together.

Students would need degrees, of course, and it would be challenging (though perhaps appealing) to offer a degree in "Digital Culture and Ethics". Hence, another aspect of faculty participation would be organizing plans for students to earn a degree within the faculty member's home department through the institute. Again, this encourages pre-participation negotiation among faculty and departments. This could take the individual pain of course articulation from VBC fellows and making it a shared responsibility in which no one department has the hammer over any one faculty member.

Any prototype for institutional change is going to run into the problem of limited resources. By and large, faculty resources are allocated through departments. Themed institutes may be conceived as transient departments, and depending on how much of a faculty member's load is associated with the institute, they would require facilities and equipment to match. The timeboxing of institutes mitigates some of the risks of allowing resources to follow individuals, even if they are working outside of the department in which they hold tenure.

The next step is that our prototypes and part of our laundry list will be shared with the upper administration, who will provide feedback for the next round of prototypes. We already have a meeting planned for early January in which the task force chairs will share their feedback with us, and I will in turn relay that information to you, dear reader.

Allow me to reiterate that these are not plans: they are only prototypes. They are ideas that we have articulated for the express purpose of learning from them and then throwing them away. The hope in any prototyping process is that each build is a little closer to solving the problem, even if the problem itself may not have been well-identified at the outset. I hope that I have articulated the prototypes clearly enough to foster consideration and discussion.

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