Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Toward a Constructivist Framework for Guiding Change and Innovation in Higher Education

Academic journal article Journal of Higher Education

Toward a Constructivist Framework for Guiding Change and Innovation in Higher Education

Article excerpt


The authors of Exploiting Information Systems in Higher Education: An Issues Paper (JISC, 1995) identify several trends that will characterize higher education in the next decade: greater competition for funds and students; more efficient management; possibly fewer institutions, some very specialized; more demanding students who will want flexible teaching patterns to enhance their career prospects; more challenging learning and research programs; and closer integration at regional and local levels while networking internationally. For many countries, central to the vision of higher education in the millennium is the expectation that it can make a distinctive contribution to the development of a learning society, not only by nurturing notions such as lifelong learning but also by enhancing their capacity to meet international standards as these relate to teaching, scholarship, and research (National Committee, 1997, p. 7).

Few would argue that these new directions require fundamental rethinking about the purpose and structure of higher education, because universities in many English-speaking countries are "being transformed from sheltered institutions of the pre-modern world to public service organisations in a modern (or, some would suggest) post-modern world" (Robertson, 1994, p. 313). The dilemma for higher education institutions is exacerbated, for they are experiencing relative financial contraction with increase in demand. Davies (1997) notes that this situation "seems to be the dominant one at present in the United States, United Kingdom, most of Western Europe (apart from perhaps to a lesser extent, Germany and France), certainly in Eastern Europe (in the development of the market, post-Communist economy) and in Australia" (pp. 131-132). Yet, while the keys, in broad terms, to effecting successful change, well synthesized by Kirkpatrick (1985) over a decade ago, continue to be empathy, communication, and participation, in actual practice these attributes are frequently found wanting. Too often new approaches are introduced by executive fiat or through a centralist management strategy, or at worst through ad hoc and hurried planning interventions in response to years of benign neglect. It seems a rarity indeed for academics to genuinely feel that they are part of a meaningful, participatory decision-making process that values their experience or even their instinct for seeing potential pitfalls. Berman and McLaughlin (1978) in a four-year study of close to three hundred projects underscored the importance of effective involvement and change strategies in education, noting that these "could spell the difference between success or failure, almost independently of the type of innovation or educational method involved; moreover, they could determine whether teachers would assimilate and continue using project methods or allow them to fall into disuse" (p. vii).

Academic Culture and Decision-Making

Organizational change and diffusion of innovation in higher education have been the subject of numerous analyses in recent years, many focusing on the cultural realities of academic leadership and decision making (see also Baldridge & Riley, 1977; Masland, 1985). Although there is recognition that the inner workings of an institution are governed to a large measure by external factors, most notably the magnitude of the grants provided by government and conditions under which these are supplied (Davies, 1997, p. 132; see also Leslie's, 1995, discussion of Resource Dependency Theory), there are good reasons for focusing on the building and management of institutional culture(s):

A healthy culture can promote identification (who we are), legitimation (why we need to do) communication (with whom we talk), coordination (with whom we work) and development (what are the dominant perspectives and tasks). (Davies, 1997, p. 135)

Birnbaum (1988) identifies four kinds of institutional cultures (collegial, bureaucratic, political, and anarchical), each illustrating different hypotheses regarding the nature of organizational life and change. …

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