Magazine article University Business

The Cost of Innovation: Thoughts on Teaching and Learning and the Bottom Line

Magazine article University Business

The Cost of Innovation: Thoughts on Teaching and Learning and the Bottom Line

Article excerpt

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.

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 hails 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. …

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