We don't need to disrupt the curriculum; instead, we need to make sure teachers at all levels (K-12 and higher ed) have the freedom and support AND TIME they need to learn, to grow, to create... and that is how we will get a better curriculum. So, my main takeaway is that I just wanted to go through the article replace the word "student" with the phrase "students and faculty" instead. If you want to find out why that was my main takeaway from the article, read on. But yeah, it is definitely tl;dr down there. :-)
Some examples of the substitutition, so that we might think about universities are failing their faculty as much as they are failing their students in terms of faculty-as-learners:
How many students AND FACULTY feel a sense of community, a sense of mentorship, a sense of collective investment, a sense that what is being created matters?
How can students AND FACULTY “learn to be,” through both the formal and the experiential curriculum?
Designing backward from those kinds of outcomes, we are compelled to imagine ways to ask students AND FACULTY, early and often, to engage in the practice of thinking in a given domain, often in the context of messy problems.
As tools of integration, eportfolios also help students AND FACULTY make connections and think about how to present themselves, their work, and their learning to an audience.etc.
Well, I've had this Educause article by Randy Bass on my "must-read" list for a while, and #ccourses has bumped it up to the top of that list... but I hasten to add, I am going against my own rule of thumb which says to avoid anything with "disrupt" in the title as this article has: Disrupting Ourselves: The Problem of Learning in Higher Education.
The use of the word "disrupting" plays right into the hands of Clayton Christensen's "disruptive innovation" which has brought nothing good to higher ed from what I can tell, and has instead afflicted us with Coursera and its ilk. If we have to use Christensen's vocabulary, why not sustaining innovations instead of disruptive ones? Sustaining innovations come in both evolutionary and revolutionary forms in his model, and those both seem to me far preferable to the self-aggrandizing rhetoric of disruption. But setting that aside, I'll see what this article has in store...
And sure enough, the rhetoric of disruption that Bass is using here to analyze the formal curriculum is really worrisome to me: if you push at the usage (i.e. if it is not just a loose metaphor but really and truly Christensen's non-sustaining disruption), then it would mean we are talking about getting RID of the formal curriculum, rather than finding creative ways to make connections between the formal curriculum and formal learning with other content and other modes of learning. Me, I'm all for new connections; that is, for extending, not displacing. Is it really so inconceivable that we could IMPROVE the courses that we have now? Or is the design so bad and the teaching so uncreative that we really envision that many (most?) of the courses would be jettisoned...?
In particular, here's my worried assessment: unless we figure out the CAUSES of the poor design and poor teaching we have now, a superficial structural change will not make a real difference; the same problems will undermine the new structure just as it has undermined the old one. So, as I read on through the article I will see just what Bass invokes as the causes of the problems we now face, and whether his "post-course era" would actually address those underlying causes.
Setting that crucial question of "how we got here" aside, I have to say that the high-impact practices, on the other hand, seem to me EXCELLENT examples of what Christensen would call sustaining rather than disruptive innovations, and the behaviors those practices promote are EXACTLY what I would like to see us discussing:
Investing time and effort
Interacting with faculty and peers about substantive matters
Responding to more frequent feedback
Reflecting and integrating learning
Discovering relevance of learning through real-world application
My course is very much part of the formal curriculum (Gen. Ed. required for graduation), but I have designed my courses so that they feature high-impact practices and my goals are exactly the student behaviors listed there. I didn't need, and don't need, to "be disrupted" in order to do this; I just needed to want to offer a more meaningful learning experience to my students! I agree with the question posed here — "If most of the formal curriculum is not where the high‑impact experiences are located, what are our possible responses?" — and that seems to urgently call for us to look at the ways in which high-impact practices can, and should, transform the formal curriculum.
I also agree that technology has enormous potential here; much of the transformation of my courses has been enabled by technology. But it was not driven by technology and, indeed, the technology I use in my classes is the technology that had already transformed me as a learner; based on the transformation (NOT disruption) of my own learning by the Internet, I was able to design courses where I hope to catalyze a similar transformation for my students — as learners, as readers, and as writers. And I do all of that within the context of a course; indeed, I am grateful for the fact that I have such a sustained period of time to work with the students. These kinds of transformations do not happen overnight, but over the space of a few months of persistent work every week, I do feel like it is possible for my students to experience real change as a result of my courses, and it is certainly my goal for that to happen. Not disruption. GROWTH.
I also really liked the list of "participatory culture" characteristics since that could stand in perfectly as a list of characteristic features of my own courses too!
Low barriers to entry
Strong support for sharing one’s contributions
Informal mentorship, from experienced to novice
A sense of connection to each other
A sense of ownership in what is being created
A strong collective sense that something is at stake
Teaching at a public university, I am especially proud of the low barriers to entry. It means I have a very wide range of student abilities and interests in every class, but I welcome that as it makes for a better class for everyone involved.
So the next question in my mind is why don't we just DO IT? Why don't we just all decide to design our classes this way and help others to do so? Bass realizes that one problem is that we are not even ready to ask that question: "Some might question whether most courses in the formal curriculum need to be designed for this kind of learning and intellectual community."
I think there are a lot of institutional reasons why not just some but MANY people question the need for transformation of the formal curriculum... but the rhetoric of disruption is one of the reasons that the discussion is getting stifled. Nobody wants to be disrupted. Criminy, I don't want to be disrupted. SPLAT. I don't want to invaded, replaced, etc., and all the other disruptionisms you will find in Christensen.
Instead of being disrupted, I want to GROW. And I think we are far more likely to succeed by talking about how we can grow a new curriculum, rather than disrupting the one we have got... because if we disrupt just for the sake of disruption, I suspect we will end up with something even worse, especially if we have not understood the environmental factors that have constrained our growth thus far.
So, let's talk about the faculty as people who are growing and learning, just as we hope the students are growing and learning. The FACULTY need to have the same opportunity as students deserve: to be first “presented with a challenge and then learn what they need to know to address the challenge” (John Seely Brown).
LEARNING. Not disruption. Instead of talking about how to change the curriculum for students, let's talk about changing the working/learning conditions FOR THE FACULTY. That, to me, needs to be the real question here. We need to talk about time... about technology... about salaries... about work load. Just talking about changing the curriculum without talking about the when and where and why and how, etc. of what faculty do (and what they think they are supposed to do) on the job, I'm not sure we will really see any change.
It's easy to brainstorm about a GAZILLION ways to design courses that embody these high-impact practices. Sit me down for an hour and I will design 20 courses for you. Give me a weekend, and I'll come back with 100 courses. Coming up with totally cool courses is easy. Bass has all kinds of ideas that fill up the rest of this article. Great. All good; I'm not going to comment — he proposes all kinds of nifty ideas. But that's easy. Anybody who has learned to embrace creativity in teaching can do this.
Figuring out why the faculty have not embraced creativity in teaching is the REAL question.
And I would suggest that we start with the obvious: LET'S ASK THE FACULTY. I know that I learn a lot from asking the students to see what they are thinking and feeling about something.
But does anybody at my school ask those of us who are teaching to share our thoughts and ideas? Nope.
THAT to me is the problem. It's clear that my students benefit enormously from working together, sharing their progress, giving each other feedback ALL THE TIME. Every week. All semester.
Where is that sustained support for faculty who want to embark on creative projects and grow their teaching?
Bass then provides a list of four things that we need to do in "connecting ourselves" ... but none of those things involves just asking people simply to share and work together, which is what I think of when I see the phrase "connecting ourselves." His list of four things is about disrupting, not connecting. They sound a lot like "Moses come down from the mountain" pronouncements that simply tell people that they must change now, without understanding just how they got to be the way they are to start with. It seems to me that Bass's four reforms do not themselves embody the participatory culture that he claims to be embracing for student growth and learning.
So, yes, I too am a big believer in Johnson's motto of “Chance favors the connected mind,” which is why I believe in learning networks for students AND learning networks for faculty. Don't decide in advance what the faculty will embrace as a result of that process! Instead, just give them a process to embrace; encourage learning networks among the faculty and see what happens. My school, sadly, is not doing a very good job of that. We have 1500 full-time faculty (I think that is the right number), and no online network that they share. We have email and face to face which means that it fails to sustain real conversations beyond just immediate circles of acquaintance. We don't need a post-course LMS for students so much as we need a Learning Commons FOR FACULTY.
Once faculty become connected learners, I believe they will naturally transform their teaching... and they will probably do so in ways none of us have ever dreamed of, each bringing their own creativity to bear, just as my own students surprise me every semester with their creative projects.
But as long as faculty are just working in isolation and being dictated to from on high (by administrators or by visionaries or by visionary administrators), I don't think we will make any real, lasting progress. I am committed to what Bass lists here in the final sentence — "integrative thinking, or experiential learning, and the social network, or participatory culture" — and I am committed to that for BOTH students AND faculty. And I think if we embrace those values and make them the foundation for faculty working conditions, the curriculum will indeed be transformed as a result.
If we try to "disrupt" the curriculum from on high, it's going to be the worst kind of disruption imaginable. Think: Humpty Dumpty. That kind of disruption. Not good.
HUMPTY DUMPTY sate on a wall;
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
Three score men and three score more
Cannot place Humpty Dumpty as he was before.
Source: The Nursery Rhyme Book edited by Andrew Lang and illustrated by L. Leslie Brooke (1897).