An Unholy Trio: The Three Biggest Roadblocks to Innovation in Higher Education
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An Unholy Trio: The Three Biggest Roadblocks to Innovation in Higher Education

Innovation in higher education teaching and learning is widely seen as critical for the long-term viability of the industry, but there are numerous internal roadblocks that keep the concept from becoming reality.


Since American culture likes to think of things in threes, I’ll offer my view of the top three roadblocks to innovation in higher education. To be fair, this is a bit like trying to name the three best outfielders in Major League Baseball; everyone has favorites and it’s hard to agree. But as per the metaphor, I’ll take a swing at it.

I’ll assume that innovation in higher ed centers on two factors which are the subject of considerable discussion: technology related to online teaching, and flipped classrooms. Higher ed in general hasn’t progressed far beyond offering classic lectures using chalk and paper handouts, so both technology and class design are easy targets. It’s also convenient that roadblocks often apply to both of these issues.

1. Faculty

The most important roadblock to innovation is faculty. There’s really not much room for debate about this, because higher ed can only do what faculty are willing to do. But lest we be unfair, let’s admit there are some good reasons for lack of motivation to innovate. The most important is that at research institutions, teaching simply doesn’t count for much. Research brings in grant money and publications generate status and help faculty earn tenure. Without a reward system for innovation in teaching, it’s logical that innovation in this space will develop slowly. Therefore, in many respects, factors causing faculty members to be slow in adapting are connected to roadblock number two: institutional culture.

Faculty members live in departments, and many departments and colleges give little or no weight to teaching. Therefore, a tenure vote for a great teacher who doesn’t give top priority to a research and grant agenda is dead on arrival in many departments. That’s case closed, because if a department or college doesn’t vote for tenure, the faculty member is toast. Top administrators can’t challenge or change this directly, because they don’t call the shots at the department level.

2. Institutional Culture

An institution’s culture is slow to change, and department and college culture is a major factor in tenure and promotion, budget allocation, teaching support, instructional technology, updates in classroom design and furnishings and all of the other things that make up an effective and innovative teaching environment.

To start shifting the culture, top administrators need to publicly discuss the importance of teaching, set policy that supports this priority and continually work with departments to reinforce the value of good teaching and the importance of rewarding it. Even so, it takes years to turn that oil tanker to a different path.

But roadblock number two doesn’t let faculty off the hook. Most faculty have never had a class in teaching techniques; they’re expected to learn teaching through on-the-job training. Once they establish a workable pattern for classroom teaching, they aren’t motivated to spend much time or energy learning how to use new technologies and/or teach differently online. This situation is changing, but very slowly. Want faster progress? Then change the reward system and the culture.

3. Institutional Capacity

Finally, a note of fiscal reality appears in roadblock number three: institutional capacity. If you want faculty to use computers, electronic whiteboards, online course platforms and maybe even lecture capture — and if you want flexibility in classroom design so faculty can try out these new ideas — the technologies need to be simple to operate, available in every classroom, and there must be faculty training and support. All of this costs money, and it’s easier to drop a new piece of equipment in a classroom than to pay for the people who train faculty and keep the technology working.

How many of our institutions “plop” technology into a few classrooms during the summer so a handful of faculty walk into those classrooms in fall and discover there is new “stuff” they don’t know anything about? Granted, some faculty members have probably deleted emails letting them know of training for the new equipment, but there has to be a consistent communications program promoting the technology and offering training when introducing new technologies. My institution falls down on this, and I’m sure many others do as well. People can’t teach if they’re not comfortable with the tools, and higher ed often falls short when it comes to training its own faculty members.

Those are the roadblocks that jump out at me. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts.

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4 Responses to An Unholy Trio: The Three Biggest Roadblocks to Innovation in Higher Education

  1. Brandon Emerson Reply

    2014/07/17 at 12:32 pm

    I agree that there needs to be a change in institutional culture, where we incentivize faculty to become good teachers. Unfortunately, as Powell points out, our current funding system rewards faculty who produce a lot of research, not ones who teach well. Perhaps in a future iteration of our funding system, some portion will be tied to classroom performance, as reported by students. One can dream.

  2. Quincy Adams Reply

    2014/07/17 at 2:41 pm

    The lack of training available for faculty, both in regards to teaching strategies and new technology, is troubling. For an industry that’s all about preparing people for viable careers and lives, it’s surprising the same standard isn’t applied to those who work in it. Professional development should be a mandatory part of faculty’s performance and compensation plans.

  3. Peter Bryant Reply

    2014/07/18 at 8:25 am

    I would argue for a fourth roadblock and that is pedagogy. The way we teach doesn’t support an innovative culture, outside of finding more hi-tech ways of doing the same thing. YouTube is not an innovation if it simply replaces the DVD. However, YouTube is used in away that encourages the development of 21st century skills like critique, crowdsourcing and remixing, then it becomes an innovation.

  4. Al Powell Reply

    2014/07/24 at 11:01 am

    Thanks for the comments. It has always seemed ironic to me that 4-year research universities require little or no training in how to teach, and they often do a poor job of training faculty in technology and new teaching techniques. I do see movement toward more faculty training, and technology seems to be the reason that faculty will engage in discussion of new teaching techniques. Maybe there’s hope.

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