Some pet phrases actually mean the exact opposite of what their words supposedly say. Take “urban renewal. “ Those old enough to remember the 1960s know that this phrase was a synonym for slum clearance, or, in James Baldwin’s telling phrase, “Negro removal.”
The term education innovation is similar. Not simply an empty signifier, with a vague, uncertain meaning, the phrase usually refers to ways to make education faster and cheaper, more flexible, efficient, and cost effective.
Think of many of the past decade’s most highly touted educational innovations – like competency-based education or open educational resources or stackable credentials or learning analytics or early college. The primary objective was not to enrich the educational experience. It was to expedite time to degree and maximize completion rates while cutting costs.
Too often, educational innovation is associated with technological quick fixes, like data-driven advising and nudges, and short-cuts to a degree, like prior learning assessment.
In its most extreme forms, innovation mimics the strategies and approaches introduced by the for-profits: a narrow, career-aligned curriculum, standardized courses, shorter semesters, multiple start dates, self-directed, self-paced learning, online modes of delivery, and, of course, replacement of tenured faculty with coaches, course mentors, and dedicated graders.
I certainly understand the appeal of such innovations. After all, our colleges and universities do need to control costs, better meet the needs of non-traditional students, and ensure that many more students leave college with a meaningful, marketable credential.
Certainly, there are other educational innovations that do indeed seek to enhance educational quality. Active and experiential learning, authentic assessment, backward design, flipped classrooms, and maker spaces, are but a few examples. The very phrase “high impact practices” symbolized the goals of making a higher education more intentional, coherent, developmental, and transformative.
But these innovations were largely adopted on an instructor-by-instructor basis, not as part of a broader rethinking of the purpose or goals of a higher education.
True innovation isn’t simply a matter of technology nor does it merely involve adoption of a handful of new teaching strategies. It’s about redesigning policies and practices – especially those that involve credit transfer or remediation or access to essential classes -- that make it difficult for students to earn a degree in a timely manner.
More than that, it’s about transforming the educational experience itself.
In High Ed Gamma, I try to suggest scalable approaches to educational innovation that emphasize equity and skills building and that seek to make the college experience richer, more stimulating, as well as more transformative intellectually and developmentally purposeful.
My overarching goals are to bring more undergraduates to success in high demand fields, scale the high impact practices that result in deeper learning, personal growth, and critical self-reflection, and give many more undergraduates access to the kinds of rich educational experiences that only the most privileged students currently receive.
After all, if higher education is to involve something more than training, career preparation, or acquisition of a marketable credential, if its ultimate aim is to produce not merely well-prepared employees but well-rounded, liberally educated graduates, then our focus needs to be, first and foremost, on the actual educational experience.
On a practical level, offering a truly transformative educational experience at scale requires us to rethink degree requirements, curricular pathways, pedagogies, co-curricular activities, advising, support services, and modes of assessment in ways that aren’t merely efficient but impactful.
It especially requires us to rethink the faculty role. I believe that every faculty member should be a scholar engaged in active research. After all, one of the benefits of higher education should be the opportunity to encounter the latest research and ideas and interact with genuine intellectuals and practicing scholars.
That said, I’m also convinced that faculty members, in their pedagogical role, need to think of themselves not simply as purveyors of knowledge and skills or as content specialists, but as mentors, learning architects, skills builders, pedagogues, and team leaders who conduct inquiries and investigations in partnership with their students.
Let me suggest a few outside-the-box strategies that might help us achieve those developmental, transformational, and skills-building goals at scale.
1. Onboard students in a more systematic way.
Even the most robust new student orientation rarely does an adequate job of preparing students for college success. An alternative is to create a first-year for-credit student success course that incorporates mindset training, assists students with major selection and degree mapping, and exposes them to the various support services and co-curricular opportunities that the institution offers. Conversely, student success might become a more important component of existing classes.
2. Substitute new forms of supplemental instruction for traditional remedial courses.
Non-credit remedial classes, it’s become clear, are a black hole that rarely succeed in their assigned purpose. Not only do these courses reduce academic momentum, but too often lead students to drop out. What we’ve discovered is that with co-requisite support – including supplemental instruction sessions, peer-led study groups, and tutoring – the overwhelming majority of students previously placed in remedial courses can succeed in more advanced credit-bearing classes.
3. Align math with student majors.
In today’s data-rich society, numeracy is as essential as any other literacy. But that need not equate with College Algebra. Depending on a student’s preferred discipline, numeracy might require facility with probability and statistics and data analysis or with quantitative reasoning or, yes, Calculus.
In those fields where a strong traditional math background is essential to success, like Chemistry or Physics, we might redesign major pathways to give many more students sufficient time to master those skills, for example, by offering first-year foundational classes that are less math intensive.
4. Expand access to learning communities.
Based on my experience, learning communities offer one of the best ways to cultivate a sense of belonging, which, we know, is a key to academic success. A properly designed learning community is an affinity group that builds student networks, binds students to a faculty mentor, and creates a support structure that keeps students on track to graduation.
5. Embed career preparation, research, and cultural enrichment into the academic experience.
Why is it that honors students receive rich co-curricular opportunities denied to most other students? Shouldn’t we strive to give every student exposure to the intensive advising, research opportunities, sense of community, and outside-of-class interactions with faculty that honors students typically receive?
Given the many demands on student time, it’s important to integrate various enrichment opportunities into existing courses, or to create new for-credit classes or offer certificates that reward students for taking part in lectures, skills-building workshops, and mentored research, internships, and other experiential learning opportunities.
A 2018 federal report revealed the “dirty little secret” about educational innovation: That only 18 percent of the innovations funded by the Department of Education had a positive impact on student achievement.
Most of the funded projects involved technology or personalized learning, ignoring the fact that most learning hinges on student engagement, motivation, focus, persistence, and active processing of knowledge and practice of skills that depends upon interaction with others, whether an instructor or classmates.
Let’s shift the talk about educational innovation from technology and efficiency and instead emphasize development and transformation. We need to do a better job of supporting students emotionally and psychologically and keeping them actively engaged in their own learning. Let’s remember: The key to genuine innovation lie in enhanced human connections and engaging students in educationally purposeful activities.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.