Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Innovating our Educating

Last spring I blogged several times about the importance of rethinking how we deliver education at the postsecondary level. At the time, I was focused on the question of how to deliver a high-quality education in a more cost-effective manner. At this moment, I think that focus remains important, but I am also especially cognizant of whether we are teaching in a manner that truly fulfills our mission. At UW-Madison that mission is embodied in the Wisconsin Idea-- our goal of bringing the teaching and learning from this university to people all over the state.

Accomplishing that goal in the face of an increasingly heterogeneous student body and under severe financial constraints will require us to think hard about what we do and how we do it. An article from today's Inside Higher Ed provides some provocative suggestions.

1. We must consider what style(s) of thinking our faculty and students value. Do we aim to educate change agents, or those who will help maintain the status quo? We must be honest about this, since it implies different approaches to teaching. It's easy to say we "value it all" but far harder to develop metrics for performance, for example, that reward it all.

2. We should think about what drives the way we teach. Do we teach in ways that are comfortable and convenient for faculty, or ways that reflect the styles in which students prefer to learn? In other words, are we "teaching to ourselves" rather than to our students? How does this affect our willingness to try new technologies, or consider teaching online?

3. We also need to talk about what we grade or reward. We are very focused on a normative program of study, 4 year-long bachelor's degree, credits accruing to time spent in the classroom, grades based on whatever the professor decides is important. Do we favor approaches that reflect the way we've always done things, or even more importantly, reward behaviors most like our own?

Throughout these discussions I think it's essential that we avoid adopting an overly relativistic position that claims to value and reward everything, says all styles are fine and good, and essentially avoids hard discussions. In the end, with an approach like that nothing will change and this may even perpetuate a downward spiral, since the way we currently educate is expensive and not necessarily sufficiently effective to help move us through the 21st century. This is a discussion that must originate with professors and students, and that I urge administrators to encourage but not lead. Change will take hold only those who teach and those who learn tackle this together.