Design for Agility in Higher Education

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There is no question that higher education in the US faces significant challenges. An October 22, 2019, Inside Higher Education story is typical in naming those challenges. The article presents survey results from the American Council on Education, Huron Consulting Group and the Georgia Institute of Technology that indicate our lack of preparedness for issues like demographic change, continued defunding of public education, cost pressures for both public and private institutions, and the opportunities and challenges of educational technologies. Then, of course, we have the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic, which will reverberate for years.

Historically Dynamic Higher Education

Higher education faces significant challenges, but we also have plenty of ideas to address them. In The New Education, for instance, Cathy Davidson calls for a redesign of higher education, a project that seems impossible given scale and the commonplace assumption that universities haven’t — and cannot — change. Yet that assumption isn’t true.

What emerges from the history of US higher education is not precisely the battleship that is difficult to turn but rather something more dynamic and innovative.

As Davidson notes, “the modern American university is only about 150 years old … the infrastructure, curriculum, and assessment methods we have now were developed between 1860 and 1925” (4). Indeed, as David Labaree argues, the American system of colleges and universities has been a remarkable “anomaly,” surging “past its European forebears to become the dominant system in the world — with more money, talent, scholarly esteem, and institutional influence than any of the systems that served as its models’’ (1). All this from what he characterizes as a humble “assortment of parochial nineteenth-century liberal arts colleges” (1).

Labaree’s history tells the story of a loose, relatively autonomous (not much Church or State), and entrepreneurial system capable of seeking and creating markets and adapting to circumstances. What emerges from the history of US higher education is not precisely the battleship that is difficult to turn but rather something more dynamic and innovative. So when Davidson calls for educators and administrators “committed to redesigning an ethical, democratic, pragmatic, forward-looking education,” it is possible to think that we can, in fact, redesign higher education (248). It has been done before.

Learning to Change

In their new book Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, Joshua Kim and Edward Maloney are interested in the implications of what they argue is a “turn to learning” in higher education. They write:

“We have come to believe … that new learning programs and initiatives — along with new and reorganized learning centers and units that have emerged over the past few years — need to be understood as part of a larger and more coherent higher education story. We believe that we are in the midst of a higher education-wide shift. This larger trend is animating much of the specific and idiosyncratic campus changes that we and our colleagues at other colleges and universities are both creating and navigating.” (2–3)

They, too, recognize the history of adaptation in US higher education and that we seem to be working at a moment in history that is (a) open to change and (b) under tremendous pressure to do so. However, while arguing for this turn to learning and the dynamism it implies, they also “find it curious that how universities go about understanding and designing for learning is so little understood or documented itself” (4–5). As they note, the literature on learning and what works in education is large. What is poorly understood and rarely executed (or even attempted) is how change is facilitated in relation to what we understand. They write, “We do not have a comprehensive understanding of how theories of design, technology, innovation, and analytics are challenging our fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning in higher education” (6). A key question in their book is “how then do universities change to improve student learning?” (5). Across our work in the Hub, we regularly ask, “How do universities change?”

Designing Our Way Forward

If it is necessary to redesign education for the near future, how, precisely, can this happen — and happen quickly? How do institutions change? Is it possible for a university to become a design organization? Davidson asks us “to work together to rejuvenate an antiquated system for our accelerating times and to ensure that the solutions we craft address the real problems rather than just generating new ones” (248). To do so requires specific and systemic ways to solve the problems we care about as educators and learners. To do so requires design.

Davidson, Cathy. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux, Basic Books, 2017.

Kim, Joshua, and Edward Maloney. Learning Innovation and the Future of Higher Education, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

Labaree, David F. A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

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MSU Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

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