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Creating Dialogue for Innovation Between Institutions and Industry

In November, several colleagues and I met with a group of graduate students in the humanities who were interested in exploring careers outside of academia. Our conversation spanned a number of topics related to these students’ academic and career goals, as well as Ithaka S+R’s research. One theme that emerged from this conversation was that these students were far more receptive to teaching with technology than many more-established academics are, though they still maintained a healthy skepticism.

Perhaps this should not have surprised me. The students with whom we spoke are, for lack of a better word, “digital natives” who have likely used digital tools for both teaching and learning throughout most of their academic careers. They have also elected to look for jobs outside academia, which suggests at least some disagreement with academic norms. Yet, their perspective seemed important to me.

While these graduate students have already made the decision to forego an academic career, there is an important role to play for others like them, who are deeply immersed in academic culture and understand the benefits as well as the risks and limitations of technology. There are too many instances in which faculty members have a knee-jerk negative reaction to strategies that borrow heavily from the corporate world or products that have been developed by third-party vendors. At the same time, those who advocate for innovation often exacerbate this divide: they use language that equates students with customers, imagine the “disruption” of higher education occurring the same way as it has occurred in other industries, or insist that postsecondary innovations must be introduced from outside of academia.

For example, just a couple of months ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Innovation Issue” included several articles that suggested that institutions and educators look to technology companies and business frameworks to support more student-centered practices. While many of these suggestions were laudable, they framed some fundamental educational principles—like empathy and personalization—as new and innovative practices that could “disrupt” higher education. This hardly seems an effective communications strategy for starting a dialogue about effective innovation, especially with a group that is predisposed to skepticism.

Technology and approaches from other sectors do hold significant promise for improving higher education, but only if institutions and educators lead the way in determining how these innovations can be contextualized to most effectively support improved teaching and learning. Doing this will require an improved dialogue between those who are closest to teaching and learning, and those who develop the tools and infrastructure for innovations in this field. Unfortunately, these groups often operate with very different narratives of innovation, breeding distrust that obscures some important common goals. While the humanities students with whom we spoke may not end up guiding this dialogue, skills and perspectives like theirs will be valuable for both institutions and vendors as they build partnerships and navigate change.

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