Experimentation as the Norm in Higher Education

The COVID-19 crisis will also has an effect on higher education. Higher education institutions without effective safety nets will downsize or even go bankrupt. New institutions with new solutions will come to replace them. We have seen something similar in the 1960s and 1970s. The wave of experimental higher education offered new models and practices, which mainstream higher education could not ignore. This is how problem- and project-based learning, student-centred education and individualisation became the norm. Now, higher education have come to the point they have to innovate, they need new solutions.

3 concerns

In global higher education, we can now see three conversations. The most popular and the most obvious one is the forced and hasty pivot to online. The second concerns institutional survival strategies for the autumn and beyond. And then there are the sleeping dogs: old problems we knew we had but could get away with ignoring. Well, COVID-19 let the dogs out, they are awake now.

rethinking the model

The established institutions might seem immobile – a luxury, sponsored by their reputation and financial resources. However, a historical analysis shows that the best institutions out there are anything but static. They have reinvented themselves many times. To maintain the uninterrupted flow of teaching and research, institutions usually try to be as stable and tranquil as possible. All new approaches, both intellectual and organisational, can cause conflict. But, higher education institutions need transformation to stay in the game. What the current chaos shows us is a window of opportunity to turn conflict into a lasting change. 

experiment is needed

But how can higher education walk the line between stability and innovation? This is where experimentation kicks in. Test-runs save resources in the long run and are the safest course of action from a tactical point of view. They also allow for more imagination because if you start small, you can be bolder. 

Experimentation sits between ignorance and knowledge: an experimenter has an idea of what the outcome will be, but is never certain until the experiment is over. Yet, they have to proceed if they want to solve the problems they are facing. Experimentation can affect content, methodologies, evaluation of learning, formats of delivery, learning environments and more.

Teaching and learning have the highest number of stakeholders: national gouvernement, local gouvernement, local communities and families, industries and, of course, students, faculty and other higher education professionals. Given the many parties involved, educational experiments can also easily backfire. Is there a way to mitigate the risks?

blind spots of higher education

Higher learning is experimental in at least four aspects. First, when students sign up for an educational programme, they never fully understand the consequences of their choice. Paradoxically, one has to actually complete the programme to fully assess its impact. Students are not customers buying a simple service which they know they need. So, as a student, you are constantly experimented upon – without giving informed consent, so to speak.

Second, educators have no clear solutions to anything. The context matters too much for any one solution to be universally superior. Lectures are often declared obsolete and yet, done well, they can provide unrivalled learning experiences. Groupwork is said to be beneficial, but to what degree should we push students to collaborate? 

The four-year bachelor degree has been called out as inefficient, but can anything really compare? Problem-based learning is viewed as a perfect methodology – but only by roughly half of educational experts.

Third, there is no holistic evaluation of the results of higher learning. We measure one dimension by disregarding the others, be it residual knowledge, employability or student satisfaction. We can make connections between a teaching intervention and student performance within a specific course, but we cannot do the same for the outcome of the whole student journey.

These blind spots are not considered problematic. Higher education moves along as a series of large-scale experiments, which involve millions of students, faculty and administrators.

The real problem is that, in most cases, experimentation lacks reflection and controls. What we need is a more thoughtful and careful approach, as well as a more conscientious experimental mindset.

experimental mindset

A proper educational experiment should have a clear hypothesis, grounded in data and theory. Theory can guide you to go beyond the conventional and give you the tools to break the rules. Experimentation invites rule-breaking, at least as a possibility.

Of course, breaking the rules is justified only if you understand them. There are too many visionaries who declare the end of disciplinary learning without considering the role of academic disciplines, who destroy higher education hierarchies without offering a functional alternative and who otherwise disrupt traditional formats for the sake of disruption itself. 

What we need is an honest, sympathetic and paced dialogue between conservative principles and new ideas. We need this dialogue within higher education institutions as much as between them.

Some experiments, if not most, will fail. But some will succeed. We need special ‘laboratories’, which design and test new models. 

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