Why Continuing Education is Leading Academic InnovationDonald Ipperciel | Chief Information Officer, York University
Recently, a proud mother showed me her daughter’s work on the school’s teaching platform. The fourth grader created a PowerPoint on whether the chicken or the egg came first, based on her assessment of the arguments and facts. I was impressed with the little one’s capacity to reason and weigh opposing arguments. In a nerdy kind of way, I was equally impressed by the digital platform on which this and other learning material were organized, and the fact that learning was organically and seemingly effortlessly happening online.
My next thought was: “How will these kids react to university teaching once they get there? Will it seem archaic to them?”
Now, teaching in universities has not stood still in the past decades—far from it—but it is safe to say that it does not present a unified front of cutting-edge practices. There are pockets of innovation here and there but in no way can it be considered as systematically or even generally leading-edge.
Why is that? The reason is not individual but structural and points toward one of the fundamental pillars of the University (i.e. academic freedom). Don’t get me wrong: Academic freedom is a lynchpin of academia. It protects academics from undue political pressure in the pursuit of knowledge, and probably explains why a powerful country such as Russia never produced a great university, whereas small—and academically free—Switzerland has at least five institutions in the world’s top 100 universities (depending on the ranking).
I’m not suggesting we should do away with academic freedom; not at all. What I am saying is that, in a way, what makes universities great in terms of knowledge creation and dissemination also hampers their ability to lead the way in teaching and curriculum development.
On the basis of academic freedom, faculty are (to use a naval metaphor) the captains and “sole masters after God” in their classrooms and laboratories. This also means that no administrator—whether from a government body or the university—have a say in what or how they teach (with notable exceptions in professional disciplines). The only other executive force in the academy is the collective agency of the collegium embodied in a high governing council usually called the Senate. Collegial governance can dictate what content will be taught in a study program and can even give the general outline of a course. However, the specific content and the way in which this content is conveyed are entirely at the faculty’s pleasure. Academic freedom is an individual freedom that not even the collective freedom of college governance can usurp.
The consequence of this is clear to see. Academic innovation can happen only as an individual endeavour. And there are multiple reasons for faculty to believe pedagogical and curriculum innovation is not worth pursing. For some, learning has been from time immemorial about putting your nose to the grindstone, not about the faddish trappings of modern pedagogy. For others, the university is foremost about research, with teaching taking the back seat—a belief they see confirmed in the tenure and promotion criteria. In the case of contract faculty, courses often belong to them personally, not the institution. If they leave the university, the course in the particular form it was taught leaves with them. It becomes evident why teaching innovation in a university setting becomes spotty at best and remains confined to the true believers.
Educational institutions that succeed in pedagogical innovation are not hampered by academic freedom. K-12 schools and most colleges in the Canadian system are good examples of such institutions that can centrally coordinate teaching and curriculum. University Continuing Education (CE) is another shining example where a cohesive and comprehensive approach to teaching and curriculum can be taken in a nimble and often innovative way. This agility allows CE to be better attuned to market needs and wants. And that is why CE schools are leaders in pedagogical development.
In this context, the question is not about how central institutional administration can help to facilitate this evolved role for CE—it simply should avoid standing in the way—but conversely, how CE can facilitate innovation in the rest of the university.
One of the main obstacles to making a greater impact on the university is rooted, again, in the nature of the university—this time in its highly decentralized structure.
Universities have been described as “a miscellaneous collection of departments and faculty united by a central heating plant,” or alternatively “by a common grievance over parking.” Departments and faculties are siloed from one another by governance and culture, among other notable factors. In this archipelago of isolated islands, CE schools stand even further away. The cultural difference between engineering and arts, business and environmental studies or any unit compared to another, is clear enough to see. But on top of this cultural diversity within the university, CE schools bring in another layer of deep diversity associated with its indifference to academic fundamentals such as academic freedom and collegial governance. CE is the odd one out in a motley bunch. As such, it often disappears from the academy’s field of view. It obviously has its work cut out for it.
In this context, CE must acquire a new-found confidence in its value to the institution and present itself unabashedly as an academic innovator. It must carve its own place in the university’s public sphere. It must showcase its know-how in the many events of academic life. It must inspire the university as to the art of the possible in teaching and curriculum development.
In a way, it must reflect to the institution what it aspires to become.
That said, even if CE were to enhance its presence in the academic imagination, we can’t expect mainstream programs to become nimbler and start skirting the leading edge, for the reasons presented above. However, one can imagine that programs here and there on campus could be inspired to push the envelope and achieve local consensus for collective efforts. It could push the ad hoc pockets of innovation into larger clusters of innovation. It could become a model that some would want to emulate. It could show us how cool teaching can be.
That, in itself, would be a win for the university.