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A “Triggering” Opportunity?

April 16th, 2009 jonmott Comments

In 1997, Peter Ewell summarized “what we know” about institutional change:

  1. Change requires a fundamental shift of perspective. 
  2. Change must be systemic.  
  3. Change requires people to relearn their own roles.
  4. Change requires conscious and consistent leadership. 
  5. Change requires systematic ways to measure progress and guide improvement. 
  6. Change requires a visible “triggering” opportunity.

Of late I’ve spent a good deal of time wondering about how to bring about items 1-5. My thinking the past few days, however, has returned to my boss’s maxim regarding crises, wit and opportunities for significant improvement. For better or worse, we’re in the middle of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. We have a “triggering” opportunity the likes of which we may never see again in our lifetimes as educational technologists. How can we leverage our current situation to do things we might never have the opportunity to do again? A few suggestions, each paired with Ewell’s first five dimensions of institutional change:

  1. Current fiscal constraints and new accreditation requirements can be leveraged to force a fundamental shift in perspective. Our fundamental responsibility is to provide as much value as possible to our students with whatever resources we have. If our budgets are tight and we’re under-staffed, we have to be creative and figure out new ways to be even more effective than we have been in the past. Our perspective should change from a culture of entitlement to one of stewardship and accountability for student learning.
  2. Whatever our role in the academy, we can all identify and share effective practices being employed around the world to make learning more effective even in the face of resource constraints. Systemic change doesn’t have to be–an in most cases probably shouldn’t be–top-down. We can make systemic change by working together and sharing ideas with each other, both within and outside our institutions.
  3. As painful as it might be to work at an under-staffed institution, this can be a golden opportunity to rethink who does what and why in the learning process. Maybe we need an administrative assistant to support high-enrolling courses more than we need a full-time department secretary. That work might be more effectively passed on to students. And maybe we rethink how we use tools and technologies to build learning communities rather than to simply disseminate information. This list could go on. You get the idea.
  4. As implied in #2, leadership doesn’t always have to come from the top. We can all lead by example, by engaging others in thoughtful dialogue about our circumstances and challenges. But we should also take wise advantage of opportunities to engage in these discussions with academic leaders on our campuses. They are perhaps more open to these sorts of conversations than they ever have been or ever will be again. We need to find ways to help them solve their problems that also lead to the kinds of dramatic improvements in teaching and learning we’re all committed to.
  5. Finally, we have to be brutally self-honest, introspective and transparent about what we do, how we do it, why we do it (remember to begin with the end in mind!), and how we will measure success. If we propose a new approach or a new technology to address a teaching & learning challenge, we better be prepared to measure the impact of our innovation and be accountable for whether or not it worked. Some of what we try will be successful and some of what we try will not. We need to be explicit about this reality and its implications from beginning to middle to end.

We are in difficult times. It behooves us as would-be-agents of change to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime “triggering” opportunity to do some things that are truly innovative, revolutionary and transformational.

I don’t know about you, but I have work to do . . .