The higher education landscape has always presented shifting sands upon which educators and administrators have sought to find their footing, but in the last three years, the pace of change has accelerated, leaving many administrators trying to determine how best to respond. With the advent of new technologies and openly available resources, the higher education toolbox has exploded, showering faculty and higher education leaders with more options than could ever be meaningfully implemented. Further complicating matters is the reality that, as soon as one method or innovation receives widespread acceptance, the landscape changes and throws everyone off balance again. For college or university professionals to show leadership in this environment, they must perfect their ability to take the long view. Regardless of the developments emerging each day, the most effective higher education leaders arrive at the same conclusion: Disruptive processes can be both energizing and cathartic for higher education, but one must take care not to abandon best practices in educational consumption and delivery. The two approaches to change must find a balance if higher education is to have the capacity to benefit all.
The energy inherent in disruption has the singular ability to excite and engage the mind to approach problems creatively, and to call into question ideas that can only be enlarged by attention and thought. And there has never been so much disruption in the landscape of higher education than there is right now. But as Aristotle taught, a virtue taken to an extreme becomes a vice, and there is real danger in chasing each new idea (or, just as problematic, closing off all new ideas) without first taking the time to evaluate its place in one's institution. The hazard to our organizations is, practically speaking, a dilution of energy and resources, yet even more perilous is the reality that running after the next big thing or cure-all can result in confusion among faculty, staff and students as to the mission of the institution.
While colleges and universities continue to chug away, educating students, rewriting curricula, revisiting policies and preparing the next generation of thinkers and doers and leaders, the landscape of higher education is on a dizzying trajectory. We are told daily that we are waiting for the bubble to burst, that education is too expensive, that students are not being well prepared for "the real world," that we are behind other countries and that we are lacking in any number of ways. It is easy to become dazzled by every bright new idea, and to create ad hoc committees to second guess what we are doing on a day to day basis. As I listen to the news and read the updates and research that fill my inbox each morning, I am struck by the desire to take a big step over (not back, but over) and breathe in what is happening around us. The danger in this kind of constantly developing environment is the tendency to be reactive, to start solving problems we don't completely understand, and right now, there are myriad "solutions" to problems that have not been fully interrogated or constructively researched.
It would take months of dedicated study to filter through the constant stream of messages about the changes in higher education. A cursory internet search for one of the big disrupters in the past 18 months, MOOCs, yields nearly six million hits in a quarter of a second. Search for online education and get over two billion. Type in "characteristics employers want in graduates," and get another 2.4 million results. Educators' inboxes are brimming with arguments for and against placing broad-based knowledge over technical skills in higher education, and articles asserting that college has become unaffordable to all but the wealthiest families. Even our common parlance is filled with language alluding to the risk associated with the inefficiency of critical thought and reflection: "to hesitate is lost," "you snooze, you lose," and the most obvious, but least interrogated, "change or die."
It is incumbent upon leaders in higher education to be open to change, if only to meet an increasing demand for high quality services; but, careful evaluation is necessary to determine value. Change, and the potential upheaval caused by all the noise in the higher ed. sphere, can be managed by offering opportunities to think and talk about new ideas, so that we can become comfortable with the experience of engaging with emerging possibilities. Disruption can play a role in breathing new life into practices that may need further evaluation to better serve educational professionals and consumers. This process yields a culture that more easily eschews sacred cows.
The more we are able to participate in meaningful dialogue about potentially provocative and polarizing initiatives, the less likely we will be to feel those wild rumblings beneath our feet that indicate a massive shift is underway -- a feeling that can often result in steadfast resistance to change. As we dialogue about possibility, knowing that it is safe to imagine different worlds, we clear the path for the long view. And it is the long view that creates space for new initiatives that are an appropriate fit for our institutions. When we approach change with the faith that dialogue will shift culture toward reflection, we are more likely to make changes that will organically work their way into the experience we offer faculty and students. It cannot eliminate the rumblings, but it might make it possible to envision those rumblings as having a place in our vision of what a successful college or university could look like. The long view invites contemplation and reflection, two practices which have a natural home in a higher ed. setting.
Dr. Mika Nash is academic dean and associate professor in the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College. She has worked in education since 1991 and in online education for the past 10 years.