Disrupting Ourselves

At the launch for this Initiative, President DeGioia affirmed the three interlocking elements that constitute “the university”: the formation of men and women, the creation of knowledge, and serving the public good and the common good. Not only are these the three essential functions of the university, he argued, but they are interconnected: it matters that the formation of students takes place in the company of faculty who have devoted their lives to pursuing questions of significance; and those lines of research and scholarship are similarly shaped by a deep interest in serving the common good, which in turn is integral to the formation of men and women.

The challenges and potential disruptions to this combination of three essential elements have been well-documented, both in President DeGioia’s talk and in the rising (and falling) trends in the media. Not all disruptions, however, are external. Long before MOOC’s and educational technology startups rattled the higher education landscape there was growing evidence of the misalignment among some of our structures and those very core elements that make us who we are.

For example, we know from multiple sources that students report their most meaningful learning experiences as occurring largely outside the traditional classroom, from experiences where theory and practice (and reflection) come together around questions or projects of significance. The set of learning experiences identified by the National Survey of Student Engagement as “high impact practices” are typically located either in the co-curriculum, or in anomalous learning experiences in the formal curriculum (e.g. first-year seminars). This is not to say that students don’t have transformative experiences in formal coursework. Nor is it to say that coursework isn’t essential as a foundation for students to have transformative experiences outside the classroom. But I do believe that we have come to a point where we have to confront how we can leverage structured experiential learning in more central and less marginal ways, given the data that we have about its impact on learning and student success.

This is the phenomenon that I identified a couple of years ago as “disrupting ourselves.” That is, our own expanding conceptions of learning and learning environments are running headlong into our structures. We already know enough to motivate efforts to recenter some of our practices around the high-impact learning that we know is the most transformative. The rising external pressures only accelerate this shift. This is one of the central design challenges of Designing the Future(s): how to respond to the structural tensions that our own ambitions have created.

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