Thursday, January 16, 2014

Having the (Aristotelian) Courage to Innovate in Higher Education

(This is an extended version of some remarks I'll be giving to UVU's University Planning Advisory Committee in its January 23 meeting. With a bit of luck I'll have some time to look at a few of the more prominent innovations being considered in higher ed from this perspective before the meeting and post on that as well.)
Too often, especially in such a technology-driven society, we think of the innovative as the opposite of the old-fashioned, the stodgy, the closed-minded. In this binary, innovation is inherently good, and the opponents of innovation are Luddites seeking to hold back progress and seeking stability for its own sake. Often the opponents of the “innovation” are seen as acting out of their own self interest (see the debates on MOOCs in which opponents were characterized as out to protect their own jobs at the expense of students) or out of fear of the new. Implicit in that is a sense of both technological determinism and technological solutionism: technology can do something, therefore it inevitably will do that thing, and that thing will inevitably solve all the problems.

Of course that’s not true often enough to be of any use. Those pursuing innovation have personal interests at stake at least as often as opponents; it is the height of hypocrisy for Coursera, a for-profit company, to accuse those opposed to MOOCs as protecting their own interests. Fear is as prominent on the side of supporters as on that of opponents, as anyone who has heard arguments that we “have to be out in front of change or we’ll be destroyed by it” should recognize. Technologies, as products of social processes that are put to use in other social processes, are no more deterministic than any other social process. And we know of many technologies that make problems worse rather than better. Any of these may be true in any one case, of course. But saying that they are true generally is like saying that flipped coins generally turn up heads.

It seems then, that there are at least three positions: too little innovation to address our problems or take advantage of new opportunities, effective innovation, and too much innovation that pulls us further away from challenges or presents new and more difficult challenges than the ones it solves. We can see effectiveness in innovation, then, as an Aristotelian virtue: a middle point between the extremes of rashness and timidity.