Disruptive innovation in the classroom: making higher education more accessible to a large population

Elizabeth Langran outlines three areas of university teaching where disruptive innovation should be actively encouraged to boost accessibility and engagement for wider student populations

Elizabeth Langran's avatar
Marymount University
5 Jan 2022
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Insight on where disruptive innovation needs to be welcomed into university classrooms to improve higher education for more students
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Enabling innovation to flourish in the online and blended learning space

Student using laptop

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to shake things up. A lot of people in educational technology have mixed feelings about their moment in the spotlight, as the satisfaction over the sudden importance ascribed to their work is weighed against the nagging thought that everyone will drift back to pre-pandemic practices. Will faculty who were forced to rethink how to engage and evaluate students go back to using their learning management system only to post the syllabus and slides?

What we can’t stuff back in the bottle is that 2020-21 exposed serious issues of equity and access in many areas, including education – many of which had been identified, but not addressed.

Clayton Christensen coined the term “disruptive innovation”. This type of innovation finds opportunities in existing markets where a segment of a population’s needs are not met. Rather than trying to make incremental improvements to an existing product that is too expensive and complicated to be accessible to many, a disruptive innovation will often leverage technology to create new markets of people previously left out.

While I don’t want to imply here that our students are customers and that education is a product, I do think there are ideas that we can borrow from disruptive innovation to help us rethink how to make education more accessible to a larger population.

Educators applying the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework have been working towards similar goals for a long time, guiding teachers in how to optimise learning for all. Instead of trying to use our improved technology skill set among faculty and students to make the experience of our existing population a little better, this is an opportunity to rethink who is participating in and succeeding in our educational environments.

A deep dive into the reasons why populations do not participate in or complete a degree is a little beyond the scope of this article (spoiler alert, it’s often financial), but rethinking the traditional university classroom set-up – in which too many accepted “norms” have barely changed for a century – to one that embraces innovative pedagogies can address the needs of a new and changing student population. Here are some examples:

Place-based learning: the classroom is not always the best place for learning

The idea of learning outside the classroom is not new. However, we’ve lost the thread of integrating learning that takes place in the community into our course objectives, activities and assessments. The Covid-19 disruption resulted in a lot of school buildings closing, and learning had to take place elsewhere. In place-based learning, the local community or natural environment becomes the classroom for authentic, purposeful learning, and can be particularly powerful when paired with mobile devices for online mapping to help students read the world, contextualise their learning within their surroundings and share spatial narratives.

For example, coursework related to biodiversity, language, civic education, design or sound can use time together in a classroom, or online learning management system, to examine background materials and generate questions that will be explored on location, and then to analyse and reflect on the experience once back together. The questions to be investigated and mapped during an excursion could be related to the location of parks, energy consumption, natural habitats, landforms, the quality and price of food in a community, or drivers of change related to diversity, home ownership, gentrification or identity of place. The end result allows for transfer of learning from an abstract discussion to a concrete exploration with “real” world connections.

Rethinking assessments: written tests are often not the most effective way to evaluate students’ knowledge and understanding

Someday we’ll stop using the term “alternative assessment” to refer to anything that’s not a written test – it will simply be called “assessment”. If students are creating a map to tell the story of a place in place-based learning, that is a form of assessment that may be able to engage students in a different way from having them write a paper, take an in-class exam or give an oral presentation. Instead of having students write an analysis of a case study, why not have them do social annotation, where they can engage in a conversation with the text and each other?

Universal Design for Learning guides educators to provide “multiple means of expression and action” – give students opportunities to show what they know in different ways. Always asking students to write a paper or post a written response to an online discussion board can tell you whether the student is able to write, but it may not give you the full picture as to whether they know your course’s content or not.

Having moved courses online, some faculty tried to figure out how to replicate their in-class written exams virtually, whereas others took the opportunity to completely reimagine how to assess students’ progress towards course objectives. New approaches included problem-based learning, where students were presented with a real-world scenario that required complex and inventive solutions; performance assessments that had students demonstrate their learning in a video; and enquiry-based approaches where students had input into the direction of their projects and sometimes even how they should be assessed. These types of assessment are more focused on how well students are able to apply their learning, and are better measures of proficiency and understanding than a fact-focused assessment that tests whether they have the “right” answer.

Authentic learning: learning is for life, not just for a degree

It is important to situate learning in authentic real-life contexts if our ultimate goal is to have students be able to transfer learning from their course to the workplace and other real-world challenges. Giving students practice in applying their skills to real-world situations will not only better prepare them for life as a professional and lifelong learner but can more fully engage and motivate students as they learn with purpose.

Even more than case studies and problem-based learning, service learning and clinical or field experience placements are powerful ways to connect students to authentic learning. If a higher education institution does not have an established programme in place to support this, it requires some work of the instructor to establish a community partnership. Once a partnership is established, whether it is with a non-profit, museum, business or agency, the work can be built on by students in subsequent semesters. Another good starting place for introducing “learning with purpose” is to look to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, with projects that are driven to address one or more of these calls for action.

Encouraging innovation for the long term

During the pandemic, educators were forced to try new things, and now is the time for university administrators to think of ways to support and maintain that innovative spirit. One way of doing this is to pull instructors out of their discipline silos and provide space, time and incentives to be part of learning communities centred on teaching practices. The entire university community needs to be engaged in supporting innovative pedagogies and follow-through supporting those ideas if they are to be successfully implemented. For instance, university administrators might agree to support active, student-centred learning and invest in classroom tables and chairs that can be wheeled into configurations that support group learning. But if so many students are scheduled in that room that no furniture can be moved around the crammed space between classes, then the innovation and investment has gone nowhere. There needs to be joined-up thinking from start to finish.

While we hope to see the pandemic in the rear view mirror, it has created an opportunity to embrace innovative ways of supporting and engaging learners.

Elizabeth Langran is a professor of education at Marymount University.

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