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The 6 Major Barriers Standing in the Way of Educational Change

The 6 Major Barriers Standing in the Way of Educational Change 

As college and university administrators shift their priorities away from the mission of education, the role of faculty-as-teacher is diminishing, and the consequences for the profession — and for students — look to be getting rapidly more severe.

In 2009, just half of faculty members in higher education were part-timers. But now, owing in part to resources moving away from classroom instruction and toward student services, research and other areas, adjuncts make up 76.4 percent of the total across all institution types in the United States.

That's an issue identified by researchers in a new report as one of the "wicked challenges" facing higher education right now.

The report — the NMC Horizon Report, from the New Media Consortium and the Educause Learning Initiative — identifies significant barriers facing education, as well as major developments in education technology and technological trends that will help shape teaching and learning in the near future.

Expert panelists for this year's report — the NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition — identified six barriers facing education, half of which carried over from the previous year's report. The challenges fell into three categories: those that are solvable, those that are difficult to solve but within our capabilities to understand and those that are so complex they're difficult even to grasp ... and nigh impossible to fix.

The 2 'Wicked' Challenges
The issue of instruction as a deteriorating priority in higher education was a significant one for this year's Horizon Report panel. Last year's report placed this issue in the category of "solvable" problems. The solution, however, seems further away now than ever.

According to the report: "Teaching is often rated lower than research in academia. In the global education marketplace, a university's status is largely determined on the quantity and quality of its research.... There is an overarching sense in the academic world that research credentials are a more valuable asset than talent and skill as an instructor. Because of this way of thinking, efforts to implement effective pedagogies are lacking. Adjunct professors and students feel the brunt of this challenge, as teaching-only contracts are underrated and underpaid, and learners are subject to the outdated teaching styles of the university's primary researchers. Overemphasis on research has caused a number of negative ramifications, including an excessive dependence on part-time faculty, which has diminished mobility within higher education, complicating the dilemma even further."

Among other problems, the report authors noted, this has led to many part-time faculty living below the poverty line. It's also led to overpriced, "mediocre" experiences for students at regional public institutions.

NMC Horizon Project Director Samantha Adams Becker, who was also lead author and researcher for the report, told us that this year's panel was "concerned that great pedagogy is not formally recognized enough at higher ed institutions — especially research universities. There is a shared view that not only does effective teaching need to be rewarded with promotions and other benefits the same way getting grants and being published, but also that universities need to get better at encouraging and creating opportunities for outstanding teachers to share their practices with other faculty."

There are some bright spots, however. Prioritizing education and rewarding teaching —  providing an environment in which faculty can learn and grow as instructors — is happening in some segments of academia. Some examples cited by the researchers:

  • The Spotlight on Innovative Teaching program at Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, where professors "host workshops to impart their techniques to other educators" over the course of a semester;
  • The adoption of inquiry-based learning at institutions such as the University of Texas Department of Mathematics; and
  • Implementation of flipped learning as "an application of technology that enables high-quality teaching practices."

The second challenge the researchers identified as "wicked" — "competing models of education" — was another one that carried over from last year but that was considered by this year's panel to be more daunting than previously reckoned.

According to NMC's Becker: "This challenge is becoming less about brick-and-mortar institutions feeling threatened by free online educational resources (e.g. MOOCs) and more about the traditional approaches of these institutions no longer appealing to students. Universities are being challenged at all angles (including by the [U.S. Department] of Education and their move to redefine the credit hour to include amount of work represented by learning outcomes) to update their degree programs and curriculum to embrace more unconventional practices, such as competency-based degree programs, flexible learning programs and more."

Notably absent from this year's "wicked" list was the issue of access to higher education. Becker noted, however, that it was considered important, but just didn't get the votes from the panelists to make the final list. "It does not mean it is not important or worthy, it just means other topics were more compelling to the panelists this year. We may even see expanding access back in 2016. It's a Horizon Project staple...."

The Merely 'Difficult' Challenges
One pip down on the difficulty-o-meter are two challenges that are new to this year's list.

Personalizing learning, according to the researchers, is an an aspect of education that's in demand but that is "not adequately supported by current technology or practices. The increasing focus on customizing instruction to meet students' unique needs is driving the development of new technologies that provide more learner choice and allow for differentiated instruction."

The report noted that online learning is increasingly making it possible to allow institutions to support students' individual "learning paths" but that there's a catch: "The biggest barrier to personalized learning ... is that scientific, data-driven approaches to effectively facilitate personalization have only recently begun to emerge; learning analytics, for example, is still evolving and gaining traction within higher education."

Teaching complex thinking was also cited as a difficult challenge. The researchers defined complex thinking as "the application of systems thinking, which is the capacity to decipher how individual components work together as part of a whole, dynamic unit that creates patterns over time."

The imperative: "In today's world, higher-order thinking is not only a valuable skill, but necessary for understanding and solving complex, real world problems. Equally important is the ability to communicate complex information surrounding global dilemmas in ways that are accessible to the general public."

The difficulty arises from the fact that there is no "one-size-fits-all solution."

The 'Solvable' Challenges
Finally, at the low end of the difficulty scale come the solvable challenges — those problems that the researchers categorized as both understandable and within our capacity to fix. One was a carryover from last year's list, the other new to the 2015 report.

Improving digital literacy in last year's report focused primarily on improving technological literacy among faculty members. This year, the challenge focused largely on instilling digital literacy in students. However, in order to do that, the report noted, institution must better equip their faculty. And that means professional development, personalized for individual needs.

One of the other difficulties in addressing this challenge is in a "lack of consensus on what comprises digital literacy," resulting, in some cases, in inadequate policies and practices.

"Compounding this issue is the notion that digital literacy encompasses skills that differ for educators and learners, as teaching with technology is inherently different from learning with it," according to the report. "Supporting digital literacy will require policies that both address digital fluency training in pre- and in-service teachers, along with the students they teach."

The final challenge offered up by the researchers is the blending of formal and informal learning.

According to the report: "Traditional approaches to teaching and learning with roots in the 18th century and earlier are still very common in many institutions, and often stifle learning as much as they foster it. As the Internet has brought the ability to learn something about almost anything to the palm of one's hand, there is an increasing interest in the kinds of self-directed, curiosity-based learning that has long been common in museums, science centers, and personal learning networks. These and other more serendipitous forms of learning fall under the banner of informal learning, and serve to enhance student engagement by encouraging them to follow their own learning pathways and interests. Many experts believe that a blending of formal and informal methods of teaching and learning can create a higher education environment that fosters experimentation, curiosity, and above all, creativity."

The difficulty arises with the need for formal evaluations of informal learning experiences.

"The blending of informal learning into formal education is an intriguing notion, but hampered by the lack of ways to acknowledge and qualify learning that happens beyond the classroom," according to the report. "Adding complexity to the matter is the ability for institutions to quantify the kinds of informal learning experiences in which students engage."

The report called for national policies that would "guide the substantiation of informal learning across education systems."

The complete 2015 NMC Horizon report for higher ed will be freely available beginning Feb. 11 at

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