Debunking Higher Ed Myths: The Role of Transformation

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Discussing his recent article "Higher Education in Motion: The Digital and Cultural Transformations Ahead," John O’Brien highlights several higher education myths being debunked today.

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Gerry Bayne: So we're going to talk about an article you wrote for EDUCAUSE Review, called Higher Ed in Motion, the Digital and Cultural Transformation Ahead. In that, you talked about debunking myths, and one of the myths, or one of the possible things you talk about, in terms of debunking myths, is the speed in which higher education can change, and I know the pandemic has had a role in that. Could you talk a little bit about how higher education has changed in that? Have we truly changed, and why?


John O’Brien: I'm an English teacher from way back, and so, I think that change in higher ed has been like change in language, you know, it takes a really long time. I mean, I have this vivid and pretty shameful memory in teaching English in 1980-something, and explaining to a student who was challenging me why we used the he pronoun when it could be a group of both men and women. and then now think of now, you know. But it took a decade and a half, or whatever, for us to start to rethink pronouns. And now just in the last few years, this explosion of how we use language and pronouns. And so, I mean, I think we've experienced that, first, really slow moving in higher ed, and I think now we're moving into a phase where things could change much faster. But they're the stories we tell ourselves that are in some ways the most pernicious, and higher ed has told itself for as long as I can remember that we just can't move with agility, we cannot move quickly under any circumstances whatsoever. And in fact, it's probably a point of pride for higher ed, you think these are institutions that can be dated back to the 11th century, and you know, these are institutions that teach timeless things, and that are they themselves timeless, they withstand governments that come and go, but universities have been there for hundreds, in some cases longer. So I think, we've been telling ourselves that for so long and then COVID came along, and suddenly we prove to ourselves that we could move quickly when we needed to. And I just don't think we can unsee that, I don't think we can sit around meeting tables and blithely nod and say, oh, we can't do that, or, we could never move that quickly, because we know we can. And so, probably the most important myth to go is this higher ed can only move at one speed and that speed is glacial. But there's more myths that I think can and have been debunked, and one of them is, you know, again, silos, and again, goes back to the history of higher ed, you know has been shaped by silos, we call them disciplines, and then, to a broader degree, colleges within larger universities. And we love our silos. In fact, I gave a talk at, I don't even remember where it was, but gave a talk and was talking about silo busting, and someone came up to me afterwards and says, "John, we don't call them silos we call them cylinders of excellence." So we love our silos, but again, I think the last few years have just made it totally clear that the way we move forward is not going, that what we need to infuse into our work is working across divisions, across disciplines, across silos, and that that's the future. So I'm less convinced that that myth is totally debunked, but I think we're giving it a run for its money. And then there's a trickier myth, and I want to, I'm not sure, I could say this badly, but I think there's a myth in higher ed that we will prevail no matter what. So I've been working for decades, and we've been talking about the demise of higher education for so long. Actually, that's where the title comes from, of the article, is "Higher Ed in Motion." So there was a period of time when a whole series of books came out, all saying that higher ed is doomed, and it was this chorus of doom. But Janet Napolitano said, "Higher education isn't in crisis," she said, "Higher education is in motion, and it always has been." And I love that rethinking in a more positive way, not so much deficit thinking, but thinking that we're in motion. And I just think that, you know, we've been in, I can think of how many recessions I've experienced, and yet, we always prevail. And enrollments, you know, we have a recession and enrollments go up, except for now. And so, I think this idea that somehow we're going to survive without making really substantive changes, and that's why we start talking, you know, we're not Rocky, you know, we're not going to just run up the stairs every time, we may have to actually make some structural changes, some transformational changes, if we're really going to prevail. So I think myths are great, myths teach us who we are and give us confidence in the world around us, but I think everything has been shaken to its core in the last few years, and the one good thing to come out of it would be to open up the universe a little bit. So I think that's happening.


Gerry Bayne: What is CX, and what do you see happening in higher education today that is related to DX and CX?


John O’Brien: Well, we kind of, I don't know if we coined DX, but we certainly took it to be shorthand for digital transformation.


Gerry Bayne: Right, yes.


John O’Brien: And I think what's happened is, along with this DX digital transformation, is what I'm calling somewhat playfully CX, and that is a cultural transformation. And on campuses, this is not news, it's all about students, it's about, you know, these gaps that have turned into chasms over the last two years, you know, where students are, you know, the digital divide, you know, times a hundred, the basic needs, you know, housing insecurity, mental health and wellness needs. I mean, everything off the charts. And on campuses, there's this incredible transformational focus on putting students in the center, and also giving attention to mental health and wellness at a level that has honestly never been experienced before. And, you know, we can add energy, speed and amplification to something by giving it a name and by calling it out and talking about it. And so that's what I tried to do in the article, was just to say, yeah, we know this transformation but there's this other one that is also really important, and to shine a light on it. And absolutely not saying campuses didn't care before, anymore than I would say we didn't do digital until somebody came up with the phrase digital transformation. The whole idea of a transformation, whether it's digital or cultural, is going from sort of pockets of excellence and ad hoc innovation to something else that's something broader and more comprehensive, and that, you know, has buy-in from the top and energy from the masses and that crosses silos, right? And moves with agility. So you can see how I'm tying it in with, I think the, hopefully the elimination, or lessening of some of these myths creates space for a transformational change. Continuing what we've seen, really, with DX, but now really starting to look at this cultural change that's certainly bigger than technology, but really, really important.