Friday, July 25, 2014

Peer Leadership as an Emerging High-Impact Practice

Like many, my college years (interrupted by two years of missionary service) were transformative for me. Mars Hill University, the University of Utah, and Brigham Young University (yes, I transferred twice) were all tremendously impactful.
 By the time I had graduated I had new intellectual skills, had learned what it meant to be part of a diverse community, and had a much clearer idea of who I was and who I wanted to become (both vocationally and otherwise).  As with any kind of learning, there were a number of factors that contributed to my growth during this period, but my undergraduate experiences at

To be more specific, there were particular aspects of my experiences at these schools that were impactful.  At +Mars Hill, intercollegiate athletics helped me feel a sense of belonging and identity on campus, the common "Liberal Arts in Action" curriculum gave me a chance to reflect on and have conversations about big questions, and an internship in the Athletic Training department was my first taste of authentic experiential learning in the college setting.  I was only at "the U" for a semester, but it was impactful in that I figured out (a) that I really didn't want to be a doctor (thanks to 1,000 seat "weeder" classes in biology and chemistry) and (b) that I was really going to hate my college experience unless I found a way to really immerse myself in the experience, which was hard to do living at home with my parents.

Eventually I ended up at +BYU.  While I enjoyed many aspects of my BYU experience, it wasn't the classes I took (although I took some great ones) or my major (which I enjoyed immensely) that most influenced me during my three years on campus.  Instead, it was the two years I spent as a peer mentor in what was then known as "Freshman Academy."

More than any other experience I had as an undergraduate student, being a peer mentor met the criteria for high-impact practices put forth by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).  It provided me with meaningful interaction with faculty members, engaged me in critical thinking about important issues, provided me with undergraduate research opportunities, and taught me to work collaboratively with others on sustained projects.  In fact, in the recent alumni survey I completed, I cited it as the single most impactful aspect of my experience at BYU.  I say this because it made a more meaningful contribution to my realization of essential learning outcomes than any other part of my experience, and, more importantly, launched me on a career trajectory in higher education that I would never have imagined.

AAC&U has defined 10 discreet high-impact practices (HIPs) that are widely-tested and linked with substantial educational benefits:

  • First-year seminars/experiences
  • Common intellectual experiences
  • Learning communities
  • Writing-intensive courses
  • Undergraduate research
  • Collaborative assignments and projects
  • Diversity and global learning
  • Service and community-based learning
  • Internships
  • Capstone courses/projects
I'll argue, both here and hopefully at AAC&U's Centennial Annual Meeting next year, that peer leadership should be included on this list because of it's potential to contribute to 21st Century Learning outcomes and provide for a transformative undergraduate experience.  National studies of peer leadership point to this practice as an emerging HIP with potential to fulfill the promise of a liberal education (e.g. Keup, 2012).  Indeed, peer leadership promotes the hallmark outcomes that characterize liberal learning by integrating many of the characteristics of the more established HIPs llisted above.  

Yet, the quality of the PL experience varies across campuses.  But, when institutions merely cobble together sexy “best practices” rather than intentionally inter-weaving established HIPs to form a focused and intentional educational environment, the potential for the PL experience to yield substantial educational benefits is lost.  In contrast, when stakeholders thoughtfully integrate established HIPs into the PL experience, students are positioned for tremendous growth.

What are the characteristics of a high-impact peer leadership experience?

Close ties to the academic curriculum.  Peer leadership comes in a number of flavors, with peer leaders being used to support student athletes, first-generation students, and women in STEM.  And, at some level, any type of peer leader experience can be impactful.  But, peer leaders are likely to experience greater gains when their work is aligned with a credit-bearing course that is part of the required curriculum.  Required first-year seminars are a great setting for this type of peer leadership, but it could also take place in another substantial academic course that is a required part of the curriculum.  This alignment brings validity to their work, while also providing opportunities for peer leaders to engage with course content and pedagogies in ways that promote critical thinking.  Even better -- embed peer leaders as part of a learning community where peer leaders and students engage "big questions" and work to integrate their learning across courses.

Meaningful engagement with faculty members.  A big part of the reason I was changed by being a peer mentor was that it brought me into a situation where I was being mentored by full-time faculty members who were interested in my development and new how to challenge and support me.  Too often, peer leaders are hired or selected, provided with minimal sub-par "training," and then set loose to somehow figure out how to "lead" their peers.  In these cases, being a peer leader isn't likely to lead to much growth.  Worse--there's a decent chance it will do more harm than good.  Peer leaders should be provided with opportunities for regular and meaningful interactions with the faculty members who supervise them.  Even better -- engage peer leaders in research and assessment examining the impact of the peer leadership initiative of which they're a part.

Make it academic.  Peer leadership is often critiqued by those who view it as nothing more than taking students on campus tours during new student orientation or organizing weekend social events.  There isn't anything wrong with peer leadership experience that is firmly grounded in the social aspect of college; However, peer leadership that takes on a more "academic" tone, will both be viewed more favorably by the academic officials on campus, and contribute to the academic outcomes of the institution.  Whether it's substantial writing assignments or tasks completed by peer leaders, undergraduate research, capstone projects that invite peer leaders to integrate and articulate the learning they've experienced in their role, or an academic course that they register for as part of the experience, the peer leader experience needs to have some kind of connection to the academic life of the university.

Clear learning outcomes and focused assessment.  It isn't enough to just claim to be providing a great learning experience for peer leaders.  It needs to be directed by well-articulated learning outcomes and documented by high-quality assessment.  

High-impact peer leadership experiences are already happening on a number of campuses, but for peer leadership to really emerge as a truly high-impact practice, institutions need to approach it as such.  Considering the above issues will be a great start.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Power of Productive Time Off: What would a sabbatical for undergraduate students look like?

I have a confession -- I'm really bad at relaxing, taking breaks, going on vacation, or anything else that means
just slowing down.  Case in point:  I haven't eaten yet today, am not likely to stop for lunch (or even eat anything for that matter), and will probably get home later than I'm planing.  It's bad and I should be different.
This malady isn't unique to me, and is particularly prevalent in high intensity work environments where there is an expectation to continually crank out new ideas, products, and programs.  A few weeks ago, I watched a TED talk from +Stefan Sagmeister, in which he argues for the value of extended periods of time off and shares his practice of taking every seventh year off to rejuvenate his creative outlook as a designer.  Sagmeister's shop shuts down completely every seven years and he takes off for some kind of exotic place.  But, he isn't just lying on the beach sipping fruit drinks.  He's relaxing in productive ways that mean he comes back at the end of the year with ideas and projects that drive his work for the next six years.

Watching the talk did two things:  (1) made me feel guilty for not being better at taking time off and (2) made me wonder what an undergraduate student sabbatical might look like.

Sabbaticals (or "professional development leaves" if you're at BYU where we rename everything), have been a long standing tradition in for faculty members in academia. The goal is to provide time and space for a faculty member to increase expertise, enhance creativity, or take a deep dive into research.  Because I'm not in a faculty position and never been on one of these leaves, I can't comment on whether or not they are truly renewing in the hoped for ways (I'd imagine that varies from person to person), but I'm willing to believe that it's a good thing.

So, if it's good for faculty, might it also be good for students?

An initial response from many might be that we already provide students with these opportunities through study abroad programs and internships.  Fair enough.  I'm willing to accept that some of these opportunities have the effect of truly being renewing and rejuvenating for students in ways that truly contribute to their academic experience.  But, the reality is that study abroad programs and internships touch only a small segment of the student population and, in many cases, are cost prohibitive.

What I'm softly arguing for is consideration of some sort of extended sabbatical as a required aspect of  the undergraduate experience and that drives students toward more productive outcomes in the one, two, or three years after their sabbatical experience.  My sense is that this sort of thing is happening in pockets on innovative, small, liberal arts campuses.  So, if you know about those schools, please let me know so that I can learn from them.

Until then, I'll just have to guess at what the characteristics of this kind of experience might be:

1.  Intentional alignment with institutional goals.  Because we've been told we have to by accrediting bodies, we all have learning outcomes and institutional aims.  The sabbatical should provide an opportunity for students to both explore these outcomes and demonstrate their progress toward fulfilling them.

2.  Flexibility.  For the undergraduate sabbatical to hold meaning for students, they need to take personal responsibility in crafting their experience (just like a faculty member would).  While study abroad or an internship might be what they select, students will come up with much more educative experiences if they are given the autonomy to design their own experience.

3.  Accountability and Support.  This characteristic serves as the necessary balance to #2 above.  Most students will need some guidance and support in developing a sabbatical experience.  Further, a simple set of criteria for evaluating and approving proposed sabbaticals will provide helpful constraint to students as they are making decisions, as well as ensure that sabbaticals meet their educational purposes.  Some kind of formal proposal process should be developed (perhaps a simplified version of the thesis/dissertation defense process).

4.  Accessibility.  Well resourced and well connected students are already having these kinds of experiences.  Institutions need to find ways to extend this opportunity to the rest of the student body.  This, of course, will involve finding ways to provide funding for experiences that take a student off-campus.  But, it also means providing advisement support (either through professional advisors or faculty advisors) to help students explore and identify suitable experiences, and then navigate the process.

5.  Immersion.  For a sabbatical to be both restful and impactful, it needs to be long enough and involved enough that a student truly becomes immersed in a project, new way of living, etc.  A year might be too long, but two weeks is definitely too short.

6.  Thoughtful consideration of timing.  Taking a sabbatical during a student's first semester or first year might be too soon because they may not have a refined enough idea for what type of experience they need and want.  Likewise, a sabbatical too late in a student's experience means they won't be able to bring their learning back to campus and use it to shape and inform the rest of their experience.  The ideal time seems to be after the first year, but before the fourth year.

7.  Bookends to both prepare and debrief students.  The first year could be spent helping students develop a plan and proposal for their sabbatical.  This would also engage them with faculty members and staff who serve as mentors, involve them in consideration of key questions about what they want to learn and how, and provide direction for decisions about first-year course registration -- all things we want first-year students doing anyway.  So, in many ways, providing students with the responsibility of developing this kind of plan can nudge them toward a whole constellation of  high-impact practices and behaviors during their first year.

When students return, they can be involved in a similar set of high-impact practices, including developing an integrative report/portfolio/project that reports on their learning and maps out next steps for using their sabbatical as a springboard toward future learning (both at the institution and beyond).

It would be a lot of work and take adaptation for each individual practice, but the "undergraduate sabbatical" would be a way of transforming the undergraduate experience and bringing new meaning and relevance to everything else that a student does during their experience.

Friday, July 11, 2014

New Student Orientation as an "Inoculation" for the realities of the college experience

As I've argued before on this blog, student affairs and higher education professionals are often overly
preoccupied with making new students feel comfortable when they arrive on campus for new student orientation.  Of course, it's important that students feel safe and supported as they begin their college experience.  However, we often have a fairly narrow definition of what a safe and supportive environment looks like--one that emphasizes comfort, hyper-positive messaging, and reassurances that "things will be fine" and "you'll do great."

While this approach to orienting new students provides initial feelings of safety, it fails to consider what is required for newcomers to feel safe and supported after the honeymoon phase has ended and they find themselves in the midst of the realities of the college experience.  At that point, what new students need is an accurate understanding of what to expect, including the "warts and all" description of the challenges that they're likely to face.

In their most recent book, Decisive, the Heath brothers describe the idea of the "realistic job preview" and its value in combating the problem of employee turnover and hiring mismatches.  The idea behind this approach is to make sure that job applicants really understand what they're getting into, by providing cautions, warnings, and simulations that "expose people to a small dose of organizational reality" (see Jean Phillips research in the Academy of Management Journal).

Realistic job previews have been proven by a large research literature to reduce turnover.  Like I did, you're probably thinking "of course turnover went down--people stopped taking the job."  While that's true in some cases, the effect of "dropouts" in the recruitment or new hire phases is actually quite small.  In fact, in many of the studies reviewed by Phillips, people more no more likely to drop out of the recruitment process that recruits who weren't exposed to the realistic preview.  

Instead, realistic job previews seem to be effective because of the way that they "inoculate" new hires against shock, disappointment, and frustration.  In short, when new members of an organization have a realistic view of the challenges they should expect, they aren't quite so alarmed or taken back when they encounter hard experiences.

Here's the interesting implication for New Student Orientation:  realistic job previews seem to reduce turnover even when they're given after an employee is hired.  The message here is that realistic previews don't just help people make better choices about what job to take (or, for those in higher ed, which school to attend), they help people more effectively cope with the difficulties and challenges that they are certain to encounter.  Not only do realistic previews decrease turnover, they increase satisfaction.

So what does this mean for New Student Orientation programming?  First, we should do a better job of talking about the hard things that we know (from both experience and the research) students will encounter (time management struggles, homesickness, issues in the residence halls, substance abuse, etc.).  This should move beyond discussion of abstract challenges and include real stories, of real people, and the real challenges they've faced.  Whether it's orientation leaders sharing stories of the challenges they've faced (if you go this route, be sure to provide training and scaffolding so that they're sharing the kinds of stories you want) or faculty members and administrators sharing stories from their own undergraduate experience, students need to be exposed to the hard things they'll be facing during their first year (check out what Stanford is doing to leverage the power of stories in preparing students for challenges).

Second, and more importantly, new student orientation (whether you define that as a one or two day program or a more extended orientation in the form of a first-year seminar or peer leader program) should trigger students coping mechanisms by engaging them in thinking and planning about how they'll react when the challenges come.  These mental simulations and reflections are what really provide the inoculation students need because it prepares them with a concrete plan they can implement when they've failed their first exam, heard about a tragedy at home, or realized their roommate is an alcoholic.

So, to sum up, here's a set of recommendations for student affairs professionals who want to "inoculate" students during new student orientation:

  • Be real -- make sure students understand what to expect during their first year of college

  • Use stories to provide understanding of (a) what to expect and (b) how others have responded to the challenges they should expect to face

  • Provide opportunities for students to reflect on the challenges they anticipate facing and, most importantly, how they'll respond
Clearly, what we're currently doing to retain students and encourage persistence isn't working.  And, I can't help but wonder if part of the problem is that students haven't been sufficiently inoculated for the college experience.  Ultimately, a safe and supportive environment includes a clear understanding of expectations, not just well-meaning (but hollow) messaging about how "you're great," "you'll do fine," and "don't worry."

Friday, May 30, 2014

A Summer Reading List

When I was an undergrad I got into the habit of using the extra time I had in the summers to read as much as I could.  Some of my fondest memories of my time in college are of summer afternoons in the basement of the Harold B. Lee Library, reading books that were recommended to me by my first intellectual mentor.  Since then, I've made it a bit of a tradition to put together a summer reading list for myself.  I try to read books that, while entertaining, also change my perspective on my work, my relationships, or the world at large.

If you're looking for your own summer reading list, here are a few I'd recommend:

The Tipping Point.  I almost hesitate to list Gladwell's first best seller because it is so well known.  While not a "classic" in the traditional sense, it's what I'd call an "oldie but goodie" in terms of the recent wave of popular psychology books.  This was the first book I read during my first foray into summer reading.  Reading it was like being handed a new set of glasses because I suddenly saw everything differently.  It's especially useful for anyone who wants to understand how ideas disseminate and get adopted.

The Talent Code.  This is the best book I've read that I never hear anyone talking about.  Dan Coyle does as good a job as anyone at telling the story of talent and skill.  He draws from very sophisticated lines of research in neuroscience, instructional design, organizational behavior, and educational psychology, but writes in ways that make critical research accessible to nearly anyone.  His suggestions for the design of learning and practice environments are second to none.  While Outliers and Talent is Overrated get more press, I think Coyle's book is the best from this genre.  

11/22/63.  I don't read much fiction, and I tend to stay away from uber popular fiction writers, but this historical thriller from Stephen King had me skipping meals and staying up all night.  It's a bit of an intimidating read at 850 pages, but it felt much shorter because it was so engaging.  King captures the social, political, and popular culture of the JKF, as well as an intriguing view of Lee Harvey Oswald.  My guess is it's only a matter of time before Hollywood picks this one up, so read it before they ruin it.

Give and Take.  If you write in your books, be prepared with lots of extra lead when you this one from Adam Grant.  He makes a refreshing and optimistic argument for the value of unselfishness, charity, and relationship-building.  It's a book that will make you feel guilty for the times you've been a selfish jerk, concerned only with  your own well-being; and, more importantly, help you see how being a "giver" isn't just the nice thing to do--it's the path to success.  I'd say this is the best book I've read in the last five years.

Mindset.  Carol Dweck's book on the psychology of success has impacted my thinking about teaching and learning as much as nearly any book I've read in the last decade.  It changed the way I see and understand myself and my own tendencies (for instance, I came to see very clearly that my perspective on my artistics abilities was very fixed, while I was very growth-oriented when it came to athletics).  What's more, it's just as applicable and useful for a teacher as it is a parent or a friend.  Mindset is required reading for all the students I hire to work as peer mentors and 9 out of 10 report back to me that it has transformed their view of their educational experience.  The short of it is that everyone should read this book.

What's on your list for this summer?

Friday, May 23, 2014

The danger of eclecticism in learning (or, an argument for the virtue of syncretic learning)

One of the best parts of working on a college campus is that, almost by definition, my job is to be a learner. And, in addition to traditional courses, college campuses offer a wide variety of learning opportunities, from theatrical performances, art exhibits, lectures, and (one of my personal favorites) afternoons reading in the library.  At BYU, this list also includes weekly campus forums and devotionals.  This past week's speech was given by John Lamb, BYU's Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer for 2014.  I shouldn't hold this stereotype, but because Lamb is a scientist, I was expecting a highly technical and uninteresting talk.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It was one of the best talks I've heard at BYU in recent memory and Lamb made a strong argument for the value of a university education and the importance of being a deep and broad learner.

But, there was one aspect of Lamb's remarks that I think is potentially problematic, and that represents a more general problem in higher education.  Toward the end of the talk, Lamb told students:  
Let me encourage you to be not only diligent, but to be eclectic (emphasis added) in your learning.
 Like many others, Lamb is encouraging students to learn as much about the world as they can.  It's good advice and aligned with the mission of nearly every institution of higher education.  So, the problem I see isn't so much in what Lamb said, but in how he said it.

Eclecticism is characterized by the absence of any kind of guiding system, philosophy, or theoretical framework.  This can be quite advantageous in situations in which breadth and variety are the only concerns, precisely because eclecticism provides the "flexibility" to select from a variety of sources, without any concern for the relatedness of the things that are selected.  So, for casual decisions about tastes and preferences--e.g. where to go to dinner tonight, what movie to pick from Netflix, etc.--eclecticism functions perfectly well.  Unless I happen to be a film critic or restaurateur, there's no need for me to make these decisions based on any kind of underlying philosophy, or to try connect my various decisions into some kind of integrated framework.

Similarly, eclecticism is sometimes touted as a virtue in learning because it conveys the sense of breadth and well-roundness that we strive for in university education.  However, while eclecticism as an approach to learning does achieve the breadth we hope for, it's failings come with regard to the way in which learners connect and integrate their learning.  Eclecticism makes no attempt to provide a sense of coherence, integration, or alignment.  And, this same disconnectedness is one of the primary problems with formal education, particularly the general education experience on college campuses.  Far too many students approach their education eclectically, picking and choosing courses haphazardly and never participating in any kind of integrative experience that helps them connect their learning across their varied experiences.  Consequently, their learning remains superficial and disconnected from their lived experience.

What I wish Lamb would have told students was to be syncretic learners.  Syncretism allows for breadth and variety, but is ultimately focused on reconciliation, union, connectedness, and integration.  A syncretic learner still reads broadly, takes a variety of classes, and  seeks out a diversity of ideas.  However, this learner moves beyond eclecticism by looking for connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, theories, or concepts.

Capstone projects, theses, internships, and other culminating learning experiences are really about leading students to syncretism.  While eclecticism sounds nice and gives learners the freedom to dabble in a variety of areas, a university education isn't simply about a disconnected, albeit pleasurable, learning experience.  Our goal as educators is to move beyond providing variety for students, and to engage them in the hard work of achieving cohesion, wholeness, and integration.  



Friday, May 16, 2014

Pseudoteaching, pseudoengagement, and the dangers of equating teaching with performing

One of the best books I've read in the last 10 years was written by Dan Coyle, whose blog is also one of mymost recent post, Coyle discusses the concept of pseudoteaching, which I would define as high-energy and quite often entertaining teaching that looks impressive, but that leads to very little learning for students.  Coyle links to a great post from +Frank Noschese that explores the concept in more depth and provides two contrasting cases that further illustrate the difference between pseudoteaching and "real teaching."  If you have six minutes, watch them both below.
favorites to follow.  In his

#1 -- Pseudoteaching Example
Pay attention to

  • How animated the teacher is
  • How entertaining he is
  • How much students seem to be enjoying the demonstrations
  • Who is doing the talking

#2 -- "Real Teaching" Example
Pay attention to

  • Who is doing the talking
  • Differences in the looks on students faces (as compared to the pseudoteaching example)
  • What the teacher is doing

See the differences?

The typical narrative of "good teaching," (especially in popular media) is nearly always aligned with what you see from Walter Lewin, the physics teacher in the first clip.  It's characterized by energy, excitement, smiling and laughing students, and a teacher with a big personality.  This is the cover story of good teaching that Hollywood, booksellers, and the general public likes to believe.  But, there is a more subtle narrative beneath this type of teaching.  Look again at the physics teacher and the way he views his role.  He proudly boasts of "rehearsing" each of his lectures to empty classrooms, two to three times before teaching them.  Consider what this means.  His role is to "perform" and this performance is the same regardless of whether he's "teaching" an empty lecture hall or one full of laughing students.  

Now, in contrast, consider the example from Cary Academy.  First, the teacher is noticeably absent from the clip, except for when he's being interviewed.  Instead of being focused on what the teacher is doing, this classroom is all about what the students are doing, which is engaging with challenging, real-world problems.  The news clip suggests that students are engaging in demonstrations and experiments, but the key difference here is that the students themselves are engaging in those activities (rather than watching a "performer" conduct them at the front of the classroom).  Even more telling is Dr. Matt Greenwolfe's description of his role which is to "create experiences for the students."  Rather than rehearsing what he'll be saying and doing (like Lewin from the prior clip), Greenwolfe spends his time planning experiences that his students can have themselves.  It's much less flashy (and so is Greenwolfe), but engages students as active participants in their learning, rather than passive observers.

This gets at another misunderstood term from the educational landscape--engagement.  Just as pseudoteaching is often confused with "real teaching," its companion pitfall is pseudoengagement.  The average citizen (meaning, someone with no formal training or background in education) sees the MIT physics clip and mistakenly assumes that students in those large lecture halls are engaged.  After all, they are smiling, laughing, and paying attention to the teacher.  In short, they're being entertained.  But engagement is not entertainment.  

Surprisingly, "real" engagement looks very different than the students we see in the MIT case.  If you really want to see it, watch the Cary Academy clip again and pay attention to the looks on the students faces.  No smiles, no laughter, no real indication that they're even enjoying themselves.  Instead, there is a look of concentration, focus, and even struggle or frustration.  And, that's what the best kind of engagement looks like.  Instead of looking like they're watching a movie (which Lewin's lectures might as well be taped performances), they look like they're at work, which is the whole point.  

Learning is work.  And, by extension, teaching involves providing environments and experiences that invite learners to engage in work.  In contrast, "performers" entertain and expect very little from their "audiences" other than laughs and applause.  Likewise, engagement is not entertainment (though it can be entertaining, but not in the same way watching a performance is).  

When we move from pseudoteaching to real teaching, and pseudoengagement to real engagement, not only do students have a more meaningful experience, but quantitative outcomes improve as well.  Case in point, Lewin's "entertaining" physics classes resulted in a drop in lecture attendance, as well as increased failure rates.  Greenwolfe's authentically engaging classes led to significant improvements in AP test performance.

For educators, our role is to help others understand these distinctions, which includes students, parents, other teachers, policy-makers, and legislators.  If we can't reframe the narrative on good teaching and real engagement, we're setting ourselves all up for failure.  Pseudoteaching and pseudoengagement are a little like educational pornography (which I've written about before here)--they serve as counterfeits to the real teaching and learning we hope happens in schools.  And, until we recognize and replace these counterfeits in conversations about education, we won't make much progress.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Institutional Innovation: Campus-wide improvement efforts, or lifeboats for a sinking ship?

The pressure for institutions of higher education to be "innovative" is rapidly growing.  While there are a few holdouts, clinging to romantic notions of what universities "should" be, it's commonly understood that the landscape of higher education is shifting dramatically.  Consequently, the "traditional" way of doing things won't be enough for institutions to remain viable into the future.

One of the most frequently critiqued "traditions" of the academy is the general education experience of undergraduate students.  This is particularly true for large research institutions where undergrads, especially first-year students, commonly find themselves in large, impersonal lecture courses or trying to make sense of complex general education 
requirements that leave students feeling fragmented and disoriented.

In response to these critiques, institutions frequently engage in small-scale innovations that are touted as improved alternatives to the typical general education experience.  The most well-known (and oldest) brand of these innovations are Honors programs, where students are promised things like "an unusally rich and challenging experience for capable and motivated undergraduate students" (from the description of BYU's Honors Program that appears on the Undergraduate Education homepage).  Another example from BYU is our new "Mosaic" approach to general education, offered as a program that "works for YOU and YOUR goals" and as a better approach than taking "random classes."  Finally, our most recent innovation--a series of three interdisciplinary general education courses titled "Unexpected Connections" and taught by administrators in the College of Undergraduate Education.  The goal of these courses, taught in close collaboration with the BYU Honors program, is to give students a "broader and more interdisciplinary education by making connections between . . . different disciplines."

At first glance, these "innovations" all seem fantastic.  What could be better than an "unusally rich" experience? A general education program that meets MY goals and that moves away from me having to take "random classes?"  Or, a broad and interdisciplinary education?  Isn't this what we're all striving for at our institutions?

Precisely. The undergraduate experience is assumed to be providing all students with these types of experiences.  But, ironically, when institutions emphasize curricular innovations like those above, they are in the words of Murray Sperber, "pointing the way to their lifeboats" (i.e. these small pockets of innovation), while inadvertently signalling that those who don't make it into the boats are, sadly, part of a sinking ship.  As innovative, enriching, and engaging as these lifeboats might be, they don't in any way compensate for the poverty of the ordinary experience.  This is the problem with innovations in higher education--they are often used as a camouflage for more wide-spread failures.  

So, what to do?  I'm not advocating for institutions to stop innovating.  Improvements to the general education experience, as small-scale as they may be, are a good thing.  But, only if they lead to one of two outcomes.

One path is to provide enough "lifeboats" that everyone is saved from the sinking ship.  In practice, this would mean allowing diverse, small-scale innovations to continue to occur on the margins, without worrying about wholesale changes to the undergraduate experience.  While it may be naive, an institution could make the argument that they have provided enough different "niche" opportunities that any student can have their "honors" experience, whether that's in a formal honors program, through participating in undergraduate research, or serving in some sort of peer leadership role (i.e. as a resident assistant, peer mentor, or peer advisor).  For this "many lifeboat" plan to work, it's imperative that campuses provide some means of helping each student find the lifeboat they'll need.  Providing adequate advisement resources and personnel seems like a good start, but this could be accomplished in other ways as well.  Without an intentional and strategic plan for connecting students with these niche opportunities, chances are only the most prepared and resourced students will benefit.

The second approach to more ethical innovation is one that moves away from providing "lifeboats" and focuses on improving the "ship."  From this perspective, innovation becomes a learning exercise for the institution at-large.  While the innovations and improvements may begin on the margins, the perennial goal is always to use these "experiments" to eventually make more widespread changes that impact all the students on campus.  The challenge here is making sure that innovations don't live and die on the margins, but that the best innovations are identified, rigorously evaluated, and then thoughtfully scaled up.

For institutions to innovate in the ways I've described here, they'll need both honesty and patience.  The honesty to admit that a handful of lifeboats aren't enough to save a sinking ship, and the patience to see worthwhile innovations through to the point that everyone, not just the privileged few who find their way to the lifeboats, benefits.