Like every other educational institution in the hemisphere, at Fairfield University we have been ruminating over disruption and innovation and what our next steps will be on this continuous path to improvement. How can we best package our highly respected, stellar educational offering in a transformative and innovative-to-us package without losing our mission, our most-prized deliverable, our “special sauce,” as Associate Professor of Religious Studies Nancy Dallavalle calls it amongst a few of us and with her trademark smile. A smile, yet we’re serious here. Fairfield University is a high-touch, deeply personal educational experience. We celebrate educating the whole person, our Jesuit mission of “cura personalis” resonates across and betwixt everything we do. Can we effectively and impactfully deliver our very core in a non-traditional-to-us format? The answer is, of course, yes. We just need to collaboratively figure out how. The process, the discussions, intense at times, but, in true university fashion, they have been littered with fun, sardonic wit and deep reflection.
As a parent of two in grade school, this particular comparison hits home. Notably, in these three ways our drive to collaborative innovation has struck a parental chord with me and they are simply too amusing to not share.
- Things I never thought I’d have to say: “Fox, you can’t marry your sister.”
In the middle of a long, drawn out diatribe by my then five-year-old son, I experienced a significant, “Pardon me, what?” moment on our drive to church. He was going on and on about school and going to college and about how he and his then three-year-old sister would share a house. Admittedly I zoned out until I heard, “…and then Bella and I will get married!”
Similar “Pardon me, what?” moments have reared up recently in meetings as we discuss the path to online. For example, the faculty member who recently insisted that he was not convinced that we need additional innovative technology at Fairfield University as he already emails back and forth with his students. After all, that’s innovative, right? As much as I’d like to tease him for that statement I can’t and won’t for two reasons. And likely neither is what you’re thinking. First off, it was only a year ago that I attended arguably the leading higher ed technology conference and participated in an “all-CIO session” where the charge was to sit around and discuss innovation and technological excellence on our campuses. To my right was a CIO who excitedly discussed the fact they were debating something incredibly edgy: Giving iPads to every student. There was a silence. Of course that wasn’t innovative one year ago or three years ago. So I can’t tease a faculty member for not being able to realize email is not innovative when some of our technology leaders themselves have a hard time recognizing what is and is not innovative. Secondly, what have you done recently to reinforce the exponential value of teaching? I ask because as IT departments we get super-excited about new technology and process improvement by way of technology, but a lot of faculty members still hear us speak about such advancements with no mention of the art of teaching and envision a future involving robots taking over their jobs.
- There’s no monster in your closet
Earlier this week, I woke my son up for school and he informed me he had a nightmare in the middle of the night. He said he dreamed an alligator got into our home and bit off two of his toes. The two big toes. I was born and raised in New Orleans, La., so I am quite up-to-speed on what an alligator is capable of and sneaking into a home in Connecticut and climbing up a flight of stairs and turning a doorknob to enter a seven year old’s room is just not going to happen. But it’s the fear of the unknown, oftentimes irrational, yet true fear regardless of it being a near-impossibility.
The same goes for online teaching. In a retreat a week ago, a few of our students stood up and had the opportunity to tell a roomful of administrators, faculty and staff what was missing, what would they like more of and what we could do to better serve them. We didn’t hear about food, wireless or curriculum. They want more mentoring opportunities. Maybe it’s the Jesuit institution itself, but our students want our time, our knowledge and our guidance. In a world of MOOC discussions and entirely online programs, the teacher remains at the core. Not the system, not the software and not the app. The teacher is the baseline. We can replicate a lot of things in this world, but expertise and knowledgeable communication needs to come from the professor. Technology moves fast, but intelligence stays within. The fear of replacement held by a professor, as far as I can see it, can be put to rest for the next decade at the least as long as that professor remains open to sharing and honing their skills across a variety of delivery vehicles. I never say never, but I just can’t envision being able to replicate high-touch guidance coming from a bot.
So how do we get the timid professor to overcome the fear and give it a whirl?
- Eat your vegetables
I have somehow become the mom I swore I never would; complacent with the fact my children eat chicken, yogurt, cheese and bread. That’s it. The end. I pick my battles and coercing squash or steak into my kids is just not front and center. On occasion however I do get a wild hair and prove the point effortlessly that the more you introduce an unfamiliar food, the better the chances of the child eventually liking it.
There was a study done a few years ago that stated the more a faculty member experimented with technology, the more their very vocal support of technology increased overall. In fact, it even mentioned that the staunchest anti-online-program professor would do a complete 180 mindset-wise after teaching one mere class online. I have the utmost respect for faculty. I wish I had the skill and drive to do what they do year in and year out – educate and mentor our next generation. They are empowering our future leaders with intelligence, knowledge, confidence and communication skills. I can’t imagine a much more important role. So, simply put, I support faculty. As a CIO, it’s my job to provide a path to learning for them to familiarize themselves with technology and new-to-them ways of teaching their students. Sometimes I do have to get repetitive and likely annoying, but not only is it an honor to provide for our esteemed faculty, it’s my job. I would be remiss if I didn’t try to prepare them for what is coming in education delivery as it pertains to technology.
We go through periods at our home where the kids frenziedly inhale carrots and hummus, and just like when suddenly previously disinterested faculty approach us to learn about a new technology and we stop everything to eagerly meet with them, we pretend it’s no big deal and let the kiddos gorge on healthy fare. Interest is cyclical and we don’t let the academic “chicken nugget days” set the tone for our department.
There are a variety of other innovation drivers that are eerily similar to parenting – I’m only trying to help you, yes you know more than I do, we can’t all be winners, unconditional love, sometimes I hide from you (#kiddingnotkidding), yes I might be a sellout, I’ve lost every ounce of cool factor – and I fully recognize I’m not an academic. What I am is respectful of my place and I envy the full immersion in education that our faculty members embrace. They are firsthand and 24/7 shaping the minds of our country’s next leaders, workforce, doctors and disease curers and whatever we can do to facilitate that, sign us up.
Not unlike parenting, I see teaching as one of the most integral, yet often unappreciated and undercompensated, trades of all time. So I joke and giggle as is my nature, but our drive to innovation will only be successful if we appreciate every person on our team and realize that buy-in only comes with respect and full understanding, and it’s our job as technology leaders and workers to facilitate the improvement of the business offering, not overpower it.