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Using productive disruption in higher education

Disruption does not occur without dissonance. The more disruptive the idea, the higher the likelihood of significant disturbance.


One of the new buzzwords in higher education is “disruption,” often framed in combination with emerging technologies, robots and artificial intelligence, or digitization in its many forms (e.g. digital humanities). But the real disruption is not in the tools (tools change and we often adapt without changing deep structures) but rather in changing the rules.

We change the rules of the game when we ask universities to collaborate when they’ve been hardwired to compete. This is no easy ask: universities compete when they recruit prospective students, in external funding, amongst one another in athletics, and in capital campaigns and annual funds. Students compete for grades, academics compete for grants, and departments compete for resources. How do we rewire our mindsets in order to think carefully and critically about how collaboration makes us all better than the sum of our individual parts?

Productive disruption can take many forms: it can mean rethinking governance structures to involve students and other collaborators who are not usually included in decision-making; it can mean balancing support for STEM fields with more resources for a liberal education model with its curiosity-driven and open-inquiry approach to learning; it can mean disrupting the paradigm that values research over teaching in favour of a system that treats teaching as a fundamental component of scholarly activity – and changing collective agreements accordingly.

The most disruptive interventions we can enact in the academy require us, as professor Ira Shor urges, to challenge the actual in the name of the possible. Disruption does not occur without dissonance. The more disruptive the idea, the higher the likelihood of significant disturbance. If we deploy the influential theory of threshold concepts in transformative learning to the context of change in postsecondary institutions, we can better understand collaboration and its implications. The characteristics of collaboration as a threshold concept are as follows:

  • Collaboration has the potential to be transformative. Once understood, a threshold concept changes the way in which an individual understands a discipline or professional field – and by extension, their place within that field.
  • Threshold concepts are likely to be troublesome and may seem, at the beginning, to be counterintuitive, alien or seemingly incoherent.
  • Given their transformative potential, threshold concepts are also likely to be irreversible, i.e. they are difficult to unlearn.
  • Collaboration can lead to integrative thinking with multidisciplinary approaches: “threshold concepts, once learned, are likely to bring together different aspects of the subject that previously did not appear to be related.”
  • Collaboration has the potential to be reconstitutive: a threshold concept may entail a significant shift in your concept of selfhood.

Using a theory of transformative learning to understand change in higher education is itself a disruptive act. Increasingly we see language imported from the corporate world to frame the ways we understand the future of the postsecondary sector, while references to philosophy or ethical theory – like Aristotle’s incredibly relevant thinking on means and ends – now might seem out of place at decision-making tables. One radical disruption is to talk about the future of higher education through the language of scholarly inquiry rather than with a linguistic register borrowed from the business or tech sectors.

I was recently appointed executive director of the Maple League of Universities, a consortium of universities comprised of Mount Allison, St. Francis Xavier, Bishop’s and Acadia. These primarily undergraduate universities are changing the rules of the game by collaborating across four campuses on a number of signature initiatives, including harnessing the power of virtual reality and multidisciplinary team teaching to deliver an exceptional student experience. As we undertake a strategic visioning process, one of our starting points is to acknowledge that an essential component of cultural change includes messy journeys and sometimes highly contested conceptual terrains. Our bold vision starts by engaging across institutional boundaries in order to experiment, innovate and change our communities for the better.

Collaboration in the sphere of higher education is nothing short of radical – but it is exactly what we need to disrupt the Canadian landscape of higher education in order to build 21st-century citizens who can think carefully, critically and collaboratively about the world.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is an associate professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, as well as the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue.
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